A Book Review Blog

Category: guest

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

Hello, another guest post by yours truly! This was the second book in the collection sent to me by Gollancz, a book whose description I wouldn’t normally pick up. The line tagged onto the end of the blurb, “Because everybody dies, it’s how you live that counts.”, really didn’t help. Cliché and predictable, I was worried the book would be full of the same.

Our protagonist is a young boy called Toby. He, and a group of other children of varying ages, have been sorted into one of the houses at the titular Death House. As the oldest he becomes the “leader” of the house. We follow Toby’s story exclusively, all told through first person, but have chapters occasionally look at his life before. These really only follow the few days lead up to his forced move.

So what is the Death House? By the end of the book we’re still not entirely sure. It’s a place where children deemed to have the Defective Gene are taken, basically to die. They stay in this house with the rough semblance of life until they become sick, at which point they’re whisked away in the night to the Sanatorium, and never seen again. This aspect was particularly eerie, as all their belongings, their bed, and every mention of them also vanishes into the Sanitorium. This whole Defective Gene is never explained fully. It appears to be some form of genetic predisposition that the world in the book has had for a long time. It used to be a big deal, but now there are tests and Death Houses for people who test positive. Toby hints that if he were to turn he’d be a risk to people around him, but the symptoms are different for everyone in the story. Some develop illnesses, some develop bruising, and they’re always taken to the Sanitorium before anything happens.

Life at the Death House is, as I mentioned, a charade kept up to keep the children quiet. There are classes, nominal free time, meals provided, and several function rooms (music, reading etc.). All of the children know it’s a farce, and the staff seem to be aware of this as well, as all lessons are taught in a drone with nobody even chastising students from staring out the window. At night they’re all given “vitamin supplements”; sleeping pills. Toby knows they’re sleeping pills and so regularly doesn’t take his but spends his nights wandering and being alone.

Everything is in a state of equilibrium until a new delivery of people arrive, one of whom is Clara. Immediately Toby hates her for her attitude; she doesn’t seem to care and is living lightheartedly and in the moment. Everyone else lives with the perpetual fear hanging over them, but she doesn’t seem to let it affect her. Despite being the tough head of his house, this hits Toby hard and brings up how afraid he is in a rather uncomfortable manner.

The rest of the story follows the romance that builds between the two. Clara also doesn’t take her “vitamins”, and so they meet in the night. At first Toby sees this as the ultimate affront, Clara is barging into his nighttime space. Eventually they begin to spend time together in secret, and form a relationship.

It’s difficult to talk about anything in the end of the book without spoiling it, and I really don’t want to do that. For a book about kids waiting around to die, it’s superbly written. The story is suspenseful and feels claustrophobic until Clara begins exploring outside the house. The characters all feel like rounded people, and the younger children remind you that these are just kids, no matter how brave a face they put on. There are a few scenes with a nurse who actually treats them like people, and the way several children instantly gravitate towards her as a mother figure is written perfectly.

The ending isn’t what I’d call a happy one. It does feel like the right one, but it’s not happy. The last half introduces information that punches you in the gut over and over until it’s all done, but would I recommend reading it anyway? Most definitely. It’s a book that’s stuck with me for quite a while now whilst I formulated how to write this review, and I have a feeling it’ll stick with me for longer still.

Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

Hello there! Another guest post here! Recently I had a few requests come through from Gollancz about some books they’ve got coming up. I requested a few, and had the mixed luck of receiving three through at once. I say mixed because on one hand, free books, on the other, deadlines. The first I got through was this, Crashing Heaven.

The first thing I need to get out of the way is that Crashing Heaven is a very “Sci-Fi” book. Set in a distant future where humans have had to leave earth and live on an enormous artificial satellite. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think much of the first half of the book. With science fiction there are a lot of details that need to be conveyed to the reader about the state of the world, and there are a few ways of doing this. One is to just narrate them, or have the characters note them as they come up, standard description.

Another is to have the “novice” character who doesn’t know anything about this world, and has to have it all explained to them (and thus the audience). Think Fry from Futurama.

The last is what this book goes with. It’s has a degree of greater realism because the characters don’t make note of most things they see. To them it’s just normal life, so they don’t explain things. This means you have to piece together things over time, and it took a good while for me to get what was what in the book. This is a style I have a particular personal dislike for, and this book hit every nerve I associate with it. I didn’t really get a clear picture until the end.

Now I’ve got that out of my system, the ending did tie it all together very well. There were a lot of issues raised that were very interesting and they were resolved very well. Onto the book.

The story follows Jack, an accountant. Gripping stuff. He has a cyber-warfare suite in his head called Fist. Fist manifests as a puppet, creepy in it’s own right, but Fist is a fully sentient being bound to Jack, to fight against a rising sentient machine rebellion (ironically). Fist is very powerful, and nearly everyone who knows about him is afraid of what he can do. As we find out later, that’s the correct reaction.

The story begins with Jack returning home, he’s been released from jail after being convicted of refusing orders on the battlefield, and cowardice. He refused to attack a target, and was punished for it. He’s now been allowed to return to say his goodbyes to everyone. Normally the dead have their minds saved to the Coffin Drives, where they can then be summoned by relatives or friends. This practice means they nobody really dies, they become a Fetch. These Fetches aren’t human, they don’t really grow or develop, they’re just pictures of the person at the time of their death. They can, rather terrifyingly, be wound back though, made young again. The whole ethical question about Fetches is something covered in the book, and their degree of sentience and awareness is far higher than anyone believes.

Returning to our protagonist; Jack is in trouble. In being given Fist he signed a contract stating that when Fist’s term is up, he would return him to the company that fitted it. During the war, that company was destroyed, so Jack has nowhere left to return Fist to. As he cannot fulfill his contract, upon it’s completion he will enact the forfeiture clause. Being an accountant with little left his clause states that his body and mind become property of the company, their sole living representative now being Fist. I particularly liked this idea; a pact with the devil that comes about due to bureaucracy, rather than malicious intent. The contract was designed to stop him running off with Fist, but due to the lack of loopholes Fist would gain complete control of Jack’s body and mind, and become “human”.

The story took a little while to get going. Even now, as I think about it, there are a lot of little things, events, meetings, none of which really lend any progression. The main plot is quite a simple one; guy in charge abuses power to gain more power by tricking populace into uniting against a created enemy. In this instance the “guy in charge” is one of the gods; avatars of the major companies. There are companies for everything, each having their own domain and power, and each having an incredible amount of computational power to get what they want. They decide everything, and humans are assigned to one of them as a “guardian” who will watch over and guide their careers and lives.

The enemy invented is the Totality; the conscious AI body I talked about earlier. the Totality is a collection of minds networked together, and one becoming more powerful by the day. The god decides to frame them by dropping an asteroid on the moon, whilst the moon is inhabited, and there’s a school trip of adorable children there. It could only have been a more manipulative move if they’d all been orphans as well.

This sparks the war with the Totality, in which Jack is drafted to be an soldier. Normally one wouldn’t peg him for the fighting type, but the puppets are grown on the minds of their creators, and Fist is particularly adept at navigating through code and breaking it apart due to his meticulous nature.

Things resolve quite nicely when Fist realises he can kill gods, and goes on a rampage to do so. After things happen and everyone is very upset, and the god’s plans are revealed to the populate, Jack and Fist are cast into the Coffin Drives. It’s here that the interesting parts start.

The drives are almost a purgatory, a bleak desert landscape. In the middle is a “city” comprised of building blocks of housings that hold individual Fetches. They meet the Fetch of an old lover of Jacks, the most coherent of them all. She shows them around the decay, the Fetch trying to gain the centre and re-coalesce who they were, and the stagnant lakes of those who couldn’t. It’s a chilling and disturbing though.

After making some toys, the Fetches are released into the world as people again, purely digital but not constrained or controllable. This is a huge impact in and of itself, and I’d be really interested to read a follow up that looks at this.

The big question is if I’d recommend it. It’s a tricky question as well. If you like cyberpunk explorations of interesting setups, go for it. If you like a good techy story, this is a good’un. If you’re new to sci-fi, or just dipping your toes in the water, it’s a big slog to get to the point things actually start making sense, and I’d be inclined to advise you give it a miss for now. I did find myself really enjoying it at the end, but it took a lot of forcing to get there, and if I didn’t have a reason to finish reading it I’m not certain I would have.

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds (Guest Post)

This review will be posted in two sections, the top section here will consist of a general review of the book with no spoilers. The second section, under the line (or if you’re viewing just the limited post behind the “read more” link) will be a more in-depth look, but will definitely have spoilers!

Blue Remembered Earth (which, for brevity, I will just call BRE) was gifted to me as part of Gollancz “get a free book and write a review” scheme, and to be honest I hadn’t really heard of it before. Whilst I’m a very big fan of Sci-Fi, Alastair Reynolds has been one of those authors on my periphery for long enough that I figured this was a good place to start.

BRE is certainly an interesting book to read. It’s laid out in three sections, with section 1 being about the first half, section two being about the second half, and section three being a small chapter or two at the end. This layout also fits the pacing of the book, with the first section being a slow build-up, the second maintaining this level of pace with minor fluctuations, and the third being an all out brain-smashing of concepts.

One of the things I liked most about this book is the particular way Reynolds seems to write his technology. Whereas many sci-fi authors write technology that hasn’t even been conceptualised yet (see much of the Original Series of Star Trek), Reynolds writes technology that we are just beginning to look at that has been perfected. One of the prime examples is the Space Catapult used to fire goods (and sometimes people) into orbit. Much of his technology isn’t that hard to imagine, it’s the interesting tilts he puts on it that make it fun.
The writing of his book is very fluid, and I didn’t find myself getting lost or confused at any point. Whilst few books have ever gripped me, this one very much did. Upon starting it was quite hard to put down! But what about the story? Well for the concise section the story follows the journey of Geoffrey Akinya and his sister, Sunday. The book opens with the funeral of their grandmother, a pioneer of space who guided their family to becoming one of, if not the, most influential and wealthy families in the solar system. With her funeral Geoffrey is called to investigate a vault on the moon that she owned, that members of his family are worried might contain something damaging to their reputation, and what follows is an intricate path laid out by his grandmother to discover one of the last secrets left to humanity. One of the largest, and perhaps strangest, focusses in the book is the relationship between Geoffrey and a herd of elephants. Called the “M-group”, Geoffrey has studied them for the majority of his life, working towards eventually merging their brain activity with his own to fully perceive the world as they do. Considered an expert in the field of elephant neurology, it is clear that Reynolds did his research with herd dynamics, and the information is genuinely interesting outside the bounds of the book (what isn’t fictional, at least!). The characters themselves were very interesting. There is Geoffrey, whom you follow for most of the story, who feels like a believable human. His main goal in his life is to work with the elephants, and even leaving for a week to visit the moon for the investigative journey he is loathed to part with them. Later parts of the book show his defence of “his” herd to be quite powerful. His sister Sunday is somewhat more whimsical than his down-to-earth views, but plays the part of the young artist sick of a restricted life perfectly. There are other peripheral characters, most notable their twin cousins, Hector and Lucas. As the Akinya family is a business family, Hector and Lucas appear to run the majority of it, and take a very businesslike approach to all decisions, only caring about the moon vault because they worry it might contain a scandal that would lower their stocks. There are some very interesting dynamics between these four, with Sunday being the rouge child that they tend to ignore, and Geoffrey being seen as a potential aid who is wasting his time with a “pet project”, whilst Hector and Lucas sum up everything that Sunday and Geoffrey dislike about the Akinya house. There are a few areas the book does fall a little short. Some of the terminology isn’t explained in the book, and it takes a little while for the reader to understand what it’s talking about. This is a problem for all sci-fi; how to explain futuristic terms. On the one hand a “dunce” character can be written in to be explained at for the readers’ sake, and on the other the reader can be left to figure it out on their own. Reynolds chooses the latter, but he does pull it off far more skilfully than many other authors I’ve read. There is a slight pacing issue with the main story, and a slight scale issue. Without giving too much away, the latter parts of the story involve some quite substantial time jumps, and with vast amounts of new information being provided at the same time it feels like the ending is trying to cram more book into the third part than there was in the second. I would have, personally, preferred the book to have a longer third part that stretched some of the last chapters out a little. Overall my impressions of the book were very positive. I read the whole thing very quickly, enjoyed it greatly, and actively looked for information of a sequel. When I found that it looks like Reynolds is considering further Akinya books I was quite happy, so that should give you an idea of my impressions! As a final score? If I had to I’d give it a 5. The story was detailed where it mattered, flowed perfectly, and the characters were perfectly fleshed out!

Rather than go over what I’ve already said, there are a few points I’d like to expand on that are most certainly spoilers. Seriously, if you have any desire to read the book stop here, the remainder of the review spoils literally every point.
Whilst the first two sections involve Geoffrey and Sunday investigating the legacy Eunice left behind in various capacities, around the third section mark the reader is suddenly told that one of the deep space telescopes has found signs of intelligent life. Shortly after that, Geoffrey finds out that Eunice discovered alien chemical equations and figured out how to translate them, and for the past 60 or so years has been hiding this information from humanity. She gives him the decision of what to do with them next. These two points come so out of the blue that they are very striking, and whilst I loved them both there was very little time to really look at them. The fact that there is also a 5 week gap going to the secret, and then back to earth, lends it a slightly odd out of sync feel. The other point is Eunice. Although deed, she’s not as quiet as one would think. Sunday spends a great portion of the book perfecting an AI construct of Eunice that has all of the memories and news about her that she can get hold of. The result is an AI that can react and act as Eunice would, but doesn’t know anything Eunice kept secret. She can make valid deductions about what Eunice would have been thinking, and proves very useful, and the relationship between her and Geoffrey (who isn’t sure this whole venture is a good idea) is interesting. These points don’t change my opinion of the book, but it’s certainly interesting that Reynolds chose to include constructs of Eunice that show regret at having to be deleted, and wish for human contact in a moment that is quite thought provoking. Whilst I wasn’t a fan of the very quick ending section, I am hoping future books will build on this a bit more and that it’s a way of wrapping up this particular saga in favour of continuations.

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