The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley

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The Heart of Stone is Galley’s eighth novel, and is my introduction to his writing. Task, a four hundred year old stone golem, has been killing on the field of battle for centuries. It was what he was built to do, and he does it well. But he is also an intelligent and empathetic being, and the years of war have chiseled away at him, eroding his humanity.

Task’s personal story is one of redemption, but the overarching theme of the book is about free will. Task must learn to break his magic bonds and do what is right. Lesky must learn to break the bonds of fear and rank and follow her own path. And the armies and generals must learn that, sometimes, you might just be the bad guy without knowing it and you have to choose not to obey your own orders.

This is also a book about faith. Not religious or spiritual faith, but a deeper, more personal faith in ones self and in those around you. Task must learn to trust people – people he has been systematically programmed to kill – and the people around him must learn to trust him – despite their fear of what he could do. Lesky and Task both have to rely on their instincts and rely on their hearts to make the hard, but correct choices – they must have faith, that when all around them say they are wrong, that they are right.

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When he isn’t writing award winning Dark Fantasy novels, Ben also runs a highly successful self publishing consultancy.

It was the protagonists that made this book work for me. I loved Task’s little rebellious moments where he was able to push his boundaries and display some resentment. I genuinely rooted for the character. Despite being a Dark Fantasy novel, and one set in the midst of a raging war, the highlights for me were the more subdued moments. Those were where Galley shined the brightest. The moments when Task made friends in the camp, joining in their card games, or his developing friendship with Lesky, a girl who tends the stables. In fact, if anything, the book would have been better if it had focused almost solely on Task and the girl – their relationship was the best part of the novel.

One area that the book could have used more work on, I felt, was setting up the overarching conflict of the book. The antagonists fell flat, especially with the Countess. Her motivation wasn’t clear which I found distracting the first few times she was talking to the ‘enemy’, unsure of how she got there. The first time she killed someone, it was so out of the blue, and ritualistic, that I was seriously confused. Not shocked or surprised, but just confused. The military general, a typical Bully-in-charge type character, didn’t feel enough of a real threat to me, and in fact, the main villain of the story wasn’t particularly clear until much later in the novel. Instead of being a sudden reveal, it felt more like a random change in direction. If there had been foreshadowing leading up to this reveal it may have had more impact and even amplified the tone of the world.

Speaking of world… though he has a well crafted fantasy world, he missed opportunities to let us, the reader, share this knowledge. Fantasy animal names were used without once describing them, and I found this both frustrating and distracting. It took me out of the moment when I had to stop and decipher from the context what sort of creature was being mentioned. And it wasn’t just the animal names I found distracting. Nomenclature, in general, does not seem to be Galley’s strongest asset. The names of characters and places felt a little too quickly put together, and though some of these names do get an explanation, it isn’t until towards the end of the book.

But these issues are minor details. The most important aspects of any book are the protagonists and the writing itself. With the main character being a literal stone war machine, I was impressed that Galley was able to avoid turning the book into a splatterpunk farce – though the gore was visceral and dripping, it was used sparingly and spread throughout the book… just like Task’s victims. The rationed violence, and the fact that Task was a complicated and reluctant destroyer, gave weight and depth to the fight scenes that many novels lack.

Despite having flaws, they were not significantly detrimental to the story or to my enjoyment of it. Ben Galley created complex characters that faced real problems, inside and out, and the dialogue was well-written. I was carried along with Task, right to the end of his journey, and I enjoyed the trip. A very good book, and an excellent addition to any Dark Fantasy lover’s bookshelf.

You can purchase The Heart of Stone on March 30th 2017, or you can pre-order it now. For more information visit Ben’s website.

The Eye of The World: Robert Jordan.

l9780312850098The Wheel of Time series is one of the biggest selling fantasy franchises, with over 80 million books in the series sold, and published in over 20 languages. Jordan (real name James Oliver Rigney) is considered one of the masters of epic fantasy, and along with R. R. Martin, ranked as one of the nearest rivals to Tolkien. But despite this acclaim, there is a very polarized community; The Eye of The World seems to be a book people either thoroughly loved or thoroughly disliked.

The prologue opens with a scene from the past, showing a mighty battle between two wizards. Despite the aesthetically exciting scene, it felt flat and lacked the emotion or context to grab my attention or to make me care about either side. The characters spoke a lot of hackneyed “Epic English” which I found was more distracting than engaging. Though it was a valiant attempt to hook the reader with action and sorcery, it felt overdone, and I found myself uninvested. But, to it’s credit, it also lets the reader know that there is something more going on in this story than just the typical Good vs Evil battle; we see a glimpse of Jordan’s magic system and we know, right off the bat, that we can expect something different from the standard Fantasy tropes in this book.

The first chapter is juxtaposed nicely against this introduction; we are transported to the countryside, and straight into what feels like a homage to The Fellowship of The Ring. As I kept reading I found there were parallels, not just in the dynamic use of mythic structure or the heroes journey, but direct parallels between locations and characters and plot. Jordan once said in an interview that the start of the book was supposed to mirror The Shire, and that the parallels to The Lord of The Rings were a conscious choice, to give the reader a feeling of familiarity.

The Lord of the Rings is a milestone in the genre and in a sense laid the groundwork for what we currently call fantasy. The first 100 pages of The Eye of the World are quite similar to it. In it, you’ll find the idyllic, pristine world as in the world of Tolkien. But from that moment on, the story takes a completely different turn.” [Robert Jordan, Dromen and Demonen Interview, April 2001]

Well, he certainly achieved his goal, but unfortunately, he forgot to stop at The Shire, and his watered-down versions of Tolkien’s archetypal characters continue their journey through towns and hills and mountains that all bear glaringly similar names and functions as Middle Earth. By the time Jordan’s story diverges from his fan fiction and his characters finally begin to take shape, becoming more than just cardboard cut-outs of Tolkien’s creations, it is too late. So far are we into the novel before getting to actually know our protagonists, that it is hard to care for their plight, or share their concerns. And this is what made it so hard for me to invest in this journey; the ‘familiarity’ Jordan sought through intentionally imitating Tolkien merely distracted me. I found myself, not feeling nostalgic or comfortable, but bored and disinterested. I was unable to be taken by his characters or his world. And that is a shame, for his world is impressive. Despite the long journey through Jordan’s Middle Earth, there are a few unique aspects to this world that I enjoyed, such as The Blight. It is a vast area around a source of evil magic where, as the heroes venture deeper into the forest, it becomes more decrepit; rot and ooze and decay and fungus everywhere. It is a scene that evokes some excellent imagery and I would have enjoyed a longer visit to this dying and corrupted land.

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Also, there is an organic, believable relationship between the people and the culture and the geography of the world. The philosophy and magic takes it’s roots from, not just European mythology, but Eastern and Oriental as well. Jordan is probably one of the earlier mainstream writers to incorporate Eastern mysticism into his fantasy novels, and while not being just an aesthetic or relegated to being some gimmick, it gives the world a truly exotic feel. A keystone of epic fantasy is not just the magic, but how it is represented, and how it works on a practical scale. Jordan provides us with a new and original take that is refreshing. There is no argument here: his world building skills are unquestionably high; up with Tolkien or Martin or McCaffrey.

I would recommend this book, if for no other reason, so you can say you gave it a go. Ultimately, everyone has a different opinion; subjective to ones own experiences and expectations. For me, I was expecting this book to be able to entertain me and make me want to read more, and that expectation was not met. It has been argued by many fans, that to fully appreciate The Eye of The World, you need to read the whole series, and that this was Jordan’s book for laying the groundwork for his Wheel of Time saga.

Unfortunately, most other competent authors have proven that it is easy to provide the groundwork in the first novel of their own series, whilst still delivering an exciting narrative filled with complex and multifaceted characters, and while challenging the reader through the subversion of common tropes, and the inclusion of original and exciting ideas. This book worked on many levels, but sadly, failed on so many more. Jordan is enormously popular and is a highly competent writer; unfortunately this book is not the vessel in which he demonstrates this.

Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil by Terrance Dicks

doctor_who_the_mind_of_evilThe Third Doctor and his companion, Jo, visit Stangmoor prison where a Professor Kettering is using a device on criminals that, it is claimed, drains all evil and negative impulses from their minds. The machine is used on a prisoner named Barnham who, to the Doctor’s horror, is successfully pacified by being turned into a drooling imbecile. But as the Professor tests the machine a string of mysterious and impossible deaths occur in the prison, and when The Doctor approaches the machine he is psychically assaulted with manifestations of his greatest fear – all consuming fire. Nearby the first World Peace Conference is taking place where one of the delegates is acting strange and suspicious. It is revealed that she is being manipulated by The Master, Dr Who’s archnemesis, who it also turns out is the man who invented the machine.

At the prison a riot breaks out as a prisoner who was destined to be next for the machine takes over the prison, capturing Jo and eventually The Doctor. Upon hearing of this, The Master meets with this man and supplies him with weapons and attacks The Doctor with the machine, weakening him. He reveals that it actually contains a dangerous alien Mind Parasite that feeds off mental energies. But the parasite is growing too powerful for The Master to control and he must enlist the Doctor’s help to contain it.

The Master then enlists the prisoners as his army and uses them to capture a nerve gas missile that is being transported nearby – his plan, to launch the missile at the Peace Conference and start WWIII unless The Doctor gives him the component to his TARDIS back. It is discovered that Barnham, having no negative energies left in him, is now immune to the parasite. The Doctor uses Barnham to unleash the alien on The Master while The Doctor sets the missile to self-detonate, destroying the parasite at the same time. Unfortunately, amidst the anarchy and chaos that follows, The Master gets his component back and is able to escape, killing Barnham in the process.

This book is the novelization of six episodes from season eight, aired in 1971. The scripts were written by Terrance Dicks, who also wrote this novelization. This has allowed him to expand on the nature of the relationship between The Master and The Doctor more than what was able to be shown in the show. Unfortunately, because it is six episodes compacted into one short novel, some scenes transpire so rapidly that, what would have been an engaging serial on TV, turns into a rushed mess that jumps all over the place. That aside, it is a very enjoyable book. Having never seen any of the classic series of Dr Who I was intrigued by the concept of Dr Who being exiled to Earth as punishment, working as a Sherlock Holmes type character in a subtle role, as opposed to the hyper-intelligent superhero he has come to be known as in modern serials. An acceptable political drama, but mostly a very decent sci-fi thriller. The twists were predictable, but there were also some ploys in the book that caught me completely off guard, which is always satisfying to be outsmarted by an author. A strong Dr Who story that any fan or layman will surely enjoy.

The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham

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When the carnivorous bio-engineered plants that can walk and communicate to each other, known as Triffids, are accidentally released into the wild they quickly begin breeding and spreading around the world, their spores born in the wind. They are farmed and harvested en masse for their valuable extracts, but when a mysterious meteor shower renders those who witness it blind, the Triffids are free to escape and breed more prolifically.

Bill Marsden is a biologist who specializes in Triffids. He is attacked by a Triffid while working and gets venom in his eyes. Exposure to immature venom in his youth have given him a resistance to the venom’s usual fatality and he is rushed to hospital. This is where the story begins. Bill wakes up in hospital, bandages over his eyes, and notices that the world is silent. He wanders through a crippled and chaotic London and learns that most of the world is blind; people are huddled in terror or crawling everywhere, calling out for their families. He quickly learns that it is dangerous to let people know he can see as the blind swarm him like drowning men scrabbling on a life-raft. He also quickly learns the harsh reality that he is unable to help anyone and that to survive he must leave everyone else to their fate. Bill befriends and becomes infatuated with a young woman, Josella, who can also see, and the two follow a beacon light on a hill and discover a small group of survivors who intend on setting up a colony in the countryside.

Like most apocalyptic fiction, this book is pretty standard fare – groups of gangs and raiders, slavers and militant types. Modern post apocalyptic fiction is considered to have first been published in 1826 by Mary Shelly in her novel The Last Man, in which a group of people struggle to survive in a plague-infected world. H. G. Wells re-invigorated the concept in the late 1800’s, but the genre rose to prominence after World War II, with the focus being on nuclear or bio-engineered cataclysms. Where Wyndham stands out is in the constant ominous overtones and the almost biblical images of the blind crawling, and eventually, rotting in the streets. The book does not take place after the apocalypse, it watches it painfully unfold and literally decay. Thematically, the major focus is in man’s meddling with nature and how ultimately nature will reclaim from humans. Gardens and countryside grow wild, streets are ruptured with weeds and shrubs and buildings crumble as plants rip through them.

And then, there are the Triffids. They almost come as a surprise – the book focuses so heavily on the destruction of civilization and on the journey of the protagonist, that you forget about these amazing creations. Until Bill sees Triffids Stalking him in the bushes. Attacking people in the streets. Eating their flesh. As their numbers increase the Triffids become a more and more significant threat. Similar to how in The Walking Dead the zombies are attracted to other groups of zombies, Triffids communicate and attract more Triffids. Soon the protagonists find themselves trapped in their countryside retreat, fighting at the walls and fences in a futile battle against a threat that is constantly and literally growing.

The Day of The Triffids is a complex apocalypse story set in an uncertain era of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the dawn of The Space Age, the beginnings of a truly global market and burgeoning genetic sciences. All of these things have influences in the book, and most have a direct impact upon the story itself. Though aesthetically it is a science fiction survival story, at it’s heart it is a snapshot of post-war Britain; a social commentary of the concerns and fears of a generation that had just survived the greatest and most horrific war in the history of mankind. The war had shaken people’s faith in the world and the notion of peace and security, and these fears play out in the book on a global, tribal and personal level.

A thrilling and suspenseful survival story garnished with some truly creepy and terrifying moments. A classic novel that I highly recommend, and that truly deserves the title given it by Arthur C. Clarke of “an immortal story.”

StarTroopers: The Final Episode by Ged Maybury

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A children’s adventure tale with surprisingly complex characters and plot. Gripping to the end.

Spencer Sockitt is a huge fan of the science fiction franchise, StarTroopers, and is ecstatic to get to interview the author – Arthur Thorsen – for his school magazine. However, the author is not what he was expecting: he is a strange man who claims that, rather than writing fiction, he has visions of battles in far off space, and he is merely a vessel that writes these down. But Spencer uncovers a conspiracy: the evil Blitzoids are here on Earth and are manipulating Thorsen. They believe that he doesn’t have visions, but is in fact a legendary Imaginor – his words and thoughts and beliefs shape reality around him. The stories he writes become real, and the Blitzoids are dictating his latest novel in their favour. Spencer and his friend Rebecca find themselves embroiled in a galactic battle as the powerful Star Troopers try to overcome the evil Warlord Kruel and his Blitzoid army. But things are never black and white; the lines between good and bad become blurred. In war, good is always merely a point of view…

Those who are familiar with Maybury will know that he is a quirky and outlandish character, and this book fully encapsulates those ecclectic qualities of his. What starts off as typical children’s book fare, with over-the-top names and language to pander to the younger readers and quirky mannerisms to define characters, quickly descends into quite a thoughtful and action packed tale. It is a deeper tale than you realise, as the plot is developed and the story explored from both sides. Maybury presents children with a complex story; the main antagonist has a deep and complicated background and the protagonists are flawed, biased and must overcome their cultural and social conditioning to draw their own conclusions. Ultimately, the book reveals that there is no bad guy, or rather, when it comes to violence and war that there is no real good guy. The growing sense of ominousness comes to a full, complex and satisfying conclusion through investigation and politics. Maybury teaches children that violence and conflict only propagate more violence, and that the only true solution is through understanding and diplomacy. A message that most adults still have yet to learn.

Maybury is a New Zealand writer. New Zealand, being a British colony like so many other nations, has a past that is speckled with racial and cultural injustices. And even though New Zealand has been a nation to quickly embrace equality with women and the indigenous Maori having full voting rights by 1893 (irrespective of status). Despite this, there is still colourful debate and controversy surrounding the initial land purchases made of the Maori people by the British Government in the 1800’s. This can be a divisive issue for modern New Zealanders.

This history would seem to serve as inspiration for the villains backstory, and Maybury approaches the topic from a neutral point of view. He doesn’t favour any one side and presents both sides as being wrong (a bold and contrary stance to make on an important issue that affects the cultural heritage of both Maori and Europeans.)

The language is colourful and infused with plenty of sci-fi technobabble that will surely entertain and impress the younger reader. For the older reader it can be over-cooked and often unnecessary, but it is also used very deliberately as a colouring method for the universe he has created and gives it a depth and an age found in franchises like Star Wars, and this helps to ground and normalize the more fantastic elements that are introduced.

I was apprehensive about reading a children’s book featuring an alien race called ‘Blitzoids’, and also based on the artwork of the cover. Childrens fiction tends to pander too much to children, or it ignores them completely and forgets they are the target demographic. Maybury has successfully written a tale that treats the young readers with a bit more respect; he isn’t afraid to throw in large confusing words or complicated concepts: StarTroopers is both colourful entertainment and also an intellectual challenge for children. This is exactly how it should be. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and for lovers of children’s science fiction, or New Zealand fiction, I highly recommend StarTroopers.

The Dark Tower by C. S. Lewis

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An unexpectedly dark and unsettling tale of inter-dimensional travel, monstrous creatures and alternate realities. A powerful read that grips you right to the end.

C. S. Lewis is renowned worldwide for his children’s fantasy novels, especially the Chronicles of Narnia, but his less known works include a trilogy of science fiction novels plus an unfinished fourth (The Dark Tower.) An intended fourth entry to The Cosmic Trilogy, it was never finished or published. It was discovered among paperwork being destroyed after Lewis’ death by the lawyer of his estate and, despite evidence suggesting that segments of this work were read at the famous gatherings of The Inklings (a group of literary enthusiasts, including Tolkien, who were mostly associated with the University of Oxford who met and read excerpts and discussed fantasy and science fiction literature) there was controversy around the authenticity of the writings.

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Less well-known are C. S. Lewis’s science fiction novels.

It is estimated that this story was written in the early forties, predating his more famous fantasy works (and some elements from this story seem to make their way into the Chronicles of Narnia which wasn’t published until the early fifties.) The intriguing nature of this story is how it starts off with several scientists discussing the nature of time travel and ends up being a gothic-horror story about inter-dimensional travel.

One of the academics, Orfieu, discloses to his companions that, as time travel itself is impossible he has focused his research into simply viewing time, and has created a machine called the chronoscope. This device lets the men view a fixed but undisclosed place they call ‘The Othertime’. It is a dark and oppressive place, where The Stingingman (a man with a large, seeping horn growing through his skull) stabs volunteers in the stomach, injecting them with venom and transforming them into willing automaton-like slaves called Jerkies (because of their movements) who are laboring to complete construction of a great but dark tower.

Orfieu’s assistant, Scudamour, discovers with horror that he has an exact double in this Othertime, who as the story progresses, is imprisoned and mutates into the next Stingingman, replacing the previous one. One of the other academics observes that this incomplete building is actually a replica of the new Cambridge University Library, where the men are presently situated as they observe all this.

I shall leave any plot discussion here so to avoid spoiling the story. There are a few twists and a few genuinely unsettling moments. Stylistically, this story is unlike anything of Lewis’s that I have read, and this is also the basis as to why the authenticity is still debated by academics. The story is dark and uncomfortable to read – the setting is unidentifiable (possibly set in post-war time) but feels like it could be a Victorian gothic story, with the sense of growing dread and nihilism common in H. P. Lovecraft’s works. The characters, though underdeveloped due to the unfinished nature of the story, are suitably sympathetic with clear motivations.

I was thoroughly enjoying this story and was sorely disappointed when it came to an abrupt, unfinished end. The Dark Tower and Other Stories discusses the story in more depth, and pre-warns readers that it is missing sections and unfinished, but this does nothing to diminish the feeling of disappointment as such a gripping and dread-inducing tale is suddenly ended.

For fans of Lovecraft or C. S. Lewis or cosmic-horror in general, this story is a great look into the creative prowess of a man who could write for children and adults alike, a man who refused to be categorized as a genre writer.

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.