The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley
Head of Zeus, (2013), Paperback, 496 pages
What an amazing read! This is a gem from out of nowhere, people, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Think the X-Files meets UNIT from Dr Who. Think Harry Potter for grown-ups. It’s really impossible to classify this book, it is a true original, a supernatural thriller with a wonderful mixture of absurdity, scares and black humour. Myfanwy Thomas awakes in a park surrounded by dead bodies and with no memory of who she is. Letters in her pocket purport to be from the personality who previously occupied her body, an agent in a top-secret organisation known as the Checquy, which since the Middle Ages has guarded Britain from paranormal threats by means of the paranormal powers wielded by its operatives. Myfanwy finds she is a member of the Court, the top-ranking enclave that runs the Checquy. Guided by helpful hints left by the original Myfanwy, Myfanwy Mk II finds she has to both find her way in a position she has no knowledge of while letting no-one know she is not the person they think she is, at the same time hunting down a traitor in the ranks and combatting a powerful ancient enemy from the Continent. While at times, the book threatens to run away from the author’s control and the absurdity of the plot becomes sometimes a little too much, MyFanwy, simultaneously diffident, confused and very, very, sometimes frighteningly strong, holds the whole edifice together. She is as appealing and empathetic a character as any I have come across, very Harry Potterish but with an adult’s cynicism. The ending is a genuine surprise and sets up what should be a very interesting sequel. I can’t praise the Rook highly enough, if your taste runs to absurd monsters, black humour, a fair dose of violence and some stomach-churning ickiness, this is just a superb read. It is a rare pleasure to review something as genuinely fun to read as this.
Impulse, by Dave Bara
Del Rey (2015), Paperback, 384 pages
This is actaully the first in the series which continues with Starbound. I should probably have read this one first, as what happened in Starbound would then have somewhat less mystifying, although no less enjoyable. The story of young Union officer Peter Cochrane, mourning the loss of his girlfriend when her shuttle was destroyed, is about to embark on his tour of duty on the new Lightship Starbound, when he is suddenly detailed to the Impulse, sent to make contact with the newly discovered world of levant, another lost Earth colony. It becomes his first encounter with the hostile First Empire, whose origins are explained, but leaves them no less a mystery. In the whole of the two books of far, a living member of the Empire has not yet appeared, and all their hostile acts appear to be committed by either automated weapons or enslaved captives from the Union. In fact, I wonder whether Dara is leading up to a revelation that the First Empire as a human construct no longer exists, and has been replaced by some sort of machine intelligence. This would be logical and perfectly in keeping with the ideas so far in the books, time will tell. I didnt enjoy this quite as much as the sequel, perhaps it was trifle less developed and coherent as the second, as befits an author finding his way with new material, however, it was still an enjoyable read. If you like good old-fashioned space opera, as typified by the pulps of the 30’s and 40s, and authors like Asimov and Smith, you will like this. Great literature it ain’t, but good reading it certainly is.
Starbound by Dave Bara
Del Rey (2016), Paperback, 368 pages
A cracking read, good old fashioned space opera, with detectable elements of 1930s/40’s pulp sci-fi, plus a hint of more modern works such as Dune and Starship Troopers. This is the second book in the series, and I would strongly recommend reading this book’s precursor first, as this leads on directly from the events of the first, otherwise much of this book is confusing. The story revolves around Peter Cochrane, a young officer in the Union Navy. The Union is a fragile coalition between former Earth colonies who have only just begun to contact each other again a century and half after a devastating civil war. Cochrane comes from Quantar, a planet originally settled by Australians. The other planets are Carinthia, settled by Germans, and Levant, the newest member, which appears to have been settled by people from the Middle-East. Earth is also a member, but plays only a peripheral role through the aid of Earth Historians, sages wise in technology, who are gifting things like hyperdrive and advanced weapons back to the former colonies in return for them joining the Union. The Union is threatened by the mysterious First Empire, the remains of the former galaxy spanning plutocracy, who are trying to re-assert their control over the Union planets. Much of the story is informed by the fact that the technology of FTL flight is so new to the Union that every hyperspace jump is a risky adventure, and that travel between planets is not a matter of press a button, bang you’re in hyperspace, but every jump must be planned carefully and has the capability of ending very badly, despite the existence of jump points left by an earlier civilization, the Founders. Complicating Cochrane’s life is the fact that he is also a high-ranking member of the Quantar aristocracy and heir to the throne of Quantar, so he spends as much time engaged in inter-planetary diplomacy as in his military duties. This very Dune-like interplay between the ruling houses of each of the planets gives a nice contrast to the sci-fi elements of the story, a mixture of old and new that works quite well in crafting an absorbing story. The story in this book centres around the discovery of an abandoned space station that may belong to the Founders and then the attempted coup by the eldest son of Carinthia’s ruler, that threatens to destroy the fledgling Union. Cochrane must do his best to thwart this and fight off the depredations of the First Empire, meanwhile being forced to choose between his lover and a dynastic marriage that may save the Union. I found this book fascinating, it’s not perfect, but the combination of old-world dynastic intrigue and planet-hopping, space war sci-fi is enthralling. I really want more, can’t wait for the next instalment.