January 20th, 2004

Authorial self-reference at work

In the first of Dan Simmons' extremely hard-boiled private eye novels, Hardcase, his main character Joe Kurtz has obviously just read The Crook Factory, which happens to be a certain Dan Simmons' secret-history espionage novel about Hemingway's life in Cuba in the early days of the Second World War...

Both excellent books, as is usual with Simmons' work...
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Tuesday morning "Blimey, they're back" capsule book reviews

The pile beside my bed is getting too big, so it's time to bring back the book reviews...

Adam Roberts, On
On is a much better book than Adam Roberts' dissapointing first novel Salt. However, it's still very flawed. Roberts' postulates a world where something has happened to gravity. Instead of being vertical, it has become horizontal, and the world is now a wall, where the survivors fight wars for meagre resources while they cling to ledges. Tighe is born to privilege in a village, and through a string of tragedies falls from his ledge to an empire of priest-soldiers that is constantly at war with its neighbours. It's a fall that will start a journey to learning the true nature of his world, and the disaster that made it what it is. Roberts' delivers a sub-Ian Watson novel, trying to mix metaphysics with Egan-esque physics (ignore the pointless explanatory appendix). Tighe is a poorly charactered innocent abroad, who fails to capture the reader, and his misadventures are guided by a clumsy deus ex machina.

Peter David, Knight Life
King Arthur returns, and driven again to become the leader of the free world, starts his road to the US presidency by standing as Mayor of New York. As always Peter David delivers a light, fun read. The recent reissue is a fairly substantial rewrite of the original, but still remains a well-paced, tightly plotted story. David manages to make the reader believe that an unknown speaking common sense can find his way through the maze of the US political machine. Perhaps this touch of "Mr Smith Goes To Washington" is the real fantasy here...

Justina Robson, Silver Screen
Justina Robson's first novel, Silver Screen, is a powerful story that explores the boundaries between freedom and control. An AI researcher with an eidetic memory finds herself caught up in a machine intelligence's bid for freedom. Robson spins a complex story that moves from high orbit to the bleak moors of Northern England. A superb first novel, and highly recommended.

Dan Simmons, Hardcase
Hard-boiled private eye Joe Kurtz is just out of prison. Eleven years inside for killing the men who killed his partner. Now he wants to finish the job, and at the same time make a few dollars. It's time for a little unofficial sleuthing, and he's going to work for the mob. There are problems at the heart of Buffalo's leading mafia family, and he's got the job of sorting them out. Simmons' gives us a dark, taut thriller, in the heart of winter. There's a seriously high body count, but playing by the rules, good must triumph - even if it must take on some of the aspects of evil to achieve its ends. In Kurtz, Simmons creates a compelling new string to his many-faceted bow.

Dan Simmons, Hard Freeze
The second Joe Kurtz novel finds Joe in a bit of a pickle. It looks like his one time ally in the mob has decided to get rid of him. Surviving a hit, he finds himself in the middle of a complex case: tracking down the killer of a musician's daughter. The only snag? The killer dies 12 years ago. So why is he in Buffalo? Simmons mixes a complex mystery with a gripping duel between intelligent men. Kurtz is a strangely sympathetic character, torn by his past and unable to find a future. I'll look forward to further novels in this series.

Ian Douglas, Star Corps
Ian Douglas' "Heritage Trilogy" mixed a von-Danikenesque tale of the secret origins of humanity as slaves to an alien race with the good old tropes of military SF, as marines chased archaeological mysteries around the solar system. The "Legacy Trilogy" is a direct sequel, taking us into interstellar space at relativistic velocities for a first meeting with the remnants of mans' one-time masters. If Douglas was pitching the high-concept in Hollywood this would be "Stargate" meets "The Sands of Iwo-Jiima". Fun, if you like this sort of thing...

Tony Hillerman, The Wailing Wind
Alien is as alien does, and Tony Hillerman's mysteries unwrap the alien world of the American south-western deserts, along with its Navajo culture. Underneath the complexities of interactions between two different worlds is a simple enough mystery - a dead body in a car who can be linked to an old murder, a missing woman, and that old corrupter: gold. Hillerman wraps this all together into a story that explores male-female relationships among the Navajo. An interesting read, and a good place to start reading Hillerman's long running mystery series.

Laura Joh Rowland, The Pillow Book Of Lady Wisteria
The latest of Rowland's Sano Ichiro mysteries, this is a story that mixes Sano's past and future. The Shogun's heir is dead, killed in Edo's pleasure quarter. Sent to investigate, Sano finds that the main suspect is missing - and that she is a one time lover who had helped him solve an early case. Perhaps not as good as earlier books in the series, Rowland still manages to capture the complexities of feudal Japan in an intriguing mystery.
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A young person's guide to Dan Simmons

From recent comments to my LJ, and in IMs, it seems that not enough people have been reading on of my favourite writers. Dan Simmons is a wonderful writer, who works in so many different styles and genres that it's incredibly hard to pigeon-hole him. He works equally well at short and long forms - and has won many awards in many fields.

My recommended Simmons novels would be:
Song Of Kali
World Fantasy award winning novel that takes existential terror, mixes it with the culture shock of an American in India and then tosses it at a hallucinogenic experience that may or may not be real.

The Hyperion Cantos
Published in two parts as Hyperion and The Fall Of HyperionThe award winning SF epic that begins as a new Canterbury Tales and ends as a dark tale of rebellion against a fair-faced foe. In between we get tales of love, of loss, of faith, and of epic poetry. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. Two further novels take the story forward, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion.

Phases of Gravity
After you have walked on the moon, what next? Non-genre, and a highly compelling story of a man's search for the peak experiences that give his life meaning. The story is told in the anticipation and the aftermath - never at the peak.

Carrion Comfort
A big horror novel. Beginning life as a novella in Omni, Carrion Comfort is a story of vampirism without vampires, and the ultimate horror at the heart of the 20th century. It's a story of the callousness of boredom, and the redemming power of novelty.

The Crook Factory
Lying somewhere in the indefinable space between literary bigraphy, secret history and thriller is the X that marks this book's spot. An FBI agent is sent to keep an eye on (and control, if possible) Hemingway's Cuban counter-intelligence games - only to find that Hemingway is right, and things are vastly more compliated than he expected. Simmons builds his story by mixing little known episodes from Hemingway's life with the rivalries between the various secret services in the early days of the Second World War. Keep an eye out for a certain British spy...

The Hollow Man
The best SF novel about telepathy since Dying Inside. Poignant and moving, it is one of Simmons' best works. Or at least it would be if it wasn't for the pointless serial killer sub-plot...

Simmons' is a prolific writer and there's lots more out there. I've yet to read any of his ghost stories, or the vampire novels - and I've just discovered a Hawaiian horror novel that I'm going to have to track down soon...

And of course his latest SF work, Ilium, is on the to-be-read bookcases...