Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald – A review

The series that started with ‘Planesrunner’ and continued with ‘Be My Enemy’ continues at a rollicking pace with the third novel ‘Empress of the Sun’. It would not be wise to treat it as a stand alone novel; it hangs upon, and draws on, the events in the previous two books, so leaping in mid series is not advised. That said, going back to read the first two books is hardly a task to be avoided, but an initiation to enjoy.
A young adult novel that brings together alternate universes, steam-punk, lizard queens and a massive feat of space engineering needs a sure hand at the wheel, and thankfully, in Ian McDonald, it gets one. Ian is not afraid to give his characters and ideas time to gel together, making ‘Empress of the Sun’ a satisfyingly chunky read.
The book picks up the twin tales of two teenage boys, Everett Singh and his alter Everett M Singh, an almost identical boy from an alternate Earth. Everett Singh is the son of a physicist who, having discovered how to travel between different universes, has been exiled by those who are threatened by his invention, and want it for themselves. That invention, the Infundibulum, has been downloaded onto Everett’s iPad and launched him (and the crew of the airship ‘Everness’) into the many adventures that are documented in the series. The alter, Everett M, has been engineered and blackmailed to fight against Everett. The boys are physically identical enough that Everett M fits convincingly into Everett’s world, where he spends the duration of the book. He shows himself to be, like his alter, a strong and inventive teenager who survives challenges from several quarters, growing and maturing in the process. The story follows three main characters – the two Everetts, and the ruthless Charlotte Villiers, a power hungry steam-punk villain from another alternate Earth. McDonald handles the multiple viewpoints well, making Villiers’ actions understandable whilst keeping her character an unsympathetic one.
Although the book is populated by a variety of interesting characters, the show is almost stolen by the landscape and setting of the world into which Everett and his friends crash at the start of the book. It is a richly drawn and fantastic world, utterly unlike any of the Earths that we have previously seen in this series, and its evolutionary history has led to a precariously balanced civilisation that is on the edge of extinction. The addition of Everett and his friends from the Everness to the volatile mix brings about a situation that threatens the whole of humanity.
The paths of the two boys take an interesting turn, initially we are presented with the idea that Everett Singh is the hero, and Everett M the villain, but as the story progresses, both boys are changed by their experiences, and we are challenged to reconsider our ideas.
The adventures in the book are brought to a satisfying close, but we know that the main story arc still has a lot of potential, and at the end of the book we get an intriguing taster for the fourth book in the series.
Empress of the Sun is out now, published by Jo Fletcher Books.

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The Other Side of Dawn – review

The final book in John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow’ series gives the young reader that rare and unusual gift – no easy conclusion.
Since we were introduced to Ellie Linton in ‘Tomorrow, when the war begins’, we’ve followed an extraordinary and vivid tale of teenagers at war. The story started six books ago. when Ellie and a group of her friends took themselves off for a few days to explore ‘Hell’, an area of barely accessible Australian wilderness a few hours hard drive from the Linton’s ranch home. When they emerged, they found that their country had been invaded, their families detained, and their homes abandoned. The series is not for the easily shocked; descriptions of animal suffering are treated with a typical farm girl matter of fact attitude.
The story is told in the first person by Ellie, who has been elected as the diarist by the rest of the group. By the end of the first book, she and her friends have already become a nascent guerilla force, determined to be a sharp thorn in the side of their country’s invaders.
The Other Side of Dawn sees the group back in Hell. Less than two years after the beginning of the invasion, they have made links with overseas allies, become the guardians of a group of younger kids, and developed strong bonds between themselves. Well supplied by their foreign allies, they plan a daring attack on the enemy at a crucial point of the war. The aftermath of the attack, however, sees Ellie separated from her friends, and forced to rely on her own mental and physical resources through a series of potentially fatal threats. As she travels through a country made alien by war, she meets new allies and new enemies, and has to make fast judgements to decide who is a friend, and who is not.
As the war comes to a close, and families are reunited, Ellie faces new problems – things are not as she expected them to be, and we leave her as an emotional casualty of war, a teenage girl who has killed and wounded the enemy to protect her friends and to fight for her country. Ellie has to find her place in the new Australia, a very different place to the one she grew up in, and fought to save.
Ellie is a hero for our time, a strong, adaptable teenage girl who keeps her conscience and her humanity through the worst of times, who knows when to lead, and when to stand back and use the strengths of her friends. I would strongly recommend that you introduce her to your teenagers this year.
The Tomorrow series was first published in the 1990s, and has been relaunched by Quercus books with an eye catching new set of covers.

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A review of Impossible Spaces

You can find a review of Impossible Spaces, which mentions ‘Mistfall’, here. 

 

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Impossible Spaces – now out

impossible spaces coverI have a story in the new Hic Dragones anthology, Impossible Spaces. I was thinking about interchangeable places, as a theme for the story – railway stations, bus stations, chain stores, that kind of thing. Then I started to think about natural situations, and it struck me that fog is a great equaliser. In fog, sound is deadened, and the landscape disappears. In the fog, we can be entirely alone. I started to think about a woman, alone in the fog. I started to wonder, what if she wasn’t alone? What if the fog was her companion?

I enjoyed writing Mistfall, it was one of those stories that just fell out, fully formed. It’s got twisted love, and death, and rock’n’roll. What more could you want?

Impossible Spaces is available now, from Hic Dragones.

Copies are also available at the wonderful Ebb and Flo bookshop, Gillibrand St, Chorley, or directly from me. £8.99 or £11.69 by post.

 

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A Night of Strange and Dark Fictions

Hic Dragones presents… A Night of Strange and Dark Fictions
as part of Prestwich Book Festival

Monday 27th May, 7.30pm, Prestwich British Legion (near Heaton Park tram station)

Tickets £6 (+ booking fee) in advance from the festival’s ventbrite shop.
http://strangeanddark.eventbrite.co.uk/

Featuring a short reading from one of my latest short stories.

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New story coming soon.

I’ve had a story accepted for the next Hic Dragones anthology, Impossible Spaces.  Watch this space for more news.

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Flash Fire – 29th November

FlashFire posterI’ll be reading at this event on 29th November, 8 pm, at the Park Hotel in Lancaster.

Facebook link.

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Wolf-Girls now available as an e-book.

http://www.hic-dragones.co.uk/#/wolf-girls/4565397194

Wolf-Girls is now available in mobi and epub formats at £4.99. Now all you papyrophobics can get in on the wolfie action.

 

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Interview with the Changeling’s Wife

Interview with Helen Ransome.  19th September 2035. By Sangita Ifors

SI “Mrs Ransome, thank you for agreeing to this interview.”

HR “You’re welcome. Would you like tea and cake? John and Anthony had a midnight baking competition last night and came over earlier claiming that the Silverwood freezers were full. We have lemon drizzle, double chocolate, and a rather gorgeous Victoria sponge with Whitby Farm raspberry jam.”

SI “Tea would be lovely, thank you. And a small slice of the sponge, if you insist ….”

HR “Oh, I do. Did you see the children outside? Rudi and Richie, who aren’t my grandsons, strictly speaking, but they’re irresistible when they call me Oma. Hang on, I’ll get Andy to do the honours.”

Later.

HR “I heard that Andy was impossible in his interview. Did you get anything usable?”

SI “Very little, but I do have a meeting set up with his latest protégés.”

HR “The Pluto girls? If I was ten years younger I’d have managed them myself, it’d be good for their souls to have a female manager.”

SI “You still work?”

HR “I work with Bailey Drummond, still, we’ve been partners for about twelve years now, and he won’t let me retire. We have trust in each other, which is very important in our business.”

SI “You were a scientist …”

HR “I was a band manager, and a scientist. And a band wife, too. Also, a mum and a grandma. Somehow, I managed to do all of them. I still dabble, in cell biology, my friend Diana has an excellent private laboratory and she lets me play, when I want to.”

SI “Few people understand your friendship with Diana …”

HR “Few people understand Diana, and I myself have never been easily understood. We don’t need people to understand why we are friends, why should we?”

SI “Your husband had a secret affair with her for many years …”

HR “My husband was secretly a werewolf for many years. He had another family, which I didn’t know about. It was, of course, a huge blow, when I found out, but I have never been a jealous woman, and once I understood the need for the secrecy, I learned to cope with the betrayal. As time went on, I came to see it as a blessing. Andy was a better father to my daughters because of his experience with his other children, the shapeshifter traits gave him the strength and resilience to be more successful, both in the band, and in business. I’ve never really had close female friends, perhaps because Andy and I are so close, and always have been, but Diana and I have so much in common, we were fated to be rivals. And with a rival, you bring them close, or you fight. We had too many common interests to fight, so we became friends.

SI “That’s a cold blooded assessment.”

HR “I know, it was actually put forward to me by Diana, and I thought the same thing as you, I was quite shocked, until I realised that I agreed with her, completely.”

SI “How did you cope with Mark’s divorce from Katie, I understand that the two of you were close.”

HR. “We were married to men who are very close to each other. There’s a difference. Katie and I … rubbed along … I suppose. We keep in touch, at Christmas, you know? As I said, I don’t easily make female friends.”

SI “You occupy an unusual position, you are very closely linked to the Silverwood Pack, as they are known, but you are not part of it. What are your thoughts on that?”

HR “Everyone has a similar experience, I’m sure. We’re all on the margins of something or other.”

SI “Do you feel envious, or angry?”

HR “There is nothing in this world that I could desire, that wouldn’t be mine if I asked for it. There is no need for envy, because I don’t want what they have.”

SI “May I ask why?”

HR “I’m happy as I am. Simply that.”

SI “Diana’s work on the W chromosome is widely known, did you contribute to that?”

HR “I wish! No, she did all that long before we met. We’ve worked together on a project looking at how the W chromosome acts as an extra immune system, and I got several papers out of that. Meeting Diana was rather a treat, to be honest, I think I would have given up science completely and concentrated on returning to the music industry, as it’s not that easy to just dabble in genetics and cell biology. Her lab, and her research, has been wonderful for me.”

SI “And did you give her tips on being a band wife?”

HR “She never needed tips, because she’s never really been a band wife. She stayed in the shadows, and didn’t get involved at all, apart from a few parties in the early days with John, which he pretty much talked her into.”

SI “If she had been, what advice would you have given her?”

HR (laughs) “Don’t be! Seriously, I think that’s one of the strengths of the Hearts, Andy and Xan had me, and I grew up with them. Katie wasn’t impressed by Mark’s music stuff one bit, she loved him for other reasons. And Di … I think the music tickled her, but it was always about the werewolves with her. So, the Hearts could get on with it on their own terms, knowing that their partners had lives of their own.”

SI “Going back to the Hearts, I’ve asked Andy how he felt when he first met Mark and John. Do you remember the first time you saw them?”

HR “Vividly! It was the same time that Andy and Xan saw them. Enrolment day at sixth form, I was chatting to the lads, when we saw a couple of heavy metal kids, as we called ourselves back then, walking together in the opposite direction. I’d never seen anyone as self possessed as those two, they had this field around them, that said ‘couple’ to anyone with the sense to look. That piqued Xan’s interest.”

SI “And what piqued yours?”

HR “Hmm, then? Nothing really, I noticed that my boys were fascinated by them, but I didn’t pay much attention until I got to know Mark a little more. He’s always been an interesting guy.”

SI “Really?”

HR “Now, you know how happily married I am. You can find a guy interesting and attractive without having to bed him, you know? Anyway, I like Mark a lot. Now John, I love to bits, because there’s not a lot else you can do about John. He’s kinda irresistible. If you print that, I’ll say you made it up, because he shouldn’t be encouraged. And I don’t mean he’s gorgeous, because he’s just too obvious for my taste, I mean he has charisma.”

SI “John Preston is too obviously attractive, but you married Andy Ransome?”

HR (laughs) “Oh lord. I know. It’s embarrassing. He looks like he fell from heaven. Well, he did when we were kids, anyway. I have learned to look past the incredible good looks and see the … oh dear, there’s no way I can finish that sentence without risking his ego exploding. Let’s just say he’s lovely, eh?”

SI “And Xan?”

HR “I still miss him, every day, every night.”

SI “He was your lover, just as much as Andy was, is that right?”

HR “Yes.”

SI “How did you feel when you found out that he had a daughter?”

HR “Utterly shocked. I was prepared, with Andy and Di’s kids. I pretty much knew about them, or at least about the girls. I found a photo, years before Andy came clean about them. I kept it, and waited for him to admit to them. They were his girls, it was obvious. But you know, I managed to keep that in a back room in my mind. I had to live with knowing that there was a big lie, but even then, I trusted Andy. I knew that I could trust him, and that he would tell me when he could.”

SI “And Miranda?”

HR “Yeah, she was a shock, but after the first reaction, I just wanted to meet her. She is so like him, so like Xan, physically. She’s a bit fey too, like he was. She’s always been very kind to me.”

SI “That’s an odd way of putting it.”

HR “It’s how she is. She’s very reserved, she doesn’t give her affection easily. It hurt, to see so much of Xan in a girl who saw me as a stranger, and she had the intelligence to spot that, to see my pain, and to give me her time and understanding, at such a young age.”

SI “Were you angry, that Diana had Xan Kendrick’s child?”

HR “Grateful, that someone did, and it was someone who had the intelligence and love to raise her as Di did Miranda. It can’t have been easy, not with all those other kids.”

SI “And your own daughters?”

HR “Oh lord, my daughters are a law unto themselves, Naomi will settle on something, some day. Until then she seems happy enough. As for Eva, she was such a quiet little girl, but now she can’t seem to find a rule without looking for an interesting reason to break it. She’s a dad, you know, officially. She delights in it.”

SI “Cal and Eva are the only shifters so far who have experimented with gender roles to such a degree …”

HR “Gender roles! They changed sex! Both of them, for long enough for Cal to conceive, carry, birth and nurse his twins and for Eva to father them. She makes a handsome man, I will say, I always wanted a son, and she jokes that when she changes sex, she’s being an especially dutiful daughter.”

SI “Do you find it odd?”

HR “Yes, frankly, I do. But who wouldn’t? Apart from Andy. They call him The Changeling, you know?”

SI “Do you have any worries about the future?”

HR “Most of the people I love are part of a very public, very controversial, minority. Of course I worry.”

SI “And your hopes for the future?”

HR “That there is one.”

SI “Thank you Mrs Ransome.”

 

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Snow Day – Flash Fiction online on 12/10/12

My flash fiction ‘Snow Day’ will make its online debut at http://flashfloodjournal.blogspot.co.uk/ on 12th October at 10 am.

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