Space: Above and Beyond #1 The Aliens Approach by Easton Royce

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A fast-paced and exciting read set in a complex multi-faceted future.

In the mid 21st century humans have begun to colonize other worlds. But mankind soon learns it is not alone when an unknown alien force destroys the settlement, and humans quickly finds itself in a race to defend the Earth and all of humanity against this new blood-thirsty foe.

Based on the failed TV series (despite winning 2 Emmy awards, a Saturn award, and being ranked by IGN in the top 50 sci-fi shows) this book is a teen novelization of the first episodes in the series. The story centers on three main characters – Nathan, Shane and Cooper. Nathan finds himself being sent to a different colony to his girlfriend, Kylen, and tries to sneak aboard her ship but is caught and is kicked out of the colonization program – now his only chance to be reunited is to join the Space Cavalry and hope he can find her. Shane, forced to watch her parents killed during the AI wars, enlisted, vowing to avenge her parents deaths; and Cooper is a synthetic, created in a test-tube in a lab and, as a member of a undesirable social class with little rights, finds himself punished for a crime he didn’t commit: being sentenced to the military.

Space: Above and Beyond follows these three as they are enlisted, train, and encounter the alien menace on their first mission on the surface of mars. The prose is sharp and well-paced, designed for a younger audience: it effectively leaves enough ambivalence in the description to let the younger reader imagine as much or as little as they want to, without either pandering to their age or being vague or obtuse. The plot, however, suffers from being rushed. Many episodes were written into this book and as a result sometimes it feels more like an extended training montage than a novel (and it is a short novel, at 138 pages and has a slightly larger than average type-face size). Novelizations are supposed to expand on the film or television source, but this book feels a little flat when it comes to characters, and though I have never seen the show, can surmise that it may actually be the superior product.

The over-all feel of the book, though, is something with spectacular potential: AI wars, racial tension, politics of war and hard core action – I would definitely read the rest of the books in this series to discover more about this universe. In terms of tone, it is similar to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Busby’s Star Rebel, or even Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. An entertaining teens book that can be enjoyed in several sessions by adults as well. Highly recommended to those who enjoy the aforementioned authors, or those who are fans of classic sci-fi franchises like Star Trek or Battletech, or series such as Firefly or Babylon 5.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

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A classic book that, after sixty years, still has the magic to enthrall young and old alike in adventure rich in scope and sentiment.

When four children (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) are relocated from their home and sent to a large country estate during wartime in Britain, they find a large wardrobe in an empty room that, upon entering, takes them into the magical land of Narnia. It is a beautiful, snowy land inhabited by talking animals and mythical beasts. But they soon discover that the snow is a wintery curse cast by the evil White Witch who, in fear of an ancient prophecy which names the four children as the true Kings and Queens of Narnia, seduces Edmund and attempts to use him to betray his siblings. But she is too late, as the ancient and powerful lion Aslan, lord of Narnia, returns to the land, and her magic begins to fade and spring once more returns to Narnia. Her last chance now being a desperate and bloody battle to rid Narnia of Aslan and the children, lest she be killed or exiled.

The book is written in a clear style that speaks directly to a young audience without pandering to them or being condescending. The brisk prose uses powerful imagery in short bursts, preventing the reader from getting distracted from the plot or the characters. And the characters also well represent the different facets of a child’s personality – each one effectively giving the reader something different to relate to and associate with. And though the Christian imagery is both strong and recurring throughout the book, Lewis himself swore that this book is not allegorical at all, but merely a fairy tale to entertain children.

Perhaps most surprising is the violence and brutality of the book. The narrative is clearly for a very young audience and the violence is so under-used that when it suddenly appears it has real weight and tension to it. Edmund goes very quickly from being in the Witches favor to being mistreated; he has fulfilled his purpose to her and she has no real need of him. Where only a chapter previously he was being treated as important and special, the story declines quickly to a point where the Witch punches him in the face for speaking out of turn, and two chapters later we see her preparing to slit his throat in the forest; and of course, the culminating low point is seen when she tortures and mutilates Aslan before executing him only several more chapters after this.

The Chronicles of Narnia is Lewis’s seminal work, and that for which he is most well known. And like his contemporary, Tolkien with The Hobbit, his name is established in English speaking cultures around the world. Unlike Tolkien, who chose to focus on the journey and even used the world itself almost as a main character, Lewis uses Narnia as a springboard and he leaps between scenes to keep the pace brisk and exciting between action, accounting for the limited attention spans of children nicely.

Lewis clearly wrote for children, whereas Tolkien wrote for a wider demographic; stories set in Middle-Earth being deeper and more mature than those of Narnia. But perhaps this is the defining strength of Lewis’s work – Tolkien alienates the youngest readers, whereas Lewis is able not only entertain them, but to speak directly to them. Despite Tolkien’s clearly massive influence on the fantasy genre, it could be argued that Lewis is the more influential of the two – his work is enjoyed and appreciated earlier in life, and this in turn grows the interest which will later lead readers on to Middle Earth and beyond.

As a novel it is riddled with plot holes and flaws, but as a children’s book this is acceptable – the intended audience don’t need deep backstory or contexts to get enjoyment; if anything, the lack of over-writing makes this an exceptionally well written book. Despite being set during late the late Edwardian period the book has stood the test of time relatively well – though some colloquialisms and idiosyncrasies do exist which will date the book to modern readers.

A classic, and an instant favorite for many children, and a beloved memory for many adults: it is worth reading again to relive your youth, and even though there are countless film and TV adaptations, I think you will find that while reading this book you will not be limited to those visuals and will adequately incorporate your nostalgia with your imagination.

Survivors by Terry Nation

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A daunting vision of the apocalypse and a compelling journey of survival and struggle.

In a matter of a few weeks a virus has spread across the entire planet, killing off almost all of the human population. The remaining survivors are in a silent world with no electricity or society or infrastructure. They form together communities and try to outlast the chaos as the world begins to fall into disrepair; scavenging, evading raiders and gangs and even surviving each other’s own madness and paranoia and panic. But foodstuffs are running low in the towns, and winter is coming. Now, those who once lived in luxury and convenience must return to the fundamentals and learn to farm and hunt and fish and build. The human race must struggle to survive against the weather, nature, and the human race itself.

Survivors is a novelization of the cult 70’s post-apocalyptic TV series of the same name. Penned by Terry Nation. Terry Nation was an accomplished British Screen Writer who wrote for over thirty television series; his biggest contributions being to Survivors (38 episodes,) Blake’s 7 (52 episodes,) and most notably, Dr Who (70 episodes,) where he is the accredited inventor of Daleks. This book is a unique experience as most novelizations are contracted to genre-authors to interpret a script: Survivors is novelized by the scriptwriter, and as such, offers some fantastic insights into the intentions of the TV series that any other author could not have achieved.

Lauded as a visual story teller when it comes to screenplays, his narrative becomes somewhat over-written in places which can be limiting to the imagination. This is important as the theme of survival should be one every reader can personally relate to: the fear of being cold and hungry and vulnerable; and unless a detail is especially important to the plot, most should be left somewhat vague to allow the reader to imagine themselves in the place of the antagonists and be more intimately immersed in the story.

But aside from this minor knit-pick, and despite being a TV serial novelization, this book is an excellent read. It is imaginative and daunting, and in a genre of over-the-top apocalyptic scenarios, it is a refreshingly restrained vision of humanity and it’s struggle to survive. Most characters are relatable and are sympathetic, while secondary characters can sometimes be two-dimensional and clearly written as a TV plot device. Their plight is intriguing and, unlike a lot of apocalyptic stories, there is no symbolic savior in the guise of army or fortified township or the like – there is only the slow decay of the world: time moves on and buildings, roads and even social conventions and moral boundaries begin to fall apart.

A fantastic read, as it is a great precursor to the popularization of post-apocalyptic stories that are so common today. Though some argue the genre is pessimistic, it is actually one of the more optimistic settings for a story. We live in a world filled with untruths and trivialities – in the end days we become equalized. Every person is important because every action they take has real and clear consequences; everything one does is for the greater good of ones self and for mankind. This comes through clear in Terry Nation’s book: the old way of life is left behind and the new way must be learned, and though it is a road filled with struggles, ultimately it is a journey of hope and inspiration. An apocalyptic drama highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed Z for Zachariah, No Blade of Grass, Day of The Triffids.

The Sovereign Hand by Paul Gilbert

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An epic adventure of High Fantasy and High Stakes; deserves a place next to Pratchett or Goodkind.

Set amidst a backdrop of steam and coal smoke, high magic and complicated politics; the bustling metropolis of Thorn faces an impending evil and only a group of five heroes, summoned by fate, can stop the cataclysm. The sovereign hand is a masterful work of depth and breadth. Paul Gilbert has created a deep backstory and a rich world, often seen lacking in most fiction, that is on par with Game of Thrones or Sword of Truth. Various races and species co-exist in a noisy city rife with politics and crime and culture, and it is from these crowded streets that our five heroes are chosen by fate to become The Sovereign Hand; a select group of individuals trained to fight against evil.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book filled with many classic D&D or Pratchettesque tropes; goblins, kobolds, lizard-men, minotaurs, wizards, priests and thieves. Some of these elements are severely under-used, and other’s feel out of place and forced; the book starts with the integration of the Taurean peoples and the end of conflict, and this idea is followed for many chapters before being completely abandoned. It has little-to-no bearing on the plot and is more of a distraction than a neccessary part of the book; in fact the first half of the book (particularly the first quarter) is so heavy on uneccessary world-building and exposition that it was difficult to become emotionally connected to the world or the characters; I had no clue what was going on or who the story was talking about. The language was overdone in the first half as well – obscure allusions and similes that don’t work and just leave the reader confused and distracted. The raw talent of Gilbert is buried and drowned beneath the verbose excess; this is one of the most over-written books I have ever read.

However, once into the second half of the book things began to pick up. Suddenly there was a clear plot; I knew who characters were, they had clear goals and even, eventually, an antagonist. By this point, however, I had had little investment into the characters, so motivations were vague and confusing and important elements of the book seemed to spontaneously erupt onto the pages, leaving me lost and confused. The climax was excellent – though there were unanswered questions and unfinished plot-points which left the ending of the book feeling flat and unsatisfying, with an unfinished feel.

This is Paul Gilbert’s first book and shows incredible potential to be a top-shelf competitor in major bookstores in the future. Hopefully the next book will be more tightly written and won’t meander as aimlessly as The Sovereign Hand often did, leaving the reader feeling lost and wondering if the author knew where his book was going. 7 / 10 stars.

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The Wind City by Summer Wigmore

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An instant New Zealand classic, melding Urban Fantasy with Maori mythology.

When Saint befriends the spirit of a Maori demigod and is gifted with the ability to manipulate fire, he is tasked with ridding the city of the spirits and entities that dwell there. Little does he know, however, that the evil spirits he is destroying are in fact conscious beings with their own lives; friends, homes and families.

Typical of much Urban Fantasy, there is a hidden world that only some characters are a part of – one of magic and magical creatures. But, despite being hugely imaginative, the story itself was disappointing with the lack of depth given to these characters or creatures. When Saint first learns his flatmate is a monster, what could have been a well developed plot point becomes a brief action sequence before moving on. The same can be said of many elements which had huge potential but were glossed over which diminished their potential importance. The irony here is that the invented fictional spirits of the urban setting were actually really fun, interesting characters and they made a lot of sense. As far as Urban Fantasy goes, these elements were exactly spot-on and I would have loved to have seen more of this in the book.

The first half of The Wind City wandered without any real direction, unsure just what the book wants to be. At around the halfway point when the plots began to converge and irritating character devices took a step back, the book began to really shine. But by this point, I wasn’t completely invested in the characters and the story didn’t have as much of a hold on me as it should have. The biggest let down was the main character, Saint. His tropes were irritating, annoying and unrealistic; he was an imported character slapped onto a template. His actions were sometimes pointless and motivations were confused or lacking. The other side of this, however, is the second main character Tony. Discovering she is part taniwha she steps into the hidden world, at first reluctantly, taking on the time-honored responsibility of guardianship. Her story was far more interesting and well written than Saints. In fact, it was Tony’s story that captured me and kept me going, in contrast to Saint’s who pushed me away.

Not a perfect book, by far, but for a first novel it is a really strong, enjoyable effort. Wigmore shows plenty of promise and is a name to keep an eye out for on the shelves. The Wind City is a great entry into the New Zealand Urban Fantasy genre and should be read by anyone tired of the recycled Nordic/Tolkienesque fantasy tropes. 7/10 stars.

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The Factory World by Joseph Edward Ryan

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An imaginative work that is equal parts intriguing and disturbing.

The Factory World is very similar to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Tad Williams’ Otherland series, or the screen adaptation of Mutant Chronicles. With dark and gritty tones, vivid and unsettling imagery, a mixture of science fiction, fantasy and horror elements and a milieu-based story structure, The Factory World draws inspiration from thirty years of slipstream cross-genre novels.

Ten year old Simon wakes up in an outflow pipe in an abandoned factory in a dark and strange world, where purple meteors rain down and scour deep black holes through the earth. He is dressed in a Lion costume from a play of The Wizard of Oz and meets a nameless stranger whom he calls The Tin Man. Together, they roam an eerie and ominous world and encounter strange and terrifying creatures and wondrous technologies, all in the search for a way to return home.

The post-apocalyptic fantasy setting immediately felt like I was reading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and as the Wizard of Oz elements started showing up I felt like I was reading King’s Wizard And Glass. Normally, it would be a compliment to be compared to something as epic and masterful as Stephen King’s magnum opus, but in this instance Ryan falls flat. The author’s voice and ideas are lost in the comparison to King; The Factory World is too similar and disappears beneath the shadow of a greater work. Ryan’s world has many brilliant ideas and concepts which are unfortunately often glossed over when they should have been expanded; despite the vivid and fantastic imagination the world lacks a critical depth that makes it feel real and cohesive.

There wasn’t enough characterization to make me care for the protagonists; any initial emotional connection I felt was soon lost as the book progressed. However, luckily for Ryan, the protagonists weren’t the main characters. The true hero of this book is the world itself; it is a reflection of our own subconscious, a dark and confusing and scarred entity struggling to survive.

#Warning: the following part of this review contains spoilers and will majorly disrupt your enjoyment of the novel if you have not read it. Please do not read any further if you have not yet read this book and intend to.

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The ending of The Factory World was a severe disappointment. After what builds itself up for a powerful and climactic ending, the author ends with an epilogue showing us that it was, in fact, all a dream. Seriously. It’s the same ending that we all used on our creative writing assignments at school when we were eight years old. This ending killed any enjoyment of the book for me – what could have been a fantastic and intriguing journey was suddenly halted by a lazy ending that is offensive to the reader. However… this ending could have worked, if Ryan had foreshadowed it in the book correctly. It is true, the characters question if anything is real – just as we all do at some confusing and distressing point in our lives – but this merely humanizes the characters, it doesn’t justify the cop-out ending. For a “dream sequence” to be valid, it must be integral to the plot. Even without embedding meaning and metaphor into the book, Ryan still could have linked the ending to the beginning of the book by changing the very first line from:

“Simon woke in the drainpipe and was cold all over.” to:

Wake up. Simon woke in the drainpipe and was cold all over.”

That simple addition would have made the audience read the ending and go, “Ohh, I see,” instead of saying, “Really? That was it?” None the less, still a mostly entertaining read. The most important parts of a book are the first and last chapters, and unfortunately such a weak ending heavily impacts the overall feel of the book. 4/10 stars.

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Sephirot by Gordon Bonnet

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Drops the reader into a dark metaphysical journey full of intrigue.

 

Our main character is Duncan Kyle, a man of indeterminate age or origin who one night falls through the floor of his apartment and finds himself in a dark and mysterious world, one of many within the Sephirot that he must journey through and return home. This is a standard Voyage and Return type plot; Our hero wanders aimlessly in a strange land, having adventures and drawing wisdom and revelation through his experiences before returning home. In Kabbalah the Sephirot is ten different emanations/revelations of God. Each contains a different characteristic emotion or virtue, and through attaining enlightenment of any one of these levels one brings their self closer to the divine knowledge of God. In Bonnet’s book the Sephirot are represented by different fantasy realms that must be physically journeyed through; and with the Sephirot being a creation of the hero’s own mind, it is thus a journey to attain an enlightened knowledge of his self. Unfortunately, Bonnet fails to give as much thought to characterisation or setting as he does to concept or structure; ironically, crafting a journey that is, instead of being enlightening, one that feels hollow.

We don’t know anything about the protagonist and, only towards the last half of the book do we discover things about our hero, but then it is too late. The story is about the hero’s self discovery, not the reader’s discovery of the hero, and in this it is hard to find an emotional connection to Duncan Kyle or to emotionally invest in his journey. As well an uninteresting character, the conflicts he faces are resolved quickly, or avoided completely via last-minute portals opening and allowing him to escape into the next realm. Another over-used cliche is the quick discovery in every realm of the ‘mysterious helper’ archetype: a potential foil or background character who dispenses knowledge and advice and assistance to Duncan at almost every step of his journey. The impact of these story devices is that the tension is stripped from the book; any dangers presented to the main character are aesthetic and offer little tangible threat.

Despite these flaws, it is an enjoyable read with some interesting ideas and varied and interesting settings. I would have liked to have spent more time getting to know the different worlds, and the book could have benefitted from more consistent pacing, but the general direction of the book kept me intrigued. 6/10 stars.

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