Wednesday, 22 February 2017

King And Emperor by Harry Harrison (and John Holm)

Our King? Well, I didn't vote for you!
Perhaps I'm letting all the mystical rubbish get to me. Perhaps I am cynically overlooking the fantastical element of this historical fantasy in favour of a brutal and realism-driven interpretation. Perhaps I'm an arse.

These propositions, and more still, are true no doubt. Unfortunately, now that King Shef has decided to launch an attack on the Holy See via the Caliphate of Cordoba with their advanced sciences and repressive treatment of lady folk, and has come face to face with the devastating reality of Greek fire in the Mediterranean sea, and launched the Loki Appreciation Denomination of The Way of Asgard, much to the chagrin of the other priests of The Way, AND Holy Roman Emperor Bruno I has gone in search of The Holy Grail (which it turns out isn't the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper but is instead a simple ladder which was used by those who removed Jesus' body from the cross and to carry his body to his tomb, cunningly rendered logical by some word-trickery which also manages to invoke a connection to Shef's mythological 'father', the Norse God Rig whose ladder symbol Shef wears), I began to fear for my rational self. It's all well and good to tinker with history to tell a good story, but I lost it a little with the cramming in of so many frankly crackpot historical mysteries and mystical themes into one rags-to-riches tale. 

Not to say that it's boring - far from it. It's action packed, as much so as the other two novels in the trilogy, and as exquisitely plotted as ever. There's the invention of manned flight (albeit unpowered) a good few centuries early, the death of child soldiers, ambushes and siege-engine engagements, and even good old Shef gets a bit of crucifixion to nail some sense into him, as befits his nature as both saviour and effigy of the All-Father, Odin, who himself hung upside down from a tree and so on.

It's just that all together, I lost the will to believe, combined with the feeling that it reminded me of Monty Python's The Life Of Brian and ....The Holy Grail, after which I did read with a half-grin on my face. It's hard to believe when you're laughing inside and out.

I would recommend a read if you're in the market for a bit of fantasy, and where there is history it is remarkably well researched, thanks no doubt to his silent partner in this venture. Do give it a shot, especially if you can find a cheap copy!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Owner Series: The Departure, Zero Point, Jupiter War by Neal Asher

Yes, yes, it’s another trilogy post, and I’m sorry about that to a small degree, but in my defence, it is simpler to do this than to find three different ways to say the same thing in three separate posts. Hence, consolidation. Or perhaps in context, some sort of augmentation of the essential humanness of the post? I’m stretching of course.

So, on with the show. Fair dos, I know very little about Neal Asher*, except for what I can deduce from this trilogy. I would guess he has a dark and troubling pessimism for humanity’s future, a grim view of the toll of our human stain, and oddly enough, an optimistic outlook for the planet post-humanity. I would also hazard a guess that he’s a scientist of some sort, or at least of a scientific bent, given he seems to be able to talk of such real-life but convoluted concepts as zero point energy and the Alcubierre drive, only two of the completely feasible near-future technologies he develops to fruition in this, The Owner series.

It all starts with Alan Saul, who awakens in a plastic coffin on its way to being incinerated, with no memory but with an artificial intelligence implanted in his mind. His world is a strangely familiar dystopia in a not-too-distant future, where socialist concepts have been stretched to their most awful extremes and the world is a stratified socialist autocracy where usefulness to the state and to the Chairman is the only measure of a person’s worth and therefore his or her ability to buy food and pay for medical help. Everyone should be microchipped in order for the government to track them, and, it turns out, in a dreadfully warped Malthusian final solution, wiped out if required. It seems however that Saul is somehow off-grid, and whilst working to retrieve his past his great natural intellect gets to work, with the aid of the AI which later he absorbs entirely, on a strategy for revenge and ultimately his escape. Book one works through his struggles planet-side, book two on his escape into space, and book three is basically one fucking great big space battle using crazy far-future weapons and where humans are ‘backed-up’ into portable brains grown from their own stem cell tissues.

It’s pretty bleak in places, and a shit load of people meet untimely ends, but then also many people are suddenly propelled into near-immortality, not least Saul, later the titular Owner (plot spoiling prevents me from revealing the reason), with the advent of new technology for mapping and storing minds. It’s all very entertaining, and with insectoid machines cutting swathes through misguided humanity in vast, sprawling combat sequences, gruesome too. Had this been a medieval setting, I imagine people like Bernard Cornwell would cluck their tongues and stroke their beards in approval.


*Of course, this could be easily rectified with a simple internet search but I prefer in this case to be an absurd Luddite, in contrast to the author

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

One King's Way by Harry Harrison (and John Holm)

What if... the Vikings conquered Britain
and threatened the entire Christian World?
I may have touched previously upon the reason I initially got so swept up in this dark ages romp. Of course, I went out and bought books two and three of the saga. Of course I did. You've met me, right?

So, book two sees blacksmith, thrall, carl, jarl, chief, king, inventor, victor over the Great Viking Army, and router of the feared Frankish cavalry, Shef, facing another test of his liberal ways and, conversely, his antidisestablishmentarianism. For the church is about to send in the holy Knights of the Lance, whose symbol, the spear that pierced the side of Christ, is an artefact for which their leader, fearsome warrior of God, Bruno, searches to inspire Christendom to victory over the heathens of the Asgarth Way, the new religion of knowledge that has taken hold in the power vacuum of England. And of course, that's not to mention the hovering threat of the revengeful Ragnarssons, whose ire and wrath still patrol northern waters, looking for an opportunity to visit death and destruction upon the killer of their father Ragnar Lodbrok, and brother, Ivar the Boneless. 

And Shef has itchy feet.

So of course he leaves his kingdom in the capable hands of Wessex monarch Alfred, with whom he shares England (and, gasp! his first love Godive, who now hates Shef deeply and viscerally), and naffs off up north for a bit of naval entertainment.

Again, Harrison shaves very close to a state of affairs which would be an affront to those particularly loving the whole alternative history thing. I'm not fond of all the magic. Too often for my liking do the Gods make actual appearances rather than being simply alluded to, particularly around the unfolding narrative of Shef being the agent for Ragnarok, or at least that Odin suspects he is, whereas Shef's divine 'father', the seldom mentioned god Rig, counsels the contrary, whilst plotting to free Loki from his chains and the torture of serpent venom dripping into his face. There's some gubbins about strange other worldly folk living in the fjords and that they can talk to orcas, and here I wonder if John Holm a.k.a Tom Shippey has been given leave to start leaning in with all his pent up Tolkien mythos. Maybe to make up for his name slipping off the front cover and having to make do with an honourable mention on the title page... But even with all these minor gripes, it's hard not to root for the waspish Englishmen and the giant Norsemen, as they battle ever increasing odds, fearsome enemies whose learning starts to match that of their foes, and their own latent fear of Shef's divine nature. Book two holds enough rambunctiousness and swashbuckling adventure to keep the attention sharp and the sighs few and far between.