I read. A lot. Maybe a novel a fortnight. Sometimes more than that.
So I figured, what better way to share with you some of the best stuff that crosses my path than to review it? And there is no better way to support the wealth of phenomenal Indie talent than to tell you all about them and link to their books. I don't like giving bad reviews (and there are plenty of others who'll do that a little too happily), so I'll tell you about the stuff I really liked and you might too.
The Last Rail-Rider, by Jason Gurley
Okay. A little bit of full disclosure here. Jason Gurley is designing my covers, so I already know a lot about the guy and like him. However, The Last Rail-Rider is a short which Jason wrote some years ago and which was published in 2002 in a magazine called Eclectica. At 8,000 words and 38 pages it's a good length for a short and worth a look. I picked it up one morning, read it on two train journeys over the course of the day and finished it in the evening. That's the beauty of stories like this - they are self-contained nuggets which can be wrapped up in a single day but resonate for a while afterwards. The narrator is a boy living on Earth after some indeterminate global apocalyptic event. The way Gurley unfurls this world through the boy's eyes is beautifully done. It feels genuine, compassionate and intriguing. The sense of freedom the boy describes as he travels the trains reminds me of my own love of travelling. As the tale moves along, slowly but enjoyably, the pace suddenly picks up in the last third and the twist simply sparkles with life. It's almost breathtaking. Some questions left unanswered but maybe that's part of the allure. Really enjoyed this - well worth a couple of hours. Get it on Amazon.
The Walk Up Nameless Ridge, by Hugh Howey
As a mountaineer, and an admiring follower of Howey's, I wanted to like this book, but in truth I expected to hate it. I wondered how many of the climbing tropes would be found within the story – how much criticism there would be of ego, of the oxygen bottles left on mountains across the world, of the western climber/sherpa relationship. And all of that is present. Howey has done his research, and observed keenly the ills of the modern elite climbing world. I imagine he's seen the photos of the queue to summit Everest which saddened climbers everywhere. But the book, written as it is from the perspective of a nameless man, driven by ego and self-interest, also acknowledges those quiet personalities who summit for different reasons – the actions of Ziba, told through his eyes and the nameless man's change of perspective in the final pages shows why Howey is so successful: he is an astute observer of the spectrum of human behaviour. The relationship between climbing partners is so nicely rendered. He adds the elements which take the story to its future setting – gears on the climbers' suits to assist in climbing way above what would be considered possible here on Earth, androids climbing too, nods to Earth's mountains still having a special place in some traditionalist's hearts. These tiny setting details add a richness to the story with only a few lines. The story is so beautifully crafted and wonderfully written that it's worth two readings so that those moments you missed the first time can be savoured again. Yet Howey might have one thing wrong, in my view – having spent time with elite climbers, I doubt any would leave a man possibly dying on the mountain so that they could summit instead. That part does not ring true for me. I think most elite mountaineers know it might be them next time. I watched Kenton Cool tell the story of how he spent hours trying to save a man, rather than realise a life-long dream on Everest. And watched him break down when he told me how couldn't save him. Perhaps that's Howey's point – that all human-beings are different, with different priorities, and Ziba's actions when placed it stark contrast with our nameless man's, and his later view of her which conflicts with society's view of his achievement, is the true point of the story. And I'm the one who has it wrong.
The Martian, by Andy Weir
On the face of it, The Martian is a very simple book to write. Firstly, Andy Weir’s concept is a compelling one and history has shown us it was always going to appeal to audiences – a single man, alone and facing extreme adversity, and fighting for his survival, is one which seizes attention. Couple that with the landscape of that adversity being Mars – where the three most important features of our existence are missing, oxygen, water and food – and we know immediately, his time there is limited. There is a clock running and the suspense is building. Once you have that concept, the hard work is seemingly already done.
Additionally, the tone is conversational – an educated man explaining events to friends. It reminded me of Andy McNab’s Bravo Two Zero crossed with Andy Cave’s Learning to Breathe. The act of writing the book, stringing together the sentences and pouring through the pages, cannot have been a tricky task for Weir as I know he spent three years researching his topic. It shows. It's why this book is so utterly compelling – it's real. We're there. We're next to Watney, as terrified as he is – that slow-burn terror of an inexorable death that drifts in slowly from eh horizon.
Yet, the reality is the task facing Weir was far more difficult. He solved the problem of creating his narrative voice through a device which is not particularly inspired – a ship’s log – but is nevertheless clever for two reasons. Firstly, it allows Weir a simple narrative voice, that of his protagonist, and the ability to see into his mind clearly. We identify with him completely and quickly. We are with him. We want him to survive. We are him. Secondly, we don’t know, from the outset, if he survives. The log is a permanent record and remains whether he survives or not. So, uninspired? Or simply taking advantage of the most effective way to tell his story? Does it matter – Weir uses a device which works.
And he uses it to great effect.
Initially, the POV shift to third person NASA took the story in a direction I was unhappy about – the strength of this book was Watley's narration and our insight into his character through his thought processes. His humour came through, his unwillingness to give in. Segueing to the third person from the first person is a technique I find contrived and disconcerting – if I am viewing events through the eyes of a (first person) non-omniscient narrator, to then see them through the eyes of an omniscient narrator in the third person simply does not work. Additionally, I was not convinced the story needed it, but the reality is it does build tension and it gives us a much-needed break from the sometimes too technical "this-is-what-I-did-next" Watney (nice as he is). So, I am willing to forgive the first-person/third-person contrivance because it drives the story nicely and I genuinely don't think Weir could have achieved what he did achieve – narrative flow and strong tension – any other way in the context of the story he was telling and the way he was telling it.
Characterisation of Watney is excellent – we believe him from the very first moments. "I'm pretty much fucked. That's my considered opinion." In those eight words, we are told everything we need to know about Watney's personality. The subtle dig within the words "considered opinion" suggested his expertise and what he now thinks of it. We immediately know he's in trouble. We are compelled to read on, we simply cannot but read on. "I don't even know who'll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now." First person convention blown – we don't know if he's getting out of this. We see this log, and his scattered, dried bones beside them, being handled by astronauts years, even decades from now. All bets are off. This is serious. This is Into the Wild.
The technical aspects of the story are integral to suspension of disbelief. Watney (and so Weir) has to explain it to us because this is a story about fumbling for the final threads on frayed fabric, and somehow painstakingly sewing them into an escape plan. Every single thing Watney does needs scientific explanation otherwise the drama of his escape evaporates. Yet Weir manages to convey this in Watney's engaging, conversational tone so we don't despair at the detail. We love it. The quote I began this review with is the most telling example of the entire book: "Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped." So simple, so obvious, so much said in the sort of tone which implies 'What, you didn't know that?'
The Martian has won all sorts of awards and plaudits and Matt Damon is set to play Watney. Ridley Scott famously doodled on his script, demonstrating just how captured his imagination has been by this brilliant book. It's a book we need, just like Interstellar was a film we needed. Something to persuade us that there is life beyond the confines of this one planet – that we can make it to the stars and beyond and that our seemingly petty differences pale in comparison to the vastness of the possibilities which lay in wait for us. Just as Robinson Crusoe captured the public's attention, so too will The Martian.
Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
There are some spoilers in this review, so please be aware.
No book has taken the science-fiction world by storm in recent years the way Ancillary Justice has. It's supporters have been vocal in lavishing praise on it. It picked up virtually every award going in 2014 and, in some ways, it's easy to see why. These days, originality is what seems to grab the votes. Certainly story has less to do with it than it used to. Or did it ever? Sometimes I wish those who judged these things would realise that some people prefer a derivative story, to something fresh and innovative that is completely impossible to get into as a story. Some recent Hugo/Nebula/Arthur C. Clarke nominees have welded themselves into that category.
Perhaps this will disappoint some, but Ancillary Justice frustrated me. It’s a very, very good book, and definitely one of the best science-fiction books of 2014. No question about that – I very much enjoyed it. The themes which run though it are starkly human – vengeance, love, redemption, recovery – drive many great books. The concepts which underpin the setting are fresh, imaginative, clever and richly themed. The setting itself, intricate and powerful, hints at huge scope and an operatic scale for the stories to be told within, and at times the level of detail is enthralling (most often in the context of the military’s structure). The lead character, Breq (or Justice of Toren One Esk 19 as she is much later on), is an ancillary which, in itself, is an intriguing take on POV (although not necessarily completely original). Ancillaries themselves are a stark, ingenious way to characterise the Radch, and to underpin the way in which the story develops. The attempt at a single gender pronoun, at least in part to add colour to the way in which the Radch culture differs so much from our own, was both brave and clever. Reports suggest Leckie refused to change that when asked.
Yet, to me, Ancillary Justice fails to deliver on the promise of a truly great novel. The setting, which that detail hints at, is never fully rendered. There are times when I found it difficult to visualise the places her story unfolded in – they were so often sketched, skirted over, rather than colourfully painted (perhaps Breq for obvious reasons just doesn’t appreciate the details). The story seemed to take a seat behind Leckie’s literary style, and sometimes the pace flagged, especially in the early stages.
Breq as a lead character was always going to be tricky and I was never convinced by the reasons for her driving desire to take on the Lord of the Radch. Moving from her POV as Justice of Toren, and then as the various ancillaries which are commanded by Justice of Toren, is actually seamless. I never experienced a difficulty in picking that up and the concept is something special. Yet, from a pure ‘character/desire’ perspective, I found her relationship with the character who is the catalyst for the driving force of the story itself not deep enough to spark that desire. We know only that the character concerned was one of her ‘favourites’. That character herself, the reason Breq takes on the mission she does, does not exhibit the sort of emotional attachment to the place she is stationed that we would expect, given how events unfold later (and the way the Radchaai are as a society). The way Breq sees it, tapped into the emotions of that character as she is, the character is almost detached and apathetic towards the whole place.
The gender pronoun issue, trumpeted as one of the really insightful aspects of the novel, with comparisons made to Ursula Le Guin, frequently had the effect of dropping me out of the story. Some characters are clearly male, some clearly female, but we are not told about all of them. Why are we told about any of them? If gender is removed as a focal point for characterisation, thus collapsing our assumptions and giving us a clean slate for desires and driving forces, why tell us about any at all? It leaves us wanting to search out the prose to see if we’ve missing key point based on gender. If one character has a physical relationship with another, fine. We still don’t need to know gender.
Story, yes, the most important part – this is the first book in a trilogy, so the story is set to unfold, but it the fulcrum of Breq’s self-imposed mission feels like it is missing so much. There’s a twenty-year gap between the events on Ors and the events which take place with Seivarden. We have the vaguest hints at what Breq does in those years, but not enough to justify her drive over that time and set it out. Also, I found it hard to identify with Breq – although she displays very human desires (perhaps her old self re-asserting itself in her subconscious), her internalised thoughts are often quite bland – I found myself fighting to root for her. I don’t agree with some reviews suggestive of deus ex machina, but I do feel a mite confused by Seivarden – that his (yes, it’s a he) place in the book seems a little convenient. In some ways, it’s a classic B-story which arcs around behind the A-story and intersects at the critical moment, but Seivarden has so little to do that it doesn’t even really fulfil the category of B-story. It’s almost as if he was there to (a) explain the gender pronoun thing a little better, and (b) for Breq to “save the cat” and give us something to root for. Seivarden seems too ambiguous and empty a character to justify Breq’s actions later on.
Pace is slow the begin with – far too slow and there is too much insightful dialogue in relation to the action which actually moves the plot forward. This is what I mean by Leckie’s literary style. There were palpable lapses in tension in the early stages of the book, although plenty of what could be said to be, still underplayed, conflict (between Awn and the various factions on Ors, as well as between the factions themselves).
All this said, Ancillary Justice demonstrates an author who is likely to write something truly great, with a prodigious imagination, and is well-worth reading – there are certainly few books released in 2014 which stand up to the scope, imagination and operatic scale of Ancillary Justice.