Sunday, July 31, 2011

Review: The Last Four Things

Title: The Left Hand of God
Author: Paul Hoffman
Pages: 422
ISBN: 9780718155209
Series: Left Hand of God #2
Published: 2011
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Returning to the Sanctuary of the Redeemers, Thomas Cale is told by the Lord Militant that the destruction of mankind is necessary – it is the only way to undo God’s greatest mistake.

Cale seemingly accepts his role in the ending of the world – fate has painted him as the Left Hand of God, the Angel of Death. Absolute power is within his grasp – the terrifying zeal and military might of the Redeemers a weapon for him to handle as simply as he once used a knife.

But perhaps not even the grim power that the Redeemers hold over Cale is enough – the boy who turns from love to poisonous hatred in a heartbeat; the boy who switches between kindness and sheer violence in the blink of an eye. The annihilation that the Redeemers seek may well be in Cale’s hands – but his soul is far stranger than they could ever know.

The Last Four Things continues from where The Left Hand of God ended. Cale is back under the control of Redeemer Bosco after being betrayed by Arbell. Bosco believes that Cale is the wrath of God incarnate and wants him to lead the Redeemers in a God decreed mission to wipe the entire human race from the face of the Earth.

As I said in my review of The Left Hand of God, I found the use of real-world names and countries disconcerting. You don’t really know whether this is a fantasy world, the real world or a mixture of both. In the end I settled at viewing it as a combination of an alternate history and alternate reality version of Earth, which seemed to help.

Hoffman continues in the same writing style, extensively borrowing from other works and incorporating them into his story. One of the most apparent to me was the use of the events in the Boer war as a mould for “The Folk”, which Cale duly decimates using the same type of scorched earth tactics the British used in real life. There are many similar examples throughout the novel and it almost seems as if the author has gotten too used to using historic events to bother creating some of his own. The flipside to this is that, provided you are familiar with the source material, there is a chance that you might enjoy how he integrates it into the novel.

The writing style feels more convoluted than the first novel and the story meanders quite a bit. At times I was thoroughly engaged, but most of the time I was hoping for something exciting to happen. The dialogue between Bosco and Cale often felt as if they enjoyed spouting philosophical or political rhetoric at each other instead of having actual conversations. Their interactions mostly deal with religious dogma and political maneuvering which became quite tiring after a while. There were some humorous moments though, especially one incident where Bosco’s entire plan gets foiled by bureaucratic ineptitude.

Cale is his usual gloomy, unpredictable self and he’s even more jaded after the betrayal by Arbell and seeing the bloodshed brought on by his actions. Vague Henri is still the supportive friend and his devotion and attempts to keep Cale grounded is touching and often humorous. One character that evolves quite a bit is Kleist. After going his separate way he inadvertently saves another maiden in distress, Daisy, and joins her clan where he builds a life for himself. It was interesting to see him get to play a larger role in the story. Most of the other characters from the first novel only make brief appearances towards the end, when they are used to set the stage for the forthcoming sequel.

Religious cynicism continues to resonate throughout The Last Four Things. It seems Hoffman has a very dim view of religion which is extensively reflected in the narrative and plot points. In this case it’s even more severe than in the first novel. So, if digs at religion (the Catholic faith in particular) is likely to upset you be forewarned.

The Verdict:
This was a slow read for me. The story is interesting enough, but gets bogged down too much in the infighting and political machinations of the Redeemers. The pacing is a bit uneven with long boring stretches, where nothing much happens, interspersed with a couple of exhilarating scenes.

The ending is intriguing and closes with a considerable cliffhanger. I’ve grown quite attached to Cale and his companions and for that reason alone I want to see how things ultimately turn out.

The Rating: 5.5/10

Thursday, July 28, 2011

On My Shelf - B is for...

On My Shelf is a new monthly meme I'm trying to get off the ground. It’s all about sharing the books on your shelf in alphabetical order, according to author.

It’s a very chilled-out meme, so you can plan it in any way you like, and post at any time of the month, any number of times you like.

For July we’re tackling A & B.

Want to participate? Instructions can be found here. Time is running out for this month, so don't delay!

This is part two of my On the Shelf post. Since I had so many 'A' and 'B' authors I had to split them in two. So it is with endless joy that I present the B part of my collection for your perusal.

Ian M. Banks

Consider Phlebas (The Culture)The Player of GamesUse of WeaponsExcessionSurface DetailThe AlgebraistAgainst a Dark Background

Ian M. Banks is one of my favourite British science fiction authors. Some of his novels are a bit hit or miss, but I really like his Culture series. I've got quite a few gaps to fill in my collection, but in time I'll get them all.

Consider Phlebas
The Player of Games
Use of Weapons
Surface Detail

The Algebraist
Against a Dark Background

Stephen Baxter

RingXeelee: An Omnibus: Timelike Infinity, Raft, Flux, RingThe Time ShipsEvolution

Stephen Baxter is one of those authors that you either like or you don't. I quite like his writing and vaguely remember reading some of his work while at school. I recently got the Xeelee Omnibus which I'm looking forward to read.

Xeelee Omnibus: Timelike Infinity / Raft / Flux / Ring

The Time Ships

Gregory Benford

In the Ocean of Night (Galactic Center, #1)Across the Sea of Suns (Galactic Center, #2)Great Sky RiverTides of Light (Galactic Center, #4)Furious Gulf (Galactic Center, #5)Sailing Bright Eternity (Galactic Center, #6)The Martian Race (Adventures of Viktor & Julia, #1)The Sunborn (Adventures of Viktor & Julia, #2)ArtifactCosmBeyond Infinity

Gregory Benford was recommended on one of the science fiction forums I participate in. Most of his stuff is quite difficult to get your hands on, so when Better World Books had a large selection of his work I jumped at the chance. I haven't read any of these yet.

Galactic Center:
In the Ocean of Night
Across the Sea of Suns
Great Sky River
Tides of Light
Furious Gulf
Sailing Bright Eternity

The Martian Race

Beyond Infinity

Ben Bova

MarsReturn to MarsPowersatMoonriseThe Precipice The Asteroid Wars 1The Rock Rats (The Grand Tour; also Asteroid Wars)The Silent War (The Grand Tour; also Asteroid Wars)Aftermath (Asteroid Wars, #4)

My go-to guy when it comes to hard science fiction. I only recently started adding his books to my shelves after liking the Asteroid War series. I'm looking forward to reading the Grand Tour novels.

Grand Tour:
Return to Mars


Asteroid Wars:
The Precipice
The Rock Rats
The Silent War
The Aftermath

Peter V. Brett

The Warded Man (Demon Cycle, #1)The Desert Spear (Demon Trilogy, #2)

Can it be? Finally some fantasy. Haven't read these yet, but they came highly recommended so I'm sure I'm going to love them.

Demon Cycle:
The Warded Man
The Desert Spear

David Brin

Sundiver (The Uplift Saga, #1)Startide Rising (The Uplift Saga, #2)The Uplift War (The Uplift Saga, #3)Brightness Reef (Uplift Storm Trilogy, #1)Infinity's Shore (Uplift Storm Trilogy, #2)Heaven's Reach (Uplift Storm Trilogy, #3)

One of the authors I've been planning to read for ages. I remember liking the first Uplift novel after getting it from my local library about ten years ago. They didn't have any of the others so I never got to see what happened.

Startide Rising
The Uplift War
Brightness Reef
Infinity's Shore
Heaven's Reach

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On My Shelf - A is for...

On My Shelf is a new monthly meme I'm trying to get off the ground. It’s all about sharing the books on your shelf in alphabetical order, according to author.

It’s a very chilled-out meme, so you can plan it in any way you like, and post at any time of the month, any number of times you like.

For July we’re tackling A & B.

Want to participate? Instructions can be found here. Time is running out for this month, so don't delay!

I've been a bit remiss in leaving this till almost the last minute and I have a huge amount of books from 'A' and 'B' authors. Today I'm tackling all the A's and hopefully I'll be able to get the B's done before the end of the month.

Joe Abercrombie

The only fantasy author in the list. Abercrombie was recommended by Neal Asher and at the time Amazon had some great deals on his entire body of work. I couldn't resist a bargain and got them all. Still have to read them though...

First Law:
The Blade Itself
Before They Are Hanged
Last Argument of Kings

Best Served Cold
The Heroes

Roger MacBride Allen

One of those authors someone recommended and which I haven't gotten to yet. Hopefully I'll read them sometime soon.

Hunted Earth
The Ring of Charon
The Shattered Sphere

Chronicles of Solace
The Depths of Time
The Ocean of Years
The Shores of Tomorrow

Kevin J. Anderson

Some people love Kevin J. Anderson and others hate him. I still have to read the Saga of Seven Suns. I bought these quite a while ago since the story sounded intriguing and the series just looks stunning on my shelf.

Saga of Seven Suns
Hidden Empire
A Forest of Stars
Horizon Storms
Scattered Suns
Of Fire and Night
Metal Swarm
The Ashes of Worlds

Neal Asher

I'm a HUGE Asher fan. He's one of those authors with the ability to hit the right spot time after time. If you are looking for an action-packed sci-fi read, then he's the author for you.

I loved his Cormac series and The Departure, the first in the Owner trilogy, is also excellent. I'm hoarding the rest of his novels and reading them sparingly. I can't imagine not having an Asher novel waiting to be read.

If you love stunning covers you definitely need to get the new editions of his novels with the Jon Sullivan covers. Absolutely beautiful!

Cormac Series:
The Line of Polity
Brass Man
Polity Agent
The Line War

The Skinner
The Voyage of the Sable Keech

Prador Moon
Shadow of the Scorpion
The Technician
The Gabble and Other Stories


The Departure (ARC)

Isaac Asimov

No science fiction collection can be complete without lots of Asimov. I was lucky enough to be given most of these when someone who "doesn't like sci-fi" cleared out their library. How they got there in the first place still baffles me, but I was overjoyed to get them.

I still need to read most of these, but I have finished Encounters, Nemesis and The Complete Robot. I've been meaning to start the Foundation series for ages now, but so far I haven't gotten round to it (blasphemy, I know!).

I, Robot
The Rest of the Robots
The Complete Robot

Prelude to Foundation
Forward the Foundation
Foundation and Empire
Second Foundation
Foundation's Edge
Foundation and Earth

Fantastic Voyage
Fantastic Voyage II
Isaac Asimov Presents Great Science Fiction #25

The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov
The Robots of Dawn

That's all I have on my shelf as far as A goes. What do you have on yours?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review: The Left Hand of God

Title: The Left Hand of God
Author: Paul Hoffman
Pages: 512
ISBN: 9780141042374
Series: Left Hand of God #1
Published: 2010
Genre: Fantasy

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

The Sanctuary of the Redeemers is a place where children endure brutal cruelty and violence in the name of the One True Faith. Lost in the Sanctuary's huge maze of corridors is a boy. He is strange witty and charming, and violent. But when he opens the wrong door at the wrong time he witnesses an act so horrible he must flee, or die.

You know life is tough when you view rat meat as a delicacy. Life is extremely harsh for fourteen-year-old Thomas Cale. From his earliest years he has lived in the Sanctuary, a monastery run by the sadistic and brutal Redeemers who enjoy nothing more than inflicting pain. It’s a dark and forbidding place with one purpose, and one purpose only – turning young boys into brutal, remorseless killing machines to fight a religious war. Most of the boys taken there don’t live for long. When Cale makes a gruesome discovery he and his companions are forced to flee with the Redeemers hot on their trail...

The Left Hand of God starts out great, wavers in the middle and then ends on a reasonably high note with a large battle and a cliffhanger ending. The dark and brutal life the young boys have to cope with at the Sactuary immediately hooked me. The Redeemers are absolute bastards and their cruelty knows no bounds. You immediately empathise with Cale’s plight and want him to escape from the horrible place, which he duly does.

Religion forms the backbone of the story, but it is a blatantly twisted version of the Catholic and Christian faith. Hoffman repeatedly uses names and events borrowed from the real world even going so far as putting Jesus of Nazareth in the belly of the whale (in his version of Jonah and the whale). Crucifixion is replaced by hanging and various other religious rites are used in some distorted form. It almost felt as if this take on religion was intentionally intended to offend.

He also uses actual countries and regions (Norwegians, Dutch and even the Karoo) and tacks these on to the nations he has created. I read fantasy to escape from the real world, so these constant reminders of reality dispelled my sense of wonder and disbelief and detracted from enjoying what otherwise could have been an intriguing world.

Where the novel does shine is in the engaging character of Thomas Cale. I really grew fond of him and his broody, unpredictable and deadly nature. He is the epitome of an antihero. You never quite know if he’s going to do a good deed or if he’s going to rip someone’s throat out. His companions, Vague Henri and Kleist also have their own distinct personalities and their constant quips with Cale added some much needed humour into the mix.

There’s political intrigue, some daring rescues and even a love interest for Cale. The writing style is easy to read and fast-paced, but the omniscient narrator tends to overpower some scenes. The series shows promise and it would be interesting to see where Hoffman goes with the characters.

The Verdict:
If you can look past the religious overtones and constant borrowing from the real world this is an enjoyable read. It kept my attention and intrigued me enough to want to read the sequel. Fans of Brent Week’s Night Angel trilogy should like this, although The Left Hand of God is not nearly as well executed.

The Rating: 6/10

Sunday, July 24, 2011

New arrivals

I've been on a book buying ban for the last month or so, so I don't have many new arrivals. I was doing pretty well until I succumbed to the temptation of a Better World Books sale (after not buying any books for 27 days - a new personal best!). Those are still en-route and I'm hoping they'll arrive within the next couple of weeks.

I did receive two review copies from Penguin Books South Africa though.

The Rogue by Trudi Canavan - The second book in the Traitor Spy trilogy
The Last Four Things by Paul Hoffmann - The second book in the Left Hand of God trilogy.

Both of these look very interesting and I've been meaning to try some of Trudi Canavan's books for a while now. Since they are both the second books in a series I will have to read the previous ones before I review these.

In My Mailbox is hosted by The Story Siren

Friday, July 22, 2011

A tribute to the Space Shuttle

I grew up with the space shuttle. At every opportunity I watched each and every launch on TV and later via NASA TV streaming over the internet. I was a bit too young to witness the loss of Challenger, but I will never forget as Columbia fragmented during re-entry. I was watching the landing live via NASA TV and I was completely devastated. It took two years, but the space shuttle flew again. In 2005 Discovery took to the skies and that amazing sense of wonder was rekindled again.

The launch of Atlantis on 8 July was a bittersweet moment. For the last time in human history a space shuttle charged into the sky on pillars of flame.. I made my whole family watch, even though they didn't seem to care as much about it as I did. It was history in the making, and like the events of 9/11, will remain with me for life. On Thursday, 21 July, Atlantis returned home safely bringing the era of the space shuttle to a close.

There are no words to describe the impact the shuttle program had on my life. I shared the excitement and peril with each and every crew. I held my breath during every launch and sighed in relief at every safe return. The video above goes a long way in sharing that sense of awe. Each time I watch it I break out in goose bumps. I challenge anyone to watch it and not be touched.

The future of manned spaceflight is unclear at the moment. Let's hope the commercial companies will be able to step in, fill NASA's shoes and keep the dream alive.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: Deadlands

Title: Deadlands
Author: Lily Herne
Pages: 293
ISBN: 9780143527695
Source: Won in a competition hosted by the publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Horror

Buy it from

When seventeen-year-old Lele de La Fortuin and her brother are forced to move to the city enclave to live with their estranged father and bitchy, war-hero stepmother, she has no idea her world is about to implode. Stuck in a school run by the Resurrectionists - a fanatical sect who worship the sinister, all-powerful Guardians - Lele dreams of escape. But she's trapped. No one can survive in the Deadlands, the shattered remains of Cape Town's suburbs, without being turned into one of the living dead.

No one, that is, except for a renegade group known as the Mall Rats. But who are they? And are they the answer to Lele's prayers, or is she about to find herself in more trouble than even she can imagine?

Something went wrong during the 2010 Soccer World Cup when the dead starting rising and attacking people. Ten years later, after fighting a losing battle, the surviving humans live in barricaded enclaves. The mysterious ‘Guardians’, humanlike figures with the ability to control the dead, offer them protection as long as they are willing to pay the price…

Deadlands is the debut novel by Lily Herne (the pseudonym for mother and daughter writing duo, Sarah and Savannah Lotz) and is set in Cape Town and surrounds. Don’t expect sunny days at the beach though. This is a post-apocalyptic Cape Town straight from your worst nightmares. Almost everything has been destroyed. Hordes of the living dead prowl the ravaged landscape and those crazy enough to venture into the Deadlands don’t last long. Society has collapsed and those in charge worship the Guardians and zombies as saviors.

The story is told through the eyes of Lele, a feisty seventeen-year-old girl who, together with her brother, is forced to live with her estranged father and his new wife after her grandmother passes away. The first person perspective really works well and as Lele comes to grips with life in the enclave the back-story and reality of post-apocalyptic life slowly unfolds.

The characters are well-written and believable. Initially I was a bit concerned since the characters Lele first encounters at her new school were severely stereotyped (Thabo - the hunk; Zit Face - the outcast; Summer and Nyameka - the airhead beauty queens), but after she encounters the Mall Rats things were much better. The members of the Mall Rats are all distinctive characters with their own unique personalities and backgrounds. I loved the fact that both Lele and Saint, the main female characters, are more than capable of looking after themselves and kicking some serious zombie butt. My favourite character was Ginger, the movie-crazed, pop-culture spouting Brit who really adds some great humor into the mix (especially since Lele doesn’t get any of the pop-culture references).

Deadlands is an emotional rollercoaster ride, sad, terrifying, funny and thought-provoking all in one. The writing is fast-paced, easy to read and engaging. While the story is full of drama interspersed with lighter moments it also tackles some serious issues. The religious and political undertones at the start of the novel were very interesting and a great counterpoint to current politics in SA. The Resurrectionist cult in charge of the enclave is as corrupt as its predecessor and through copious amounts of propaganda they try to control the population. They teach their own selectively revised version of history and show violent films in order to highlight how terrible the world was before the Guardians came to save humanity from itself. As their power grows they become increasingly hostile towards anyone who dares to oppose them, negating the freedom South Africans fought for in the first place.

The unique take on zombies was a breath of fresh air. Unlike their movie counterparts these zombies aren’t slow, bumbling idiots and going for the brain won’t necessarily kill them. Newly turned zombies (hatchlings) are fast and deadly. Only after their bodies are old and decayed do they become less lethal. The true origins of the zombies and Guardians remain unclear, but hopefully this will be explored more in the forthcoming sequel.

There were some things that irritated me. The excessive use of prognostications to build tension really got to me after a while. Almost every chapter seems to end with some line hinting at future calamity or intrigue. A couple of examples:
“What I didn’t know, and couldn’t have guessed, was that they were about to get a whole lot worse.” (p 11)
“But, as I was about to find out, that was way easier said than done.” (p 15)
“I couldn’t have been more wrong.” (p 28)
“Of course, later on, I found out exactly what he meant by that.” (p 40)
Used in moderation this is a very effective technique, but with overuse it quickly loses its impact.

There’s also a fight scene which seems to have a part missing. The characters get surprised by a zombie, weapons are drawn and then the zombie just seems to vanish. From the context it is evident that there was a fight, but it is never mentioned that the zombie is killed. One character does wipe his knife afterwards, but aside from drawing it when the zombie first appears, he never actually uses it. (This happens at the bottom of page 116 for those interested).

Despite the shortcomings I really enjoyed Deadlands and I'll definitely pick up the sequel when it's published. The whole world and concept has me hooked and it will be interesting to see what this writing duo can come up with next.

The Verdict:
Deadlands is a YA zombie novel with a uniquely South African setting and a refreshing take on zombies. It’s a gripping read with some unexpected plot twists and captivating characters. Despite being aimed at young adults it will also appeal to more mature readers as well. If you like zombie novels this is an absolute must, but even if zombies aren’t your thing it is well worth a try. It definitely beats sparkly vampires!

The Rating: 7/10

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Review: The Metalmark Contract

Title: The Metalmark Contract
Author: David Batchelor
Series: Metalmark #1
Pages: 245
ISBN: 9781612960111
Source: Review copy provided by author

The alien Metalmark offered mankind a starship and its advanced technology in a trade for the rights to planet Mercury and moon Triton. What could go wrong? But his appearance sent the nations of Earth into turmoil as many people suspected danger and a trick.

Our dreams of futuristic breakthroughs made Metalmark a celebrity in the West, but inflamed the Islamic world. A scientist with the space agency and a CIA spy became two of Metalmark's defenders. Our chance to join superior beings and travel the stars depended on the clash of futurists with ancient traditions.

Could he sell us the means to a quantum jump in progress? But ... he wanted Mercury and Triton for habitats where his species could spawn ... what did that mean?

Available in paperback or as a Kindle ebook.

About the author:
David Batchelor is a physicist and science writer. He has been consulted on futurist topics by Wired Online, The Economist, The San Francisco Chronicle, National Geographic Online, NBC Nightly News, and Star Trek Communicator magazine. He also appeared on television shows such as the 2009 PBS special “Science Trek.” Dr. Batchelor is employed as an Astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The idea of first contact has always been a staple of science fiction. How would humanity react when we find out that we aren’t alone in the universe? The Metalmark Contract, the debut novel by David Batchelor, tackles just that question with an interesting premise.

The Earth is visited by Metalmark, a charismatic alien salesman, who has an offer humanity can’t refuse. In exchange for spawning rights on Mercury and Triton he is willing to provide the human race with advanced technology as well as a spaceship capable of interstellar travel. Handing over a small percentage of the solar system seems to be a small price to pay, but are his motives really as benign as they appear?

The Metalmark Contract deals largely with how governments react to the appearance Metalmark and all the bureaucratic processes and machinations that ensue. The first half of the novel makes for somewhat slow reading since it seems the story jumps from one meeting to the next, but after things actually start happening the pace picks up considerably and makes for compelling reading.

The science portrayed in the novel is top notch and written in such an accessible manner that you never feel as if you are being lectured to. I’m an amateur astronomer so I really enjoyed the mention of various NASA missions and how realistic the actual space travel is. Metalmark’s spaceship only travels at a small fraction of light speed and while traveling to Earth he encounters our television signals which gives him the necessary information on how to interact with humans.

The reaction to Metalmark’s visit is rather subdued. I would have thought that humanity would have reacted much more strongly. The only real turmoil that happens is when religion comes into play. To disprove fears that Metalmark is a demon the Vatican sends a Cardinal to perform the rights of exorcism on Metalmark during which he kisses a cross. The Islamic countries around the world view this as proof that he is evil and that he has aligned himself with the infidels of the West. They denounce Metalmark and all the gifts he offers.

Metalmark’s true form is a refreshing take on what alien life could possibly be like. He is a silicon based life form unlike anything the human race has encountered so far. I won’t give anything away, but when the origin of his name is revealed and his physiology and method of procreation is explained it came as quite a surprise.

There are lots of characters to keep track of so the addition of a Dramatis Personae at the back of the book really comes in handy. I really liked Metalmark and the characters of Ilana Lindler, a UN event coordinator, Dr. Steve Simmons, a NASA scientist, and Liu Xueli, a very ambitious Taikonaut. Their paths inevitably cross and intertwine with that of Metalmark and I’m sure they will play a huge role in the rest of the trilogy. The characters are believable and well-written and Dr. Batchelor's insider knowledge into the workings of NASA and the related government organizations shows. 

The ending seemed a bit rushed. The timeframe of the relationship between two of the characters was a bit too unrealistic for my taste and the congressional hearing seemed to simply be a ploy to get the characters from one country to the next. That being said, I really enjoyed the ambiguousness of the final paragraph. You are left with a nagging feeling that Metalmark could have a nefarious purpose after all – a great incentive to read the rest of the trilogy when they become available.

The Verdict:
A good read with some very interesting ideas. The focus on bureaucracy bogged things down, but that might just be because the author has intimate knowledge of just how slow things really tend to happen in government organizations. I’m definitely intrigued enough to want to see how things turn out. As a debut novel this shows immense promise. Ben Bova better watch his back!

The Rating: 6.5/10