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I consume a lot of media. I've decided to write about it here sometimes. Reviews and such. Note the links on the right for other parts of the site, including our photo gallery.

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Sun, 01 Aug 2010

Book review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Neptune's Pride

How's this for genre-busting: a steampunk alternate-history dungeon-crawl adventure story...with zombies!

To summarise - in this universe, around the time of the American civil war an accident involving the Boneshaker (a giant drilling machine) that was built by the husband of the main character (Briar Wilkes) released a poisonous gas from beneath the earth's crust into Seattle, turning most of the inhabitants into flesh-craving zombies. During the mad rush to escape, the father of the main character (Briar Wilkes) committed a compassionate act that saved many lives but cost his own. Seventeen years on he is a hero to those still living inside the walled-up city, and a pariah to those on the outside. This, plus the fact that her husband created the Boneshaker, hasn't made life any easier for the widowed Briar or her teenage son Zeke, who still live on the outskirts of Seattle.

Zeke decides to sneak into the city to try to find the truth about his long-lost father, Leviticus Blue. Learning where he has gone, Briar enlists the help of a rogue zepplin captain to make her way inside after her son. The action proceeds in fast and furious fashion as mother and son try to find one another in the Blighted city, dodging zombies, criminals and (for real!) mad scientists. Along the way they meet a raft of great characters such as an exoskeleton-clad adventurer, an elderly half-Indian survivalist princess and a steam-powered cyborg barmaid. It's totally ridiculous, but great fun from start to finish.

This is a ripping good yarn, as they said back in the day. An absolute hoot to read, and it gets a recommendation from me. I cannot wait for more stories in this setting. Steam-powered airship battles ahoy!

Sat, 12 Jun 2010

Book review: Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter

Galaxy in Flames

This is the third book in the Horus Heresy series, continuing the action in False Gods, and my least favourite of the series to date. Not to say that it was bad: this one simply "bigs it up" too much by trying to cover too many points of view. In fairness, story events are now moving faster and faster, but the book suffers a bit from "this happened, then this happened, then this happened". A couple of bits are glossed over, for example some loyalist Luna Wolves drove off Angron in battle? How in the heck did they manage to see him off, when the last book had him shrugging off a mountain falling on his head?

This book continues to develop and humanise the characters we've grown to enjoy - before killing many of them in spectacular fashion. Some characters (e.g. Erebus) are shunted aside for new ones to take the limelight (e.g. Iacton Cruze). I do wonder if this might prove to be a weakness of the sheer scale of this series. The story simply covers too much ground to follow any character for too long. Still, it keeps things interesting...would have been nice to see that prat Lucius get his, but this is sadly never to be.

This book does reasonably well as a standalone, but you really need to have read the first two to get the most out of the character interactions. A lot of loose ends are wrapped up in this book, and done quite well. Naturally, there are any number of new threads to follow. The descriptions of people, cities, and technology was interesting and vivid. The military action was handled well, moving back and forth between large- and small-scale combat. We get to see the proper birth of the Imperial Cult, and the deification of the Emperor takes hold. I found the ending a little bitter, but it couldn't have happened any other way - this story is a tragedy, after all.

Overall a solid read, but missing a certain "something".

Mon, 24 May 2010

Book review: False Gods by Graham McNeill

False Gods

This is the second book in the Horus Heresy series, following on from Horus Rising. It picks up the action almost immediately where the first book left off, cutting the need for any laborious back-story (and leaving more room for action). All the main characters are struggling to come to terms with experiencing the effects of Chaos first-hand by throwing themselves into training, study or substance abuse.

An aside: I'm having trouble crediting that no-one in the Imperium, with the possible exception of the Emperor, knows about the Chaos powers. Every other race and culture that they crush seems to be aware of the dangers of the Warp. Then again, there's been plenty of indication so far that this information might be being suppressed. The plot thickens!

This book covers more of Horus' seduction by Chaos into betraying the Emperor and undertaking the Heresy. The action is well-paced and efficiently written, with no parts feeling like filler. There are more and more indications that the Great Crusade, at Horus' command, is less about unification than conquest and slaughter - the inmates are running the asylum now, and it ain't pretty. We're heading to Istvaan by the end, and (knowing the general story a little already) I'm starting to dread what's going to happen there.

The character development is this book is extremely well done. The increasingly-cynical Astartes marine Loken becomes more and more suspicious of his comrade's motives. The scientist orator Kyril Sinderman is shaken out of his rationalist worldview by first-hand glimpses of Chaos. The drunken poet Ignace sinks further into despair as he senses the darkening of the Great Crusade's purpose. Me, I want to read more about Angron - the World Eaters primarch seems like a stark raving nutbar! Hard to see how any rational person would put him in charge of tens of thousands of trained killers, but he sounds like great fun to write about.

On the other hand, I felt that the character of Horus wasn't particularly well-portrayed. He comes across as impulsive and (at times) a bit like a petulant child - hardly the charismatic near-god I expected. He seems to slip into betrayal with barely a second thought (although in fairness, I suppose that the Chaos Gods are supposed to be masters of deception). In addition, he seems to convince an awful lot of the supporting cast to betray the Emperor they have venerated for two centuries with hardly a twitch. Again, probably a reflection of how well-regarded Horus is; though it would have been nice to hear a bit more of the persuasive speech that he must have used.

It's a measure of this series' length and depth that it took two whole books for Horus to come out and talk about betrayal openly (in the final pages). That's not a bad thing though - this story really needs a proper telling. For my money, not quite as strong as the first but overall, another worthwhile read.

Sat, 22 May 2010

Book review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl

Set in future Thailand where oil scarcity has brought the global economy to its knees and GM plagues have wiped put most of the world's species, this is a completely convincing story and one of the best science-fiction novels that I've read. It's also grim as hell.

Given the scarcity of energy following the oil collapse, everything is now measured in terms of calories. Biotechnology rules, energy-intensive activities are powered by GM elephants, and global transportation is carried out using dirigibles and clipper ships. The title role is Emiko, a genetically-engineered human. She is a New Person - manufactured and grown to serve. Engineered to be faster and more capable than any regular human, she is crippled by a built-in stuttering in her movement, and her mental conditioning as a dutiful slave since birth.

As with any fiction, it's the characters that make a story and (in addition to Emiko) they are all excellent. You can't help barracking for almost everyone, even when they are working at cross purposes. Everyone is trying to help themselves, but we since we know their motivations and fears we can forgive them almost anything. Oddly enough, the only "virtuous" character here is a jackbooted government thug. You'll have to read for yourself to see how this works. No one is completely innocent, with the possible exception of the horribly abused Windup Girl. New People are considered soulless in this setting, justifying the most awful treatment of Emiko by the society she exists in.

This book is a just-about perfect example of science fiction; the setting is strange but plausible. The mix of low- and high-tech produces a great sense of future shock. Parts of the book are horrifying - there are some violent moments, including two scenes of sexual assault. However, it's not gratuitous - they serve the story. Don't let this put you off a superb read.

Bottom line: definitely in the running for science fiction novel of 2009/2010. Strongly recommended, even to non-sci-fi fans.

Thu, 06 May 2010

Book review: Horus Rising by Dan Abnett

Horus Rising

The Warhammer 40,000 universe is a bit like Superman or Batman - it's been around for so long, being told and re-told by so many authors that it's hard to get a handle on the definitive feel of the place. For my money, Ian Watson nailed it with his bizarrely gothic Inquisition War series (written in the early ninties). I've read a few other Games Workshop novels over the years, but they never really hooked me. Too much variation in tone and content, maybe, given the variety of authors that have tackled it.

The big 40K story we've all wanted to see get the proper literary treatment is the Horus Heresy. It's the big one - the Emperor, the Great Crusade, the seduction of Horus by Chaos and his betrayal...it's the seminal bit of canon, the 40K backstory. To my great surprise, I came back to the GW hobby after a couple of years away to find they've given it the proper treatment. Horus Rising is the first book in the Horus Heresy series, currently up to eleven books and counting by various authors. I'm curious to see if the strategy of using a wide variety of authors works out.

That said, Dan Abnett has written a strong start to the series. It's an exciting and action-packed bit of sci-fi, and fleshes out the early Imperium quite well. We get to learn a little about the philosophy and values of the Astartes (Space Marines) conquering the galaxy of behalf of the Emperor of mankind. Speaking of whom; I am extremely curious to see how this character is written (if at all). He is the most powerful human psyker to ever live, and reputedly close to being an omnipotent god - how do you write this, while reconciling the whole backstabbing thing by Horus?

Interestingly, the first book gives something of an impression that He took steps that would see a betrayal more likely (by putting Horus in charge despite resentment by some of the other Primarchs, then mysteriously ducking off back the Earth with no explanation or further contact). Setting up a late-stage reveal for "it was all part of the grand plan"? I'm keen to find out.

From a 40K fandom point of view, it was great to read a little about some of the characters important to the universe in supporting roles: Abaddon, Erebus and Lucius, not to mention Horus and the other Primarchs. It was also interesting to observe what is presumably the seeds of the future Ecclesiarchy, as well as the contrast with the original Imperium being strongly anti-religious (in fact outlawing the worship of gods).

Unless you're a 40K fan, it would be hard to give this book a really solid recommendation. It's a good read and a decent story, but it's mostly just setting up characters and scenery for the following books. Leaves you hanging, somewhat. Still, it's very entertaining, and gets a solid 7 out of 10. I'm keen to look at more of Dan Abnett's work.

Bottom line: a must-read if you love Warhammer 40K (and you're up for another dozen of these afterwards).

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