Archives for category: 3.5/5

Video games are becoming ever more realistic and rely more and more on our input, not only from controllers, but also our own bodies. This book explores what might happen when the virtual world designers create becomes as real as the world we live in. How do you tell the difference, and if you’re conducting violent game play, how do you differentiate between real people and virtual players?

The Sapporo Outbreak

In the Sapporo Outbreak, a Japanese company has come up with a game that is very realistic. But they’re behind schedule with release, so investors send a team of specialists to have a look at whether the game is really going to be as good as it should be and as safe as it should be.

It turns out the game has been delayed because of some teething problems where players become violent, bludgeoning friends and family because they can’t distinguish between the virtual and the real. When a team of hackers breaches the company’s security and releases the game to the world, anyone online becomes a killing machine. The specialists find themselves in a fight for their lives.

This novel for me was an important lesson about two things:

  1. Covers
  2. Moods

I’ll start with the first point. I’d like to think that I’m not so one-dimensional as to choose a book based on its cover, but if I’m being quite honest, the cover does actually influence my choice. There was something about the creepiness of this cover that drew me in. Because of the red eyes of the close up and the world “outbreak” I thought it was going to be a zombie book. The opening scene, making reference to some sort of myth only strengthened this view.

Of course the book wasn’t a zombie story at all. I was completely wrong-footed, which I would have avoided if I’d read the blurb. But because I started out with the zombie impression, I was surprised throughout the first third of the novel at what actually did happen. And I really enjoyed it.

So from that experience I took two things: a. Humans like to be surprised. b. Covers are important.

The second point – mood – was another factor in why I enjoyed the novel. At the time I picked up the Sapporo Outbreak, I was simultaneously reading a sci-fi and a fantasy but neither of them was really doing anything for me. I think I’d had a overdose of that genre. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the Sapporo Outbreak nearly as much if I hadn’t been hanging out for a thriller.

Quickly, what I liked about the novel was:

  1. The believable main character. In fact every character the author painted, even if they were only going to have a minimal role, had a background to explain their actions.
  2. The idea – unique enough to interest with an additional “too close to home factor”.
  3. The author managed to surprise me a number of times. I wasn’t very accurate when I tried to predict what was going to happen.

What I didn’t like:

Towards the end the main character and his love interest risk their lives to try and save that of someone else. The whole enterprise seems to have been a waste of time, because what they went to fetch is never actually used (from my memory).

I’m going to give this novel a 3.5/5.

This self-published book won the 2013 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

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Caldan is an orphan who has been taken in by a monastery. There he works hard and sometimes studies alongside the privileged sons and daughters of nobles who come to learn many arts, including Crafting, Swordplay, Dominion and Alchemy.

An accident leads to his expulsion from the monastery and he finds himself alone in a cut-throat city. To stay alive he has to make the best of the patchwork skills he learned at the monastery. As he tries to find his feet, an invasion force is preparing an assault on the city that will once more throw his life into chaos.

I have mixed feelings about this novel.

I’m constantly in awe of authors who self publish and make it. The world building was great and the system of magic even better. The problem was that I couldn’t identify with the characters – generally a deal breaker for me.

A Crucible of Souls is the “coming of age” type of fantasy novel and Caldan is your typical naive youth who is bound to make ten cringeworthy mistakes before breakfast. Perhaps it says more about me than this book, but that naivety annoyed me. It was also slightly boring. Did Caldan develop as the novel went on? In terms of skills, sure. In terms of character? I don’t think so.

Hogan compounded this error by packing Caldan in cotton wool. He never let things get really bad for the boy. He’d set up an awful situation where things could get very hairy, then sidestep it. I always breathe a sigh of relief when a character escapes a noose, but sometimes the noose has to catch them in order for the suspense to work.

Having said that, towards the end of the book I became more interested and if I’m honest I will probably read the next book in the series. If nothing else, I’d like to find out what happens to some of the minor characters who I found more interesting. I am also curious to learn the reason Caldan’s parents were killed. But I wouldn’t be urging too many people to follow my lead.

I’m going to give it a 3.5/5.

On the surface, the Circle is about the dual nature of technology — enabling instantaneous knowledge and fulfilment, but also limitless surveillance.
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However, the book also touches on deeper concepts. When does the right of the individual trump that of the community? Is reaching a group consensus always the fairest way to make decisions, or is it a shortcut to poorly considered policy? If no information is ever forgotten, can time still heal all wounds? Can a person know too much?

The book follows Mae, who has just been offered a job at The Circle, a company created when a developer became frustrated at having to sign into multiple platforms across the internet to participate in discussions or make purchases. He developed a universal operating system, the foundation of a mega company with bottomless pockets and momentous clout, socially and politically.

Working at the Circle is a dream come true for Mae. True, some of the requirements of the job take some getting used to — for example the pressure to maintain a high “party rank”, which keeps track how many social media posts she makes and comments on — but the campus is beyond her wildest imaginings. And anything can happen at the Circle. It’s the opposite of the old fashioned stodgy workplaces she hates.

As time passes, Mae becomes further and further drawn into the ideology of the Circle. Secrets are lies. Sharing is caring. Privacy is theft. She races ever faster towards the company’s mysterious ideal of “closing the circle”. No one knows what that will entail, but one thing is certain. Society will be changed forever.

I read a lot of post apocalyptic fiction. I often wonder when I’m reading it if the more interesting story would be at the time of the apocalypse rather than after it. This story reminded me that apocalypses don’t always arrive with a bang. Sometimes it’s a slow slide into armageddon.

Because everything the circle does seems so reasonable at first. Of course it makes sense to track everyone’s health using a bracelet — flu outbreaks can be stopped before they really start. Of course it makes sense to have cheap cameras that can be planted anywhere without people knowing. After all, you’ve been very worried about your parents’ as they get older — the cameras give you peace of mind.

But at what point does it become too much? And have we already passed it?

I’m going to give this book a 3.5/5.

There is something about Michael J Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series that charms. I could say it is the story’s simplicity. I could say it is his decision not to kowtow to the fantasy tradition of world building. I could say it is the lack of real darkness in the novels. But I’d probably decide it is the characters.

Michael J Sullivan Riyria Revelations

Hadrian and Royce are thieves. Before Royce met Hadrian, he would have belonged in Brent Week’s Shadow trilogy. He began his life as urchin and became an assassin who didn’t think too much of morals. Killing people was what he did. Before Hadrian met Royce, he belonged in Conan the Barbarian, or possibly a story that chronicles a hero who has too many dreams and not enough realism. I’m struggling to think of one right now.

Interestingly, we are introduced to the pair after they have been working together for years. Their differences have gradually rubbed each others’ corners off. Hadrian is no longer so idealistic. Royce is no longer as bloodthirsty and cold. In most other fantasy novels, we would meet Hadrian and Royce when they were young and travel with them on their journey to this point. But Sullivan begins at the end.

To me, this makes the series a chronicle of a unique relationship: a dream team that works well together because of years of practice. It almost feels like a Marvel comic. There is something comforting and filled with childhood glee in Sullivan’s old fashioned take of heroes who always manage to get themselves out of whatever ridiculous scrape they find themselves in.

This atmosphere lasts until the fourth and fifth book in the series when the overarching plot, which had been quietly chugging along in the background shifts into a new gear. The end begins. The relationship of our dynamic duo is irrevocably changed.

The beginning of the end, which at first had been a graceful 747 planned-landing-type finish, quickly becomes a crash and burn scenario in book six (Percepliquis). This book, the last in the series, has a mournful tone. One of the duo has had such a terrible thing happen to him that he is no longer really himself. Unsurprisingly, given the duo is only half what it was, the change reduces enjoyment of the story. However, the stakes are higher – the end of humanity of course – so we are still hooked until the last page.

I contemplated the change in the atmosphere of the series after I laid down the last novel. If the relationship between the main characters had remained the same, would that have made it boring? Would I really have liked the adventures of Hadrian and Royce to have continued ad nauseam into book 50? The answer was not clear cut. I would have liked to have seen elements of the relationship saved. But I know the characters had to develop in order for the story to have a proper beginning middle and end. So, I guess I’ll just tip off my hat to Sullivan for entertaining me, and let all of you decide for yourselves.

I’m giving the novels a 3.5 out of 5.

Note: When started reading this series it was a self-published (to be) six novel series. After encountering success with books one to five, Sullivan was picked up by Orbit and the series was published as three not six novels. The Orbit books are the Theft of Swords (The Crown Conspiracy & Avempartha), Rise of Empire (Nyphron Rising & The Emerald Storm) and Heir of Novron (Wintertide & Percepliquis). The origins of Royce’s and Hadrian’s relationship are also to be revealed in two new books, the first of which is coming out in August this year.  

I’m always awestruck by how Peter F. Hamilton manages to find so many alternate future universes for humanity, but make them all so plausible.

Peter F. Hamilton Fallen Dragon

(Credit: Jeroen Bouwens, Peter F. Hamilton)

This story is no different. Fallen Dragon describes our society a few hundred years into the future, when we’ve managed to colonise some planets. Unfortunately, we’ve discovered that doing so hasn’t fulfilled the commercial dream of creating financially lucrative products to ship back to Earth and make lots of money. Interstellar travel is just too expensive.  Instead, the starship companies that have footed the bill for creating colonies are shifting money around in funny accounting procedures and heading out to established colonies to conduct “asset realisation”, which basically adds up to piracy on a planetary scale.

Our main character is an idealistic boy who wants to see the stars. The only way for him to do this is to sign up to one of the companies that conducts “asset realisation”. As he realises his mistake, he forms a plan of how to get himself out of his predicament, but it might be more complicated than he thought, because the world from which he intends to pirate away the money to exit the game isn’t as helpless as other worlds have been.

What follows is an intense action sci-fi that has you waiting for the next page. I enjoyed the universe that Hamilton created, and the plot was not at all predictable, keeping me guessing all the way.  As always, I loved the complexities he built into his story and how he makes even minor characters seem real.

I also love how he manages to comment on society, quietly, without making us feel like we’re being lectured at. I really thought hard during this book about how we homogenise everything as we become more numerous and how the cultures of individual countries are taken over by a global culture, or to coin Hamilton’s term, the uniculture.

However, despite this enjoyment, I had a bit of a problem with the way that he’d set this novel up. It sprang between time in an erratic manner that was sometimes a hard to follow. I just couldn’t ascertain why he had made temporal leaps when he did. I think he wanted to start the novel with a bang, which would have necessitated the constant seesawing in time space, but somehow, I think I would have more enjoyed the journey of the main character, Lawrence,  if I’d followed the story with him in chronological order.

The killer issue necessitating the time play is perhaps that we don’t meet the other main viewpoint characters that have a role  in the book until the last chapter in Lawrence’s life plays out, which is probably why Hamilton wrote the novel in the way he did. Given this, I can’t really give a solution for how he should have done it, but I felt something was a bit skewiff.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the biggest issue I had with the novel. My biggest issue is that we, as people,  develop in real life. We mature. (Caution, slight spoiler.) Lawrence was not a spring chicken at the end of the novel. Yet, he decides to settle down with a teenage girl at the end of his travails. How on earth was that going to work? I felt like Hamilton just got tired and didn’t want to deal with what would happen if he brought Lawrence back to the world he’d been born on, years after Lawrence had left it. Perhaps Hamilton didn’t want to describe the changes in the world and what they meant for Lawrence, or perhaps Lawrence’s meeting with a sweetheart who might have married and had children and sagged in the wrong places sickened Hamilton. I had personally been looking forward to those changes. There is nothing more powerful than two lovers meeting after years apart and realising that, although they’ve changed, their attraction for each other is just as strong.

Hamilton robbed me of this in his male desire for his main character not to have wasted his life and have lost his vitality because of a bad life mistake. Boo, I say.

That’s why I’m giving this novel a 3.5/5, despite the fact that it could have scored much higher.

Kate Harper's Lady Libertine

(Credit: Kate Harper)

Straight out, I’m going to say that I love regency romance. I’ll read any Georgette Heyer I find lying about and will try new authors at the drop of a hat. It’s like comfort food for me in book form. As soon as I’m tired or depressed, I get the craving to download a new volume. Which I guess is the great thing (some would say the dangerous thing) about having a Kindle with a 3G connection, where I can buy books almost anywhere.

Lady Libertine really hit the spot when I bought it. Lucy Landon is exactly my kind of heroine — not particularly attractive, but possessed of a brain (shock horror) and a sparkling wit. She has been on the shelf for too many London seasons to hope she will ever find a husband and finds that she can’t face the future that awaits her: her horrid mother expects to marry an equally awful new beau and will move to his tasteless house with any unmarried children.

Luckily, Lucy has a plan. A friend of hers heads up the London Times and pays her to write a column detailing salacious gossip from the many parties she attends. She’s so surely going to end a spinster that no one looks at her anymore, allowing her to watch many ill advised trysts and report them in the paper under the name of Lady Libertine.

One of the targets of her barbed words is Lucius Ransom, the twelfth Earl of Hammersley, who Lucy saw dallying not once, but twice, with someone else’s betrothed — something of a habit for the rake.

Her writing lands him in hot water and Lucius, nicknamed Rand, decides he will find out who Lady Libertine is. From here it follows the usual regency formula, but there was something in the story and the characters which really captured my imagination. I’m going to give it a 3.5.

I also read another of Kate Harper’s which was more run of the mill Regency — His Wayward Ward. I wouldn’t really recommend it. I wasn’t a fan of the main character, who was a ditsy young girl. I’m only going to give it 2.5.

(Credit: Hallgrimur Helgason and Amazon Crossing)

The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning isn’t a subtle book. If you were thinking of food, this book would be a packet of Twisties — full of flavour and kinkiness — rather than a tastefully cooked French repaste.

We’re introduced to Tomislav Boksic, nicknamed Toxic in the US. He’s a Croat who once fought against the Serbs and now operates as a hitman in the States. That’s until a job goes bad and the FBI begins breathing down his neck. He means to head back to his country of birth, but after a strange twist of fate, he ends up in Iceland, impersonating a televangelist.

This lovable, but not sexy (bald and pudgy), character is lost in this world with no guns, drugs or crime, where winter nights and summer days are long. He is forced to trust people he would have scorned previously and, as the book progresses, Toxic grows into your heart as he finds a conscience and learns to be there for the people he’s been thrown together with, learning to face situations in a different way than he’s been accustomed to. His view on life is unique: funny, enlightening, disgusting and frightening all at once.

All the characters are exceedingly human, with egos and horrid character traits, which would have me running fast in the other direction if I met them in real life. And these horrid traits aren’t resolved at the end of the novel; there’s no trite or perfect reformation even for Toxic. Still, there’s something charming about the each of the characters, which means the book flies. This despite a plot which has trouble inspiring, as Toxic can’t kill anyone in Iceland.

One character I’m not sure worked was the Icelandic love interest, who seemed a bit bland. Perhaps Helgason wanted to create a stark contrast with Toxic’s ex Munita. Also, unfortunately, despite Iceland featuring so heavily in the novel that I would almost class it as a character itself, I didn’t get much of a feeling for how the capital, Reykjavik, looked and felt. I would have liked more atmosphere and setting. Luckily more time was spent on the people living there, even though Helgason seems to rely quite heavily on satirical stereotypes to portray his own countrymen.

Despite these niggles, I loved Toxic too much as a character to give this book a bad rating. I’m giving it 3.5/5.

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I first heard about Hicks’ books when he randomly tweeted me, telling me to try the first book in his series, In Her Name: Empire, because it was free. I don’t turn down free books if they have merit generally, so I had a look.

I read the blurb and shook my head about blue skinned female warrior aliens… Avatar anyone? I retweeted his tweet, but let the book be. Then I saw another tweet about it. I decided that if he was going to be so insistent and it was free anyway, I could at least try it.

I have to say that despite some initial hiccups at the start of the book, I ended up buying the whole trilogy.

The story revolves around a young boy called Reza, whose parents are killed by aliens (who are blue-skinned and all female) in a long war between humans and the creatures. He’s sent to an orphanage which oddly enough is chosen by the aliens for an experiment. He’s then sent to one of their home worlds and starts to learn their way.

The trilogy follows his journey to cultural understanding as he learns to fight under alien supervision, but the story also follows those he was connected to back in humanity. Their lives cross again much later and the old friendships have to be tweaked to survive.

The series was enjoyable, although I did find the way Reza changed a little unsettling. In retrospective, these changes were what made the book believable.

The culture of the aliens was well thought out and the ending was neither Hollywood nor dark. That in itself is a true achievement if you ask me.

After another tweet offering a free book, I also downloaded the first in Hicks’ prequel trilogy In Her Name: First Contact.

There were a number of things which bothered me about this book. The first was that, in my memory, the level of technology the aliens had supposedly achieved wasn’t echoed in the first books, even when they were on their home world, not hiding their skills from humans. The second was the way that Hicks depicted nationalities — which had now expanded out to occupy different planets. They hadn’t changed culturally, despite the book being so far in the future. This meant that First Contact became a bit “God bless America” at times, and also had the incompetent idiots who didn’t believe that an invasion was coming as a Muslim and Chinese planet. It made me sad that someone would depict our future imbued with the same racial prejudices we have today.

However, that said, Hicks moves the story along at a whipping pace and creates great sympathy for his main characters. Probably his greatest achievement is keeping tension and hope alive in the novel, despite the fact that we know — the book being a prequel — what the end result of all the fighting will be.

I was pleasantly surprised and will give this series a 3.5/5.