Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Gears of War - Aspho Fields

Karen Traviss does a great job of bringing some Gears of War goodness to those of us who like to relax our trigger fingers once in a while. Traviss admits herself that she's worked on a lot of stuff in her day, tie-ins and the like and that not all of the varied franchises and projects have been particularly worthy. But Gears is different. She thinks it's special. I'm inclined to agree. Working on something you really love rather than it just being the latest meal ticket has really brought out the best in the writer, both in these books and her hands on work with the latest Gears game.
This one tells the untold Story of the battle for Aspho Fields. A battle we've heard about in the game that takes place several years before Emergence Day when the humans of Sera are still locked in a world war over Imulsion that has lasted the best part of a century. At this time they are unaware that another race called the Locust are biding their time beneath their feet, waiting for a good time to pop out and call 'Time' on human Seran history. The Cogs have discovered that the other power block are developing a weapon of mass destruction called The Hammer of Dawn at a research base at Aspho Point. Now at this stage Gears fans will most likely be grumbling that a Gears book without Locust is not something they signed up for. Traviss cleverly frames the pre-Emergence Day sequences with a story set between games 1 and 2, just after the deployment of the Light Mass Bomb. The Cogs are consolidating as best they can and are cautiously hopeful that the worst of the Locust threat has been dealt with. A face from the past in the form of a veteran female Gear called Bernie brings the past back to the surface. Dom Santiago wants to know the full story of the death of his brother Carlos at Aspho Fields. Marcus and Bernie were the only witnesses and neither are keen to talk about it. During an escort mission all the main characters get a chance to reflect and more of the story of the friendship of the brothers and Marcus gets revealed along with a lot of other stuff involving the feud between Hoffman and Fenix. These books can't tell the big story - that is for the games to tell, instead they tell the other stories that the games don't have time or the opportunity to tell. It's very well written with a great feel for the characters. All the dialogue just feels right, so much so that you can't help hearing the voice acted tones from the game; Fenix's tortured gravel, Cole's booming bonhomie, Baird's verbal sniping, Dom's quiet dignity, Hoffman's caricatured parade ground bark. And Traviss's new female characters fit in fine. The military attitudes are very believable. It's infantry soldiering with thoughtful introspection in a world that has become so desperate that the values of humanity are having to be sacrificed. Sure it still knows it's an actioner filled with chunky guys, chunky guns and chunky aliens... getting chunked, but it doesn't mean it has to be empty between the ears.
Even though fans of the game will get the most from this book I'm convinced that folks who enjoy gritty military sci-fi will still enjoy themselves. That was violent, reckless... and necessary! Well done.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Harry remembered

Debbie is holding a special giveaway competition to commemorate the memory of our special friend Harry today. See her blog for details Shagrat's Attic.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Arctic Ghost Story

Michelle Paver's Dark Matter is a chillingly accomplished ghost story that takes place in the dark isolation of a snowbound base-camp of a small but ambitious scientific expedition, as the long dark night of an Arctic Winter sets in. The year is 1937. Unbeknown to the youthful group, their new home already has a black history and a reputation that makes the hardened seamen and trappers of the region reluctant to even speak of it.
Paver's love of the Arctic, first hand knowledge and experience of the region shine through the narrative. When A.C.Doyle wrote classic's like The Captain Of The Polestar, his experiences on Arctic Whalers' fueled the authentic tone and similarly Algernon Blackwood's tales of isolation and fear drew on his extensive trekking through the various wild places. There is an art to writing a good ghost story and one of the absolutes is in the appearance of authenticity. If the reader can't forget that the story is a fiction then the story loses its power. Paver certainly succeeds in that regard. Jack is well realised character, that I had no problem investing my interest in along with his horrific travails.
The narrative is in the form of a journal by the expedition's newest member and here again Paver excels in the form, using a journal's natural economy to provide ambiguity when needed but also to ride closely the mental battle taking place as our faithful scribe Jack details the occurrences. I've read other similar types of story that have been ridiculously large tomes, supposedly the diary of a few weeks stretched out to 700 page monstrosities, as if the narrator could possibly do the work that a professional author would have to chain themselves to the desk to achieve. There is a sort of infectious anxiety that slowly builds as the days slowly advance and the ill-fated expedition goes from one set back to the next. The ambiguity I mentioned has nothing to do with questions of whether the haunting is real or imagined - take it from me - the place is Haunted as Hell, no rather I ascribe it to the visual descriptions of the more visceral episodes. The scenes are painted with as few strokes as possible, so that in true classic style the reader has room to draw on their own nightmare imagery.
You could easily read Dark Matter in one sitting, though I spread it out over four. This is the sort of book you don't see too often these days, indeed you might be fooled into thinking it was written contemporaneously. Recommended.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Chasing chickens

"Mummy look... look, the chickens are chasing me," the little girl shrieked hopefully.
The chickens, doing nothing that even remotely resembled pursuing small female humans, pondered instead the likelihood that feeding time would be sooner rather than later.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The God of the Hive

The God of the Hive follows on directly from events in The Language of Bees and is the 10th book to feature Mary Russell. Mary and Sherlock are separated again and on the run. At first assessment you think of Reichenbach, and there are certainly deliberate similarities but the suspense gets left behind too often. Laurie R. King chooses instead to tell a more character driven story, examining Russell's new relationship with the recently discovered granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes. It's easy to forget that the whole business began as a search for the girl's missing mother. King has covered similar ground to this in her Kate Martinelli detective series.
The die hard Sherlockian in me can't read the start of a chapter beginning with the words 'Chief Inspector Lestrade' without at least a slight twitch of my arm muscles (perhaps to punch the air) even if this Lestrade is a younger chip off the original block. A lengthy interlude in the wild woods of northern England takes up a large section of the book, including the introduction of a new character called Goodman. A man with a tortured history of war damaged psychosis, King fancies as an embodiment of the English folklore legend of The Green Man and a similar revisit to another of King's character experiments - see the Martinelli book To Play the Fool. It's this particular Holy Fool who is partly responsible for a funeral so bizarre it might not have looked out of place on an episode of The Prisoner.
The writing is as good as ever but with the plot, thin though it is, sidelined so often the experience isn't quite as compelling as usual. When the plot does finally emerge from the London fog with so few pages remaining I was beginning to think we were going to end as the last book ended with another 'TO BE CONTINUED'. Thankfully that doesn't happen and we are treated belatedly to a proper Reichenbach style finale in the shadow of Big Ben.