I found Ammonite astonishing throughout. It hooked me from page one, which is always a delightful sensation. It reminded me of Jean M. Auel‘s The Plains of Passage and Ursula Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed while being something completely different all of itself.
I’m not going to do justice to the story in my synopsis, but here goes… the planet Jeep, colonised centuries ago has been rediscovered by the Company. The entire population is female, and when the ‘Mirrors’ (soldiers) arrive they quickly contract a virus that kills all men, about 30% of women and leaves the world in quarantine. Enter Marghe Taishan, employee of the Company, anthropologist visits the planet while testing an experimental vaccine which might be the only hope of leaving Jeep for the Company employees quarantined there. It’s clear that Marghe can’t learn anything about the people if she stays in the Mirrors’ isolated base so she sets off into the wild.
From there it would be incredibly simplistic to say that she ‘goes native’ given the depth and complexity of the world she adopts and is adopted by. The women of Jeep live in tribes connected by an intricate system of trade, obligation and duty – ‘trata’. It’s into this web that Marghe is soon bound, bringing the women of the Company into trata too. And that’s just the start – explaining much more is a frightful spoiler show.
What we get is rich, interesting and intensely human characters presented in a familiar yet wholly new and refreshing social context. Marghe goes through a hell of a journey to understand Jeep, the women who live, have babies, farm, go to war and fall in love, and most of all to understand herself. At times the book veers between fantasy, science fiction and cultural exploration. It’s a synthesis I found very satisfying and intriguing. Once she finally settles and begins to learn how reproduction and cultural heritage work the whole story unfolds in another dimension entirely.
Apparently this was Nicola Griffith’s first novel – it’s superb. I found it by spotting the SF Masterworks livery. Sometimes that collection feels like it’s just every sci-fi book ever written, but this is definitely a gem that deserves to be in print constantly.
I’ve no doubt that there’s a host of essays covering the gender and sexuality themes running through Ammonite – they’re interesting and well explored and ever so interesting. That and the story and the characters that kept me reading. It’s one of very few books that went straight onto my ‘re-read soon’ stack.
Go and buy and read it now.
For my money the Transformers universe is kicking the teeth out of George RR Martin’s chilly little world. This fantastic Transformers comic series continues, with both Autobots and Decepticons back on Earth in search of revenge and the lost secret to Cybertronian gestalts.
By this point in the story it’s getting a little confusing. This is numbered the seventh collected volume of Robots in Disguise, but that follows at least a dozen others in the same continuity plus there are another six (eight now?) running in parallel to this storyline! In short – the Autobot/Decepticon war has ended, apparently decisively on Earth. Cybertron has been resettled (currently under Starscream’s worrying leadership), Metroplex has returned, as has Galvatron and several of the most ancient Transformers (from the Dark Universe no less), Bumblebee is dead, Shockwave has attempted to destroy the universe, Megatron is now an Autobot and Prowl is going insane as the new head of Devastator… and that really doesn’t even come close to catching up.
This the first part of the Combiner Wars story – the secret of combining Transformers into powerful gestalts. Thankfully we have Alpha Trion and Galvatron to fill in some of the background on Cybertron, way way back in the semi-feudal era of the Prime tribes. There’s an ingenious mention of Headmasters in that early history and a number of fan favourites such as Rhinox appear briefly, lending some context to the existence of the bestial Transformers. This series constantly delves into the myths and history of Cybertron and its biggest players, enriching what was once just a series of adverts for plastic toys. It’s fair to say that this series more than any other has wrenched Transformers out of adverts and into a rich fictional universe of its own.
It’s not all talk – far from it. With Prime distracted by the recovery and insights of Alpha Trion, he leaves the Autobots orbiting a very tooled up and hostile Earth. Unfortunately he leaves Prowl in charge – that’s the Prowl who until recently was being controlled by the Decepticons and indulging in horrifyingly utilitarian strategies, not that any of his colleagues thought he was any worse than usual. He’s also teamed up with the Constructicons (the only “successful” gestalt so far – Superion fared quite poorly but is being tended to by a recuperated Wheeljack, while Monstructor who is properly crazy hasn’t been seen for a while) which is bad news for Earth since their leader Scrapper was killed by humans during the same war that cost Prowl even more.
It gets worse, obviously. Galvatron is seeking out the Enigma of Combination which he thought he’d destroyed millions of years ago (guess what – it’s on Earth). Arcee is supposed to be keeping an eye on Prowl, but she’s half crazy anyway – not to mention she was formerly Prowl’s prize assassin (and since when have the good guys needed assassins?). She’s a great character (with quite a history) who takes absolutely no crap from anyone, whether it’s her allies or enemies. My current favourite character Thundercracker (awful-screenplay-writing, dog owning ex-Decepticon hermit living on Earth) is immediately sucked back into the fray in attempting to stop another Earth-Transformer war. The last one took a billion human lives and no few Transformers – can they really afford another…?
So it’s carnage all the way. As ever, the story is nailed by the wonderful artwork. I was especially delighted by the first chapter, drawn by Sarah Stone. It’s a bit of a shame she doesn’t get to more of it. That’s not to say the rest of the volume isn’t also gorgeous. It is, happily continuing the style that the best of the last few volumes have nailed for the Transformers. John Barber is happily expanding the Transformers universe and I’m certainly happy for him to continue.
I read the comic in TPB form on ComiXology, which I still find the best way to read comics.
Thankfully I have the next chapter of the Combiner Wars to go straight into…
Chill by Elizabeth Bear (2010)
I had no idea what to expect – this is one of many ‘second book in the series’ that I’ve received as gifts. They normally sit on the shelf until I’ve found the first one. However, our book stacks are getting ridiculous and my current system is just reading the next book on the heap.
I didn’t feel I was missing much though, the characters are suffering from their extended histories and the disasters of the first book. This is fixing it afterwards and preventing further chaos.
It’s a beautiful world that Bear has created, full of nanotechnology and weird whimsy. It reminded me powerfully of Brian Aldiss‘ ‘Hothouse’, one of my favourite books about the far future and the bizarre fruits of evolution.
All the characters were fun, and I feel I’d like to know them better so I may still seek out the first volume ‘Dust’. Bear’s use of Angels as the AIs and the complex multitude of personalities and histories wrapped in all the characters made for great intrigue and depth. Basilisks – yes. Mammoths – yes. Intelligent carnivorous plants – yes.
Since it is primarily a quest tale there is a lot of waking and thinking with most of the real action right at the end. That gives it a slightly odd pace but it worked perfectly for me and I was delighted throughout.
Mirrorscape by Mike Wilks (2009)
I loved the premises in this book – first that ‘Pleasures’ (fine foods, music, colours etc. according to the five senses) are aggressively taxed, forcing the poor to live bleak monotone lives and naturally creating a disgustingly rich elite who hoard it all for their benefit. That’s not at all a familiar state, nuh uh. That’s a fun tyrannical bureaucracy to play with in a story. Add to that the kind of related idea that there’s a world created by the imagination of artists which can be entered and explored by those in the know (the Mirrorscape itself), and that’s a whole bunch of world building coolness.
With all that brilliant set up it’s a bit of a shame that the story is the very familiar poor kid in a poor family shows talent and gets taken up to be an apprentice in the big city, in this case as an artist. There are really good sections of this book, but everything gets resolved far too easily which takes away a lot of the wonder. I did like the characters, but there are a lot if stereotypes jammed in quickly and we don’t get to know the big movers and shakers of this world until they’re gone.
I’ll be seeking out the sequel Mirrorstorm, and hoping we’ll find out more about the magical world that I enjoyed. I also really wish this was the cover of the book that I got – I’d probably have read it sooner. There’s an illustrated version out there somewhere too, which looks awesome.
Both reviews previously posted on Goodreads. Wanna be a pal on Goodreads? Click here.
Fletcher and the Mutineers by John Drake
Published by Endeavour Press in July 2015
This is the third book in John Drake’s swashbuckling adventures of Jacob Fletcher. I’ve missed the first two, but I don’t think it matters as the previous events are conveniently summarised whenever you need a reminder. They purport to fill the gaps in the historical records with Fletcher’s faithfully recorded memoirs which is always fun, happily mixing fact into fiction.
It begins with the first ever submarine strike on a vessel in 1776 which I’d never heard of and instantly grabbed my attention. The story then switches to our hulking hero Fletcher arriving in Jamaica (fleeing from his crazy and homicidal step-mother, the law and the navy) where he seeks to improve his fortune through trade and business rather than cracking skulls. He does plenty of both before his step-mother, rebellion and the navy catch up with him again.
I very much enjoyed the book, it bounds along with pace and mischief. Fletcher is an engaging rogue and most of the tale is told by him. I like his wheeling and dealing across Jamaica and his attempts to avoid being just another thug. He’s not entirely successful… he also gets mixed up in the maroon revolt and a host of dangerous characters.
It’s a slightly jarring switch to the third person accounts of his wicked stepmother, Lady Sarah. That oddness is offset by her being utterly crazy – from acquiring shaggable slaves, wrapping everyone around her finger, using her stout enforcer to remove her enemies and then pursuing Fletcher to Jamaica to destroy him.
Fletcher bounds through naval warfare, slavery, brawling, promiscuity and politics. It’s a hell of a ride, but my favourite part is the character of Lady Sarah who is truly demented and dangerous, I’m looking forwards to reading more about her.
It’s fun and worth a read: grab it at Amazon
Reviewed on Goodreads