2010 SFX Reviews

Orson Scott Card: Ender in Exile

(Publisher: Orbit * £7.99 * 391pp * ISBN: 978-1-84149-227-8)

The interstellar hot potato

The story so far: at age 12, strategic genius Ender Wiggin saved humanity by genocidal wipe-out of the insectile alien "buggers" in Ender's Game, and went on to interstellar sequels. Much later, that first book was rerun from the viewpoint of a brilliant young comrade in Ender's Shadow, whose sequels track his fighting team's later impact on Earth's balance of power. Now Card even more desperately expands the last chapter of Game to novel length ... with significant changes.

Ender, ultimate saviour and war criminal, is a political hot potato who's conveniently dealt with by appointing him governor of a far-off colony world. His nice genius sister – who with his nasty genius brother had achieved total control of world politics through the secret power of blogging – tags along.

Naturally there are problems. The starship's admiral-captain doesn't believe this mere lad should be planetary governor, and plans a quiet coup. One designing colonist mother, looking for a useful marriage, hedges her bets by charming the captain while her teenage daughter works on Ender – who has zero experience of naughty temptations. A later threat involves a next-generation loose end from the Shadow series, a twisted supergenius with murderous intent....

Card excels at poisonously believable relationships and tortured emotions, especially within families. Ender may be great at battle strategy, but can he escape the subtler snares? (Dramatic pause here.) Of course he bloody well can: we've read Ender's Game and know he has to win through for the galactic quest of its final line: "He looked a long time." But he suffers major jolts, mental and physical.

Well-written as always, this should appeal to followers of the extended series but will surely confuse newcomers who read it straight after Ender's Game as the advertised "direct sequel".

Those exterminated "buggers" have now been tastefully renamed "formics", which is a great relief. But (spoiler warning!) no actual formication takes place.

Tom Holt: Blonde Bombshell

(Publisher: Orbit * £12.99 * 362pp * ISBN: 978-1-84149-778-5)

Explosive passion as bomb meets bombette

Pay no attention to that unicorn. Don't be deceived by apparent werewolves. This time, Tom Holt is not writing comic fantasy but stark SF about a coming planetary Armageddon. It's still funny.

The Ostar are highly evolved doglike aliens who keep cute two-legged primates as pets. But they plan to exterminate us uncute Earth primates, allegedly for fouling the galactic pavement with toxic music broadcasts. The Mark Two smart bomb, an intelligent planet-buster, arrives in this miserable backwater of a solar system to clean up our act permanently. First, though ... what happened to the Mark One already sent on the same mission?

Meanwhile: 2017 Earth is much changed thanks to Lucy Pavlov, the blonde bombshell whose looks would make any man (if not dog) salivate. She revolutionized computing and became a multibillionaire with her PavSoft operating system, while the PavTech CarbonBuster ended global warming for only $19.95. Try to guess the source of her amazing knowledge. Go on, try.

The baffled Mark Two AI decides to study Earth personally, downloading into organic form as a hunky male called, inevitably, Mark Twain. Meanwhile, an alcoholic human genius investigates a series of bizarrely impossible locked-vault bank robberies. These, plus the unicorn, the "werewolves", the rampant teleportation and a new element with strangely unmemorable properties, are linked to Lucy by a Holtian plot shaped like a double reverse Gordian knot. All, as one character muses, "weird as two dozen ferrets in a blender."

It's a nifty comic read, fizzing with gigglesome one-liners, even if they don't come as thick and fast as in Holt's more manic fantasies. Beneath the quips, he takes a gloomy view of human life; you can't be sure Earth will be saved.... Enjoyably deranged.

Which parts of novel-writing does Tom Holt find toughest? "The hardest: the beginning, middle and end. The easiest: proof-reading the dedication. Least fun: writing the bleeder."

Jonathan W. Howard: Johannes Cabal the Detective

(Headline * £19.99 * 384pp * ISBN: 978-0755-34796-4)

You can't keep a bad man down

Last year's Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was a peculiar fantasy mixture, lurching from humorous to dark to daft and back again. This sequel flows more smoothly, in a fresh Euro-setting with a Ruritanian flavour and steampunk trimmings.

Cabal's unscrupulous research methods quickly land him in trouble that can be staved off only by reanimating the deceased local Emperor for one last rabble-rousing speech. Which goes gruesomely wrong, leading to incognito escape on the maiden flight of the luxury airship Princess Hortense as it soars aloft via "gyroscopic levitators".

Champagne flows freely in the airship's high society, but so does blood. When Cabal grows curious about a suspicious "suicide", someone tries to give him the push – from 4000 feet above ground. Meanwhile, the one woman who knows and can expose the fugitive is eyeing him menacingly ...

Cabal's inhuman detachment and obsessiveness fit him rather well for the role of investigator. And just like Sherlock Holmes, he can't cope with women. Especially, and embarrassingly, the well-bred nympho whose slick seduction attempt leaves him baffled. Will his new, feeble twinges of conscience goad Cabal into doing the decent thing? Even he may not know.

Detective treats include a classic locked-room mystery, a "Purloined Letter" concealment, many people who aren't who they seem, and some grisly forensic necromancy as Cabal uses his special skills to question the third and goriest corpse. Sometimes he comes up trumps; sometimes he's reverts to being a total bastard. Onward to a slam-bang finale with pistols, stilettos, bombs, entomopters, and a threatened mass plunge from 4000 feet ...

This steampunk thriller with a humorous edge works much better than the first book's ramshackle comedy. Easy reading.

At the back there's a bonus story – an unrelated Johannes Cabal adventure, oozing with black magic. In fact, a load of warlocks.