Book Review: The Stars My Destination

Author: Alfred Bester ~ Length: 244 pp ~
Publisher: Gollancz ~ Originally Published: 1956

The Stars My Destination Alfred Bester SF MasterworksReviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

What’s it About?: Stranded in space and left for dead, Gully Foyle is a brutal, beast-like nobody – and when a spacecraft refuses to rescue him, suddenly he finds a new reason to live. Finding his way back to Earth, Foyle embarks on a quest for vengeance, but his murderous grudge is destined to have unforseen consequences for the whole human race…

The Story: Classics don’t always age well, and sometimes a highly-regarded genre novel can leave you scratching your head and wondering “Is that it?” – so it’s nice to have finally caught up with Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and find that there’s a reason this is ranked as one of the great SF novels. Fifties-era science fiction can sometimes seem very clunky – even writers like Phillip K. Dick didn’t really get into the swing of things until the Sixties hit – and yet The Stars My Destination moves like a bullet, and aside from a handful of dated aspects, it could easily have been written last year. Vivid, colourful and packed full of life, Bester’s novel is SF as full-throttle entertainment and darkly literate character study, fitting more into its 240 pages than many modern-day sci-fi thrillers manage in 500 or above. Yes, Bester co-opts the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo into an SF setting, but instead of merely playing this as a smart pastiche, The Stars My Destination goes further, and it’s all thanks to the fascinatingly weird journey of Gully Foyle.

Going from brutish thuggery to morality and then onwards to a truly cosmic conclusion, Foyle isn’t ever completely sympathetic – he’s too filled with rage, and simply unstoppable, for that – and yet he’s a completely fascinating protagonist, and Bester uses him in such a wildly creative way that what could have been a simple SF revenge story ends up mind-bending, hopeful and profound. There are rough edges here and there, and opinions may sharply divide on the infamous section where Bester breaks out the typographical tricks (possibly influenced by his time working in comics) and the novel almost seems like it’s trying to escape from the page – but the sharp energy and focus of The Stars My Destination is something special. If you’re an SF fan and you haven’t read it yet – do yourself a favour, and correct that situation as quickly as possible.

[xrr rating=5/5]

[amtap book:isbn=0575094192]

Book Review: Prince of Thorns

Author: Mark Lawrence ~ Length: 373 pp ~
Publisher: HarperCollins Voyager ~ Year: 2011

Prince of Thorns Mark Lawrence 2011 HarperCollins Voyager coverReviewer: Laure Eve (aka @LaureEve)

The Low-Down: A younger, snappier twist on the epic fantasy game, Prince of Thorns may not rock your world, but it’s still an impressive work from a debut author, and marks the arrival of a gutsy new talent on the fantasy scene.

What’s it About?: Prince Jorg of Ancrath, young heir to one throne of many in a brutal and broken kingdom, spends his time raping, pillaging, and brooding over the day his mother and younger brother were murdered in front of him. But as he moves through his determined and bloody journey to become emperor over all, is he really in control of his savage destiny, or is someone else pulling the strings?

The Story: Things are full steam ahead for epic fantasy at the moment. Sean Bean’s craggy grim face and Northern twang dominated screens very recently in HBO’s A Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin is now a name pinging recognition in even mainstream critics’ brains. And good thing too, because of all fantasy genres, sword and sorcery is the one in most danger of stagnation. It’s hard to innovate when the setting and environment are in general so rigidly structured, so hats off to a debut author having a pretty decent stab at it. If you’re looking for originality in your epic fantasy, don’t let the one-size-fits-all cover of Prince of Thorns put you off. The appearence of yet another mysterious cloaked figure may just be enough to make the eyes of a large swathe of readers roll and look elsewhere, but try this out for size– you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The thing that has gotten people all abuzz over this book is the controversial angle of having a young protagonist who seems right from the off to be a psychopathic bastard. He gets the urge to kill people in the same way others might have a sudden, biting need for sugary confection. It’s an immediately intriguing set-up and one that really drives the narrative forward: why is he this way? Why is he this way at fourteen?

Perversely, the worse Jorg acts, the more interested you become in him and his ultimate purpose in life. It’s a hard trick to pull off, persuading the reader to care about a truly nasty protagonist, and it’s one that Lawrence tackles well, raising that most fascinating of debates over nature and nurture. Perhaps it’s understandable why someone could become such a cold, broken killer when it’s revealed what happened to him as a child, but it’s also true that people make choices; where one person is horribly wronged and turns sadistic murderer to cope with his scars, another, with the same experiences on his soul, would never even dream of raising a hand to a dog. How much choice do you have if you’re born into such a violent, uncompromising environment as Jorg is, with a father who seems to have a large, sucking hole where his heart should be?

The second thing that really lifts this book out of the ordinary masses is the prose itself. Lawrence has a way with words – at turns funny, cruel, sharply witty and downright lyrical, his turn of phrase keeps you locked right in. This is spare storytelling and no mistake, but words are used in just the right way. From the casual, morbid poetry of the opening paragraphs to the resolute, aggressive set up line for the next book at the very end, this is a writer confident with both voice and language. Jorg in particular has a great tone, his witticisms tinged with the faintest air of Alex from A Clockwork Orange.

This isn’t a perfect work, however, and the structure in particular feels pedestrian. A scene at one location happens; a new chapter starts; lo, we are at another location. At times it feels as if the story moves on in stiff jerks, with no time for the reader to absorb and pause with the characters. Keeping it fast and jagged, reflecting the nature of both the people and the world, is one thing; having no sense of journey, and thus no sense of achievement or even believability in the extraordinary things Jorg does is another.

Makin is another puzzle. Makin is Jorg’s supposed best friend – a knight, and clearly a man with a strong moral code. Why does he pad around after Jorg like a faithful dog? What drives him? Sometimes it’s plain that he doesn’t like or approve of Jorg’s behaviour, though you suppose he may be able to understand where it comes from. At other times, the moment he is first introduced in fact, he seems to enjoy the rape and pillage as much as the worst of Jorg’s motley ‘road brothers’. We’re shown Makin has a strong sense of honour, but then he continually disproves it with his actions. He isn’t clearly written as a conflicted character, so unfortunately this comes across as jarring. However, it is clear that his story is very much in the middle, so perhaps we’ll see a more clearly drawn picture of him in the books to come.

Now to magic. There’s plenty of the stuff in Prince of Thorns, and a recognisably distrustful view of those who wield it. Magic in this world is for weird, powerful figures with secretive end games and twisted agendas. Set in conjunction to this, and fascinatingly so, is the history of the world itself. Small nuggets of clues are dropped, and no more – thankfully, there is no ponderous exposition to tackle. It’s nice and light, but unmistakable in its intentions. Without getting too spoiler-tastic, the time and place of this world is important, and when taking into consideration the existence of magic in this setting, things start to get very interesting.

Lawrence has created a world that feels, for the most part, real and dark and dripping with Shakespearian intrigue. The short, vibrant prose makes it young and fresh, and in Prince Jorg the book gives us the rare gift of a conflicted, damaged protagonist who you end up rooting for, even if you then feel a bit odd about doing so.

The Verdict: Some haphazard pacing and too much character work left hanging make this less than perfect, but overall Prince of Thorns is a short, sharp shock of epic fantasy and a really impressive debut.

[amtap book:isbn=0007423292]

Book Review: A Dance with Dragons

Author: George R.R. Martin ~ Pages: 1016pp ~ Publisher: Harper Collins ~ Year: 2011

A Dance with Dragons UK Cover Art George R R Martin A Song of Ice and Fire Volume Five[xrr rating=5/5]

The Low-Down: It’s been six years coming, but the latest volume of A Song of Ice and Fire has arrived, just in time to follow the acclaimed HBO TV adaptation of Game of Thrones – and George R.R. Martin is showing no sign of softening his approach. As bleak, complex and brutal as ever, this is still one of the most demanding and adult epic fantasies out there, but A Dance with Dragons is also a compulsively gripping ride for those willing to take it.

What’s it About?: In the wake of the war that nearly tore the Seven Kingdoms apart, the surviving members of the Stark family are still scattered, desperately trying to survive in a world of lethal danger. But, while Tyrion Lannister sets out on a long and unpredictable journey, and Jon Snow struggles to keep control in his position as Commander of the Night’s Watch, Daenerys Targaryen’s quest to regain the throne of Westeros is struggling as she finds herself with enemies on all sides, and her now-grown dragons slipping out of her control…

The Book: (The following is, essentially, a longer version of the thoughts that went into my review of A Dance with Dragons for SFX Magazine, which you can read online here. Plus, for anyone worried, the following is spoiler-free…)

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch. It’s been said before, plenty of times (and first said by Neil Gaiman, back in 2009), but it bears repeating as the lengthy delays between volumes of this fantasy saga (with the resulting amount of bitching from fandom at Martin’s perceived ‘slacking’) have become one of the major criticisms of this series. Indeed, it’s not an ideal time to be an epic fantasy fan, as a number of series have ended up with delayed volumes (most notably Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear, which finally arrived earlier this year, and Scott Lynch’s still-delayed The Republic of Thieves), with lots of rebellious muttering and complaining from fans about “why can’ these dratted authors just hurry up and get on with it”, and “it’s all rather unprofessional”, and “really, it can’t be hard to plan, can it?”

Well, you can get books quickly, or you can get them right. A Dance with Dragons has been massively delayed, but just looking at a physical edition of the boom makes it fairly obvious why – this is a big book, weighing in at over 400,000 words (the equivalent of three average-sized fantasy novels – as pointed out by author John Scalzi here) and almost packed to bursting with plot, characters and incident. The level of storytelling craft on display in A Dance with Dragons is pretty astounding, and while it may be a pretty big investment of time, there’s certainly no doubting that it’s a worthwhile one (or that there’d be just as much complaining going on if Martin was cranking out sub-standard volumes on the schedule fandom demanded). You simply don’t get this kind of work  on a yearly basis, especially when the scope of the novel is quite so massive. Fans may not like it, but Martin is going to go at the speed he’s going to go, and does seem absolutely determined to not compromise for a second.

Of course, one factor that does need to be born in mind is that while A Dance with Dragons is massive, it is – like many books in sprawling fantasy series – a middle volume, one that picks up plot-threads from previous books, continues them along for a while, and then leaves them. Indeed, it’s made more complicated by the fact that this story is so big that A Dance with Dragons is essentially the second half of the story Martin began with A Feast for Crows, a tale so big that it had to be split across volumes, and which has meant that longtime fans have had to wait almost eleven years to find out what happens next to characters like Tyrion and Daenerys. This is emphatically not a new-reader-friendly book – the fact that the appendices listing the various family trees go on for fifty pages should give a clue as to exactly how massive Martin’s sprawling and ambitious fantasy epic has gotten. Epic fantasy is notorious for this kind of narrative sprawl, and even fans would do well to have a copy of A Feast for Crows to hand to refresh their memories, as there’s an absolute minimum of hand-holding – Martin throws us back into the action, and it’s up to us to keep up with a narrative that once again leaps between over a dozen perspectives.

The level of detail and the sheer size of the cast is demanding and can get a little exhausting at times (especially when, once you’ve gotten used to the current collection of characters, the perspective shifts and a whole new bunch suddenly turn up), but while it may not always be the easiest read in the world, Martin never makes it anything less than solidly gripping, wrapping a web of plot developments, betrayals, twists and shocks around the central thread of Daenerys’ determination to hold onto the power that she’s gained (and the political mistakes she ends up making). Yet again, what’s most impressive about Martin’s saga is the simple fact that while it has all the ingredients for a fun, cosy escapist epic fantasy, this is brutal, full-blooded, unforgiving and frequently savage stuff. A lot of the grittier epic fantasy in the last fifteen years has been influenced by Martin’s series, and yet he’s still capable of delivering gut-wrenching shocks and a sense of unrelenting horror at what human beings are capable of doing to each other. He’s also as unflinching as ever when it comes to presenting a realistic medieval world, where rape, incest and child-marriage are facts of life – the world of A Dance with Dragons is vivid and thrilling and exciting, but there’s not a single point where you actually want to go there.

Even the characters are uncomfortably real, full of contradictions and multiple layers – none more so than bitter dwarf Tyrion Lannister, who continues to be simultaneously charismatic, sympathetic, pitiable and repugnant. He’s a terrible person at heart, and yet is unapologetic about it, and the level of humanity (both positive and negative) that Martin is able to give his cast makes this a fascinating, engaging and sometimes traumatic read. The hundreds of characters in A Dance with Dragons are put through the wringer, and not all of them make it out of the book alive, but Martin keeps the tension up, carrying off a selection of memorable setpieces while also filling in more mythological detail on the more fantastic aspects of the book’s world.

It all builds up to a series of cliffhangers which are both brilliantly played and, of course, horribly frustrating (especially considering the potential wait for the next volume) – but Martin has done his job in keeping the quality of the series at an incredible level. This is absolutely not a saga for everyone, and about the only major question mark that really lies over A Song of Ice and Fire is whether or not Martin can actually wrap up the boggling number of plot-threads he’s left hanging in the next two books. At the least, Martin hasn’t unequivocably said that it will definitely be done by book seven – it’s possible that the size of the plot may soon start working against the series, and he certainly isn’t going to get any less criticism if the plot balloons any further.  But, whatever lies in the future of A Song of Ice and Fire – whether it’s two more volumes or three (or, lord help us, more), the fact is that sometimes epic fantasy is going to be really, really big, and sometimes good things take time. Sometimes fiction is hard. And sometimes, if you like something, you’ve simply got to wait. It isn’t going to get easier to wait for the next volume – but A Dance with Dragons certainly gives enough to keep longtime fans and new converts plenty to be going on with…

The Verdict: An epic fantasy that redefines the word epic, George R.R. Martin once again shows that he is one of the best fantasy writers currently working in the genre. The sprawling massiveness of A Dance with Dragons’ multiple plotlines is not going to be for everyone, and this fifth volume may have taken a very long time to reach the bookstores, but it’s a detailed, sweeping and full-blooded tale that’s worth the wait. Now, time to sit back and see exactly how long book 6, The Winds of Winter, takes to arrive…

[amtap book:isbn=0002247399]

The Friday Linkfest (25/03/11): In Links We Trust

Wonder Woman TV Costume Adrianne Palicki

Wonder Woman costume revealled, half of internet goes into apopleptic shock. Apparently the boots are the wrong colour. And the whole thing just looks a bit too halloween costume for some people. I looked at it and thought “Well, it’s not ideal, but it does look a hell of a lot more like Wonder Woman than I expected”. The amount of negative bitching online about this project is kind of amazing in certain places – I’m not even a WW fan, I’m not expecting it to be superb, but at the current rate, I’m hoping this ends up a smash hit simply for the looks on the fans’ faces. Does that make me a bad person?

Genre for Japan – a brilliant auction set up by a group of fantastic people (including book blogger Amanda Rutter) to raise money for the Japanese Tsunami Relief appeal being run by the Red Cross. There’s a genuinely spectacular selection of items up for auction, donated by a wide variety of people from across the SF, Fantasy and Horror scene – go look, and go bid!

A gorgeous selection of graphic novel covers, reinterpreted as Seventies pulp paperbacks (with the kind of minimal designs that I would kill to own in real life). .

Least shocking news of the week: Joseph-Gordon Levitt is definitely in The Dark Knight Rises. Plus, he’s playing Alberto Falcone (son of Tom Wilkinson’s character from Batman Begins), a character from the Batman series The Long Halloween, already loosely plundered for The Dark Knight. Only maybe he isn’t – another source has since said the Falcone rumour is incorrect, and Gordon Levitt’s part is another character. Once again, it’s wait and see time…

Doctor Who fan claims he created Davros, sues the BBC. Okay, this is just weird – a fan called Steven Clark says that he entered a drawing competition for the comic TV Action in 1972, and that the BBC then went and hi-jacked his idea, turning it into Dalek creator Davros, who’s since appeared multiple times in the show. The reason he’s suing now? Apparently he lost his original entry, but they turned up “in the pages of a set of family encyclopaedias”, which sounds deeply suspect. This sounds like the kind of nutty copyright case that comes up every so often, usually generated by chancers out for a quick buck via a settlement – because apparently not only did Clark come up with the name, his loose pencil sketch is actually a pretty exact blueprint for Davros, and he wrote an essay with the drawing entitled “The Genesis of the Daleks: The Creation of Davros”. So, either 1975 classic Genesis of the Daleks was the creation of a sinister conspiracy to steal an idea from a young fan, or someone is talking utter bollocks. We’ll see how this nonsense progresses…

Ultimate Spider-Man team Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley reunite on a creator-owned comic for Marvel’s Icon imprint, entitled ‘Brilliant’. Ultimate Spider-Man is pretty much the most brilliant and consistent version of Spider-Man I’ve ever seen – the idea of them taking on a tale that’s sounding like a superhero version of The Social Network is definitely something I’m onboard for.

Why the new Star Trek movie doesn’t need a villain, via Tor. The author (Ryan Britt) is right – that it should be about an interesting SF premise, not about who Kirk and co get to punch this time (Klingons! Khan! Harry Mudd!) but it doesn’t change the fact that it will not happen. The 2009 Star Trek film briefly dazzled me with its action and nostalgia (there’s a slightly embarrassing gush of a blog post about it that I should get around to deleting), but I rewatched it earlier this year and it’s one of the most disappointingly empty SF blockbusters in years – a great cast doing fantastic work in service of a script that says nothing, and even bollocks up Spock’s character in the end (when he’s all for blowing up Nero’s ship). I’d love for the next film to be slightly more thoughtful or at least have more substance – in today’s film climate, that’s ridiculously unlikely.

An open letter to Twilight fans.

The reviews for Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch are starting to appear – and they’re not looking good. In fact, some of them are hilariously bad. The first review I’ve linked to (from IGN) basically hints that the film is exactly what the trailers have made it look like – an overproduced, overstylised mess – and my favourite quote has to be: “For a movie that’s superficially about female empowerment, it’s ironically one of the most ridiculously misogynistic movies in recent memory.” And Warner Bros have just handed Snyder the directorial chair for Superman. It’ll be interesting to see whether it sinks or swims at the Box Office….

AKIRA casting rumours are once again circling – and it’s still not looking good. Robert Pattinson? James McCavoy? Michael Fassbender? Look, I think it’s about time all anime fans make peace with the fact that if this remake does happen, it’s going to be a cynical mess that’ll desperately try to sand down most of those awkward, harsh or confrontational edges that made Akira interesting in the first place. There are accusations of Last Airbender-style ‘white-washing’ of the cast, given the original source material – but M. Night Shyamalan was (however incompetently) trying to make a film that was true to the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series, which made the casting even more of a problem – whereas by dumping the Japanese setting, the extreme violence (given it’s a PG-13) and that troublesome ‘punky teenage rebellion’ subtext (given that virtually all the actors offered the renamed versions of Kaneda and Tetsuo are in their late twenties or early thirties), the producers of the Akira remake have made it clear they couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the original source material. They’re out to make a big sci-fi blockbuster and trade on the relatively well-known name of a cult movie (as all movies have to be ‘properties’ now) – the chances of this bearing any more than a passing resemblance to the manga or anime (aside from the design) is small. And accusing this of ‘whitewashing’ is a little like accusing Sergio Leone of whitewashing Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo to turn it into A Fistful of Dollars – ultimately, a bit silly and pointless, especially with a film that’s being helmed by Albert Hughes, and is likely to end up like From Hell – a pretty-looking, visually strong film that’s empty beyond belief and simply misses the point.

And finally – a teaser for the new season of Doctor Who. To be honest, it’s so short as to be borderline subliminal (15 seconds long, for heaven’s sake) – more interesting is the teaser for the online prequel, which will be appearing on Friday the 25th of March. Colour me intrigued…

Novel Review: The Dancers at the End of Time

Author: Michael Moorcock ~ Pages: 672pp ~ Publisher: Gollancz ~ Year: 1981

The Dancers at the end of Time Michael Moorcock

[xrr rating=5/5]

The Low-Down: A magical, whimsical and beautifully written trilogy of eccentric science fiction from one of fantasy literature’s biggest names, this is also a time-travel romance that’s witty, well-crafted and ultimately moving.

What’s it About?: Far in the future, near the end of the universe, the remains of humanity lives an immortal, decadent and morality-free existance where anything is possible. But when Jherek Carnelian falls for accidental Victorian time-traveller Mrs Amelia Underwood, the resulting love affair takes them all across time, and into many kinds of bizarre dangers…

The Book: Warm, witty and hopelessly romantic, The Dancers at the End of Time is the omnibus edition of a trilogy of novels (An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs) written in the mid 1970s by massively prolific fantasy author and genre titan Michael Moorcock –  and it stands on the border between his more traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy (the Elric, Hawkmoon and Corum novels), and his more challenging and literate work (The Cornelius and Pyat novels, as well as works like Mother London). Moorcock is one of those authors who can be intimidating simply due to how much he’s produced, but The Dancers of the End of Time is a very accessible starting point, especially since despite being a mixture of science fiction, romance and comedy, it’s mainly influenced by early twentieth century literature, especially the works of Oscar Wilde.

What Moorcock has produced here is a beautifully charming and ceaselessly imaginative romantic comedy, and the level of invention in the trilogy is amazing, conjuring up a colourful and surreal world at the End of Time and packing it with a lively selection of memorable and distinctive characters. It’s also thematically daring right from the start – this is a book where, thanks to the decadent ‘anything goes’ nature of the End of Time, the main character has sex with his own mother within the first three pages of the book, and while Moorcock has tremendous fun colliding his playful, morality-free world with the staunch and moralistic Victorian outlook, it isn’t just culture-clash comedy for its own sake. Instead, the love affair that blossoms between Jherek Carnelian and Mrs Amelia Underwood really does examine the nature of morality, and the craft and skill with which Moorcock explores this central idea is truly exceptional.

Mixing comedy with social satire and genuine romance, it’s a unique read that manages to be engaging throughout all three of its volumes, and it’s almost impossible not to be swept along by the trials and tribulations of the central relationship. It’s true that the longer and more melancholic concluding volume The End of All Songs doesn’t quite have the level of frothy comedy that Moorcock pulls off in An Alien Heat and The Hollow Lands, but it does tackle some daring science fictional territory, while still keeping the focus firmly on the characters, and the evolving relationship between the two protagonists. Back in the early twentieth century, books like The Time Machine would be described as ‘Scientific Romances’, and that’s exactly what The Dancers at the End of Time is – a magical and moving Scientific Romance that’s an incredibly distinctive work of literature, and the kind of off-beat yet moving saga that’s very easy to get lost in.

The Verdict: A tale of love, heartbreak and morality that stretches across the entire history of the universe, The Dancers at the End of Time is a quirky and utterly English tale of romance and entropy that simply demands to be read.

[amtap book:isbn=0575074760]