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I’m a fan of all different flavours of science fiction and fantasy but there is something to be said for plausibility that truly gives a novel weight. Worldbuilding that recognises an internal logic is a praiseworthy quality and, though there might be aliens and space travel and all things fantastic, plausible actions and actors can often take a book from being good to being great. Netherspace by Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster does exactly that.

A ensemble cast of characters set in a future where multiple alien species have made contact with Earth and traded unimaginably sophisticated technology, Netherspace never relinquishes the very human characteristics that gives this book its depth. The two main protagonists, ex-army sniper and current assassin Kara and celebrated, rebellious artist Marc, make an interesting duo as they are coerced into a mission of epic proportions. Their bond, produced through a kind of mind-share technology, allows each to understand the other intricately and work together in unison; an important ability when dealing with aliens with whom communication is basically impossible.

Trade has occurred and humans have been gifted the means to travel huge distances across the universe by using Netherspace. It’s a way of slipping through realspace but it comes at a cost – the aliens demand a human life for every Netherspace drive. Kara and Marc, though ostensibly sent out to rescue a kidnapped group of colonists, are there to find out why. Why a human life for a drive? Where does the technology really derive from? And, most importantly, what is happening in Netherspace?

The story is set between the two groups, the colonists and the rescue team, led by Marc, Kara and pre-cog psychic Tse. Both groups must struggle to understand the aliens and Netherspace whilst simultaneously trying not to impose human ideas, emotions and motivations upon them. It’s a concept reiterated throughout the book: an alien is completely unknowable and there is no common ground upon which to base communications. Bizarre and frustrating, each group must still find their way towards comprehending the situation.

Separated by time and space, as the two groups near each other, I suddenly realised there was a tension growing in the plot that I hadn’t truly recognised. It grows into a mystery that has far reaching implications and, as the start of a new series, sets up some very interesting problems for the next book to resolve. Netherspace is a complex and considered book which has, at its core, a believable logic, sensible and real actors, and a mystery that will leave you waiting for the sequel.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

The authors of Netherspace will post a guest blog on the 26th May all about space travel, so be sure to check it out.

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Future Space Travel

Let’s assume that we’re using a drive that doesn’t rely on controlled explosions. Make the control mechanisms as complex and high tech as you like, but you still only get forward momentum by making something go bang. So what does that leave us? Space sails? Nice idea – and originally a science fiction one (sigh) – but impractical. Space isn’t empty, a cloud of dust could wreak havoc and the sail would have to be so large it could take days to reach the damage. The sail enthusiasts have said repair-robots. When there’s a technical problem, someone always says robots. When there’s sexy but unsound idea – like a space sail – the human reaction is to add more and more tech to try and make it work. Humanity is programmed never to admit mistakes.
​NASA’s said to be working on two drives: “Alcubierre”, that distorts space; and the “EM”, that provides a better, stronger form of propulsion by using microwaves reflecting back and forth to (somehow) produce an asymmetric forward impulse. Which is good because the idea that humanity will be confined to the Solar System forever is just so wrong it hurts. Surely the universe couldn’t be so cruel? But this does open up a major problem: where do we build whatever craft will take us to the stars? Or even to the outer planets? Do we set up a vast manufacturing facility on the moon? Or conveniently discover anti-gravity (after figuring out what gravity actually is, as opposed to what it does) so we can build on Earth then float the craft into space?

​Actually we do neither. Nor do we set up a Navy Yard (sorry, Star Trek) in Earth orbit (or, as implausibly in J.J.Abrams’s reboot, somewhere in Kansas – how did they get the Enterprise up into space from there? And why?) Aside from the technical problems – did someone say ‘robots’? – mining and transporting the necessary raw materials requires machines and space craft so huge that building them would take years and consume most of our natural resources.

​The solution is hinted at in Netherspace. It’s not totally original, the late and wonderful Iain M. Banks began the idea, but we tarted it up some.

​Turn asteroids into spacecraft.
​Hollow them out, fix up living quarters, add a space drive – the Alcubierre space warp or NASA’s EMdrive – and away you go, protected from radiation and collisions by several hundred feet of rock. Because spacecraft do not need to be streamlined. They do not have to look pretty. All they have to do is take humans safely from point a to b (and we are reminded of the old cartoon in which a middle-aged businessman is talking to a car salesman, saying: “I want something that will get me from a. to c. without b. knowing.”) Okay, you may have to smooth them out to get a sensible centre of gravity. Spin them to increase that gravity. Still far, far easier than trying to build a cruise liner in space. And there are hundreds of thousands of them, all shapes and sizes, parked up in orbit and not that far from this very planet. Bit like a used car lot, really.

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The wonderful people at Titan Books have kindly including the BookBeard in a blog tour from the authors of Netherspace. So, expect a review (I’ve just finished the book today) shortly and an awesome guest blog post from authors Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster.

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Ubo is an unsettling book; from its impressive yet disturbing cover art to its complex and relentless exploration of humanity’s capacity for violence. Though there is some quite visceral horror throughout, it is that sense of disturbance, pervading the entire text and constantly scratching away in the background, that powers the story and captures the imagination.

Daniel doesn’t know where he is nor why he is being subjected to the terrifying mind experiments he is forced to experience. The only thing he has in common with the other prisoners is a shared nightmare, or hallucination, of being abducted by a large cockroach like creature, borne away from his life to a ruined, crumbling world. The discombobulating nature of the protagonist’s situation mirrors the reader’s own perturbed understanding of the story. Like Daniel, we are trying to work out what these experiments mean and why he and the other captives have been chosen. Yet, we are also tasked with understanding the place Daniel has found himself in, the giant insects guarding him and the worrying decay surrounding everything.

It’s a dark and terrifying world where Daniel is used daily as a vessel of consciousness to experience some of the most depraved and psychotic people in history. Via some strange technology, Daniel rides inside the minds of these killers and dictators, sharing and almost becoming them as they carry out awful acts. The horror of witnessing Jack the Ripper’s murders, for example, is compounded by being caught up in the mind of the madman. The unhinged hunger for violence, the crazed, incomprehensible desires are relentlessly disturbing. Yet, what is more unsettling? The narratives of these criminals or the mental violence perpetuated against Daniel and his fellows as they are forced to be conduits for understanding hatred and aggression on such an unprecedented, unfiltered scale?

Amongst these dual mysteries, the plot unfolds in ever more bizarre and scary ways. As ever in my reviews, I don’t like to give too much away or spoil the impact of the book. Suffice it to say that, with the theme of violence at its heart, it isn’t surprising that the world Daniel finds himself in is as equally unbalanced as the experiments. As a meditation on aggression, brutality and psychotic hatred, Ubo is a savage, relentless look into how violence pervades human history, even (or especially) when those perpetuating it are doing it for the greater good. Steve Rasnic Tem has created a sci-fi horror of impressive proportions with an ending that is horrific, uplifting, apocalyptic and optimistic, all in equal measure. A brutal book that is impossible to put down.

Review copy
Published by Solaris Books

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Adrian Tchaikovsky describes this collection as one focusing on the peace between conflicts in his larger stories. If this is what his world is like when it’s not at war, then it’s a very frightening place. Fallen Heroes epitomises that idea; a tale of a minor skirmish between competing gangsters, or ‘Fiefs’ as they are called, over some territory and the tenement housing within.

A young fly-kinden, tired of how everyone around him has capitulated to a higher power, and enamoured by the idea of heroic, free-spirited warriors, sets out to find a champion to help protect his home. However, he finds both more and less than he bargained for. It’s a classic, gritty idea as romantic notions are dashed by hard realities; personal ‘heroes’ are knocked from their pedestal and unlikely protectors are more fearsome and cold blooded than they are valiant. Tough truths and a fantastically brutal western-esque feel gives Fallen Heroes real weight for such a short story.

There’s little let up in the grit department in The Price of Salt where, just like Fallen Heroes, the reader is introduced to the history of certain characters from the novels. After capturing, killing and decapitating a man with a decent bounty on his head, four mercenary rogues find themselves caught up in some bad business, far away from where and what they know. The head, cleverly pickled in salt, has been spirited away by a young lady, much to the chargrin of the nominal leader of this grim group. It’s all a ruse, however.

She doesn’t want the head; she wants their prowess as warriors and killers. Once again, this is a great example of how the author has taken the idea of insect-kinden and used it for a properly innovative basis of a story. As their numbers swell out on the desolate steepes, the Grasshopper-kinden become susceptible to the Grand Moon; an event as inexplicable as it is unpredictable. As the moon rises, those with the Art turn away from their normal, calm and peaceful behaviour into a wild, violent Locust mob.

What ensues is a fight for survival as the four mercenaries are trapped by the mad, mindless, Moon struck kinden. It’s as brutal and fantastic as it sounds.

Back in Helleron, the same city where Fallen Heroes takes place, the story of just how far a lost, alcoholic, Wasp can fall unfolds. The city, teeming with factories and tenements, rich and poor, dives and fine establishments, is a machine that grinds everyone down. It’s a realisation that Varmen is trying to drown in drink. A former elite warrior for the Empire, Varmen is now a penniless drunk; no less dangerous nor violent but near impossible to employ. His pride remains, driving him deeper into debt as he cannot find it in himself to lower his expectations.

In the end, he has no choice. Debt forces him toward avenues he wishes to avoid but fate, and a drug addled roommate, conspire otherwise. The Last Ironclad is a redemption story of sorts for though Varmen has fallen as low as is possible, he finds that thing within him to escape. Rather than be mere grist to the wheel, the Wasp fights and, though he is an obsolete soldier in the eyes of the Empire, that which made him an elite warrior remains.

This collection has really impressed upon me just how good the Shadow of the Apt novels must be. Even though I’m not familiar with the lore, these stories are exciting reads, offering windows into an intriguing world of fantasy.

Review copy
Published by NewCon Press

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I haven’t read any of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Shadows of the Apt and, now, I’m really kicking myself for not exploring the series earlier. The premise behind the worldbuilding is fantastic as clans of different ‘insect-kinden’ clash in a complex, politically fraught realm. In this collection of short stories, the author explores ideas outside of warfare – no less dangerous and no less intriguing for it.

As the opening gambit in this collection, Loyalties is a brilliant slice of backstory and character development. The protagonist of the tale, Balkus, might be more of a side player in the bigger novels but, here, we are given an intriguing look into just who he is. A set piece that shows the complexity of the world Tchaikovsky has built, the gritty, hardened mercenary and the naive, in-training, young heiress combination is turned on its head when Balkus realises he’s been played on a number of fronts. Though I’ve not read Shadow of the Apt there’s enough here to truly grip a reader’s interest (and encourage them to read more of Tchaikovsky’s work). The writing is exemplary and the world is so clearly and cleverly defined it’s easy to find a way in and enjoy the story. There’s an added bonus as the author includes a little post-script for each story, explaining its origins, which I found most compelling.

In Bones more of the world and setting is laid out by exploring something of its past development. Tchaikovsky gives insights into the ideas of the Art that humans use and how it manifests in unison with different types of insect-kinden. Seeing how each clan and its association to types, such as spider or fly, operates in the world is fascinating, especially as a first time reader to his work. At the heart of this story lies dark politics and a hierarchy determined to maintain control whether that be physically or intellectually. There’s a darkness bound to hiding knowledge and keeping it secreted for the “greater good” and in Bones we get to see first-hand those who wish to perpetrate such benevolent policing upon a world.

Whilst I am new to The Shadows of the Apt realm, these windows into that world have definitely caught my imagination. Tchaikovsky is, obviously, a great writer and I really enjoy reading short stories by authors who have created such complete fantasies as the depth and quality of the work really comes through in spades. More from this volume to come.

Review copy
Published by NewCon Press

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Ren Warom’s Escapology is an amazing stylistic amalgamation of cyberpunk and anime, told at breakneck speed. As debut novels go, this is a extremely polished, hugely inventive and seriously intense rollercoaster ride for the imagination. Starting off at full throttle, there’s a lot going on in Escapology including an intriguing plot, stunning worldbuilding and a cast of complex, individual characters.

In a future where most of humanity resides in orbiting hubs above the Earth, where the ocean has overrun the land and where humanity coexists in real life and in the ‘slip’, a virtuality just as important as reality, the Gung is of central importance to the planet. It’s populated by a mix of shady underworld gangsters and Fails, and the rich and those termed Pass, useful members of society with a clean psychological evaluation. Escapology follows Shock, a Haunt and one of the best at hacking the Slip for information, and Amiga, a Cleaner for one of the more powerful gangsters ruling the Gung.

It’s here that things intersect so brilliantly; the action is all-out anime violence, both physical and virtual whilst the worldbuilding has strong roots in the cyberpunk genre. Shock is a well considered and very complicated character whose history shapes so much of the story. Through him we get to understand what the Slip is and how it runs, what a Haunt is capable of along along with the myriad hustlers, hackers and collectives that work in the virtual ocean of information, but, most importantly, the importance of each person’s avatar. Amiga, on the other hand, offers us a different look at the underworld, the physical one where gangsters and criminals run operations without mercy. Life is cheap and the Gung is a city of mile high skyscrapers, synthetic food, and a scrabbling, desperate population.

So much of Escapology is about power and control and, in the end, it boils down to Shock. The most beaten down, drug addled, cowardly victim imaginable but the toughest, hardiest and almost noble character out there; forced into a mission to break that which contains the Slip his courage and guile are impressive. Both he and Amiga are the downtrodden, each reacting differently to the adversity which respectively shaped them into introverted hacker and unstoppable killer. As their stories intertwine both must open themselves up to those things they’d turned their backs on; power and control, then, is not wielded over others but is about finding the keys to a true self.

Atmospheric writing, brutal action and the stunning imaginative visualisations of a broken world all wrapped up in an innovative and intriguing future history. Escapology has so much to offer as the characters develop under the pressure of the plot. I’ve hardly scratched the surface with this review but, believe me, if you are a fan of cyberpunk or just impressive sci-fi, this is a definite winner.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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I felt the need to scratch that post-apocalypse zombie itch (again) and remembered I had Monster Island sitting on my bookshelves. Unread. Published in 2006, David Wellington was definitely one of those authors at the forefront of the zombie resurgence but I was happily surprised by what I discovered as I read this fantastic novel.

Kicking off by introducing one of the main protagonists, Dekalb, a UN worker caught up by the apocalypse in East Africa, Monster Island continues to make interesting and inventive turns and twists throughout. Under the ‘protection’ of a Somali warlord, Dekalb is offered the opportunity to keep his daughter safe; all he need do is find enough HIV/AIDS medication to keep the warlord alive. Unfortunately, it’s a far from easy task and, along with a squad of teenage girl soldiers, Dekalb is soon expanding his search all the way to New York.

Here, things truly turn. Dekalb meets our main antagonist Gary. A former medical student and self-made undead, Gary realised that zombification was inevitable but, if done on purpose and with some thought, might result in reanimation without total brain damage and, therefore, loss of personality. However, Gary is still a zombie and his hunger, and situation, can’t be overcome. New York is now the battleground as Dekalb and his girl warriors strive to survive and complete their mission against teeming odds.

What I found interesting is that David Wellington uses the zombie genre as a fantasy setting. It allows him to introduce ideas and characters way outside of the accepted apocalypse tropes. Whilst we still have armed survivors making a stand, military assets being deployed and zombie hordes, others join the fray including a long-dead Scottish Druid with magical powers. It’s a heady mix of fantastical undead proportions and makes for a tumultuous landscape against which Dekalb tries to do the right thing whilst trying to get back to his own daughter.

In the end, Monster Island retains its brutality. It is both fantasy and zombie apocalypse and though there are sparks of humour and touches of character introspection, the conclusion is quite terrible in its honesty. Like all good zombie fiction, Monster Island isn’t just about cracking skulls and drinking toilet water to stay alive; it’s about the cost of the choices made in the desperation to survive that reveals so much about humanity.

My copy
Published by Snowbooks Ltd

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Alex Lamb’s debut novel, Roboteer, is a fascinating read; big worldbuilding, big ideas and what feels to be the start of a new voice in space opera/hard science fiction. Set in a far future where Earth has been united under a pseudo-religious, political dictatorship whose aim is to subjugate humanities colonies on other planets and in other star systems, the conflict rests on Earth’s scarcity against the colonies technological superiority. It’s a manufactured war: the colonies are defending themselves whilst Earth promotes bizzare, almost racist ideologies.

Told through the eyes of three different characters, we get to see much of Earth’s political elite as well as the colony homeworld Galatea. Will Kuno-Monet is the eponymous Roboteer, a genetically modified human, designed to control and understand robots and computer systems; Ira Baron-Lecke is a Galatean starship captain who heads up covert missions into enemy territory; Gustav Ulanu is an Earther, a general but a scientist first, and one who has discovered ancient alien technologies. It is with Gustav that the story hinges for his discovery unlocks a set of parameters that will change the whole of humanities fate.

Soon both factions are vying for control of the alien relics but it is Will who makes the first meaningful contact. The revelations he is exposed to change everything he knows about his race, the universe and humanities place within it all. Yet, these aliens (or rather those behind the ruins) are testing humans and the consequences are dire. So begins an epic journey as Will must convince not only his crew mates but also his enemies that the ancient artefacts they have discovered are lures; the survival of humanity rests on how they proceed to use that technology – whether for warfare or for advancement.

It’s a great concept and there are some interesting discussions about what makes us human, what those limits might be where technology and modification is concerned, and how blind, unquestioning ideologies does not constitute knowledge. There’s really little concern that Will and his crew won’t succeed but the journey there is fascinating. Amazing ancient alien ruins, complex political landscapes and intense space warfare abound, along with some unreliable yet semi-altruistic extraterrestrial intelligence. Alex Lamb achieves both good science and good fiction, creating big, believable sci-fi.

A brilliant cast of actors and a superbly crafted set of futuristic ideas makes Roboteer a highly enjoyable read. The worldbuilding and creations the author explores are exceptional and my only caveat was that we didn’t get to look further into the Earth he sketches out nor some of the more interesting concepts behind the colonies. But, as the start of a trilogy, here’s hoping.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

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If you’ve ever read any of Gavin G. Smith’s work before, you’ll understand why his latest offering jumped to the top of the reading pile. First, I’m going to give you the blurb that hooked me and then try to review the book without giving too much away..

1987, THE HEIGHT OF THE COLD WAR. For Captain Vadim Scorlenski and the rest of the 15th Spetsnaz Brigade, being scrambled to unfamiliar territory at no notice, without a brief or proper equipment, is more or less expected; but even by his standards, their mission to one of the United States’ busiest cities stinks…

World War III was over in a matter of hours, and Vadim and most of his squad are dead, but not done. What’s happened to them, and to millions of civilians around the world, goes beyond any war crime; and Vadim and his team – Skull, Mongol, Farm Boy, Princess, Gulag, the Fräulein and New Boy – won’t rest until they’ve seen justice done.

Reading the synopsis reminded me of all those 1980s survivalist/post-apocalyptic pulp novels I read as a kid. I’m not going to lie, it excited me and the opening gambit certainly lived up to expectations. Gavin G. Smith knows his way around the fast paced, ballet of violence that an action novel requires. Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon is wild. Adrenaline fuelled fire fights against gut wrenching odds are packed into a story that manages to remain grounded and considered despite the full-bore craziness of a post-apocalyptic background.

The squad led by the protagonist Vadim are a fantastic cast and the banter and comraderie is brilliantly wrought. The fact that Smith is able to include some moral philosophising amongst the blood bath battles is impressive, adding yet another layer. It’s the best of survivalist pulp fiction added to a strong plot and exceptional writing.

Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon is pure, unapologetic, full-throttle, action packed awesomeness. Beginning to end, the atmospheric ride is an absolute firestorm. There’s so much more to say but I don’t want to spoil anything too much. Safe to say, Vadim and his squad end up as both enemy and protector in a world gone mad. Plus, there’s the all out slaughter of a group of racist, neo-nazi, war re-enactors which is just the icing on a brutal cake of an exceptional book. Obviously, the author had too much fun and I hope, somehow, he revisits this world again.

Review copy
Published by Abaddon Books