As those of you who follow me on Twitter, Facebook or through various references in the magazine may know, I recently moved into a new flat. Luckily, my flatmate is as geeky about her literature as I am, so throwing out my burgeoning collection of SF and Fantasy novels wasn’t as traumatic an experience as I thought it might be, but it has left me with a few lingering collections about my personal hoarding habits. For instance, I found myself sifting through my collection while I was packing up my previous flat, putting books that I haven’t read for years into the ‘keep’ pile rather than the ‘charity shop’, ‘friends’ or ’50 per cent coffee’ ones that occupied my old living room for a good few weeks. My excuse? Well, I’m sure that I might want to read them again some day.
It’s not entirely out of the realms of possibility. I generally get through three to four books a week (as I said, I’m somewhat geeky about literature) including the ones I review for SciFiNow every month, so having a ready supply of novels on-hand is a must. In my bag at the moment, for instance, in various stages of completion I have Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Anthony Fucilla’s Quantum Chronicles In The Eleventh Dimension, Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, Andrew McGahan’s Wonders Of A Godless World and Robert J Sawyer’s Watch.
However, the time has come where I need to justify why I’m keeping all of these to myself, or possibly to my flatmate as to why I definitely need yet another new bookcase where a chest of drawers could go. As a result, this is the first part of a feature that should run over the next few weeks, where I’m going to go through the science fiction and fantasy novels on my shelves and give micro-reviews. If any of you have read the books that I’m covering, as well, feel free to give yours in the comments area. Or replicate this on your own blogs with your own bookcases.
It should probably be noted as well that these are my personal reviews in this capacity as a running column, rather than the magazine’s official opinion.
Without further ado, the first book case:
Regarded in many circles as the precursor to Brave New World and 1984, Zamyatin’s ‘We’ presents many of the same concepts found in these books to creative elan within his realtively short run of pages. For a translation, the prose runs eloquently and affectingly, creating an addictive quality to the rhythm of Zamyatin’s words that proves impossible to ignore. D-503 isn’t the most sympathetic character in literature by any means, but buttressed by a strong supporting cast in O-90, I-330 and R-13, his eventual fate is still shocking. A true, if often overlooked, classic of science fiction.
While Philip K Dick has written many classic works of science fiction, and is rightly regarded as one of the finest imaginations to have worked within the genre, I have a confession to make – I don’t rate him incredibly highly as a writer, something I don’t seem to be alone in either. In particular, I just don’t think that Androids is the incredible work of art that many seem to. The prose is clunky, the characters distinctly unlikeable and the plot too poorly placed to gain anything more than an average score from me. Yes, there are points where it is compelling, but given the confusing ending and the lack of coherent characterisation and structure to a lot of the events described, I don’t believe that it deserves the plaudits heaped upon it.
Popularised once again by the recent Will Smith vehicle, Richard Matheson’s most famous novel has been adapted three times for film, but the most powerful story remains the literary original. Following Robert Neville, the book was famous for being one of the first to attempt to scientifically explain vampirism, and in the context of the plot, it really does work. The short story format allows Matheson to keep the action focused and the pace consistent, while some of the language and construction is among the most beautiful I’ve read in the genre. The last lines, in which the title is explained, stick to memory particularly – if you haven’t read this yet, you’re missing out on an important antecedent for much horror-tinged modern fiction.
I’m a big fan of Richard Morgan’s science fiction work. Altered Carbon remains one of my favourite noir-flavoured cyberpunk novels, along with its sequels, and both Black Man and Market Forces were great. His first foray into fantasy, however, falls rather flat. It’s unique for having a gay protagonist in the form of Ringil, but outside of that, there’s little to be excited about in the form of originality, as it soon conforms to a tired old series of events like so much adventure-based fantasy. I prefer Morgan’s SF work, while The Steel Remains is competently written, it failed to elicit anything other than a shrug.
Terry Brooks is famous for his fantasy work, but many may not be aware of his urban fantasy series, The Word And The Void, a trilogy of books that I’ll come to later in this micro review column. His Shannara series, a Tolkienesque high fantasy saga, is what made him famous however, and with the Genesis Of Shannara trilogy kicked off in Armageddon’s Children, he seeks to link the two. Set in the future, the forces of the Void have destroyed civilisation, and the world now resembles the dreams of John Ross. Brooks has a chance here to deliver something markedly different, and while always imaginative, his work still retains a feeling of been-here-before. It’s eminently readable and like most of his output, designed to be a part of a series, of course, and it’s never too poor to put down, but it fails to gain that spark needed to truly set it apart.
In the final instalment (don’t ask me where the second went, I don’t know), Brooks comes full circle, setting the stage for the world that will eventually play host to the events of The Sword Of Shannara and its prequels. The final two Knights Of The Word, Logan Tom and Angel Perez, are nearing the completion of their missions while Findo Gask thinks that he is about to strike the killing blow. While the book is well written as always, it inexplicably fails to excite in the same manner that the previous two have, even the plodding Elves Of Cintra. The characters haven’t really evolved in any unpredictable ways, and you can more or less write down what will happen after the first few chapters and be generally accurate. Its saving grace is the final destruction of the old world, a poignant and chilling reminder that events, as much as we struggle against them, rarely unfold in the way that we engineer them to.
Departing from high fantasy and sword-and-sorcery adventures, Terry Brooks launched his acclaimed Word And Void series with Running With The Demon, which first introduces us to John Ross, Nest Freemark and Hopewell, Illinois. Running With The Demon, in opposition to much of the ‘urban fantasy’ that markets itself as such these days, focuses on a young girl rather than an adult, giving the novel touches of teen angst and layers of metaphor that are often missing from more recent novels. On the other hand, its frequent shifting of plotlines belies the hand of an experienced author who is unaccustomed to this form. The ending as well, rather than being the climactic showdown it should be, comes across as a little empty after the fact. Brooks wins points for effectively establishing his world and characters, but loses them for not tying his narrative together efficiently enough.
The sequel to Running With The Demon sets the action several years ahead, after Nest is left living on her own in Hopewell, her career in tatters due to the legacy bequeathed to her by her father and half-considering leaving it all behind. That is, until the Lady sends an emissary to send a message – John Ross is in danger of being turned by the Void, and it’s up to her to stop it, or he will be killed. Brooks seems much more at home in this instalment, portraying his deeply troubled characters with a gracefulness that I haven’t seen replicated in a long time within urban fantasy. The backdrop of Seattle lends itself well to the proceedings, while the central romance of the novel is skilfully, and tragically, written to effect.
The final chapter of The Word And The Void is some of Brooks’s most mature writing to date, cleverly keeping its labyrinthine plot elements in check before bringing them all together in a satisfying and touching conclusion. Again, this is set years on from the last book, and John Ross has been given his most important task yet – to capture and tame a wild magic that could be the turning point in the battle against the Void, which has sent one of its most deadly demons to capture it at all cost. Covering issues such as drug addiction and relapse, single parenthood and isolation, Angel Fire East is a novel that can be re-read again and again, each time finding something different to like about it.
Read the other entries in this series: