2005 SFX Reviews

L.E. Modesitt: The Ethos Effect

(Orbit, 579pp, £7.99, ISBN: 1841493228)

To genocide or not to genocide?

Not much space-opera escapism here: Modesitt explores a tangle of interstellar politics, skullduggery and planetary conquest, so plausible as to be almost depressing.

The ultra-competent Commander Van C. Albert has had an unlucky career in the Taran Republic spacefleet. His prospects and dreams are blighted by one early disaster with a high death toll of innocent bystanders. Sent to the independent system Scandya, Van is ambushed by a mystery ship, wins against all probability, and gets "rewarded" by unwanted transfer from the military to a diplomat's office.

The interstellar theocracy of the Revenant Church has its eye on Scandya. Other power-blocs manoeuvre for position. As a rare honest man in mazes of double-dealing and racial prejudice, Van struggles to decipher hidden meanings, beats off attacks, gains glory by defeating a major assassination attempt, and, back home, finds the politics of his own Republic going sour.

When the deeply unpleasant Revenants make their move, they have unexpected allies. Van ends up flying a spaceship for yet another faction, a commercial foundation headed by the enigmatic Trystin Desoll, who has access to alien technology. Complexities of interstellar economics and cashflow alternate with skirmishes in space. Small victories against Revenant forces boost morale, but the church has endless resources ...

As the title suggests, there's lots of ethical debate (and lecturing) in this fat novel. The key question is whether a good man, armed with an alien-tech doomsday weapon, should halt the clear evil of fanatical, self-righteous expansion – at cost of planetary genocide. Van already has too many innocent deaths on his conscience.

All terribly worthy but also, alas, a little dull. Even the spaceship duels tend to be same-ish, with much computer-game juggling of shields, drives and torps. Realistic, no doubt, but not a patch on the variety of Hornblower's sea battles. And the shock ending can be seen coming a long way off.

The Ethos Effect is a distant sequel to The Parafaith War, whose mysteriously long-lived protagonist Desoll is still opposing the Revenants in this book, and acts as mentor to our hero.

Allen Steele: Coyote

(Orbit, 550pp, £6.99, ISBN: 1841493678)

Trad SF adventure, not many surprises

Coyote is a fat, episodic saga of space colonisation with a slightly old-fashioned flavour. It opens in a nasty 2070 America whose ruling "Liberty Party" sends suspected dissidents to the camps (big change there) and has reduced Old Glory to a single star. Grandiose plans for a colony on a gas-giant moon 46 lightyears distant have pretty well bankrupted the country. Then, not all that plausibly, freedom-loving conspirators hijack the starship Alabama ...

The 230-year journey is uneventful, apart from the unfortunate who wakes from biostasis after mere months. Just as in the glory days of Star Trek, the new world Coyote has breathable air, an Earthlike biosphere, and–somehow–no problem with poisonously incompatible alien proteins.

Steele's struggling Coyote colony moves through some familiar SF scenarios. Dissent, because several passengers weren't in the original conspiracy; tragedy when local predators ("boids") turn out to be very nasty customers; macho posturing with comeuppance to follow; reckless canoe exploration by teenage colonists; a glimpse of primitive, intelligent natives. Meanwhile on Earth, technology continues to advance–and Earth hasn't forgotten its lost interstellar expedition.

The various stories are convincing and well told, with common sense generally winning out over melodrama. Characters' most daring exploits tend to finish with a satphone call home and convenient pickup by the colony's landing shuttle. A good read, though strangely low-key until the major upheavals of the final episode. There's more to come.

Coyote is bolted together from eight linked short stories, mostly published in Asimov's SF magazine, 2001-2. The sequels in the pipeline are Coyote Rising and Coyote Frontier.

Ian Christie: The Franklin Saga

(Athena Press, 488pp, £11.99, ISBN: 1844013332)

Space opera swamped by soap opera

Good news: it's a whole SF trilogy in one volume. Bad news: well, everything else really. Book one, the longest, is told as domestic soap opera by a girl who goes to school, grows up, has an unsuccessful affair, finds Mr Right, has children, etc, all narrated with relentless prolixity and fondness for cliche. The real story, husband Bob Franklin's secret job piloting flying saucers built with Roswell UFO tech, is kept offstage for 150-odd pages and then revealed in a vast info-dump. Suddenly Earth is menaced by a "swarm of asteroids" and it's time for the stars! END OF PART ONE.

Next, successive generations of Franklins have bitty, episodic space adventures across an old-fashioned galaxy whose "aliens" are all human enough for intermarriage. Eventually, 1500 years on, a Franklin returns to Earth to fulfil a family prophecy and find true love. Ahhhh. But creaky plotting, banal description and identikit characters make this a wearisome read.

Why wasn't UFO supertechnology used in America's space programme? "Because of the way the shuttles ... are designed, they cannot use the underfloor gravity grids." Oh, that explains it.

Martin Sketchley: The Destiny Mask

(Simon & Schuster, £10.99, 369pp, ISBN: 0743256808)

Marking time in mid-trilogy

This relentlessly action-packed sequel to The Affinity Trap suffers from middle volume syndrome. The interesting world-building happened in book one, major payoffs are yet to come, and meanwhile the characters race around having petty fire-fights.

With one bound, antihero Delgado is free! Though killed in the first book's finale, he was restored by technomagic, and 22 years later is still running inept terror strikes against Earth's dictator Myson. His half-alien son Cascari could inherit the throne of planet Seriatt. But so could evil Myson's heir Michael, whom no one knows is Delgado's other son ...

Larger developments include the coming Saviour predicted by a Serriatt "Oracle"; an experimental time-travel portal; and looming planetary invasion by the unpleasant alien Sinz.

All this fades into the background, though, as Delgado's team (himself, girlfriend Ashala, and Cascari) hops from world to world, swapping humourless banter and slaughtering numerous spear-carriers in a ramshackle scheme to nobble Michael. Exotic creations – like a drop-dead-gorgeous "Gorgon" fighter woman with snaky blast-guns for hair – become mere cannon fodder for Delgado. Who is often captured by deadly enemies, but invariably, too easily, escapes.

With much energy but little finesse, the story roars on to its climax of mortal combat in the arena and a tragic twist which – with time travel available – could well become untwisted. The final cliffhanger is heavily foreshadowed. Let's hope for bigger and better developments in book three.

In Delgado's world, even the architecture is gun-happy: "Despite squeezing the trigger only briefly the vestibule was sprayed with ammunition." Just a slip the editor should have fixed.

Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle: Burning Tower

(Voyager, £18.99, 430pp, ISBN: 0743256808)

I left my heart in an Aztec Empire

Larry Niven's "Magic Goes Away" sequence is fantasy told in the style of SF, set in the deep past when magic worked. But magic depends on "manna", a nonrenewable energy source: Atlantis foundered when its wizards ran out of power for their anti-earthquake spells ...

Jerry Pournelle joined Niven for The Burning City, in which that city's fire-god patron got his comeuppance and "went mythical". New hazards face city-dwellers in this sequel. With no god in control, fires now happen at random. Firefighting disasters are swiftly followed by an invasion of giant, deadly "terror birds" controlled by another hostile god somewhere out there in prehistoric California.

So our military hero, his girlfriend and a fighting squad go questing, not for a Dark Lord but with the very practical aim of keeping trade routes open. They learn the best ways to deploy their spears and chariots against terror birds. Then comes the challenge of dealing with two hundred at once, demanding a new mixture of reckless tactics, fire, and magic. Tougher problems await.

There are some nicely constructed set-pieces. Another god must be ingeniously taken down. The rich power source of Sunfall Crater – impact site of a meteor laden with raw manna from space – is controlled by an Aztec-style empire with excellent magical reasons for being obsessed with human hearts. Our heroes realise the empire's darkest secret but make no use of it. Instead, a spectacular escape leaves the door open for sequels.

Overall, with their dogged, problem-solving SF approach, Niven and Pournelle offer a solid novel that revolves around magic without ever being magical. Everything is meticulously worked out: heavy geographical research, ecological impact of manna, merchants' wheeler-dealing, wagon-train logistics, even insurance policies ("protection bets"). During the long haul between major plot crises, things can get dull. The magic went away.

Cover artist Steve Stone has painted a burning tower, a medieval European fortress. Unfortunately the setting is America, 14,000 years ago, and Burning Tower is merely the hero's girlfriend's name ...

Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen: Darwin's Watch: The Science of Discworld III

(Ebury Press, £17.99, 344pp, ISBN: 0-091-89823-4)

Everything you know is wrong

Constructing the Science Of Discworld books must be fun for all three authors. Terry Pratchett can relax with a short, relatively lightweight Discworld story that confronts his bickering Unseen University wizards with the mysteries of Roundworld – the place where we live – which amazingly, uncannily, functions without magic. Between chapters, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart gleefully make connections with cutting-edge theories while revealing that our cherished beliefs about science may be less reliable than the history in 1066 And All That.

Here they focus on myths and realities of evolution (with digressions – for example, there's lots about time travel). Roundworld history has gone off the rails, with Darwin getting religion and writing Theology Of Species. Not the Origin but the Ology ... The "MALIGNITY" behind this disastrous retailoring of the Trousers of Time is a potent, well-established Discworld enemy. Fortunately the wizards have their computer Hex, and Discworld has its own God of Evolution. Much silliness ensues.

The actual story's rather fluffy in places, but the popular-science exposition is classy stuff, with frequent jolts of surprise for those of us who haven't been following developments in fields like evolutionary biology. Naturally, too, there are some good Dawkins-style smacks at know-nothing fundamentalism. Maybe this one won't sell too well in Middle America ... Despite occasional vertigo, it's an exhilarating experience as the authors' Cerebral Buzzsaw is deftly wielded to open up your mind. Recommended.

Among the important truths we learn is the basic evolutionary problem of a wheeled turtle. The weight of its shell makes the tyres go down.

Kelley Armstrong: Haunted

(Orbit, £6.99, 495pp, ISBN: 0-84149-341-4)

Socking demons on the jaw

Even for black witches with half-demon ancestry, Kelley Armstrong's version of the afterlife isn't so dreadful. Three-years dead heroine Eve still looks good and can enjoy tasteful sex, though only with other ghosts. What she can't do is interact with the physical world, though longing to subject her teenage daughter to some serious mothering. And then there's the real drawback of being dead: "There's a serious lack of Internet service providers in the ghost world."

Now the Fates want Eve to make herself useful by tracking and capturing a very nasty, female demon-spirit. This "Nix" loves inspiring serial killers to new excesses, cannot herself be killed, and has powers that have driven angels permanently insane. Sassy, wisecracking and madly overconfident, Eve plunges into magical complications. Necromancy, sociopathic ghosts, rusty witchcraft, diabolical bargains, unreliable angels, a harrowing visit to serial killer Hell, double-crosses, demonic possession, and worse ...

If Eve fails, there will be deep unpleasantness for her living friends and daughter as the Nix takes revenge. If she wins through, there could be an even more terrifying promotion in store for her. Tough choices all along. Meanwhile, whenever magic falters, the supernatural mayhem regularly falls back on kicking, biting, gouging, and general ectoplasmic chopsocky.

Armstrong's story rattles along enjoyably enough, with helpings of light relief and snappy dialogue – not to mention some posthumous love interest – in between those punch-ups and hellrides. There's nothing really new here, but though any synopsis sounds like recycled Buffy, Eve's engaging narrative voice delivers the goods. It's fun.

All Kelley Armstrong's fantasies happen in a magic-ridden contemporary USA, with overlapping characters. Thus Elena, werewolf heroine of her debut novel Bitten (2001), gets a mention here but doesn't actually appear onstage.

Allen Steele: Coyote Rising

(Orbit, £6.99, 515pp, ISBN: 1-84149-368-6)

The shot heard 'round the colony world

Some American SF betrays a streak of nostalgia for old enemies. With the USSR defunct and China a trade partner, where's that evil communist empire when you need one?

In Allen Steele's future, the Red Menace is America – now ruled by "social collectivism". Struggling but fiercely independent colonists on the new world Coyote (see previous book, Coyote) vanished into the wilderness rather than live under the socialist regime that arrived with the next ship from Earth.

That scary Red label seems needless. Everyone sympathises with underdogs, especially heroes who are outnumbered and outgunned by advanced weaponry from the latest of several starships. Nevertheless, when indomitable Founding Fathers turn to bay against brutal redcoats shipped from the Old Planet ... you know who's going to win, don't you?

Coyote Rising reads well, though: Allen Steele is an accomplished storyteller. The eight episodes, published as separate magazine stories, are strong on character and landscape. Besides the overall narrative arc of rebellion, there are gentler sections like a woman's rediscovery of music, a grim wilderness journey by disciples of a monstrously transfigured prophet, and the reappearance of Coyote's elusive natives.

The climax includes satisfying payoffs, tactical sacrifice, and one just about plausible coincidence when the revolution's careful timetable is shattered by natural disaster. Those rotten bureaucrats are resolutely inefficient, and the noble terrorists – sorry, freedom fighters – have incredible luck, but we wouldn't want it any other way. Solidly readable wish-fulfilment.

You know your bad guys are commies when their spaceships have names like Spirit of Social Collectivism Carried to the Stars. Eat your heart out, Iain M. Banks ...

Orson Scott Card: Shadow of the Giant

(Orbit, £17.99, 365pp, ISBN: 1-84149-205-1)

If superkids ruled the world

First came Ender's Game, whose hero Ender Wiggin is the best of many gifted children force-trained in strategic brilliance to destroy alien invaders. Much post-genocide guilt follows, and several sequels. Then Card reworked that first book from another viewpoint in Ender's Shadow. Here is number four of the "Shadow Saga".

Card writes more skilfully nowadays, but Ender's Shadow weakened that original impact by showing superkid Ender as constantly propped up and manoeuvred to victory by his even more super sidekick Bean. Ender leaves for the stars but the Shadow action remains on Earth, where Bean and other young Battle School strategists are in huge demand as invincible leaders of land armies. (Strange, because all their training was for space war.)

Though some of these kids are unlovably warped, megalomaniac monsters, their interlocked human stories are compelling – especially the tragedy of Bean himself. His off-the-scale IQ comes from an illegal genetic experiment that's killing this former midget with uncontrollable growth. By now, he is the Giant.

Bean's allies are busily enlisting countries in a new, viable UN replacement. Nevertheless there's war, strangely old-fashioned since the space fleet stays aloof. Vast armies march on foot, without air cover or missiles. Moving troops by train is somehow a great coup. Tactical triumphs feel more like glib writing, or memories of The Dam Busters, than strokes of genius. It's a future mired in the past, in the 1980s ambience of Ender's Game; a future that doesn't convince.

Emotionally, though, Card gets it right. His elegiac finale, with no easy solutions allowed, is genuinely moving. Strong stuff.

Ender's Game won both Hugo and Nebula awards, a grand slam repeated in the following year by its sequel Speaker for the Dead. Later books haven't equalled this record.

James Barclay: Cry of the Newborn
The Ascendants of Estorea: Book One

(Gollancz, £18.99 hardback/£12.99 trade paperback, 889pp, ISBN: 0-575-07617-8/0-575-07620-8)

Beware of youngsters who can use the Force

James Barclay's previous fantasies, from Dawnthief to Demonstorm, starred a tiny mercenary band repeatedly saving the world from near-invincible threats. This new series also has mighty clashes, but with a more thoughtful, realistic background.

The Estorean Conquord, closely resembling the Roman Empire, is expanding too fast and stretching its armies too far – but the Advocate (a female Emperor) won't slow down. Citizens groan at punitive taxes, especially in the too-recently conquered country through which the next war's supply lines must run. Rebellion looms.

Elsewhere, a secret human breeding programme culminates with four "Ascendant" children having potentially vast psychic talents. Superstitious peasants take fright, and the Estorean Chancellor (a female Pope) scents major blasphemy, justifying Inquisition-style torture and atrocities. Popes are like that.

Perhaps she has a point. Three Ascendants are endearing kids, but the fourth and strongest is an arrogant, destructive bully. By the time they're fifteen, though, the Conquord is suffering massive reversals while its deluded Advocate holds celebratory games. Her exasperated but loyal tax chief conscripts the Ascendants in hope that their power to control the elements can save this crumbling empire ...

The large-scale battles, told from multiple viewpoints, are detailed, plausible and exhilarating. Early scenes of slaughter leave us longing for impossible rescues from certain defeat – Barclay's trademark, duly delivered. Though initially sluggish, and containing obvious sequel hooks, Cry Of The Newborn is a satisfyingly self-contained fantasy blockbuster.

This isn't Rome but a fantasy empire that just happens to have amphitheatres, arenas, basilicas, centurions, forums, gladii (swords to you and me), legions, plumed helmets, togas, villas, and many other familiar trappings. Sheer coincidence!

Jennifer Fallon: Lion of Senet
The Second Sons Trilogy: Book One

(Orbit, £7.99, 564pp ISBN: 1-84149-351-1)

No magic, but a ripping political yarn

Though packaged like routine medieval fantasy, Jennifer Fallon's new trilogy is secretly SF. Her volcano-racked world Ranadon is recovering from a major upheaval called the Age of Shadows, when one of its two suns went away and (according to scripture) was restored only by the human sacrifice required to appease a demanding Goddess.

History and scripture are traditionally written by the winners, and the next generation may wonder what really happened. The likeable younger characters, children of rulers driven to war when crops failed during the Shadows, have a great mass of convoluted back-story to discover. For the second sons of two influential leaders, much depends on unravelling the orbital vagaries of the second sun ...

Meanwhile, those who did well in troubled times are naturally keen to stay on top. Senet, the nearest thing to a superpower, is run by the suave, charming and merciless warlord known as the Lion. Though otherwise highly astute, he seems to believe in the lush religion of orgies and sacrifices invented by his bitchy High Priestess – who has taken the precaution of banning telescopes.

The dilemma for this established church is that its credibility depends on accurately predicting the next dark age. So they don't want, but desperately need, a heretic like Galileo. Luckily one of those youngsters is a born mathematician ... Quirky characters, lashings of intrigue, and regular surprises make this an enjoyable read.

Two hints at Ranadon's deep past. Lions, though used as heraldic emblems, are regarded as entirely mythical. And there's an important feast day called the Landfall Festival. Aha.