Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Mother Of Plenty - Colin Greenland

This is the concluding novel in the Tabitha Jute trilogy. In some respects this is the least satisfying of the three. The great scheme that lay behind all the events is, frankly, a stupendous let down. It could have been so much more, with much barbed comment on the way in which the pointless pastimes of the decadent impact on everyone else. However, the dénouement seems to have been retrofitted and an opportunity to make this a theme of the three books was lost. On the other hand, of course, it may be that the ultimate aim of the three books was to complete a trilogy, a form much loved by readers of sf and fantasy.

The book was also formulaic. After the anarchy of Seasons of Plenty, this one plodded a bit. Villains resurrected, confrontations contrived, and a cast of characters it was difficult to distinguish one from the other (I gave up trying in the end), and very little that seemed involved, as if the author had begun to lose interest in his characters. For all that, it was still well written and contains some wonderful scenes.

Greenland has also created one of the more interesting characters in Tabitha Jute. Amoral, confused, trying to get along and kicking back at authority. There may be a degree of cliché about her, but everyone has that. The flaws are not grafted on to make her a rounded character, they have grown out of her experience and drive her. They are why she loses control in such spectacular fashion and why, as the book closes, she sets out on her own once more.

If you haven’t read these, I can recommend them. Even where they falter, they outshine much else in the field. They are fun as well, which for me is an immediate plus.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Seasons Of Plenty - Colin Greenland

Second books of trilogies often sag – partly under the weight of expectation, partly because most authors only have a story to fill two books and try to spin out the tale. Colin Greenland avoids this. To begin with, I suspect that the first Tabitha Jute story was meant to be a stand alone, but the ideas wouldn’t stop flowing after the first book finished. So, a few years later, we had a second book (and later on a third which made up the trilogy). Then there is the fact that the tale falls neatly into three self-contained sections, each with its own arc. And finally, the books are about a person as much as they are about a series of events.

That last reason is especially applicable to this book. In essence it is a journey. On the surface, it is an interstellar voyage. Beneath the surface and within the spacecraft, it is the transformation of characters and a whole society. Deep within, it is about the mental disintegration of Tabitha Jute and the first signs of her emergence back into what we might loosely call sanity.

All three levels are handled expertly as a single story. The journey is the contrivance by which the society of disparate persons is isolated. Their development and the inner journey of Jute are one and the same as the spacecraft (the size of a large asteroid) is also depicted as a brain. The goings on within the spacecraft are an analogue of the goings on within Jute’s mind.

This sounds fairly heavy, and it certainly has its moments, but on the whole it takes up the sense of fun that was evident in the first book and runs with it. The result is a chaotic romp, a gallimaufry of a book. It is vivid, exciting, engaging, has its tongue very firmly in its cheek whilst contriving to poke that tongue out at some ripe targets.

And it is a work that refuses to insult the intelligence of its readers. Whilst the world building is evident and comprehensive, it isn’t spoon fed to the audience. There are times (a lot of times) you have to engage your grey cells and get them to do some work. For me that sets this above most science fiction which relentlessly plods through everything that the author has compiled just so you get the picture, both of the book and of how clever the author wants you to think they are.

Greenland doesn’t need to stoop to such low tricks. This is a book that is fun to read, in which characters and plot are in perfect balance, in which we are treated to really good writing, in which serious points are made, and which I will definitely return to again.

Friday, 11 September 2009

And Chaos Died - Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ is not an easy read. This is not to say her writing is not fluid, exciting, interesting. It is. It runs like a refreshing mountain stream. But it is so packed with ideas and rich imagery; you have to concentrate to pick up the nuances that are integral to the work. This is the poet singing. And it is a song worth the listening.

With an idiosyncratic voice, Russ tackles interesting ideas. Ostensibly science fiction (a future setting because that best serves the story to be told), such categorization serves to put Russ in a ghetto where many readers fear to venture. This is a shame. The natives might be a bit odd, their culture a bit a strange, but they are mostly harmless.

The premiss of the book is simple. Two survivors land on a planet with a small population of human telepaths. Whilst there, one of them has his latent powers awakened. When they are rescued, attempts are made to understand and utilise these new found powers. This could have been a gung-ho techno-thriller or a paranoid fantasy of the kind Dick did so well. In Russ’s hands we view the story from within the person struggling to come to terms with their new view of the universe.

It is a dreamlike vision, part nightmare, part hallucinogenic trip. Everything is seen afresh and we glimpse a future world through the disorientation of a human mind that has had all its assumptions about the world and how it is experienced turned inside out. This is handled with consummate skill. There is always a rationale for what happens (rather than some writers who have tried this simply by writing nonsense). But what gives the story its real strength is the fact that at its heart there is a strong, human story.

This dense, poetic work, repays all the effort you put into reading it as images stay long after the covers are closed. For a second novel it is phenomenal.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Mothstorm - Philip Reeve

The third (and concluding?) part of the adventures of Art Mumby and his family is as rip-roaring and rollicking (sorry Myrtle) as its predecessors. With the same blend of humour and invention, the Mumby family are about to celebrate Christmas when news of an impending invasion of the solar system reaches them and their guests.

As with all such adventures, nothing goes smoothly. From the very beginning, their forces are divided as the intransigence of representatives of the Empire upset Jack Havoc. He takes his ship off in one direction whilst the Mumby’s head outward to face the coming Mothstorm.

There are battles, revelations, soppy bits (and a fine throwaway about boarding kennels for older sisters), and an adversary greater than any they have so far faced. As such, this is a more straightforward tale than the previous two. We know the characters well enough now for developments (such as they are) to take a firm back seat to a break neck story.

Well-written with those odd touches of humour and jokes thrown in for adults (echoing the recently published Mortal Engines prequel); this proves that a book can be literate and a great deal of fun. The illustrations are equally delicious. And together they provide a wonderful and affectionate send-up of all those boy’s own adventure stories written at a time when there was still an Empire and it was considered a ‘good thing’.

This book provides a satisfying conclusion to all three volumes, yet there is undeniably a whole solar system of trouble out there and it is to be hoped that the author will one day give us more.