Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is one of my favourite books of all time having read it on a bus trip across Canada. Not only did it detract from the hundreds of miles of corn fields, it also helped me get hooked on Neil Gaiman’s fiction.

The central premise is that Shadow, having been released from prison, is on a plane trip home when he finds himself seated next to a mysterious man. This man introduces himself as Mr. Wednesday. He ends up offering Shadow a job as a bodyguard. Together they travel the USA meeting all kinds of strange people in an attempt to bring them together for a purpose that Shadow is not particularly clear about.

It is gradually revealed that these are the gods of the old world (can you figure out who Mr. Wednesday is?), from mythology and they are locked in a battle with new gods (people who go by the name of “internet”, “roads”, “skyscraper” etc). This is metaphor heavy but not pretentious and what results is an amazing commentary on modern life’s eternal struggle of progress vs tradition.

It isn’t preachy, nor is he trying to sway us in any particular direction. Rather, Gaiman is simply observing the eternal struggle and presenting us with how both are important aspects of humanity. Gaiman is intent on telling us a story, and what a story he has in store for us!

American Gods won a plethora of awards and in my opinion deservedly so:

* 2002 Hugo
* 2002 Neblua
* 2002 Locus
* 2002 SFX Reader awards (UK’s premier SciFi magazine)
* 2002 Bram Stoker award
* 2004 Geffen Award
and a multitude of other nominations!


Book Review: House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

Another stand alone novel from Reynolds whose recent works has been away from his highly acclaimed “Revelation Space” universe.

This 2008 novel centres around a group of immortal clones (shatterlings) who, several million years before, were sent out into the universe by their creator to discover all that there was to discover. Every million years or so they meet up to discuss their findings. Only, two of them have fallen in love and are concerned that the others would frown upon their relationship. The two are late for a meeting after rescuing Hesperus (a robot intelligence) and the three end up narrowly avoiding an attack on their fellow Shatterlings. What follows is an attempt to discover what happened and who was responsible.

As with every Reynolds novel, it starts out with a simple premise that soon becomes more complex as the story proceeds. This is Reynolds great skill (and one rarely mastered by writers of hard scifi) to ease the reader in through the pages and slowly reveal the deeper and higher concept plot devices. That said, the story of solving the mystery of the ambush gets more complex through time until it becomes one of many layers within the narrative.

Though not the weakest of Reynolds novels (that still goes to Pushing Ice), it still falls short of his Revelation Space novels and is not a patch on Century Rain. That is not so say that this is bad, it just isn’t as good as some of his other work. What this book stands out for is as another excellent introduction to one of the most critically acclaimed hard science fiction writers of today.

4/5. Loses 1 point due to an element of drag in the middle

Book Review: The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Brendan Doyle is a literary scholar, a premier expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge and when he is invited by a philanthropist to give a lecture on the man and his work – for a phenomenal amount of money – he takes it up as an opportunity for funds to investigate the more obscure romantic poets that interest him.

What Doyle doesn’t expect is to travel to 1810 and meet Coleridge. Following the lecture, Doyle gets trapped in 1810 and is caught up in a cult plotting to overthrow monotheism and re-establish the religion of the ancient Egyptians. He is reduced to begging in a world where magic and science coincide. Faced with the dangers of a body-jumping serial killer, a plague of crazed apes, a stilt-walking beggar-master teamed up with an Egyptian high priest all while being chased by the cult, Doyle must find a way back to his own time.

The roots of homage to the early ‘science romance’ of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne is self-evident here. London in 1810 is at once both familiar and fresh though the steam/industrial vibe that you would expect of the modern subgenre of steampunk is seemingly missing, giving it more of an urban fantasy feel in the tradition of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’.

This is a quirky and interesting read which at close to 400 pages is about the right length. There always seems to be something going on and the story has good pacing and direction, interesting yet familiar characters with an original plot. One small complaint is that there are too many characters that it almost becomes confusing trying to keep up.

An interesting read but sometimes confusing 3.5/5

Book Review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

This is a history book with a difference. Written literally as a traveller’s guide (with sections “what to see”, “the people”, “customs”, “what to eat” etc), this is an informative yet funny look at our medieval ancestors.

Dr. Mortimer has a superb way with words and conveys his subject with passion without the text feeling dumbed down, and detailed enough without feeling heavy. First obstacle over then, as some writers… especially academics… used to writing for the academic press tend to be information heavy with very little regard for entertainment. On the other side, those who write for entertainment are less concerned with detail, research is sparse and rarely as well versed in the subject as they like to pretend.

Mortimer, who has a BA and PhD from Exeter is very keen to make the people in this book feel alive and as real as the modern age. He conveys their sense of humour, typical jokes, the risque of plays and fiction, Chaucer and tales of Robin Hood. He describes social structure, dispels myths about “serfdom” and delights with anecdotes of kings and lords, of abbots and of paupers.

But there is a serious side and Mortimer also adds the human element to the widespread tragedy that came with The Black Death and how deaths in WWI pale in comparison.

Just occasionally it slips away from travel writing and delves into pure history, but it isn’t long before Mortimer regains his composure and gets back to writing as though for the travellers.

The only complaint is that at 290 pages (paperback) it really could have done with being longer.


Book Review: London by Edward Rutherford

Edward Rutherford writes mammoth books where the central character is a place and the people in them are incidental and used to drive the plot across a given time period (usually several thousand years). It is a formula that has worked well and gained critical and popular acclaim. ‘London’ is the third such novel of his I have read; the other two are ‘Sarum’ and ‘The Forest’.

‘London’ contains all of the best and worst elements of those two books. In ‘Sarum’ the characters and their situations are being shaped by real world historical events and integrated into it. In ‘The Forest’ that is less important as we follow families through the generations with real world events are largely in the background. I much prefer the former as it gives the novel more of an authentic feel.

He also skips over too many important events in the first half. I know this is a novel about London but some events would have had an impact on the city. For example, after Julius Caesar’s failed invasion, we skip over Claudius’ succesful invasion and end up in the third century when little is happening. Then it ignores the withdrawal of the legions and the Anglo-Saxon migrations and drops us into the 7th century where again not much is happening after Christianity is well established. We see nothing of the turmoil of the conversion period, the establishment of Lundenwic, or the effects of the Viking attacks. The book limps toward the Norman invasion which is the first good chapter.

Into the second millennium and though the Henry II-Thomas Beckett event is dealt with well, the Black Death and its after effects on society is given little coverage (a stark contrast to Sarum). Instead we get meaningless fair such as “The Whorehouse”, which, though amusing to understand and see how church-run brothels worked in medieval London, does little to advance the plot.

The second half is better with more integration. Real improvement is seen in “God’s Fire” which deals with the beginning of the Stuart era, the Civil War and Restoration. The most impressive chapter centres around the design and building of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Rutherford writes with such passion that this is easily the best chapter, if only as much care had been put into other chapters, this would have superseded ‘Sarum’ as my favourite work by this author. Then we feed through the world wars, including the blitz and to 1997 (date of publication of the book) with a short epilogue. I am assuming that the novel was finished and published before the two major events of that year: the election of Tony Blair and the death of Princess Diana. A shame almost that he did not hold off long enough to write a chapter on the millennium celebrations at The Dome to bring it full circle.

Overall this book is a slog and though better than ‘The Forest’ it is not as good as ‘Sarum’ I will probably read another Rutherford but only if a suitable subject comes up. To date, his other written work is ‘Russka’, ‘New York’, ‘Dublin’ and ‘Ireland’.


Book Review: Brethren by Robyn Young


I ought to have liked this more than I actually did. It was well written and as the author says, it is designed to tell the story of the final Crusade from the point of view of both Christian and Muslim. I read a lot of historical fiction and it was much better written than some examples I can think of. The descriptions are good and the battles well handled. Overall it has the makings of a good quality historical novel.

However there are some severe flaws that I cannot forgive. The characters are flat, the text is too bloated, far too little happens and there is some boring subplot about a heretical book and the people trying to get hold of it. I simply cannot care about the people or the events and for that reason alone I will not be reading the other two in the trilogy (Crusade and Requiem). Furthermore, Baybars (the real life slave who rose to become Sultan of Egypt) gets precious little time in the novel, so this isn’t quite the ‘equal time’ novel that the blurb pretends it is. Perhaps the other two novels will contain more devoted to him, but I don’t care enough to read them.


Book Review: Web by John Wyndham


‘Web’ is a surprisingly pleasing addition to the career of John Wyndham. Published ten years after his death, it follows similar themes to several of his better known works.

After an episode of PTSD, our protagonist purchases an island in the south Pacific in order to create a utopia and get away from the strains of the western world. This is a very short book (140 pages) and a good 40+ at the beginning is taken up with a short history of the island, the first arrivals in the early 19th century, its annexation into the British Empire then onward to both world wars and its change of ownership during that time all the while the locals amuse themselves with the rare arrivals of the white man.

But it is in the aftermath of WWII that the story really begins to take shape. This was a period of testing nuclear weapons and an attempt is made to move the locals from the island and to another where they wouldn’t be in the path of the fallout.

Years later our group arrives on their utopia to discover that something isn’t quite right. There are spiders all over the island and they are evolving. Far from being a utopia, the humans become trapped by the freak of evolution.

The metaphor of humans no longer being the pinnacle of evolution is one used several times by Wyndham and it doesn’t feel tired or overused here, it is just presented in a different way in light of the era in which Wyndham was living in which he wrote it. It comes to a sudden end but felt that it could have should have been longer. The ending itself is not typical of Wyndham.


Book Review: Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse

Hollow Chocolate Bunnies

This is arguably the funniest novel that Rankin has produced so far. It was the first novel of his that I had read and my copy is even more special that I had it signed personally by him when I met him for the first time at a Collector’s Fair.

“Toytown” has gone all Hollywood and been renamed “Toy City”. It is populated by the entire cast of Who’s Who of nursery rhyme land and somebody is killing them off one by one. It seems a serial killer is loose in Toy City and the only thing linking the crimes is a hollow chocolate bunny left at each scene as a calling card.

Charged with solving the crime, Detective Bill Winkie (Wee Willy Winkie, get it?) and his sidekick Eddie Bear (Teddy Bear, get it?) set out on their investigation but soon after Bill goes missing and Eddie deputises Jack (the boy) to help him with the investigation.

Despite the childish tone to the novel, it certainly is not for kids. Rankin has been compared to Pratchett but to compare them to each other does a disservice to both men. They both have their own style and ideas of what will appeal to adults. In this case, it is tongue in cheek method by which many of these characters die. Humpty Dumpty is boiled in his own swimming pool for example.

There isn’t much wrong with this novel and i’m struggling to find anything negative to say aside from that Rankin wrote an unnecessary sequel “The Toyminator” that was neither as clever or as funny as Hollow Chocolate Bunnies. Comedy is not easy to write and because of that, this novel gets…


Book Review: The Eagle’s Conquest by Simon Scarrow

The Eagle's Conquest

So continues the exploits of Cato, Optio of the sixth century of Legio II Augusta in the attempts to conquer the Britons and battle for acceptance in the legions who looked unkindly on the unusual method by which he became their superior officer.

This second novel follows immediately on from the first “Under the Eagle” and we are thrown into the middle of the war against Caratacus and the Catuvellauni tribe. Along for the ride are a few familiar faces: Macro the Centurion, Vespasian the Legate, Vitellius the Tribune (both future Emperors) and a few other incidental characters from the first.

Fans of the first novel will slot in quite nicely without feeling too disjointed as we are reminded quickly and efficiently the events and people of the first. The writing style is very reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell and fans of his work would easily settle into this series.

First the good points. This novel has flow that is as good as the first. Cato is coming into his own as he copes with growing up in the legion in the middle of a campaign as a vastly underqualified Officer. His relationship with Macro is also coming along quite nicely. It also deals with the issue of the conquest of the Britons in light but effective detail. The plot flows well and is an easy read.

But there are drawbacks. The characters are pretty one dimensional with not much scope for development beyond the stereotypes to which they subscribe. Emperor Claudius is portrayed as an inept buffoon, a caricature obviously being made to contrast with the shrewdness and justness of Vespasian who is portrayed as wholly noble and all round perfect commander of Legio II Augusta. There is no real depth to the plot and even the element of the mystery of a plan to assassinate Claudius is quite superficial. The mechanics of battle lack any real depth or focus on strategy and in that it comes off as the poor cousin to another series I have been reading recently (Warrior of Rome by Harry Sidebottom).

Overall it is a good read and well written but it is best not to expect anything too heavy. I will continue reading the series but in the hope that some depth is added in subsequent novels.


Book Review: Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow

Under the Eagle

Book one of the “Eagle” series.

A little easier on the eye than a lot of military fiction, perhaps being the equivalent of Lindsey Davies (minus the humour) rather than Patrick O’Brian. This is the first in a series of books detailing the life of Cato, a young recruit to the Legio II Augusta who is – to the annoyance of his fellow recruits – immediately appointed as Optio because of an imperial link despite having zero military training.

This books follows his exploits in Germania in preparation for the invasion of Britain and getting used to the life as a legionary and a low ranking officer when he has no military experience. Most of the early part sets the scene and really hammers it home just how absurd it is that such a man could be given such a rank. Those fans of ‘Sharpe’ will relish to contrast that Cato provides despite using the cliché of the outcast rising through the ranks.

The book flows well and the scene is set nicely for the historic achievements Legio II Augusta would go on to be famous for. Along the way are some stock characters but Scarrow seems more concerned with entertaining the reader than educating them on the finer points of the Roman military. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this but it suffers for the lack of real depth.