Friday, July 16, 2010

Genre Classics: Consider Phlebas - Iain M. Banks (Book Review)

"Consider Phlebas" (Amazon: UK, US)
Format: Paperback, 467/544 pages
Publisher: Orbit (first publication 1987)

Scottish novelist IAIN M. BANKS is deemed a science fiction powerhouse whose Culture series -- a set of standalone space opera novels that share the same milieu -- represent one of the finest works in the genre. "Consider Phlebas", published way back in 1987, was the first novel set in the Culture. It was originally written in 1984, but has been later rewritten; a fate shared by many of his earlier works. It is, by this day, considered to be one of the finest space opera novels ever written, rarely matched or surpassed even by later Culture works.
Bora Horza Gobuchul belongs to the race of Changers whose members have mastered the ability to alter their physical appearance. As such, they are extremely suited for spy and undercover missions. Bora Horza threw his lot in with Idirans, a pious galactic megaforce that chose to oppose Culture's unaggressive expansionism promoted by the promise of leisure and technological advancement. This is a clash of ideologies that spans across galaxies. Idiran's are a highly hieararchical and militaristic society and they cannot and will not forgo the threat -- may it be imaginary or not -- that the blashphemous sentient machines of The Culture present to the sanctity of Life.

Bora Horza is tasked with a mission to retrieve a renegade Mind that would bring Idirans invaluable technological and tactical intelligence on the state of The Culture. Along the way he employs with a crew of freelancers, gets involved in a kind of relationship, excapes from a mad prophet that rules over a tropical island, witnesess a grand destruction of an orbital, is on a reckless run from Culture agents and many more exciting things...
Now, to be totally honest, I expected more from a novel of Culture fame; but such is usually the fate of exuberant expectations...they shatter. Far from being a bad book in itself, but the high-octane adventure in space that the book does provide in spades, lacks some depth, a type of substance that makes great books out of good ones. Horza is thrust from one "grand scale" action scene to another, with little "slower passages" that would make the protagonist and the characters around him more tangible. I had similar problems with books like "The Ten Thousand" by Paul Kearney and Takeshi Kovacs books by Richard Morgan. I just have this feeling that something essential is missing. But what redeemed this book in my eyes is the ending, because it definitely carries that emotional punch that the rest of the book was missing. It conects you to Horza and the rest in a more profound way than before.

I would label Horza as a partial anti-hero. He's not as obnoxious a person as Thomas Covenant is, but there is this cold detachment and a nasty streak to Horza that makes a reader leery. He is still likable, despite his shortcomings. The support cast is, sadly, severely underdeveloped. They are intriguing, but the author rarely slows down the pace of the story to tell us what makes them tick. The unrelenting pace can be both a curse and a blessing at times. It might make you read the book in one sitting, but it also might make you feel a bit unsated afterwards. Although the ending carries the emotional punch that might be lacking before.

Banks often often stops to vividly describe epic vistas, blown-out-of-proportion entrails of flying cities and space crafts, colossal space battles and scenes of destruction. Worldbuilding is at the same time vast and limited (not overdone; it doesn't impose on the flow of the fable). If you're a visual type you'll get a big kick out of the novel, since the descriptions of scenes are done in exemplary manner. "Consider Phlebas" is without a doubt strongest in its beggining and its ending sequence. One of the novel's other hallmarks is without a doubt it's relentless pace.

If you enjoy vigorously energetic space opera with a clearly set course of action from the outset, morally ambiguous protagonist, crunchy prose, vivid scenery and destruction on behemothic proportions, then "Consider Phlebas" clearly comes recommended.


Related Posts:
Review of "Matter"

- Thrinidir -

Monday, July 12, 2010

Graham Joyce - Memoirs of a Master Forger

I first heard about Memoirs of a Master Forger when the title appeared a few times while I was rounding up our ultimate best of 2008 list. The reviews were all extremely positive, so I decided to give it a go. Judging by its cover, I figured that MoaMF will be set, say, in 18th century, with elements of either steampunk or fantasy. Well … I was wrong. When they say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, they say it for a reason.

Memoirs of a Master Forger is a story of a man named William Heaney, whose name is also being used by the author of the book. He is a random person from 21st century and his life isn’t going exactly as he’d imagined. His wife left him for a TV chef, his son is growing up into a snobbish brat, his job is boring and the forgery his friend Stinx is working on is hardly going well – the latter because Stinx’s woman has just left him and despite it being the third time in a row, Stinx still seeks refuge in drink.

Will is not really the master forger mentioned in the title, although the memoirs are undoubtedly his. He is just the guy who sells forgeries when Stinx completes them. Ok, he does write poems for another friend, Jaz, but since they are, in his own words, really bad poetry, I don’t think it counts. Will’s main characteristics are donating money to a local homeless shelter and the ability to see demons, the latter obviously being enough to put this book under ‘fantasy’ section. The demons are only mentioned in an offhand manner, though, and are most probably just a metaphor for human suffering.

I guess this is the reason why I was pretty disappointed with Memoirs of a Master Forger. It’s got little to do with forgeries – the only forgery beside the really bad poetry is a Jane Austen first edition that seems like a minor, unimportant side plot and mostly just another thing that does not go as planned. It’s not about demons, either, even though there was some promise to that, but the narrative is simply not unreliable enough to be of intrigue.

The book follows a typical formula where the setting is a contemporary society and the main character is a random person with whom the reader can easily identify. He is not entirely average, though, because average is uninteresting and nobody wants to read about that. He has his flaws, but still clearly a nice guy. His life is not completely dull for the same reasons the protagonist is not entirely average. Whatever happens, be it good or bad, is just uncommon enough to be interesting but could easily happen to the reader as well. Following the formula, the ending can be either a happy one (reader: ‘oh, the world is a nice place after all’) or a somber one (reader: ‘huh, I shall reflect upon this’). I notice books follow this formula fairly often; it seems to be very popular in contemporary fiction, probably because the reader can easily picture himself in main character’s shoes. Aside from the obvious benefits, this also carries the ‘something extraordinary could happen to you as well’ message, which, I think, is something readers generally like. While this formula does not necessarily predicate a lack of writing skills (on the contrary – a skilled writer can, with a few variations, convert this formula into a very good novel) it can often lead to an otherwise mediocre novel becoming a success.

And, of course, Memoirs of a Master Forger has a happy ending where every wrong is righted and everything is just swell. There is no bitter aftertaste or feeling that it could all be undone any second now. The problems are all solved and the general feeling is that everyone will be happier from that point on. No fears, no doubts, just fields of shiny happiness. Blergh.

Don’t get me wrong, Memoirs of a Master Forger is a nice enough story written in a flowing style, but I really don’t see what’s so great about it. The forgery/demons bit is original enough, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the narrator could be a bit more unpredictable, the characters less generic and the plot more than just a path to happy ending. All in all – average.


I guess I'll never manage to do something on time, but late is still better than never. This review is a bit old, but I hope you'll enjoy it nevertheless :)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

And ... we're back.

As I promised in my April post, RoSF will update regularly again, beginning with next week. There will be at least one review per week, possibly more. Hope you will enjoy them and spread the word that we're back from the dead. :)

Until next week,



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