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I have got horribly behind, so here are some capsule reviews of the remaining books from last year.

The Slaves' Story
July 2015
Enemies at Home - Lindsey Davis - Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

* * * *
This is the second of Davis' Flavia Albia series and it maintains the standard of the first. Flavia's female status is put to good use as she investigates a domestic double murder of a newlywed couple. Why didn't their slaves save them? Could one of them have been responsible? Or was a third party involved? The storyline allows Davis to investigate, for the first time, the status of slaves in ancient Rome and their complicated relationships with their masters. Long-time readers will be pleased to see the return of a couple of characters from the Falco series and relationships from the first book are pleasingly developed. It is a shame that the whodunit is somewhat unsatisfying - the perpetrator(s) can't, I think, be worked out in advance - but in all other respects this is a very satisfying novel.

The Second Stringer
Sep 2015
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen, 2012 (Kindle edition)

* * *
Few authors of long-running series can successfully resist the lure of marriage and children for their protagonist, which is fine but does tend to mark the end of their usefulness as a carrier of story once the obvious "partner/offspring in peril" plot has been done. Bujold, thank goodness, has never descended to that level with Miles Vorkosigan, but as his two most recent outings have shown, family responsibilities have diminished the dramatic range of the stories that can be told. What to do? Well, one well-tested solution is to bring up a second stringer, and Ivan Vorpatril, Miles' laid-back cousin, is a very suitable choice. But sadly, he simply isn't as interesting as Miles and nor is his love interest up to Ekaterin's standard. It’s still a fun romp - Bujold is incapable of writing a dull book - but it does nothing new.


Apples and Yokels
Sep 2015
The Wine of Angels - Phil Rickman - Corvus, 2011 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
Liked this - a thriller/murder investigation set in deepest Herefordshire with main characters Merrily Watkins, an engaging and realistically-written Church of England vicar, her rebellious teenage daughter Jane, and a musician-songwriter called Lol. Cider apples, suspicious yokels and an LGBT-themed historical back-story all feature. I'm surprised that there hasn't been a televisual adaptation.

Delaney's Successor
Nov 2015
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps - Kai Ashante Wilson - Tor, 2015 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
This short novel reads so much like Dhalgren or Tales of Neveryon that I wondered whether it was written by Samuel Delaney himself under a pseudonym. The story is very simple, concerning a merchant caravan that must travel through a magically dangerous area known as the Wildeeps, the wizard and the captain who protect it, and the relationship between them. What makes it interesting is the variety of writing styles: most strikingly African-American demotic in the speech of the caravan guards, but also the lush descriptive rhythms of epic fantasy and the dry jargon of science fiction. As a package it shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does. Ultimately, it is styles over substance - the main plot is hardly original, and the resolution of the romance is disappointingly predictable - but I enjoyed the ride.

Ritual Maths
Dec 2015
The Atrocity Archives - Charles Stross - Hachette Digital, 2004 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
This is an early Stross, written when he still worked in IT, and to a certain extent it shows. But it’s also the book of his that I have enjoyed the most. It is based on an engaging idea obviously inspired by a well-known Cthulhu Mythos tale; that newly discovered mathematical algorithms could act as summoning rituals allowing Nameless Horrors into our universe. Which of course means that mathematics professors, physicists and other numerically literate types are particularly dangerous people. Needless to say, a secret government department - the Laundry - has been created for the sole purpose of catching such mavericks and preventing apocalypse. Our hero, Bob Howard, is a geek who has accidentally found himself working for the Laundry, and becomes a reluctant operative facing powerful horrors from beyond space and time and the no less terrifying bureaucracy of a public sector organisation. There are two stories: the first builds to a surprisingly intense climax in an interesting location, and the second, involving a danger from an aspect of modern life, is as amusing as it is ridiculous. I appreciated both the satire and the computer nerd hero, though it's a pity that the women in both stories are sassy but otherwise agentless.

One Hundred Words for Rain
Dec 2015
Landmarks - Robert Macfarlane - Hamish Hamilton, 2015

* *
Eskimoes may or may not have fifty words for snow, but British English definitely has at least one hundred words for rain. I know this because I counted the helpful list of them in this book, one of several glossaries of terms for describing the natural world that have largely fallen out of use. My personal favourites were dimpsey, a Cornish word for low cloud with fine drizzle, and plothering, heavy rain in Leicestershire.

Macfarlane is trying to demonstrate that our restricted vocabulary reflects and perhaps causes the lack of respect for and interest in the natural world that is characteristic of urban dwellers, a point made well in the introduction but sadly not in the rest of the book, which consists of uninteresting portraits of nature writers, most of whom were unknown to me (with one or two exceptions) and are likely to remain so.
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Behind once again, so here is a round up of some of the lighter books from last year.
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Jun 2013
Diplomatic Immunity - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen, 2002
* * * *
The worst thing that I can say about this book is that I almost forgot to write a review of it. Not because it isn't interesting or immensely enjoyable, but simply because Bujold is so consistently good that it can be difficult to say anything new when the story is neither disappointingly off-form nor a series highlight. But I'll have a go.
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Sep-Nov 2012
Miles in Love - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen Books,2008
* * * * *
I needn't have worried. Even without a galaxy-spanning setting, Bujold can still craft compelling science fiction with something interesting to say. Though it helps that this compendium of novels have as their overriding theme that old reliable standby of the screwball romance. Strange as it may seem given my generally emotionally muted demeanour, I am a sucker for such stories. As long, that is, as the protagonists are equally strong personalities, for example Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, my favourite Shakespeare.

And the characters here are certainly strong. He, of course, is Miles Vorkosigan, the (sometimes) brilliant but stunted military commander of several previous books. She is Ekaterin (Kat) Vorsoisson, the unhappy wife of a minor official on the icy planet of Komarr, a world conquered by the Vor because of its strategic importance as a gateway to the wormhole nexus that connects the galaxy. They meet when Miles is sent to investigate a space freighter that has crashed into the soletta array that is warming the planet. Was it an accident, or was something more sinister afoot? And could it be connected to the impending nuptials of Emperor Gregor and his Komarran bride Laisa?

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May 2012
Memory - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen Books, 1996
* * * *
Most of the Miles Vorkosigan books have been collected into compendia, but this one, rather oddly, has not. As a result it is relatively difficult to get hold of and had been sitting rather forlornly on my wishlist for several years. Having read it, I can see why, because it is something of a one-off. Bujold evidently came to the conclusion that the time had come to move Miles on from his previous role as leader of the Dendarii mercenaries and wrote this book to manage the transition. Needless to say she pulls it off with consumate skill, but the requirement to develop the overall series does result in a plot that is less focused than usual.
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God Plots

24 Jan 2010 04:01 pm
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Aug 2009
Paladin of Souls - Lois McMaster Bujold - Voyager, 2004
* * *
Fantasy sequels are two-a-penny and are almost never as good as the original. One mistake is effectively to re-tell the original story with the same or different characters (David Eddings' Malloreon, Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy). Another is the "what happens next" scenario for the protagonist, which must piggy-back on the world-building of the original and tends to be either dull or inconsistent (Stephen Donaldson's Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Robin Hobb's Tawny Man trilogy). Lois McMaster Bujold, talented writer that she is, has successfully circumnavigated these traps in this, her sequel to The Curse of Chalion. However, her choice of character and subject matter has made plain the holes in her world-building.
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25 Jul 06
Miles Errant - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen Books, 2002
* * * *
Any series in which the books are not written and published in the chronological order of their internal timeline presents the reader with a problem. Should they be read in the sequence in which the author wrote them, allowing one to appreciate the development of their ideas and style, or in their chronological order, with the story unfolding in a natural way? Is it better to read, say, the Silmarillion before the Hobbit before the Lord of the Rings? What about the Alliance/Merchanter/Union chronicles of C.J. Cherryh?

Obviously it depends on the author; I wouldn’t recommend anyone coming to Tolkien for the first time to start with the Silmarillion (has anyone ever tried?), and with Cherryh the books are sufficiently distinct that the order in which they are read doesn’t really matter. But with the Vorkosigan sequence, in my view, there is really no argument. One of its great joys is the way in which the plot of each chronologically succeeding novel results from the consequences of Miles’ actions in the preceding ones. This game of consequences makes reading the series in timeline rather than written order much more satisfying, and the fact that Bujold has taken the trouble to publish the earlier Vorkosigan novels in compendia suggests that she thinks so too. Quite remarkably (given that they were composed at such different times) the stories gathered in each compendium also share a common theme - in this case the deep psychological reasons for Miles’ bifurcated personality as Vor lord and mercenary captain - which is explored from a different angle in each one. The connections between the stories are so clever that one would almost have thought she had planned the whole sequence from the outset.
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27 Feb 2005
The Curse of Chalion - Lois McMaster Bujold - Voyager 2003
* * * * *
Zerothin's Law of Genre-Hopping states that "a writer who changes genres will not be as successful in their second genre", with a corollary that "any writer who is seen as successful in more than one genre has been mis-classified". So before I started this book, I expected to give it three or four stars - an enjoyable and entertaining read, perhaps, but not a patch on the Miles Vorkosigan series. But Bujold has a) written an immensely enjoyable fantasy novel and b) managed to say something profound in the process. So it has to be five. Darn it.
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06 Jun 2004
Miles, Mystery and Mayhem - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen 2003
* * * * *
This is the third compendium of books from the Miles Vorkosigan series and consists of "Cetaganda", "Ethan of Athos" and the novella "Labyrinth". Although the books are included because they occur consecutively in the Vorkosigan timeline (while Miles is 22 and 23), they happen to share a common and increasingly relevant theme, which is human genetic engineering and reproductive technology. Bujold has speculated on possible developments, and in the two novels creates dazzling if rather implausible societies based on them which she uses as the backdrops for her plots, much in the style of Jack Vance. Her characterisation and plotting are rather better than Vance's (though Vance wins on prose style).

As the first book's name implies, the first society explored is that of Cetaganda, the bad guys in previous Vorkosigan books. Cetaganda has a social structure clearly based on Plato's republic, with an aristocracy of haut-lords and -ladies, a military caste of ghem-lords and (presumably) a mass of ordinary people for them to rule over. There is also a race of genetically engineered genderless humans called ba which the haut-lords use as servants.

Into this social set-up come two Barryarans guaranteed to mess it up - Miles Vorkosigan, the dwarfish, brittle-boned but brilliant son of Cordelia Naismith, and his handsome but dim cousin Ivan. They have been sent as their planet's representatives to the state funeral of the Dowager Empress (surprisingly, the Cetagandans are not offended by the fact that the Barryarans saw fit to send only their ex-regent's son and his cousin). The action starts as soon as they arrive, for, mysteriously misdirected to the wrong docking bay, they enounter an elderly ba who draws a gun on them. In the ensuing fight Miles ends up with an artefact which certain haut-ladies are very keen to get back...

I can't say much more without giving away the plot, but suffice to say that the apparently powerless haut-ladies are engaged in a massive eugenic programme which they call the "star creche". To them, creating a human genome is a work of art (thus there is no human cloning, not because it is morally wrong but because it is artistically dull). Bujold has a lot of fun working out the ramifications of this on Cetagandan society, and in particular showing that the haut resulting from their machinations, though physically extremely beautiful, are distinctly less than perfect, particularly in the brains department. In fact the plot is predicated on a tradition which is obviously idiotic but which has been followed for centuries. No wonder the less-than-handsome but smart Miles has little difficulty running rings round them.

There is the usual mixture of witty dialogue, exciting action and well-described locations (appropriately with a distinctly Gernsbachian feel). It's a shame that the plot depends on such a contrived social setup, but I did like the way that the Cetagandans, who in the other Vorkosigan novels are generic baddies, come across as understandable and almost sympathetic in this one.

The Cetagandans revert to their usual role of villains in "Ethan of Athos" which, unusually, does not feature Miles except as an off-stage character. The hero is the eponymous Ethan, a mild-mannered doctor from a remote planet whose human inhabitants are entirely male. This is another Vancean construction and its origins are, perhaps wisely, left vague - the implication is that it was founded as a pseudo-monastic order by a nutty religious cult based around the idea of "God the Father".

The problem of reproduction without female involvement is solved by use of uterine replicators (a technology Bujold introduced in the Cordelia books). Eggs are still required, however, and are produced by culturing ovarian tissue. When the ovarian cultures start to fail and the replacement shipment turns out to be (literally) rubbish, Ethan is sent to find out what happened.

Bujold answers the other obvious question about an all-male society that comes to mind - what would they do for relationships? - by making Athosians either celibate or gay (including - rather bravely for 1986 when the book was written - the lead character). This is a very interesting concept - if people were brought up in a society where gay relationships were normal and there was no other option, would they be gay? Or is there a genetic component that means that at least some people would be obligately heterosexual and therefore (presumably) deeply unhappy in such a society? I suspect that the latter would be the case and would lead to instability within Athos, but Bujold dodges the issue (perhaps the Athosians regard heterosexuality as a genetic defect and screen it out).

Ethan's adventures on the space station where the rest of the book is set are very much those of an innocent abroad and Bujold exploits the both the comic and more serious possibilities of a man utterly unused to women and heterosexual men to the full. He gets beaten up, first by some homophobic stationers and then more sinisterly by Cetagandans who are after stolen genetic material from a highly secret military experiment. In both situations Ethan is rescued, to his considerable embarrassment, by a woman. She is Elly Quinn, a Dendarii mercenary who is on a mission from Miles Vorkosigan. The wonderfully subversive influence of C.J. Cherryh is clearly at work here, with the decisive, clever woman protecting the relatively helpless and passive men (another character, whose identity I won't give away, joins them later in the story) from the nasty Cetagandans. The story is funny, fast-paced and exciting, and the guy does get the guy in the end.

"Labyrinth" is the weakest of the three, and is clearly based on the classic tale alluded to in the title. As part of a deal to "turn" a top research geneticist, Miles has to venture into an industrial base and terminate a failed experiment. The experiment, of course, turns out to be a genetically modified human being with severe self-esteem problems (she's called Taura). Miles, predictably enough, rescues her rather than killing her. It's enjoyable enough but not up to the standards of the other two .

What I like about these stories is Bujold's utter refusal to pass judgement on the technology and the strange societies that it creates. A lesser writer would have presented Athos as a nightmarish dystopia, populated by male caricatures (see pretty much any book by Sheri S. Tepper). Instead, it sounds a like a pleasant and civilised if rather odd place that I personally would not mind visiting (though not living in - I enjoy the company of women too much). Even the eugenicists of Cetaganda come across as sympathetic to a degree, and certainly as human and foolish as the rest of us, despite their "perfect" genes. In fact, I think Bujold rather looks forward to the transformations that will be wrought on human society by genetic and reproductive technologies. As she puts it in her afterword: "We need not fear our technology if we do not mistake the real springs of our humanity. It's not how we get here that counts, it's what we do after we arrive."
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Jan 2004
Cordelia's Honor - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen 1996.

* * * * *
For some reason, Lois McMaster Bujold has never been as big a hit in SF circles in this country as she is in the United States (a sort of reverse Terry Pratchett). This is odd, as she has won several Hugos and Nebulas and her books are well-written, witty and extremely likeable. For those who haven't come across her, she's a cross between Anne McCaffrey (when she was good) and C.J. Cherryh. This makes her sound derivative and second-rate, which she most definitely is not - what I mean is that she combines the wit and good humour of the former with the solid craftsmanship and attention to detail of the latter.

Bujold's set-up is a fairly conventional SF trope -a nexus of worlds connected by wormholes which are navigated by jump ships (as usual, the drastic effects of FTL travel on causality are ignored). One world, Barryar, became disconnected from the wormhole nexus shortly after it was colonised and reverted to a quasi-medieval society (why it devolved is not clear, but there is an earlier book called Falling Free which might explain it). Newly discovered wormholes have subsequently opened Barryar up to galactic society once again, causing tensions between its rigid, conservative and militaristic caste structure and those who want to embrace galactic morals and technologies. This is a neat setting because it has an in-built dramatic tension and allows Bujold to use the sorts of politics, plotting and romance usually found in fantasies but in an SF setting. It does, however, lead to some inconsistencies in technology - the Barryarans have air cars and advanced weapons, for example, but no mobile phones.

The heroine of the two books that make up Cordelia's Honor is the eponymous Cordelia Naismith, a science expedition commander from Beta Colony and a typical representative of galactic civilisation. Her botanical study trip to a lonely planet is attacked and she ends up the prisoner of Aral Vorkosigan, a Barryan officer who for complicated political reasons has been abandoned by his regiment. Together they set off across a hostile planet to find a weapons cache which will allow Vorkosigan to regain control. The inevitable mutual attraction is well handled - unusually for SF, both protagonists are mature, intelligent and middle-aged.

Aral regains control of his regiment, but events conspire to split them up again and they end up on opposing sides of an interstellar war, the cause of which turns out to be implausible but quite impressively nasty. In fact, viewed objectively there are a lot of implausibilities - a particularly egregious example is when Cordelia, totally unaided, manages to take control of a spaceship held by eight heavily armed men in a sequence which is pure Rambo plotting. The problem is not so much with how she does it, as why - she knows it's a death-trap, so why does she do something so suicidal? It is a measure of Bujold's skillful writing that you are too busy rooting for Cordelia to notice at the time.

The remainder of book one deals with the war and its aftermath and with Cordelia's and Aral's growing romance, which follows, satisfyingly, the expected trajectory. Book two takes place on Barryar, where Aral and Cordelia are now married and expecting a child. Aral is regent to the four year old Emperor of Barryar, and the book is about a coup d'etat staged by conservative forces.

It is in this second book that some of the weaknesses of Bujold's setting become apparent. In book one, Cordelia is a strong, capable leader and therefore very much a mover and shaker of the plot. In book two, she is trapped in a society with essentially Victorian values - Barryaran women are not supposed to get involved in politics or the military, and she can't break out or rebel because that would bring dishonour on her beloved husband. The social restrictions and her pregnancy combine to make Cordelia a relatively passive observer during the first half. Bujold contrives to bring her centre stage again towards the end, when she engages in another heroic but foolhardy rescue mission, but anyone with a feminist bent will be disappointed at Cordelia's trajectory from independence to passivity. This process is complete by the time of "the Warrior's Apprentice", the next book chronologically in the sequence and the first to star Miles Vorkosigan, Cordelia's brilliant but disabled son. There Cordelia shows little of the independence and heroic qualities found in this book and instead is relegated to the role of loving but dutiful mother. This may perhaps be necessary to prevent too many heroes from spoiling the literary broth, but is a shame nonetheless, as it leaves the remaining books with a more conventional young male protagonist (albeit a highly engaging one).

That said, these are really good books. Bujold's tactic of asking "what's the worst thing that could happen to my protagonist now?" creates plenty of drama and more or less forces sympathy from the reader, and her dialogue is excellent. Baen is bringing out the early Vorkosigan books as compendia of which Cordelia's Honor is the first - I've read Young Miles, the next in the sequence, and shall certainly be collecting the rest.

Oh yes, and a word of warning. If, like me, you hate having the plot of a book revealed before you've read it, do not look at the timeline at the back as it gives away the details of the entire sequence.

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