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Review: Winter Warriors by David Gemmell

Winter Warriors (Drenai Tales, #8)Winter Warriors by David Gemmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Seriously, if you’re after an introduction to the way Mr Gemmell writes you really couldn’t go past this one: it’s pretty much a textbook example of everything that’s great about his writing with very few of the flaws you find in some of his other books. It has an exciting story, characters that make you feel complex emotions, some continuity porn (but not enough that you feel out of your depth) and he mixes his newer theme of friendship between comrades at arms despite background differences with some of his older ideas like the complexity of choices and how they can affect the larger world. There’s very little timey-wimey-ness in this book too, which is a relief after the last few stories.

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Review: You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

You Only Live Twice (James Bond, #12)You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something I noticed about this was that it was a very obviously padded tale about Bond avenging the murder of Tracy in the last book: the first half is the usual travel/ food porn of the series but amped up to 11. I mean its great, especially the chapters that detail the state of Bond after the events of the last book, but so much of it really has little to do with the story besides provide some exotic window-dressing for the climax, which is excellent, by the way.

It bothers me a little more here because in other books this sort of stuff has been germane to the story or the atmosphere – the first half of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was witty and wry, with the excitement coming from the battle of wits being fought between Bond and Blofeld before it suddenly took a twist and became an action adventure: here we have Mr Fleming justifying his research and giving us an amusing and slightly-more-than-a-bit patronising portrayal of the Japanese culture. Not to mention Dikko Henderson, the head of the Japanese division of the Australian secret service who I was waiting on to call everybody Bruce to avoid confusion.

A better story would have had Bond discover that Blofeld was hiding out in Japan and being sent by M to do a proper job before it all gets tangled up in international law (something M has a surprising tendency to do) or defying M’s wishes and making his own way out to finish the job. I mean, I’m touched that M doesn’t want to fire Bond for becoming dangerously incompetent at his job but it stretches the story a little too much for my liking when the level of coincidence required for this plot to function comes into play.

Great beginning, great ending, ordinary middle bit. Loads of fun.

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Review: 2061: Odyssey 3 by Arthur C. Clarke

2061: Odyssey Three (Space Odyssey, #3)2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book a lot but only as a continuation of a great story rather than for itself. It relies on sidetracks, infodumps and a lot of goodwill from the reader to succeed. There’s a lot to love in it, but there’s also a lot that feels like retreads of overly familiar themes that Sir Arthur had already written for books that he didn’t finish.

It lacks the grandeur that both its predecessors had. It feels a slightly more literary novel, with a lot of interesting characters but there aren’t many who contribute a lot to the plot: you could take out nearly half of the characters and still have roughly the same novel.

But it reads well and feels great so you barely notice the lack of soul.

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Review: Dark Moon by David Gemmell

Dark MoonDark Moon by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very tight and well-paced epic told over only one volume. It lacks bloat and tells its tale economically.

The characters are well-differentiated and have realistic motives and histories. Dace/ Tarantio start off as an intriguing pair but having their origin explained away as a result of childhood trauma feels a bit pat and (given the number of similar books written about the same time about multiple personalities and repressed memories) pandering to popular tastes. I did enjoy the possibility of future stories that was left open by the conclusion of this story though. Karis came across as a totally believable character: tough as nails but with a softer side that didn’t feel two-dimensional or patronising. Other characters were equally well-written, especially Duvodas and the dilemmas faced by him with his vow of pacifism and the circumstances that lead him to break that, and Duke Albreck who I felt was only a few shades away from being a villain in some other books – the idea of a character who imposes a wall between themselves and people who could make them vulnerable is pretty much the theme of this book and it spills out into other books after this. It’s just that in later books these characters are more likely to be split down the middle of heroes and villains whereas previously they were more likely to be the villain.

I had mixed feelings about the healing of Shira: in part because of the whole “handicapped person can only live as a whole person” idea isn’t really played out here: she’s accepted that her leg was healed badly after her accident and doesn’t let it affect her life except to make her falling in love with Duvodas more consequential to them both. I really didn’t feel that it added anything to the book except to highlight how fab the Oltor Prime was. And her fate felt a bit fridge-like, to be honest.

The worldbuilding is great, too: most of Mr Gemmell’s books have had a generic alt-medieval setting with some mental and occult powers added as a magical element. This is a rare outing where he gives us fantastical creatures with their own cultures and histories and while it feels a little tentative in places, it’s great fun to read about intelligent monsters with cultures of their own, as well as being a pleasure to not have to deal with elves and goblins again.

In summary, this is a rare singleton from Gemmell. There are clues to further stories and developments for these characters but we never got them. Part of me is disappointed but I’m always happy when a story finishes and I want to hear more about the characters: it means the author has done their job properly.

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Review: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (James Bond, #11)On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one is probably the best novel in the series. It is, of course, the “one where Bond gets married” but it has a lot more going for it than that. It begins a few months after the events of Thunderball with Bond becoming disillusioned with the state of his career and the uses he is being put to and even considering resigning… but he quickly gets over it once he discovers where Blofeld is hanging out.

The story is fast and funny, with a dash of excitement leavened with plenty of comedy as Bond sets out fooling Blofeld and an entire Swiss resort into believing that he is an expert on heraldry. It’s a sequence matched only by the health resort section of Thunderball: dark and witty with an undercurrent of danger that only becomes a more conventional thriller once Bond realises that he’s been rumbled and has to escape, which then becomes a brilliant game of cat-and-mouse as he makes his way back to London, helped by his future wife, Tracy.

Tracy herself is an interesting character: Bond appears to “rescue” her from a near-suicidal depression and becomes enamoured of this side of her personality, seeing her as someone who makes him a better person as well as someone that he can “save” for the rest of his life. It’s a patronising and dangerous attitude that he takes and I’m not sure of its worth as a portrayal of a person with a mental illness – given that this book is of a similar vintage to The Bell Jar – but Mr Fleming does a reasonable job of depicting the circumstances and behaviour that might lead a person to believe that their life has no worth to themselves and he does take the time to note that her recovery might not be permanent, which was quite a sensitive approach for the time.

The plot by Blofeld seems a bit silly but it is an interesting mix of high- and low-tech that we often see in the headlines these days, mixed also with a dash of biological warfare. Rereading these, I often get the impression that Fleming was way ahead of his time in a lot of things.

This is, like I said, probably the best in the series: it’s fun, well-researched (the heraldry sections are hilarious) and moves really fast. It also has a lot of continuity porn for followers of the series but not enough that you get bogged down in details. Fleming was always a confident writer but he’s firing on all cylinders here and the reader gets the reward.

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Review: The Songs Of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs Of Distant EarthThe Songs Of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Probably my favourite novel by Sir Arthur. Like so many great novels its power comes from the way it presents the inner lives of its characters and places them in their world.

The characters of this novel are all defined by one event: the destruction of the Earth several centuries ago. The natives of the idyllic planet Thalassa owe their existence to the knowledge of the Earth’s impending demise and the crew of the Magellan are marked by their being the last people to leave the planet before it was destroyed. They’ve stopped at Thalassa to refurbish the ice shield of their starship and we witness the clash of cultures that ensues. Well, less a clash, more of the misstep you get when you and someone else arrive at a door at the same time and you hover and demur over who goes through first.

A lot of readers are frustrated by the lack of conflict in many of Clarke’s books. He’s one of the genres most optimistic authors and his portrayal here of two different cultures united by their common humanity and heritage – as well as the knowledge that they shall soon have dozens of light years separating them – shows a positive way forward. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems, but they are resolved by people being sensible and rational.

But where the novel excels is in its working out of a plausible future. Despite the explosion of the Sun, Clarke shows an amazing future for a humanity scattered across a large chunk of the galaxy. His technological advances are logical (he also cites some articles, books and papers in his afterword as an exercise for the reader) and exciting – some ideas are dazzling and get you thrilled and scared about the possibilities they present.

Of course he also gets plenty of things wrong, also: he makes the classic blunder of putting dates on some events of his future history and we’ve already passed a couple of them by. He also makes some (in the light of how it turned out) quaint predictions about when extra-solar planets get discovered and how many are found. But that’s par for the course in SF. And Clarke himself was always amused by how his futures were overtaken or underguessed by reality.

An all-round classic for this reader: the picture of a future where things move mostly forward and improve the lot of humanity coupled with some beautiful prose and “big-picture” revelations about where we could be headed and could do when we get there.

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Review: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

The Blue SwordThe Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mostly enjoyable but the pace stumbles a little bit in lots of places and the beginning feels a little stilted compared to the rest of the book. You can argue that it fits with Harry’s character at that point but I don’t think that carries any real weight: the writing and pacing feels a little unsure of itself until we get to the training montage.

It’s a very ’80s novel: Harry takes uppers during her training so she can spend more time learning things and suffers nothing worse than needing to sleep a lot when she comes down. She also has a fabulous horse that seems almost human in its behaviour, as well as making friends with a giant cat. But these are sins that this book shares with any number of similar stories from the same period, rather like we can’t read a YA book these days that doesn’t use high school as a metaphor for the society that the protagonist is trying to bring down. And of course, thanks to Avatar, we’re all now suspicious of “white saviours” who join a different culture, master their esoteric skills in no time flat and save the world. Which is a pity because Harry is quite a bit more than that in a lot of ways.

But she’s a great character and she has some excellent adventures in a really vivid world that oozes with artlessly placed clues about its history and people. It’s a real shame that this didn’t spawn more sequels than it did.

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Review: The Legend Of Deathwalker by David Gemmell

The Legend of Deathwalker (Drenai Tales, #7)The Legend of Deathwalker by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Through a series of misadventures, Druss and Sieben find themselves taking part in a siege while a Nadir tribesman is searching for something to help his people unite under one banner. This is similar in theme to Quest For Lost Heroes – a quest that starts off as one thing then turns into something else that appears to be trivial – but much more uplifting.

Something that I’ve noticed in these more recent books is how Mr Gemmell has changed the way he writes about friendship. In his early books he spoke a lot about the bonds that form between people – almost entirely men, admittedly – and how they form and make us take responsibility for each other in times of crisis. In the last few books (this one was published in 1996) I’ve noticed that he’s started to show friendship growing and developing after and making people feel obligated to help each other. It’s mostly in the friendship between Druss and Sieben, two very different men with some very different views on things, but who understand that they share some core values. This sharing of similarities between friends and opponents is what drives this book and it reinforces the ideas of Legend, which was the rare fantasy epic that had no villains, just protagonists defending their own existence.

While I don’t think it’s as significant a book as, say, Lion Of Macedon, the stakes that Druss eventually discovers that he’s fighting for render this book as being thought-provoking and highlighting the author’s own clearly mixed feelings about war and conflict. That said, it’s an exciting adventure story that invites you to think harder about its content.

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Review: The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming

The Spy Who Loved Me (James Bond, #10)The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ten books in and Mr Fleming is still finding new ways to write about Bond. This has long been a favourite but this time through I felt that it was more like a reworked short story combined with an unfinished novel: Vivienne is an interesting character and her story in the first half reads like a typical “bildungsroman” of the 60s – and in Thunderball we got an inkling that Fleming was interested/ intrigued/ baffled by the rising “youth culture” so this may have been a way of responding/ cashing in on that. It’s a novel of parts, interestingly structured and told well.

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Review: The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke

Sentinel/the TrSentinel/the Tr by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pretty good collection of stories: only a couple of them have the “zinger” punchline that annoyed me in Of Time And Stars and it’s used effectively in one of them. There’s only one story that relies on some sort of esoteric science knowledge as well, which is great too. Because most of these are longer stories Sir Arthur takes his time and unfolds things carefully and to great effect: the rambling that plagues his later novels (idea!idea!idea!…somethingvaguelyplotty…idea!) and stories hasn’t taken root here and we get some nice character and setting laid out for us here.

“Rescue Mission,” “A Meeting With Medusa” and “The Wind From The Sun” are probably my favourites here as they set out the great Clarke-ian themes (How We Can Use Science For The Betterment Of Mankind And His Environment) simply and effectively. Something I noticed with this collection is how similar Clarke’s style is to that of Isaac Asimov, although he does turn a poetic phrase much better than the good doctor.

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