2011 SFX Reviews

Steven Erikson: The Crippled God

(Publisher: Bantam Press * £20.00 * 923pp * ISBN: 978-0-593-04635-7)

Twilight of at least one god

Here's volume ten of the Malazan Book of the Fallen... really part two of #9, Dust of Dreams. New readers should begin much earlier. These books have never been lightweight, fluffy reading. Not just physically massive, they're densely loaded with millennia of war-torn history involving human and nonhuman races, dragons, gods, undead and worse.

This final action centres on the enigmatic Crippled God: alien, chained, eternally suffering. One elder race fancies stealing his power to wipe out a horrid infestation known as humanity. A rival plan, to free the Cripple instead, sends our favourite Malazan-human army – the dwindling, indomitable Bonehunters – on a suicide march into the world's worst desert. Devious gods release the Otataral Dragon, another destroyer of all life. Elsewhere, outnumbered troops mount a harrowing last-ditch defence against invaders pouring through a breach between realities. Other forces are on the move.

Again, complications multiply. Bonehunter allies change sides after a bad attack of theology. Assassins do their stuff. In high-tension battle scenes, swords clash with magic and explosive munitions. The most haunting passages show the Bonehunters dying of thirst but pushing on, swapping gallows humour, hoping for a miracle ...

Erikson's immense back-story blurs the suspense a little. Will one of his invincible wandering warriors arrive to turn victory into defeat, or vice-versa? Will more gods intervene? On this battlefield, though, even gods can die.

As always, it's the quality of writing that grips you by the short and curlies. After the usual shock of immersion in multiplex storylines – who are all these people? – The Crippled God becomes an irresistible page-turner. A fine finale despite a few loose ends.

Keynote quote from p334 of this monster: We will bring this book to an end, one way or another.

Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson: Hellhole

(Publisher: Simon & Schuster * £12.99 * 532pp * ISBN: 978-1-84737-426-4; also hardback 978-1-84737-993-1)

The space-redcoats are coming!

Nothing tweaks the American heartstrings like a saga of plucky colonists who've carved out a new frontier and gloriously rebel against the parent empire's cruel taxation. Just to rub it in, the central planets of this empire (the Constellation) are known as the Crown Jewels, though their despotic queen (or Diadem) is surprisingly called Michella rather than Georgethirdia.

Chief rebel General Adolphus, once defeated by jolly unsporting tactics, has spent ten years plotting in exile on the harsh planet nicknamed Hellhole. With "a shot heard 'round the galaxy", he aims to unite the oppressed colonies of the Deep Zone (call it the New World) and break the Constellation monopoly on stringlines, which are sort of railway tracks in space for faster-than-light travel. Physicists may tend to scream at this point.

Thickening the mix, characters with a wide variety of agendas converge on Hellhole. Scenes on Constellation worlds show the empire as lusciously corrupt, with copious backstabbing among its lords and ladies, while wicked old Diadem Michella fiddles the legal system. Dark back-story secrets are revealed. Meanwhile Hellhole's long-extinct natives make an unexpected comeback, downloading to share the bodies of human volunteers. They're friendly, helpful, and gifted with awesome psi powers – but do they speak with forked tongue and secretly covet the settlers' scalps? Oh, surely not ...

Hellhole is widescreen yet lightweight space opera, a stew of familiar ingredients up to and including the kitchen sink. It's smooth, competent, and readable. Anyone hoping for major clashes or payoffs will have to wait, though. As the packaging carefully doesn't say, this fat volume is merely the opening of the Hellhole Trilogy.

Our authors are famed for relentless Dune spinoffs, and yes, there are resemblances: galactic intrigue, user-hostile worlds, appendices, glossary ...

Tom Holt: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

(Publisher: Orbit * £12.99 * 358pp * ISBN: 978-1-84149-507-1)

Which came first, the [SPOILER] or the [SPOILER]?

You can rely on Tom Holt for ludicrous shenanigans of misused magic, bumbling bureaucracy and stark Lovecraftian terrors like installing broadband on Windows. His latest is unusually tortuous and silly.

When a transdimensional McGuffin goes astray, illegal knots in the universe start to unravel. Polly, real-estate solicitor at Blue Remembered Hills Developments, is haunted by doppelgangers doing her work and drinking her coffee. A dry-cleaner's shop goes on permanent walkabout. BRHD housing developments, far too many somehow packed into one village, are quietly vanishing. Many people, mainly uppity female solicitors, have turned into chickens.

So far, so daft. The not-quite-human BRHD boss has no idea of his identity or origins (hints are given) but knows enough to hire a top occult investigator. Meanwhile a Mysterious Presence in a secret place has for centuries awaited the answer to an ancient conundrum involving chickens. Not the one about crossing the road.

Plenty of Holtian quips, unexpected similes ("Her eyebrows shot up like oil prices") and lunatic set-pieces like a great many chickens driving an old Ford Cortina ... Anything can happen, it seems. You turn the pages wondering, "whatever next?"

Eventually the cosmic riddle is solved – quite a trick since all possible answers have already been scornfully rejected – and the unfeasibly complex back-story of magical malfeasance is explained, with a few loose ends still dangling. Holt has been funnier, but this is still jolly droll.

"Tom Holt, Author" is an anagram of "Hurl Hot Tomato" – a practice forbidden by the SFX Reviewers' Code.