Thursday, June 30, 2011

More great books

This morning I experienced a level of excitement comparable to that of thousands of teenaged girls screaming their little lungs out at a Justin Bieber concert. Of course, in my case it was a masculine mental squeal of glee, but you get the idea. The cause? A package from Pan Macmillan SA filled with absolute awesomeness!

I received a review copy of China Miéville's latest novel, Embassytown. If that isn't enough to make you drool with envy, I also got an ARC of Neal Asher's The Departure. Yes, that's the new Asher novel (the first in the Owner series) which will only be available in September.

Not even a platoon of Jain sequestered golems* will be able to pry these copies from my hands. Now for the toughest decision ever - which one to read first?

Thanks Pan Macmillan, once again you guys have made my day!

* If you don't get the reference you should definitely read Neal Asher's Cormac series!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: Polity Agent

Title: Polity Agent
Author: Neal Asher
Series: Agent Cormac #4
Pages: 562
ISBN: 9780330521390

From eight hundred years in the future, a runcible gate is opened into the Polity. Those now coming through it had been sent specially to take the alien 'Maker' back to its home civilization in the Small Magellanic cloud.

Once these refugees are safely through, the gate is rapidly shut down because something alien is pursuing them. The gate itself is then dumped into a nearby sun.

From those same refugees, agent Cormac learns that the Maker civilization has been destroyed by devastating alien Jain technology. This naturally raises questions: why was Dragon really sent to the Polity? And why did a Jain node suddenly end up in the hands of someone capable of wreaking the most damage with it?
Polity Agent continues on from where Brass Man left off and starts with a runcible connection being made from 800 years in the future (yes, runcibles can do that!). The team originally sent to take the Maker back to its civilization in the Small Magellanic cloud returns through this time-inconsistent runcible bearing dire news. The Maker civilization has been overrun by Jain technology. This casts doubt on both the purpose of the Dragon construct and the intentions of the Makers.

While this is happening a heretofore unknown entity called the Legate is busy distributing Jain nodes within the Polity. One of these causes an immense Jain outbreak on the planet Coloron resulting in a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Cormac is called in to track down the Legate and find the source of the Jain nodes, setting events in motion that could possibly lead to the destruction of the Polity.

Most of the characters from the previous novels make a return appearance. Even Mr Crane is back for a brief, though pivotal, moment. I was particularly excited to see the return of Jack Ketch, a ship AI, and one of my favourite characters in Brass Man. He isn’t entirely Jack anymore (for reasons I won’t mention), but that just adds a new dimension to him. The unexpected kindness he shows later on in the novel is particularly moving and shows how his gruff demeanour has softened.

Horace Blegg plays a major role this time round and through various retroacts we finally get to learn more about his history. Those of you who have read the earlier novels will know that this is a huge thing. Up to this point Blegg has been an enigma wrapped in a paradox and hidden away within the event horizon of a black hole. Understanding who and what he is was always just out of reach. When it is finally revealed, the implication of Blegg’s true nature has earth shattering consequences for Cormac.

There’s an interesting cast of new characters added to the mix. Arach is a war drone who, out of boredom, volunteers to accompany Cormac. He’s almost like a hyperactive child running around looking for a fight, making him an excellent addition to the team. The other new character is Orlandine, a haiman (as close to a human and AI hybrid as possible) who takes an unexpectedly cautious approach in handling the Jain node she is given by the Legate. She starts out as an unscrupulous character, but later she seems to transform into a reluctant hero figure that might just hold the salvation of the Polity in her hands.

Polity Agent is brimful of revelations. Just like Horace Blegg’s true nature, the real purpose of the Dragon construct and the true intentions of the Makers finally come to light. Something else that left me dumbfounded is the revelation by the Atheter artefact of what its civilization gave up and ultimately became in order to survive the Jain threat. Great stuff!

There are many memorable scenes throughout the novel and Neal’s writing style and superb descriptions make it easy to visualise events. One scene that really stood out for me was during the evacuation of Coloron when the Coloron AI is described cradling a human child in his arms. You have this godlike planetary AI with the power to extinguish the lives of millions of people with a mere thought, and yet he cares enough to risk himself to save a single child. It goes to show that the AIs are often far more human than their actual human counterparts.

It is also impressive to see how events from the previous novels came together and intertwine to reveal a complex plot of a much grander scope than I could ever have imagined. It’s hard to believe that everything wasn’t planned in meticulous detail from the start, but Neal proclaims that he doesn’t really plan anything. I’ll take his word for it, but if this is what he does without much planning I’d love to see what he comes up with if he ever does start planning!

Unlike the previous novels Polilty Agent doesn’t have a self-contained ending. It’s rather used to lay the groundwork for what promises to be an all out confrontation in Line War, the final novel in the series. I can hardly wait!

The verdict:
A terrific read with all the distinctive Asher trademarks – great tech, lots of action, big guns and even bigger explosions. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and have already started Line War. I can’t wait to see how everything turns out. A must read for any space opera fans!

Rating: 8/10

Disclosure: I won a set of Neal Asher's novels in a competition hosted by the author. This hasn't influenced my review in any way. If I hadn't won the competition I would have purchased the novels myself.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Review: Bad Blood

Title: Bad Blood
Author: Amanda Coetzee
Pages: 199
ISBN: 9781770101012
Genre: Crime/Thriller
Source: Received from publisher

Buy it at

An eight-year-old boy is abandoned by his mother at a fairground and raised by a clan of Irish Travellers as one of their own. Given the name 'Harry' (as in any Tom, Dick or Harry) he carves out a reputation as a young, bare knuckle boxer who never backs down, and earns himself the clan name 'Badger'.

Eight years on, Harry severs all ties with his clan and in a final act of rebellion joins the London Metropolitan Police Force. Just as Harry believes he has left his clan roots and 'Badger' behind him, he is sent by his superiors to establish a connection with a clan living on an informal land settlement in Bedford. A Traveller child named Mikey has been abducted and the clan is refusing to cooperate with the investigation.

Harry pairs up with Emily, an idealistic social services liaison officer, to investigate the case. Together they uncover a string of gruesome child murders and abductions dating back to 1985. Badger finds himself drawn deeper into clan life and he is ultimately forced to confront the truth about his own conflicted childhood if he is to save Mikey from becoming another victim of a twisted serial killer.

After reading nothing but science fiction for the last three weeks I needed a change of pace. As luck would have it a review copy of Bad Blood arrived just as I was contemplating what to tackle next. Perfect timing!

I started reading the first few pages and was completely hooked before I had even reached the end of the first chapter. I simply couldn’t put it down and finished it in one sitting (grumbling at the people who dared to interfere with my reading time).

Bad Blood is the debut novel of South African author Amanda Coetzee. While she lives in South Africa the novel is set in Bedford, England where she grew up. This came as somewhat of a surprise since I expected it to be set locally.

The novel kicks off with a child being abandoned in the prologue and follows that scene with the kidnapping and murder of a young boy. In both cases the author manages to perfectly portray the emotions involved - the desperation of the mother abandoning her child, the fear of the kidnapped child and the evil menace of the killer.

Her writing style is easy to read and sets a frenetic pace. The dialogue stands out and is very well done. I particularly liked the Irish accents used by the Travellers (gypsies). The characters are well written and engaging and, as mentioned earlier, she has a knack for showing their emotions making them even more believable.

I found the portrayal of the lifestyle of the Traveller community very interesting. They have a communal approach to life which causes them to be ostracized and discriminated against, yet what sets them apart is also what gives them their strength. Having grown up as a Traveller the main character, Detective Inspector Harry O’ Connor, has to act as a bridge between them and the authorities. In the process he has to face his own past and reconcile with the people he turned his back on.

Ultimately the novel revolves around Harry and his search for self. Since his abandonment as a child he has had to cope with a sense of rejection. Not knowing who his parents were has left him scarred. As a result he feels that he doesn’t belong anywhere and sabotages his relationships with other people in order to keep them from getting too close. In the end he realises that you can’t outrun your past and that there’s far more to you than just the blood that runs through your veins.

The Verdict:
I really enjoyed reading this. The race against time to save Mikey, the Traveller boy, made for gripping reading and had me on the edge of my seat throughout. My only criticism would be that I felt the identity of the killer and his connection to Harry was too predictable and revealed too quickly. That limited the impact of the plot twist somewhat, but also added a deeper dimension to the final confrontation between him and the killer.

If you like the Criminal Minds television show or authors like Ian Rankin and Micheal Connelly, then you will love this. Amanda Coetzee is definitely an author to keep an eye on!

Read my interview with Amanda Coetzee

Rating: 7/10

Friday, June 17, 2011

A New arrival

Today I received a review copy of Amanda Coetzee's Bad Blood from Pan Macmillan South Africa. Included in the parcel was some unexpected extras such as two promotional postcards and a nice bookmark (which I'm sure one of my nieces will appropriate as soon as they spot it). So feel free to let your drooling commence...

I actually finished reading it a couple of hours ago, so I'll hopefully have a review up by tomorrow. Keep your eyes peeled.

Thanks again to Pan Macmillian. You made my day!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review: Brass Man

Title: Brass Man
Author: Neal Asher
Series: Agent Cormac #3
Pages: 568
ISBN: 9780330521376

On the primitive world Cull, a knight errant called Anderson hunts a dragon, not knowing that elsewhere is a resurrected brass killing machine, Mr Crane, assisting in a similar hunt. Learning that this old enemy still lives, agent Cormac pursues, while scientist Mika begins discovering the horrifying truth about an ancient alien technology.

Meanwhile, Mr Crane himself doggedly seeks to escape a violent past that he can neither forget nor truly remember. So he continues mindlessly in his search for sanity, which he may discover in the next instant or not for a thousand years...

Brass Man, the third novel in the Cormac series, takes place a year after the events in The Line of Polity (review here). Both Masada and Elysium have been quarantined to prevent the spread of the Jain mycelium. Just as the quarantine is about to be lifted a part of the Occam’s Razor is found and Ian Cormac is called in to investigate, setting the scene for yet another rip-roaring adventure.

Most people who have read Gridlinked fell in love with the character of Mr Crane, which is strange since he is a psychotic brass killing machine who enjoys ripping his victims apart. Mr Crane is definitely one of my favourite characters as well. It’s difficult to explain exactly what makes him such an appealing character; perhaps it’s the fact that he is so deadly while at the same time seeming almost childlike and innocent. You just want to cuddle him when he starts playing with his toys. (Obviously that would be a terrible idea. He’ll most likely rip both your arms off and beat you to death with them if you tried it.)

As the title would suggest Brass Man focuses mostly on the enigmatic Mr Crane and he completely steals the show. We finally get to know more about his history and how he became the ruthless killing machine he appears to be. Through various retroacts (flashbacks to his past) it is soon apparent that there is far more to Mr Crane than meets the eye.

The Jain technology unleashed by Skellor poses a huge threat to the Polity and there is a palpable sense of urgency as the AIs pull out all the stops in an effort to contain it. All paths ultimately lead to Cull, a backwater planet populated by survivors of a generation ship launched during the start of human expansion into space. The lifestyle of the people on Cull is reminiscent of the Wild West with people walking around with primitive firearms and trying to scrape out a living by mining metals. Like Masada, Cull is an unforgiving place filled with horrific wildlife. I’m sure a droon will give even a hooder nightmares (or at the very least some severe acid indigestion)!

The Polity AIs play a much larger role this time round. We get introduced to Jerusalem, an almost godlike AI that is in charge of researching the Jain technology, and Jack Ketch, a warship with a penchant for collecting antique execution devices (a fitting hobby since he's named after an infamous executioner). Each AI has a distinctive personality and it becomes apparent that, like humans, they have motives of their own. I really liked Jack Ketch and his sense of humour. During one space battle he bellows “Now I’m shitting laser beams!” which had me laughing out loud, especially since he found himself in dire circumstances. I really hope he makes a return in the rest of the series.

As usual the various storylines are intricately woven and come together seamlessly in an action-packed finale that gets your heart racing and the adrenaline flowing. The ending is just mind-blowing and hints at countless possibilities for what is yet to come.

The Verdict:
A brilliant read which I thoroughly enjoyed! Neal Asher hits all the right spots yet again – great action, engaging characters, magnificent space battles and a fascinating story. If he keeps going like this it looks like I’m going to run out of superlatives before I reach the end of the series.

Rating: 9/10

Disclosure: I won a set of Neal Asher's novels in a competition hosted by the author. This hasn't influenced my review in any way. If I hadn't won the competition I would have purchased the novels myself.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Colossal Book Haul

I'm hopelessly addicted to books. A couple of months ago I decided to cut back on book purchases. I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't help myself. One of my coping mechanisms was to stop buying new books and "rescue" second hand books. Heck, if they are second hand they can hardly count as new book purchases right?

Rationalise as I might, I failed completely in cutting back on book purchases. As a matter of fact I actually increased the number of books I bought! In just under two months I bought a total of thirty one books (8 new and 23 second hand).

Rather than fight my addiction I've decided to embrace it. So, with gleeful joy I present to you the newest additions to my hoard.

Rescued books (second hand purchases)

The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
Powersat by Ben Bova
Moonrise by Ben Bova
The Fall Revolution by Ken MacLeod
The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod
Newton's Wake by Ken MacLeod
Coyote by Allen Steele
Axis by Robert Charles Wilson
Geodesica Ascent by Sean Williams and Shane Dix
Geodesica Descent by Sean Williams and Shane Dix
Down the Bright Way by Robert Reed
Tides of LIght by Gregory Benford
Furious Gulf by Gregory Benford
Great Sky River by Gregory Benford
Across the Sea of Suns by Gregory Benford
The Martian Race by Gregory Benford

A Traveler's Guide to Mars by William K Hartman
Constellation Guidebook by Antonín Rükl
Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris
Death from the Skies by Phil Plait

New books purchased from The Book Depository

Most of the books I received were pre-orders I placed at the start of the year. I only bought four books on impulse, which actually shows extreme restraint on my part.

Mars by Ben Bova
Return to Mars by Ben Bova
Evolution by Stephen Baxter
Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds
Deadline by Mira Grant
The Legend of Drizzt Collectors Edition IV by R.A. Salvatore
The Noise Within by Ian Whates
The Noise Revealed by Ian Whates

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Awesomeness of Asher

This is a long overdue post. My camera was giving me some problems and I never got round to posting the photos. I invite you to feast your eyes on the Awesomeness of Asher.

Back in December of last year Neal Asher had a bookmark design competition on his bog. I cobbled together an entry and submitted it (download the first bookmark set or the second bookmark set). In January Neal informed me that I had actually won (woo hoo!!!) and that my hoard of Asher novels were on its way.  It took a little more than three months, but they finally arrived at the start of May.

I received almost the entire body of Neal’s work to date - the Cormac series; the Spatterjay trilogy; the Polity novels and his standalone novel, Cowl. Most of the novels feature the gorgeous new covers designed by Jon Sullivan. When I say gorgeous I really mean it, photos don’t do them justice at all.

Drooling yet? Each novel is also signed and personalised making them even more special.

Thanks again Neal. They will forever have pride of place in my book collection!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Review: The Line of Polity

Title: The Line of Polity
Author: Neal Asher
Series: Agent Cormac #2
Pages: 663
ISBN: 9780330512565

Outlink station Miranda has been destroyed by a nanomycelium and the very nature of this sabotage suggests that the alien bioconstruct, Dragon, is somehow involved.

Agent Cormac must investigate this, and also navigate the difficulties of Masada, a world about to be subsumed as the Line of Polity is drawn across it.

The wilderness of Masada is without breathable air and full of dangers. Roaming out there is the rogue biophysicist, Skellor, who controls something so potent the Polity AIs will stop at nothing to prevent him from using it...

In The Line of Polity, the second novel in the Cormac series, Agent Ian Cormac is back with his ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ approach to solving problems. He is joined by most of the cast from the first novel, Gridlinked. Surprisingly the focus this time round is not on Ian Cormac but rather on these returning characters. It’s refreshing to see how the characters have matured and how they continue to develop.

While Asher’s novels are known for their fast pace and focus on action it doesn’t mean that he neglects characterisation. The myriad of characters are all well fleshed out and engaging. There are a lot of things happening at once and, initially, it can be slightly confusing trying to keep track of what’s happening to whom. It soon becomes second nature though and once you are drawn into the storyline you don’t notice it at all.

Most of the action takes place on the planet of Masada, a brutal wilderness planet populated by creatures straight out of nightmare. Asher has an immense imagination that brings forth an intricate ecosystem teaming with horrifying creatures like the hooder, siluroyne and nonsense spouting gabbleduck. The world he creates is both fascinatingly believable and astoundingly hostile to human life – a perfect setting for a rebellion.

The main plot revolves around the population of Masada rising up against the religious Theocracy that rules their world. Religion is used as a tool to enslave the general population while those in the upper echelons enrich themselves and feast on the spoils bought by the lives of the workers. This dim view on religion might irk some people, but I found it thought provoking and in some instances quite eye-opening.

As if a rebellion isn’t enough there’s also a rogue biophysicist on the loose. Skellor, makes for a truly terrifying villain, especially after he makes use of the Jain technology. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s one poignant scene onboard the Occam’s Razor that really stood out for me and underscored how inhuman Skellor had become.

For those who like a tad of romance mixed in with their sci-fi there’s even a minor ‘boy meets girl’ story arc between two teenaged characters from very different worlds. Eldene is a orphaned girl forced into labour as a pond worker on Masada and Apis Coolant is a Outlinker boy genetically engineered to live in low-gravity. How do their paths cross? Well you’ll need to read the book to find out!

The corrupted versions of fairytales at the start of each chapter are also a nice touch. I’ll never be able to look at Goldilocks or any of the other classics in quite the same way again. I’ll always be expecting a gabbleduck or hooder to be lurking somewhere, waiting for the just the right moment to pounce.

The Verdict:
A bloody good read! I enjoyed this far more than Gridlinked, but I think it is due to now being more familiar with the characters and the technology of the Polity universe. The Line of Polity has it all – high tech weapons, AI and golems, terrifying monsters, brutal battles and huge spaceships. It makes for very engaging reading. Near the end I literally couldn’t put it down and was surprised to discover that I had read till way past midnight.

I can't wait to read the third novel, Brassman, to see what happens next.

If you enjoy fast paced, action-packed sci-fi then this is definitely a must!

Rating: 9/10

Disclosure: I won a set of Neal Asher's novels in a competition hosted by the author. This hasn't influenced my review in any way. If I hadn't won the competition I would have purchased the novels myself.