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2003 proved to be a busy year for me. I attended several conventions and undertook a transatlantic trip to Scotland. Oh, and I forgot to mention that during the year I finished five of my own books (two of them co-authorships) and edited a bunch by other people, most notably C.S. Thompson's astonishing novel A Season of Strange Dreams and the five volumes of the "director's cut" reissue of Fay Sampson's extraordinary Morgan Le Fay series. Not to mention writing a bunch of reviews for Crescent Blues, Blue Ear (no relation) and of course Infinity Plus, plus a few short stories. At the moment I'm editing/rewriting the memoirs of a rock star with one hand while ghostwriting a fantasy novel with the other.

And the dog ate my homework.

In other words, I can give plenty of excuses for why I didn't review the following books...

John Grant

Richard K. Morgan: Altered Carbon

Del Rey (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-345-45768-4

Reviewers all over the place praised this piece of noir cyberpunk to the skies, and certainly, it's pretty impressive. In the world of Altered Carbon, people can back themselves up in computers ready to be downloaded into a different body, rented or cloned, should something happen to the old one or simply should it prove convenient. John Varley and others explored this territory fairly thoroughly over the years, so Morgan's debut stands or falls by its strength as a noir thriller/detection. I found it to be pretty good in this capacity, and will most certainly read its follow-up, Broken Angels (March 2004). But the book seemed somewhat overlong, and the depiction of the lesser characters proved sketchy enough that from time to time I experienced some difficulty sorting out who was who within its Byzantine plot. Recommended, but with reservations.

G.M. Ford: A Blind Eye

William Morrow (Hardcover) ISBN 0-380-97875-X

This new addition to the Frank Corso series opens with the intrepid Corso and his one-time lover, Meg Dougherty, on the run from the Texas law (who want to force Corso to testify). In the middle of a blizzard, Corso and Dougherty crash their car and hole up in a deserted Wisconsin farmhouse. Breaking up the floorboards of the outhouse for fuel, they discover a stack of years-old corpses. This leads them into a hunt -- sometimes in cooperation with the cops, sometimes in competition with them -- for a most unusual serial killer. The climax of the book occupies the whole of its second half -- an impressive feat! In addition, the action takes place among the isolated Jackson White people of New York state. Highly recommended as a good page-turner.

Elizabeth Moon: Remnant Population

Del Rey (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-345-46219-X

Book: elizabeth moon, remnant population
Elizabeth Moon's fame rests primarily on her military SF. Consequently, I avoided her work like the plague until about a year ago, when her exquisite novel of autism, The Speed of Dark, came my way. I still cherish no desire to read her military SF, but I continue to bore people rigid ranting to them about how good The Speed of Dark is.

Remnant Population (a reissue of a 1996 novel) doesn't quite equal The Speed of Dark, but nevertheless I enjoyed it as much as any SF I read during 2003. When the Company decides to pull out of a colony planet, they leave behind an old woman, Ofelia. Much later, the Company attempts to establish a new colony, but intelligent natives no one knew existed rout Company forces, shedding quite a lot of Company blood in the process. While Earth tries to figure out what to do, an expeditionary party of the natives finds Ofelia and establishes communication with her. This forces her into the position of mediator between the natives and Earth.

That just about summarizes the plot, actually. Nevertheless, the book proves entirely engrossing, partly because of the character of Ofelia herself, but mainly because of the aliens Moon created. Through Ofelia's eyes they become comprehensible, but they always remain entrancingly alien. I recommended this so hard to my non-SF-reading wife that in the end, to shut me up, she read it. To the astonishment of both of us, she loved it too.

Peter Straub: lost boy lost girl

Random House (Hardcover), ISBN 1-4000-6092-3

Any new Peter Straub novel qualifies as hot news for this particular reviewer, and lost boy lost girl was no exception. As always with Straub, this complicated ghost story cum serial-killer murder mystery operates on a number of levels. However, to be honest, I found it something of a let-down after The Hell Fire Club and Mr. X. The novel displays many virtues, but it suffers a little from predictability. Further, while Straub -- a very literary writer -- generally excels in the artistic use of words, here and there in this novel the writing descended into prissiness and, on occasion, absurdity. To cite but one example: "A minute later, he was vomiting up the breakfast he had not eaten." Although the book remains far better than most of its kind, I consider lost boy lost girl a second-string work in the Straub canon.

Robert A. Heinlein: Have Space Suit -- Will Travel

Del Rey (Paperback), ISBN 0-345-46107-X

I could swear I read this decades ago, but when it arrived I realized I could remember nothing about it. So, mindful of Citizen of the Galaxy and other excellent Heinlein young adult books, I decided to read it again. For one thing, it's short. Since the vast majority of SF novels published these days weigh enough to break the scales, this reviewer greets anything under 300 close-printed pages with cries of glee.

Young Kip Russell builds his own spacesuit and dreams of going to the moon. Space pirates abduct him and bring him there. But this proves to be only the first stage of a long voyage he'll take to the core of the galaxy. There he'll meet countless galactic civilizations and play an important role in a trial at the highest court of all. Nothing wrong with that, but the latter part of the book becomes impossibly turgid thanks to Heinlein's tedious proselytizing. Heinlein lacked the artistry to carry off the sermonizing or the suspension of belief necessary to allow this reader to ignore the stark improbabilities of the plot. By book's end I felt that one of those 600-pages-of-close-print SF doorstops might have seemed like a shorter read.

April Smith: Good Morning, Killer

Knopf (Hardcover), ISBN 0-375-41240-9

Smith's previous novel featuring Special Agent Ana Grey, North of Montana, impressed me a great deal, and I expected a great deal of this follow-up. Unfortunately, Good Morning, Killer rather disappointed me, probably because between the two novels the characterization of Grey shifted from enjoyably feisty to outright pain-in-the-ass. It's difficult to get exercised over the difficulties of someone whom, in real life, you'd duck into doorways to avoid.

Aside from that, Smith delivers a reasonably constructed thriller. Ana must cope with an unusual serial abductor. He kidnaps jailbait girls, strips them but seemingly does not rape them before releasing them unharmed. At the same time an old, unsolved crime appears to implicate Ana's nearest and dearest. In addition -- in a related subplot -- Ana's longish-term relationship collapses around her ears, surprisingly not purely because of her bitchiness.

Scott Turow's laudatory cover quote ("The writing has the taut, perfect tone of a well tuned string and the story goes forward with tremendous momentum from the very start, even though it is also a book that deepens with every page.") is not completely unjustified but, paradoxically, the book remains unengaging.

Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment

HarperCollins (Hardcover), ISBN 0-06-001315-X

Book: terry pratchett, monstrous regiment
At his best, Terry Pratchett is one of our best current fantasy writers, and Monstrous Regiment qualifies as very near his best. The fact that it's frequently hilariously funny is icing on the cake.

Young Polly disguises herself as a man in order to join the army and fight in defense of her country in an endless, certainly pointless war against its neighbor. Soon she discovers that more and more of her fellow grunts are, like herself, women in men's clothing. The war slaughtered so many of the young men of both sides that not enough remain alive to sustain it. Monstrous Regiment is one of the most enjoyably effective anti-war novels since Harry Harrison's 1965 classic Bill, the Galactic Hero (ignore the dire sequels). 'Nuff said.

Larry Niven: The Integral Trees

Del Rey (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-345-46036-7

Despite the title, this omnibus reissue contains both The Integral Trees (1983) and its sequel The Smoke Ring (1987). I managed somehow to miss out on both of them the first time around. Consequently, I fell on this collection with a delight tempered only by the knowledge that some of Niven's other writing of that era and a little later did not age well. That criticism could indeed be leveled at these two novels, but so mildly as to be largely irrelevant.

Long ago, a mad computer (I simplify) marooned a bunch of humans in a bizarre habitat: the gaseous donut surrounding a neutron star. The donut affords air and energy to develop and sustain life, most notably enormously long floating trees that serve as homes for many of the more mobile life forms -- newly arrived humans included. The two novels take place some generations later, after the descendants of the original strandees multiplied, diversified and established various different mini-civilizations.

Niven writes very pared down prose by today's standards -- not necessarily a bad thing. Nevertheless, Niven effectively conveys the kind of cosmic awe which has always been his main strength. However, he loses out a little on atmosphere and characterization. The two novels prove highly readable, generate appropriate gasps but in the end, a mite uninvolving.

Victor J. Stenger: Has Science Found God?

Prometheus (Hardcover), ISBN 1-59102-018-2.

Book: victor stenger, has science found god?
Stenger set himself a phenomenally ambitious task in this book. In order to counter claims in the popular media and elsewhere that science provides evidence for the existence of God, he surveys everything we currently know about the universe and ourselves to determine if any evidence of God exists. In addition, he examines the question of whether one could enter God into the equations of modern science without irremediably destroying the equations.

As Stenger states near the outset, believers present the rationalist with the false challenge of effecting an impossible proof -- the nonexistence of something that does not exist (try proving that Martians don't live among us). At the same time, these same believers entirely duck the issue that should, in the abstract, be far easier: a non-faith-based proof of God's existence.

As a result, Stenger cannot present a simple, elegant five-line proof of his case. Instead, recalling the enormously lengthy iterative proofs done a few years ago by computer of Fermat's Last Theorem, he must perform his extensive survey in countless fields of knowledge to produce a proof by statistics. In this he succeeds, and a great deal of what he tells us along the way proves fascinating. The only problem with the book is that, necessarily, it becomes thematically if not factually repetitive.

I would recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone seeking a primer in what we as a species currently know about "life, the universe and everything." But the book, necessarily, proves less effective as a piece of polemic (try George A. Erickson's Time Traveling with Science and the Saints, also from Prometheus, if you crave a good piece of blood-stirring, tub-thumping rationalist polemic). This could well be the most worthwhile book I've read all year. I haven't yet reviewed it fully only because I quail at the prospect of writing a review to the standard the book merits.

Dave Duncan: West of January

Bakka/Red Deer Press (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-88995-252-3

Dave Duncan's seemingly endless King's Blades series of military fantasy novels sort of put me off reading his work. Thus I picked up this reissue of his early (1989) science fantasy with some reluctance. Indeed, had it not been such an attractive publication, I would've passed it by. Now I'm thoroughly glad I chose to read West of January.

Over the course of many generations of isolation, the human colonists on the planet Vernier regressed both technologically and sociologically. They exist now as a scattering of ideologically opposed cultures. Each culture, despite their many differences, acts almost as barbaric as the next. In addition, Vernier is vast and its rotation relative to its star is exceedingly slow. As a result, all the cultures must keep constantly on the move to avoid the baking heat of full noon -- not to mention the chill of night.

An angel (one of the itinerant members of a slightly less barbaric culture who make minimal changes for the benefit of the species while generating bastards everywhere they go) fathered Knobil, a young herdsman. The tale of Knobil's search for truth and a kind of cultural transcendence proves quite engrossing. It shows the heights this much maligned SF subgenre can attain. My profound personal thanks to the small Canadian press Bakka/Red Deer for bringing West of January to my attention. Try this novel and I bet you feel the same.

Sheri S. Tepper: The Companions

Eos (Hardcover), ISBN 0-06-053821-X

I confess to being an enormous fan of Tepper's and avidly read everything she publishes, even while recognizing that her novels can be somewhat uneven. At their best they define a subgenre of SF that would best be called "science fantasy" if others hadn't appropriated the term. Even when they fail to attain such heights, Tepper's books almost always remain engaging and readable and always offer an interesting subtext.

The Companions ranks as one of the not-so-good ones, alas. But you won't believe me on this until you get within about fifty pages of the end, when suddenly, a spectacularly successful novel collapses amid hurried, chaotic and just outright bad plotting.

The book depicts a ghastly phase of civilization. On earth, dreadful overpopulation creates an era of gross repression that includes a powerful move to exterminate all nonhuman animals.

Dog-loving Jewel (a typical Tepper heroine -- studious and enormously attractive) relishes the opportunity to assist her linguist half-brother on the distant, undeveloped planet Moss (shades of the planet Grass, featured in some of Tepper's best work). There they must determine, among other riddles, whether the inhabitants possess true sentience.

Tepper resolves this particular mystery in masterful fashion. The answer leads to a far greater realm of discovery than anyone could possibly imagine -- one in which the presence of Jewel's dogs proves crucial. Unfortunately, faced with the task of resolving the remainder of the enormously complex scenario she created, Tepper in effect bottoms out. I exhort you to read the first 400 pages or so of The Companions. You'd be hard pressed to find a better 400 pages of SF anywhere. Then let your mind start dreaming up its own possible resolutions of the whole.

Edna Buchanan: You Only Die Twice

William Morrow (Hardcover), ISBN 0-380-97655-2

Book: edna buchanan you only die twice
The diligent reader will find a few very good chapters in the multi-author disaster Naked Came the Manatee. Buchanan authored one of the best sections, which inspired me to read one of her Florida-set, Britt Montero mystery thrillers.

If you enjoy Sue Grafton, you'll go nuts over Edna Buchanan. Montero works as a newspaper reporter who dabbles in detection rather than as a full-time private eye. But otherwise, she shares strong -- and good -- similarities with Kinsey Milhone.

In this installment, a recently dead corpse washes up on Miami Beach. The corpse demonstrably belongs to a woman who died a decade ago. Her convicted murderer currently awaits execution on Death Row. Montero's solution of this enigma involves many genuine thrills for the reader.

In addition, throughout the novel, you experience the delicious feeling of a high intelligence at work. Only the pressure of other reading prevents me from rushing out and grabbing every other Buchanan book available.

Sue Grafton: Q is for Quarry

Putnam (Hardcover), ISBN 0-399-14915-5

I found a thematic similarity between this novel and Edna Buchanan's You Only Die Twice, discussed immediately above. A couple of police detective friends, forced through ill health to accept retirement, decide to set about solving a Jane Doe murder that puzzled them for 18 years. The retirees call in Kinsey Milhone to help them with the footwork.

Of course, she soon gets far more…

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