Review: Hilldiggers by Neal Asher (Tor)

New cover hilldiggers

I’ve already mentioned elsewhere that Neal Asher is one of my favourite authors but as with any well-loved writer (especially if you are me) then you can approach the next book of theirs that you pick up with a little trepidation.

Not that I worry about Asher over any other author, actually I worry about him less as the main body of work revolves around the Polity universe, which pretty much means that I know that I’m going to be in for a good ride as the Polity is a wonderful playground.

The Skinner was set on the fringes of the Polity’s reach. Hilldiggers has no Polity interaction at all until that is an ambassador is sent whose arrival restarts a conflict between two worlds that have recently been at peace after the death of millions.

One of Asher’s strengths is how he invests time and imagination into the biology of the worlds he creates and the two warring planets, whose inhabitants have their origins as humans (and Polity history) but have both adapted to individual unique environments. And it’s fascinating to read the evolutions of those races.

The other thing that Asher does is set different world views against each other. Like the insect Prador’s society vs the Polity humans in books like Prador Moon. And the conflict between the two planets and their races is fully exploited here.

Hilldiggers shares a connections with later books such as The Skinner as the ambassador they sent is infected by the splatterjay virus, which allows him to adapt to the extreme environments he surprisingly finds himself in.

Cleverly Asher finds a way to neuter the Polity agents both the obvious (the ambassador) and its hidden observer drone. This does make the story more interesting as a result. They still have influence but it means they don’t interfere with events in the way that stop the conflict reaching genocide.

But for all that this is a story of four children who as born following their mother’s pregancy near an alien artifact. One that one planet has put a lot of research into and gained scientific and military advantages from in the process.

We also follow the view points of several of the main characters, which rather than fragments makes it easier to see the whole jigsaw rather than trying to figure out why one piece won’t fit.

I did however have issues with one of the characters and their motivations, which is always the downside of a multi-view story. You want to get back to the characters you like and can’t see why some of the action can’t take place offstage. Though I didn’t mind seeing from their view. It’s hard to explain who it was or why it didn’t seem quite right without giving away some pivotal plot points.

Not that it spoiled the overall effect but it felt more like the story needs this than the need of the character. However that could just be me comparing threads and finding not as enjoyable as the others.

Hilldiggers is a stand-alone title in the Polity universe but I think reading something like Prador Moon or The Gabble would be better introduction to Neal’s work but for fans this is well worth reading.

Review: Empire of Light by Gary Gibson (Tor UK)

Empire of light

Empire of Light concludes events started in Stealing Light and continued in Nova War. I say concludes but more it draws an arc to a definitive end but leaving the door open for more stories in this world.

I’ve given high praise to the series so far with phrases  like, ‘clever, intelligent, thoughtful, and gripping’ and ‘Gibson has a devious imagination, a sense of bigger picture and a more twists than a corkscrew’. So not a lot to live up to there then.

And does Empire of Light continue that tradition. Yes and no. It’s gripping and I really felt for Dakota in places; I really wanted her to succeed. But we are drawing to the end and all the preparation that has taken place up to now has been leading to this point. So we don’t get a meander through more of Gibson’s mind. Instead we have a gripping race to the finish.

The double-crossing and scheming Trader is shown in a new light, as is Corso and so are the human-piloted Magi ships.

It’s a case of if you’ve read enjoyed Stealing Light and Nova War you’re going to enjoy 
Empire of Light. It’s still filled with some nice twists and turns but it’s more focused and narrowed than I remember the earlier books being with less exposure to new things.

Not sure what to add beyond that. If you enjoy a SF series with a lot of energy the Shoal Sequence is one for you.

Gary Gibson’s latest novel is Final Days is out now in hardback/kindle and Empire of Light is out now in paperback/kindle

Audiobook Review: The Voyage of The Sable Keech by Neal Asher Read by William Gaminara (UK Tor)

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

Audiobook Review: The Skinner by Neal Asher (Tor UK)

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.

Review: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi (Tor)

Title: The Ghost Brigades
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor
Published: 01 February 2008
Review Copy

If you have the mind of a traitor but not the body and want to know what he, Charles Boutin, knows what do you do? If you’re the Colonial Defence Forces (CDF) you make a body for the job. And the good news is if the mind doesn’t take you have a genetically enhanced new solider. It’s a win/win situation or so you’d think.

The opening description has got to be one of the best and most misleading openings to novel ever. If it’s designed to drag you in then well it did it for me.

It’s misleading as it uses a level of poetic and flowery language that doesn’t appear from then on in, which is actually a good thing. It shows that Scalzi can write but also shows that he’s using it for effect. The rest of the novel is told more functional but no less effective prose.

I tend to think of military sci-fi as grand and sweeping but the battle in The Ghost Brigades is more internal as Jared Dirac, the solider created from the seemingly failed attempt to join mind and body, has memories that aren’t his start to surface, that changes everything.

There are so many good things about this novel. The world building and the alien races. The hidden conspiracy. The evolution of Jared Dirac. The relationships between Jared and everyone around him. The technology. I could go on.

Suffice to say The Ghost Brigades is amongst the best sci-fi novels I’ve read in ages and Scalzi deserves a lot of success.

*This review doesn’t have a rating. I’m putting ratings on hold as I’m going to try to let the review speak for itself and you can decide whether you should read it or not.

Debut Review: Scar Night by Alan Campbell

Title: Scar Night
Author: Alan Campbell
Publisher: Tor
Published: May 2007
Price: £7.99
Bought It

Before I say anything else Alan Campbell’s debut novel Scar Night is an amazing creation. Not only does he create rounded characters, he creates a believable world for them to live. I enjoyed reading it immensely but it’s not without its problems. Though before I get into all that let me tell you what it’s all about.

Dill is the last of his line. A battle-archon whose role is to protect the faithful and the Temple of Deepgate. But he’s not a fighter. The role is now ceremonial as the battleships do the fighting and the flying. Dill is left to stand on the roof unable to fly and release the occasional bucket of snails from his room in the Temple kitchens.

The city of Deepgate is suspended by great chains that have been interlinked over the years by lesser chains and ropes. This combined with its industrial needs have created several districts but overlooking them all is the Temple of Ucis. Ulcis is the undead God who is gathering an army of Ghosts, the dead of Deepgate, to reclaim his place in heaven.

As events unfold it is Dill who has no choice but to descend below and find out what hell really looks like.
When I started reading I wasn’t sure what expect. I expected Dill to go for feeble boy to a warrior man and save everyone. But he doesn’t, well not in that Hollywood hero way and that’s a good thing.

Instead Alan Campbell presents an exploration of life, death and faith and how what we believe can build and build until its foundations are forgotten. He also shows that no one is as bad as they first appear.

The trouble is I’m not sure that Campbell always had the balance quite right. The bad characters have some qualities that strip away some of their nastiness, which is alright, but somehow made me pause and wonder about their motives.

Saying that though he does well to give individuality to the minor as well as major characters and my thoughts about some of the motivations didn’t distract or undermine my enjoyment of Scar Night.

In fact I couldn’t wait to see what Campbell did next. Somehow he kept managing to surprise me in terms of what happened in the story and how he got there.

And at the end he left me in no doubt that this was only the beginning.

I recommend this for anyone who likes their fantasy to break and twist conventions and who likes their stories dark with a light at the end of a tunnel. I’m eager to read the just released Iron Angel.