Voyage of the sable  298B5D  1

Following on from the events in The Skinner (see my review) we are back again on Splatterjay. Now the last book left a few loose ends and even though Splatterjay has moved on in the last ten years those ends are immediately obvious. But we are here to follow the construction and the inaugural voyage of the Sable Keech, which, unsurprisingly, brings together the cast of The Skinner as well as a few interesting additions.

Now Asher is kind and clever writer as you don’t need to have read The Skinner in order to understand or enjoy this, but I think you should, so I’m not going to spoil it for you by revealing too much of the background to The Voyage of the Sable Keech. Suffice to say Splatterjay is a very dangerous place to be in that book and it focuses on unfinished business.

This time we focus on Taylor Bloc, a reification, who sets sail on a voyage of resurrection for himself and his fellow Kladite followers. As this is happening Janer is working for a hornet hive mind to stop another hive mind agent from obtaining deadly sprine. And to top it off Erlin upsets a whelkus titanicus causing it to rise from the deep. And that’s not all as the prador, Vrell, turns up in the Prologue and sticks around becoming a target for a much bigger threat.

The wonder in Asher’s writing is how he lays down several threads, like the ones above (though there are more revealing ones), and starts twisting them all together. Even the seemingly superfluous but educationally insightful chapter openings on Splatterjay’s flora and fauna are important pieces in the puzzle.

And Splatterjay and the changes in biology caused by its virus to its evolution is very much an overriding personality in this connected series. On first sight it is a backwards place that doesn’t allow the technology of the Polity to have become widespread, which is why the Sable Keech has to rely on sails, both fabric and living, rather than turbines and grav-motors. But by having world that doesn’t have all the Polity’s technology it makes for a much more exciting and primal tale.

This is every much a tale of survival in a brutal and unforgiving environment. Most of the inhabitants are infected with the Splatterjay virus which bestows long-life and resilience on its host but it will also make dramatic mutations on them if they are injured or near death like morphing a tongue into that of a leaches or replacing a lost head with a leaches mouth.

The theme of life, death and survival are explored from several angles in individual stories that come together on the Sable Keech’s voyage. The hive mind agent that Janar is chasing mission is seemingly to obtain sprine, the only thing that can kill Hoopers, the name of Splatterjay’s humanoid inhabitants, outright. Sprine is also an important part of the world’s burgeoning economy. Erlin continues her struggle with having a long, and maybe immortal life. And the prador, Vrell’s, immediate survival is under-threat from a much bigger enemy.

You can tell that biology, its implications and evolutions, are a passion of Asher’s (and if they aren’t he does a great job of faking it) and what makes this stand out from a run-of-the-mill SF novel to one of mastery is that his characters are dense and weighty, his environment feels like a scientific possibilities and  his storytelling skills keeps everything tight, flowing and gripping.

I’m curious about where he’s going to take the next one, Orbus as I’ve got no idea what he has planned (and no I don’t want to read the blurb to find out ;))

Now, so far, I’ve not mentioned the audio side, which isn’t in anyway any comment on William Gaminara’s reading. In fact it should be seen as a ringing endorsement as he really brought everything to life. He gives all the characters their own voice and inflection. With my favourite the personalities of Sniper when played off against the Warden. Gaminara has in some ways spoiled this series as I’m fixated on listening to him read Orbus to me rather than read it myself. He has definitely added another dimension to Asher’s work and one I greatly enjoy.

The Voyage of Sable Keech is not all plain sailing by any means. You don’t need sickbags, unless you’ve got a weak stomach, just hold on tight and enjoy the ride.

Neal Asher’s new [non Polity]  novelThe Departure (Owner Novel 1) is out on 5 September 2011

Ben aaronovitch rivers of london

London and urban fantasy seems to come up enough for it slowly to becoming a trope (or a cliché depending on your love/tolerance but a cliché that works in my opinion). Not only is London a diverse and internationally recognised city it’s old enough to have a life of its own.

And it’s that heartbeat that powers Aaronovitch’s tale (as all good urban fantasy about London does). This time we get a police procedural mixed with the supernatural as Peter Grant probationary police constable’s career takes a different turn when he comes across a body and a while later comes to the attention of Chief Inspector Nightingale, the last Wizard in England.

Now listening to a book does give you a different feel for it as the reader in your own mind doesn’t get a look in. I have to say that I love being read to and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith encompasses not only Peter Grant but the other characters he voiced along the way. He has a gruff London accent as he read but could easily  sound creepy as he read the dialogue of… oh I’d better not say. But it was very atmospheric especially towards the climax.

There was a point when I was reading that I wondered what the opening had to do with what was going at that point as we seemed to have moved into something unrelated. I didn’t have to wait long. Aaronovitch played me like a fiddle. For a debut (though it’s not his first novel as he’s written a few tie-ins) I’m impressed by not only story which has lots of twists and turns to be compelling and surprising but also the atmosphere and character he injects. Aaronovitch truly captures the spirits of London.

From the opening you’d have to wonder where the rivers part of Rivers of London comes from but Peter and the audience are introduced quite expertly to the power of the Thames and its many children.

By using Grant as a novice magician (it’s better than transferring to the Case Progress Unit) we get to see the revelations that Peter is exposed to as well as seeing him introduce those concepts to his friend and colleague WPC Lesley May who is on bottom of the mundane side of murder investigation.

Aaronovitch packs a lot, but not too much, into his tale. Avoiding cliché and creating new myths of his own. I’ll never look at the Thames quite the same again.

The only negative I can think of is that even though the next one, Moon Over Soho is out I’ve got a wait for a little while until it’s read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith but I have a feeling that it’s going to be worth it.

Skinnerafc thumb

Review in a sentence:

Sci-fi on the high seas exploring long lives, betrayals and sentient sails.

The trouble with having a wide circle of tastes in reading can sometimes feel like working through that moving belt in sushi bar. It’s hard sometimes to resist the new foods right in front of you in order wait for what you’ve had before and loved to come around. Especially when you trust the chef to serve only foods that you’ll like.

Or at least that’s my current excuse for why I’ve been filling my time with new to me authors rather than working my way through author back catalogues. That and last year I got into the silly habit of reading more than one book at a time. It really doesn’t work.

And The Skinner became a victim of that failed multi tasking and in some ways it’s also the solution. This is the first audiobook review I’ve done. But The Skinner isn’t my first audiobook.

What got me into audiobooks was joining the gym last year and needing something to listen to. Music just doesn’t do it for me. But audiobooks fill my mind and keep my going on treadmills and weight machines. Or they did now I’m more likely to listen on breaks and whilst relaxing in the bath.

Anyway, after two goes at getting into The Skinner on paper and failing to get past 149 pages on the second go I found it on Audible a couple of months ago. Now I always have to listen to them and decide if the narrator is absorbing or annoying and William Gaminara is absorbing and perfect for this book.

Partly why he worked for me because of not only the voices he uses but he also gives them accents – the sea captains remind me of gruff Scotts, the mercenaries as Africans – which you may feel is stereotyping but it’s more about encompassing character and attitude. And it adds texture.

But an absorbing reader needs material is what Gaminara has to read at that really makes something worth listening to or not. And the story of The Skinner is multifaceted to say the list. To start with you have Erlin, searching for an ancient sea captain who can teach her a meaning to life, Janer, bringing hornets and their Hive mind to Spatterjay, and Sable Keech, on a vendetta to avenge the events of the past.

Each of these three character are distinct in their backgrounds and their reasons for being on Spatterjay and their connections to the Polity universe.  The Polity is an AI led technologically advanced society. Spatterjay is not part of the Polity but does fall under it’s protection and has it’s own warden AI, which is handy as the alien Prador are about to interfere in Spatterjay affairs.

I can’t decide my favourite thread but I’m torn between that of the warden and Sable Keech but only because the bits that contain the warden and his subminds were fun to listen to especially the fighting banter. Keech being the investigator of the tale is the most active and his explorations give the context to not only the origins of the skinner (as a character) but also the current state of Spatterjay that has remained the same for several hundred years.

Though this story is all about changing the status quo on this brutal world. Asher is clever how he shows this brutality from showing a character having his guts spilled out from a wound opening his stomach only to be walking around as if nothing happened a short time later as well and from de-fleshed fish that swims away quite happily afterwards.

Splatterjay contains a complex virus that not only repairs it’s hosts but also converts them into leech like creatures if they aren’t careful and all the creatures of Splatterjay are susceptible in some way with most carrying the virus.

Now a world filled with character that hard to kill and a character called the skinner you might be able to imagine what could happen. But whatever has happened is in the past but is part of the reaons for Sable Keech’s arrival.

This is very much a book of transformation and survival. And through each of the threads all the main and several of the secondary characters go through their own transformations as they try to survive.

Asher’s skill is not only in creation but using those ideas, even in a book that’s mostly about boats to look into the meaning of life and the potential for humanity as well as using some awesome weapons and technology.

Luckily this only the beginning as The Voyage of the Stable Keech (again read by William Gaminara) carries on from where this one finishes but I have no idea where that ship is sailing mostly because Erlin, Janer and Keech are internally and in some cases external changed by their journey so far and I think Asher has a few more secrets as well as tricks up his sleeve.