LUNA by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald, Luna (US: Luna: New Moon), Gollancz UK/Tor US, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

The thing that lets me enjoy so much science fiction is that I don’t actually bother to pay attention to much science. Helium 3 mining on the Moon? Effects of lower gravity on humans? Tell me anything you like, I will suspend my disbelief while you entertain me! So, really, understand by this that I have no idea how plausible any of McDonald’s science in Luna is – but the story’s entertaining as all hell.

This is a complex, multi-stranded novel full of interesting characters and fascinating asides, set on a Moon that resembles a libertarian paradise – or hellhole, depending on which end of the wealth spectrum you’re on. (The only law is contract law.) It follows the Corta family/corporation, who’re the newest (and possibly the brashest) of the moon’s five great families. None of the characters are particularly nice people, but they’re all compelling and believable.

Then things start blowing up.

The most fun thing about this book, though, is how it treats the social aspects. McDonald’s thought about what a future enclosed society might look like, how it’ll treat gender and sexuality and marriage (all negotiable, in whatever configuration suits), what’ll count as wealth and poverty. This isn’t one of those SF novels that transposes the 1950s-1970s to shiny tech future – not that I’d expect McDonald to do that, anyway.

Good book. I liked it lots.

Steven Brust’s HAWK: not a review

Steven Brust’s HAWK: not a review

If it were a review, this post would be longer.

Steven Brust, Hawk. Tor, 2014.
ARC received courtesy of the publisher.

I don’t find myself with a lot to say about Hawk, the latest in Steven Brust’s long-running Vlad Taltos series. It would be a terrible place for a new reader to start: it relies on our understanding of events in the life of Vlad to date to work. This book is basically Vlad runs a caper in order to get the Jhereg off his back so he can stay in the city.

Except it doesn’t work out entirely smoothly.

It’s a slick, pacey novel, but one that lacks the vividness and innovation of many of Brust’s earlier Vlad books. It’s an entertaining caper, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not going to stick with me – and I doubt I’ll end up re-reading it very often, unlike Orca or Issola or Dragon. Because a caper is only as interesting as its moving parts, and since Vlad is pulling this one off alone, the moving parts aren’t particularly compelling.

Anyway. Fun read. Not very chewy. Perfect for a dull day or a gloomy state of mind.

Review copies received: Rickert, Jackson, Vaughn, Joyce, Erikson, Miller

Yes, my photography is truly terrible. Also, cat.

Yes, my photography is truly terrible. Also, cat.

That’s Mary Rickert’s THE MEMORY GARDEN, Carrie Vaughn’s KITTY IN THE UNDERWORLD, D.B. Jackson’s A PLUNDER OF SOULS, Steven Erikson’s THE WURMS OF BLEARMOUTH, Graham Joyce’s THE GHOST IN THE ELECTRIC BLUE SUIT, and Karen Miller’s THE FALCON THRONE – which Orbit rather inventively sent out with a pinion feather attached; I think it’s a primary flight feather, and it definitely comes from a real bird. It makes me feel vaguely positive feelings towards the book already: I mean, FEATHER.

Yes, I’m easily distracted by shiny things.

Have another picture with a cat in.

Have another picture with a cat in.

And no, neither Visi nor Vlad are impressed with my new idea of staging books around them to take pictures. Visi was so unimpressed he only opened one eye and went immediately back to sleep.

Steven Erikson’s WILLFUL CHILD: a response, not a review

Steven Erikson’s WILLFUL CHILD: a response, not a review

Steven Erikson, Willful Child. Tor, 2014. ARC received courtesy of the publisher.

So, Willful Child. It’s a Star Trek parody/homage, which means that it will obviously receive comparisons to the other original series Star Trek homage of recent memory, John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Willful Child is much the stronger novel, however, for while Redshirts was interested primarily in playing with the original text, Willful Child is concerned with interrogating the unacknowledged hypocrisy of its source material.

It is also gleefully, blackly comic, and extremely dubious about human potential for good in the universe.

It works on many levels extremely well, with an episodic narrative that lurches creatively from Captain Hadrian Sawback’s self-created crisis to the next. Sawback combines in one body our hero and our villain: where it comes to the ultimate fate of the human species, it’s revealed, he has something of a saviour complex; but where it comes to his actions he’s LET’S FUCKING BLOW SHIT UP.

Where it fails, however, is in parodying the sexual adventures of Star Trek TOS’s Captain Kirk. Sawback is a monumental sleazebag when it comes to the women under his command, and no one else in the text seems to think this is acceptable behaviour – but there’s a fine line to walk between portraying a thing and apparently endorsing it, and where Willful Child falls down is when Sawback’s own sexual assaults/rapes (once by a female alien, once by a female marine) are played (it seemed to me) primarily for laughs. That undermines the undercutting of the sleaze elsewhere by the reactions of the characters.

Where it also fails is… look, at one point Sawback changes external physical sexual characteristics because PLOT, right? At that point the narrative proceeds to refer to him with female pronouns and do some of the usual stupid sexist shit that SF television body-swapping episodes do, which is not undercut or parodied. Now, this is an ARC, and maybe some of the pronouns will be changed in the final version, but I doubt it – and both of these things combine to make me hideously uncomfortable, because gender is not so much to do with genitalia.

So. There’s that. Some of its choices are like being punched in the face with a brown paper bag filled with shit. On the other hand, most of the bits that do work are hilariously funny, even when some of the humour is cringe-inducing.

A bit of a mixed bag in the final estimation, that’s what I think.

Review copies (including IRREGULARITY edited by Jared Shurin)

'What? You were taking a picture? But I'm sleeping here.'

“What? You were taking a picture? But I’m sleeping here.”

That’s A.M. Dellamonica’s CHILD OF A HIDDEN SEA, Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman’s UNWEPT, Paul Park’s ALL THOSE VANISHED ENGINES, Lilith Saintcrow’s THE RIPPER AFFAIR, and IRREGULARITY, a short fiction collection out of Jurassic London edited by Jared Shurin and published coinciding with two exhibitions relevant to its subject material at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

Also included in picture: Vladimir the cat.

"No, I'm not moving. Go away, monkey, and take your books with you."

“I’m not moving. Go away.”

Review copies since last time

Six here.

Six here

That’s Brian McClellan’s THE CRIMSON CAMPAIGN, Trudi Canavan’s THIEF’S MAGIC, Charlie Fletcher’s OVERSIGHT, Adam Christopher’s THE BURNING DARK, Stella Gemmell’s THE CITY, and Elizabeth Moon’s CROWN OF RENEWAL.

And four here.

And four here.

Followed by Kristen Britain’s MIRROR SIGHT, Ursula K. LeGuin’s THE UNREAL AND THE REAL VOLUME ONE, S.M. Wheeler’s SEA CHANGE, and Kameron Hurley’s THE MIRROR EMPIRE.

Review copies arrived: pictorial evidence

Two of which I have to read before the end of tomorrow...

Two of which I have to read before the end of tomorrow…


I need to read the first two before the end of tomorrow. And then review them by the end of Thursday. Wish me luck.

Books in brief: Weekes, McGuire, Garcia, Gladstone

Patrick Weekes, Dragon Age: The Masked Empire. Tor, 2014. ARC from

Read for review at

Seanan McGuire, Sparrow Hill Road. DAW, 2014. ARC from

Read for review at

R.S.A. Garcia, Lex Talionis. Dragonwell Publishing, 2014. ARC via a friend who is a friend of the author.

This is an interesting debut effort that shows promise. The prose is good, and the characterisation is well-done. However, structurally the execution lacks coherence and the novel as a whole suffers from a case of and also the kitchen sink in terms of what kind of story it is trying to be. Some aspects of the formatting (whole sections are written in italics) make it harder to read than I would’ve preferred, which may have some impact on my opinion. In many respects setting itself up as the first novel in a series: it’s not satisfactorily complete in itself, in my view.

Warning: novel contains gang-rape. It is treated with a reasonable amount of sensitivity, but if that sort of thing puts you off your reading experience, be prepared to encounter it here.

On the other hand, Garcia shows promise, and this is an enjoyable novel if you can live with its structural problems. Thematically it is having an interesting argument about power and responsibility and politics, even if the structural issues mean this is not brought fully and coherently into view. Recommended, albeit with significant hand-wiggling and many caveats.

Max Gladstone, Two Serpents Rise. Tor, 2013.

Gladstone’s second novel is one that I found difficult to get into at first. In fact, it wasn’t until I read his third novel – and discovered that yes, he did certainly know what he was doing – that I went back and tried again. Oce past the hump (past page fifty or so) it turns into something tense and great: not quite as good by my lights as Three Parts Dead or Full Fathom Five, but still an excellent entry by a writer who’s shaping up to be one of the field’s best new voices.

Max Gladstone, Full Fathom Five. Tor, 2014. ARC from

Read for review at A novel I really enjoyed.

Books in brief: Moyer, Larke, Hodgell, Bourne, Duran

Jaime Lee Moyer, A Barricade in Hell. Tor, 2014. ARC courtesy of publisher.

Read for review for An improvement on the previous novel. Interesting-if-flawed ghost story/murder mystery set in San Francisco during WWI.

Glenda Larke, The Lascar’s Dagger. Orbit, 2014. Copy courtesy of publisher.

Read for inclusion in SWM column. Interesting fantasy clearly influenced by the mercantile 16th and 17th centuries. Pacing sags in the middle, much like Larke’s other books. Will discuss elsewhere.

P.C. Hodgell, The Sea of Time. Baen, 2014. Ebook. ARC courtesy of publisher.

Read for review. The latest P.C. Hodgell novel, which I’ve been gasping for. It is, alas, something of a middle book. But still full of Jame apologetically breaking things.

Joanna Bourne, The Spymaster’s Lady, My Lord and Spymaster, The Forbidden Rose and The Black Hawk. Ebooks, 2008-2013.

Romance novels set during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Heard of via Marie Brennan. I have a serious weakness for spies. There is not enough entertainment with spies in.

Meredith Duran, Wicked Becomes You, Your Wicked Heart, That Scandalous Summer, Bound By Your Touch, Fool Me Twice, Written On Your Skin. Ebooks, 2009-2014.

Historical romance novels. I probably shouldn’t have bought them all, but I was at the point in the scrabbling anxiety cycle where I needed to read something – compulsively – and romance novels were safe. Duran is good at her chosen genre.

Failed to get very far into A.M. Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea (Tor, 2014, ARC courtesy of the publisher). There’s nothing wrong with this book, but it’s a sort of portal fantasy and the tone and approach hasn’t grabbed me.

Books for review arrived since last we spoke of such things…

I arrived back at my regular address to find that in my absence some review copies had piled up inside my front door:

Review copies!

Review copies!

I’m no kind of professional photographer, that’s for sure.

That’s Will Elliott’s THE PILGRIMS (Tor US, first published by JFB in the UK); Karl Schroeder’s LOCKSTEP (Tor); Katherine Addison’s THE GOBLIN EMPEROR (Tor); Ramona Wheeler’s THREE PRINCES (Tor), of which I already have a copy that I haven’t had a chance to read yet; Glen Cook’s WORKING GOD’S MISCHIEF (Tor), the fourth book in a series which no doubt I’d be more interested in reading if I’d read, or even had, the first three; Deborah J. Ross’s THE HEIR OF KHORED (DAW); Jane Lindskold’s ARTEMIS AWAKENING (Tor), and Tor’s publicity department must really want me to read this one, since this is the second copy I’ve received; Paul Park’s ALL THOSE VANISHED ENGINES (Tor); E.C. Ambrose’s ELISHA MAGUS (DAW); Joshua Palmatier’s SHATTERING THE LEY (DAW); and Ben Hatke’s ZITA THE SPACEGIRL, LEGENDS OF ZITA THE SPACEGIRL, and THE RETURN OF ZITA THE SPACEGIRL (First Second Books).

I’m open to bids and recommendations (from this and from the previous review copy posts) on what I should read in the interstices of my already-contracted reading and reviewing.


Reviewed over at

A Natural History of Dragons: a memoir by Lady Trent opened a new series by Marie Brennan. In it, Isabella, a gentlewoman from the nation of Scirling—which bears a passing resemblance to Victorian England—begins the tale of how she became the foremost dragon naturalist of her age. The voice is a retrospective one, that of a mature woman reflecting on the experiences of her youth, and it is this choice of perspective that lends Natural History a great deal of its appeal.

The Tropic of Serpents shares Natural History’s voice, and—to my mind, at least—exceeds its appeal.

David Drake, Monsters of the Earth

Tor, New York, 2013.

The third in a series begun with The Legions of Fire and continued in Out of the Waters, set in an alternate Rome which Drake calls Carce. Drake is of an antiquarian bent, a Latinist who does his own translations of ancient works, and his grasp of Roman elite cultural mores, at least those from within the city of Rome itself, is fairly spot on – though he doesn’t much broaden his view outside the elite. (Roman citizens, even semi-literate soldiers, are the elite. [His not-Rome here also lacks something of the staggering filth and mortality of the ancient city that’s not reflected in its literature. {One day I’ll read a book that acknowledges ancient public baths, and the fact that they drained by overflow.}])

There are striking similarities between this and Drake’s Lord of the Isles series, in particular the broad strokes of the character types and the fact that they are forever being dragged/traveling into other worlds, mostly separately, to confront magicians whose greed, arrogance, stupidity or power-hunger threatens the existence of the whole world, en route encounter/fight monsters and strange people, to be reunited at the climax. (It is a very “Wonders Beyond Thule”/Ctesias’ “Indica” sort of strangeness, with occasional Lovecraftian elements.) But if this is the kind of thing you like – and I like it, for the most part – then this book is a hell of a lot of fun.

Cherie Priest, Fiddlehead

Tor, New York, 2013.

The fifth and last planned (so far) novel in Priest’s Clockwork Century series, Fiddlehead, like Dreadnought and Ganymede it removes the action from the poisoned city of Seattle, but much more successfully than either of them. Fiddlehead takes place in the centres of Union and Confederate power, and focuses around a calculating engine developed by former slave Gideon Bardsley – which has predicted that both Union and Confederacy will lose the war to the walking dead – and the plots of moneyed interests to keep the war going for the sake of profit in the face of ex-President Lincoln’s and current-President Grant’s attempts to bring the war to a close.

An aside: the scenes with Lincoln and Grant felt rather comic-book-esque – I mean these characters, larger-than-life, are canonised rather than problematised – which took away from the book for me.

The main characters are Grant, Bardsley, and retired-spy-turned-Pinkerton-agent Maria Boyd. Bardsley’s prickly arrogance-of-genius is interesting, as is his quite real desperation when Evil Money moves to discredit him by framing him for money. Grant is not, alas, very interesting – but Maria Boyd! I sometimes feel, particularly with the Clockwork Century series, that Priest is at her best when writing somewhat unconventional women, or women who make the best of situations in which they never expected to find themselves, and Boyd is a perfect example. Whether investigating leads or racing against time to stop a terrible weapon, she remains a fascinating character – although I may well be biased in her regard.

Although at points flawed and problematic, Fiddlehead is fast-paced, entertaining, engaging, and rather a lot of fun. The best series books make you want to go back and reread their predecessors, and Fiddlehead did exactly that.

Mark Charan Newton, Drakenfeld

A locked room murder-mystery involving a king’s dead sister.

Lucan Drakenfeld is a Sun Chamber officer in the Royal Vispasian Union, a federation of kingdoms which looks and acts a lot like a cross between the European Union and the Roman Empire. The Sun Chamber is charged with investigating crime and enforcing the law across the Union, although it is never quite specified to whom the Chamber answers, except itself. (An oversight which left me with a niggling irritation once it became clear that Drakenfeld was going to operate in rarefied political circles: where does his authority come from and why does everyone accept it as legitimate?) Summoned home after his father’s unexpected death – ruled natural causes, but Drakenfeld comes to suspect there’s more to the matter – Drakenfeld and his bodyguard/friend Leana end up investigating the murder of the king’s sister.

Complicated as it first appears, it turns out to be even more complicated by the end.

Newton is no prose stylist, which leads to the characters here coming across a little flat. The resolution of the mystery, too, feels as though it comes a bit from out of the blue. On the other hand, I do like mysteries, Newton’s worldbuilding is plenty interesting, and it’s quite a relief to have a main character who doesn’t enjoy (and isn’t particularly good at) the personal application of violence. I look forward to seeing a sequel. Or, preferably, several.

Books: Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars

My copy of Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars arrived today from the Book Depo, and to celebrate its shiny, shiny cover, I thought I’d share a Review I Made Earlier, when I received an ARC. (I do not believe the persons to whom I submitted this review are going to use it, so I feel free sharing it here.)

Elizabeth Bear, Shattered Pillars. Tor, 2013.

Shattered Pillars is the second volume of Hugo-Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear’s Central Asia-inspired Eternal Sky trilogy, after 2012’s Range of Ghosts. My love for Range of Ghosts is passionate and exceeds all rational bounds. It’s possible that nothing could have lived up to my expectations for its sequel – so when I say Shattered Pillars is something of a disappointment, it falls short of a very high bar.

And there’s still plenty of awesome here.

Temur, grandson of the Khagan of the steppe, and Samarkar, wizard of Tsarepheth and once a princess, have come to the city of Asitaneh to seek aid in Temur’s quest to find and rescue Edene, the woman he promised to marry, from the Cult of the Nameless in the Uthman Caliphate. Unbeknownst to them, Edene has already left the Nameless’s fortress, carrying a ring of power and Temur’s child, to raise an army of ghulim in the desert of ancient, deadly Erem.

But the forces of darkness are still at work in the Uthman Caliphate, on the steppe, and in Samarkar’s home. A plague has struck in Tsarepheth, for the city’s magical defences have been compromised by the politics of its rulers. We see the depredations of the plague of demons – demons that infest the lungs, and hatch out fatally after weeks of suffering – through the eyes of Han, the wizard who takes point on trying to find a cure, who also works closely with arriving refugees from the steppe, people who have left the lands controlled by Temur’s usurping uncle. Meanwhile, on the steppe, a servant of the Cult of the Nameless has become close in the counsels of the usurper Khagan, and in Asitaneh and parts west, Temur and Samarkar, accompanied by the tiger-woman Hrahima and the silent monk Hsiung, run into trouble when the Nameless engage in a spot of regime change in the Uthman Caliphate, making life difficult for our heroes. Eventually Temur and our heroes discover Edene’s already done a runner from the Nameless cult’s impregnable fortress, and Temur feels the time is right to raise his banner as a claimant to the Khagan’s seat.

Shattered Pillars is beautifully written, with Bear’s usual clean, precise prose, and fully-fleshed characters. Understated emotional beats and political intrigue, rooftop chases and burning cities, occasional stunning turns of description. The lung demon plague is horrifying, disgusting, and a marvellously inventive use of a fantasy setting, as is the gradual changes of the world’s sky, and the descriptions of the landscape and inhabitants of Erem. As a book, I enjoyed it. But it’s very much a middle book of a trilogy, and has a number of classic middle book problems: more diffusion of focus, more confusion of characters, much that feels as though it’s setting up for an ultimate payoff in the final volume rather than paying off emotional or thematically before the end of this particular book. And I confess, I’m confused about what’s happening with Edene, and have been since the end of Range of Ghosts: Bear writes books that reward detailed attention and re-reading, and I suspect I’ll have to wait until the end of the final volume of the trilogy, Steles of the Sky, before I can be sure I understand what’s going on.

Shattered Pillars doesn’t quite live up to the awesome that was Range of Ghosts. That’d be hard, since Range of Ghosts hit what felt like every single one of my narrative kinks for epic fantasy and did it in new and intriguing ways. But despite its middle-book unevenness, it’s still a damn good novel, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion.