2009 SFX Reviews

Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

The author and director most famous for Jurassic Park – both book and blockbuster film – died from cancer in Los Angeles on 4 November, aged 66. Michael Crichton originally trained as a doctor: this expertise showed in his first major SF novels The Andromeda Strain (1969) and The Terminal Man (1974), both filmed. One features a deadly, mutating plague from space, the other a flawed attempt to control a psychopath through an electronic brain implant.

Flawed science, as in both those books and many more, makes for high-tension stories. Crichton adeptly exploited the horror and paranoia of technology out of control – "things with which Man should not meddle". Tampering with genetic engineering created the rampant dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1990), and messing with nanotechnology released killer nanobot swarms in Prey (2002).

One untypical, underrated Crichton novel is Eaters of the Dead (1976), set in an alternate 10th century where Vikings clash with Neanderthal survivors in a reworking of Beowulf.

As a film director his greatest successes were the SF Westworld (which he also scripted) – with the unforgettable image of Yul Brynner as a theme-park robot gunslinger run amok – and Coma, based on Robin Cook's novel of a hospital conspiracy to slaughter patients for the black-market "organlegging" trade.

Eight early Crichton thrillers appeared under the pseudonym John Lange, leading some fans to confuse him with the John Lange who as "John Norman" writes the infamous Gor cult books. Crichton, who was six-foot-nine, picked the name Lange for its German meaning: "tall person".

His most controversial novel must be State of Fear (2004), which delighted right-wingers (including George W Bush) with its villainous environmentalists and debunking of global warming – causing climate scientists to protest that their work had been misused and distorted. Crichton will be remembered for his more vigorous best-sellers like Jurassic Park.

James Barclay: Ravensoul

(Publisher: Gollancz * £18.99 * 423pp [also paperback £12.99] * ISBN: 978-0-575-08200-7)

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore!"

There's an evil relish in seeing established series characters shoved over the Reichenbach Falls. Barclay's previous heroic fantasy Demonstorm ended in such a bloodbath for his fighting team The Raven that sequels seemed impossible. But Sherlock Holmes came back, and the latest threat to the Raven multiverse is so appalling that it's ... forcing the dead to return. Enough said.

Ten years after the world was last saved, the inscrutable Garonin are strip-mining every dimension for the magical fuel "mana". Unfortunately mana sources include human, elf and dragon souls, all harvested in the general devastation. Fearsomely armed with technofantasy energy weapons, the Garonin can be only temporarily defeated. Kill a few, wreck their machinery, and instant replacements appear from nowhere.

The Raven is reunited but also deeply divided. Their most powerful mage is convinced that the Garonin can be held off indefinitely with spells of mass destruction. But what if the only solution is to run? What hidey-hole is safe when the enemy can reach any dimension? The one feeble hope involves a grim sacrifice.

As always, there are desperate rearguard actions, extreme violence, and cliffhanger risk-taking that makes Indiana Jones look like a cringing couch potato. Dialogue and banter are realistically snappy throughout. Our central character, Sol the Unknown Warrior, reacts to his first Garonin surprise by saying (as no one ever does in Tolkien): "Oh shit." And lo, rightly doth he utter this rede.

The final battleground is more metaphysical than usual, as foreshadowed in an early chapter. Even the Raven can't exterminate this enemy, but – avoiding spoilers – there are other ways to prevail. Barclay delivers the goods. Rousing stuff.

The Raven started fighting in 1999 with Dawnthief. Sequels followed: Noonshade and Nightchild. Then a second trilogy: Elfsorrow, Shadowheart and Demonstorm. Could there be more? It's barely possible ...

Robert Rankin: Necrophenia

(Publisher: Gollancz * £14.99 * 410pp [also paperback £12.99] * ISBN: 978-0-575-07871-0)

Rock'n'roll, drugs, but no sex at all

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you can remember the 1960s you weren't there – and if you claim to understand the twisty logic of a Robert Rankin plot, especially one about the 1960s, you are (as he'd say) talking toot.

In this alternate 1963, young Tyler and his Brentford pals are poised for worldwide fame via their glam-rock band The Sumerian Kynges. You only think you don't remember them. But dark forces, transvestite zombies and the Rolling Stones are working against Tyler's mysterious patron Mr Ishmael. Someone, somewhere, wants to convert Earth to a global cemetery, a Necrosphere.

Terrifying revelations include the reason why the Sixties weren't the intended "sober decade when everyone knuckled down", the fact that Elvis was a sextuplet, the anagram hidden in George Formby, the location of a Lost City of Gold, the nature of each century's dread Homunculus, the CIA drug known as a Banbury Bloater, and the other Mornington Crescent.

Hapless Tyler's one smart move is to consult the established Rankin private eye Lazlo Woodbine, who famously appears only in his office (consultation), bars (talking toot until hit over the head), alleys (gunfight action) and rooftops (final life-or-death confrontation). First, though, Lazlo and Tyler clash over who's doing the first-person narration ...

And so on. And there are timeslips. And anachronisms. And amnesia. And explanation of crop circles. And familiar Rankin characters like Hugo Rune get brief namechecks. And there are very many runs of sentences beginning "And". And, frankly, this gets irritating.

For all the manic comedy, Necrophenia is a surprisingly dark book. Bad things keep happening to innocents, especially our slow-witted hero. This could even be Lazlo's last case. Of course there's an expected unexpected twist, and Tyler almost saves mankind, but the final laughter is still just a little sour. Fans will love it anyway.

Vital statistics: Robert Rankin is 59. This is his 30th novel: Gollancz are giving it their "bestest ever campaign". There are 24 footnotes. One-sixth of them are funny.

Ellen Datlow, editor: Poe

(Publisher: Solaris * £7.99 * 523pp * ISBN: 978-1-84416-652-7)

Anthology of the Red Death

Edgar Allan Poe is one of those rare authors whose fame rests on short stories – plus a clutch of poems. For this horror anthology, nineteen modern authors have written new fiction inspired by classic Poe, less-well-known Poe, and even incredibly obscure Poe.

Kim Newman kicks off with hilarious black comedy based on all those Roger Corman exploitation movies, with cliches engulfing the world as the Curse of Poe strikes back. Concluding the book, John Langan's cheerful classroom lecture on "The Masque of the Red Death" turns steadily scarier as the story's "real" and very unsafe meaning emerges.

The Red Death is a popular theme here, grimly updated as modern installation art by Laird Barron and near-future SF by Suzy McKee Charnas. David Prill does an unnerving rustic-US riff on the madness of the House of Usher; Kristine Kathryn Rusch explores the darkness that Poe himself somehow omitted from "The Mystery of Marie Roget"; Delia Sherman takes the side of all those pale, haunted ladies whose role in Poe is simply to be doomed; Lucius Shepard creates a perversely morbid Venezuelan setting for Poe's utopian "Domain of Arnheim".

Some hard-hitting pieces, like Pat Cadigan's savage fable about the gift of prophecy, are only distantly Poe-like. Some have surprising links: naming the sources of Nicholas Royle's, Melanie Tem's and E Catherine Tobler's nightmares would be a spoiler.

Overall, it's a fine collection. Though some contributions are weaker, there are no duds. As Poe so very nearly wrote: "Darkness and Decay and Ellen Datlow hold illimitable dominion over all."

Ellen Datlow, winner of numerous World Fantasy Awards for editing anthologies, has timed this homage volume for the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth: 19 January 2009. Raise a glass.

K.E. Mills: The Accidental Sorcerer

(Publisher: Orbit * £6.99 * 489pp * ISBN: 978-1-84149-727-3)

You can't get the staff these days

The Rogue Agent series opens on a fairly routine note of comic fantasy. Wizard hero Dunwoody – who seems hardly more gifted than Rincewind – is a lowly Department of Thaumaturgy safety inspector. His routine check of a dodgy wizards'-staff factory leads to a spectacular magical Chernobyl and professional disgrace. Now the real story begins.

What next? The only available job is court magician at the dead-end kingdom of New Ottosland. There Dunwoody discovers (to no experienced reader's surprise) that he has staggering wizardly talent and doesn't even need a staff any more. Meanwhile, New Ottosland faces a desert sultan's invasion because its king is politically bonkers. The king's brother is differently bonkers, and the harassed princess – doing double duty as prime minister – is an utter frump.

From these familiar ingredients, Mills brews up a narrative that's more good-humoured than outright comic. There's copious slangy language with an Australian flavour, especially from our hero's sidekick Reg – a talking female bird whose ancient, mysterious origins naturally cause her to address royalty as "ducky" or "sunshine".

Of course New Ottosland is cram-full of secrets and lies. Dunwoody does eventually get around to wondering what happened to the five major wizards who previously occupied his position, but by then it may be too late. The climactic action is painful, violent and not even slightly funny.

Things lighten up in the aftermath. Already established as a Rogue or supertalented wizard, Dunwoody gets conscripted as Agent: a thaumaturgical troubleshooter, a plumber for magical leaks, or (deflatingly) a janitor. Coming sequels include Witches Incorporated and Wizard Squared.

Nothing particularly innovative here, but it's an easy and lively read. Good fun.

K.E. Mills is the impenetrable pseudonym of Karen Miller (karenmiller.net), who mainly writes epic historical fantasy and invented another name for this non-epic, non-historical series.

Ian McDonald: Cyberabad Days

(Publisher: Gollancz * £18.99 * 313pp (also paperback £12.99) * ISBN: 978-0-575-08407-0)

Gods and AIs, who can figure 'em?

First came River of Gods, Ian McDonald's wonderful novel of 2047 India. His vision is richly layered, each new India built on the last: Hindu gods and myths, fabulous wealth, the British Raj celebrated by Kipling... and onward through independence, Bollywood and call centres to cutting-edge technology still riddled with streetwise squalor. That's the setting for these seven nifty, witty stories.

The subcontinent is more divided than ever, with intermittent war between nation-states centred on Varanasi and Delhi. Both – with highly plausible politics – are pressured by paranoid America to ban artificial intelligences above the near-human level of 2.8. Delhi toes the line but Varanasi simply can't afford to. It's an international data-haven whose major export is AI-generated soap opera.

Against this complex, teeming background, MacDonald focuses on intensely human individuals, mainly children. We see robot war through the eyes of a kid who's fascinated with the killing machines and the glamorous "cyberwallahs" who operate them by remote telefactoring. But what happens to the glamour when the war's over?

Another boy, whose American father is helping build a new Bharat capital, gets torn between a local school friend and parental paranoia about treacherous brown natives and dangerous streets outside the fortified US Cantonment. Difficult interrogations follow. The lad has a word for it: Gitmoisation. Still there's a ray of hope.

Another city: Jaipur, where a girl raised as a weapon in a family vendetta loses everything when the hated rivals attack. She finds a peculiar, exotic sanctuary, makes a kind of comeback. The payoff is her discovery that, though seeming to be one hundred per cent ordinary, she is indeed a designer weapon.

Tragedy gives way to comedy based on another grim fact of 2040s India. Parents can choose their baby's sex, so there are now four times as many young men as women. A would-be "eligible boy" needs all the help he can get, and consults a sophisticated AI matchmaker providing real-time advice on chat-up lines and follow-through...

Elsewhere, a girl brought up as (literally) "The Little Goddess" falls from grace to become a data smuggler in tough times when the Krishna Cops – whose twin-barreled guns can kill either software or liveware – are clamping down. Her future, ironically, is in the god business after all.

The fusion of myth and technology is especially effective in "The Djinn's Wife", where an AI actor from the mega-soap Town and Country falls in love with a very human woman dancer. Yes, they marry. And yes, there's a physical side to the relationship. You know what they say about mixed marriages, though, and when things go wrong there are city- and nationwide repercussions.

Finally, "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" is told by one of the new Brahmins – genetically tweaked for health and long life, which like any djinn's bargain has a catch. Frustrating years of double-length infancy, childhood, adolescence... His narrative gives another viewpoint on the epic action of River of Gods – a story which isn't over because, he sees, the devastating climax could happen again. And again. Ian McDonald really knows how to think his ideas through.

The star character throughout is India herself, mixing ancient and modern as ever. Spices, sewers, burning ghats and the urgent buzz of data traffic... Climate change shrinks the holy river Ganga. AIs are smuggled within human brains along the fabulously crowded railways. The caste system, though dislocated by synthetic Brahmins and a new third sex of "nutes" with their own strange allure, still hasn't gone away. Future slang, crossbred from Hindi and netspeak, is brilliant, plausible and apt to give lazy readers a dose of future shock. McDonald's India engulfs you with an overwhelming, perfumed, stinky embrace. A hugely impressive collection... but read River of Gods first.

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Ian McDonald's gaudy future India has brought him three Hugo nominations, for River of Gods, "The Little Goddess" and "The Djinn's Wife" – which won him a shiny rocket in 2007.

Ricardo Pinto: The Third God

(Publisher: Bantam * £20.00 * 704pp * ISBN: 978-0-59305-051-4)

Blood, toil, tears and god-emperors

Sometimes a richly complex story genuinely deserves a long, long book, like this apocalyptic finale of Ricardo Pinto's trilogy The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. At last, there's a challenge to the unspeakably cruel empire whose millennial stability is grounded in terror, torture and mutilation...

Our hero Carnelian, one of the immensely tall Masters or Chosen, learned the horror of his inheritance in book one and spent book two in exile on the "Earthsky" plain with his former male lover Osidian – who'd be supreme ruler if it weren't for dirty work. With Carnelian feebly protesting, Osidian ruthlessly forged Earthsky's tribes into an army to make his comeback. Now it's time.

Though crowded with fantastic and nightmarish imagery, Pinto's creation may be disguised SF. "Magic" consists of dream-portents, perhaps sent by the subconscious rather than (mostly nasty) gods. Fiery "dragons" serving the imperial legions are behemoths carrying massive flamethrower installations. The immortal-seeming "Wise" who run the empire use suspended-animation drugs.

Carnelian, the only Master who's infected with compassion, keeps trying to steer Osidian away from new atrocities but finds more and more blood on his own hands. Rivers of blood, flaming holocausts, slaughters of the innocent, and a Last Battle that's not at all final. Back in the Gormenghastly labyrinth of the imperial city Osrakum, the political minefield is deadlier than dragonfire.

Pinto's bizarre imagination stays creative to the end. There's always a fresh horror around the corner, a new revelation or a scene of surreal beauty. The flavour is unique, though one last party in doomed Osrakum hints at Poe's "Masque of the Red Death". Huge, breathtaking, exhausting and compelling. Recommended.

Not fast-food fantasy: this took many years, with The Chosen appearing in 1999 and The Standing Dead (the Earthsky tribes' fearful name for their Masters) in 2002. Worth the wait.

Carnelian, Osidian? Masters have gemstone names, sometimes respelled because (presumably) the Imperial Masks of Jade and Obsidian are so utterly holy. There's a Spinel too, and the usurper is Molochite.

Jonathan L Howard: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

(Publisher: Headline * £19.99 (also trade paperback £12.99) * 337pp * ISBN: 978-0-7553-4783-4)

The Faustest gun in hell

The Old Ones are the best ones, as H P Lovecraft said, and the deal-with-the-devil story is a very old one indeed. It could be a riot or a flop; depends how you tell it.

Johannes Cabal, gun-toting necromancer, sold his soul for the power to raise the dead – and now wants it back. Instead Satan offers another deal. Cabal must run a diabolical travelling carnival for a year and collect 100 souls to redeem his own.

Of course problems follow, and one is Cabal's basic charm deficiency. We should be cheering him on for fast-talking his way through Hell, or hissing his bad deeds in hope of a dramatic comeuppance. Somehow it's hard to stay interested either way.

His vampire brother Horst is more intriguing. There's comic relief from a carnie crew of demonic animations, escaped lunatics, serial killers and zombies, travelling by rail across a never-never alternate England. But luring suckers to eternal damnation isn't really a madcap romp. Our author lacks Terry Pratchett's gift for blending comedy with real darkness.

It's literate, learned, intermittently lively, and wildly uneven. A bit of ghost story here, a blob of Lovecraft there, a dose of Angst, a demonic budget analysis... Among the funnier set-pieces is one chapter told by a schoolkid writing exactly like Nigel Molesworth.

The inevitable showdown with Satan doesn't quite satisfy. This begs for some clever twist, rather than a feeble swindle that ought to be laughed out of any diabolical court. However, the closing paragraphs reveal a secret that could make later series books more interesting. Even Pratchett didn't hit his peak straight away. Wait and see.

Johannes Cabal does strange smiles. One creeps across his face "like melanoma in time-lapse" and another falls off it "like a badger off a billiard cue." Like what?

Tim Lebbon: The Island

(Publisher: Allison & Busby * £19.99 * 446pp * ISBN: 978-0-7490-0751-5)

Never trust a Stranger

Tim Lebbon first established himself as a horror author, and the offbeat magic of his Noreela fantasies is criss-crossed with darkness and terror. No safe havens here.

The Island's hero Kel is a determinedly retired hero, a deserter who ran away to a safe haven: "I've had my adventure." Simple life in a fishing port includes good sex with the young witch he plans to marry, until one stormy night brings a disaster too vast and destructive to be natural. From their town's wreckage, the survivors gape at a new island offshore – an inhabited land that sends promises of strange technological help. Their glib ambassador can explain everything, but Kel was trained as a suspicious bastard.

Flashbacks show his past life in the Core, an ancient secret society that tracks and assassinates the Strangers who keep infiltrating Noreela. Clothed Strangers look human enough, but underneath are appalling, deadly surprises. Fearing the worst, Kel publicly rips off a female Islander's shirt and ... embarrassment ensues.

Still, these visitors are up to something. Their version of history doesn't quite convince; they're building odd machinery at another, secret beachhead. Kel and his witch-lady investigate – detonating a minefield of horrors and revelations. Lebbon expertly cranks up the pace to a James Barclay-style crescendo of lethal action which, it seems, can't possibly be survived. But the Core, and witches both young and old, have a last-ditch trick or two.

The magic and technomagic are fresh and quirky, the horrors effectively nasty, and the narrative drive remorseless. Lebbon knows the old Hollywood advice: "Start with an earthquake, and build up to a climax." He does this rather well.

Lebbon's fantasy land Noreela has developed an immense back-history in just a few years. Past novels are the 2006 Dusk (British Fantasy Award winner), followed by Dawn and The Fallen.

K.E. Mills: Witches Incorporated

(Publisher: Orbit * £6.99 * 490pp * ISBN: 978-1-84149-728-0)

Spies, hexes, airships and mayhem

Following his debut in The Accidental Sorcerer, Gerald Dunwoody the "Rogue Agent" super-wizard now faces his first assignment in the grimy job of magical counterintelligence. His boss Sir Alec makes James Bond's frosty M seem like a teddybear...

For the duration, our hero's forbidden to meet his friends from book 1. Monk the magical genius is dabbling in wildly dangerous research. The female contingent – gorgeous witch, exiled princess, and Reg the human-souled bird – are running a Sherlock Holmes consultancy: Witches Incorporated. This attempt to earn a crust leads to investigation of dirty work at the Baking & Pastry Guild cooking championships. Easy as pie?

So far, so comic. The friends (except Gerald, shoved offstage for nearly 150 pages) bicker and bungle their cheerful way through the first Witches Inc. case. The next assignment seems even sillier – a biscuit thief! – but is entangled with serious badness, magical-industrial sabotage, and (ah, that's where he's been) Gerald's top-secret undercover work.

Amid the horrors of office life with a Victorian-Dilbert flavour, Witches Inc. finds the case infuriatingly difficult. Meanwhile Gerald's loyalties to friends and boss pull different ways, and his cover story forces him to grovel daily to a much-disliked rival wizard. Something has to snap.

Red herrings are trailed in all directions, Reg helps with the eavesdropping, various items literally blow up, one villain turns melodramatically to bay, and the Most Unlikely Suspect – whom mystery buffs will have been watching narrowly – has an all too likely secret. It's Agatha Christie in fantasyland.

An easy, lightweight read, avoiding the first book's plunge into harrowing grimness. The humour provokes gentle smiles rather than outright laughter. Mostly harmless.

In-jokes may be lurking here. The name of one minor character, Letitia Martin, is borrowed from the Dean of Shrewsbury College in Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night...

Neal Asher: Orbus

(Publisher: Tor UK * £17.99 * 438pp * ISBN: 978-0-230-70872-3)

Can you catch crabs in space?

Neal Asher's Polity stories, especially those set on the hellish waterworld Spatterjay, are famed for monstrous wildlife and high-tech violence. Now the Spatterjay action moves into space, where there are no natural monsters but some highly unnatural ones...

This direct sequel to The Skinner and The Voyage of the Sable Keech takes transformed human Captain Orbus and battle-happy drone Sniper on a "routine" cargo run that conceals an exceedingly tricky operation plotted by Human Polity AIs. Destination: the Graveyard, a zone of space ravaged by long-past war between humans and the vicious, crablike Prador.

Prador are up to something in the Graveyard. So is Vrell, the rogue Prador who's been fast-evolved by Spatterjay into a supercrab to rival the dread Prador King. Naturally his crustacean majesty wants Vrell dead, but there are diplomatic complications: the Polity is watching closely. Enter the ancient Golgoloth, another crabby monstrosity who haunts the nightmares of every Prador. Orbus, Sniper and their ship AI are soon way out of their depth as a border incident escalates through ever-greater violence to promise the trigger for a whole new interstellar war.

As if these factions weren't enough, the skirmishing wakens something else, millions of years old and nastier than all the above. Unheard-of technology reverses the odds. Alliances shift crazily. Sniper gets his fill of lethal action and – like every major character – is forced into utterly suicidal tactics. The final battle is edge-of-the-seat stuff.

As usual, Asher delivers satisfying space opera full of adrenaline highs. Orbus may get the title role but Vrell and wisecracking Sniper steal the show. Fast-paced fun.

"Just expect more books," Asher predicted in a 2006 interview. He's published six Polity space operas since – a total of eleven.

Steven Erikson: Dust of Dreams

(Publisher: Bantam Press * £20.00 * 889pp * ISBN: 978-0-593-04633-3)

The end of the world, part one

Good news for fans of the epic Malazan Book of the Fallen: we've reached the ninth and final novel. Bad news: this one is so huge, even for bloatmeister Erikson, that it's been split in half. Part two, The Crippled God, will follow.

As usual, it takes some time to sort out the sprawling cast of soldiers, mages, scheming rulers, barbarians, fugitives, gods, nonhumans and undead. Between glowing descriptions, desperate quests and appalling deeds there are some nice comic passages, especially from the Malazan "Bonehunters" troops, a nymphomaniac zombie, and the deceptive Wooster/Jeeves duo of King Tehol and his adviser Bugg.

But tension and foreboding steadily increase. Blasts of apocalyptic magic wipe out armies who are fighting the wrong war. A forgotten reptilian species pursues its own cryptic agenda. The Bonehunters, always ready for open battle, grow increasingly unhappy about being marched into the empty Wastelands with various semi-trusted allies but no clear goal. Of course a huge and nasty surprise is waiting – something completely, indeed almost disappointingly, out of the blue.

The finale rages with ultra-violent action and devastation, making a satisfying climax even if this is only Helm's Deep and not the Last Battle. Meanwhile, for the promised closing cliff-hanger, certain ancient beings prepare to end the world... Remember, though: during Erikson's aeons of backstory, the world may have ended many times.

It's not just the vast imaginative sweep but the quality of prose that lifts this Malazan sequence far above the usual run of heroic fantasy. Our author makes you work hard for the rewards of his narrative, with its spaghetti of plot strands and multi-named characters. Well worth it, though.

Erikson apologizes for this two-part monster, whose telling needed "something more than modern book-binding technology could accommodate."