Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Reading list - 2018

Fallen Dragon - Peter F. Hamilton

I dimly remembered the central theme of this as asymmetric sci-fi warfare - an invading armoured-up corporation against an advanced but non-military planet - which is a topic I'm interested in from a gaming perspective, making it worth a re-read, but my memory was flawed.

I enjoyed it more than I think I did the first time I read it - there are sympathetic characters on both sides of the central conflict, a broad and interesting background beyond that and the whole thing comes to a satisfying if slightly too neat conclusion. While the deux ex machina in the hands of the underdogs deflates the main plot there are interesting cameos from the modified humans of the Santa Chico colony and the glimpse at space opera in the broader background is tempting if rather neglected.

There are definite hints of author wish fulfilment in the portrayal of the main character Lawrence's early life (which I seem to remember as a bit of a sub-theme of Hamilton's work - less creepy here though than in Misspent Youth), in a way this slightly counts against the novel while also being central to the character's development.

Original, imaginative but not quite the story-telling mastery promised by the blurb.

Great Maria - Cecelia Holland

An enjoyable and interesting telling of the Norman conquest of Sicily - but not. Maria's husband is clearly modelled on Robert Guiscard, but is called Richard, and the places and battles have different names than the real events, however the overall narrative matches the broad sweep of the history. It seemed an odd choice to me to be so parallel but different, and slightly bugged me all through an otherwise great book.

The narrator's perspective is oddly compelling - as with Hild she is often forced to await the outcome of battles which will reshape her life from afar, and as the wife of a knight her power or influence waxes and wanes strongly according to the men who are present or absent at the time. Her marriage is a passionate, abusive, ambitious partnership which is very much presented at face value, making for a novel which is very hard to pigeonhole. Well worth a read.

Worlds of Arthur - Guy Halsall

A slightly odd and disjointed book but well worth your time if you're interested in post-Roman Britain. The oddness is because large sections of it are written as a "how to rebut theories on King Arthur" guide, which on the one hand is comprehensive and informative but on the other is in places repetitive and perhaps at times covers what may be trivial to the intended audience.

It is though a very good guide to the patchy but occasionally deep information we have about the period, enlivened with some of the author's (perhaps not entirely conventional) theories.

Places in the Darkness - Chris Brookmyre

I've enjoyed Brookmyre's work since Quite Ugly One Morning and was interested to see he'd moved into sci-fi. Places in the Darkness lives up to its blurb ("gripping" and "ingenious" amongst it). In many ways it's Brookmyre's gruesome murder investigation stock in trade, but the sci-fi element helps him move from "look at the world we've made for ourselves" onto the world we might be making. It doesn't offer anything astonishing but does give an interesting take on the near-ish future in a way that resonates and provokes a slightly worried "hummm". Recommended.

Losing Small Wars - Frank Ledwidge

Not my usual cup of tea, but the blurb caught my eye. As someone with a vague interest in military stuff I know that the British army is (was?) considered good at small wars, however its deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan clearly didn't go as hoped or expected. Ledwidge relentlessly fills in the blanks, and it was particularly interesting to see operations I remember being reported on the news being retold from the other side of the lens. The blame is placed fairly squarely at the feet of the planners and strategists (or lack thereof) - there are some glimmers of hope within the conclusion but generally the sense is that the institution will just roll on. Fascinating, convincing, depressing.

Some choice quotes:

"The problem may be summed up thus: the old ways of 'cracking on' and then muddling through, using a combination of wishful thinking, old myths and 'initiative' are (or should be) long gone".

"... the lie has been given to the seductive myth of 'punching above our weight' militarily. As anyone even remotely familiar with boxing will readily acknowledge, punching above one's weight is to be avoided if at all possible. There is no virtue in entering a fight at a disadvantage. Heroic, outnumbered actions are not primarily accounts of courage; they are often testaments to inadequate contingency planning and poor strategy"

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

Sort of a space opera Firefly - the ship's crew are oddballs rather than outlaws and there are aliens, but otherwise a very similar feel.

If there's a downside to this book it's that it feels like the start of a TV series - there is a main story but it mainly wants you to meet and become involved with the characters, however you're not quite sure what you're signing up for. I'm interested in where their stories will go, but I'm not quite sure I'm interested enough to invest in an open-ended or at least as-yet unfinished series. And the novel's not quite strong enough to stand on its own, probably because that's not Chambers' goal. I'll keep an eye on where this goes, but probably not pick up the next in the meantime.

Broken Homes - Ben Aaronovitch

More great stuff from Aaronovitch and Peter Grant. Totally convincing worldbuilding, the invented elements fit seamlessly into real London and the magical world has the right amount of limitation to allow for the suspension of disbelief. OK, except for perhaps the ending which is perhaps unconvincing while delivering a surprising punch. It feels like too easy a choice, but I'll be reading more of these.

The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway

I was recommended this as a "light read", which is a bit of a misnomer, although it is short. Truly an impressive book, it invites you in to share the old man's obsession and ordeal. It's hard to comment further without getting into details of the tale so I'll end by saying it's downbeat, uplifting and, for a novel that's so self-contained, intriguing.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Screenplay) - J.K. Rowling

My family are invested enough into the Harry Potter universe to make reading this screenplay worthwhile, but I'd far rather it was a novel. For one thing the stage direction is so detailed and yet so narrow that the resulting impression is far less evocative, and the format is thin enough to leave you feeling short changed.

It's refreshing to be in a different time and on a different continent, and Newt's character and occupation are interesting, but it's no where near as compelling as the original stories.

Ignorant Armies - David Pringle (ed.)

The early Warhammer anthologies are a bit of a mixed bag but this is probably the strongest of those I've read in recent years. Usually I mention the better stories but this is good enough to only really have one weak one - Apprentice Luck - with the others all having something to recommend them. Two are worth a specific mention - The Star Boat because, while a few points of the plot seem a bit off, the idea is a strong one which fires the imagination and is wrapped up suitably by its ending, and The Laughter of Dark Gods as it gives a very good idea of the early conception of a chaos champion's journey. Well worth it for Warhammer enthusiasts, a bit average otherwise.

King Hereafter - Dorothy Dunnett

This retelling of an interesting area of history - early 11th Century Scotland - and a well-respected author seemed like a good bet and mostly it was, however the third quarter really dragged.

If, as was the case for me, all you know about Macbeth is the Shakespeare version, this book will be a revelation. Suffice to say his reign was a lot longer and more successful than I thought, and hence for at least the first half it completely avoided the problem central to historical novels that you know how it's going to turn out. Mix in Dunnett's unconventional theory that Macbeth and Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney are one and the same and the book (bar that third quarter) becomes a mix of viking yarn and inter-kingdom plotting that combine into an informative, enjoyable and occasionally tense read. The slower chunk, where we find out about Macbeth's pilgrimage to Rome and watch him trying to bond his disparate kingdom into a whole, rather let the remainder down - while important to the overall story and adding poignancy to the ending it's really very stodgy.

As an aside it really emphasises how little we know about even major figures of the time - Macbeth and Thorfinn - that Dunnett's theory can be unconventional rather than downright wrong. Given the sparsity of the known facts it always impresses me when someone can craft such a detailed, convincing story within the period; that it both fits with what we know while at the same time being so different from the conventional narrative is even more impressive.

Daughter of the Empire - Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts

I thought I'd re-read this as a "chicken soup" book while struggling with the middle section of King Hereafter, and because having heard that it's based around an old Tékumel campaign I wondered how it would read now I know a bit more about that world. It was the good, easy read that I was hoping for, spoiled slightly by a vague memory of how things would turn out.

The social and political conflicts which are central to the plot still strike me as far more interesting than the standard D&D fare of titles such as Magician, however reading it from a gaming viewpoint I find it hard to see how it would work as a game rather than as a novel since prospective players would need to know far more than is reasonable about the setting to really take part.

The setting also seemed not so much Tékumel influenced but rather by the 1980s interest with all things Japanese - although there are some themes from the former such as the value and scarcity of metal; loyalties owed to house, clan and god; slavery and the non-human cho-ja.

I'd recommend it to those who haven't read the series as a good, early example of a now overstocked genre.

Moon Tiger - Penelope Lively

Another book that left me feeling I should read more proper literature. The story itself is fairly sparse but its central device, of retelling the same scene from the distinct and discordant perspectives of the participants, is cleverly done. The main characters are all sufficiently flawed to provide conflict while being redeemable enough to be believable and to some degree sympathetic. A great insight into the human condition and, in the context of the current times, a reminder that the recent popularity of nostalgia for the mid-20th century is entirely misplaced.

The Ghost Brigades - John Scalzi

Sort of a sequel to Old Man's War - mostly new characters in the same setting. A good read, picking up the psychological side of the Ghost Brigades' creation process and some of the wider questions that the technology raises. The special forces characters are flawed by the nature of their creation, and you also spend time with the viewpoint of Boutin who's pretty much a sociopath, so there's a little to be desired on the character sympathy front.

The weakness in the setting (or perhaps the whole genre) remains - the society is advanced enough to invent new solutions to the problems they are faced with, while also being on a technical par with several other species such that they can have sustained conflict with them. Asking you to consider the implications of some technology while asking you to not think too closely about others gives the whole thing a dissonance which I couldn't quite escape from. Worthwhile but slightly disappointing.

Honour's Knight - Rachel Bach

A slightly weaker sequel to Fortune's Pawn, perfectly readable but not quite up to the mark set by its predecessor. The setting is solid, Devi's place within it is suitably complex and believably plotted, however as the bigger picture of the series emerges it doesn't quite work for me. I can't quite put my finger on why, except that perhaps it's military sci-fi morphing into space opera or something like that. Also, although the various trials and battles are well set up there's never really a feeling of danger despite a few shocks. Still - some good battles, interesting use of the powered armour that's central to Devi's world, nicely varied aliens and some human interest. Good, and I will get the sequel, but not great.

Niccolò Rising - Dorothy Dunnett

I was put off from starting this by my struggles with King Hereafter but I shouldn't have worried. Despite some of the same difficult characteristics as that book - a plethora of often similar names to pick up, and excessively clever plotting by the main character - I found it far easier to digest and enjoy. It's full of convincing period detail and with the tension between the entitled landed gentry and the new, often richer merchant class (which makes the early Renaissance so interesting as a setting) a central part of the background.

The story moves along nicely and covers a lot of ground, both geographically and in development of the main characters. There are a few moments which seem to be necessitated by the plot rather than being convincing in themselves, and the ending I felt to be a bit of a let-down having its eye on the sequel and a new, interesting setting rather than delivering on what had gone before. I will pick up the next in the series, but with less enthusiasm than I expected when still half way through.

Lucifer's Dragon - Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Good-ish cyberpunk. The story is told in two parts, the current-ish founding of New Venice and the future dystopia, the former being slightly the more interesting and readable part. A few areas jarred - the 1998-era descriptions of shiny new PC technology are a bit embarrassing to the modern eye, and there's the occasional overly graphic or disturbing sexual interlude but mostly it's a solid, engaging novel with a slightly too pat, not entirely convincing ending.

An interesting thing, to my perhaps quirky mind, was that the portrayal of combat set around 100 years in the future was far more sci-fi than anything you'd see in Warhammer 40K.

The Meknificent Seven - Pat Mills

The recent death of Carlos Ezquerra prompted me to pick up the origin compilation of the ABC Warriors, a couple of strips of which I'd read when I was young. I'm not sure about this as an art form - the original format of the stories as short strips make for somewhat shallow reading, however there are some nice concepts, some great art and an irreverence which keeps a few of the stories relevant nearly 40 years later.

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