Sunday, November 25, 2007

Kirkus Reviews genre review round-up
(December 1st issue)

Here ya go:
In The Courts of Crimson Kings by S. M. Stirling (Tor): * Starred Review * "The splendid alternate universe Stirling invented in The Sky People (2006) has—quite justifiably—metamorphosed into a series. Two hundred million years ago, mysterious aliens dropped by, terraformed Venus and Mars and stocked them with dinosaurs and other Mesozoic life forms from Earth. Two hundred thousand years ago, the Lords of Creation swung by again, this time conveying humans and other mammals to both planets. Now, in the year 2000, Mars's ancient civilization—highly advanced in bioengineering, weak in physical science—is slowly dying, along with its emperor, Sajir sa-Tomond. Apparently without issue, the emperor is secretly preparing to declare his daughter, Teyud za-Zhalt, as his heir. Representing Earth's Western powers, archaeologist Jeremy Wainman has come to Mars to locate and study the lost city Rema-Dza. His companion, intelligence agent Sally Yamashita, knows their real mission is to locate dangerously powerful ancient technology left by the Lords of Creation, one such device already having turned up on Venus, and keep it out of the hands of the Eastbloc competition. Jeremy's guide will be Teyud, an expert and fearless warrior. But neither Teyud nor Sajir yet know that several political factions, among them ambitious Prince Heltaw, have figured out who Teyud really is and will stop at nothing to kill or control her. The pace soon heats up, while the wonders—magnificently wacky Martian biological machines; the planet's antediluvian, fully developed and carefully crafted social system; alien technology so advanced it's magic; the possibility that the aliens themselves are, somehow, still hanging around—never cease. Stirling has hit an unexpectedly rich lode of creative ore, or perhaps finally plumbed a hidden reserve of talent: Either way, after years of happy somewhat-above-mediocrity, it's a wonderful surprise." (Mar.08)

The Wannoshay Cycle by Michael Jasper (Five Stars): "A classic first-contact scenario in the near future ends somewhat inconclusively in this debut novel.After the aliens called the Wannoshay crash-land on Earth, their presence injects tension into a United States and Canada already roiling with social unrest. The Wannoshay's tendency for sudden, random violence, plus the mysterious explosions that occur in their vicinity, don't help to endear them to their human hosts, either. Only a few people—a Chicago priest, a single mother working in a Milwaukee brewery, an unemployed blue-collar worker, a documentary maker addicted to stimulants and a somewhat addled, elderly Native American—choose to get close enough to the aliens to interpret their cryptic utterances and telepathically induced visions, and to help them resolve their troubles both with humans and within themselves. Jasper has a real gift for evoking a mood, and for the most part, manages to make the Wannoshay seem genuinely, creepily alien and inexplicable. But the book lacks complexity and depth in both its plot and characters, whom Jasper (stories: Gunning for the Buddha, 2005) establishes with only the thinnest of pasts. Portions of the book were previously published as short stories, and, unfortunately, it shows. A tale that feels both patched-together and decidedly incomplete." (Jan.22)

Singularity's Ring by Paul Melko (Tor): "After linking together via implants and artificial intelligences to form the Community, 90 percent of the human race dies; whether or not they achieved transcendence is unknown. In this medium-future yearn, the survivors have developed "pods"; not the icky space-invader kind, but small groups of individuals linked mentally and chemically. Apollo Papadopulos—the reason for the name remains unexplained—consists of three females, autistic math and physics whiz Quant, communicator Meda and Moira, their conscience, along with two males, Strom the hulk and dexterous Manuel, whose feet are like hands adapted for work in space; their ultimate mission is to pilot a starship. During wilderness survival training, somebody tries to kill the five (although they don't at first realize this). Later, a singleton, Malcolm Leto, who survived the Community meltdown and intends to revive its projected glories, kidnaps and enslaves Meda, and implants her before the others can rescue her and drive him off. While the pod trains on a space station, a mysterious military duo attempts sabotage; Apollo pulls off a daring rescue, but then must flee to the Ring, a giant orbiting habitat built by the Community and empty since its demise. Thanks to Meda's implant they gain entry, then, still pursued by the military, descend to the ground by space elevator and go looking for answers. However, Leto, building a slave army via the implant technology, still pursues his dreams of transcendence; and only Apollo can stop him. The plot never quite coheres and the lack of sharp edges among the characters muffles the narrative voice. Still, Melko is clearly an up-and-comer, and this is a distinctive debut." (Feb.08)

Viewpoints Critical: Selected Stories by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (Tor): "First story collection from the prolific and versatile author of fantasy and science fiction (Natural Ordermage, 2007, etc.) comprising 19 entries, three previously unpublished. The previously unpublished pieces involve established series: The Saga of Recluce, The Corean Chronicles and The Ghost Books, where tangible ghosts are the occasion of both scientific study and criminal activities. Some of the older science-fiction pieces today read as sober fact: Modesitt's first published story (1973) describes an electronic banking scam; another ponders the impact of sophisticated computer analysis on the legal profession; still another sets forth the impending economic collapse of the United States. Elsewhere, the author recasts aspects of his service in Vietnam as science fiction; presents the troubling implications of mingling war and religion; imagines unexpected consequences in trying to solve the problem of climatic change; foresees the future of gymnastics going way beyond performance-enhancing drugs; offers a wry and incisive comment on what men don't understand about women; pens a sort of precursor to The Spellsong Cycle; and wonders what might happen if advanced AIs controlled huge manufacturing plants. One standout, a ghastly vision of where weaponry might be headed, analyzes the impact of such weapons on those whose task is to deploy them. Admittedly, the short format preempts the intricate, leisurely development of ideas that is Modesitt's trademark, and sometimes exposes the limitations of his technique—narratives and tones often seem one-dimensional and pedestrian. Still, the collection amply demonstrates his probing intelligence and the breathtaking range of his inquiries." (Mar.08)

Monster, 1959 by David Maine (St. Martin's): "Maine (The Book of Samson, 2006, etc.) falls short of his usual high standard in his fourth fictional riff on a well-known tale: in this case, an island monster in love with a buxom blonde. K. is 40 feet tall with antennae, butterfly wings, feathers sprouting from his chest, fur covering his body, reptilian skin on his hands and feet. This nightmare collection of parts probably resulted from nuclear testing conducted in the 1940s, but the natives on K.'s South Pacific island have a creation myth to explain his presence, and once a year they sacrifice a maiden to appease him. The young women all die, but it's not really his fault. Sometimes they fall from his treetop nest; sometimes they're scooped up by a pterodactyl-type beast; sometimes they run away and are killed by the other weird jungle creatures. K. is neither predator nor prey, just a mindless vegetarian roaming around the jungle without much of what we would call consciousness. His life and perhaps his consciousness are altered when a group of adventurers including Billy, Johnny and his wife Betty land on the island. Soon enough, K. is restrained on a ship bound for America, where he will star in Billy's traveling roadshow. Maine's insightful, occasionally brilliant previous novels vivified the psychology and moral agenda of biblical characters such as Adam and Eve (Fallen, 2005) to create portraits marked by depth and originality. But his reinterpretation of King Kong seems oddly redundant: K. has little motivation but instinct, no inner life to reflect on, no outrage or sadness at his captivity. Throughout the novel, historical snapshots of Palestinians fleeing Israelis or dictators seizing control with the help of a familiar superpower seek to undermine the intentional campiness of the monster plot, but the allusions are too broad to achieve the tone of subtle wit and dread the author seems to intend. A generally inspired writer fumbles with this take on monsters and manmade 20th-century mayhem." (Feb.08)

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