The Passage – Justin Cronin
Apparently this epic (post)apocalyptic novel got quite a lot of hype when it came out a year or so ago, I seem to have missed that. Perhaps I’m just out of the loop. The first, shorter, part of the story is set in 2018, in a United States ravaged by terrorism, natural disaster, foreign war, economic collapse1 and turning into a militaristic police state. A secret Army biological research unit is experimenting with a potent mutagenic virus recovered from the jungles of South America, using as test subjects a group of death row inmates and one little girl. Oddly enough, things don’t go as planned, and pretty soon society is collapsing into chaos and civil war as swarms of blood-drinking ‘virals’ overrun the country. The narrative then moves ahead 90 years to a small self-sufficient colony isolated from the world around them. The arrival of a very odd little girl, attacks by unusually organised virals, strange dreams, internal conflict and failing resources leads to a small band of survivors setting off on a long journey across the blasted, vampire-infested countryside to where everything began. More or less all the elements of the story have been done before, from the vampires themselves to the post-apocalyptic wilderness and the bands of scavengers and survivors. There seemed to be some pretty strong parallels with the Fallout series, though it could easily be coincidence. In any case, although it isn’t especially original, it is executed very well. The plot is sweeping and the action scenes are great, as is the motivation and psychology of the characters. The only real complaint I have is that the ending doesn’t provide enough closure and is an obvious set-up for the sequel. Still, it’s not a major problem and in any case I’m definitely going to read the next one when it comes out. Highly recommended.
Austerlitz – W G Sebald
Jacques Austerlitz is an architectural historian who discovers that he was adopted at the age of four, a refugee sent to Britain by his Czech parents ahead of the Nazis. His attempts to discover the truth about his past and the fate of his parents intertwine with his studies of European architecture and eventually obsess him completely. The narrative is wandering at best, going off on detailed digressions and tangents about 19th century fortifications, the Theresienstadt ghetto, the Bibliothèque nationale de France. . . It revolves around the impossibility of truly recalling the past and the way that our attempts to force order onto the world, whether Austerlitz’s obsessive research, gigantic fortress complexes or Nazi paperwork all end up taking on a life of their own, spiralling out of control and never fulfilling their original intentions. I’m not really sure how I feel about this book; as much as it’s clearly well written, very intelligent and heartfelt, I never really felt involved with it. Perhaps Sebald’s excellent reputation made me expect something else, or maybe it lost something in the translation from German. I’m certainly not sorry I read it, I just don’t know. . .
Rule 34 – Charles Stross
The time – the near future. The place – Edinburgh, capital of a (mostly) independent Scotland. A sudden Europe-wide rash of murders is causing some serious headaches for the authorities and the underworld alike; people involved in illicit social network marketing, i.e. spammers, are being murdered in a rather baroque fashion. There are three main characters whose paths cross and intertwine, though they rarely meet directly; the head of the underfunded ICIU Division, charged with preventing the internet’s cesspool of lunacy leaking into the real world; an ex-con recently employed as the Honorary Consul for a tiny Eastern European republic; and a highly organised Gangster 2.0 who has to keep taking pills to ward off the lizard men and the rape machines. It’s written in the second person, which is unusual; off the top of my head I can’t think of another book written that way, it takes a little getting used to but after that it works well. The thrust of the book is the way the online world interacts with the physical one, what with the ubiquitous surveillance systems, augmented reality applications, expert systems, home fabricators and social networking tools. In common with his Laundry novels there’s also rather more attention to the arcane details of management theory than you’d usually get in a thriller; I can only assume Mr Stross was menaced by a rabid org chart when he was little. Even by his usual standards, this is staggeringly inventive, very funny and far too plausible.
HebrewPunk – Lavie Tidhar
A set of four supernatural short stories, each a pastiche of a particular genre and each featuring characters drawn from Hebrew/Jewish mythology and folklore. The first, an Ocean’s Eleven style caper about breaking into a highly secured blood bank, is probably the weakest – it captures the light tone of a heist film well, with plenty of slick patter from the protagonists, but there’s not really much to it. Their plan isn’t particularly complicated, which is a drawback in this sort of story. Still, it’s entertaining enough. The second I thought much better; during World War 2, Jimmy the Rat, possibly the only Jewish vampire, is working with a band of partisans in occupied Romania. Things become complicated when Dr Mengele shows up with a company of SS Werewolves and heads for Bran Castle, former abode of a certain Vlad Dracul2. . . Nazi Occultism has been thoroughly worked over by now, but the take on it here is pretty good. None of the supernatural happenings are allowed to overshadow the all too real evil of the Nazis, and the distinction drawn between the brutality and greed of ‘traditional’ villains and the calculating, bureaucratic genocide of Mengele and his ilk is an interesting one. The third story, an alternate/secret history tale about a 1903 expedition to East Africa sent by the Zionists to explore the possibility of founding a Jewish homeland there. I found this one a little difficult to follow, mainly because it uses a lot of historical and mythical characters and events and in places I wondered if I was missing a reference or something. The final story was easily the best in my opinion, a Noir-style tale of a fallen Tzadik who becomes involved in the underworld of 1920s London. An actress is dead, and someone wants her back. . . Featuring Kabalism, Voudoun, Daoism, and blizzards of cocaine, it nonetheless feels very human; love, loss, and betrayal. Overall a good set of stories, each of them well written and worth reading.
God’s War – Kameron Hurley
Visceral, richly inventive sci-fi with a fascinating setting. The isolated just-about-habitable planet of Umayma is riven by centuries of constant warfare between it’s two major powers, Nasheen and Chenja. Nyx used to be a Bel Dame, an assassin for the Nasheen government, but her prediliction for black work caught up with her and now she’s just another bounty hunter trying to scrape together a living. The setting is richly developed and strikingly different from the usual genre conventions; Islamic societies where constant conflict has led to some serious gender issues, on a planet where almost all technology is based upon insectile bio-tech wielded by ‘magicians’. Nasheen is a gynocracy, where all men are conscripted and sent to the front at age 15 and women hold all authority. When Nyx and her team are employed to recover an off-world scientist they rapidly get in over their heads and find themselves tangling with her former employers. Nyx is pretty full-on; hard-boiled to the point of being nihilistic, pragmatic and cynical, prone to heavy drinking and empty sex, she’s not exactly likeable but she certainly makes an impression. Given that, it’s impressive that she doesn’t simply come across as a caricature, but as a person who acts the way she does for a reason. The other main character is Rhys, a mediocre magician who as a Chenjan refugee in Nasheen is a second-class citizen by nationality, ethnicity, gender and religion. The rest of the team aren’t quite so well fleshed-out, but are by no means one-dimensional. The action is relentless and absolutely brutal, Nyx isn’t at all reluctant to hurt people and some of the antagonists are outright sadistic. There’s certainly no shortage of violence, what with people getting shot, cut, beaten, tortured, mutilated . . . although thanks to the aforementioned bio-tech some manage to survive an awful lot of punishment. Probably the best sci-fi I’ve read in quite some time.
Big Boy’s Rules – Mark Urban
A comprehensive overview of the use of the SAS in Northern Ireland between 1976 – 1987. I bought this from a charity shop because I remember seeing it referenced in a book I read at university on the SAS in popular culture3. Does a pretty thorough job considering the dense veil of secrecy lying over the whole affair, although of course an awful lot remains in the realm of allegations and conjecture. There’s a refreshing lack of the rah-rah jingoism that usually afflicts discussions of this nature and neither is there the uncritical hero-worship you often get when dealing with elite military units. The evidence is laid out clearly and generally seems to support Urban’s argument that the SAS were used to deliberately ambush and kill IRA terrorists when there were practicable non-lethal alternatives. It equally makes it clear that this was done in such a way that the authorities could deny it without technically lying, and that the command structure is set up in such a way that nearly everyone involved could genuinely think it was someone else’s responsibility. An interesting, concise treatment of what is obviously a niche subject matter.
Age of Ra – James Lovegrove
Unashamedly silly military fantasy. The ancient Egyptian gods have destroyed all rival divinities and now rule over humanity with the Earth split between the younger gods, whose constant squabbling leads to constant war. But in Egypt, now the worlds only secular state, a rebellion against the gods is beginning; a British soldier falls in with these rebels and their leader, the charismatic Lightbringer, whilst Ra tries to persuade the rest of the gods to stop their infighting. Fast-moving, knockabout action, the literary equivalent to one of those mid-range action films that has a someone you vaguely recognise as the lead and decent enough special effects, but isn’t big enough to be a proper blockbuster. Turned out not to be as derivative of Stargate as I’d assumed it would be from the synopsis, also the identity of the Lightbringer wasn’t what I was expecting. Clearly has no pretensions to be anything other than empty, disposable entertainment and does a perfectly acceptable job of it; about as substantial as candyfloss. I suppose I wouldn’t really recommend it, but I’m not sorry I read it – after all, it isn’t every book that features a brief section on the military usage of mass-produced mummies.
Nothing Lasts Forever – Roderick Thorp
Joe Leland, ex-NYPD, is in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve for a big party hosted by his daughter’s employer. Midway through, a group of heavily armed terrorists sieze control of the skyscraper and take all the employees hostage; Joe is forced to worm his way through the building trying to fight the terrorists whilst the LAPD lay siege to the place. If that sounds familiar, it’s because this 1979 novel was later adapted into the all-time classic Die Hard4. I was surprised just how close the adaptation was, with most of the major elements and set pieces in the movie coming directly from the novel. There are some important differences, such as the protagonists history and the bad guys motivations, but most of the changes are pretty much cosmetic. The core of the story is the same, that of a man hunting and being hunted through the corridors, elevators and ventilation shafts of the tower, trying to outwit his ruthless enemy. Leland uses his surroundings, studying the building and trying to work out how he can use it against his better armed and more numerous opponents; in this situation it is the cop rather than the terrorists who is the real ‘urban guerilla’. A lot of time is spent on his psychological state, and as time goes on his struggles wear him down both physically and mentally. The way he swings between fear, cunning and sheer rage feels convincing, as does his ever increasing exhaustion. He may be an ex-cop, a counter-terrorism expert and a great shot but he’s not the walking badge-and-gun that you often get in this kind of story. A good read, especially if you’re a fan of the film.
Rape of the Fair Country – Alexander Cordell
Classic historical novel set in South Wales during the 19th century, when the forges and furnaces of English ironmasters dominated the area. The plot follows the trials of the Mortymers, a slightly-better-off working class family, as tensions between the ironmasters and the new trade unions grow. Meanwhile, the Chartists are arming and calling for a rising against the aristocracy. Cordell wastes no time showing the brutality of the world they live in, where working meant backbreaking, dangerous labour and strikes meant starvation. Hardly a chapter goes by without mention of someone being crippled or killed in the mines or the blast furnaces, or of wages falling and prices rising. As the title suggests there is also a recurring image of the naturally beautiful countryside being despoiled and desecrated by heavy industry; the same is true of the people who have been brutalised by their surroundings, with men drinking away their wages and beating their wives. The characters aren’t quite so well realised, and occasionally they come close to being stereotypes – the men are strong, lusty and stubborn whilst the women are either beautiful and passionate or gossips and sluts. Also nearly everyone is a natural singer. In parts I did think it laid the ‘Welsh-ness’ on a bit thick; though sorely oppressed by the English foreigners they stick fast to their rights, and with the sun rising over the mountains they’ve a song in their hearts. . . Perhaps it’s just me. And of course there’s always the fact that if you’re familiar with the relevant history you’ll have a good idea how it ends. Still, these are minor quibbles and overall it’s a moving portrait of people struggling for their dignity in the face of oppression.
1 Yes, but more so.
2 Who, sadly for them, was not a vampire.
3 Why I was reading that book, I’ve no idea.
4 If it doesn’t sound familiar, you should be ashamed of yourself!