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Review: The Hawk Eternal by David Gemmell

The Hawk Eternal: Second Book of The Hawk Eternal: Second Book of “the Hawk Queen” by David Gemmell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Entertaining sequel to Ironhand’s Daughter with more timey-wimey shenanigans. Sigarni features as a very minor character in this one as it is set several generations prior to that book, using characters and settings mentioned fleetingly there.

It tells a similar story, too: the Lowlanders are replaced by ersatz Vikings who are building an empire for themselves. They are portrayed in a way that doesn’t generate much sympathy for them and their backstory is dealt with far too perfunctorily to make them feel like real characters.

That’s really a problem across the whole book, to be honest: the main storyline and characters are portrayed in a way that makes you are about them and become invested in them, but the time travel and alt-universe subplots – which are really important to how the story is constructed – feel rushed and incomplete and I didn’t understand why such crucial elements were being dealt with so abruptly.

But the adventure story, the growth of people over the several years of this story, as well as the sense of community you get from the characters, are vintage Gemmell.

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Review: Thunderball by Ian Fleming

Thunderball (James Bond, #9)Thunderball by Ian Fleming
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know that this was written in an effort to generate a movie adventure for Bond (which is why Never Say Never Again resembles this and the Eon film of the same name so much – it was written by Fleming’s story collaborator) and it feels a lot more cinematic in tone. I think it also has the most time spent with the villains of the piece and their plot since From Russia With Love which was another book that Mr Fleming seemed to have a lot of fun writing.

The plot is simple: a terrorist organisation made up of career criminals (who easily trump Auric Goldfinger’s deplorable bunch) has stolen two atomic warheads and is holding western civilisation to ransom with them. It’s up to Bond and Felix Leiter (I wish they had more cases together) to stop them.

It’s full of great scenes: Bond’s first meal after returning from the health farm is a beautiful piece that mocks the food porn of previous books (“He took an Energen roll, sliced it carefully – they are apt to crumble – and reached for the black treacle”); the whole health farm sequence is blackly comic as well; Bond’s card game with Largo; the introduction of SPECTRE; the fantastic underwater scenes in Nassau (not quite as good as those in Live And Let Die, and the battle at the climax are all great set pieces.

It is, of course, filled with the trademark sexism, racism and conservatism of the time but Fleming seems to come off a bit better than many of his contemporaries, I find: while the women are all sophisticated and gorgeous, Bond actually listens to them and treats them with respect and enjoys their company. And the authorial inserts seem a little more relaxed and tongue-in-cheek here: Bond’s obsession with his “most selfish car in Britain” seems to come off worse than the “four women in a car” routine which, while out of date in its stereotyping, at least has the virtue of feeling like observational comedy which draws its teeth a little.

A bit saggy around the two-thirds mark (Leiter and Bond searching for the warheads, which feels a little proto-bromantic-road-trip as well as being sponsored by the Nassau Board of Tourism) but the rest of the book is great fun.

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A Book Ian Likes: 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke

For many years, Arthur C. Clarke held the belief that a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey was not only unnecessary but also impossible. So it was a surprise for many when 2010: Odyssey Two was published. Certainly it was an unneeded sequel, but it manages to extend and explain many of the events of the original film/ book in a way that made sense to people who had been baffled by them (although if you read the book things were perfectly clear). It was also an interesting sequel because it took its cues from the film rather than the book to avoid confusion and it also took into account several advances in culture and science that had occurred since 1968. This retroactive editing of events was something that Clarke was going to do a lot of in the further sequels – so much so that by the fourth entry in this series the first novel actually took place ten years later than 2001!

The main character in this sequel is Heywood Floyd, who is asked to take part in a mission to Jupiter to recover data from the Discovery which has been floating dormant in space since Dave Bowman disappeared through the Monolith a decade earlier. Also on the mission is HAL 9000’s programmer who is tasked with bringing HAL back online. Of course, things don’t go as simply as they would hope…

My recent reread of this novel reminded me again of why Clarke was regarded as a giant in the field of speculative literature. The ideas illuminating it are breathtaking. His grasp on what could be possible and the implications of it are clever, insightful and wry. He also has a firm grasp of character and what drives people to succeed.

2010 is a great novel about space exploration. The crew of the Leonov (the ship sent to Jupiter) are a crew of individuals, all at the peak of their professions, but who each live complex inner lives and who all have their own personalities (I’d take them over the crew of any Enterprise any day). But for a lot of the story they only provide the backdrop for events happening elsewhere. However, when they are front and centre the book is a great read. In fact, I will make the controversial call that this is a better read than its parent volume.

Which leads to a confession: I love the first half of this book with the power of a thousand suns. I really like the second half a lot, too, but the first half with its great characters, premise, build-up and journey across the solar system is everything I love about Science Fiction. One of my favourite moments in this novel – hell, one of my favourite moments in all of literature! – is Chapter 11, wherein we hear the sole survivor of the doomed mission to Europa transmitting news of their astonishing find to the universe knowing that he will be dead before anyone even hears it. The second half begins with a look at what Dave Bowman gets up to when he returns through the Monolith. However, while it’s interesting and well-written – and very cleverly incorporates the end of the first book into its storyline – the jolt from “exciting space story” to “leisurely travelogue across 21st Century earth from Dave Bowman’s perspective” is a blow that the story takes too long to recover from. It’s not badly done, but it lacks the “oomph” of the first sections.

Also slightly jarring are the divergences from the original text. I read the book prior to seeing the film and while I love the film, I prefer the book. The divergent moments do not detract from the text but they do make you scratch your head a little. As stated above they exist only because of the relentless march of progress in the real world between the two books which render some details inaccurate or just wrong, but they really don’t distract you too much unless you are the sort of person that gets caught up in continuity porn.

However, I love this book: when I first read it back in 1984, it pressed all my buttons and was one of the first books that I’d read that was actually a current novel rather than being something that had been published in the (to me, distant) past. I was also starting to read reviews and was letting my reading of them guide my choices rather than stuff I found in bookshops that had a cool blurb on the back cover. Along with Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge this marked a point in my life when I was starting to engage with my book choices as a critical reader rather than a consumer.

It’s also a stonking good read: it interacts with its world far more than its predecessor did – although Star Wars had happened between these two books – and engages with popular culture of the time far more also: there are several references to George Lucas’ movies as well as Star Trek, Alien and The Lord Of The Rings (book, not film) as well as the requisite classical references that every writer of the time needed to include to justify their membership in refined culture (I appear to sneer but I genuinely miss novels that reference “high” art as a way of throwing their own ideas into some sort of relief).

There are also reference to its previous incarnations: there are several passages lifted wholesale from 2001 that are used as exposition or to throw the reader back into the themes of that book/ film/ cultural artefact. It’s a neat trick, and a useful form of shorthand that reminds you of what Clarke is trying to achieve. It’s used sparingly here and doesn’t outstay its welcome like it does in future volumes.

In conclusion, this is not my favourite novel by Sir Arthur (that honour belongs to The Songs Of Distant Earth), but it’s the one that shows his gifts as a storyteller and explainer of ideas most brilliantly. And, like I said, it’s a cracking read.

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Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff

Old SchoolOld School by Tobias Wolff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantastic book about growing up and accepting that your identity isn’t as special as you thought. And with a far more interesting protagonist than Holden bloody Caulfield.

Seriously, I wanted to have gone to this school even though they would have flunked me out: my inner class warrior (never far from the surface, it seems) sneers at the rich boys of this novel and their petty rebellions but I love the environment that these students are in: it’s a school that values learning and knowledge (the two don’t always go together) but also places some high standards of behaviour upon their students.

There’s also the lesson, repeatedly given in this book, that sacrifices and compromises to your principles often have consequences that you might not want or expect. It also begs the question, “Is the fall worth it?” Mr Wolff doesn’t appear to know either, but he seems to have a better idea of what form an answer might take than a lot of other people.

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Review: Ironhand’s Daughter by David Gemmell

Ironhand's Daughter (The Hawk Queen)Ironhand’s Daughter by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a lesser-known book by Mr Gemmell, it seems, which is unfortunate because it is pretty good. It’s also the rare time that he has a female protagonist. I know it seems like tokenism these days but it was a pretty rare thing to do even just twenty years ago. The story is filled with what we’d consider to be cliches these days – which is great because it shows how much the field has developed – but it at least tries to push some boundaries by also including a black character (who doesn’t get killed!) and a character with dwarfism (but more on him later).

To start with, Sigarni is an interesting character: Gemmell spells this out for early on when she complain about behaving like a man in regards to her relationships but being called out for it differently to a male character. There are several other instances in which Sigarni – and others – realises that it would be easier for her to acquiesce to a male character, but in true Gemmell style she refuses to do it in any way that would compromise what she wants to achieve. And – eventually – she comes to be trusted, if not fully accepted by the other characters. However, it’s interesting to note that she has a lot of the same character arcs and moments that Gemmell gives his male protagonists (although the “underworld trip” taken by these characters as a growth activity is a little too obviously an object lesson rather than the regular “leveling up” that we’re used to).

Of course, she also gets accepted because it’s the way of her people to judge people on the strength of their deeds. In this book we have Gemmell giving another pass on his Magical Celts(tm) characters. They live in the mountains, have a social system based around clans and are oppressed by “outlanders.” Obviously they are more Scottish than Celtic, but the same rules apply. It’s going to be a few more books before we get the Rigante, but we can see another step Gemmell takes on the road to creating them. And they’re great characters but Gemmell still uses broad strokes rather than details for his backgrounds. At least, though, we have a couple of sympathetic voices on the side of the villains: for once they aren’t all bad and it’s great to see some balance and nuance taking place in the conflicts between the characters,something that has been missing possibly since Legend.

My biggest problem with this story is the character of Ballistar. He already starts behind the 8-ball because of his dwarfism and the mistrust it has engendered towards him by other members of his community. However, he has friends who care about him, skills that give him value to his town and he gains respect through his work and his deeds (unfortunately he’s also the character that seems to be used whenever a plot point needs to be explained). So it comes as a disappointment to the reader that a character who has overcome the problems dealt him by a capricious universe opts to take an easy way out. I get that other readers may feel differently and they are welcome to.

Other than that this is an enjoyable read that sets up the sequel easily and contains clues to what happens in it. It telegraphs the timey-wimey shenanigans of the sequel very smoothly but can also be read as a standalone novel quite easily.

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Review: For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming

For Your Eyes Only (James Bond #8)For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like the idea of short stories about Bond and you really get the impression in a a couple of them that Mr Fleming is really trying to stretch himself as a writer and a storyteller, which I love seeing authors doing. But he really only hits the mark in ‘Quantum Of Solace’ which is a brilliant contrast to Bond’s regular sort of tale and is a great short story to boot. Unfortunately, the rest of them are “only” pretty good at best, although they each contain some great character moments or set pieces (the climax of ‘For Your Eyes Only’ and the slow burn of ‘The Hildebrand Rarity,’ for example), they occasionally feel like scenes from novels that didn’t quite come off – especially ‘Risico’ which requires an astonishing amount of exposition to bring the reader up to speed before the story moves on properly.

However, these minor faults aside, it’s nice to see the format still being played with at this late point in the series.

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Review: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Catch 22Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Probably the most famous of the post-WW2 novels called a “post-war classic,” this is the story of an Air Force base on a small island in the Mediterranean. The main character is Yossarian who is sick of flying combat missions – or rather, of having the required number of combat missions increased by his superiors.

The style is very disciplined and tight but the situation could probably best be described as “Kafka meets Ionesco.” The story appears to ramble across its own timeline but only requires the reader to pay attention as everything does eventually coalesce into a beautiful whole by the end. It’s worth reading just for the dialogue: hearing Milo explain the labyrinthine ins and outs of his all-consuming syndicate (of which we all have a share) is at first amusing before it becomes amoral and monstrous. And that’s a situation we have across so many of the characters and their stories: they start off funny or incompetent or petty before we realise that they are, in fact, something else entirely.

The only fault with this book is probably that it has become so influential that other writers have mastered its style and theme and structure so well that it has become a victim of its own success. Just keep reminding yourself of Isaac Newton standing on the shoulders of giants, though, and enjoy the whole experience.

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Review: The First Chronicles Of Druss The Legend by David Gemmell

The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend (Drenai Tales, #6)The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A return to form as we get a possibly unnecessary story about the life of Druss before the events of Legend. It does get a bit silly in places (the whole Snaga subplot and the pirate battle, for instance) but the growth of Druss as a character over time is developed carefully and believably (thank you, Lion Of Macedon).

Good fun, but more a case of Mr Gemmell flexing his muscles rather than pushing himself.

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Review: Of Time And Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

Of Time and StarsOf Time and Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After a while I started to notice a pattern in many of these stories: framing device, really cool idea expounded clearly and elegantly, completed by a humorous punchline that completely deflates the neatness of the tale’s execution. I think I prefer Sir Arthur’s longer works, although “The Nine Billion Names Of God,” “Security Check” and “The Sentinel” are old favourites of mine.

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Review: Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

Goldfinger (James Bond, #7)Goldfinger by Ian Fleming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The villain of this thriller is an eccentric tycoon with a dodgy haircut and a bizarre tan. He has a penchant for golf, beautiful women and an obsession with money. His plan is to topple the might of the United States. And he has the backing of the Russian government and a basketful of deplorable underworld figures to help him on his way. His undoing is Pussy.

It’s a ridiculous plot.




In all seriousness, the first two-thirds of this seventh outing for Bond are fantastic: Bond’s campaign against the mercurial Goldfinger are terrific and reveal sides to the secret agent that we haven’t seen before, as well as giving us glimpses into his inner life that are shrewd and revealing. Unfortunately, once we get to the scenes where Bond becomes aware of what Goldfinger is up to, and we meet his cohorts in his plan, it just veers off into a cartoon and becomes silly. Add to the mix some unpleasant – even for the time – racism and sexism and this stops it being fun, or even thrilling and makes it feel like a parody of past stories.

I hope Mr Fleming makes Bond great again in the next book.

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