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Marianne Villanueva

Anvil

ISBN: 9789712723025

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

Another slim volume of Filipino tales, Marianne Villanueva writes with one foot firmly in one world and another in a very different one. Some of her stories are set in the US, sad studies of transplantation that only sometimes works and some in the Philippines. Some are speculative fiction (more horror than fantasy) and some are narratives of ordinary lives. What they have in common is a sense of desolation. This is a volume about lives that do not and cannot work, about people who make bad decisions or whom life treats abominably. Quite possibly, these stories are about the reality of happy ever after.

It takes a great deal of skill to maintain a reader’s attention with so little happiness in view. Villanueva manages it, but I did find myself wondering what would happen if life were a little happier or people were a little kinder. I ought to illustrate my point with the sadness of a single soul, but I find I can’t. All I have is purple prose (and Villanueva is not guilty of purple prose – her language is lucid) because I found the stories running into each other and merging, a week after I’d read the volume. They were distinct at the time I read them, but the underlying themes and tone are too similar and so they become one reflection on unhappiness, a reflection with an occasional desperate edge.

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Kate Griffin

A Matthew Swift novel

Orbit (2011)

ISBN: 978 1 84149 901 7

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

If you have not read Griffin’s previous volumes starring Matthew Swift, then do not even read this review. Stop at the end of this paragraph. This is one of those trilogies where the individual works stand sufficiently solidly to be able to be read in isolation, but at the same time if I were to even attempt a proper review of The Neon Court without referring to events in the first volumes I would doom this review to failure. They do rest on each other, very much. In Kate Griffin’s universe, events have consequences. In other words, if you are worried about spoilers for the previous volumes save this review until after you’ve caught up.

Matthew Swift is the Midnight Mayor. He’s responsible for keeping London on some sort of magic even keel. He has Aldermen to assist him, but he isn’t quite sure whose side they’re on or possibly quite how they operate. He has an apprentice also to help him, but she’s more likely to insult him until she’s blue in the face and then insist on him buying her a curry dinner.

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KJ Parker

Orbit (2011)

ISBN: 978 1 84149 914 9

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

The Hammer is set on an alternate world, very similar to Earth. A noble family has been exiled to a farming colony. The colony’s level of industrialisation is kept low because of the settlement agreements. The people there prior to the colony are a completely unknown factor, even seventy years into the met’Oc family’s exile. The youngest son of the met’Oc does his own thing, going against his father’s will, changing the future for everyone.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book. It has a good pace, some nice story telling and some solid worldbuilding. While it’s believable, I say this with certain caveats.

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Joe Abercrombie

Gollancz (2011)

ISBN: 978 0 5750 8384 4

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

Joe Abercrombie is one of those writers whose name is being bandied around a lot right now. The two things I’ve heard about him is that he’s the anti-Tolkien (actively so, taking the heroic war tropes of the Great Fantasy Novel and squeezing them like soft cheese until they turn into something else) and that he’s George RR Martin without the splendour. Both are partly true, but what I found when I read The Heroes was a fantasy retelling of the grungier and more miserable aspects of the Napoleonic Wars.

The story centres around a valley. Specifically, it’s about the various efforts to take and keep some standing stones on a hill. The stones are called “The Heroes” and the publicity material that comes with the book makes a large play of there not actually being any heroes in the book, that war is not about heroes. This isn’t strictly true. Quite a few of the characters get their heroic moment. They move for an instant outside their usual, or the stretch themselves, or they have a self-realisation and do something impossibly stupid or brave or they change the game just a little. Some of the characters have lives that happen only within the context of the war while others try to use the war as a political tool to gain advancement in their lives outside. All of this adds up to an ensemble piece. Small heroes whose lives become important for a moment before they fade into the background.

Unlike many novels about fantasy worlds at war, The Heroes is not very fast-paced. It’s more like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage in that respect. It’s a series of very closely interconnected small lives that make up a bigger picture which in turn makes up the picture of the valley with its armies and blood. It’s a tale of war as seen by the human eye. The bird’s eye view comes from standing back and seeing the novel as a whole and realising what a mess this very small arena of violence is and that the bigger arena is probably no more salubrious.

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Hannu Rajaniemi

Gollancz (2010)

ISBN: 978 0 5750 8888 7

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

A lot of people are talking about The Quantum Thief. I noticed the talk before I read the book. What I noticed was the number of different writers that reviewers and readers compare Hannu Rajaniemi with. If one just goes by the descriptions, it appears that he borrows different elements from different writers and makes a patchwork quilt from them, or that he’s influenced by them. The reality is more complex than that.

There’s a significant amount of literary allusion in The Quantum Thief (largely French – or it may be that I can recognise largely the French allusions), some curious Hebrew words (why is “gevurot” never singular? is there a reason for this?) and references to Judaism, and a whole heap of mathematical and scientific ideas translated into language. I can’t comment on the science and mathematics, and it would be foolish to in any case, given Rajaniemi has a PhD in string theory – if that side of the novel doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it must be by choice, so I’m going to assume it stands up perfectly. Also, the only aspect of literary allusion worth commenting on in this context is if it’s successful. And it may not be French literary allusion at all, but allusions to allusions, or simply picking up material from anywhere. I am reminded, for instance, from time to time, of the contrasts and tone-changes and French echoes of Gankutsuou, an anime series loosely based on Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. That’s the problem with relying on a patchwork approach – it’s likely to lead one astray. However, it really is quite difficult not to refer to other writers and other tales when describing The Quantum Thief. This is the nature of the novel: it’s rich and referential. The French references are strongest though, and may well be intentional.

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Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The Wheel of Time, Book 13

Orbit (2010)

ISBN: 97811841498683

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

This is the thirteenth (and second last) in Robert Jordan’s enormous Wheel of Time series. Jordan died when the series was not quite finished, but he left extensive notes. Brandon Sanderson was commissioned to complete The Wheel of Time. My review of the previous volume is here. And now we’re all on the same page.

It’s a very long page. Towers of Midnight checks in at over eight hundred of them. Hard to handle – best read in bed. Probably even better read on an e-reader of some sort, where you don’t have to struggle to find ways of holding it at the beginning and at the end of the tome. Also best read by those who know the earlier books and remember them well – there is little time given to backstory early in this volume and the narrative is complex and really does require some sort of understanding of what went before and what the politics are in order to enjoy it..

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Marianne Curley

Bloomsbury (2010)

ISBN: 978-1-40880-445-2

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

Kate’s grandmother, Jillian, is a witch, though not, as Kate hastens to point out, in the way that most people know the word. Kate lives just outside a small Australian town and has her own special powers. She’s fascinated by Jarrod, a new kid at school, and it soon becomes clear that he’s not quite normal, himself. Soon events will bring them together and take them away from the familiar … and into the past.

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Clay Blakehills

After the World

Black House Comics (2009)

ISBN: 978-0-98060-065-0

Reviewed by Gillian Polack, August 2010

I’m reviewing the After the World series out of order, I’m afraid. I started with Jason Fischer’s Gravesend because I wanted my work experience student to read it (I made a fifteen year old read a zombie apocalypse story – my soul is probably doomed to strange perdition). I read Killable Hours first, however.

Killable Hours reminded me that zombie books are changing. Gravesend made me think about John Wyndham, with its set-up of a cosy apocalypse. Killable Hours does this even more than Gravesend, because it’s close to home and kills off all sorts of people we’ve wondered about. Just the thought of zombie lawyers makes several of my friends smile, as if this was destined. I still don’t quite get why it’s funny to ponder upon zombie lawyers and not upon zombie bricklayers, but it is, and Blakehills has taken advantage of this absurdity. It’s a serious zombie novella, but, like Gravesend, there’s a sense that it might be just a little tongue in cheek. This makes the whole thing (like Gravesend) just a cut above where it would otherwise be. The macabre humour underlying the spatter and gore means that it never takes itself quite as seriously as the surface suggests. In other words, it’s fun.

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Edited by Gillian Polack

Eneit Press (2010)

ISBN: 9780980691122

Reviewed by Joanna Kasper, July 2010

This anthology is a collection of stories from Australian authors, all talking about the baggage that people carry around with them. Each author has taken a different tack at the idea but ended up with a collection that holds together and reads as a complete experience.

When I heard about this anthology, my first thoughts were about the immigrant experience. I was expecting that most of the stories would be about the baggage that others brought to Australia. It was good to see that in amongst these stories there are also stories relating to the indigenous experience in Australia because that is just another part of the baggage that we, as Australians, all carry with us.

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Jason Fischer

After the World Saga. 2

Black House Comics (2009)

ISBN: 9780980600643

Reviewed by Natasha Pearson* and Gillian Polack, July 2010

Gravesend is a post-apocalyptic zombie novella. It is the second of a new Australian pulp series published by Black House Comics. While the series calls itself a “saga”, this has to be tongue-in-cheek, as the novella is an unlikely form for a saga. Fischer’s novella definitely builds on the previous one, however (set in an Australian law firm) and its action begins after the zombie plague has taken hold and the last of the healthy humans are under siege.

The story is set in Kent in Gravesend (which is a pun that was inevitable the moment the subject of the novella was linked to the writing of Jason Fischer), and begins with the main character Tamsyn Webb on guard duty watching for zombies from a clocktower. It launches straight into the action with a mass zombie attack. Fischer then explains how the world has changed to become a place infested with the undead and how bleak the future looks for the villagers living in Kent. Things begin to get worse, as more people are killed by the zombies, but hope comes in the form of a transmission from America.

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