BOOK REVIEW: Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

some potential spoilers

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Publisher: Del Rey

Genre: Hard SF

Pages: 476

Publication Date: 04/05/2021

Verdict: 5/5

Ryland Grace is a man with many problems. Where is his spaceship? Why are the rest of his crew dead? And most importantly of all, what is he doing here . . ?

This is a very difficult book to talk about without giving anything away, but I’m going to give it a go anyway. The reason for this difficult is the central concept for the book. At the start of the book, the main character has amnesia. The fact that he’s called Ryland Grace is given away in the cover flap, and that won’t ruin anybody’s enjoyment. But so much of this book stems from Grace trying to piece together the fragments of his memory to understand what he is supposed to be doing and why. I won’t go into details, but the story here is a big one, and gripping in its scale.

As anyone who has read The Martian or Artemis will attest, Weir has a singular talent for making the most mundane science interesting. Grace’s investigations uncover reams of information, and even though Weir bombards you with facts and figures, you’ll be hanging on his every word. The prose is as sharp as it is moreish, and Grace makes for a fun narrator. Grace enjoys his work as much as Weir clearly enjoys his writing, and it’s an enthusiasm that is contagious. There’s a delightful simplicity in reading about a man unpicking puzzles and using brains over brawn to resolve issues. It’s almost therapeutic. I know some have complained about the humour in Weir’s books being childish, but for me it’s the child’s mind that brings the appeal. In tough time, it’s an immature humour that gets people through. Any sane adult would act the same when faced with the horror of Ryland grace’s situation. The humour is a shelter, and makes perfect sense both in and out of the narrative.

It’s the narrative structure that threw me off originally. Again avoiding spoilers, the action alternates between Grace in the present trying to solve his many dilemmas, and flashbacks to the past as he retrieves bits of memory. I’ve said before that I don’t like split timelines, but the framing nature of amnesia makes this one far more palatable. I dare say it’s among the best use of both split narratives and memory that I’ve come across in a long while. Amnesia is a trope I’m sure used to be a lot more common than it is these days, and Weir pulls it off brilliantly.

Project Hail Mary starts off hitting a lot of the same beats as The Martian, and those elements are used very well. The man stranded alone in space, the humour as a coping mechanism, the sheer adoration of science. But when the narrative shifts around the one-quarter mark (and I won’t spoil how) the book becomes something even better, and very different to Weir’s debut. The writing remains intimate, but the scope becomes larger. There are ideas played around with tick pretty much every box I’m looking for in science fiction, and that makes me a very happy reader indeed.

Project Hail Mary is proof that Weir isn’t a one-trick pony, and is a surefire hit for anyone who enjoyed his other works.

WRITING UPDATE: Themes I Keep Coming Back To

As I start planning out my next project, I’m starting to think in terms of themes and ideas. I have characters, I have settings, what I need is a big idea. A concept to tie it all together. Then I can hash out the plot properly. There’s an old saying that ideas are the easy part, and there’s definitely some truth in that. As soon as I have one idea, another one pops along to knock at the door. Defining ideas is the hard part. Narrowing them down into workable concepts and finding the story that they serve best. But no matter how many ideas I have, there are some that keep coming back. With over half a million words of prose written, and thousands of hours of storytelling in other forms, there are some ideas that I just can’t let go of. Some are plot elements, some are themes, and some are just big concepts I want to include. So let’s take a look at them.

Artificial Intelligence

This is a big one, and I can pin down exactly where it started. Robots and androids have always fascinated me, but I don’t think there’s a story out there that handles AI as well as the TV series Person of Interest. In that show, an artificial intelligence monitors the world, and is programmed to provide the US government with information on terrorists. But a machine that sees all starts to learn from humanity, and not necessarily to our benefit. A lot of fiction shows AI trying to become human, or otherwise anthropomorphise them. Person of Interest generally stayed clear of that trope. The Machine is exactly that: A computer. It thinks and behaves differently. This idea has stuck with me ever since, and is the single biggest influence on how I portray supercomputers in my storytelling. I haven’t used it much in my prose, because it’s a difficult perspective to write, but it’s one I’ve explored in multiple RPGs. I don’t think I’m a skilled enough writer to pull it off the way I want to, but Artificial Intellects often crop up in my worldbuilding.

Civilisation

If there is one common thread running through everything I do, it’s the nature of civilisation. How do you build an interstellar empire? And how do you prevent it from collapsing? Reading Foundation in my youth left a big impression, and this more than anything else is the idea I want to explore. It’s what I wrote my dissertation on, and I am nowhere near done with the idea. Some of my ideas are purely academic, others have the seeds of story in them. The problem I keep running into is the fact that civilisations take decades, even centuries, to form and fall. In a world increasingly emphasising characters, it’s hard to write a story of that scope. Not to say it can’t be done, but I haven’t found a way to do that just yet. But I am working on it. The best idea I have so far is a future history. Multiple books in a single setting. Sadly, I think I need to write and edit one book before I set my goals further up.

Crew Dynamics

From Dark Matter to Star Trek, a lot of my favourite shows feature a spaceship with a crew. This is rarer on the page, but The Expanse, Drew Williams, and Gareth L. Powell all show it can be pulled off.  This is a dynamic that speaks to my RPG background. Diverse casts and a chance to write some fun dialogue make this one of my focuses. Having multiple PoVs also lets me flex my stylistic muscles, which is always nice. I’ve toyed around with Military SF but I don’t think I have the grip on that right now. At the same time, I don’t want to write about scrappy smuggler underdogs. It would be nice to have heroes on the right side of the law for a change. The ability to hit back at the found family trope in favour of something better is also a big draw for me with this one.

Hard Science

I have no scientific background whatsoever, which makes Hard SF an all-but-impossible genre to write. Quite frankly, most of it goes over my head. But I love playing around with physics. A lot of the time, you don’t have to invent space magic. Real life is strange enough already. What I take from Hard SF is not so much the details, but the ethos. I want to write stories where intelligence is rewarded. Not just cunning, but actual knowledge. Stories where science is respected, and can save the day. Maybe that is Star Trek speaking to me, but it’s talking a lot of sense. I don’t always understand it, but there’s a purity in the pursuit of knowledge that is missing in a lot of fiction. All too often violence resolves everything, and I’d like to be part of a shift away from that philosophy.

People Who Fail

If there’s one thing that RPGs have taught me, it’s that failure is often more interesting than success. I want to write about characters to fail. Who get things wrong. Sometimes this is the big picture. I love a tragic ending, and if everyone dies then it’s all the (bitter)sweeter. But I’m thinking of smaller moments too. When a plan needs to be made, what if the first plan fails? What if the scientists don’t get things right straight off the bat? Things fall apart, that is a fact of life. In interactions between characters this is doubly so. Show me the people who say the wrong thing at the wrong time. The relationships that fall apart. The friendships that are irrevocably broken.

Subverting Subversion

Subverting expectations is old hat. It’s boring. there, I said it. Too much of modern storytelling is reliant on plot twists and subversion, and I do not care for it at all. By all means, go against expectation, but don’t make that the point. Tricking your audience is neither big nor clever. They should be in on the joke, or it’s not funny. I don’t want to write books where things are flipped on their head and the direction changed. I want to tell stories where I peel back the layers, and the two directions are onwards and deeper. This one is more a philosophy than a concept, but it’s one I’ve learned the hard way. Tell the audience everything they need to know, and don’t lie to them.

There are more ideas, of course. Character arcs and setting bouncing around inside my head. But these above are the big ones. The ones I really, really want to get right. if I can do that, I’ll be one step closer to where I want to be.

BOOK REVIEW: Black Legion, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

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Publisher: Black Library

Series: The Black Legion (#2)

Genre: Grimdark SF

Pages: 364

Publication Date: 2017

Verdict: 4/5

Iskandar Khayon continues his tale of tragedy and horror. The dreaded Abaddon has claimed leadership of the traitor Legions, but that role is far from unchallenged. Abaddon uses every weapon at his disposal to stay on top, and no weapon is more feared than Khayon himself . . .

Black Legion is the best Space Marine novel I’ve yet read. This statement of course comes with the caveat that I’m not a big fan of big stompy super-soldiers, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that I enjoyed this book a whole lot more than the first in the series. A lot of Space Marine stories are all about the archetypes (which are often the part I dislike the most) and few of the characters have ever had much – well – much character. Black Legion has spades of character, and there are two factors for this. The first is Dembski-Bowden’s writing, which I’ll be talking about in a bit, and the second is the fact that these aren’t just Space Marines, these are M&S  Chaos Space Marines. A lot of the Imperial Space Marines feel hemmed in by the constraints of their chapters, but their Chaos-praising brethren don’t have that burden. In this book, we see a scattered group of Marines, all from different backgrounds, and all feel like individuals. I couldn’t tell you much about the chapters, but I like that. These aren’t just symbols of something bigger, they’re characters in their own right.

One of my favourite things about The Talon of Horus was the framing narrative, and that is back in full force for the sequel. I love, love, love the narration of this book. Not in the audio sense, but in the prose itself. There is a weight to the words. A philosophical inclination that is largely absent in the action-heavy forty-first millennium. In neither Warhammer 40,000 or its fantasy siblings have I come across a better exploration of what Chaos means. It’s a part of the universe that didn’t interest me much prior to this series, but the in-depth and in character analysis is bringing me round to the idea of forces beyond mortal comprehension. Khayon’s tale is told with such a tragic sense of defeatism, even in the face of victory, that it changed how I see Chaos in Warhammer. The overall gothic style of the prose makes this something very special, and a far cry from my usual military SF leanings.

But if you’re here for action, Dembski-Bowden delivers that too. Plenty of it. A lot of the time, the superhuman antics of Space Marines can feel very much like a video game. Not bad in itself, just not what I prefer. But Black Legion‘s violence has a weight to it. A sense of consequence that pervades very blood-soaked page. The duels are magnificent, and the scenes in which the Chaos fleet attempts to leave the Eye and return to the real universe is just brilliant on every level. There’s not enough space combat in Warhammer 40,000, so any chance to see it is appreciated. And the violence isn’t limited to the big set pieces. There’s body horror and grimness throughout. This isn’t a book for the faint of heart, but you already know that.

Black Legion relies less heavily on established lore than its predecessor, and is all the stronger for it. Definitely one for Warhammer fans to check out.

WRITING UPDATE: Knowing When To Quit

It was all going so well. I had a fully drawn-up plan, I was halfway to my goal of 90,000 words, I had memorable characters, an interesting setting, some weighty themes, and I was approaching the pivotal scene I’d been planning for over a month. Then I hit a slight snag. The scene didn’t work. At all.

I’m not one of those writers who plans everything out beforehand. I used to incompletely freestyle it, but that wasn’t working out, so I started making sketch plans. Grab a couple of scenes or big moments that I know I want to include, and thread them together to make a full narrative. the detail of the plan varies from one project to another, but they’re never more than notes. Moving to Scrivener has been great for this, and I’d recommend the software to anyone thinking of taking up writing seriously.

So what was the problem here? If I had the plan, why was it not working? Well, it’s honestly hard to pin down. All the pieces were in place, but there was no reason for the action to unfold save that my plan determined it needed to. I could see no way of writing my way out of that particular corner without contorting the narrative into all manner of pretzel-esque abominations.

Sometimes I hear authors say ‘the characters chose their path’ or something along those lines. I don’t believe this is possible. Characters, being fictional, have no agency. they literally do whatever you make them. It’s not that the characters wouldn’t let me do this (because that is literally impossible) but there was no way I could make their motivations plausible, or even remotely realistic.

Usually this sort of roadblock isn’t a problem. I’ve hit stumbling blocks like this before, you see, and there’s always a way out. Shift the plan a little to the left. throw in a  curve-ball or unexpected betrayal. Fire one of Chekhov’s guns earlier than planned. the difference this time around was how pivotal this scene was in my draft. Everything built up to it, or fed from it. I couldn’t change this scene without having all the build-up be for nothing. It would take tens of thousands of words in edits just to make it remotely workable.

Maybe if I’d been more committed to the project I’d have invested that time and effort. Honestly though, I hadn’t been interested in my own writing for a long while. The ten thousand words leading up the scene in question had been an absolute slog. And if I hated it, I’m pretty sure prospective readers would too. The project was riddled with inconsistencies, dead ends, and the prose was as sharp as a tennis ball. To be perfectly blunt, it was the worst thing I’d written in years, and I’m glad to see the back of it.

Sometimes you need to say enough is enough, put down the pen, and turn off the screen. In the case of this project, I cut my plans short. Rocks fall, everyone dies. If you ask me, it’s better to have an aborted conclusion than nothing at all.

I’ve learned a lot from the mistakes of this project, which is more than I hoped for a few thousand words ago. Sustained first person is not my forte, as it’s ma struggle to keep my natural voice from keeping in. Sarcasm also doesn’t translate well to prose. or maybe I’m just not that skilled yet. Who’s to say? The big lesson though is that I need to stop writing stories hinging on betrayal and surprise. This latest was the worst offender, but it’s a weak thread running through my works, and one I need to snip off right now.

I have a few ideas of what to write next, but I’ll be taking the rest of the month to think them through. A little extra planning never hurt anyone.

BOOK REVIEW: Star Trek Vanguard: Declassified

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Contributors: Kevin Dilmore, David Mack, Marco Plamieri, Dayton Ward

Era: The Original Series

Series: Vanguard (#6)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 384

Publication Date: 2011

Verdict: 3/5

 

Starbase Vanguard and the Taurus Reach have earned a reputation for tragedy and mystery. But the legacy of the Shedai is far from the only story to be found in this region of space . . .

Don’t let the fact that this is an anthology fool you. Declassified is absolutely the sixth book in the Vanguard series, and should be read immediately after Precipice. A lot of the time short stories are used to add extra material to existing universe, to shine a light on lesser-known parts of the setting, or to showcase side characters. Declassified does that, but also a lot more. There are four novellas here, one by each of Vanguard‘s writers, and one by series editor Marco Palmieri. Each comes in at around a hundred pages, but that is where the similarities end.

Dayton Ward’s ‘Almost Tomorrow’ is the most interesting in the batch, and also the least consequential. It reads as a straight prequel to the main series, introducing all the major players, including those now sadly departed. There’s some good comedy here with the malfunctions in Vanguard‘s early days, and also some great character moments, highlighting where long established relationships began. It doesn’t add anything new to the series, but it’s a great introduction to the characters and themes. if someone wanted a taste of what Vanguard is about, this is the story I’d show them.

Kevin Dilmore’s ‘Hard News’ takes place in the aftermath of Reap the Whirlwind, and is unique in its first-person narration. Journalist Tim Pennington is one of my favourite characters in the series, but for me this account of his life fell short of the mark. Wedged in-between two novels, this story feels lacking in consequence. While this is true of the preceding story, here it’s more of a problem. ‘Hard news’ is all about character development, but when we know the destination, the journey is far less interesting. To me, at least. Your mileage may vary, and I hope it does.

Marco Palmieri’s ‘Ruins of Noble Men’ is another character-driven piece, this time picking up where Precipice left off. In uncharted territory now, the development has more pay-off. Here we follow Desrai and Reyes as they untangle the mess of their lives. It’s an interesting piece, but I’m not invested enough in their relationship to get the full effect.

David Mack’s ‘The Stars Look Down’ is the outlier in the collection. Also taking place after Precipice, this isn’t just a snapshot of people’s lives the way the others were. Well, it is, but it’s also a lot more. On the one hand, this is a fun adventure through space for Cervantes Quinn and Bridy Mac, and a nice glimpse at what the Gorn are doing during the series. But is also has major (and I mean MAJOR) ramifications for the rest of the series going ahead. We’re talking game-changing revelations and losses. It’s strange to have these coming from an anthology rather than one of the novels, and it comes out of nowhere compared to the rest of this collection. A great story, and sets things up nicely for the final two novels in the series, but I feel it would have been better if the story was novel-length itself.

Overall, Declassified is a pleasant, if disjointed, anthology, and key reading for all Vanguard readers.

BOOK REVIEW: Precipice, by David Mack

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Era: The Original Series

Series: Vanguard (#5)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 331

Publication Date: 2009

Verdict: 5/5

 

The Organians have forced a ceasefire on the Federation and Klingons, but true peace is a way off. Both sides use this opportunity to engage in covert affairs, but they are not the only ones. Two former Starfleet officers have not left the Taurus Reach behind . . .

The Vanguard series continues its strong run as it crosses over the midway mark, and now the epic scope is really starting to pay off. The first thing you notice reading this book is the date at the start of each chapter. Because this book takes place over the course of an entire year. It’s the sort of time scale you don’t see very often in Star Trek, where there’s often a race against time or some ticking deadline in the background. It’s not that Precipice has a lack of urgency, but the longer time frame gives this book a different feel to the ones that came before. there’s breathing space, and the character development feels a lot more natural when it occurs over months rather than days.

The Original Series was, by the standards of its time, the most adventurous sci-fi around. The heroics were larger than life, and Kirk never met a problem he couldn’t wrestle into submission (albeit verbally in some cases). A lot of the tie-in books focus on the science and ethical considerations that Trek is famous for, but Precipice leans into that TOS sense of action and adventure. It has a space western feel about it that would please any Firefly fan. There are action scenes between Klingon soldiers and pre-warp natives that could easily be from The Magnificent Seven. But it’s not just Westerns that Precipice draws influence from. On the aforementioned pre-warp planet there is a hidden temple, alien artefacts, and a sinister ritual. It’s right out of an Indiana Jones script, and real fun to read. David Mack has always been good at action, and this is easily one of the most exciting Stra Trek books I’ve read.

Historically, Star Trek has focused on Starfleet personnel, and they have been the backbone of the franchise for five decades. Deep Space Nine broke ground with it’s non-Starfleet (and non-Federation) characters, and Picard is showing life after Starfleet, but Vanguard takes the time to develop those characters who were once in uniform, but not any more. Reyes and T’Prynn are both disgraced, and both take very different paths from there. T’Prynn spends much of this book trying to atone for her past actions, and her interactions with Tim Pennington are some of the best character work in the series so far. In particular, I have to say I’m much more of a T’Prynn fan now that she doesn’t have the katra of Sten in her head. Former-Commodore Reyes, however, uses his presumed death to work beyond the rules of Starfleet. I always appreciate a little bit of messiness in Star Trek, and Precipice does fine work, making the edge present, but not overwhelming the story.

Five books in, I now see why this series is so beloved by Star Trek readers, and I cannot wait to get into the next volume.

BOOK REVIEW: Dune, by Frank Herbert

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Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Series: Dune Chronicles (#1)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 529

Publication Date: 1966

Verdict: 3/5

Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet. Only on this one world is the spice melange located, and he who controls the spice controls the universe. The Atreides family now control Arrakis, but their enemies are many, and tragedy is certain . . .

It is impossible to talk about Dune without taking into account its legacy. Fifty-five years after it was first published, Frank Herbert’s work has shaped an entire genre. Without Dune, there would be no Star Wars. No Saga of Seven Suns. No Sun EaterDune was not the first space opera novel, but was a game-changer for the genre. In that respect, Dune is unquestionably one of the greatest novels in the science fiction canon. Yet as the book itself teaches us, legacies are a tricky thing, and Dune‘s is no different.

I first read Dune in 2017, and I went in expecting to have my mind blown. It wasn’t. At the time of publishing, these ideas were groundbreaking, but half a century on those ideas have been copied and re-imagined hundreds of times over. It’s not 1966 anymore, and all the big ideas were ones I had seen elsewhere, and often used to better effect. Dune is ground zero for so many things, but the genre has grown and flourished in those fifty-plus years. It’s seeped into every aspect of modern life. Put simply, you can’t read Dune today the way a person would have in the sixties. The world we live in is just too different.

Dune is a book that most people will tell you gets better on a reread. Look closer at the themes, they’ll say. The ideas are more complex than you think. Sure it looks like a fun space adventure, but there’s more below the surface. Now, there is certainly something to be said for that perspective. Dune is a multilayered narrative, and has thematic wells you could drink from for years and never dry up. There is a reason I used it in my dissertation, after all. But my experience on a reread is actually the opposite of what everyone else seems to be saying.

Once you accept that the idea are better used elsewhere, you can read Dune on its own merits. It is a fun space adventure. The characterisation isn’t subtle. The Atreides are noble and brave, though with an edge of steel running through them. The Harkonnens are a bunch of evil murderers with no redeeming features at all. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yes, you can look at it as a meditation on the nature of authority and heroism, but you don’t have to. Dune is exciting and packed with action. Come for an adventure, and you’ll get one.

The real drawback, however, is not that the ideas have grown stale over time, nor that the book is (with a few exceptions) painted in black and white. The problem, bluntly put, is Herbert’s writing. Frank Herbert has phenomenal ideas and a grand sense of scope, but on a prose level, he falls well short of what I’d expect in a classic of the genre. Obviously, some of this is the result of changing prose standards over time. The full omniscience of his writing is a far cry from today’s more focalised writing. But the issue goes deeper than that. Herbert jumps from one character’s head to another in the middle of a scene without skipping a beat. Heroes and villains alike spell out their exact thought processes, often verbally, and no real person has ever spoken like one of these characters. The Hmm-mmm-mm-ing and Ah-h-h-ing gets very tired very soon. The pacing goes from glacial for most of the novel to a rushed conclusion that doesn’t quite do justice to any of the many plot-lines it concludes. Then there are the descriptions. Paul doesn’t sit by a tent doorway, he ‘crouches by the sphincter.’ There are some great turns of phrase to be found, but much of the book wobbles between stilted and downright atrocious.

For all its many flaws, Dune deserves to be recognised for its contribution to the genre. There is a grand adventure in here, but it’s weighed down by the book’s place in history.

BOOK REVIEW: The Talon of Horus, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

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Publisher: Black Library

Series: The Black Legion (#1)

Genre: Grimdark SF

Pages: 409

Publication Date: 2014

Verdict: 3/5

 

Driven from the Imperium in the wake of the Horus Heresy, the traitor legions lurk within the Eye of terror and wait for their chance to return. But Chaos does not wait patiently, and a great civil war rages in the warp . . .

With a setting as expansive as Warhammer 40,000 there are spaces for all sorts of books. The recent releases of Warhammer Horror and Warhammer Crime are proof of this, but it goes deeper than just a mix of genres. There is also the matter of depth. Not thematic depth, as all Warhammer books tend to draw from the same well, but depth in relation to the setting itself. There are some books that stand wholly alone, and others that require a deeper knowledge of the setting and its lore to fully appreciate. I’m a fairly casual reader when it comes to Warhammer 40,000. I don’t play the game, I don’t read the codex that comes for each faction, and i don’t keep up with every lore development. What I know about the setting is whatever I glean from my scattershot novel reading. While a book like Double Eagle or Honourbound is perfectly accessible to a newcomer, others require a bit more of an understanding with the setting.

The Talon of Horus is one of these books. Right from the off it relies heavily on knowledge regarding the events of the Horus Heresy. This a series (and indeed a time period) about which I know essentially nothing. The only reading of the Horus Heresy I’ve done is a few of Dan Abnett’s short stories, and the blurbs of books as I return them unread to the shop’s shelves. It’s never been that interesting to me, though I can see the appeal it has to more dedicated fans than I. What this means for The Talon of Horus is that I am lacking a lot of context that the novel assumes. Names are thrown around a lot, and i assume they mean something to many readers. There’s an element of crossover with Ahriman, and I expect there are more references that I didn’t catch. Abaddon is by all accounts a major player in the Warhammer universe, but I find it hard to take seriously a man with a 2ft topknot.

What I did enjoy about this book is the structure. Framing narratives are always going to score points with me, and having the narrator crucified in the prologue is a bold way to kick things off. There are layers to the narrative too. Yes, you get the action scenes and grit you’d expect from a Black Library publication, but there is philosophy here too. Musings on the transient nature of civilisation, and the burden of power. It also features one of the most interesting takes on the forces of Chaos that I’ve yet come across.

If you’re deeply invested in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, you’re bound to enjoy The Talon of Horus. If you’re a casual reader like myself, just go in warned that it might be a bit much.

BOOK REVIEW: One Day All This Will Be Yours, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Publisher: Solaris

Genre: Time Travel

Pages: 138

Publication Date: 04/03/2021

Verdict: 5/5

 

At the end of time, there is a man. The last survivor of a war that has destroyed history. Alone for eternity, the man eats, sleeps, farms, and feeds his pet Allosaurus. He also does everything he can to keep a single vow: Never again shall there be a war through time . . .

This is probably going to end up being a shorter review than I usually write, because this is a book that’s all but impossible to discuss without going into spoilers. And trust me, this is a book you’ll want to go into blind. So if you want the best possible experience of this book, stop reading this review and go read the book instead. You won’t regret it.

For those of you who’ve stuck around, I’m still not going to go into spoilers because this book really must be experienced first-hand. But there might be a few hints that I can’t help but let slip. You have been warned.

One Day All This Will Be Yours is Adrian Tchaikovsky’s finest novella yet, and I daresay it’s up there with his full-length works like Cage of Souls or Children of Time. If you’ve enjoyed any of his previous works, you will absolutely love this. Tchaikovsky is at the forefront of modern British SF, but his work has a very Golden Age feel to it. It’s fiction that is in love with science, knowing what rules to follow and when to break the facts open and mine the fictional goodness within. The novella form in particular is a great medium for thought experiments and weird little side projects like this, and even if physical novellas are highly priced, One Day All This Will Be Yours is worth every penny.

Time travel is an idea that doesn’t get explored much in fiction, certainly not when compared to space travel or any other SF trope. Time travel generates headache-inducing logical problems and endless paradoxes, and this is an idea that Tchaikovsky runs wild with. His account of what a Time War would look like is as compelling as it is existentially horrifying, and (once you make the jump to accepting time machines as fact) chillingly plausible. I absolutely love what Tchaikovsky does with his Causality War. As a fan of Hard SF, it’s nice and crunchy, and surprisingly easy to follow. As a lover of the strange and fantastic, it’s incredibly vivid in both idea and execution.

But the biggest selling point isn’t the temporal warmongering, or the great characterisation of a misanthropic war veteran, or the prose so sharp it’ll give you a paper cut. No, what’s best about this book is how charmingly bonkers the whole thing is. This is hands-down one of the funniest books I’ve read in years, whether it’s the dry wit of the narrator’s daily life or the rib-tickling accounts of visits to history’s pivotal moments. The stand-out piece of the whole novella is a scene involving numerous historical figures pulled together in a manner that had me genuinely laughing out loud.

One Day All This Will Be Yours is an exemplary work for one Britain’s most interesting writers, and a firm contender for a spot among the best books of the year.

BOOK REVIEW: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

-spoilers beyond this point-

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Series: Red Rising (#1)

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Genre: Grimdark SF

Pages: 382

Publication Date: 2014

Verdict: 4/5

 

Darrow toils under the surface of Mars to make a better world, beaten down and oppressed by the rulers of his world. But a person can only take so much, and soon Darrow joins the resistance, and discovers just how deep the lies of his masters go . . .

Red Rising is one of those series I’ve heard about for ages but not read until now. There are a few reasons for that (not least the sheer number of books I have on my TBR) but one of the main reasons is that I always associated it with the Young Adult market. I’ve got nothing against YA, but I don’t read much of it. With its young characters and battle royale plot, Red Rising just didn’t sound like my sort of story. But having heard from numerous sources that it’s actually a very adult book, my attention was finally drawn and I picked it up.

As it turns out, Red Rising sits awkwardly on the fence between YA and grimdark. Structurally, this book couldn’t be more YA if it tried. You’ve got the teenage protagonist, the evil authoritarian regime, the plucky rebellion, the school for gifted individuals, the love interest with a secret. Every box on that list is ticked. But in terms of content, this is full-blown grimdark. I mean, the opening paragraph has Darrow helping hang his own father. The book gets even more brutal from there. I’m honestly not sure what the target audience for Red Rising is, because the tropes and the actual writing seem very much at odds.

The most frustrating part of this book is those tropes, and in particular I want to single out the school element. Now, I’m not a fan of school settings at the best of times, and this one is among the worst offenders. You see, the premise is that this school is where the best of the best send their children (under duress) and the students will go on to rule society. Great, in theory. But on literally day one, half of the students are murdered by the other half. This is planned by the administration as some kind of lesson. From here students, who are aged sixteen, are permitted (and in some cases encouraged) to murder, enslave, rape, and otherwise mutilate one another. This makes for great conflict, but I can’t get past how terrible an educational system this is. I can see no way this leads to a leadership consisting of anything other than sociopaths. Maybe that’s the idea, but this is a society that has endured for centuries, and quite frankly I don’t buy it. At all.

This major obstacle annoyed me throughout, but it does’t make Red Rising any less compelling. It’s a real page-turner of a book, even if I was pulled out every time the ludicrousness of the situation got to me. Brown’s prose is incredibly moreish, and I’m glad I’ve invested in the whole series. From what I hear, the YA trappings get stripped off from here on out, and the full-blown grimdark space opera awaits.

Even pulled between the extremes of YA and grimdark, Red Rising is a strong debut, and I can’t wait to get into the rest of Brown’s novels.