Rhinegold is a saga of fate and revenge. Rhinegold

The gods Wodan, Hoenir and Loki are travelling in the world of men when they accidentally kill the son of a local lord. The family demands the gods pay the murdered man’s weight in gold or be killed. The gods do pay this wergild, but the gold they hand over is cursed and will lead the victim’s relatives to sorrow and death, generation after generation. The novel describes the painful path the family must take in order to lift the curse and stop the cycle of killing.

I first started Rhinegold because I had never taken the time to learn the story of the famous hero Siegfried (Sigifrith), which makes up a major part of the novel. Having married a German, I would have said I understand the country and its culture pretty well. Rhinegold shook that belief.

There is something irrevocably alien about a woman who is party to her own children’s death because they were not courageous enough to murder their father to avenge their grandfather. Similarly, it seems particularly fickle of a god to sire a son on a line of humans and give particular members of that family favour, only to be the instigator of their doom some years later.

In general, the choices the characters make in the novel (and I assume the original story) feel horrifying or tremendously stupid, especially since the characters are generally aware of the grievous consequences that will result from their decisions. In today’s world, most of us would come to a fork in the road, see a choice and take the easier path. We would not fight in a battle where our defeat was assured.

Yet the Rhinegold characters believe firmly there is no choice: if one path would be to abandon honour and duty to kin, then it is not a possibility. Besides this, their belief is often that whatever choice is made, the end result would be the same – fate cannot be turned aside. The important thing is how a man (or woman) faces their destiny. If with courage, Valhalla awaits.

Although this ideal does make it hard to relate to the characters, there’s something very pure and gritty about it. It felt to me a little like watching a blizzard while being home and safe in bed. It is better to be living now, where we are easier on ourselves and others. The narrative also has a pleasingly circular arc such that at the end we feel we have moved back to the beginning.

I do have to admit to struggling a little – it is a rather long tome, but I am still thinking about it some weeks after finishing, so it must have been worth it. I’m going to give it a 3 out of 5.

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Aurora: Pegasus is the second in Amanda Bridgeman’s Aurora series.

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Carrie Welles and Captain Harris have survived the attack of the superhuman “jumbos” on the Darwin. But Carrie’s still having nightmares, to the detriment of her new lover Doc. And Harris is starting to think he’s losing his mind as dead relatives dominate his thoughts, mouthing doom laden premonitions.

Harris soon discovers their fears are founded. The jumbos that the crew of the Aurora left incarcerated on the Darwin space station have broken free. The United National Forces (UNF) are blaming Harris for leaving them there in the first place and expect him to find them.

He hatches a plan to catch the jumbos. Use Carrie as bait. But Harris suspects there’s still a turncoat in the UNF and the jumbos always seem to be three steps ahead. Making things worse is the forbidden nature of Doc and Carrie’s relationship. Will their feelings for each other unravel the mission?

I couldn’t stop reading this book. I was rude to someone I regularly talk to on my daily commute because I couldn’t bear to waste the time speaking to them that I could use to read.

While Aurora: Darwin has an Alien feel to it because the marines head towards an unknown danger in the middle of space, Aurora: Pegasus has an Empire Strikes Back atmosphere. It’s got the romance – complete with a (sort of) love triangle. It has the surprise revelations. It has the same cliffhanger ending that leaves the reader gasping for more.

Yet what really made this book for me was Bridgeman’s ability to raise the stakes (completely lacking in the last book I reviewed). While it’s pretty obvious from the start that the plan to use Carrie as bait will not go smoothly, Bridgeman does more than simply deliver the disaster we expect. Instead, she creates a nightmare situation the reader is almost too horrified to read.

One by one, Bridgeman removes the stabilisers that keep Carrie on an even keel: Her trust in the plan; Her father’s devotion; Her bond with her fellow soldiers; Her relationship with Doc; Her self control; The support of Captain Harris; The Aurora.

When there is nothing left, what will she do?

I loved the book and I will be counting the days until the next one is released on 11 September. I am giving it a 4.5/5.

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.

“If you could meet anyone, who would it be?”

That was Scott Baker’s elevator pitch for The Rule of Knowledge, which he gave to the audience at an event on blockbusters at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

I’m not sure the pitch, as catchy as it is, really described the essence of the novel.

The book follows the adventures of a school teacher, Shaun, who likes to write physics papers about the space time continuum in his free time. Theoretically, he believes time travel is possible. But there’s one big practical issue that makes him think it can’t be done in the real world.

He is invited to go to England to present on his ideas, but on the way he and his wife run into a hobo. The hobo has a diary on him which catapults Shaun into a race for his life from mysterious gunmen. The diary reveals that someone has managed to solve Shaun’s problem – time travel is possible. In fact an agent has already gone back in time to Ancient Rome to interview one of the most important people in history.

The gunmen want that interview. And now Shaun has seen the diary, they want him dead.

The question Baker raised at the festival – if you could meet anyone in history, who would it be – never really rises in the book, which sets out clearly who Baker believes that person would be. Instead I feel the story was more about: “If someone changed history, what would that mean?” or even “If you don’t see something happen, did it?”

Because the book is a time travelling thriller, it inevitably becomes a bit of an Inception-type brain teaser where you try and figure out what it means for the present if someone goes into the past and sets off a new chain of events. Indeed, Shaun’s time travelling experience becomes a convoluted Möbius strip.

I personally don’t like it when time travel novels do this, because I feel that surely the chain of events has to start somewhere. We can’t just have an infinite loop sustaining some desired status quo. Even so, it’s a very entertaining novel that surprised me more than I had expected. I also enjoyed the second narrative that plays out in Ancient Rome.

I’ve seen people criticise Baker for the historical accuracy of the novel, or lack thereof, but I have to say that I wasn’t in an historical fiction mindset when I read this. I was in a thriller mindset. Any inaccuracies passed me by in the spirit of entertainment.

Baker likes to describe the novel as a cross between Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. My advice would be: if you like American-style blockbuster thrillers, read this book. If you like historical fiction, don’t. I’m giving it a 4/5.

Baker has worked in the film industry, so it’s not surprising that he has two awesome book trailers. Check them out:

 

 

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.

The Rosie Project was named book of the year at last night’s Australian Book Industry Awards. I loved this book, so totally agree with the verdict.

ImageDon is a very intelligent guy. He just happens to have no social skills whatsoever. After a number of disaster dates, Don decides he should take a scientific approach to finding a wife, creating a survey to find “Mrs Right”. He figures he just needs to sit back and wait for one of the respondents to match his criteria and –voila – find his future spouse. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for Don, before the end of The Rosie Project, all his beliefs are turned upside down.

Don’s voice is what makes this book so intriguing and funny – or rather the juxtaposition of his voice with what would be considered normal. His word choice is so stilted and thoughts so nerdy – if the first ten pages don’t have you laughing out loud, it’s possible you have no sense of humour.

Here is an example that many reviewers (including me) loved, where Don arrives at a fancy restaurant wearing a Gore-Tex jacket and is challenged by the doorman:

‘I’m sorry, sir, but we have a dress code,’ said the official.

I knew about this. It was in bold type on the website: Gentlemen are required to wear a jacket.

‘No jacket, no food, correct?’

‘More or less, sir.’

What can I say about this sort of rule? I was prepared to keep my jacket on throughout the meal. The restaurant would presumably be air-conditioned to a temperature compatible with the requirement.

I continued towards the restaurant entrance, but the official blocked my path. ‘I’m sorry. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. You need to wear a jacket.’

‘I’m wearing a jacket.’

‘I’m afraid we require something a little more formal, sir.’

The hotel employee indicated his own jacket as an example. In defence of what followed, I submit the Oxford English Dictionary (Compact, 2nd Edition) definition of ‘jacket’: 1(a) An outer garment for the upper part of the body.

I also note that the word ‘jacket’ appears on the care instructions for my relatively new and perfectly clean Gore-Tex ‘jacket’. But it seemed his definition of jacket was limited to ‘conventional suit jacket’.

‘We would be happy to lend you one, sir. In this style.’

‘You have a supply of jackets? In every possible size?’ I did not add that the need to maintain such an inventory was surely evidence of their failure to communicate the rule clearly, and that it would be more efficient to improve their wording or abandon the rule altogether. Nor did I mention that the cost of jacket purchase and cleaning must add to the price of their meals. Did their customers know that they were subsidising a jacket warehouse?

‘I wouldn’t know about that, sir,’ he said. ‘Let me organise a jacket.’

The scene continues to a hilarious conclusion.

In contrast to Don, who the reader can see very clearly through his own scientific observations, the other characters, even the love interest Rosie, seem less solid. It’s like Simsion spent all his energy on Don and couldn’t give us more than an outline on what makes the other characters tick.

The plot itself also seems to take a back seat to Don’s character. I didn’t feel like I was reading the book to find out what happened next, but rather to see what Don’s reaction would be to what happened next.

To be so focussed on a character’s development was scintillating and gave me the feeling that this book really was more about the journey than the destination.

In summary, I thought it was brilliant and I’m going to give it a 5/5.

This fantasy epic begins with a politically driven war that shifts the balance of power in an age old empire.The Garden of Stones

Corajidin heads the house of Erebus, but visions have foretold that he will rise to rule all his people. Impatient for his destiny, he commits atrocities to accelerate his ascent.

Renowned warrior-mage Indris would rather not become involved in the conflict, having turned his back on old responsibilities after losing his wife. Yet even he can not escape the momentum of events.

Mari, Corajidin’s daughter, is caught between filial duty and doing what she knows is right.

Whether or not you like this book will strongly depend on how much you enjoy complex fantasy worlds – because The Garden of Stones is all about the world. Barnes creates a multi-layered banquet for the senses and the mind with detailed descriptions of settings and culture that will scintillate a particular type of reader.

I will confess upfront that I am not one of these readers. To me, the world always has to take a back seat to the plot and the characterisation. In my opinion the extreme world-building of this book got in the way of the story.

Consider these statistics. In the first two thousand or so words of the novel we are introduced to:

  • Eight character names (we only meet four of them)
  • Six place or geographic feature names
  • Eight different groups of people (Family Names/Race names/Order names)
  • Seven fabricated words or concepts for objects or magic
  • Four rank titles

All this detail at the start of the novel slowed the action down – the opening battle scene had the pace and tension of a tea party. And Barnes continues to introduce new names, concepts and facts almost all the way through.

Having said that, the descriptions did evoke a strong sense of place (if not necessarily character), and the world Barnes has created is original. For example:

In Seethe fashion there were no exterior walls in the Hai Ardin. No doors. Crystalsingers had coaxed the growing formations into seemingly random steps, chambers and tilted columns. In some areas the high, semi-vaulted ceilings of the Hai-Ardin were open to the sky. Translucent beetle-shell hangings adorned the walls. Ilhen crystals shone like jagged candle flames frozen in time.

Another highlight of the novel was Corajidin, who is a better rounded villain than found in most series. He is not a bad man, just one with strong ambition who ultimately is driven towards immoral actions by failing health. His desperation and impatience with his mortality sings through every scene he inhabits. In retrospect, I found him more interesting than either of the other viewpoint characters. Sometimes I even wanted him to triumph.

In summary, although I personally didn’t particularly enjoy this novel and am going to give it a 3/5, I think many fantasy readers who love detailed worlds will devour it and pant for more.

Babel-17 (from 1966) is basically about the effect of language on the human mind. The main character, Rydra Wong, is a poet who used to be a cryptographer. She gets a call from the military asking her to try and decrypt a transmission that is discovered at the site of a number of attacks in an intergalactic war.

Babel-17

Rydra recognises it’s a language and gets together a spaceship crew to go to the site of what she thinks will be the next attack in an attempt to figure out the puzzle. Assassinations, space battles, betrayals and love affairs occur before she finally discovers the language’s secret.

Many people thought the book was overwritten, but I enjoyed the imagery. I also enjoyed the world building, especially the idea of the discorporate spaceship crew and the body modifications. The characters I thought were well drawn, with the possible exception of the love interest. The central premise – language’s control over our mind – was also interesting.

Unfortunately, too many scenes seemed to me to have little function. I don’t like world building for the sake of world building or characterisation for the sake of characterisation. I like these elements to be built into scenes that have a real function in the plot. Many will disagree with me, but I felt the thread of plot was thin in a lot of scenes.

For example, why did we need to go through a drawn out discussion of how Rydra knew what people were thinking but not saying? Sure it’s necessary to know she has this ability, but did we need Rydra and her mentor to analyse her ability ad nauseam? Similarly, why did the reader need to know about the long process of selecting a spaceship crew? There were some great images and character revelations, but couldn’t these have been done in a more useful scene?

The other reason I’m not a big fan of this book is that I didn’t like central concepts being thrust piecemeal into discussions between two characters or into paragraphs of analysis inside the main character’s head. It feels too much like I’m being lectured.

That’s why I’m only going to give this book a 3/5. Before all you die-hard fans bring out the knives, I do have to admit that I’m not really a Science Fiction Masterwork kind of gal. So sue me.

 

Sanderson’s Words of Radiance is the second instalment in his Stormlight Archives about a world facing destruction from the voidbringers of ancient myth.

ImageMost of the world’s inhabitants are oblivious of the danger, but some have been piecing the clues together that point to the trouble to come. Unfortunately they also have vastly different ideas about what to do about it.

It seems obvious that the order of the Knights Radiant will be involved: a long defunct order of men and women with special powers.  Yet the budding “knights” come from diverse backgrounds and are afraid of revealing the extent of their powers. Can they get past differences in class in cultures to confide in each other and build the trust necessary for a functioning order? Can they discover the long lost secrets they will need to survive the battle to come?

These questions are not fully answered by the end of the book, leaving a lot to do in the next instalments. Even so, I loved it.  All of it. If I had to choose one word to describe it, it would be brilliant. If I had to choose two, I would say brilliant and long.

I seem to find less and less fantasy books that are really long. Many people find this a good thing. After all, the shorter the book the better for busy people.

Personally, I prefer longer books. It takes me a while to warm up to characters and I like to take some time to enjoy them once I’m familiar with their quirks. Plus, I’m a bit cheap and I always consider the value/price ratio before I purchase a book. If I have a 200-page book and a 1000-page book on my wishlist for the same price, I’ll always buy the latter first.

Words of Radiance was therefore manna from heaven.

I’m in awe of how much the characters develop — they are certainly not the same in the second book as they were at the start of the series. But I’m most in awe of Sanderson’s world building, which is intensely detailed and immensely broad in scope.

I’m going to give this book a 5/5. I bow to Sanderson’s superior abilities and pray it won’t be as long a wait for the next one in the series as it was for this one.

Possibly my biggest disappointment since the year started.

ImageI grew up on Michael Crichton. The Andromeda Strain. Jurassic Park. Timeline. Airframe. I loved them all.

Crichton died in 2008 with the manuscript for Micro only part finished. His family recruited science writer Richard Preston, who finished the novel using part written by Crichton and a handful of notebooks.

Oddly enough, another of the books that I remember well from my childhood was written by Preston — The Hot Zone, a non-fiction about the Ebola virus. I found it fascinating and so frightening it gave me nightmares about being stuck in a warehouse full of monkey cages with one animal loose.

You’d think I’d have to love a book by two authors I’d enjoyed before. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Micro is about some scientists who are recruited by a growing technology company that has discovered how to shrink people — ostensibly to facilitate research of the “microworld”. The company’s CEO has murdered some people to try and keep truths from being aired. When the scientists discover what he’s done, they are shrunk and released in the Hawaiian rainforest where they have to contend with all sorts of insects that are much bigger than they are and very dangerous.

It seems like the perfect Crichton-type plot. Unfortunately, I felt the execution left much to be desired. Although packed with action, none of that action built any suspense. People died often and suddenly without me feeling a jot for them. To me, this meant something went wrong with the characterisation. The only character I identified with was one of the casualties, alienating me for the rest of the book.

I’m going to give this one a 2/5. Read their other books instead.