Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

There's been a huge buzz around N.K Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms ever since it was released early in 2010, enough to get it a surprise Hugo nomination for 2011. With all I'd heard about and that entrancing cover I did want to read it.

Having done so I'm not exactly sure why it's so hyped. There's nothing particularly exciting or ground breaking in the book. In fact for it's 300 or so pages largely nothing happens, aside from the Twilightesque love story between passive protagonist Yeine and the dual god aspect Nahadoth (Nahadoth is Edward and Yeine is Bella, if you want to continue the Twilight metaphor poor old T'vril is Jacob).

The story is fairly generic. Naive young girl from the outlying barbarian matriarchal kingdom of Darr gets called to the capital and is proclaimed as heir to the fast fading king. This of course throws Yeine into a deadly game of intrigue with her vicious cousins Scimina and Relad. I'm probably doing Relad a bit of a disservice here, he didn't seem like that bad a bloke. Scimina was thoroughly hateful and at times I wished the book was about her, she seemed a lot more interesting than Yeine. Yeine has nothing at all to fight with and her cousins have gods as their playthings. One of things that really bothered me about the book was that there was never any clear reason as to exactly why beings with godlike power allowed themselves to be enslaved and tortured by the highbloods. There was some confusing claptrap about one of the higher gods; Itempas, having defeated Nahadoth and Co, but it didn't fly for me.

What sets The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms apart from so many other books like it and all the other Twilight wannabes is the writing and the style. Jemisin has a remarkable skill with words and having the story told in first person by Yeine (who Jemisin admits is largely her) is a master stroke. Yeine isn't the most reliable of narrators, but she's stunningly, painfully honest at the same time. The story as told by her skips about here, there and everywhere, it visits past, present and future, not always in that order. Yeine breaks into the chapters to tell little fairy stories about her world and the gods that inhabit it. At times it is frustrating, but for the most part it's fascinating and gives the whole thing a rather dreamlike, poetic quality.

However brilliant the style is it doesn't cover up the very sketchy Eddingsesque wold building. I was never able to get a real sense of the world that Jemisin was trying to create, big on feelings, emotional conflict and love stories, very light on actual detail about surroundings or appearance. There's evidence in the appendices that quite a lot of thought has been put into creating the world, but it doesn't show in the story. Many of the characters are equally as two dimensional and this made it hard for me to connect or sympathise with him. I probably liked the child like god Sieh the most, until he showed his true colours and became truly creepy.

Although The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first book of a trilogy it's fairly self contained and tied up neatly at the end. I liked this, because I don't have any intention of spending any more time in the world or with the characters.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Dervish House

I have to admit I approached Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House with a bit of trepidation. Firstly it was identified as SF and SF and I have never played together well, secondly everything I had heard about the book seemed to indicate that it had been nominated for the Hugo in an effort to give the award a bit of cred as something that could be won by serious literary works.

It’s hard to accurately classify The Dervish House. The SF seems to be the smallest part of it really. It’s only classified that way by virtue of it being set in 2027 and containing some nanotech. It’s part SF, part political thriller, part boys own adventure, part caper novel, there’s some historical fiction and even a love story.

The story covers the lives of 6 individuals over the course of week. Initially the 6 main characters are connected because they all live in Adem Dede Square, which has one of Istanbul’s few remaining dervish houses in it. Their lives will intersect during this week in ways that none of them could have envisaged at the beginning of it.

Like McDonald’s recent works The Dervish House is set in an exotic, developing country; this time Turkey’s ancient bustling capital of Istanbul. Ian McDonald writes lovingly about the city and seems to have captured it’s spirit and that of it’s residents. The city itself becomes in effect a 7th main character.

The 6 principals, through whose eyes readers see the story in short point of view chapters are Georgios Ferentinou; a retired Greek economist who pines for a lost love and wishes that his life had turned out differently. Can; a nine year old boy with a heart problem, who interacts with the world outside the square and his special school, mainly via the use of his remarkable bitbot, a nanotech toy. Adnan; an aggressive trader who is trying to pull off the biggest deal of his career. Ayse; Adnan’s wife, a dealer in religious antiquities who is on the trail of a mythical artefact called The Mellified Man. Leyla; a young lady from the country, who is trying to forge a career away from her tomato farming community as a marketing manager. Finally there is Necdet, a tortured former drug addict who goes from battling the demons of his past, to seeing the real thing on a regular basis.

The book is really a bit of a slow burn and takes far too long introducing it’s main characters and setting up their stories. It was a little frustrating at times trying to work out where and how they connected and why I should care. Once this is done, and everything is set in place ,the last 100 or so pages are a real thrill ride and it’s hard not to be taken in by it all and I genuinely connected with the characters, except maybe for Necdet, who I honestly could have done with a lot less of. I felt Leyla got hard done by in this respect, readers seemed to get less of her than the others and along with boy detective Can, she was probably one of the most accessible of the sextet.

Although McDonald could have done with a ruthless editor to trim some of the fat and the occasional unnecessary indulgence The Dervish House is a good read. It was unfortunate that it took so long to make me care about the characters and to set everything up. It’s all self contained and ends neatly, no overblown series in the brewing here. I don’t know that I could rate it as the best of any given year, but it’s well worth considering as entertainment done with style.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

McVillain: The Man Who Got Away

David McMillan is one of those rare individuals whose life story sounds so unbelievable that it can’t possibly be true. I first heard of him when he was the subject of one of Channels 9’s successful ‘true’ crime stories; Underbelly. McMillan’s story was called The Man Who Got Away. After seeing the show and reading up a little bit about the man I realised that I had been aware of a number of episodes in his life, they were usually the headlines in newspapers.

McVillain: The Man Who Got Away covers David McMillan’s life from his birth in 1956 up until his imprisonment for drug smuggling in 1982. It could be argued that his life after that is even more bizarre. He remains the only Westerner to have ever successfully escaped from Bangkok’s notorious Klong Prem prison (also known as the ‘Bangkok Hilton’) and then he had some incredible adventures in the sub continent. He later wrote about his escape from Klong Prem in the book ‘Escape’.

McVillain: The Man Who Got Away details his earlier escapades and explains why a bright and charismatic young man raised in Melbourne’s suburbs became a notorious drug runner. David McMillan was intelligent, precocious and charming. He wanted wealth and all the trappings of it, but did not want to work for it. It’s not surprising that he got involved with the world of international drug smuggling. By the time he was in his early twenties he had already made and lost a number of fortunes. The book covers the schemes, the near misses, the successes and the people that David met along the way.

It was a light and entertaining read. I like reading about people whose lives are stranger than fiction and I also enjoy capers. David McMillan is on the money for both of those. He apparently plans a series of books about his extraordinary life and this is the first, that’s good news, because it left me wanting to know more. If I were McMillan I’d hire a ghost writer for the next one (the names Adam Shand, Andrew Rule and John Silvester immediately spring to mind) as while the smuggler is competent enough, he loses focus at times and the scenes don’t leap off the page the way they should. He also failed to adequately explain his relationship with the love of his life Clelia Vigano (who tragically died in a fire in Fairlea Women’s prison in 1982) so that the reader never really gets how close the two were or why he was so desperately in love with her.

David McMillan is almost like Australia’s answer to Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere. The book has a few flaws, but is well worth the price and time well spent.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Lois McMaster Bujold and her Miles Vorkosigan saga series seems to be a bit of a favourite amongst Hugo voters. 3 of the books have won the rocketship (1991, 1992 and 1995) and including 2010’s Cryoburn (nominated for the 2011 award) a further 4 have been nominated.

Cryoburn is the 15th full length novel in the series. It was not my first experience of the physically impaired galactic investigator. I read the first book in the series to see what all the fuss was about. While I didn’t hate it, it didn’t strike me as particularly memorable, nor did it inspire me to read any more of the series. So why did I pick up Cryoburn? I want to make an informed decision on the Hugo’s this year and the best way to do that is to read all the nominated works of which Cryoburn happens to be one.

It was an enjoyable enough SF outing, for all that it has the flavour of a detective novel that just happens to be set in a mildly futuristic setting. I’m still none the wiser as to why Miles has such a large and devoted following. There’s nothing particularly new or different about him or the world in which he operates. The world this particular one was set on had a Japanese flavour, but could have easily been set in a Japan some years from now. Despite his impairment, which seems to revolve around the fact that he’s quite small, Miles is a remarkably bland character to have become so popular. His youthful assistants in Cryoburn, pre teen runaways; the animal loving Jin and little sister Mina, were far more entertaining and amusing. They were also better drawn characters. The writing is merely competent without being outstanding.

What Bujold did do well was allow the reader to come in 15 books into the saga and not feel like they were lost. There were some references to the world and characters that were unfamiliar, but they were easy enough to pick up. The ending was obviously written for the long time fans and their reaction is likely to be more extreme than mine. Having read the earlier books in the series would probably add context and readers of long running series like to encounter old favourites, which the peripheral characters of Miles’ bodyguard Roic, his brother Mike and others obviously were. As I said they didn’t do a lot for me and I would have preferred to read a book about Jin and Mina, I felt they made better protagonists.

Not having a frame of reference to judge by I can’t tell if this is a superior entry in the series or just a continuation of a familiar and well loved theme. I suspect it is the latter. If you’ve liked other Vorkosigan novels this probably won’t disappoint and if you’re not a fan, but want something light and diverting with an SF slant then you could do worse.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Firstly, I apologize to anyone who checks this blog every so often. I haven't updated in over a month because I've had some internet issues and my reading schedule (yes, I'm anal enough that I do have one, not that I stick to it) has worked so that I haven't been able to do anything for review just at the moment. Until Deadline, that is.

If you haven't read the first volume of Mira Grant's (pen name of Urban Fantasy author and John W. Campbell award winner Seanan McGuire) Newsflesh trilogy (Feed) be warned that there are spoilers for that here. You have been warned!

Okay, if you're still reading I'm going to assume that you've read Feed and jump straight into Deadline. It picks up a few months after the end of Feed and is narrated in first person by Shaun Mason. Ever since his adoptive sister George died in Feed, Shaun has been a lost person. He and George were one person, they just happened to share two bodies. Without George, poking zombies with a stick isn't fun anymore.

Shaun still runs the news blogging site (The End of the World Times) that he and his sister founded, but he's not active in the field anymore, and the guy who really runs the organisation is their man in London; Mahir Gowda. Shaun wants to stay out of the spotlight and deal with the mess his life is without Georgia. Being an Irwin, Shaun never really had a firm grip on sanity, but George's death seems to have knocked it looser than ever. She's dead and he still talks to her...and she answers back.

That's how it is until a refugee from the CDC (Centre for Disease Control); Dr Kelly Connolly, turns up on his doorstep and the subsequent spontaneous zombie outbreak manages to destroy their headquarters in Oakland. Events that also lead to the book's first significant death. From then on it's Shaun and his team of motley outlaw bloggers against the world, as it becomes clear they're about to blow the lid off one of the biggest cover ups in world history.

I'll make it clear that I adored Feed. It was one of my favourite reads of 2010, and I'm tickled pink that it's been deservedly nominated for the Hugo this year. I went into Deadline with some big expectations and for the most part it meets them. Not to say that it isn't without it's problems. It suffers from the lack of George and my own favourite character from Feed; techno whiz Fictional, Georgette 'Buffy' Messonier. I liked Shaun okay in Feed when he was filtered through Georgia's perspective, but with his somewhat hazy hold on sanity, and having him as the primary narrator makes him into a bit of an arsehole and somewhat hard to identify with. However I did like the urbane, anglo Indian Mahir Gowda and was glad he got a bigger role in Deadline. I also warmed to Shaun's fellow Irwin Rebecca 'Becks' Atherton, and head Fictional Magdalene 'Maggie' Garcia and her herd of miniature epileptic bulldogs were also suitably quirky. While, she was also at times a pain in the backside (possibly this is a side effect of living in a world where anyone can spontaneously turn into a flesh eating zombie), I was quite impressed with the no nonsense, tough talking, renegade medical researcher Dr Shannon Abbey.

Deadline does suffer a little from 'second book in a trilogy' syndrome in that for the first half of the book it's quite heavy on the exposition. It does a lot of 'this is what you missed' early on, before it gets into the new story. I do understand that not everyone picks up trilogies from the first book, but I felt this was overdone and I also would have appreciated a little less of Shaun explaining to everyone that he does talk to his dead sister and she talks back, but he's not all the way crazy.

Once you get over the half way mark the story ratchets up a notch or twelve, the action gets really tense and full on and the body count rises. As with Feed, I began to become concerned for the key members of the cast and know that not everyone was going to make it to the final page. Mira Grant is a master at this and I love her and her work for it.

After reading the Coda of Deadline and saying 'WTF?!' (anyone who says they saw that coming is lying) I'm now eagerly awaiting Blackout next year.

When will you rise?