The Eleventh Gate – Nancy Kress

This space opera adventure takes place at a time in the future when Earth is a barren ruin, and the star-faring Humans have gone far and wide across the universe thanks to a series of “gates” that permit rapid (faster than speed-of-light) progress between points. Nobody knows who created the gates, or how, but that doesn’t stop them being put to use. Two ruling dynasties are established, trading and commerce blossoms, and all seems good. On the surface.

Into this picture comes one man’s obsession with trying to transcend his existence, and some political maneuvering in each of the dynasties. All of which is shaken up by the appearance of a new gate. What lies beyond?

This is a well told story of society at war; of scheming, plotting, and backstabbing as well as crimes to suit the scale of the universe. If you like space opera, this is worthy of your attention. It’s more of the thoughtful type rather than crash-bang-boom, but it’s richer for that because the author knows how to deliver the story and keep you interested without too much need to resort to violence as the spice of choice. Although Nancy Kress is a leading name in the genre, this is the first of her books I have read. I expect to read more.

Billy Boyle – James R. Benn

Billy Boyle comes from an Irish American Boston family. With a father in the police force, Billy follows that career choice, only for Pearl Harbor to mess up his (relatively) safe life. Well utilized family connections result in the young man’s posting to the UK as part of Eisenhower’s extended staff. From there, an assignment to utilize his police experience at an English country house where the Allies and some Norwegian expats, including the king, are working to overthrow the Nazi regime. Boyle’s investigation soon becomes much more deadly than anything he’s faced before his deployment overseas.

The prose, told from Boyle’s perspective, fairly rattles along, managing to sprinkle several cultural clash moments into the more serious business of murder and espionage. While that character is reasonably well drawn, the supporting cast – perhaps inevitably – are sourced from cardboard. However, Britain in that time of the war is a good backdrop, nicely described, and the plot doesn’t overextend itself.

In short, it’s a pleasant adventure with the main attraction being the main character. The mix of military history and detective novel is fresh and enticing. If there’s something missing it’s the mysterious star quality that the writing just doesn’t have. There are sharply observed moments about war, death, and the futility of it all. But somehow or other, they all too quickly fade and we are back in the mundane and the ordinary. Perhaps that’s the point.

This is a well loved series, though right now I’m unsure about whether I’ll go any further with it. Other readers in the family – Hello Lori! – were much more enthusiastic. So, do try it out for yourself.

The Rhythm Section – Mark Burnell

Most of Stephanie Patrick’s family dies in a plane crash. She descends into a personal hell, ending up as a working girl in Soho, London. Then an investigative reporter tells her the plane crash was no accident, but a terrorist attack. The book tracks her somewhat erratic journey from being collateral damage to a weapon of revenge.

On the plus side, the central character is interesting and challenging. Some of her behavior stretched credulity, but on the whole she made the book. The rest is populated by stereotypical cardboard characters and nothing you haven’t seen before. The backdrops are incidental. But, the pacing is good and there’s a fair old build up of tension.

Overall: not bad. As this was (I think) the author’s first outing, it may be worth looking at seeing if his later books were more mature.

Fun fact: the book has been made into a film. If IMDB is any guide, don’t waste your time watching it.

The Ruin of Kings – Jenn Lyons

Warning: minor plot spoilers ahead!

This is the best fantasy I have read for a while, but it’s no easy read. Why? Well, characters have more than one name. Also, when people die, they can be brought back to life. And, if that weren’t enough for you, there’s at least one successful shapeshifter, several less than friendly nations who might or might not be ready for war, an unhealthy does of racism, souls that are enslaved, several magical amulets, a magical sword, and a gathering of demons and so-called gods fighting it out for power. (Quite how this power is to be attained and maintained is a topic of some misdirection and discussion.) So, there’s a lot to keep track of.

Th story, so far as you need to know, is about an adopted orphan (Kihrin) who – surprise! – may not be the powerless orphan he seems to be. But is he a hero or a villain? Is he destined to save the world or destroy it?

The novel has an amazing energy about it, and that energy can drain you as you follow along, especially with the incredible leaps of fame, fortune, and plot that the author weaves – skillfully it must be said – into the mix. I was exhausted when I finished it. I’m unsure if I have the stamina for the others in the series! I am sure, however, any fan of fantasy fiction will enjoy the book. This is a chunky, meaty slab of entertainment.

Peace – Garry Disher

Quite simply, a cracking piece of (crime) fiction being the second in the series featuring exiled policeman Paul Hirschhausen. (My review of the first in the series is here.)

This time around our hero is getting ready for Christmas, meaning he’s been persuaded to be the small town’s Santa and to ride in on a horse. If that weren’t enough, his round of routine checks is becoming ever greater, and he could have done without one of the locals trying to drive her way into the local pub.

Then things turn nasty.

What you get here is sharply observed writing with a superb backdrop, a smart central character, and excellent plotting and pacing. In short, this is a must read. (But do start with Bitter Wash Road first.)

A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine

Now this was a science fiction novel I enjoyed.

The novel is a space opera, much in the style of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, featuring an ambassador to the Teixcalaanli capital, who is thrust into something of a crisis. First, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare’s predecessor died in mysterious circumstances. The ambassador suspects murder. Second, it appears the empire is getting ready to subsume the ambassador’s home station into the Empire regardless of any opposition. Third, she has a wee secret of her own that could make all the difference – for good or bad.

So, courtly intrigues are on display along with a reasonable mix of some standard ideas and fresh perspectives. For example, there is an AI controlled city, but here we get to look at some of the less well examined issues that might arise from such supposed ideal arrangements.

The other reason to enjoy the book is that there is an abundance of strong female characters. All are well drawn , interesting, and have their part to play in the action.

There are some sequences where the writing seems to phase out of the plot and threaten to go off on an unnecessary tangent. But these are rare and easy enough to get through. Another way of looking at these is that the author was trying to make a point and it went right over my head!

Overall, a satisfying and enjoyable read. Recommended.

A Minute to Midnight – David Baldacci

This is one of the Atlee Pine series, featuring the duly named FBI Special Agent and her adventures. Her own past, however, is the source of much angst: her twin sister was kidnapped several years ago and Ms Pine always has at least one eye out on the possibility of finding out who the perpetrator was and hunting that person down.

In this book, Pine is given some personal time after somewhat overstepping the boundaries of professional behavior while making an arrest. Cue another opportunity to investigate the taking of her sister.

So, Pine goes back to her once home town and stirs up trouble investigates matters. Cue chaos and action.

Baldacci is a great writer, but doesn’t always deliver the quality to match his skill. This time around I would say he gets quite close to the mark. Sure, some of the scenarios are formulaic, and sometimes the suspension of disbelief required is on the higher levels. But, the story gets going and pulls you along. The characterizations may be somewhat thin, but the narrative is enthralling and delivers a real page-turning experience.

In short, one of Baldacci’s decent books.


The Other People – C J Tudor

This is a little cracker. The starting point is when a father sees his daughter in another car, calling “Daddy”. The strange thing is that the girl is supposed to be dead. That’s as much as I’ll reveal as this is a book with a plot unravelling that you simply have to experience. One critic likened it to a Stephen King book which is a good measure and a great compliment. And well deserved.

This is a terrific thriller with plenty of tension, delivered brilliantly. It’s a little unusual in places and you will need to suspend your disbelief at certain key moments, but overall it’s well worth it.

The Shadow of What Was Lost – James Islington

A stonking big fantasy that in its physical manifestation will serve you well as a doorstop. But as a piece of literature? For me, it failed big time.

The story is a grand sweeping tale – a young member of the Gifted (super powered individuals operating under certain restrictions) finds out he has more than his fair share of abilities, triggering a series of bloody events. Into the mix there is another youngster whose life is linked to this Gifted. And both are going to face a danger from a source long thought extinguished.

So, swords, sorcery, and all that stuff. But the characters didn’t draw me in, I found the writing heavy going and often boring, and the whole thing dragged.

One to avoid.


Adventures in Venice

I am a long term reader of Donna Leon’s excellent Commissario Brunetti series, set in Venice, but fell behind a bit. This was my binge reading effort to catch up. Glad I did it. These are (from left to right) numbers 27, 28, and 29 in the series. You can read them on their own, but if you are at all interested in intelligent crime fiction, I recommend starting with the first – Death at la Fenice.

  • The Temptation of Forgiveness: Brunetti is asked to do something about the son of a friend of his wife’s who may be using drugs. Some time later, the boy’s father is found unconscious at the foot of a bridge. The investigation goes in various directions and our daring detective discovers – again – that crime is sometimes driven by the purest of intentions.
  • Unto Us a Son is Given: Brunetti’s father-in-law tells him about a mutual friend who may be about to make a terrible mistake all for the sake of love. Cue one of Brunetti’s best tales, with several outstanding passages of writing delivering finely honed observations on love, life, and death. Outstanding in a field of high quality.
  • Trace Elements: Brunetti is called to the hospice to hear a dying woman talk about ‘bad money’ and her deceased husband. Once Brunetti checks and finds out the husband was a field worker for a company responsible for checking the cleanliness of the city’s water supply and that he died in a hit-and-run incident, his investigative juices are flowing freely. In this particular case, the apparent difference between justice and the operation of the Italian legal system are all too clearly on show.

Fun fact: the books in the series are worldwide bestsellers, translated into many foreign languages, but not Italian! Why?

From this interview:

Q: Have you been asked by the Italians to get them translated?

Leon: Yes, all of the Italian publishers would kill to have them. I don’t want to be famous. I am spotted on the street by German, Austrian, French, Danish, everything… at least 3 or 4 time a day, and it’s always very nice and always very respectful; but I don’t like it. And the people in my neighborhood know that I am the American who lives opposite Nando and above Angelo Costantini and it would just change the tenor of my life. The unfortunate thing is that it has somehow percolated into the Italian Press that I am afraid to have my books published because the Italians may be offended by what I say about Italy. But, I am not afraid, if people don’t like the books, read another book, don’t read it, don’t finish it, give it somebody, throw it away.