The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie

The Gun SellerThe story follows the wayward character Thomas Lang, a hired gun that is a lot nicer than he seems. When he is approached to assassinate a businessman he decides instead to warn the target. No good deed ever goes unpunished however and he quickly finds his life spiraling into increasingly dangerous situations.

The natural charm and casual wit of Laurie clearly shines through and reading the story you can easy imagine him narrating it to you himself — there is so much of the author’s personality contained. The protagonist also shares some of the author’s charms and is a likeable, engaging fellow. Thomas is also cynical, sarcastic and quite self-centered — although not at the same level as House. He’s part spy, part hard-boiled gumshoe and part anti-hero.
The writing is great and deeper that it first appears with lots of little quips:

“Having a vote once every four years is not the same thing as democracy.”

There is also a quite brilliant bit about the way you should break someone’s arm:
“Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.

Right or left, doesn’t matter. The point is that you have to break it, because if you don’t…well, that doesn’t matter either. Let’s just say bad things will happen if you don’t.

Now, my question goes like this: do you break the arm quickly — snap, whoops, sorry, here let me help you with that improvised splint — or do you drag the whole business out for a good eight minutes, every now and then increasing the pressure in the tiniest of increments, until the pain becomes pink and green and hot and cold and altogether unbearable?

Well exactly. Of course, the right thing to do, the only thing to do, is to get it over with as quickly as possible. Break the arm, ply the brandy, be a good citizen. There can be no other answer.
Unless.

Unless unless unless.

What if you were to hate the person on the other end of the arm? I mean really, really hate them.”

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
The prose is witty and charming just like the author. Pacing is steady, there is little wasted space and the story moves forward with little attention given to retrospection or exposition. As a result it’s an easy, enjoyable, effortless read and one that doesn’t take long to get through.

The Gun Seller is wildly entertaining, light-hearted and one of the funniest books I’ve read in quite some time, highly recommended and is definitely worth the space on your bookshelf.

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Tin Men by Christopher Golden

Tin MenIn the near future, the world is falling apart. Wars, unrest, economic collapse and ecological disasters plague the globe – as it tries to hold the pieces together, the US deploys a new weapon, the Tin Men. They are remote controlled drones piloted by American soldiers who have their minds virtually transported into the machines while their bodies rest back at base. At least that’s the theory, but when an electromagnetic pulse traps their minds inside their robot bodies all the rules go out the window.

Tin Men is a great blend of military action and sci-fi elements; it barrels through an action packed storyline in a hail of bullets, while still managing to showcase some very human feelings despite its characters’ robotic appearance. There is an incredible realism to the scenes and locations that would fit perfectly into a piece of contemporary military fiction. The action scenes with the Tin Men are particularly well written, serving to evoke the proper atmosphere for a warzone. The entire book in fact does a good job for atmosphere, with the opening of the novel heralding a great catastrophe; the subsequent chapters do a good job of showing the consequences, worthy of any disaster movie.

The story jumps between selections of very different characters, each showing the effects of the catastrophe from a new perspective. In the Tin are Danny and Kate, two soldiers with very different views about their new situation, the awkward relationship between the two is handled well and makes for an interesting sideshow as the story goes on. With a more human face is Alexa, an ambassador’s young daughter carried along for the ride and forced to come to terms with the harsh realities of her situation. Back at base is the tech Aimee, while she’s not dodging bullets there are plenty of problems to keep her occupied. Rounding out the group is Felix, acting as an aide to the president he is swept along in a rush to escape the chaos while half the world tries to track them down. There is also the interesting P.O.V of Hanif who provides a counterpoint to the western characters, showing a different ideology and helping to give the enemy side a face.

There are plenty of twists in the plot, giving it more depth than your standard action thriller, the fast pace of the writing quickly moves the story along as you begin to care about the characters. In places the development of some of the protagonists felt a bit rushed but the book does cram a lot into the space. There are touches in the world that highlight the near future setting, but I think more could have been made of the Tin Men in the narratives. Aside from a throwaway line about targeting systems or repairs there’s very little that differentiates the Tin Men from regular soldiers, other than the amount of punishment they can take.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
The book does deliver a good read, the separate plot strands all progress well and tie in together nicely. The characters quickly establish themselves but do lack detailed development. Tin Men does keep the reader interested, revealing just enough to leave you wanting more and rooting for their armored heroes. I would recommend it to a military or sci-fi fiction buff. It is definitely worth the space on your bookshelf.

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Roboteer by Alex Lamb

RoboteerAlex Lamb’s Roboteer paints a picture of a future that in the political climate of today, feels far too possible.

In this book, a war rages between two sides of humanity, two different and opposing ideologies and lifestyles. One side, combining genetic and induced mutation with advanced technology, just to survive and grow, the other dealing with overpopulation, presumably low employment and the idea that someone is better off than they are.

We see how people have manipulated propaganda about the other side, merely to increase their own personal influence. Politics and religion are just tools in their hands, flags to wave to unite to a cause, with little evidence personal belief or morality.

As all of the religions have been loosely brought together, it becomes clear that it is not belief that unites them, more political expediency. The actual tenants of the official religion have been manipulated to allow them not to be against any of the existing faiths and become a self fulfilling cycle that the religion itself is the basis of the religion.

Accusations of “genetic fascism” are put forward by the Earthers as a criticism of the Colonials, but generally this is a trait we see in the characters who make this accusation loudest.

Most of the perspective of the book is from the Colonial point of view and we have more sympathy for their cause, it is only when we stop and think that we see the cracks in their own society. Through their perspective we see the downsides of deliberate mutation for specific skills, without environmental factors to even out selection, behaviour traits of obsessive compulsive disorders and autism become common.

We also get a glimpse of the fact the ability to live in a “virtual reality” gives some characters the choice of whether to opt out of “live” social interaction, creating a two tier society and creates as situation where the Captain of a ship is surprised by the genuine grief for someone who is “only a roboteer”. This is reminiscent of John Scalzi’s Locked In but with a different plot reason for the condition. For some people the roboteer is “other” and possibly even sub-human.

Overall the book warns of the danger of the “end justifying the means” with the threat that the morality of any given situation, and the ability to enforce this, may not sit in human hands. On both sides we see people willing to do anything for a cause, but also individuals whose actions progress a cause that they deep down disagree with and how the results of this do not turn out well. This is shown on the personal scale, when an individual betrays his friends for a bigger cause and they and their cause suffer for it, and on the species level when humanity might be judged for its actions by an external set of values.

It ultimately concludes that without the ability and willingness to adapt to our environments, we can only take from the resources around us. If we do not aspire to create, we can only destroy a chilling prediction perhaps.

Opinion:

Five Stars
This book is much more than an entertaining tale of spaceships, warfare, technology and an occasional alien presence, although it has all of those. It is a book designed to really make you

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Inish Carraig by Jo Zebedee

Inish CarraigA dystopian future novel set in Belfast after an alien invasion is a premise that immediately appeals and suggests a whole host of imaginative ideas.

Inish Carraig is the second book from Jo Zebedee and sets humanity as a conquered plaything between two space faring alien civilizations; the Zelotyr and the Barath’na. With the events of the book set where they are the opportunities for a District 9 style allegory are clear right from the outset, particularly as the opening scenes are of scavenging teenagers John and Taz forced to work to feed themselves and their families.

The book doesn’t play this card as well as it might, but instead we have a robust dystopian story that sticks with its underclass characters for the most part as they struggle against the circumstances thrust upon them. John is an unwitting rebel who may have doomed humanity to never recover from the devastation of invasion. Taz, an ignorant victim of trying something he shouldn’t and Josey, an unwilling captive of consequence.
Joining these is Inspector Carter, a policemen forced to collaborate with both aliens in turn as the jurisdiction of Earth changes hands. Carter’s position of power is revealed as powerless owing to his own inability to take risks as much as the ‘middle management’ confines of his role, but ultimately he finds courage and opportunity to take matters into his own hands.

The Zelotyr and Barath’na are less well defined than the human characters, the former having invaded Earth owing to environmental problems with their own planet and failing to recognise the intelligence of the indigenous species, the latter seemingly a neutral arbiter between invader and victim, although the relationships between the three are clearly much more complex than this, as we find out.

The Inish Carraig of the title is a hastily constructed prison, built by the Barath’na for malcontents and revolutionaries, again, something that could offer more of a real world allegory. The pacification of its inmates through drugs administered by implant, along with the threatening carnivorous presence of the Barath’na themselves implies a more sinister motive to everything which bears out as we learn more of the wider political games being played.

There are one or two bumps in the narrative; a ‘galactic council’ of two struggles to live up to the name and the use of robot companions as a plot lever might be considered a little bit obvious, but neither are story breaking and the perspective is kept tight and dramatic throughout.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
Inish Carraig is a gritty post invasion novel. There is a tense realism to the key scenes of conflict and some supporting cast manage to maintain a position of ambiguity right up until the end of the book. Scenes in the dark countryside where life becomes a desperate struggle from one moment to the next are chillingly real. The truest monsters in the text are particularly awful examples of humanity.

Occasionally events seem to move forwards from off stage, which is a little confusing to the reader who might be used to their viewpoint characters adopting a more driving role, but this echoes writers like H.G. Wells in some ways, where the main character is not always the changer of the macro plot.

The conclusion of the book is nicely brought together, but does make the reader reflect on what we have gained. In many respects, our analogue – humanity, under an oppressive alien government has not changed its fate, but made its future worse, although, the individual characters have escaped the cold endings that awaited each of them.

Inish Carraig is a good alternative take on the dystopian novel and establishes an intriguing premise that may be worthy of Zebedee exploring further in the future.

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A Planet for Rent by Yoss

A Planet for RentYoss is one of the most controversial and successful of Cuba’s science fiction writers. As well known for his rock-and-roll style as he is for his portrait of Cuba under Communism, his work is modern, dynamic and yet deep and thoughtful. A Planet for Rent is set in the near future where Earth, wracked by environmental and ecological problems is “rescued” by Aliens.

This rescue however turns the planet into a tourist attraction and humanity little more than slaves, dispossessed from their own planet. The aliens have undone many of the man-made disasters humanity subjected the Earth to but the people don’t get to be a part of this new society. They are denied access to the superior technology and live in poverty, not even able to leave the planet unless they get sponsorship from an affluent alien. Some turn to crime, others hire their body as a host to alien consciousness for those who want to holiday but can’t or don’t want to appear physically. As you can imagine most feel envy, anguish and anger over the injustice; the unfairness perpetrated by the new owners of Earth.

The book is a collection of short stories, all themed around this premise and the format works well. There is a dark, almost bleak tone to the novel but with small sparks of hope, along with a good deal of dark humor. It is of course an allegory of Cuba in the 1990’s (the stories were originally written back then) and more broadly an allegory of Communism in general. You can feel the frustration and sometimes the anger the author must have felt living in such a regime.

It’s wildly inventive, imaginative fiction, with a real edge to the writing — there is energy to the prose that is almost tangible and to get all this through a translation is nothing short of remarkable. It’s great to be able to finally see fiction from other cultures without the language barrier and Restless Books are leading the charge in this regard.

Opinion:

Five Stars
A Planet for Rent is a window into a different world in many respects. It’s bold, beautiful, brash and bizarre but above all its science fiction at its best. These stories will definitely make you look at planet Earth in a moment the light not to mention. We evaluate your place in the food chain, the entire time you’re reading, and you will never look at your summer vacation. The same way again.

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Wick by Matt Doyle

WickA futuristic science fantasy based on a nineties card game tournament with the monsters, maneuvers and spells depicted in a huge seemingly holographic light show, Wick is certainly a vivid visual feast when it comes to the battles.
The book is structured in a multitude of first person narratives, depicting the experiences of the contestants in the tournament. First person perspective and present tense always establishes a closer relationship between character and reader. However in Wick, this multiplicity of perspectives is problematic at first when read cold and in novel form, as it becomes difficult for the reader to distinguish each context and might work better as separate strands written towards the events.

Doyle switches to neutral third person perspective and present tense (omnipresent viewpoint) when describing the interviews with the characters and the battles themselves. The writing in the latter is a wall of descriptive text, accurately written and interspersed with commentary dialogue. This betrays the interest of Doyle, who plays with WWE showmanship into his contest, complete with fixed matches and false narratives. However, the reader is given no quarter with the repetition of the format or the detail of the game play and this makes the scenes drag down the rest of the story, when they should be its highlight. The commentary and omni-view weaken the reader’s emotional connection with the characters for the duration of these scenes. However, to a point, this also serves to hide their outcome. Because of the wide focus and array of characters, there are few clues for the reader to guess who will win and afterwards the take up of the first person narratives gradually narrows.

The agendas of the participants gradually become clear in this process and the major characters rise out of the confusion of multiplicity. Some are here to win the tournament, others have different goals. After the first round is completed, these agendas become the priority and the book becomes more interesting. We learn more about the spark form combatants and how they can exist outside of the battle-zone. We discover they aren’t actually holographic, but feel different to real people.
The story concludes as a part one, with a long character background and a cliff-hanger twist.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
Wick is certainly an interesting idea. Matt Doyle confesses in the afterword that this wasn’t the book he intended to write and reading it confirms his assertion. The priorities of Doyle’s game and anime ideas and the needs of a story appear to be in conflict. Plot compression is sorely needed and less of an emphasis on minute detail would vastly improve the pace of a number of scenes. The magical card game tournament premise certainly has its appeal, but needs to be thought about in the context of telling a story. What keeps the reader interested is that there is a really good story lying under and in between the dry scenes and painstaking descriptions. Some of the characters, such as Connor Ford and Fahrn are excellently drawn; Ford in particular works really well, despite the fact that he seems to be a supporting character.

As a book, Wick appears to be fighting its author in a far more difficult battle than any depicted in the tournament. Hopefully Matt Doyle will surrender in the sequel and just let the story flow.
This book is definitely worth the space on your Kindle as it has all the elements necessary to become a classic. Any true science fiction and fantasy fan should find time to read this book.

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An Android Awakes by Mike French

An Android AwakesBilled as a ‘graphic novel, novel’ An Android Awakes tells the story, through pictures and words, of Android Writer PD121928 as it tries to produce stories that a publisher will accept before the submission limit on its programming runs out.
What we have here is an innovative throwback; something that returns us to the picture story premise of old annuals and paperbacks, but presents itself to a graphic novel audience.
The balance of narrative is weighed towards the writing, with the drawings more of an illustration of scenes and in this, there is something a little disappointing, as the book has moved away from the stronger tradition of visual storytelling a graphic novel or comic book would afford. The pictures do not have essential narrative content, where they might in these mediums.
However, the stream of consciousness premise of the text is fascinating as PD121928’s draft submissions bleed into one another with throw away references, remembrances and retellings that turn a collection of discreet narratives into parts of the struggling writer’s experience. We have a linked world through referentiality, but this world operates in two spaces; the one developed in our minds and the one developed in the mind of the Android. This world is intentionally flawed as ideas are reshaped and re-used in different submissions, but the reader finds themselves imagining a world where all the tales fit together consistently as this is the way in which we would read other texts that interconnect in the same way. This tells us something about ourselves as readers and the instinctive habits our consummation of stories can create.
The illustrations have a crisp and busy quality to them, providing images and faces to the scenes described. Both writing and drawing clearly signal this as an adult collection, although not in a way that promotes excess.
The tales themselves are a fascinating collection of intertextuality and remediation. To begin with they feel dense, but gradually settle into a rhythm and structure, much in the same way PD121928 gradually refines its craft. This element of character development through the narrative is subtle and reinforced by the interspersing of journal comment. Highlights from the submissions include a reversed Bladerunner scenario, a multitude of Matrix and Animatrix ideas, some Asimov references and many more; the majority in keeping with the transformational nature of cyberpunk as our storyteller understands his own contrived metamorphosis and often decides to ‘write what you know.’
Eventually the narrative moves to its social comment punchline. PD121928 does get a story accepted, but achievement is not quite all it could have been and we are left to judge the idiosyncrasies of publishers in this strange future, not unlike the way in which we might smile at their choices today. This book is definitely worth the space on your bookshelf or Kindle, as it will keep you engaged from the first page to the last. The storyline and artwork works flawlessly together to create an immersive reading experience.

Opinion:


Five Stars
An Android Awakens is a thoughtful creation which will inspire thought in its readership. In time perhaps we’ll see a return to storytelling in this medium and a greater level of experimentation with narrative delivery with words and pictures.

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Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

Europe in Autumn“Europe in Autumn.” is an alternative history near future story that could be considered Kafkaesque in more than one sense of the word. It’s part of new style of novel that mixes European settings with a gritty noir feeling such as seen in those quite brilliant novels Osama and Wolfhound Century.

In Hutchinson’s vision of the near future a devastating flu pandemic has swept through the continent and left in its wake a fractured Europe of pocket-sized nations, republics, duchies and polities. We join the story as Rudi – a cook in a Kraków restaurant – is recruited by the secretive “Les Coureurs des Bois” and so begins his life as a “courier” – a network of secret agents who move sensitive items through the many tiny territories. It’s a career with no little danger and even while still in training he’s caught, beaten and locked up until rescue is attempted. Such begins a career in espionage.

Put simply, Europe in Autumn is an astounding piece of fiction. It’s stylish, surreal, sagacious and sophisticated; it draws you into this fractured Europe that bears a chilling resemblance to our own while at the same time introducing you to different cultures and characters that often seem as recondite as the story itself. It’s a wonderfully turbulent plot that seems to go anywhere but in a straight line and yet plays out a rich and complex story that like one of those old magic eye pictures you have to sit and stare at for a while before you can see any shape emerging.

At times it reminded me of the novels mentioned earlier and yes there are hints of Franz Kafka not just in the surrealism but also sharing themes of alienation and bureaucracy – set on a dark stage that hints at casual brutality and corrupt, oppressive regimes. To offset all this gloom are some clever light touches, which combine well with the eloquent prose and results in lifting what otherwise could have been a very dark drama.

I will draw a comparison to PKD’s seminal work The Man in the High Castle which I feel is the grand-daddy of this alternate history noir style. Of course the similarities are if anything quite brief, Europe In Autumn draws heavily from a European style (especially Polish) and has a much more dynamic, thriller feel to it and while there is a similar sense of meandering there is also a clearer sense of the plot moving forward (or at times sideways and backwards).
I love how this book makes you feel, it’s a little like a feeling of intoxication, that point in inebriation where you are quite happy but in a little bit of a haze – only partly aware of what’s actually going on and because this book put me in that happy haze state of mind of second-guessing every plot twist and turn. It definitely deserves space on your bookshelf for Kindle, particularly if you are a fan of the gritty noir style.

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Made to Kill by Adam Christopher

Made to KillRaymond Chandler meets Astounding in this pulpy, hard-boiled detective pastiche, the first of a trilogy by the author of The Empire State and The Spider Wars series (The Machine Awakes, 2015, etc.).
In 1965, Raymond Electromatic is the world’s last remaining robot. He and a powerful artificial intelligence, Ada, used to run a private detective agency in Los Angeles. That was before Ada, who apparently was “programmed for profit,” figured out they’d make much more money using Raymond as a hit man. (Although the author explains that Ada and Raymond’s creator, the late Professor Thornton, intended his creations to be financially independent, we never learn what benefit they would actually gain from the money. What use would they even have for money—to pay the power bills, possibly?) Their latest client, film actress Eva McLuckie, hires Raymond to kill missing actor Charles David. Intending to kill both his target and his client, the robot follows their trail to find Russian spies conducting secret and highly radioactive research underneath an exclusive nightclub. His struggle to comprehend the plot is made more difficult by his memory limitations: every 24 hours, his magnetic tape runs out and he must replace it with a blank one. Christopher’s afterword explains that this novel is both a carefully researched homage to Chandler and a response to Chandler’s ridicule of science fiction. The result certainly borders on the ridiculous, and it’s more parody than homage. While it nods at noir, it lacks that genre’s bleakness, which may be intentional. None of the characters, biological or constructed, are all that sympathetic—we feel for Raymond, victim of technologically induced amnesia and Ada’s manipulations, but his programmed indifference to murder is…uncomfortable—and the villains are cartoonish.

 

A small idea stretched until it snaps.
Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars

Even though this book is an idea that is definitely being stretched until it breaks with cartoonish villains and a former killer robot turn would be detective it turns out that this story is actually really enjoyable is the perfect marriage of classic science fiction and hard-boiled detective noir, with plenty of twists and turns and backstabbing and everything else you would expect from a hard-nosed private eye. This book is definitely worth the space on your bookshelf or Kindle, particularly if you’re a science fiction fan looking for something. Just a little bit different than what has been wrong on offer on bookstore shelves lately. And if you’re detective fan then this book will definitely open up your eyes to some mail and exciting possibilities of what a great detective can be. This is one of those books that would be perfect, curled up in your favorite easy chair on a dark and stormy night with a cup of tea or hot chocolate is definitely worth the space on your bookshelf or Kindle, as you will most certainly not be disappointed.

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Poseidon’s wake by Alastair Reynolds

Poseidon's wakePoseidon’s Wake is set in the same universe as Reynolds previous two Poseidon’s Children novels (Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze) but is written as an informal conclusion to the trilogy, a book that works equally well as a stand-alone story.
The story begins on Crucible, a distant planet from Earth that is now a colony for humankind. For Ndege Akinya Crucible, has become a prison, held responsible for her part in the disaster that befell the transport vessel decades earlier. Then a signal is discovered from the distant star system Gliese 163, a message in Swahili which says simply “Send Nedge”. Nedge however is now too old and frail to make such a journey across the stars and so her daughter Goma, Goma’s wife Ru and Mposi go in her place.
Across the Galaxy Kanu, another member of the Akinya family has also discovered the message and sets off with his one-time wife Nissa and AI friend Swift — believing their destination holds the key to understanding the mystery of the Watchkeepers.
One of the things that really stands out with the Poseidon’s Children series is that rather than go down the dystopia, apocalyptic or otherwise deteriorating future route the vast majority of 21st century science fiction novels seems to take, these books paint a much more optimistic view of humanity’s future. The series also partly addresses the need for treating people equally and this includes the use of “ve” as a nonbinary gender descriptor (first used by Greg Egan twenty years previously).
That isn’t to say that humanity has it easy or has solved all it’s problems but things haven’t got worse, just more complicated. Factions still disagree with others on the way things should be, to the point that they are willing to sacrifice their lives to prevent them achieving their goals. Humanity still has its weaknesses even if they are no longer plagued by short life-span and gender and racial inequality.
At times, Poseidon’s Wake feels like a modern novel that still manages to retain that wonderful sense of a story created during the “golden age” of science fiction, full of big ideas and interesting characters. Reynolds spends a great deal of time on these characters — to the point that some of his ideas do seem to have less space to be explored than I’d have liked. There is also a big connection to the previous books that I feel any reader not having read them will miss out on, especially with the legacy of Eunice? And her Elephants, part way through the book there is this big game-changing reveal that shakes things up but the reactions of the characters are less convincing than they could have been — especially given all that investment in their personalities.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
That isn’t to say that this book doesn’t work, because it does. The main theme of intelligence not being restricted to the bipedal form is the big one and Reynolds manages to carry this idea across well. The story itself works, providing an intriguing glimpse into one possible future of the human race and a larger view of the universe and non-human life. I loved the way the author takes the sharp edges off “hard” science fiction and yet manages to retain the essence of what “hard” science fiction is. The scope of the series defines the term “epic” and yet also retains a sense of place, being told primarily from the viewpoint of just one family.
Poseidon’s Wake is a richly rewarding novel and worth the price alone just for the ending (and the big reveal). Reynolds continues to show just how talented and author he is.

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