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.


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.


Book review: Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt

8 03 2018

Jack McDevitt is a Nebula Award winning American science fiction writer whose books I’ve reviewed frequently (most recently Odyssey, just a few days ago). I seldom read two books by the same author in quick succession, but McDevitt’s writing at its best can be so compulsive that it’s sometimes difficult to abstain …


Cauldron is book 6 in McDevitt’s ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series and is, for the moment, the latest word on the interstellar pilot’s adventures. (Book 7, Starhawk, is a Hutch prequel, while book 8, The Long Sunset, launches in a few months’ time.) The series is rather more uneven in quality than McDevitt’s other main novel sequence (the Alex Benedict / Chase Kolpath books): while The Engines of God, Deepsix, and Chindi in particular are excellent works of widescreen sense-of-wonder SF adventure, Omega and Odyssey are more patchy and, in places at least, are significantly disappointing. (McDevitt has a tendency to reach for the exotic and the mysterious, but not always to deliver.) Consequently, I approached Cauldron with some trepidation … and came away, for the most part, impressed. The book, which overall deals with the preparation for a thirty thousand light-year mission by Hutch and colleagues, is bookended by two excruciatingly-tense deep-space encounters, the first of which is one of McDevitt’s finest ever running-out-of-time-here sequences, as researchers scramble to plunder a staggeringly old space colony in the last minutes before its obliteration by an approaching Omega Cloud, and the second of which introduces an intriguingly alien (and ominous) intelligence. Much of the space between these set-pieces is taken up with the efforts, by physics wunderkind Jon Silvestri and his backers in the Prometheus Foundation, to develop a starship drive so much faster than the existing hyperdrive technology that the vaunted mission to the Galactic core region (to seek out the Omega Clouds’ birthplace) becomes feasible, at a time when humanity has virtually stopped reaching for the stars: too expensive, no startling discoveries. The R&D tribulations are handled well, the mission itinerary less so. The new drive technology has the limitation that ships cannot stay transdimensional indefinitely, they must emerge into ‘normal space’ every seven thousand light years or so, which means the Galactic core mission requires three respites while the drives are recharged. (To this reader, the 7000 LY barrier imposed on the drives felt like a ‘limit of convenience’, allowing McDevitt to intercalate a few picaresque episodes which really do not add significantly to the story.) Target stellar regions are identified, the crew spend an increasingly cabin-feverish month in the blankness of transdimensional space while a mindbogglingly large distance is traversed, stellar systems are explored. My quibble is that McDevitt shows a disappointing tendency to make his technologically-advanced alien races far too humanoid, far too easily comprehensible, and this again shows itself Cauldron‘s ‘stopover’ sequences. The second of them works well enough, the third is largely glossed over in the race to the climactic confrontation, but the first ‘stopover’ episode is distinctly disappointing, with an unimaginative alien race that, appearances aside, could easily pass as suburban American. McDevitt’s vistas can be breathtaking, and that’s shown to as good effect in Cauldron as in any of his other work, but his alien-race-characterisation palette is at times disappointly drab, and this tendency mars a chunk of Cauldron. Not the whole book—there’s too much invention and tension elsewhere for a couple of weak chapters to deliver a truly crippling blow—but the story does lose its mojo for awhile. Happily, though, it gets it back.

For the most part, Cauldron is hot stuff.


Book review: My First Murder, by Leena Lehtolainen

6 03 2018

Leena Lehtolainen is a prolific Finnish writer who is most well known for her ‘Maria Kallio’ series of police procedurals which now stands at thirteen volumes, the first eight of which have been released in English translation. Her work has won Finnish crimewriting awards and has also been shortlisted for the Glass Key award.


My First Murder (Ensimmäinen murhani, 1993, translated by Owen F Witesman) is the first book in the Maria Kallio series, and sets Maria as the principal investigating officer on the murder of Tommi Peltonen, a singer in an amateur choir and a bit of a playboy. Peltonen, felled by a blunt-force blow to the head on the jetty at the site of the choir’s weekend retreat, is known to Maria from her student years (as indeed are several members of the choir who remain the prime suspects for the killing); but despite this conflict of interest, she’s kept on the case because of staff shortages and a hopelessly alcoholic supervisor, and must muddle through while trying to keep separate her police persona from her private life.

The crime at the book’s core is well-framed, the investigation is both logical and beset by an interesting enough array of setbacks, the characterisation is effective, and the embedded social commentary and reflections on gender politics (Maria is painfully aware of her ‘figurehead’ status within the predominantly-male police force) are genuinely of interest … and yet the prose often struggles to come to life. It’s technically sound, but lacks the assurance and the solid pacing of the later works in the series. Lehtolainen is clearly an important author in the annals of Finnish crime fiction, but this debut is less rewarding than its successors.


Book review: Odyssey, by Jack McDevitt

4 03 2018

Jack McDevitt is an American SF writer best known for his ‘Alex Benedict’ and ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series of novels which, with their typically sweeping cosmic vistas and intriguingly plotted storylines, fit somewhere in the space once occupied by golden age SF, in the gulf between space opera and hard SF. McDevitt has won one Nebula Award out of (at last count) sixteen nominations; he’s also won a couple of other major awards. I’ve reviewed several of his books.


Odyssey is the fifth in the ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series, and though the now-deskbound Hutch might reasonably be expected to be the principal character here, she doesn’t get as much airtime in Odyssey as McDevitt’s aphorism-spouting literary curmudgen Gregory (‘Mac’) MacAllister (who first appeared, I think, in Deepsix, book two in the series) and space pilot Valentina (‘Valya’) Kouros. The book opens with the search for the starship Patrick Heffernan, lost somewhere around the middle of a two-hundred-light-year jump through hyperspace and thought therefore to be either adrift in normal space somewhere beyond radio contact or, worse, stuck haplessly in hyperspace. Once the Heffernan search has been stood down, the book’s focus is the mission—led by Valya and crewed by Mac, milquetoast PR flack Eric Samuels and Amy Taylor, the spaceflight-obsessed teenage daughter of a senator hostile to spaceflight—to place monitoring beacons around planets and satellites known to have been sites of visitation by ‘moonriders’, technologically-advanced spacecraft of non-terrestrial origin whose provenance and intentions are unknown. It turns out these moonriders might well have hostile intent …

McDevitt’s novels are extraordinarily compulsive. Even when, as here, he’s not in absolutely top form (there are a few elements of Odyssey I’d describe as slightly hinky, and Mac and Valya just are not in Hutch’s league as protagonists), the story still manages to be both gripping and spellbinding, largely as a function of the careful plotting and expert pacing. The characterisation is effective enough, though somewhat parochial (McDevitt’s is a very American future), the technology is reasonably standard from a SF standpoint (though I was impressed with the description of the gravitic drive units used around a ‘clean’ interstellar research site), and the book even manages to make budgetary pressures and political posturing of some interest, which is not easily achieved in SF. But it’s the use to which these elements are put which snares the reader’s attention. In certain respects, the novel never truly takes off (in the way that, say, Engines of God, Slow Lightning, Firebird and Seeker all do), and yet it still manages to be sufficiently fascinating as to insist that the reader turn just one more page, and another, and …