Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Review | The Long Earth - Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

As yet, I've never truly gotten into Baxter's work - but after this particular collaboration, I'm very tempted to.  A read with an oddly utopian bent, The Long Earth definitely won't be for everyone - but it was for me. It takes as its basis that staple of SF, alternate universes. The twist? Those of The Long Earth are empty of humanity, and correspondingly, its history (no alternate history here... mostly). Though a few of its relatives remain...

The Long Earth's history diverges from ours fully on Step Day, when a public blueprint for a 'stepper', a device allowing travel between these parallel universes, is released, and Earth responds... interestingly. New frontiers open up - bands populating the remote worlds with human settlements. Some Earth countries empty entirely. Some religions seek their respective paradises out in the Long Earth. And the Black Corporation and its partner, Lobsang (a Tibetan AI), decide to venture far into the Long Earth with the assistance of a 'natural stepper', Joshua, who does not require a device to step. This is the major plotline, but there's a loose focus here: there are a number of viewpoints, from a policewoman tasked with dealing with the threat of parallel worlds, to a secretary who simply disappears into the Long Earth, many of which are one-time-only.

It's more utopian than you'd expect. Humanity, away from the pressures of Earth, seems to treat each other - and its relatives - well: and honestly, after the dystopian trend of recent days, is kind of relaxing. The journey of Lobsang and Joshua is just that: a journey, not a war, more discovery than adventure. That's not to say it's tedious. Parallel universes containing every Earth that could be? Far from it. And it's frequently broken up with other viewpoints. But The Long Earth is not a fast paced novel. It's fresh, interesting, and a read for when you have a spare afternoon: not five minutes of excitement, which can be equally entertaining.

What of the characters? Well, suffice to say there seems more of Baxter than Pratchett about them - if you're looking for the wry, comic dialogue of Discworld, you'll be disappointed (there's no Vetinari here). But Lobsang and Joshua, and someone who I really won't spoil, play off each other well. Joshua is an interesting character. Born in another world, he's drawn to silence, and has... unusual instincts and desires in exploring the Long Earth - and interacts wonderfully with the more-than-human Lobsang, also with concerns for more than profit, but with an entirely different viewpoint. And thankfully, the cameos are a varied lot: telling a bit more of Earth's story, post Step Day, but this method of storytelling relies on that very variety to keep it interesting. And it succeeds.

There is a drive though. A threat, a mystery (or dozen), and the actions of those stuck on Earth combine to ensure that - however utopian - this novel is certainly not without compulsion. It is, however, without (much) resolution, and left me eagerly anticipating its sequel, so those who want at least some resolution might want to wait for that particular followup! But that aside, The Long Earth is a quirky book I have no hesitation in recommending - as long as you're prepared for more journey than action, and less cynicism than SF's used to. I enjoyed both, but they're not for everyone, and the cameo viewpoint style is - again - polarising.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Review | Herald of the Storm - Richard Ford

Ford's second novel, and in a very different subgenre from his first - the engaging, steampunky Kultus, which I reviewed back here - Herald of the Storm is an epic fantasy with some interesting twists on the genre. Still, the initial setting is a familiar one: a union of states, an east-west divide (while not dwelt on, I did find this slightly disappointing - barely moving beyond stereotype for the titular herald's eastern background), and a threatening horde. Said horde is currently at war with King Cael, the novel's absent monarch, leaving the city we're concerned with - Steelhaven - stripped of troops, sought by refugees, and preyed on by the Guild (an organisation of occasionally organised thieves). And here's where our story starts to move beyond the typical.
With the characters.

Princess Janessa's first thoughts might seem predictable - an arranged marriage which is entirely undesirable, a distrust of her father's councillor, Odaka. But her arc is far more about a growing role and responsibility in the city - something rarely glimpsed in fantasy's monarchs (which, not to put too fine a point on it, seem to spend more than half their typical books attempting to flee their countries!), and certainly a much more interesting role than the 'rebellious princess' stereotype.

And since this is epic fantasy, there are a few characters. Quite a few. From Kaira, a religious warrior on a mission to infiltrate the city's Guild, to Waylian, a student despairing of ever mastering magic, but dragged into an investigation of black magic in the city. This is both one of the novel's main strengths and its biggest weakness. The multiple plotlines are frequently engaging, and offer a great deal of variety: deftly handled by Ford, nothing is ever allowed to grow dull. There's plenty here for everyone - from (not quite Lynch-style) organised crime, to a learning ruler, to a murder investigation. The weakness? For certain characters, there's a bit of a The Way of Kings analogue: similarly to Sanderson's novels, some plotlines are shorter and read more as an extended character introduction for later novels. This isn't something I object to, but readers interested in some resolution all round might want to hold out for a book or two.

But Ford's talent here, far more so than in Kultus, is the emotional depth of some of his scenarios. Triumph is not unadulterated with regret, and that's another refreshing addition: unlike the abstract Tolkienesque attempts of some "the Elf magic is fading away" plotline, one or two of these are character based and far more powerful for it. While not quite Guy Gavriel Kay, Ford definitely has a knack for this, and I hope this keeps up throughout the series.

Since I'm - well - me, you might expect a certain degree of interest in the magic system. Sorry, I'm not subverting reviewing conventions today: and Herald's system, belying a recent trend, leans firmly towards the mysterious side. That's not a bad thing. Since it's infrequently used, and a decent price is apparent, it works well - though I won't spoil which tidbits we do receive, let's say that it's certainly something whose revelation I anticipate tying further into the series. This isn't Sanderson-esque: but if you like a certain thrill of the forbidden with your magic, the atmosphere which comes with it, this may well be your kind of novel.

Make no mistake, this is a series though - and though many plotlines do have a resolution, particularly emotionally, there is a large element of anticipation. Confrontations, mysterious orders... It's clear the next novel will be one to watch out for. While sticking to a few conventions (particularly in the world, though I'm pleased to note the Odaka plotline avoided stereotype - because in a great deal of fantasy, a trusted councillor is essentially a synonym for "guilty as all hell"), Herald of the Storm generally manages to put its own spin on the subgenre, and the sheer variety of its subplots is a noteworthy quality in itself. In a subgenre often bogged down in convention, Herald is a breath of fresh air. And especially since the female characters got a great deal of said subversion of roles, there's a lot to be said for it.

The verdict? Definitely a recommended read!