Mar 172014

100 words: The overview

The March Hodderscape review project book is one of the Big Books from one of the Grand Masters of SF, Robert A Heinlein. It’s a biggie. It won the Hugo and the Nebula, and written and published around two-thirds of the way through the space race, and it’s a fascinating thought experiment of its time. It could at one time be found on any self-respecting bookshop shelf, but its complicated series of political lectures and our distance from the Cold War ear means that it’s showing its age, and it’s easier to see its flaws than to understand its impact.

100 words: What it’s about

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress supposes that the moon is a penal colony, an updated Australia where Transportation results in physiological changes – gravity – and there is no sneaking back. The Moon is run by a capitalist Lunar Authority, and the residents – most of whom are technically no longer prisoners – revolt against the Earth. The book contains a self-aware computer, engineering, political theory, and an ugly manual for revolution: not one of, by, and for the people, but a cabal with the good of the people masquerading as a revolution of the people. Despite some inherent difficulties, it remains compelling.

100 words: the context

Ten years after McCarthyism. Midway through the Space Race. The near peak of the Cold War. And the book, much to the dismay of adherents to New Criticism, only makes sense in context. Heinlein shocks the reader of 1966 with a well-thought-out series of political and social developments, from (shocking) sexual freedom and (shocking) race-mixing to his own set of long-winded political theory, called “rational anarchism”. Heinlein is writing a big, strong, American story, while putting the US well out of centre of that universe, lampooning in many ways the very culture with whom the story will resonate most strongly.

100 words: that uncle…

I, and most people I know, had someone avuncular growing up, who was pretty cool. A bit of a weirdo, but someone who knew cool stuff. Talked about sex. Could fix a car or a light switch. Had a handle on maths and physics. Knows how the world works, talks to you like you’re human. For a ten or twelve year old, that guy is pretty cool. The thing is, when you’re sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-five, you realise he’s actually a bit of a dick. That’s kind of how I feel about Heinlein. A lot of bad with the good.

100 words: the slog

You can read TMIAHM as satire, which I hope it is, but later Heinlein books suggest it isn’t. As compelling as the story is, there are pages and pages of political thought, where Heinlein seems to suggest that if a) the world is dangerous enough, that b) everyone would be more polite, and c) we would all sort of agree on right and wrong, d) NO TAXES, e) we’d all get to have sex with feisty women. Who are a bit… flat. Feisty! Intelligent! Equals! But also doing womanly things, like taking a long time in the bathroom. Gets old.

100 words: Overall

TMIAHM is dated, and hard to read. I think Heinlein was being fairly provocative and progressive for his time, which is a fairly damning indictment of America in the post-McCarthy Cold War Space Race. While it doesn’t ever drop to some of the rantings of his later works, it can be hard going. Particularly crazy theses like “I don’t want police, so I don’t want to pay taxes, so no one should”. It’s very “My way or the highway”. Glad I read it when I was 14, but at 41, I wanted to throw it across the room. Several times.

Mar 132014

From Bill Campbell’s mind comes this raw, shocking book. It’s dense and deep and thoughtful and really, really good. It starts with a trope: a far future, consumerism has grown to the point where poor and minority children are press-ganged into military service. There’s an important mining planet under revolt, and the Marines are sent in to subdue the miners. From there, though, Campbell delves into a fascinating picture of the modern (circa 1998) world drawn to a terrible conclusion. This is a complicated, slow read, with a complex cast of characters. It’s devastatingly enjoyable, even if not particularly approachable.

n.b. – the Vincent Sammy art is delectable.

Get it here (UK) or here (US)

Mar 102014

Another, alternate world. The Crosses run the world. The Noughts are considered, at best, less than human. On the surface, this is a Romeo and Juliet analogue, with a Nought boy and a Cross girl, star-crossed lovers growing up with the odds against them. This examination of race and its effects is stunning in its honesty, integrity, and its refusal to talk down to its audience. It grapples with the effects of racism and asks readers to consider terrorism from another angle. This book draws from real-world situations large and small and asks you to consider your place in it.


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Mar 032014


Cape Town, Khayelitsha. The dead have come back to life. Everything’s better with zombies – not. This is a fun, youthful romp around class, prejudice, religion, and how awful people can be when the world ends. This is an overtly YA book, and enormous amounts of fun. The pair that make up the pseudonymous Lily Herne display a serious handle on the craft of storytelling, how to keep readers drawn in and interested, foreshadowing just enough to spin a compelling yarn. Only this yarn is made up of zombie flesh and the Resurrectionists who worship them. A damn fine read.


Get it here (UK) or here (US – but seems to be import only)


Feb 282014

Sunburnt Faces is a coming of age story – but what a coming of age story. It’s a story of triumph and the cost of triumph. It’s a deeply personal exploration of small-town immigrant life in Israel in the 1970s through to near the present day. It’s awash with lush prose and deep, complex characters, and it juxtaposes Wittgenstein with the philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it works. Read it.


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Feb 272014

Liz de Jager’s first effort treads somewhat familiar ground: today’s Britain, but one in which the realms of Faerie exist; redcaps, high Sidhe, and werewolves prowl the land, and the Blackheart family are the enforcers in the ‘real world’. Our heroine Kit was raised outside the Blackheart family, but she’s been converted and is proving to be a capable agent. De Jager somewhat curiously skips what would normally be the first volume, perhaps just to get straight to the meat. The book is engaging and lots of fun, but I do hope for more flashbacks or perhaps an origin novella.


Get it here (UK) – sadly not apparently out in the US.

Feb 242014

Four aeroplane crashes at the same minute. A book within the book: a tell-all collection of essays and interviews. Compelling, as all of these books are, making the reader feel dirty. Eavesdropping. Watching reality television. Lotz weaves strands of dread into this narrative with care, until the tapestry of the story resonates with multiple levels of fear. The slow slow build pays off with a jackhammer at the end. From Chiselhurst in middle England to rural Texas to Khayetlitsha in Cape Town, every character reads as real, their voices effortless and clear and resonating correctly. A stunning piece of work.


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Feb 202014

A semiautobiographical novel about the wonder of growing up in postwar England. This is a story that starts with a Spitfire and continues through the postwar years. It’s a lovely journey without too much sentiment which still manages to create the sense of a memoir, to capture the wonder and possibility of youth along with the terror of being young, doing the wrong thing, or missing out of loving the wrong person. From Nazis over Norfolk in 1945 through to New York in 2001, this is a book best read in one go, skiving off from work, hanging on tight..


Get it here (UK) or here (US)

Feb 172014

I somehow missed reading this book when it and its sequel came out, despite the raves. Then I met Daniel Polansky at World Fantasy, and he was a really lovely human being. So, finally, I’ve read the book, and it completely lives up to its reputation. The world is dark and well-realised, a sprawling dark metropolis that owes much to London and New York. Corruption in the civil service and the upper classes. Class used as an excuse for war and murder in the name of power and empire. A thougthful read; a gripping mystery with a somewhat expected twist.


Get it here (UK) or here (US)

Feb 132014

The February Hodderscape Review Project book is The Copper Promise, by Jen Williams.

100 words: Overall

I’m going to come right out, in typically dour fashion, and say that I’m not a fan of epic sword and sorcery fantasy. This book is split into four novellas, and the first one deals with a party of adventurers that go to explore deep into a citadel, conquering monsters on the way to find the treasure at the centre, with a secret dragon. Dungeons. And dragons. One dragon. Some fairly inventive monsters along the way but also some bandying about with typical characters – a Paladin-by-another-name; his sidekick Wydrin, a rogue-by-another-name; their mate Gallo; and the tortured, disguised Lord Frith.

100 words: the world

All this thinking about high fantasy tropes might just undermine what Jen Williams has done with the book. First of all, although it’s a world populated by royals, peasants, priests, and adventurers (PCs and NPCs, essentially), it’s an interesting, well-thought-out, fully realised world. The monsters are new. The magic system is well thought out & generally makes sense – except the bits Williams glosses over to make the plot move forward. It’s impressive stuff she’s done, and the world is built up as the reader goes through the story, avoiding information dumps and keeping the story going. Well done, Jen Williams.

100 words: on character and growth

One of the biggest criticisms of the up-to-the-90s style of dungeons-and-dragons fantasy was that the characters had it too easy. You knew the cleric would turn up in time, and there would be little in the way of growth or change in them. Williams doesn’t shy away from making her characters make difficult choices – the old “let one die so you can save ten”, or “sell your soul to save the world” style. At the same time, she lets her characters grow, change, makes the choices they make affect them, all while keeping the book fast-paced and fun. Not easy.

100 words: on women

There aren’t a lot of women in this book, which is unfortunate. There’s Wydrin, AKA the Copper Cat, a loveable rogue who kisses her two daggers and a snarky aside. I’d like to have seen more flesh on Wydrin’s bones: she has her own character journey and, like a cat, always seems to land on her feet with luck on her side. Aside from her, most of the characters are NPCs: either as background decoration or as signposts, enabling action. I wanted to know what happened when Wydrin had to face real loss on the scale of Frith & Sebastian’s.

100 words: conclusion

The Copper Promise isn’t going to bring me back into the fold of Epic Fantasy, of dungeons, dragons, questing knights, paladins and rogues with snarky one-liners. It takes a deft hand and real skill to create an engaging, entertaining epic fantasy read in the style and readability of Dragonlance but with real characters and a fleshed out, honest, and fully-realised world. Williams’ vivid imagination and worldbuilding will take her far, along with a real talent for dialogue, leaving this curmudgeon behind in a rainy London. The Copper Promise isn’t my cup of tea, but it is an excellent cup nonetheless.