The Soldier – Neal Asher

First of the series Rise of the Jain, this is a hardcore science fiction novel set in the author’s Polity universe.

For reasons that are unclear – at least to me – there is a chunk of outer space where ancient but powerful Jain technology is trapped and guarded to keep the rest of the universe safe.

Chief jailer is a half human, half artificial intelligence, Orlandine. The Dragon – an alien intelligence with some quirky human characteristics – is also on guard. The par of them don’t trust one another. The situation is not helped by the plan Orlandine is working on to destroy the Jain technology.

The prador (alien, crab-like race) and human authorities are keeping watch from a distance.

The entrapped alien technology stirs into more active life, and somewhere out there a rogue trader delivers a package that is about to stir the pot, big time.

This is super-charged space opera, with mind boggling technology and awesome death and destruction thrown about like confetti. The plot is slippery, but it’s there and full of twists if you can keep up with the competing interests and factions. The author pours his heart and soul into describing this universe, with relentless detail that may sometimes overwhelm. In short, it can be a slog. The question for the reader is whether the effort is worth making. Sadly, for me it’s not. The characters don’t engage me quite enough, and the complexity of the narrative doesn’t quite work. I wish it were otherwise, as I could do with a chunky science-fiction series to dig into.

The Seventh Sacrament – David Hewson

This is fifth of the Nic Costa series of crime thrillers set in Rome. It’s been a while since I read the previous novel, and I’m really not sure why I stopped. Well, this was a cracking episode that means it probably won’t be too long before I continue with the next in order.

The central focus this time is about an academic, obsessed with Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, a Roman cult or religion centered that was snuffed out when the emperor Constantine accepted Christianity in the early 4th century. Giorgio Bramante, the academic, lost his son in the underground tunnels and caverns beneath the city that host many altars to that old religion. At the time of the disappearance, the son was with a group of Bramante’s students, but when they turned up they claimed to have no knowledge of the boy’s whereabouts. Bramante kills one of the students and is imprisoned for murder. Fast forward to his release from jail, and enter Nic Costa and his crew because something bad is about to happen.

First, it’s notable that Costa’s role in this is not as predominant as you might expect.

Second, the other characters are a good mix and the interaction is entertaining and engrossing.

Third, the city backdrop and the Mithraic details are well executed. So far as I can tell, the material is firmly rooted in fact even if propping up a work of fiction.

Fourth, the tension builds up very nicely, with just enough twists in the closing quarter of the book to keep you guessing.

In short, highly recommended. But to get the best out of it, do yourself a favor and work your way through the series, starting with A Season for the Dead.

Memory and Books

I think upstream I mentioned that I was reading books by Michael Connelly (and others) that I had read before. For example, last week I finished reading Connelly’s The Poet. I know I’ve read it before because, apart from anything else, I remembered who the baddie was. The strange (or funny) aspect was that I could not remember anything else. No line of dialog, nor scene presented as something I had experienced before. It must be 20+ years since I read the book, and I guess my memory for that type of stuff isn’t as good as I thought it was.

On the other hand, when I moved on to Connelly’s The Narrows, I also couldn’t remember anything about it. Not a thing. Eventually, I realized why. A completely different reason. Although I loved Connelly’s books, 20 years back I wasn’t keeping up to date with new stuff other than by regularly browsing the local book shops. (Remember them?) I couldn’t remember any of it because I hadn’t read it before. I missed it. Wow. Maybe there are more Connelly books that I missed.

Nowadays, given the online marketing that publishers do, I doubt I’ll miss another Connelly book. I wonder if that’s a good or a bad thing.

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.