A review of Hajime Isayama’s “Attack on Titan.” Vol 2.

This builds on the Titan mythos, leading it in surprising directions that give plenty of hooks to keep us reading. What exactly is the “Berserker Titan” and why is it attacking other Titans? Is it the key to turning the tide in humanity’s war against the Titans?

Characters develop in satisfying ways; Armin must conquer her self loathing and guilt over the event at the end of Book if she is to survive. Mikasa must harness the anger from traumas past and present to fuel her determination to take the fight to the Titan’s to the next level.

Again there are some fantastic set pieces, full of action and horror (although the art avoids full on gore, a single frame of a soldier frozen in horror about to enter a Titan’s huge maw is enough). The soldier’s weaponry is an especially ingenious addition to this series, the system of gas cylinders, harnesses and blades that turns the fighters into acrobatic, air-borne weapons.

Visceral, kinetic, layered and satisfying storytelling.

Advertisements

A review of Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon.”

This is the genre source novel for a lot of recent SF on science and human intelligence, for example the novel, book and spin off tv series ‘Limitless;’ the drama of someone failing suddenly boosted to genius status, the excitement of that journey, but also a commentary on what it does to their soul, and the recognition that humanity is profoundly more than it’s shared IQ. But I don’t think this tale has ever been told with the tragic weight and pathos with which it is told here.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ is a Nebula Award wining novel from 1968. And as such it has that period feel of determined smoking by men in suits and in white coats, a drama back-lit by hard, white clinical lighting. And yet the story is heartbreakingly human.
Charlie Gordon is, in the language of the day, retarded, but with a determination to learn and improve himself that brings him to the attention of Messers Strauss and Nemur, scientists ready to try their new treatment of enzymes and brain surgery that, following succesful experiments on the titular mouse Algernon, they believe will make a breakthrough in treating human mental retardation.
Slowly Charlie’s progress reports move from the barely literate, priamry school spelling journal entries to more intelligent, insightful and sophisticated prose, as Charlie’s intelligence grows, all the while gainong momentum. Along the way he starts to remember the abuse suffered at the hands of his mother. The scientists have added therapy to Charlie’s treatment as they foresaw that a boost in IQ would cause emotional issues in their patient. Meanwhile Charlie’s co-workers at the bakery where he works in a janitorial role view him with increasing bewilderment and fear, as he moves from warm and likable idiot to a much colder, frighteningly intelligent and emotionally aloof persona. Charlie finds himself coming to terms with sexual attraction and love, and soon he comes to resent the scientists who seem to refuse to believe he was a genuine person before the operation. Particularly as that genuine person, the frightened retarded child, still peeps fearfully out from the new Charlie’s gaze, making his presence felt at unexpected times. Most notable of these are when he attempts to make love to Alice, a woman who taught him in a ‘special school’ in his past life and who recommended him to the University hospital for their new research, because of his passion to learn. The ‘old’ Charlie had his early sexual urgings met with physical and emotional abuse as a boy, and that boy surfaces when new Charlie tries to move beyond it.

And so the drama plays out at all these different levels. There’s the excitement of the growing intelligence, the thrill of learning, the astonishment and fear of old friends and colleagues, the hostility, the mysteries of Charlie’s boyhood and the family trauma to unravel, and Charlie’s struggle to move into adult sexuality. Then the next phase, the outstripping his mentors as he become a genius, his intelligence reaching up to the Heavens…and then you get the fall of Icarus. Algernon the mouse grows sick, frenziedly throwing himself against the walls of his cage and diminishing in intelligence. Charlie has to face up to the fact that the science may have overreached itself, and that his house is built on treacherous sand. The story can and does go in only one direction, it’s no spoiler to say, as it’s telegraphed clearly though-out the novel (and on the back blurb). And it is a heartbreaking journey, very bleak, but with the hopeful recognition that the human condition is richer than IQ alone, and that the journey, for Charlie and for humanity, is still a noble one.

This is an excellent novel, true landmark SF. As stated it has a steely, clinical prose, but this does not undermine the very human drama. The litereary trick of the incremental development of Charlie’s prose in his journal entries to signify his growing intelligence is masterfully done.
So if you are looking for an antidote for the sprawling, multi-verse spanning ‘hard SF’ that’s in favour today, or just want to read a SF classic, pick this up.

A review of Robert Harris’s “Conclave.”

Cardinal Lomelli, Dean of the Vatican, is summoned one night with dread news; the Pope is dead.  And as Dean he must mange and officiate over the process of electing a new Pope, a Conclave, a meeting of and vote between all the Cardinals to choose one of their number to hold this most Holy of offices.
A handful of ambitious men, representing the various traditions of the Church, Liberal and Catholic, start their manoeuvring and machinations immediately.  And Cardinal Lomelli must ensure due process is observed, and resolve terrible dilemmas and crisis that will come to the fore.  And to complicate matters further, an enigmatic new Cardinal appears at the Vatican, one sworn into office In Pectore (in secret) by the late Pope.  And the world, and its darkest and most violent forces, begin to press against the walls of the Vatican.
This is an utterly compelling page turner, with vivid characters, tight plotting and epic themes of ambition, corporate and personal responsibility, faith and the world, set in that most troubled but fascinating of institutions, the Roman Catholic Church.  Harris writes fascinating detail on the layout and organisation of the Vatican, its traditions and history, without it slowing down what is in essence a political thriller.   The writer also avoids any trite judgements or observations on the individuals or the institution he portrays.  He describes it with real human sympathy, but not with any kind of bias or idealisation.
 I read this in a few days on holiday, and its an ideal choice as a holiday read.  A thoroughly entertaining and gripping novel, its a cliche to say that the pages flew by, but with this, they did.

A review of Stephen Donaldson’s The Augur’s Gambit

This is a companion novella to Stephen Donaldson’s “The King’s Justice” reviewed on this blog here.
It’s a very different beast to that book.  Whereas that book had the pace and tone of a horror thriller, this has a more deliberate pace and is a tale of courtly intrigue in a fantasy realm, with the chief supernatural element being the predominance of alchemy and augury (the practice of ‘scrying’ through examining the entrails of freshly killed animals) in the land.
In an fortress island, Indemnie,  comprised of ruling Baronies and ruled over by a Monarchy (currently Queen Inimical Phlegathon deVry IV), her Chief Hieronymer (practitioner of Augury),Mayhew Gordian, is at his wit’s end.   A trusted confidant and often summoned to secretly observe his Queen’s audiences with her Barons, he is observing an apparently destructive and catastrophic course of action by his Queen.  As she promises to wed each Baron in turn, turning them against each other and against her, surely the only outcome can be war?  And Mayhew’s scrying has revealed a series of dooms for Indemnie with no scenarios of hope.  His Queen says he must look deeper, and this means sacrificing a child, something Mayhew refuses to do, risking his Monarch’s wrath.  In the meantime his deepening regard for Princess Excrucia, his confidant and friend, makes him more than ever determined that the key to his Monarch’s behaviour, and possible salvations for Indemnie, must be found.
This is a book that demands a bit of patience, even with its short length.  It’s a compact piece of world building, and for the most part this is what the narrative focuses on, that and the intrigue between barons and barons and Monarch.  However it builds in it’s last act to a gripping and dramatic siege by cannon armed pirate vessel.  Mayhew acts as Parley for each but he has a last desperate gamble to play, one that involves the hazard of all, and the deepest secrets of augury and alchemy.  This novella amply rewards your patience.
The characters are skilfully drawn, their dielemmas believable and compelling.  Those who knows Dnonaldson’s writing will be aware of his wordsmith talents, his Scrabble defeating vocabulary that sings from the page.

A review of Robert Jordan’s “Lord of Chaos: Book 6 of ‘The Wheel of Time’.”

My history with Robert Jordan’s huge 14 book saga started just over 20 years ago when I first cracked open  the “Wheel of Time. ”  Here I was introduced to Lews Therin and the madness through ‘channelling’ the ‘one power’ that would destroy him and kill his wife, and crumble his castle.  I remember key events in the book.  I remember working my way through the series, I think it was Book 5 that accompanied me to my honeymoon.  And it was Book 6, this one, Lord of Chaos, that finally defeated me a quarter of the way through.  Other than a few abortive attempts to pick up where I left off, I laid the series to rest for 20 years.  Then, I decided to download the audio-book and defeat it this way.
Why did I initially leave the series?  This was down to both what some variously describe as the series greatest strength, and also its greatest flaw; the detail, the sheer, remorseless detail, the piling of chapter upon chapter from a  multitude of locations and perspectives.  It’s a flaw because it is at times ill disciplined.  Each book will leave a number of plot strands dangling and I am sure they are picked up in later instalments, but it makes that particular novel more unsatisfying. Then there is the minutiae of the descriptive prose, a lot which a charitable editor would have moved their red pen swiftly through.   The good side of this is that, if you surrender yourself to it, a bit like the characters in the series surrender themselves to the Source or the Power, chances are you’ll be thoroughly immersed in this fantasy world, and it will haunt your thoughts and dreams.
The series describes of a band of young people who are “Taveren” i.e. focal points of destiny, and how they form around a farm-boy called Rand-Al-Thor who has mysterious parentage and is in fact a prophesied Messianic figure who will destroy the Dark Lord of the series called, unsurprisingly, the Dark One.  This is in fact an epic cycle that must link and repeat through the ages, the titular Wheel of Time.
The Dark One has an army of monstrous figures assisting him; the Forsaken, a bickering, competing group of figures who step in and out of history and cause chaos, Half men, like Tolkien’s Wraiths, Trollocs, human-animal hybrids reminiscent of Tolkien’s Ors, and more.  There are figures who surpass evil itself like the monstrous Padan Fain, a former Tinker who has gone beyond life and death.  There are also ‘dark-friends,’ human allies to the evil power.
There is a wizard caste in the series, Aes Sadai, but here it’s wholly female, because the one power, think ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, can be channelled safely only by women.The female half is called Saidar.  If a male channels the male half of the power, Saidan, it will drive them mad with spectacularly destructive results.  Hence the Aes Sadai see it as part of their mission to ‘gentle’ ie neuter from the one power any man who can channel.  This causes Rand a few difficulties.
Lord of Chaos, then, takes up the story with Rand consolidating his grip on a number of cities and provinces, whilst laying stratagems against the Forsaken, with the focus of his plans at this point being a dude called Sammael who is at that point marshalling his forces against Rand.   Meanwhile, the Aes Sedai have been fractured into two camps; an aggressive clan (the ‘official’ Aes Sedai) who want to gentle Rand and eliminate any male channelling the One Power (they seized power in a bloody coup in a previous book) and a renegade group, where most of our Aes Sedai heroines  (including heroines we have known from the first book) are, including Elayne (also ‘Daughter heir of Andor), Nynavae and Egwene. This group are more holistic in their approach.  Some of our heroines in this group get involved in hunting down powerful artefacts, ‘Ter’Angreal,’  that they have come across  whilst dream-walking in the Land of Dreams, ‘Tel Ar Anrihod’ (these spellings are from memory so please bear with me) whilst others work out how they may help Rand (not all the good Aes Sedai believe they should).
Meanwhile two of the other Taveren (see above), Matt and Perrin, move with their armies to assist Rand.  Matt is roguish gambler with a talent for luck, and Perrin has wolf like abilities, he can link with wolves to experience the world through them and call to them, and he can see and hear like a Wolf.  He’s your fantasy novel character with the big axe.
So a lot of these main themes are unresolved in the book, its greatest frustration.   The last few chapters pages or so instead deal with a threat to Rand that whilst not wholly unexpected, was not the one we expected to close the book.   I won’t spoil it further, but these last chapters do generate some threat and tension.
As mentioned above, there is a lot of detail in this book that will at time have you shaking your head either in befuddled resignation, or just sighing and going with it.  There are lots of descriptions of clothes.  The politicking of the Aes Sedai and the sheer profusion of characters is head spinning at times.  The bad guys aren’t in it enough, when they are it does get a lot more interesting.  The gender politics of the book (and of Jordan’s works as a whole) is straight off a heavy metal album covers of the 70’s, women hardly dressed in various submissive poses, whilst being towered over by aggressive muscle clad male figures (or monsters). There may be a chain collar on the woman (optional).  Yes there are elements in Jordan’s writings that seem to refute this (the Aes Sedai clan are the most powerful in this world and the dominant power, strong women are as prevalent if not more so than male counterparts) but it all seems a bit disingenuous when you have scenes such as in this book, where a key Aes Sedai ritual involves all women showing their breasts and stating “I am a woman.”
In the final analysis though, the books remain great fun and will keep you company for ages.  And when you look at Jordan’s CV (highly decorated Vietnam Vet, physics  arts and games enthusiast) you can see the life experience and intelligence that informs his writings.  Start from Book One, and if you can, keep going.
The audio-book is a good and clear presentation read by Michael Kramer whose reads with a good measured pace, just the right amount of gravitas and nuanced for the different roles, and Kate Reading, who also does a splendid job coping with wide range of female voices.

A review of Rich Hawkins “The Last Plague”

A group of friends find more to trouble them than a hang-over when they wake from a Stag Party in a remote country cottage in Sussex.   The world has gone mad, infected by a disease that turns people into ravening, mutating, flesh eating monsters.  Who or what is the cause of the outbreak?  Will they survive and find their families and loved ones alive and un-turned?  Is there any hope for humanity?  How far has the plague spread?

What sets this very bleak but effective apocalyptic thriller apart from the groaning weight of it’s undead filled cousins are the monsters themselves, and their mysterious origin.  The origin is very sketchily explained and this is both strength and weakness.  I’ll come to that later.  But the monsters, what you become if you are unlikely enough to contract this plague, are basically every combination possible of the mutations in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and then some.  The body horror also nods to David Cronenberg, but the main respectful nods must be to “The Thing.” Fanged mouths and eyes generate in very odd places indeed, as do slimy tentacles and spider legs and all kinds of weird animal shapes that really do reference that film.  As do the grotesque ways the monsters consume their prey, from just chowing down to absorption.

The horror is merciless and the tone relentlessly bleak, even for a genre not known for casual optimism.  The characters are well drawn and the writer knows how to develop them, their reactions are heartbreaking and believable.  The survivors find a small child, a girl, which ups the ante, as they fight to keep her alive.  The pace of the narrative is fast.  Short chapters will speed by in a blur.  That this is managed whilst maintaining the generations of suspense, mystery, and character development is testament to good writing.

What was more problematic for me was that a bit of ‘slow burn’ in a plague or zombie outbreak’s origins is something I usually enjoy, the gradual exponential dread,  the story of a patient zero and the ripples outwards.  We don’t have that here, there’s something like a spontaneous mass infection.  And what spares our protagonists, and the uninfected they meet?  Why some and not others?  Yes it’s spread by bites and scratches as usual, but the initial mass outbreak was caused by huge, mountainous organic alien ships in the sky (full marks for originality and creepiness).  But how exactly did they kick things off?  I’m hoping these things are unpacked in the next  few books in the trilogy.

It’s bleakness and gore is “Walking Dead” strength (the graphic novels) so be warned.  You may need to lie down and / or watch a Pixar movie on finishing this.  Definitely a strong brew, but a good one.

A review of Stant Litore’s “Lives of Unstoppable Hope.”

This is a beautiful and powerful little book.  The writer has a pre-school daughter, Inara who struggles with a rare form of epilepsy.  Although Inara has made a lot of hopeful progress, her infancy was full of inexplicable and violent rolling seizures that left her parents shaken and frightened.  The father sat long vigils by her hospital bed, which inspired these reflections on the Beatitudes of Jesus.

Stant Litore has a love of and has studied languages, including the Greek of the New Testament.  He brings this learning to bear in this book in a powerful way, really getting to the inner life and power of Jesus’s words that a lot of translations have left obscured.

This, together with his poetic and imaginative understanding of God, humanity, joy and suffering make this a book that has the potential to push you out of your comfort zones and live lives of “unstoppable hope,” making a real difference to the world.

I am not new to Stant Litore, I belong to the Paetron crowd-funding scheme that supports his work, having read and greatly enjoyed and appreciated a lot of his stuff.  This includes a series called the “Zombie Bible,” that takes the stories of the Bible and fuses them with …the undead.  Stant’s reading of spiritual hunger with the zombie plagues he describes is an illuminating and enriching one.  I have also enjoyed his “Ansible” series that describe telepathic space travel and demonic creatures of pure mind, real Lovecraftian horrors.

Common to also his writing is a fiercely humanistic Christian faith.  I find it powerfully authentic.  So look up his work, and if you are so moved, support him and his family through Paetron.  I write through powerfully selfish reasons, I simply want to read more of his stuff.