Dune

I first read Dune way back in the mists of time when I was still a teenager and, for a long time, I would have counted this as my all-time favourite science fiction novel. In fact, it wasn’t until I discovered Iain M. Banks that I began to adjust my opinion. Even now, though, Dune rates as one of the best novels I have read.

While I was more than a little disappointed by David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, I never learn and the news that Denis Villeneuve was going to have a go filled me with optimism.

And now the trailer has been released and it certainly looks suitably spectacular.

A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, “Dune” tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence — a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential-only those who can conquer their fear will survive.

Frank Herbert’s novel influenced innumerable books, films and TV series — not least of which was Star Wars — and the trailer certainly captures the epic scale of the source. Whether Villeneuve has also managed to tell the dense and complex story about politics, ecology and the future of humanity remains to be seen.

And it will be seen, because this is one film that I will be rushing out to see as soon as it’s released.

El Sombra

El Sombra is a novel about a Mexican superhero who takes on a horde of steam-powered flying Nazis. It’s a deliberately outlandish premise but, if you can get behind it, the book is a whole heap of fun and I really enjoyed it.

There is no escape from The Ultimate Reich!

The terrifying Luftwaffe, on their steam-driven wings, have torn apart the sleepy town of Pasito in the heart of Mexico, only to rebuild it as a terrifying clockwork-town where the people become human robots, furthering the nightmare dreams of the Fuhrer.

General Eisenberg and his sociopathic son Alexis control this paradise of horrors. But they are unprepared for the return of a man the desert claimed nine long years ago, a man who has returned from the doors of death and the depths of madness to bring his terrible fury upon their world. With the slash of a sword and a laugh that lights up the night, the man in the bloodstained mask cuts his way through the hopeless, endless routines of the clockwork men to bring new hope to the people.

He defies death! He defies man! No trap can hold the masked daredevil, the saint of ghosts men know as El Sombra!

El Sombra is pitched as a steampunk novel, but it really isn’t. What Al Ewing has delivered with this book is an unashamedly pulp story — and a really good one at that. This is a book with no literary pretensions, focusing instead on a solid and action-filled narrative and peopled with sympathetic characters against a preposterous background.

The author, Al Ewing is primarily a comics writer and, in many ways, El Sombra harks back to the likes of Warlord, Action and Battle. This is a book that you really can judge by its cover, in which a lone swordsman faces off against a clanking Nazi monstrosity, both promises and delivers a thrilling adventure in which the good guy beats the bad guys — at least once per chapter.

There isn’t much depth to El Sombra, and nor does it aspire to any, but it is a very well-written and self-aware novel. Ewing has clearly set out to deliver a blood-spattered page-turned and, in this, he has succeeded magnificently.

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets is a short story collection. Specifically, it’s a collection of 14 short stories, all of which reimagine Sherlock Holmes to a greater or lesser extent.

The world’s most famous detective, as you’ve never seen him before!

This is Sherlock Holmes as you’ve never seen him before: as an architect in a sleepy Australian town, as a gentleman in seventeenth-century Worcestershire, as a precocious school girl in a modern British comprehensive. He’s dodging his rent in the squalid rooms of the notorious Chelsea Hotel in ’68, and preventing a bloody war between the terrible Lords Wizard of a world of fantasy.

Editor David Thomas Moore brings together the finest of celebrated and new talent in SF and Fantasy to create a spectrum of Holmes stories that will confound everything you ever thought you knew about the world’s greatest detective.

It’s an interesting collection of stories although, inevitably, there are some that I enjoyed more than others. Highlights for me included Kelly Hale’s Black Alice which shifts Sherlock Holmes to the Enlightenment and pits him against the parochial superstitions of seventeenth-century Worcestershire. This felt like a near-perfect setting for the great detective and I would loved to have seen more like this.

Then there was Kaaron Warren’s The Lantern Men which was very dark. If you can imagine Edgar Allen Poe having set a Sherlock Holmes story in Australia, then you have pretty much captured the feel of this story. Emma Newman’s A Woman’s Place imagines a near-future dystopia and explains — rather brilliantly — why he unflappable, ever-present Mrs. Hudson continues to put up with Holmes.

The Small World of 221B by Ian Edginton is an overtly strange story that I found myself enjoying a great deal more than I expected. The Final Conjuration by Adrian Tchaikovsky makes no attempt to re-imagine Holmes, preferring to plonk him unaltered into a high fantasy setting, to brilliant effect.

The Innocent Icarus by James Lovegrove gives us a Holmes in a world of superheroes and All The Single Ladies by Gini Koch gives a breezily flippant Holmes against a background of reality TV.

And finally, there’s Parallels by Jenni Hill which takes the re-inventing Holmes idea to it’s limit with a pair of teenage girls.

Obviously, other people will respond to different stories differently and will find other highlights. But you have any interest in the idea of a re-imagined Sherlock Holmes, and even if you don’t, this collection is well worth a read.

Grass

There are some books that really make you think, that challenge both your assumptions and prejudices and follow through on their premise that not only makes you consider how we got here but also where we are likely to go from this point.

Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper, is just such a book.

What could be more commonplace than grass, or a world covered over all its surface with a wind-whipped ocean of grass? But the planet Grass conceals horrifying secrets within its endless pastures.

And as an incurable plague attacks all inhabited planets but this one, the prairie-like Grass begins to reveal these secrets – and nothing will ever be the same again …

Initially, the novel reminded me a lot of Dune in that the focus is on a world that is superficially strange but for which both the environment has been thought through well enough that the details can be allowed to emerge as the story progresses. Even the name of the novel hints at this.

While it takes a bit of time to really get going, once it does, Grass proves itself to be both very much it’s own story and utterly gripping.

Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy and colonised innumerable planets while still owing allegiance to Terra — our home planet — and Sanctity, the dominant religion and political leadership. Sanctity is trying to deny the existence of the plague while also convince the leaders of Grass to allow their scientists to try and discover why this planet, alone in the galaxy, remains unaffected.

A compromise is reached when, instead of scientists, the leaders of Grass agree to an embassy from Sanctity and so Marjorie Yrarier and her children find themselves travelling to the planet along with her husband, Rigo, who has been chosen for the Ambassador’s role. It very quickly becomes clear just how little Sanctity knows about the planet and its people.

Grass is very much a book about ideas, and the novel is packed with them. The environment, ecology, the conflict between religion and belief, the problem with perfection, and how humanity’s relationship to other species. It’s a novel that takes a bit of time to get into, but once you do, the pay-off is well worth it.

If you want a solid story that gives you plenty of food for thought, then I can’t recommend this highly enough.

The Hydrogen Sonata

The Hydrogen Sonata was the last novel, and the last Culture novel, Iain Banks published before he died in 2013. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it.

An ancient people organised on military principles and yet almost perversely peaceful, the Gzilt helped set up the culture ten thousand years ago and were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they’ve made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilisations: they are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and infinitely more rich and complex existence.

Amid preparations, though, the Regimental High Command is destroyed. Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont appears to have been involved, and she is now wanted — dead, not alive. Aided only by an ancient, reconditioned android and a suspicious Culture avatar, Cossont must complete her last mission given to her by the High Command. She must find the oldest person in the Culture, a man over nine thousand years old, who might have some idea what really happened all that time ago.

It seems that the final days of the Gzilt civilisation are likely to prove its most perilous.

And that synopsis doesn’t come close to capturing the scale of this novel which, while built around a ten thousand year old conspiracy, really is an opportunity to spend time with a collection of Culture Ships.

Ships in the Culture are unimaginably advanced and unbelievably powerful artificial intelligences that are both fully autonomous and big — some of them measured in kilometers — with personalities to match.

And before anyone asks, the answer is yes: This blog is named after a Culture ship.

Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are utopian science fiction at its best, and The Hydrogen Sonata is one of the best of the Culture novels. It explores some big ideas and may well have one of the strongest endings of any of the novels.

Now I’m thinking I should go back and read the whole series again.

Anno Dracula 1923: Vampire Romance

I mentioned previously that my edition of The Bloody Red Baron included a novella set in 1923, and now I’ve read it. Quite honestly, this may the best part of the book.

Geneviève Dieudonné and Edwin Winthrop, both of whom have been introduced in previous novels, are brought together in order to infiltrate a meeting of vampire elders at the appropriately named Mildew Manor. The elders intend to elect a new “King of the Cats” to replace Dracula but what we have instead is a delightful mixture of Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton.

There is probably enough in here to have made for a full blown novel, but I really enjoyed the shortness of this. The single location — pretty much everything takes place in Mildew Manor — and the small cast really does give the characters a chance to shine and keeps everything moving along at a cracking pace.

Although this novella refers to characters and events from the previous books, you really don’t need to have read them to enjoy this tale of jolly hockey sticks and murder in the drawing room. And if any of the Anno Dracula stories was ever adapted into a film, this one would certainly get my vote.

The Bloody Red Baron

Way back in 2011, I read Anno Dracula by Kim Newman. In this novel, Dracula has defeated Van Helsing and traveled to London where he becomes the new Prince Consort. Against the backdrop of this alternative history, in which historical and fictional characters crop up all over the place, the plot follows the emergence of Jack The Ripper and the efforts of the main characters to identify and stop him. It’s an excellent novel with an unbelievable amount of detail tucked away (much of which, I am sure, I missed).

I have finally gotten around to reading the sequel, The Bloody Red Baron. In this novel events have moved on and the setting is now the First World War. Dracula, having fled Britain, is the commander in chief of of the armies of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Charles Beauregard, the hero of the first novel and his protegé, Edwin Winthrop, find themselves facing the lethal vampire flying machine that is the Bloody Red Baron.

The Bloody Red Baron retains the same mashing together of historical and fictional characters that made Anno Dracula so much fun but it doesn’t feel quite as effective this time around. This could, of course, merely be a reflection of my memory or the fact that I am less familiar with some of the WWI references. And even without this, the novel still works very well as a war story with a lot to say.

The book is split into four parts and, initially, feels a little superficial. This led to it taking a bit of time to get going, but by the time I reached part 3, I was utterly gripped and found the novel to be increasingly difficult to put down.

The edition I have also includes a novella, set in 1923, which I shall start reading very shortly.

The Stone Sky

The Stone Sky is the third novel in N.K. Jeminsin’s Broken Earth trilogy and it’s absolutely superb. The entire trilogy is excellent and this final entry provides a truly spectacular conclusion. It does create a bit of a dilemma for me, though.

Because this novel pulls together everything that has happened in the previous two novels so brilliantly, it is pretty much impossible (for me, at least) to go into any detail about the novel without spattering spoilers all over the place. So this may be my vaguest post yet.

The trilogy as a whole is set in the far future on a massive continent known as The Stillness. The Stillness is wracked with regular, world shattering events known as Seasons. The only way humanity can survive these is to hunker down until it passes and then climb out and start, once again, to rebuild civilisation. Among the human population are orogenes, people who can manipulate the thermal and kinetic energy in order to prevent — or cause — seismic events. Orogenes are feared, hated and essential to the survival of humanity.

The series revolves around the orogenes and this makes for a very effective narrative about power — who holds it, who exploits it and who is exploited by it. And all of this flows very naturally from a vividly realised world which very effectively manages to provide the perspective of of the people on the receiving end of structural oppression.

The Broken Earth trilogy really is epic fantasy at its best. It pulls together some very thoughtful, and always relevant, themes with several very engaging characters and a (literally) world-shattering narrative. I can’t believe it took me so long to finish it.

Seed to Harvest: The Patternist series

Seed to Harvest is a collection of the four books that make up Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series. The books are arranged chronologically and that is the order in which I read them. However, they weren’t written chronologically and I strongly suspect that I would have gotten much more out of this series if I had read the novels in the order in which they were written — as a dystopian final novel with three prequels.

Patternamster, the final novel in the series and the first to have been written, imagines a future dominated by telepaths linked by a mental pattern. In conflict with these patternists are the brutal and semi-human clayarks, bent on destroying the patternists. Ordinary humans, pejoratively described as mutes, are not important and serve only as slaves, victims or both.

The patternmaster controls the pattern and all who are linked to it, thus becoming the leader of the patternists. The current patternmaster is old and dying and the novel focusses on the conflict to replace him.

While the world of the patternists and clayarks is superbly well realised, the narrative itself is quite slight. This wouldn’t be a problem if I had read this novel first, but following on from the other three it all felt a bit anticlimactic.

Mind of My Mind tells the story of the emergence of the patternists. It centres on Doro, a 4000 year old mutant with the ability to transfer his consciousness into others’ bodies. It is Doro who has been seeking out similar mutants and breeding them in order to build a race of superhumans and a stock of bodies. While successful Doro’s efforts also backfire spectacularly with the emergence of Mary, a latent telepath who becomes the first patternmaster.

Clay’s Ark jumps forward a bit from Mind of My Mind and describes the emergence of the clayarks. As a standalone novel, this is only tangentially related to the rest of the Patternist series and — with reading the novels chronologically — it did feel like quite an abrupt turn for the series. With it’s microbial alien symbiotes, Clay’s Ark is also one of the most viscerally disturbing invasion stories I’ve read in a long time.

Wild Seed is the last book to have been written and the first chronologically. It’s about an immortal healer named Anyanwu (who makes a fleeting appearance in Mind of My Mind) and her encounter with Doro. When the story starts, Anyanwu is already 300 years old, while Doro is much, much older. Doro coerces Anyanwu into travelling with him from Africa to the US and the story centres on the conflict between the two and their very different views of humanity.

This is by far the strongest of the novels, with two very well-drawn protagonists, and the one that most explicitly delves into the themes of the series. These include racial prejudice, the ethical implications of eugenics, and the question of what it means to be human.

As a whole, the Patternist series explores several big ideas and leaves you thinking for several days afterwards. It’s well worth reading, but is probably better read in the order the books were written than in chronological order of the events.