Category Archives: Science Fiction/Fantasy

City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare

city of heavenly fire cassandra clareWay back when, I mentioned that I’d started reading Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series and was quite enjoying them. I dutifully worked my way through the various cities (namely, City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels and City of Lost Souls) before realising that City of Heavenly Fire wasn’t due to publish for about another year. Hate it when that happens.

Fast forward a year and I spotted a copy in Tesco while shopping with my father and niece. Readers, I have read it and my thoughts are below- these WILL contain spoilers, you know I normally don’t but there were some very specific points that stuck in my head and I wanted to get these down.

 

*Here Be Spoilers*

On the whole, I enjoyed the book well enough. It has many of the strengths of the previous books in the series, snappy dialogue, beautifully wrought magical worlds and some engaging characters but for me this book went a little bit off the boil and at times felt as though the author was writing fan fiction of her own work.

While Clare’s series standalone, she works characters from other series into her books to maintain the world narrative throughout (something you can do when you have cast of immortals) but in this book, she begins foreshadowing a new series which for me left a chunk of the narrative unresolved. I don’t mind characters being brought in from elsewhere, but when I read the last book in a series I do want to have a sense that the book is finished. Otherwise it feels a bit like a fanfiction hook to get you reading the author’s corpus. I won’t be reading The Dark Artifices on principle.

As I hinted before, there were times when it felt a bit like the author was… fangirling. Nowhere was this more evident for me than in the scene (massive spoiler here) where the Heavenly Fire has left Jace’s body and Jace and Clary have sex for the first time. I felt as though the author seemed overwhelmed by the fact that she’d been building up to this for so long that her writing felt very clichéd and a little too saccharine. It also felt very politically correct to the point that I felt that the characters were lapsing out of character. I get that you have to be very careful writing a sex scene in YA literature because there are so many issues and sensibilities are at stake, so the emphasis on consent in the passage was fine and in keeping with the characters. But the issue of contraception and STD protection is an interesting one (and no, apparently shadowhunters don’t have a rune for that). Shortly before the scene takes place Clary “wished she’d worn something prettier, but it wasn’t like ‘fancy lingerie’ had been on her packing list for the demon realms”.  Reminding us that at this point, the characters are in the midst of hell, awaiting a battle in which there is a very good chance that they will die. And Jace, a reckless character and brilliant strategist who would have been focussed on preparing for the battle with weapons etc has made sure that he’s brought a condom on the off-chance… to hell. Right. Since it was so explicitly brought up (enough to really stand out in the text) it felt really incongruous to me.

But don’t worry, because everything turns out fine in the end. I think this bothered me most. It was as though nothing had ever been at risk. Everyone gets out fine, and Simon who has exchanged his immortality and memories for their freedom gets to be a shadowhunter and regain his memories. Very much like they all lived happily ever after (except Jordan who Maia replaces very quickly with Bat). Maybe I’ve been dabbling too much with Divergent and The Hunger Games, but I don’t think it’s a real battle unless a central character is harmed. I think I would have let Isabelle die from the demon wound and have Simon stay in hell after that. It felt a lot like fan pleasing at the expense of a story, but I can see that I’m not the primary market.

On the whole, an enjoyable enough read but a bit too neat and sterile for my liking.

A New York Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

a new york winters tale colin farrell jessica brown findlayIf you’d told me that I would consider not buying a book because it had Colin Farrell on the cover when I was thirteen, I would have told you that you were mad. Ballykissangel, Falling for a Dancer… I was young, leave me alone.

Anyway, it did nearly put me off buying a copy of A New York Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin which had been released with the poster from the new film, starring the aforementioned Colin Farrell (I’m over it) and Jessica Brown Findlay, but I was intrigued by the blurb which promised:

 

One night in New York, a city under siege by snow, Peter Lake attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it is empty, the daughter of the house is home . . . Thus begins the affair between this Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead; A New York Winter’s Tale is the story of that extraordinary journey.

Who doesn’t like a love that defies death? But despite the blurb, that’s not really what you get. It’s more than that, and less than that. It builds to the point where you’re invested in the lovers, then spits them aside and moves on with the story. A bit like life I suppose.

Helprin is a fantastic writer and has created a vast and imaginative magic realist epic. The book is original, the writing nuanced and many of the minor character are more clearly realised than the main characters in the majority of the bestsellers you will find in bookshops. The problem for me that it slipped around between genres in a way that didn’t add to the story but detracted from it. Audrey Niffenegger showed us that you could have a masterful time-travelling love story, I don’t see a reason why you couldn’t have a time-travelling love story which leads to a quest, but for a reader to engage with a quest story they need to understand what the characters involved are hoping for, what they want or need to achieve. I loved the first three-quarters of this book, but it lost me towards the end as the characters began to run around in a desperate attempt to do something fuelled by a secret knowledge that the reader just didn’t share.

It’s a magical read for the most part, but the plotting towards the end was more than a little lacklustre.

 

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

dark eden chris beckettFor 163 years the Family has patiently awaited rescue from the sunless planet they call Eden, hardly daring to stray far from the landing circle where their common ancestors Tommy and Angela landed on the planet so long ago. The 532 members of the Family, all descended from these original ancestors dream of a return to the planet they’ve heard about in the legends handed down through the generations, a planet where the whole world is made as bright as the insider of a whitelantern flower by the sun in the sky, and they will return there, if only they follow the rules and make themselves worthy to return to Earth. As the family grows larger and food grows scarcer, teenager John Redlantern tears the Family apart, questioning the meaning of the stories they’ve been told and searching for new ways for the Family to survive…

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, winner of the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year has all the ingredients of an intelligent and assured work of Science Fiction, is a clever reimagining of the Adam and Eve story on a sinister alien world which explores the nature of humanity through the figure of John Redlantern, a righteous rebel in a society which never took a bite of the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Oppressive and terrifying in its credibility, it explores a society stunted by its vague adherence to the rules written down by “our mother and father”. Genetic disorders are rife as a result of inbreeding, formal education has long been abandoned and innovation is seen as a threat to tradition.

The plot is genuinely compelling as you become caught up in the events building up to and following on from John Redlantern’s expulsion from the Family, but for me the most interesting aspects of Beckett’s new world were the cleverly imagined language shift which sees the nascent development of a new grammar system and a new vocabulary which takes account of the Family’s very different environment (especially the conflict between older and younger members of society when it comes to words relating to chronology- older members preferring concepts such as years, but younger members referring to wakings and wombtimes which are a more measurable concept in their sunless world) and the bastardization of Earth history which sees the family believing that Hitler killed Jesus, and some members of the Family looking to Hitler as a positive role model in times of conflict.

It’s an interesting read for anyone interested in dystopian fiction and narrative. John Redlatern’s habit of considering how his present actions will be interpreted by future generations and the pointed counter-analysis of his character by Tina Spiketree add an extra dimension to a genre which has often been accused of flat characterisation.

Cover design nerds will appreciate the clever effect that has been used to make rainbows play across the cover- I hadn’t seen this done before, is it a special laminate or foil?

dark eden chris beckett cover effect

 

Vellum by Hal Duncan

Vellum Hal Duncan book of hoursHave you ever read a book that you can feel is soaring way over your head, but you’ve loved it anyway? I just had one of those moments reading Vellum by Hal Duncan from The Book of All Hours series.

Fragmented, erratic and brilliant, it flips forward and shuffles back through time to narrate the gathering of the unkin, angels and demons, as they fight for the rule of the Vellum, an infinite universe of which the world we know is a tiny fragment. Twisting through time and across multiverses, characters’ lives are revealed to have extended beyond the borders of a typical human span, linked to archetypes dating back to classical myth and ancient Sumer.

It’s incredibly clever, like a cyberpunk epic sprung from the dust of ancient myths (though apparently the correct generic categorisation for that is New Weird, you learn something new every day…) and while you do need to pay attention to fully keep a grip on the novel’s ambitious scope, it’s certainly worth it. I just need to dig out a copy of the follow-up, Ink.

The Mortal Instruments – City of Bones

So, I’ve just finished City of Bones the first book in The Mortal Instruments series and have to say, I quite enjoyed it. The plot is admittedly a little clunky at times, as though the author felt that dropping the hint once wouldn’t be quite obvious and though fans of the series will hate me saying this, some scenes were a little derivative of other YA or fantasy books/television (Harry Potter, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer to name but a few), but that didn’t stop it being enjoyable. I will probably read the other books in the series, if only to see how the incest angle plays out.

Having said that, I doubt I’ll bother with the films until they are out on TV. Despite having a pretty good cast – Aiden Turner switching from vamp to werewolf and Robert Sheehan taking a turn as another smart mouthed teen caught up in a supernatural drama- the trailers seemed a little camp I’m not feeling a burning desire to see this.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

age of miraclesImagine that the earth’s rotation slowed, so that days gradually became longer. It might happen in minutes at first and you wouldn’t even notice, but what about when it started increasing in hours, twenty-five hours, twenty-seven hours, thirty hours… how would society cope?

The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel is said to have sparked a huge bidding war among publishers, and though there have been criticisms of both the science behind the slowing and elements of her writing style, you can see why it has generated such excitement. The prose is matter of fact and the narrative voice ideally suited to her eleven year old narrator Julia for whom the slowing is juxtaposed against her teenage concerns of being dumped by her best friend and having a crush on the remote Seth who by turns blows hot and cold. I found it particularly interesting as a piece of apocalyptic fiction as the focus is very much on how life goes on and mankind struggles to adapt, where they can, if they are able. As temperatures soar during days which last weeks in clock time and then plummet during the endless nights, weather becomes more violent and unpredictable, food becomes scarce. It’s easy to read as a warning about climate change with seabirds and marine life dying off first, but it doesn’t feel especially rammed down your throat.

I bought The Age of Miracles on a visit back in Wales a few weeks ago, when the days were getting longer but the weather was bad enough to convince you that we were still in the grip of winter. Reading it on the train back to Oxford was a really disconcerting experience, as the light evening contrasted against the miserable weather almost made me believe that the slowing really was occurring.

I’d certainly recommend this as a good read for anyone who enjoys young adult fiction, and I wouldn’t let the science behind the slowing bother you either. I saw a news broadcast on the BBC the other day which basically said that scientists still can’t explain or predict the movement of the jet stream, even though they’re working really, really hard.

Sometimes I think it’s good to accept that some things are still beyond our understanding.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time- Yasutaka Tsutsui

Tonight I find myself alone, my boyfriend/housemate/tech support (call him what you will, he answers to most names) being away for work for six weeks. This also leaves me alone to clean for the poor innocents who are being brought around to view our flat tomorrow with a view to taking over renting when we move into our actual house which we will (fingers crossed) finish buying in August.

The part of this cleaning which might interest you involves rediscovering the contents of the suitcase I took on my work trip to Berlin at the start of June. Beyond that it explains where lots of my clothes had gone, beyond that the raisins were still edible, you might be interested to hear about the atrocity that I picked up in Gatwick Airport for my flight out.

If you are among those who judge a book by its cover (and we all are to a greater or lesser extent, that’s why publishers pay cover designers, marketers etc to come up with something appealing) you will appreciate the initial appeal of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. An attractive young lady apparently asleep on a pillow of chamomile flowers, an exotic font for the title, heck, an interesting title even. That’s before you pick the book up and feel the special cover lamination which is very slightly rubbery, pleasantly so, which I would take into work for people to feel, to love, to consider for our books if it wouldn’t mean letting on to the office that I’d bought such a book because (dear readers) this book is an abomination.

The book is translated from a novel originally written in Japanese and derived from a series of instalments written for a student magazine. In 1967. It has since been adapted into graphic novels, anime films and even a TV series, but this is translated from the original novel. And it shows.

Both description and dialogue were wooden, though that might be a fault of the translation, and the plot is more dated than anything else I’ve ever read, except maybe pony club stories when I was about seven. It’s meant to be written for young adults but I don’t think it would keep an average eleven year old occupied for very long (that isn’t any sort of hyperbole- I taught English at a secondary school for two years, remember…) let alone a teen with a million and one other things on the go.

I got it into my head at the time of reading that this had been translated from a graphic novel. As a comic it might work well. As a novel it was too fragmented and shallow to have any real appeal to me.

Fallen and Torment- Lauren Kate


My older sister bought me Fallen and Torment by Lauren Kate for my birthday back in December, and though I’d like to think that I’m generally not very snooty about which books I will or won’t read I have to admit that I was wary- like much of the world I have been suffering Twilight Sickness, and these books are in a similar vein.

In Fallen, Lucinda Price is sentenced to time at a school for young offenders having been implicated in a terrible accident. Her strange testimony about shadows gathering has everyone thinking that she’s crazy, or worse, has something to hide. Once there she finds herself torn between two handsome men (as all good heroines in teen romance books seem to do…) the dark and edgy but considerate Cam, and the aloof and somewhat unfriendly Daniel. Now, to most women that would seem like an obvious choice, but Luce has a feeling that she has known Daniel for a very, very long time. Torment is the sequel to this story, in what will be a four part deal.


So, the comparisons to the Twilight books are inevitable. Intelligent young heroine is placed in an unfamiliar environment and relies upon the charms of two supernatural (oh come on, you saw it coming) young men to help get her through. We also have the Twilight love triangle going on, and the character of Daniel is a lot like the character of Edward (an annoying, controlling know-it-all). They’ve even pre-empted the Edward Cullen effect by having some blonde weightlifter pose for promotional material, which I found quite funny. The young man was more a pretty teen than eternally beautiful angel, but I suppose you have to work with what’s available.

Despite this, I think that the Fallen books are infinitely superior. Luce is a lot less annoying than Bella, challenging Daniel’s decision to establish himself in the role of authority figure instead of playing the insipid little wife. I also like the way that the author has made the lines between good and evil a lot more blurred than they are in Twilight making elements of the books less predictable than they might otherwise have been.

Having said that, I suspect that parts of the books might just be a little predictable. And I can’t wait to read the next book to find out how the author will unfurl the story to prove me right!

Oh, and in case you wondered? I’m team Cam. I’m starting that bandwagon rolling.