Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre Book Review – 4 Stars @cbrookmyre

Places in Darkness

Living in 2018 has me longing to live in some sort of futuristic Utopia, in a world of free thinking and no major crime.  Perhaps in a Space Station high above the Earth were the greatest minds have traveled so that they can build a vessel that will send the next generations of humans to populate new planets.  You know that as soon as you arrive it will be the same old problems.  You can’t really have a Utopia with people in it, can you?

The Space Station, Ciudad de Cielo, has too sides to it; the one that people on Earth think and the reality.  Alice Blake has been sent up from Earth to investigate corruption on the Station, but whilst she thinks she may see a few backhanders, she was not expecting the likes of Nikki Freeman.  Freeman is a corrupt individual who breaks the law during one cycle, then upholds it the next.  Scratch the surface of this city in the sky and you reveal a rotten core.  A city that claims that they have never had a murder, but why are there so many bits of person floating around in Zero G?

Using a crime story to give your science fiction world some sort of structure is no new thing.  Science fiction writers seem to believe that writing crime is easy; that may be true, but writing good crime fiction is not.  Someone who should be able to do both is Chris Brookmyre, best known as a crime writer, but has dabbled in other genres.  ‘‘Place in the Darkness’’ is his most obvious science fiction book to date as it is filled with high concepts such as Space Stations, mind meshes, AI and androids, but it is also an odd couple crime thriller about a by-the-book rookie and a corrupt veteran.

‘‘Place’’ takes a little while to warm up as Brookmyre decides to preload the story with all the sci fi ideas.  The first 85 pages are mostly exposition that will hold you in good stead for later.  After this the narrative switches to a crime thriller and it bombs along nicely.  The fact that Brookmyre felt the need to spend so much time explaining the Space Station and the science that goes on there was not great, the best sci fi integrates this stuff into the story itself.  Indeed, after page 85 Brookmyre does this himself, gifting the reader glimpses into the underbelly of life on the station, without having to dwell.

What makes the book fun is the action.  There is a lot going on in ‘‘Place’’ once it gets going.  Alice soon realises that the picture postcard portrayal of the city is a lie.  Not only do we see it is a lie, but it is pretty debauched.  Brookmyre paints a very good unsavoury picture of the city as poor people are forced to work more than one job to be able to afford to leave one day.  There are several good ideas about the society, such as the closed nature of it as the companies pay the workers and then force them to spend all their money on company goods.

It is a little hard to understand what ‘‘Place’’ is; cyberpunk, crime, space thriller.  It is all of these at once.  The grungy world that Brookmyre creates feels like something of tomorrow, but you can also see the cities of today in it.  If the first act of the book had been integrated better into the narrative, this would have been a must read science fiction book for those who like their tales a little pulpy.  As it stands, some people may not get past the intense start.

4 Stars

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Air by Geoff Ryman Book Review – 1 Star

Air

Science Fiction can be the best of all the genres; there are so many opportunities to explore.  You can set a book in an alternative present, or on a distant planet far unlike our own.  The main problem with an infinite world of possibilities is that Science Fiction can sometimes be impenetrable.  Crazy uses of language or concepts that only a Mensa member can get their head’s round.  Many authors like to keep things simple; perhaps setting their book in our own world with a tweak or two.  Geoff Ryman sought to do this in ‘Air’, but rather than creating a coherent alternative history book, he has produced something that is both bland and confusing.

Karzistan is finally ready to get itself noticed by introducing the concept of Air across the country; a sort of internet that pushes itself into everybody’s mind.  The village of Kizuldah is not really ready for these developments as it is so remote that it has existed in a similar manner for centuries.  Only Mae Chung sees the opportunities that Air could bring, but when the first experiments leaves her with a dual personality, will the villagers listen to her?

‘Air’ is an odd book and one that I found hard to read.  It looks like it is going to be a slice of hard Science Fiction, but it soon becomes obvious that it is more a melodrama set around the petty politics of a remote village in a far flung country.  This was not what I signed up for when starting the book, but was willing to give it a chance, after all the idea of futuristic technology effecting a backwards community is an interesting one.

The issue I had was that the rather interesting tech is really only a catalyst to the rather dull family drama story.  We get glimpses of what Air is meant to be, but Ryman is constantly dragging us back to the problems of the village.  A lot of the story could have been identical if the concept of internet of the mind was replaced with the villages arguing over the idea of a new well.  It felt like the Science Fiction elements was all smoke and mirrors.  Is Ryman a frustrated modern fiction writer who has found himself only signed to a Science Fiction contract?

Two separate books would have made for better reads; one about a bunch of villagers talking amongst each other, the other an actual Science Fiction book that explored the concept of Air.  Instead you get a very boring book about family ties and then to top it all of an increasingly confusing Sci Fi element and bizarre body horror section that entangles the end.  Neither part of the book was satisfying, but both together made it borderline unreadable.

Sammy Stinker

1 Star

Star Trek: Day of Honor Omnibus Book Review – 3 Stars

Day of Honour

I have read some hefty books in my time; usually they are in the fantasy genre, but when I picked up the ‘Star Trek: Day of Honor’ omnibus I was in for some carpal tunnel levels of reading.  This is not one book, but 6 that span nearly all the Star Trek Universe that existed in its time of writing.  Five can be considered adult novels and one is for tweens.  The thread that connects them all is the Klingon Day of Honor, a ceremonial day that allows Klingons to reflect that even their enemies can have honour.  With this central idea in mind, how come so many of the books only paid lip service to it?

‘Day of Honor’ is certainly a mixed bag of books in terms of quality; there are no must read books, but a couple offer some higher quality Star Trek action.  However, some of them also suffer greatly because of the fundamental issue they all have – Klingons.  This species is not my favourite in the series as they seem to use honour as they wish.  One minute they could be cleaving an enemies head from their shoulders as this is the honourable thing to do.  The next they are walking away because of … honour.  There often seems little rhyme or reason for which path they choose.  This is seen most in the worst of the books here, ‘Armageddon Sky’ a book in which some Klingons needlessly decide to die for no reason.  Idiots.  The TV episode suffers from being formulated for the small screen and does not work written down.

Other books are better, both ‘Her Klingon Soul’ and ‘Treaty’s Law’ are examples of better Trek novels.  They are both pacy and just get on with things.  ‘Soul’ does not overly concentrate on the idea of honour, but has a good prison based storyline.  ‘Law’ is probably the best book of the lot as it shows the reader why the Day of Honor began.  The book is action packed, but is also the one that discusses the idea of what makes Klingon’s tick the most.  If you read this book you start to think perhaps they are not too bad, it is just a shame that other writers often treat Klingons are if they are schizophrenic.

The other books are reasonable, but oddities; both of them feature Worf and Alexander as main characters, but whilst one if for kids, the other is for adults.  ‘Ancient Blood’ is the most violent Trek book that I have read and has some pretty grim scenes; a carpet soaked with blood and ripped off arms spring to mind.  It has some great action and is almost like a detective story, but it suffers more than any other in the series from having daft Klingon actions.  Worf’s attitude to honour essentially leads to unnecessary misery.  ‘Honor Bound’ is a strange book to include as it is a tween story set in Alexander’s high school and has a gymnastics based fight off.  Both of these outings are flawed, but ok overall.

As a collection of six books ‘Day of Honor’ just about works.  They are all based around the one calendar day, but many of them only pay lip service to it.  It is odd that in several cases the very ethos of the Day of Honor is ignored in the story.  What you have are two good books, two average and two poor.  Therefore, a reasonable set, but I would be happy just to read the decent ones and leave the worst as missing one story has no impact on any of the others.

3 stars

Star Trek: Honor Bound by Dina G Gallagher Book Review – 3 Stars

Honor Bound

Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through the Star Trek: Day of Honor books.  I have visited the original series, Voyager, Generations and DS9, but none took me to the place that ‘Honor Bound’ by Dina G Gallagher did; the Tween novel.  After every other book in the series was an ‘adult’ book, this one is set in a high school and even has images.

Puberty is hitting Alexander hard, he has all the usual worries of a teenager, but no one told him about the rage that comes with being a Klingon.  With the Federation and Klingon Empire back at war, he is not the most popular student in school.  When he is targeted by bullies, Alex finds it hard not to tear their arms out.  Enter Worf, can he teach his son to rise above petty issues and use his honour to stay calm?

As a novel for the 8-10 year old market I have no real reason to enjoy ‘Honor Bound’, but it works because it is one of the few books in the ‘Day of Honor’ series that actually remembers to be about honour.  Alexander is getting heavily bullied and rather than rising to it, he walks away.  This does not stop him being persecuted by the school and it is only the intervention of Worf that can save the day.  The solid centre of the book works; be honourable and things will work out.

This simplifies view of matters permeate the rest of the book and it does not work quite as well.  The relationships are very teeny; glances and crushes.  For the correct audience this should speak to them, but after five adult Honor books, it does feel a little odd.  Also, the gymnastics part of the book is just odd!

The important thing is though that the book works for an emerging reader.  The characters and plot is pedestrian, but simple enough to follow.  I found the images a little embarrassing, but they do break up the text if your attention span is a little light.  Despite the book being aimed at a younger audience and having a weird gymnastics subplot, I still found it entertaining enough as an adult.  It was pacy and importantly remembered the central message of honour throughout.

3 Stars

Star Trek Voyager: Day of Honor by Michael Jan Friedman Book Review – 2 Stars

Day of Honor

And so the slog continues through the Day of Honor Star Trek books and this time it is the novelisation of the Voyager episode ‘Day of Honor’ by Michael Jan Friedman.  TV works very differently from fiction.  One has a limited timeframe and budget, the other is only limited by the imagination.  Add to this the 45 minute episode format and you are holding back any book.  Further complications come in the structure of a TV episode – more than one storyline that are somehow linked to one another whilst running parallel.  This is so that viewers don’t get bored.  This can work in a novel too, but Friedman also shows that it can fail.

Torres is not a fan of ‘The Day of Honor’ celebrations and just wants to pretend it does not exist.  She has always struggled to balance her Human and Klingon side, so a day of people constantly saying that she is Klingon is highly annoying.  When borderline workplace pest Paris keeps hassling her things can’t get much worse.  That is unless they find themselves almost dying together.  Throw in a weird story about the Doctor looking for a religious holiday to celebrate and you have a book that would have been better kept as a TV episode.

The main selling point of this Honor outing is the inner turmoil of Torres as she once again tries to come to terms with her split nature.  The novelisation does give Friedman a better chance to explore her inner workings, but frankly it is hard to care.  Torres runs so hot and then cold in this book that you just want her to stop being so selfish.  The relationship between Paris and Torres is also explored further.  Voyager was 20 years ago now and in this post #MeToo generation, Paris increasingly comes across as that work inappropriate man that is only being outed today.  The book is at its best when the two of them are not acting out, but being a bit more truthful.  However, these elements are few and far between, mostly saved for the end of the book.

This being a Trek outing, there cannot be only one story.  The other element is some of the worst nonsense I have read in a while and I have read the other Day of Honor books.  The Doctor goes around testing out new holidays in a bid to flesh out who he is.  There seems to be no point at all to side story.  The Day of Honor is not important because it is a holiday, but because it was about honour.  This book/episode gets the entire wrong end of the stick.

Although ‘Day of Honor’ appears to be a popular episode in the Voyager cannon, for me it just highlights the issue with that series – the unlikable characters.  As a novelisation, there is not really enough here to warrant a full book and it basically seems to forgo the actual meaning of the Day of Honor, unlike the other books in the series.

2 Stars

Ghosts of Empire by George Mann Book Review – 3.5 Stars

Ghost Empire

Taking on a band of undead Mummies will take it out of the best of us and a holiday may be needed.  If you are from New York there are not many other cities worldwide that could impress you, but London is one of them.  Surely, a nice visit to England, far from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, will help you to relax.  It is not as if Russian Tsarists are on the loose with magical powers or the events are conspiring to raise the sleeping power of Albion from its slumber.  Is it?

Gabriel and Ginny are on holiday in London hoping to see the sites and relax a little.  However, when one of you has a rocket propelled alter ego called The Ghost and the other has the power of an Egyptian God, this is not always easily achieved.  After one of their friends gets in trouble they decide to investigate.  What they uncover is a conspiracy that may bring the world to the brink of war once again.  And a cult of Russian sorcerers.  And an avatar of Albion, the protective God of England.  A typical vacation then.

‘‘Ghosts of Empire’’ by George Mann is the fourth in the Ghost Series of books and highlights a confident author who knows the characters and the genre well.  The universe that Mann has created is a fascinating one – a steampunk alternative to our own post World War One.  Here the various worldwide royals wield more power and the use of engineering and underhand magic are considered valid weapons.  Having fought various supernatural beings and automatons in the past, it was only natural for events to get even more intense in ‘‘Empire’’ for The Ghost.

This book is pulp action at a very fine level.  If you are looking for rocket propelled heroes taking on an army of cultists, you are in the right place.  Enlightened prose – not so much.  However, Mann makes the book work as it is not all just action.  There is by now a mini ensemble of characters that surround The Ghost and between punch ups, you get some good characterisation, this is important as it makes the action more thrilling as you care about the outcome.

Indeed, at times the action is a little too thrilling and a reader can sometimes lose their way.  There are loads of great ideas being fired at you; sometimes you can’t keep track.  The fascinating world that Mann has created is strong enough for you to explore without the need for a chase every twenty pages or so.  It is rare for me to suggest this when reading a pulp novel, but a little less action would have probably helped.

By this, the fourth book in the series, it is impressive that Mann is still keeping up a high standard of new ideas and action.  Across the entire series it is apparent that the universe itself gives a stronger sense of fascination than the individual stories can offer.  Whilst you get the thrills in one book, you cannot help but seek tantalising glimpses of a larger world.  Hopefully, with the ‘‘Empire’’ putting this world on the brink of war, Mann will decide to make the politics, technology and magic of this universe the star and not just give hundreds of pages of action.  This is still great pulp, but it could be unmissable.

3.5 Stars

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo Book Review – 2 Stars

The Feed

For some people, we are already part of something bigger than ourselves.  I am not talking religion, but about social media.  Why have a conversation with the person sat opposite you, when you could be talking to thousands of people online?  The highs of receiving a virtual thumbs up is like a mini joy injection that people can be addicted to.  If you can ignore the trolls that ruin most of it, the internet and social media is the most fantastic development of the modern age, but what is the future?  Will we become so addicted to the point that, if it was removed, we would all suffer?

‘‘The Feed’ by Nick Clark Windo is set in a future in which humans have given themselves fully to the internet, to the point that they have wired their brains to be permanently online.  However, when The Feed suddenly breaks down, society begins to crumble.  This is a generation of people who never actually bothered to learn anything as it was hardwired into their minds; even the ability to read.  Can anyone survive the time after The Feed and will they ever discover why it collapsed in the first place?

It seems an odd thing to say, but I do like a good Dystopia.  The genre is incredibly popular at the moment, probably because many of us feel we are on the precipice of one right now.  The genre allows you to explore the issues of today and take them to the nth degree, in this case the proliferation of the internet and how that disconnects people from the world around them.  At the start Windo appears to be onto something.  An early scene is set in a packed restaurant full of noise and colour, but once our heroes Kate and Tom disconnect they realise that they are in a room in which no one is talking and the decorations are fake.

This is a very interesting idea, but Windo uses it simply as a prologue.  Instead the book is set a few years later after The Feed collapses and humanity scrambles to survive.  The book becomes bleak quickly; ‘‘The Road’’ levels of bleak.  Useless people stumbling around a broken planet trying to hunt for old tins as they cannot work out how to fix anything.  There are no laughs in ‘‘Feed’’ and it makes for a difficult read.  Windo is able to justify the uselessness of most people by saying their memories are shot since they cannot access The Feed.

The first half of the book becomes a plodding survival drama about a group of people who can just about remember each other’s name.  However, bubbling beneath the surface is another interesting science fiction idea.  Why do they watch each other sleep?  It appears that their Feeds may just be open to nefarious interlopers.  Around the halfway point an interesting twist occurs that makes the book easier to continue with, but many people would have struggled to get this far as, not being content enough with the grime and human suffering on offer, Windo throws in some kidnapping for added entertainment purposes.

‘‘The Feed’’ is a book with some great science fiction concepts wrapped up in something that feels like an unwashed dog blanket.  You have to get the stench of human misery out of your nose before you can smell the sweet high concepts.  This style of gritty future is not new and is actually a little too popular and cliché at this point.  Windo has perhaps sought the future apocalypse market, rather than concentrating on the actual interesting new ideas he has in the book.  There is enough here for a true dystopian fan to enjoy, but the idle reader should avoid it as it may turn them to drink.  Original review on thebookbag.co.uk

2 Stars