Day Four, by Sarah Lotz
Little, Brown (2015), Hardcover, 352 pages
I’ve only been on a cruise once in my life. It was enjoyable, but I can’t say it was one of my more memorable travel experiences. There’s just something about the canned entertainment nature of a cruise, the endless exhortations to have fun, the frenetic (and somehow false, you always feel they are going be laughing at you afterwards in the crew bar) bonhomie of the staff, that I find faintly disturbing and never sure whether I should enjoy it or not. These feelings are likely to be amplified after reading this chiller from Sarah Lotz. Basically she takes all the fears that anyone going on a cruise is likely to have (bad weather, sickness, mechanical faults, psychotic passengers, really bad food) and throws them all together into a grand confection of horror. The story is outwardly simple enough. A third-rate fun cruise on an ageing liner filled with some really unpleasant people goes awry on the fourth day when the ship loses power completely. As the hours tick over and the food goes bad, the toilets stop working and the crew gradually desert their stations, the ship descends into chaos. As if that is not bad enough, a girl is murdered, there are reports of strange apparitions prowling the lower deck and a popular psychic takes it upon herself to form her own cult of survivalists. To be honest, the idea of a marooned cruise ship facilitating the descent of supposedly civilized humanity to its beastly roots is not exactly new ( I had moments of amusement amid the chills when the novel unconsciously echoed a recent episode of the Simpsons dealing with a very similar situation). Where this novel stands out is its conclusion, which to say the least is ambiguous. In fact, as far as I could see, the author leaves it very much up to the reader to decide what really happened. Its quite possible, I believe, that different readers may find different answers to the mystery. After some thought I think I worked out what happened to my own satisfaction. In a way it’s good not to have a neatly wrapped solution presented to you on a platter, and in fact there are hints that this may not be the end of the story. The book functions as a kind of sequel to Lotz’s earlier work, The Three, the story of which is referenced a few times here, and I’m pretty sure that the events of Day Four will in their turn figure in Lotz’s next work, so more revelations are possible. All in all, a satisfyingly chilling read, worth the effort of finding.
Pelquin’s Comet, by Ian Whates
NewCon Press (2015), Kindle edition, 289 pages
I believe, although I have been running this blog for nigh on two years, that this is the first genuine sf book I will be including. This is not, it must be emphasized inn the strongest possible terms, because I don’t love sf, I do, passionately, and have done since the time I could read. It is just that when I come to science fiction literature, I simply cannot commit to reading a book unless I’m reasonably assured I’m going to a. finish it, and b. enjoy it. Why I have this quirk, I have no idea. It certainly does not apply to sci-fi of the TV or movie kind, because I can quite happily sit through dreck of the worst possible kind (and have done many times). I think it comes down to reading sf, I only really like space opera of the old-fashioned kind. This is almost certainly due to my reading upbringing, as I cut my teeth on E.E. (Doc) Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov, and these three luminaries remain the personal holy trinity of my sf universe. Which brings me to Pelquin’s Comet, a lovely little tale reflecting the purest elements of space opera. Some reviews have likened it to popular TV shows such as Firefly, effectively dismissing it as pop fiction akin to those endless written additions to, say, the Star Trek universe. This is unfair, as I think this book’s roots hearken back much further to the grand old days of pulp sci-fi, where so many of the great authors got their start. There are definite overtones of both Clarke and Asimov in this story, perhaps more of the former. The plot as befits genuine space opera is simple, and reflects the great tropes of the genre. Pelquin’s Comet is a tramp spaceship crewed by a motley collection of misfits, all with secrets in their pasts, who are tasked with locating a cache of artifacts left behind by a long-vanished race. The cache is defended by a guardian entity who will kill to defend it. Needless to say, getting past this guardian constitutes the most exciting and suspenseful of the story. The rest of the book is largely concerned with establishing character and setting up further developments down the line. In fact the book is decidedly slow-moving for the most part, with little action really, which would be annoying except for the fact that its is merely the first book in the series. What would be ridiculously drawn out scene setting in a sub 300 page book is perfect for what may be a 1000 page trilogy. The book is easy to read, the writing is smooth and accomplished, the characters are interesting and for the most part likeable. I finished it off inside a day and half and am eagerly looking forward to the next installments and the eventual tying up of the many loose ends. Well worth reading
The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant who created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, by Blaine Harden
Mantle (2015), Paperback, 256 pages.
Parallel stories of the rise and rise of Kim Il Sung from shabby guerrilla to unchallenged despot of the most brutal and secretive regime on earth, and one of his young air force pilots, No Kum Sok, who for years concealed a deep hatred of Communism under a cloak of excessive patriotism and party loyalty while dreaming of the day he could fly his MiG15 over the South Korean border to freedom. His plans were stymied several times due to his caution and determination not to fail. At one stage he was even face to face with Kim Il Sung with a loaded pistol at his side and contemplating whether or not to kill the dictator. When the opportunity finally came, he took it and made a daring 17 minute flight to the US airbase at Kimpo, landing the wrong way on the airstrip and scaring the life out of the complacent Americans who were caught embarrassingly unprepared. No’s flight caused a sensation in the west and considerable embarrassment for the US, who had promised $100000 for the first Red pilot to deliver a MiG to them, only to discover that No had never heard of the reward and didnt particularly want it anyway. Despite this the US government tied itself in knots trying to avoid paying it without seeming like backsliding cheapskates. How this young man planned and undertook his desperate flight and how he constructed a new life for himself in the US is a terrific tale of determination and desire for freedom, contrasted with the utterly sordid rise of Kim Il Sung through unparalleled ruthlessness and brutality, adept political skills and an uncanny ability to bounce back from near disaster, aided by copious fawning to his Chinese and Russian masters even while he was outwitting them. His brutality including executing five of No’s fellow pilots, including his best friend, as retaliation for No’s escape, the young pilot having no close relatives left in the North to take vengeance on. Really good demonstration of the best and worst of human nature, as well a great adventure story. Great stuff.
Death of a Scholar, by Suzanna Gregory
Sphere (2014), Hardcover, 464 pages
I think I intimated in previous reviews of this long-running series (no. 20 and counting) that it had plateaued some time ago and was coasting on past glories. Well, this edition has managed to raise at least a modest peak above the plain. Death of a Scholar is quite the best in the series for quite a few years, although its hard to put a finger on exactly why. Perhaps the plot is less convoluted than other recent examples, the characters more resonant and interesting, and even the usually vapid Bartholomew this time exhibits a bit of belly fire. The plot revolves around the establishment of a new College in Cambridge, whose foundations start to crumble (literally), the murder of several individuals tied to the College and the possibly sinister Guild of Saints, and the theft of Michaelhouse’s precious hutch containing all its money, valuables and documents. As always, Bartholomew and Brother Michael manage to tie up the loose ends in around 400 pages or so with the requisite thrilling denouement as the doomed college crumbles around them. The strength of this series remains its faultless evocation of the medieval mindset, interesting, sometimes almost comical confrontations between the characters, and the fact that Gregory uses the names of real people from the Cambridge of the times, carefully gleaned from examination of the city and university’s records, to add a touch of verisimilitude that is lacking from similar books in the genre. Despite its failings, the series continues to be a must read for me, and this particular example demonstrates even more clearly why this is so. Formulaic, yes, but if the formula is good, as it is here, then why change?
Deadly Election, by Lindsey Davies
Hodder & Stoughton (2015), Paperback, 400 pages
I have said it before in a review of the previous book in this series, but I’ll reiterate my belief that Davies’ new protagonist in Flavia Albia is not as interesting as her venerable predecessor, her father Marcus Didius Falco. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, since Flavia Albia appears every bit as cynical and worldly-wise as her pater, perhaps it is because as a woman in Rome she simply can’t get as down and dirty in the stews of Rome as Falco did with such obvious relish, or perhaps because she has a distressing streak of morality and romanticism that her father would have scorned. However, I do admire Davies’ courage in making a woman the chief protagonist in a detective series set in Rome, I believe it’s a first. The simple fact is that it is extremely unlikely that a woman in Ancient Rome could have undertaken the job of informer (ie private dick), since there were so many places and situations in Rome barred to women. That includes politics, which plays a leading part in this story, as Flavia Albia is engaged in assisting the friend of her heart-throb Manlius Faustus in getting elected to public office, at the same time as she is endeavouring to get Faustus in the sack and solve the mysterious murder of a man found stuffed in a antique chest. As I said, this is historically unlikely, but it makes for an entertaining enough story. A worthwhile read, and Davies’ intimate knowledge of both late 1st century Rome and the peculiarties of her characters is superb. Still, I do miss Falco.