Book review: Hounds of the Underworld, by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray

23 03 2018

Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray are New Zealand speculative fiction writers and editors. Between them, they’ve won several Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadows awards; they’ve also collaborated as editors on two award-winning anthologies, Baby Teeth and At The Edge. I’ve previously reviewed Murray’s delightfully gruesome Into The Mist (a sort of tuatara daikaiju novel) here.


Hounds of the Underworld is the pair’s first joint novel, and the first in the ‘The Path of Ra’ sequence. It’s a noirish tale of unexplained disappearances and inexplicable crime scenes played out within the festering underbelly of 2040s Auckland and its surrounds, as brother-and-sister investigating team Matiu and Pandora (‘Penny’) try to determine whether a puddle of strange blood in a building’s basement is in any way connected with the fate of the building’s missing owner, Darius Fletcher. There’s an ominous atmosphere from the outset, and plenty of sparks between the siblings: technically it’s freelance analytical biochemist Penny’s investigation, but her terminally micromanaging parents have foisted her beefy younger brother on her as a chauffeur and bodyguard, and Matiu (who pretty much plays Mulder to Penny’s Scully) has an annoying but lifesaving tendency to butt in when the eldritch hazards faced by Penny—to which, with her clinically rational mind, she’s mostly blind—are apparent to him. (Or if not to him, then at least to Makere, his malevolent invisible friend.)

This is an intriguing technohorror procedural that, for the most part, juggles its diverse components with enviable skill. If it’s anchored by the vivid sibling-rivalry skirmishes between Penny and Matiu, it definitely helps that the supporting cast—their heavily-entitled parents, Hing and Kiri Yee, who run the country’s largest still-active fleet of hire vehicles; Penny’s overeager hired help, lab tech Grant ‘Beaker’ Deaker, who might be more than a little smitten with his boss; and Matiu’s troubled, mysterious birth mother, Mārama—are genuinely interesting and well-realised characters in their own right, who presumably will reappear in subsequent instalments in the series.


Book review: The Devil You Know, by K J Parker

20 03 2018

K J Parker is the alternate pen name of the prolific, possibly-pseudonymous British novelist Tom Holt. While Holt’s output (under that name) is largely humorous, Parker’s is rooted in fantasy (and has twice won the World Fantasy Award, on both occasions in the novella category). I’ve previously reviewed Parker’s The Last Witness here.


As befits its title, The Devil You Know centres on the idea of a contract with the devil. From the start, it evoked echoes of John Wyndham’s short story ‘A Long Spoon’, which has a vaguely similar premise, and which formed my introduction, many years ago, to this flavour of story.

Saloninus is the great philosopher-scoundrel of his age; quite possibly of any age. But he’s getting uncomfortably close to death’s door, and feels his life’s work to be sorely incomplete. So, having proven with impeccably logical arguments that all of this ‘afterlife’ and ‘religion’ nonsense is an utter fiction, he decides that perhaps his only hope lies in an appeal to a higher power; or, as the case may be, to a lower power. In short, he’s ready to sign over his soul to the devil, in exchange for twenty additional years in prime health.

The demon who’s assigned to broker the contract is good at his job: one of the best of the demonic workers at humanity’s coalface. Initially, this transaction doesn’t appear to be any more complicated—arguably, in fact, less demanding—than any of the thousands of earlier demonic contracts with which he’s been involved. And, indeed, he almost admires Saloninus, who seems remarkably sanguine (for a human). But he quickly learns that the aging philosopher is both more astute and more cynical than he has appeared, at which point the demon (who’s never named, as such, during the course of the novella) begins to suspect that, in completing his negotiation of the contract with Saloninus, he has fallen into some kind of trap of the human’s devising.

If it’s a trap, though, it’s slow to spring. The demon—who for the twenty contracted years is obliged to act as a sort of infernal gentleman’s gentleman, attending to Saloninus’s every whim, and who can additionally step out of time when required—has plenty of time to attempt to outsmart and outmanoeuvre the wily philosopher. And anyway, it can’t be a trap, because the contract’s watertight. Isn’t it?

This is a rather cerebral, cynical, slowly-unfolding novella, in which we see things (in first-person perspective) alternately from the viewpoint of Saloninus and from his demonic charge. There are, as is appropriate for the subject matter, plenty of barbed observations and snippets of wordplay, and the interplay between the two protagonists, as they try to out-Machiavelli each other, is fascinating. It’s not, though, particularly engaging, perhaps because neither of the main characters is exactly appealing. But if problem-solving fiction is something you’re drawn to, I can recommend it.

Book review: The Killer’s Art, by Mari Jungstedt

19 03 2018

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist and crime fiction author, best known for her series of Gotland-based police procedurals featuring Inspector Anton Knutas (with most titles in the series available in English translation). I’ve previously reviewed the first three books in the series.


(Before the review proper, I should just reassure readers that the book’s title is not spoilerish: there is no character called Art in this volume.)

The Killer’s Art (Den döende dandyn, 2006, translated by Tiina Nunnally) opens with the early-morning discovery of a naked corpse, which has been hanged from a tall medieval gate in the city walls of Visby. It’s quickly established that (a) the deceased is Egon Wallin, well-known (and apparently universally liked) local art dealer and gallery owner, and (b) Wallin didn’t hang himself. So who did? Inspector Knutas and his team commence an investigation in which no motive suggests itself as plausible, though as they dig deeper into Wallin’s personal and professional lives, several secrets and deceptions are revealed …

As always in Jungstedt’s work, the worldbuilding is very good, with the setting of Gotland ably described alongside the blend of genuine and invented art history that backdrops the novel. The characterisation, also, is effective: one of the strengths of the series is its nuanced depiction of the developing professional relationship between Knutas and his longtime colleague Karin Jacobsson, as well as the rather fraught personal relationship between recurring characters Emma Wingarve and TV reporter Johan Berg. (My sole grievance with regard to characterisation is in the portrayal of regular supporting character Inspector Martin Kihlgård, who’s described as being so food-obsessed that he’s eating something in every scene he appears in: while I appreciate that caricaturish ‘tells’ can provide a shorthand for depicting a less-complex character, it nonetheless seems somewhat cheap and unconvincing in an otherwise well-constructed story.) I think, though, that the danger of a series like this—which now, as I understand it, runs to eleven books—is that ultimately it can strain credulity that an island (a large one, admittedly) with a population of slightly less than sixty thousand can play host to such a sequence of complicated and rather outlandish violent crime sprees. While each book is impressive in isolation—Jungstedt’s writing may not quite have the visceral clarity of, say, Åsa Larsson’s, nor the psychological brutality of Karin Alvtegen’s, but she writes well and excels at the depiction of complicated interpersonal relationships—I do find myself wondering if, perhaps, the whole isn’t somewhat less than the sum of its parts. But at this stage there are another seven books to go before I reach that point, so it’s maybe premature to speculate just yet.

‘Wide Brown Land’ print proof sighted …

18 03 2018

Oh, look! The printed proofs of my Titan-themed short story collection Wide Brown Land have now turned up:


I’m biased, of course, but I’m really pleased with how Shauna O’Meara’s cover art has come out. I also like how well the cover meshes with Lewis Morley’s (Ditmar-shortlisted) artwork on its smaller cousin, last year’s novella release Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body:


(That’s an artificial backdrop, though with heat, high wind, dust and distant bushfire smoke, the Canberra skies seem to be unusually titanian this afternoon, so perhaps I hardly needed the backdrop.)

I should be able to provide links for purchase, etc., a bit closer to the release date of 2nd April, so, in the time-honoured tradition of self-promoting as much as I think I can get away with, there’ll be another update or two between now and then.

Book review: Titan Unveiled, by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton

14 03 2018

Ralph Lorenz is a British-born planetary scientist now working in the USA, with active involvement in several interplanetary missions including the Cassini / Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons. Jacqueline Mitton is a science writer and science consultant who has written or co-written numerous nonfiction books for both adults and children, often with an astronomical focus. Titan Unveiled (2008) is the second of their jointly-authored books on Titan and the Cassini / Huygens mission; the earlier work, Lifting Titan’s Veil (2002) was written (and published) before the mission’s arrival at Saturn.


It’s the nature of newly-uncovered fields of study, or those to which useful access has only recently been acquired, that any book on such a subject will already be at least slightly obsolete by the time of its publication, and Titan Unveiled (Saturn’s Mysterious Moon Explored), published a decade ago now, is certainly not immune to this failing. (Nor, indeed, does it claim to be, with the text having been completed in 2006, approximately midway through the mission’s planned four-year duration and before the contemplation of much of the additional flybys and observations that would be made in the nine extra years the mission’s controllers were able to wring out of Cassini before its demise, last year, in Saturn’s cold and crushing embrace.) The most obvious now-more-well-characterised grey areas within the book are in the maps of Titan, which are still not what one would call ‘high resolution’ but feature many more well-resolved tracts than was the case a decade ago, notable especially in the book’s decidedly sketchy reference to the numerous large lakes and seas (of some blend of methane and ethane) that dominate Titan’s north polar region: these reservoirs, substantially the largest known bodies of surface liquid on Titan, were tentatively discovered only as the book was going to press.

So, one shouldn’t expect Titan Unveiled to be the final word on Titan. But with that proviso, it’s an entertaining and carefully informative work which focusses as much on the task of getting an elephant-sized spacecraft (and the howdah-sized probe to be jettisoned from it) to a large planet a billion miles away, and then have its movements so tightly choreographed as to know exactly where it is at every point in the next several years, as it does on the planetary knowledge gained from Titan and the other moons in Saturn’s retinue. There are useful and intriguing examples of on-the-fly problemsolving—a large and complicated mission of this type never goes entirely to plan—and numerous personal anecdotes giving a scientist’s-eye view of the planning and execution of a mission of this type. This vicarious immersion into the world of observational space science is one of the book’s strengths.

If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that the figures and illustrations come across less well than the text. This is partly a matter of production values—the uncoated paper used for the bulk of the book displays black-and-white diagrams well enough, but greyscale photographs reproduced on the page (and often, intrinsically, not of particularly high contrast to begin with) have a tendency to appear murky and indistinct—and partly of captioning, with the eight-page colour insert (displaying several of the B&W images of the main text in admirably clear colour) completely uncaptioned, and therefore requiring the reader to recollect whereabouts in the book to refer for the analogous (captioned) B&W figure.

Images aside, it’s an interesting document. Lorenz and Mitton communicate often-complex scientific concepts with clarity, and with sufficient explanation and background to ensure that a scientifically-literate generalist reader is not left behind in the complexity. (A good memory for acronyms is an advantage, with devices such as HASI, DISR and VIMS repeatedly referenced; if you’re allergic to acronyms, then spaceflight probably isn’t for you.) It’s an effective and detailed introduction—though necessarily incomplete, as noted—to Titan’s still-somewhat-mysterious terrain, structure, and composition.

Book review: Polaris, by Jack McDevitt

12 03 2018

Clearly, I’m on a bit of a McDevitt reading jag at the moment, with this the third of his titles I’ve reviewed in the past week …


Polaris is the second in McDevitt’s long-running ‘Alex Benedict’ series (which I always think of as the ‘Chase Kolpath’ series since she’s really the central—and more interesting—character), but because of reading haphazardousness it’s the last one I’ve got to. None of which matters greatly, because the Benedict & Kolpath books are each largely self-contained. As with the others in the series, Polaris is a locked-room mystery / SF piece, doggedly investigated by Alex and Chase. The mystery here concerns the inexplicable disappearance, sixty years earlier, of six VIPs and a seasoned pilot—i.e., the entire complement of passengers and crew—from the vessel Polaris, shortly after completion of a sightseeing jaunt at the scene of a stellar catastrophe. The vessel is recovered, intact, complete with functional lander and all its suits, but no personnel. Alex decides there has to be a rational explanation for this latter-day Mary Celeste, and he and Chase set out to unearth it. But it seems as though others do not wish the puzzle to be solved … and are willing to kill to preserve the Polaris‘s secret.

This is a dependably intriguing series, with high-stakes problem-solving and impressively big-picture SF worldbuilding. McDevitt’s sense of plotting and pacing is exceptional, the characterisation is solid and the SF content is robust. The one element of his fiction that may rub readers wrong is its distinctly ‘whitebread’ feel: McDevitt’s seems a somewhat parochial future with not a lot of population diversity. In this respect, and in others, the books often feel like a callback to Golden Age SF, and Polaris is no exception. If you’re looking for something cutting-edge, confronting, or challenging, Polaris probably won’t satisfy; but nobody else I’ve read does space-based SF/mystery quite as well as this.

Book review: The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard

10 03 2018

Aliette de Bodard is an American-born French science fiction and fantasy writer, of Vietnamese heritage, writing in English. Her work, which is variously informed by Aztec, Asian, and European cultural backgrounds, has won several awards including the Nebula, Locus, and BSFA awards. I’ve previously reviewed her novella On A Red Station, Drifting here.


The Tea Master and the Detective, another novella, is set in the same ‘Xuya’ universe (I think) as On A Red Station, Drifting, a spacefaring future dominated by Vietnamese heritage and mores. It concerns the hiring of troubled and impecunious shipmind The Shadow’s Child by the brusque and markedly arrogant consulting detective Long Chau, who wishes to acquire a corpse from the ‘deep spaces’ by which the shipmind is haunted following a horrific incident of years past. Long Chau’s interest in the corpse is ostensibly as a subject of research—she claims she wishes to understand the effect of deep spaces on human remains—but it transpires that the detective’s motives may be particular, rather than general. Affronted, traumatised by the necessity of revisiting deep spaces, but dependent on the detective’s coin, The Shadow’s Child does some digging of her own: since Long Chau apparently knows every shameful secret of the shipmind’s past, it seems unfair that the shipmind should know nothing of the detective’s. The relationship between them develops as something of, it seems, mutual mistrust and interdependence. The ship needs money; the detective needs transport and a steady supply of specialised, mind-altering infusions, a commodity which The Shadow’s Child has some skill in concocting. The mystery of the retrieved corpse’s demise emerges slowly, alongside the deeper mystery of Long Chau’s scandalous past, to culminate in a sequence that’s quietly satisfying and strongly resonant, and leaves the reader with the hope that we might encounter these characters again, in circumstances similarly challenging.