A book review: Pisces of Fate, by Paul Mannering

7 06 2016

Pisces of Fate, by New Zealand author Paul Mannering and published by Marie Hodgkinson’s Paper Road Press, is the second in the series begun with Engines of Empathy, which I reviewed some time ago. Engines is a sublimely off-centre quest novel detailing the efforts of Charlotte Pudding, computer psychologist, towards acquiring a magical substance—patchouli oil—with which to activate a mysterious artefact—a living-oak desk. Pisces pays lip service to Charlotte, and includes cameos from her charmingly irritating offsider Vole Drakeforth, but it revolves around Charlotte’s younger brother Ascott, who, on learning of his parents’ death in an accident, fled from his studies to the tropical Aardvark Archipelago where he has been devoting his time to a thorough but probably totally unnecessary study of the archipelago’s often-bizarre marine life. Ascott’s idyllic island-based existence, shared with his opinionated, vocal parrot Tacus and the laconically practical Shoal Smith, becomes threatened when a group of treasure-seekers, led by the suave and ruthless Kalim Aari, identify him as a principal obstacle in their search for the ill-gotten gains of the long-dead Captain Aargh.


Pisces shares with its predecessor an enviable line in whimsicality and comic timing, with some wonderfully deft turns of phrase. It’s a thoroughly readable story, and builds well to an appropriate conclusion. I’m not sure that it quite matches Engines in inventiveness or curliness—there’s a more straightforward storyline this time around, and with much of the worldbuilding already established in the first book, it feels as though there’s less room to move in this one—and to my mind Ascott and Shoal are a less didatically charming pairing than were Charlotte and Vole. In this sense, the book is to some degree captive to ‘The Two Towers syndrome’, where there’s less of a resolution than of a setting-up for the eventual denouement in the final volume. Nonetheless, there’s still a lot to like about Pisces, with some very amusing set-pieces and a lot of fun with the renaming of familiar objects.

It’s presumably a triumph of gravitas over accuracy that has led Mannering to dub this series not ‘the Pudding trilogy’ but rather ‘the Drakeforth trilogy’. Whatever it’s called, I’ll be looking forward to the final volume, to see how the pieces fit together.


A book review: Engines of Empathy, by Paul Mannering

25 10 2015

Engines_of_Empathy(review first published in ASIM 61, 2015)

The first thing that you should know about this book, by NZ writer Paul Mannering, is that it is a quest story; and quest stories are obviously ten-a-penny, and at that probably overvalued. But the second thing you should know about this book is that its heroine is one Charlotte Pudding, a well-meaning single professional woman with an unparalleled knack for soothing the psyches of troubled domestic appliances, and that the quest at its centre concerns her endeavours to obtain a small bottle of patchouli oil for the antique living-oak desk which has been in her family for generations, at which point it should hopefully become somewhat apparent that Engines of Empathy is not exactly your regular quest novel.

Charlotte’s sidekick in her search for essence-of-patchouli (although he would insist that she is the sidekick) is the delightfully gauche, charmingly blunt Vole Drakeforth, who claims to be a direct descendant of one of the pioneers behind the development, a century or more ago, of Empathic Energy-based devices. Assisting Charlotte and Drakeforth in their efforts are an unusual religious order, the Arthurians (not, I hasten to add, the Lady-of-the-Lake lot, but a different mob), while the forces ranged against them include various representatives of the all-powerful Godden Energy megaconglomerate and a pair of particularly sarcastic furniture removalists.

Engines is quite wonderfully mad, a turbocharged alt-SF comic masterpiece that at once invites and yet more subtly resists comparison with the works of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or Robert Sheckley. Neatly, it carves out its own space; it is its own creation; it is most assuredly a great deal of fun to read and yet sensibly takes itself seriously the while. Pudding and Drakeforth provide excellent foils for one another, almost incessantly bickering between times of crisis, yet cooperating admirably (if, on occasion, begrudgingly) when the situation demands it; and the emotional freight of Charlotte’s personal situation (an inoperable and apparently terminal condition) is handled well.

Does Charlotte succeed in getting the patchouli oil? That’d be a spoiler … but I’d suggest it’s well worth your time checking out the book to find out.

I’ve also learnt that the next book in the sequence, Pisces of Fate, is due out this year from Paper Road Press.

In other matters arising

7 04 2015

Life goes on, even in the midst of a Hugo nominations maelstrom, and here in the Antipodes, the synchronised Australian and NZ natcons — neither of which I was able to attend — have seen the parcelling out of Ditmar, Sir Julius Vogel, and other awards, under considerably less contentious circumstances than have attended the Hugo noms.  The Ditmar summary can be seen here, and the SJVs here. (Yes, I know the ‘Ditmar’ link isn’t to an official results page, but it’s a source I trust, in the apparent absence of the official page at this time.)

Hearty congratulations to all the winners — I’m especially pleased to see, on the NZ side, SJVs go to Paul Mannering for his marvellously daffy novel Engines of Empathy (thoroughly recommended), to Lee Murray for her short story ‘Inside Ferndale’, and to A J Fitzwater for her well-deserved Best New Talent award. (A J has a novella — the cover story, in fact, in the upcoming ASIM 61, which has been upcoming for so long that I’m sure it’s starting to seem like the Cathedral of Chalesm. But the issue is, honestly, almost complete …) And there’s a long list of good names on the Ditmar sheet as well, but I’d like to single out the hardworking and multi-talented Donna Maree Hanson who has claimed the A Bertram Chandler award this year.