Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja

Mechanical FailureI was quite unprepared for Mechanical Failure. While the blurb mentions it as a “sarcastic adventure”, such a description doesn’t do justice.
Set in the far future after Humanity has spread to the stars and now live in a different Galaxy, mankind has managed to endure Two Hundred years (and counting) of peace. For Sergeant R Wilson military was the perfect career – mostly involved with drinking, avoiding work and hosting epic barbecues. Eventually though Wilson decides to expand his horizons and becomes a smuggler.

Big mistake, smuggling being much harder than military life and after only a year away he gets arrested and forced back into service. The military he returns to however is much changed. Gone is the shirking and drinking and endless partying, replaced by soldiers doing actual work and seemingly preparing for a war.

As you might imagine this leads to an interesting story of military incompetence with lots of humor, very much like a 21st century version of Harry Harrison’s Bill, The Galactic Hero and The Stainless Steel Rat adventures with a little of Rob Grant’s Incompetence thrown in for good measure. As with Grants novel, we have people placed into ill-suited roles purely due to those in command deciding it a good idea – Engineers becoming chefs for example while parallels to those in Command not having the slightest clue echo Harrison’s finest.

It is a highly amusing novel with humor evident on every page. The laughs flow through an interesting and engaging story of military incompetence and subterfuge.

Wilson’s rise to power parallels that of Bill’s, not earned through hard work and talent but through a combination of misplaced reward and lack of superior knowledge. Wilson himself is a great character, totally immoral, out for himself and lazy, he is as far from a hero as possible. He lurches from one disaster to another and is placed in increasingly difficult situations.

The story makes it interesting, the humor is unmistakable- and I mean laugh-out-loud funny, the pace never lets up and there isn’t a single wasted moment. Of course there are real messages underneath all the funny. There is serious abuse of power, poor choice of leadership and the danger of complacency being the obvious but also the ever increasing reliance on technology and that topical one, increasing AI that is unchecked and un-policed.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
Mechanical Failure is the perfect tonic for those missing the writing of the comedy sci-fi greats. It is as good as Harrison, Grant and even Adams – highly amusing, clever fiction.

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small Angry PlanetThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was originally funded as a small kickstarter project and self-published as a result. It was such a hit that it found a big publisher, got nominated for a ton of awards and has been raved about by many, many people. What struck me in particular wasn’t just what everyone was saying or how many awards it was nominated for. What raised my interest was the type of awards that were included – it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award (always one to watch), shortlisted for the Kitches “Best Debut” and Long listed for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The fact that a book that is clearly scifi – and not just sci fi but Space Opera at that! – got even nominated for the Baileys means it’s gotta be something special and one of those breakout novels that become read by a wider audience.

As such I thought it only right I get a copy and see what all the fuss is about.
I wasn’t disappointed.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is set sometime in the future at a time where part of humanity has spread out to the stars. Those intrepid adventurers that left our solar system become known as Exodans while those who stay and populate Mars become known as Solans. The Exodans meet a number of alien races along the way. Some of them agree to form a coalition which becomes known as the Galactic Commons (GC).

The story follows the crew of the Wayfarer as they welcome on board new crew member Rosemary Harper, someone who has never been on a spaceship before and seems to be running from something. Over the first few chapters the viewpoint switches to other members of the crew. We’ve got the human captain Ashby, a friendly and trustworthy Exodan who seems to be able to bring out the best in people. Then we’ve got the pilot Sissex from the Aandrisk race – think humanoid but with reptilian like scales and feathers.

The Chef of the Wayfarer is known by the name of Dr Chef, as he also doubles as the ship’s medic. He’s a Grum, a big and bulky alien whose enigmatic race doesn’t appear to be part of the GC. Kizzy and Jenks (human) are the ships technicians while Jenks friend Lovey is the ship’s AI. Ohan looks a lot like a simian and is from a race specially suited to navigate the wormholes used to travel vast distances through space. They do so by being infected with a virus called “the whisper” which allows them to actually see space-time in some strange way. Lastly is the ship’s “Algiest”, Corbin who nurtures special forms of algy which acts as fuel for the ship. They form a somewhat motley ragtag but highly effective crew, and the author does a great job of bringing them to life.

As mentioned, space travel over any real distance is handled by travel through wormholes – holes connecting two points in real space through “hyperspace”, the crew of the Wayfarer are offered a highly lucrative contract building such a hyperspace expressway to a distant planet. It’s a job that will earn them enough money to live comfortably for years the catch? there seems to be some sort of war between the two points along with a number of fragile alliances which could splinter given the wrong move.

So on, the surface the book is about the journey to this remote planet however what the book really deals with are the modern-day problems of prejudice, cultural acceptance and sexuality. Then there are the other sociological issues that plague our little blue-green planet such as freedom to live how you wish, the thorny issue of euthanasia with a scattering of Guerrilla Warfare thrown in. This is topped off with the emerging issue of Artificial Intelligence – more specifically at what point does it become Artificial Conscience or even Artificial Life? What rights should such a being have?

It sounds like a lot of serious stuff, and it is, however the author manages to feed all this into a funny, entertaining and clever story that makes wonderful use of the myriad personalities and group dynamics. It’s bold and clever fiction that excites and manages to make you think without realizing that it is making you think.

This is 21st Century, modern, inclusive science fiction that mirrors the Best parts of books written during the “golden age”, dealing with big, contemporary issues in a Space Opera setting with unusual races and action and adventure and all the things you’d expect to make up a Space Opera novel.

Opinion:

5 Star rating

Five Stars
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet doesn’t just deserve to be nominated for awards, it deserves to win some, it deserves to be read by everyone who can get their hands on it and it deserves to help make the author a big deal in literature, simply wonderful.

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The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett

The Long EarthThe Long Earth follows the premise that there are an infinite number of alternative dimensions, all existing within one great “Multiverse”, each universe containing a slightly different version of the Earth. A few years in the future and a device powered by the humble potato (it will make sense, trust me) has been invented that allows people to “step” into these alternative Earths (either westward in one direction or eastward in another), each of which offer an unspoiled wilderness devoid of humanities heavy hand.

A new Pratchett novel that isn’t based on the Discworld and his first foray into science fiction since Strata way back in 1981 and he’s teamed up with one of the real visionaries of the genre. Like many of the very best science fiction novels, The Long Earth concentrates on one big idea and builds an incredible journey around it, populated by believable and enigmatic characters.
It’s very interesting that the authors have decided that all the other Earths are unpopulated by humans, providing an argument that we as a race are fairly unique and while there are hints of other sentient beings humanity have been the only ones to use technology. They are also the only ones to damage the planet too and the authors provide a very effective if somewhat light-hearted argument over the use of the world’s natural resources, although to be fair this is more just a reflection of the unspoiled earth’s rather than a considered attempt.

It’s still a sobering thought though, even after all these years, the chances are that many of us would still go out there into that unspoiled beauty, that majesty of nature and decide how we could strip those resources for our own gain, more than that though the book postulates the theory that humanity must do this in order to survive, needing wood and stone for buildings and iron for tools. The authors manage to capture that essence and feeling of the “frontier settlers” which must have been present when America was first colonized and I can understand the reasoning behind using the USA rather than the UK as a setting.

The story never takes itself too seriously and maintains a light and cheerful air, which does of course permeate all of Pratchett’s writing. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter make an interesting team, Baxter is pretty much unmatched when writing about big ideas and Pratchett is pretty much unmatched full stop. Collaborating on this book gives a very distinct voice, with the descriptive and visionary prose of Baxter with the eloquence, intelligence and sheer charisma of Pratchett, it really does work very well and a better team you would be hard pressed to find.

There is even a great little nod to a certain tree climbing creature in one of Pratchett’s other novels, if you’ve read Nation you’ll know what I mean and it was a laugh out loud moment when I discovered it. The book is a more serious novel than his Discworld series – although the last few have been more focused and directed than previously – however it’s still got the same easy reading prose that manages to avoid being too clever and stays fresh. I think the authors do complement each other perfectly, Baxter’s novels can tend to be a bit dry at times and Pratchett’s influence makes a big difference. The plot itself is not only far reaching (as you might expect) but also very well structured, it never loses momentum or diverts off topic with a perfect pace.

Opinion:

5 Star rating
Five Stars
The quality of the story is matched only by the characters, they are little more restrained than many of Pratchett’s previous creation which fits perfectly here and helps to create the all important ambiance. There is however no getting away from the fact that this a bit of a divergence than most of Pratchett’s novels, although in my opinion its every bit as good I can see that some fans may not appreciate the more serious tone and science fiction undertones. The ending though really is something quite special; it’s one of those big moments that leaves you breathless. I personally loved every second and I really do hope that they continue the series long into the future.

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Dark Sky by Mike Brooks

Dark SkyThe crew of the Keiko are back, Mike Brooks hammers out the sequel to his epic, sci-fi adventure, Dark Run; Dark Sky, and it truly is an incredible adventure. It continues the rapid-fire wit from the first harkens back to the space opera/western of Firefly and blends two different perspectives on this rising revolution plot that will have you hooked from start to finish.

The plot picks up where Dark Run left off. After stealing a ton of money from the multiple bank accounts of Ichabod Drift’s former employer and all-round bad guy, the crew takes a much needed vacation in Russian space. Ichabod, determined to remind his crew of the good old days, takes a simple contract on a nearby mining planet. What unfolds is a high risk game of cat and mouse when a revolution breaks out and the crew are left separated and trapped. Their only hope is to get off the planet before the revolution swallows them whole.

The book starts off strong, immersing us in a high risk game of cards in a Russian casino with Ichabod Drift at the helm. Brooks once again uses internal narration and description to give us an idea of the setting, mentions key point of interest and then leaves it at that. However, whilst this approach doesn’t leave you with pages of description, it can leave the reader confused at times where all the characters are in the setting. However, Brook’s talents lie in his ability to create well developed and likeable characters. He works with five characters that all drive the story forwards and never gives you a second to catch your breath so it always feels like you never know something ahead of the characters. It all blends to make an unforgettable story and leave you wanting more.

In the first book, Dark Run, the change of perspective, at times, felt out of place because we followed the perspective of one character since the beginning and having that change felt off. However, in Dark Sky, the perspective change happens right from the get-go, making it feel much easier to follow.
However, whilst it may sound that Dark Sky is superior to Dark Run, Mike Brooks is writing these books as part of a series, one that you cannot get into halfway. You need to start with the first book, Dark Run. Brooks doesn’t waste his words, meaning information on aspects of the book’s world, like the Free Systems, Gabriel Drake and The Laughing Man, are not touched on at all in the second book.

Secondly, similar to the lack of world building, the entire plot takes place on a single mining planet and most of it is set underground. Combine that with Brook’s three different characters and you soon find yourself struggling to picture where the characters are. It leaves the reader confused and at times, more clarity was needed.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
Finally, because the plot follows the characters and their role in the revolution rather than the actual revolution, when the character’s finally escape, it leaves the revolution behind and we don’t know what happens after. This is a similar problem I encountered with the ending of Dark Run; loose ends not being resolved and they never did get explained in Dark Sky; the characters just move on, not bothering to answer any questions we had. It is likely that Brooks will reveal the aftermath of the event in the third book he baits us with.
All in all, however, Dark Sky is fantastic. It blends character and humor in an expansive and enjoyable space adventure that leaves you wanting more. It is definitely worth of space on your bookshelf and is a quality read for lazy weekends in the park or at the copy shop.

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Dark Run by Mike Brooks

Dark RunFrom the opening chapter I knew this was going to be good. Dark Run launches the reader into a shady future where bickering governments are working to extend their reach across space while criminals and outlaws try to make a quick buck under their noses and out on the frontiers. Fans of Firefly will be instantly at home on the Keiko, captained by the roguish Ichabod Drift and his crew of misfits. Right down to the rattling engine in need of need parts, the book has a definite atmosphere about it.

The crew is the usual mix of specialist roles, featuring an egomaniac pilot, a hulking thug, and a nervous tech-head. Brooks manages to make them archetypal without being stereotypical, we get the chance to drop into some of their heads throughout the book and find out more of their background. None of them come across so well as Captain Drift though, his chapters show a lot more personality in the writing and he comes across as a very engaging character.

The reader follows this motley crew along a desperate adventure taking them across space, deep underground half terraformed worlds, and into the heart of asteroid bases. Nerve racking smuggling runs, shadowy meetings and audacious cons are the order of business as the crew is challenged like never before, relationships are put to the test and more than one crew member’s hidden past is pulled into the light. The book has its share of action and gunfights but the best moments of the story are the times when the crew is working to pull something off and you’re rooting for them to succeed.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
The writing has some witty dialogue and really sells the crew of the Keiko with their banter and arguing. All the characters have their own personality, though some of them could have been developed a bit more. The plot is well laid out and set across a variety of locations that show the time and thought that has been put into them, even if we don’t get to explore any for long. Dark Run is a fast paced smuggler story that delivers all the crooked and devious action you could ask for. This is definitely a must-read for any space adventure fan is perfect for a lazy Saturday and/or Sunday morning read on your favorite park bench or at your local coffee shop.

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The Medusa Chronicles by Alastair Reynolds

The Medusa ChroniclesA collaboration between Science Fiction greats, Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, The Medusa Chronicles picks up the story of Arthur C. Clarke’s A Meeting with Medusa a Nebula Award winning novella published in Playboy in 1971. It takes the story of Howard Falcon, from his shattered aftermath into a new era of humanity, where artificial intelligence, sentient primates and further discoveries of alien indigenous life on Jupiter gradually shape the ideologies of human society over the next thousand years.

Baxter and Reynolds make use of Falcon and the lumbering Jovian cloud dwelling Medusae of Clarke’s story to develop this century spanning narrative. Falcon’s status, unique perspective and physiology as a repaired human, contained within a changing machine body provides a viewpoint that sits alongside others, occasionally in alliance with humans, or machines, or aliens, but always with his own position on the developing political events.
But Falcon is not just an observer. His actions lead to the crises faced across the solar system. These validate the title of the work. This is truly a set of chronicles, as each crucial moment is encapsulated in a mini-book of its own. Falcon understands his role and guilt in this circumstance and this guilt works to shape and change his character over the centuries of his life. The relationships that he clings to and memories of his extended past are selectively used by the authors to motivate his further actions.

Baxter and Reynolds manage to weave in a snapshot of incredible solar system locations. Falcon’s Mars invokes images of Kim Stanley Robinson’s incredible trilogy, you can almost see the footprints of Frank Chalmers and the other Red Mars explorers. Additionally, the scenes in the outer regions of the solar system feel like they might be straight from a seventies science fiction magazine.

However, it is in joining all these elements together that The Medusa Chronicles shows it’s worth. This is classic science fiction in its wrapping, but very modern in relating the complicated consequences. We reach the final crises with little hope of a resolution between the machines and the harsh dictatorship that rules humanity in this war torn future.

Throughout the story, Falcon’s understanding of his extended life and rumination on becoming world weary with such matters over the centuries offers a differentiated perspective to our own condition. What would you give to see the wonders of humanity’s far future as colonies are established across the different planets of our star system? But also, what would it be to witness such things when you also had memories of Earth before its adventures into space colonisation?

The perceived antagonist of the piece is the machine intelligence, Adam. We first meet him as a troubled friend and throughout the story, Adam alternates from invoking the spectre of HAL 9000, to being a protective and advisory presence, much like Asimov’s Giskard or Daneel Olivaw. Amidst this juxtaposition, there is a Matrix quality about Adam’s people – the machines. From one perspective they appear to be a singular mind, with singular purpose, but we learn things are not as simple for them as they appear to be.

Eventually, Baxter and Reynolds resolve the story by invoking themes from Clarke’s other classic work. Howard Falcon’s final ride into the heart of Jupiter with the artificial intelligence, Adam, is comparable Bowman’s journey to the Obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the subsequent resolutions of novels as Clarke continued that series. This final ride has some of the same strengths and weaknesses. We have the same sense of wonder and discovery invoked this time by the vivid and speculative description of what might exist in the heart of our solar system’s greatest gas giant. In a sense, this is a speculation on an inaccessible inner space that we will never likely know as intimately during our lives.

However, the weakness of this ending comes in its resolution of the established politics. Our new discoveries empower a truce through playing bigger cards than everyone else, which feels convenient to the reader. This is something that Clarke did, but has less resonance in today’s complex political landscape. Baxter and Reynolds seem to understand this and try not to tie up every element of the crisis, but the wish fulfillment of Falcon at the end is a similar transition state into higher power and intelligence that we have seen before and since

Opinion:
The Medusa Chronicles is an excellent read, continuing where Clarke left its principle character and expanding his ideas in a way that pays homage but also expresses the gift of the two writers who have chosen to take their pens to this future fiction world.

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Barricade by Jon Wallace

BarricadeThe future vision in Barricade shows a world torn apart by a war fought against humanity and if it’s own artificially created super-humans, known as “Ficials”. In the UK (seemingly along with the rest of the World) the results are pretty catastrophic.

As you can probably imagine once humanity has created these superior beings they’ve looked at the world and the human race and realized that the only way to prevent the complete destruction of the Earth would be to get rid of the plague of people that populate the Planet. Many people object to this mass “culling” and decide they’d rather fight instead.

As a result, most of Britain is a wasteland and the Ficials control the crumbling big cities, Barricaded against the “Reals” – human survivors who live in tribes in the wasteland between cities. Kenstibec is one such Ficial, originally engineered to help build a new world but now a taxi driver in what’s left of the old. We join Kenstibec as he is tasked with delivering a fellow Ficial (one of the “pleasure models”) from Scotland to London, challenging journey by car at the best of times, not to mention after roads are in ruins and the path is largely populated by 10 foot long rats and savage Reals.

I love the way this book has been constructed. Rather than take the obvious route of showing how humans struggle against this stronger, faster and less emotional race we are treated to viewing the book from the perspective of those superhumans. This first person perspective from the anti-hero role is refreshing, contemplative and a great deal of fun.

Fun? actually yes. While suitably dark by its very nature and not hiding the brutality of a post-apocalyptic Britain, Barricade never takes itself too seriously and throughout the novel there is an air of dark comedy about it. I loved this feeling the author imparts and it means reading the book a breeze. When you tie in a fast pace, flawed characters and a quality to the prose you end up with a book that you can fly through without pause for breath.
Action is frequent, frantic and well choreographed – always kept along the edge of realism rather than gung-ho heroics. There are messages to be gained too, like Pratchett though the author is saying these through the medium of comedy and calamity rather than mortality and morbidity.

This perspective works fantastically well, the cold, clinical, emotionless viewpoint a stark contrast to the highly emotional and often disturbed “Reals”. It helps to show how much we rely on our socially defined definitions for everything we do. More importantly it questions what we perceive as “normal” – both emotionally and physically – and how we react when presented with something that is aberrant to our socially constructed definition of the same.

Opinion:

5 Star rating
Four Stars
Barricade is like one of those clever teachers that manage to educate through fun and amusement, more than that though it’s a book that can be enjoyed on many levels. You can just enjoy the ride; the crazily constructed story and crafty characters or you can enjoy the messages it subtly imparts.
Either way it’s a darkly funny journey and one not to be missed.

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School’s Out Forever by Scott K Andrews

schools out foreverSometimes I feel that reading post-apocalyptic tales are less an escape and more training for the future, after all as a race we aren’t doing a great job of preventing this self-destructive outcome. Luckily there is no shortage of literature to teach us about survival in a future wasteland and School’s Out Forever is a Omnibus of such tales which collects School’s out, Operation Motherland and Children’s Crusade along with a short story and extra material – all witnessed through the eyes of children and young adults and centred around St. Marks School for Boys and Girls. These stories are set within the shared universe of the Afterblight Chronicles which at the time of writing includes 10 novels from author who include Simon Spurrier, Rebecca Levene, Jasper Bark, Paul Kane and Al Ewing.

Don’t be mislead though, these aren’t some young adult novels aimed at teenagers, these are adult novels and are written as such (although young adults can enjoy them) that offer a post-disaster story reminiscent of Lord of the Flies – but in my opinion a vastly superior tale and one that offers a much greater sense of immersion. The book also offers a more complete rebellion against authority, the series expanding on this “children survival” idea in the second and third novels. It’s much more grim too, a harsher more realistic vision which doesn’t portray adults in an unrealistic, idyllic manner but those who could be blamed for causing the whole mess in the first place.
In this grim future a virus has devastated the world’s population (an event known as “The Cull”), only those with “o-negative” blood type being immune and it’s these survivors who roam the wastelands, trying to stay alive in small pockets of civilization, while others roam the land taking advantage of this lawless society.

Whenever I hear the words “Shool’s out Forever” I always think of the Alice Cooper classic and the song is pretty apt although the Pink Floyd “Another Brick in the Wall” would equally suit, in fact they both fit perfectly and describe some of the main themes running through the book.

As far as the story goes, relentless would be an understatement, the book doesn’t let up at all, right from the start the action begins and around every corner there is another danger; another life-threatening situation that appears to hold no hope of survival. This energetic pace combines with an inspired story that allows us to examine the mistakes that adults make, and the evils they perpitrate, often with the excuses “for the greater good” or “following orders” – through the eyes of children. This is a harsh world, survival of the fittest or more accurately survival of the most violent often reigns supreme and mercy has been wiped from the post “Cull” vocabulary.

One of the major themes is that of the inevitable changes to a person’s psyche as they are forced (or encouraged) to kill to survive, or indeed to protect loved ones and rather than shrug off these acts as we so often see in many heroic figures. We are given a much more realistic view and the effects that such acts would take. Of course we also have the theme of war and violence itself, which rather than the naïve (and in this situation fatalistic) view “war, what is good for?”, takes a much more pragmatic approach; that sometimes it’s necessary to protect oneself and others, kill or be killed but also where does one then draw that faint line between fighting to protect and fighting for revenge or even fighting “because you can”.

There is a gritty realism to the story, each character is drawn in shades of grey with rich personalities and it’s the decisions they make that drive the story forward. Andrews manages to sucker the reader in completely and it’s impossible not to feel connected to this rag-tag band of children, which makes it all the more shocking when one of them dies. This is something which happens with an alarming regularity, including some of the major characters and often in an abrupt, realistic and heart-stopping fashion. The principal protagonists are teenager Lee and young adult Jane, the majority of the series is narrated in the first person from their perspectives and I loved this close, personal feeling that the style imparts. It really does feel like these characters are speaking directly to the reader. The switch between the perspectives of these two characters is handled very well and helps to break up the plot.

Opinion:

5 Star rating
Five Stars

It’s been a long time since I was so hooked into a book as I have been with School’s out Forever, I really haven’t been able to put it down and read through all three novels and the extra material in little time at all (over the course of 3 evenings). I can honestly say that the end of the book is very emotional, I’d defy anyone not to be moved and although the ending was somewhat inevitable it still shocked; I couldn’t have imagined a more powerful finale. There is also a rather brilliant introduction by the editor David Moore and I agree with everything he says.
School’s Out Forever is one of the most memorable, most impressively written pieces of fiction I have ever had the fortune to read, simply inspired.

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The Fireman by Joe Hill

The firemanJoe Hill is one of those authors who improves with each new book and The Fireman is nothing short of spectacular.

A highly contagious spore has begun to spread across the World, a pandemic that see’s people break out in beautiful gold and black marks before spontaneously self-combusting. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, more commonly known as Dragonscale infects millions in a short space of time with blazes breaking out everywhere. No one is safe; there is no antidote and seemingly no cure.

School nurse Harper Grayson see’s the virus first-hand when someone combusts right outside her window in the school yard. She begins working at the local hospital however before too long she finds out that not only is she pregnant but also she’s infected. She’s also just met the Fireman. Harpers greatest threat however comes not from the infection but from those who are not infected and will do anything they can to remain that way. Society becomes split into those who are (Burners) and those who are not (yet) infected.

The Fireman has already been picked up by Fox to be turned into a blockbuster film and I can see why, it’s as infectious as Dragonscale. I was hooked by the time I’d finished the first chapter. The characters are interesting with realistic imperfections and foibles while also making reasonable decisions about the situations they find themselves in. This is a book that takes its role seriously and yet lifts itself above the morbid atmosphere of many post-apocalyptic tales with a wry humor and a stoicism of human spirit. Some people react badly as we would expect them to but they don’t quite descend into the depths of eating each other (though a few come close to acts as bad). There is however the ever impending sense of doom and a wonderfully dark atmosphere.

While many books follow the big picture of the apocalypse, The Fireman is all about the microcosmic struggle of Harper and those around her, it’s a focused, individual view and much more gripping and personable as a result.
There are enough pop culture references to ground the book in reality which further heightens the sense of dread but again acts of kindness and healthier relationships between some of the characters manage to avoid tipping the balance. The story itself is gripping, intelligent and thoughtful, never gratuitous. Dealing with fear and the abuse of power with acts of kindness is one of the big messages of the book, as is human resilience in the face of adversity. It’s also about love, life, loss and grief along with how people can do the worst things with the best, misguided intentions and how others will blindly follow and trust someone else so they don’t have to make the hard decisions themselves. The idea of using a tool such as religion as a method of guiding or coercing others also features prominently towards the end of the book as does the effect of religious fever and the human ability to overcome sensible restraint or reliable decision-making.

Opinion:

5 Star rating

Five Stars
The Fireman is an exceptional novel, it’s moving and thoughtful, drawing you in and not letting you go right up to the superb ending. It’s an engaging, emotional journey written by a master of their craft.

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Creation Machine by Andrew Bannister

Creation Machine by Andrew BannisterThe far future tale is one of redemption, of the futility of rebelling against the system, and the nature of power. It’s told through two main perspectives: Fleare is an (ex) soldier of the anti-establishment Society other, and the heavily augmented scion of a corporation forming that establishment.

Alameche is the second, the devious, despicable right hand man to The Patriarch, the overambitious dictator of a upstart inner system empire named The People’s Democratic Republic of Taussich. Alameche isn’t even an anti-hero, and by all accounts should be utterly unlikeable. However Bannister somehow infuses him with enough pathos and gallows humour to make his chapters some of the most gripping. Imaginative torture and Machiavellian scheming are Alameche’s modus operandi as he attempts to negotiate the complex power-play of the increasingly ambitious Patriarch.

Fleare enjoys the company of a motley band of supporting characters that definitely stand on their own merits too. Without giving too much away, one of the highlights of the novel is her relationship with Muz, who is introduced very enigmatically as a borderline psychotic collection of floating nanobots. Obviously there’s more to it, and him, and the drip feed of information on his and Fleare’s origin story, told through a number of flashback sequences, is wonderfully, tragically original. The same is true for Alameche’s associates, the rotund, jocular, giant-fighting-eel breeder Garamande in particular being a highlight and a wonderful counterpoint to Alameche’s savage puritanism.

Both his and Fleare’s perspectives orbit an ancient macguffin that has some kind of connection to the creation of The Spin, which means it likely has the power to destroy it too. The central conceit is interesting enough but it’s the issue that spawn from it – the power struggle on Taussich, Fleare’s tracking down of her old buddies, and more – that really propel the action and pages forward. The chronology leaps around too, with flashback chapters dealing with the two main characters’ turbulent pasts and filling in the context behind the forces flexing their wings in the Spin. As with any good space opera there are plenty of nebulous and intersectional politics in play, but The Creation Machine is really a very personal story, the characters flirting with events that influence the macrocosm.

Although it has no voice, the aforementioned Spin is a brilliant character in its own right. The enigmatic, man-made galaxy is a fascinating setting, full of improbable but plausible phenomena, such as a mess of elaborate orbits described as showing their creators sense of humour. The innermost group of planets is The Cordern, then the Inner Spin ‘which wrapped most of the way round the Cordern like a thick skin’. Up against the exposed side of the spin is the Rotate, and encircling the whole lot is the Outer Spin. The system is filled with inventive details like the Highway, a star-lane that intersects it all when the elaborate orbits occasionally slot into place, and the Catastrophe Curve, formed when two planes collided and ‘competing gravity fields smeared the debris out over an arched tendril half a million kilometers long’. Bannister orients the reader briefly at the beginning of each chapter, with evocative, brief descriptions of the current setting’s improbable features, leaving plenty to the imagination without distracting from the following action.

Towards the end of the book, things also take a rather cyberpunk twist which adds a pleasantly unexpected layer. Initially it’s a jarring change of pace, but the way the character known as Rudi and his ‘world’ becomes reintegrated into the grander scheme of things is a fascinating tie up. His sections do however feel slightly underdeveloped, as though Bannister didn’t quite have the time or confidence to let his exploits truly blossom, but they’re welcome segments and give a tantalizing look at the possible breadth to Bannister’s new universe, and his writing.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
By focusing on some very specific elements such as the mechanics of the Spin and blending in some cyberpunk influences, the novel carves enough space for itself in an increasingly self-referential genre. There are small lore and background gaps in The Creation Machine that does not overly detract but will need to be address in the apparently stand-alone sequel. With the creation of the Spin, Taussich’s proto-empire and the position it finds itself in at the close of the book, the stage is set for an incendiary follow up, so it’ll be interesting to see if a sequel that doesn’t follow on directly can capitalize on that, either way, there’s enough great action, surprisingly morbid humor and great characters to make The Creation Machine an enjoyable and accessible ‘soft’ sci-fi come space opera.

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