Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sandstorm Reviews is One Year Old!

... and the hit count has just crept over the 15k mark, so hurrah for me! I've actually been far too busy at work to do much reviewing recently, but hopefully I'll get that going again soon; there's also the minor matter of Mario and Luigi - Partners in Time which has been occupying my train journeys for the past few days, but soon the Mushroom Kingdom will be safe once more and I can get back to the books.

Reviews pending:
Reaper's Gale (Erikson)
The Day of the Triffids (Wyndham)
Fragile Things (Gaiman)
Hags, Sirens and other Bad Girls of Fantasy (Denise Little, ed)

On the stack: Ian Macdonald's Brasyl, R Scott Bakker's The Warrior-Prophet, Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth, John Brunner's The Squares of the City, Harry Potter 5 & 6 (homework in advance of Book 7's publication in July - probably won't review either of these!) and anything else on the shelves that I fancy picking up...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Are You Experienced? - William Sutcliffe

Like many a middle-class student, I did my fair share of Travelling in my teens and early twenties. Holidays? Pah! Stick your two-week package deals; with a backpack and a Lonely Planet, it's no holiday, it's... er, it's a really long holiday, with more time and less money, that somehow gets mythologised into some kind of spiritual quest. I never went to India, but from all accounts, the India travellers were the worst, turning what is basically an extended sightseeing trip into some "finding yourself" hippy bollocks. Are You Experienced? is a very funny tale of one teenager's gap-year India trip; it's technically fiction, but so much of it rings true that I'd bet most of the travel anecdotes are based on the real thing.

Dave is spending his gap year working, saving up for Uni and trying to pull Liz, the girlfriend of his best mate who's off travelling round Oz. He never intended to go travelling himself, but when Liz suggests an India trip, he thinks it's probably his best bet for getting her into bed. Of course, things don't work out quite that smoothly, mainly due to Liz being a prize bitch and an idiot to boot, who falls in with every pretentious would-be traveller and spiritual scam artist she meets, eventually ditching Dave and leaving him to fend for himself amid the heat, the dirt and the wankers.

"I love it here," says Jonah, "but I hate it here." He nods sagely.
"I," says Ing, "hate it here. But I love it here." He nods even more sagely than Jonah, who gets a bit miffed and tries to up the sageness quotient in his nod. This doesn't work because the miffiness shows through, so Jonah withdraws from the battle of nods and rolls another joint.
At this point, Xavier embarks on his theory. "India, lack manee a beeg countray, souffers a crush under eetz own weight. Lack a whale own ze beach, ze size of eetz own self-population eez ze mourder weapon of involunaree suiceede."
Everyone looks at him blankly.
"J'aime l'Inde. Mais je la deteste," he says, emphatically.
Everyone nods sagely, trying to show they understand French.

The Liz story is really little more than a frame for the real business of Dave's travel tale, which takes him on the standard backpacker route around the country, and through the standard backpacker hazards of diarrhoea, beggars, Western guilt and a complete inability to understand the culture he's travelling through. It's entertaining fluff, with the occasional pointed barb aimed at the rich white kids who blunder round foreign countries in packs, avoiding the locals and patronising a society they haven't bothered to learn about. The book was published in the late '90s, and from the information on access to Tibet I'd date the journey itself to a few years earlier, but I imagine that life on the backpacker circuit is still much the same now as it was then. It's funny because it's true.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss

Luke Skywalker, Locke Lamora, Sparrowhawk, Arya Stark... the story of precocious and frighteningly competent youngsters growing into their powers (whether magic, thievery, assassination or whatever) has been a popular staple of fantasy literature for a long time, and personally I love it. Patrick Rothfuss's debut novel follows this grand tradition, and any lack of originality is more than made up for with a fluid and confident writing style and an engaging story. The first part of a trilogy, this is the tale of Kvothe the Kingkiller, whose name became a legend and whose legacy is still devastating the land; it's not out in the UK until later this year but it's already raising ripples on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Name of the Wind is written in the first-person-memoir style, but unlike most other stories of this nature, it is sensibly framed by a third-person present where interesting things are still happening. Kvothe has fled the dangers of his homeland and is in hiding, working in disguise as a bartender. The arrival of the Chronicler gives him the chance to tell his life story and refute some of the myths that have grown up around his name, and this is where the main story starts. From the looks of things, this first trilogy is just the tale of Kvothe's past, and a second one is planned that will take the story forward from the present.

This book takes us from Kvothe's childhood among travelling musicians, through his days as a beggar and pickpocket and up to his time learning magic at the Academy. While not very much actually happens, the style was engaging enough to keep my interest up, and of course I found myself really wanting to know how this talented kid became the terrible figure of legend and then the world-weary bartender. The worldbuilding was solid, and the system of magic was particularly well worked-out, with an almost scientific approach taken by the masters of the various disciplines. Rothfuss also avoids most of the Wizard School clichés, but too often this is achieved with a post-modern wink at the audience ("If this were a story, then X would have happened, but aha, Y happened instead!" says Kvothe, a lot) which got rather annoying after a while.

The main danger of first-person writing, of course, is the lack of characterisation in anyone but the main protagonist. This problem is as evident in The Name of the Wind as in most other first-person novels, but luckily Kvothe's character is interesting enough to fill the entire book. Still, most of Kvothe's companions/enemies/love interests are purest cardboard, and I'd hope that would be rectified in future instalments. On the whole, though, this was a very good read; some people have complained about the inconclusive ending, but for me it just whets my appetite for the next ones in the series.


The Ossuary at Sedlec

Reviewing that Plague book has inspired me to dig out and post my photos of the Sedlec Ossuary - it's a little crypt just outside Prague, where the bones of thousands of plague victims have been artfully piled up and made into some very macabre decorations...

(and one of Ben on the train)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

In The Wake Of The Plague - Norman F Cantor

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes tells us that, contrary to popular belief, the song Ring-a-ring-a roses has nothing to do with the Black Death. I'm happy to ignore the experts on this one, cos the image of happy children dancing around singing about death is too good to lose, even in the service of factual accuracy. Like most other popular Plague historians, Cantor obviously feels the same, and names his first chapter "All Fall Down"; for good or for ill, this is a sign of things to come. The line between serious history and populist froth is straddled uneasily here, with neither coming out as the clear winner, and while I'm reluctant to dispute the word of a proper history professor, such an obvious oversight on page one does not bode well for the rest.

The blurb for this book promises a look at the far-reaching social and cultural effects of the Black Death on 14th-century Europe. I thought this sounded pretty interesting, but it doesn't deliver a whole lot. The structure is a mess - while purporting to focus on a different aspect of society in each chapter (political, economic, cultural), each illustrated by more detailed case studies, it just ends up as a mishmash of facts and opinions in no particular order; some points are repeated almost verbatim in consecutive chapters, and others are only briefly skimmed over. The book was obviously written for a modern and rather stupid American audience - quite apart from its occasional (and rather bizarre) focus on current bioterrorism concerns, we also get plenty of points unnecessarily spelled out for us in a Sesame Street way. No, we don't need to be told that Sussex is a county on the south coast of England, thank you, and really, you'd think anyone studying English History would also have a basic grasp of the geography.

The patronising tone and clumsy structure is not made any easier by Cantor's language. Sentences ramble on for several lines at a time with hardly a comma to be seen, and lost clauses flailing away at the end; many paragraphs need to be mentally chopped up and stitched back together before they make any sense. Into this mess Cantor has dumped numerous jarring colloquialisms and humourous asides; probably intended to make the piece more chatty and accessible, instead they generally derail the entire flow. At worst, they even call into question the book's reliability - is it really accurate to describe the 14th-century gentry as "Jane Austen-like"? For readers who don't even know where Sussex is, this bit of anachronism could easily cause confusion. Likewise with Cantor's mention of the death of Edward II - yes, a red-hot poker up the arse makes an entertaining story, but it was only ever a disputed rumour, and listing it here as a fact loses the book many credibility points.

The topics covered raise some interesting issues, such as the new theory that the Plague was actually a simultaneous epidemic of bubonic plague and anthrax, but I came out of the book with the feeling that I hadn't really learnt anything at all. The balance is badly handled between academic and informal writing, and between broader social history and the individual case studies, and it ends up succeeding in none of these respects. Cantor may very well be a professor of history, but he's just not very good at writing about it.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Left Behind - Tim LaHaye & Jerry B Jenkins

With the recent spate of popular atheist literature doing the rounds, a friend of mine decided to try out the competition, and picked up this (second-hand) copy of bestselling Rapture thriller Left Behind. Having been assured that it wasn't full of proselytising, I had a go at reading it, trying very hard to keep an open mind. I made it up to page 50, and even that was an effort. This book stinks.

The story starts with heroically-named pilot Rayford Steele flying his plane and thinking sinful thoughts, when the Rapture happens, and half his passengers disappear, along with numerous airline staff. Of course, no-one knows it's the Rapture, just that lots of people have vanished without trace, and Rayford's first task is getting back to land and finding out whether his wife and son have also vanished. On the same plane is strangely well-paid journalist Buck, on his way back from meeting an Israeli scientist, who has to get back to New York to investigate this mysterious disaster. There's some stuff about biblical prophecies being fulfilled, and hints of a charismatic Romanian politician called Nicolae Carpathian who is probably the Antichrist. And, er, that's as far as I got.

It's true, there's no explicit preaching, or at least not in the first few chapters; that's not why I stopped reading (though the description of Rayford's super-Christian wife is pretty nauseating; apparently she would get up at the crack of dawn to keep the house nice and clean for him, decorate the place with "frilly country knick-knacks" and send him packages of home-baked cookies). It's just that the premise is ridiculous, and the writing is appalling. I mean, I'm a genre-geek fantasy reader, I'm happy to believe all sorts of nonsense for the sake of a good story, but the Rapture is such a daft idea that suspending my disbelief takes extra effort, and that's not easy when every sentence is like a kick in the face. Maybe it's got a good plot, but I couldn't find it in me to care; there are plenty of far superior books out there and I didn't want to waste my time reading this. It makes The Da Vinci Code look like Vellum.


Battle of the Terries - Goodkind Meets Brooks

Some Extracts from The Pointy Bits of Truth


“My name is Rahllanon,” he announced quietly.

There was a long moment of stunned silence as the three listeners stared in speechless amazement. Rahllanon – the mysterious wanderer of the four lands, historian of the races (though he had no patience for weirdo cultural diversity,) philosopher and teacher, Seeker of Truth, woodsman, stonecarver and woodworker, chickenslayer and war wizard, emperor, dictator, tyrant and general, alchemist and herbalist, master archer, swordsman or martial artist, mathematician, speechwriter and tactical genius, dragontamer and garfriend, messiah of the Cult of Rahllanon, savant objectivist and all around knowledgeable scholar, blacksmith, cobbler and thatcher, writer and poet, proud carnivore and anthropomorphic goat, geographer, theologian, tailor, hunter, formula 1 racer, ornithologist, politician, milkman, and, some said, practitioner of the mystic arts. Rahllanon, the man who had been everywhere the Countless Barriers of Magical Plot Device failed. His name was familiar to the people of even the most isolated communities of the evil communist empire. Now he stood unexpectedly before the Ohmsfords, born followers, none of whom had ventured outside their valley home more than a handful of times in their lives.

Rahllanon’s face darkened with anger as nobody hastened to praise him. He’d come here to force one of these kids to leave behind the quiet and happy existence they had known for so many years, and lead him on a path of bloodshed, hatred and spite, and this was how they repaid him?

“What brings such a great beacon of moral clarity here?” Richard asked at last, sensing Rahllanon’s thing rising.

The tall man - taller than most, though some men were taller - looked sharply at him and uttered a deep, low chuckle that caught them all by surprise. He had found the one who would speak Truth.

“You Richard,” he murmured. “I came looking for you.”


Long moments passed as the brothers waited breathlessly in the shadows of the room, Michael shivering uncontrollably, Richard quivering with righteous anger. The night grew quiet around them, and they strained their ears for some indication of the creature’s position. Eventually, Richard worked up enough moral clarity to peer once more over the edge of the windowsill into the darkness beyond. By the time he ducked down again, the frightened Michael was ready to scramble for the nearest exit, but a hurried shake of Richard’s head assured him that the creature was gone. He hastened back from the window to the warmth of his bed, but caught himself halfway under the covers as he saw Richard begin to dress hurriedly in the darkness. He tried to speak, but Richard shot him a look with his raptor-like gaze. Immediately, Michael began pulling on his own clothes.

Whatever Richard had in mind, wherever he was going, Michael was determined to follow. When they were both dressed, Richard stood staring at his brother, his thing rising.

“I will never get to destroy that evil Chicken Bearer so long as I remain hidden in the Vale. I must get out tonight – now! Are you determined to follow me?”

Michael nodded emphatically and the strength of the awakened power exploded through Richard.

He could feel his jaw shatter like a crystal goblet on a stone floor when his boot came up under it. The impact of the blow lifted his brother into the air. His own teeth severed his tongue before they, too, shattered. He landed on his back, a good distance away, trying to scream through the gushing blood.

“It will not be said that my brother was a follower! What would that say of me? I have far too much moral clarity to allow my reputation to be ruined because you lack the strength and courage to rise up and take command of your own life! [...]”


“[...] besides, the more of us there are out there, the more ineffectual we will be, like a giant fighting centipede. And have you ever seen an effective two-legged creature?” he finished, pointing out the obvious.
In the darkness and gushing blood, Richard could not see his brother’s face, but he said something that sounded like ‘Thank you for showing me the Truth, Richard’, though with his teeth and jaw shattered, and most of his tongue severed, it might as easily have been ‘Get out of my room you deranged maniac!’ He hoped Michael wasn’t so consumed by his own deceptions as to say the latter. He was the kind of person who might use such an event to try banning boots.

Without another word, Richard picked up his small bundle of clothing from inside the closet and disappeared noiselessly into the pitch-black hallway that led into the kitchen.

Showing how stupid people were made him hungry.


At the peak of a particularly bleak rise, somewhat higher than the surrounding hillocks (which were high, but not quite as high,) Zeddicus Zeah found her sitting beneath a small twisted tree with long, gnarled branches that reminded him of willow roots. She was a young girl, very beautiful and obviously very much at home atop the strange looking man she was having sex with, seemingly oblivious to anyone who might be attracted by the sound of her ecstatic cries. He did not conceal his approach but moved straight to her side, smiling gently at her fresh ness and youth. She smiled back at him over her shoulder, and invited him to come join the fun, or else sit by the odd-shaped tree and she would see to him too.
The Prince of Zeah came to a halt several feet from her, but she quickly beckoned him closer. It was then that somewhere deep within him a small warning nerve twinged, some sixth sense not yet entranced by the hot sex tugged at him and demanded to know why this young girl should ask a complete stranger to have his way with her. There was no reason for this hesitation other than perhaps the innate distrust of the hunter has for all things out of place and time in nature, all this weirdo cultural diversity, but whatever the reason, it caused the highlander to pause. In that instant the lovers disappeared into vapour, leaving Zeddicus to face the strange looking tree on the barren rise.
For one second Zeddicus hesitated, unable to believe what had just occurred, his thing still risen. But the loose ground about his feet opened even as he paused, releasing a thick cluster of thick-gnarled barbed roots which wound themselves tightly about the young man’s ankles, holding him fast while other barbed roots searched for openings. Zeddicus stumbled over backwards trying to break free. For a moment he found his predicament to be ludicrous. But try as he might, he could not work free of those barbed roots. The strangeness of the situation increased almost immediately as he glanced up to see the strange root-limbed tree, previously immobile, approaching in a slow, languid motion. Thoroughly aroused now, Zeddicus dropped his pack and bow in one motion, unsheathing the ‘great sword’, realising the girl had been but an illusion to draw him within reach of the ominous tree.
He realised at once that the barbs contained some sort of rape-drug that was designed to put the plant’s victim to sleep, to render it helpless for easy disposition. Wildly, he fought the feeling seeping through his system, but soon dropped helplessly to his knees, knowing that the tree had won.
But amazingly, the rapist tree appeared to hesitate and then to inch slowly backward, coiling again in attack. Slow, heavy footsteps sounded behind the fallen prince, approaching cautiously. He could not turn his head to see who it was, and a deep bass voice warned him to stay motionless. The tree coiled expectantly to strike, but was then struck with shattering impact by his rescuer – a Gar. The strange thing was completely toppled by the blow.
Still heavily drugged from the barbs, Zeddicus felt the strong hands of his rescuer grip his shoulders roughly and force him to a prone position.
“Yuuu straaan guuurr duuumb. Yuuuu aaal moooos raaaaape byyy Naaammm buuuul treeee.”

- Fanatic-Templar

The Truth Itself - Book One of the Wizard's First Law

The whistling winds howled down from the icy wastes, like jackals of evil preparing to collectively devour their prey. Richard Ninefingers hauled himself to his feet and wearily trudged on through the snow. It had been a month since he'd last eaten, drunk or slept, and his strength was beginning to give out. If only he still had his companions, at least he'd be able to kill and eat the weaker ones! He cursed uselessly at the fate that had separated him from his fellow warriors. He had only left them for a few hours, going off into the woods in a hissy fit about deserving victory or somesuch, and when he came back the camp was abandoned. Probably they'd been killed and eaten by commies; Richard knew in his heart that without him they were unable to defend themselves. He gave one last sorrowful (and hungry) look behind him, then struggled onwards through the snow.

The wind rose, and his gold cape fluttered around his knees, causing him to trip and fall on his face. The War Wizard outfit looked very impressive, but perhaps wasn't the best costume he could have chosen for his mountain trek. A chuckle ahead of him made him raise his raptor-like gaze from the snow. "Who's there?" he shouted, his thing beginning to rise.

"It is I, Malachus Fitch, apprentice to the First Wizard! I have been looking for you all over this wasteland - my master Zeddicuz needs you to save the world!"

"That wouldn't be... altruism?" ground Richard through teeth clenched in anger. Fitch backed off a pace.

"Well, that's the dilemna, isn't it? By saving the world you inadvertently help people... but by refusing, you are choosing death... what's it to be?"

Richard's mind raced. How could he selflessly go out of his way to help others? It went against all reason! But on the other hand, how could he let himself be killed? Slowly, a solution came into his mind, like rain on a campfire.

"I... could... save the world... if I only did it for myself?"

Fitch nodded firmly. "Of course! Master Zeddicuz is also only acting out of self-interest; he has no desire to be destroyed either. Now, shall we go? I'm hungry." He turned and headed back down the mountain.

"Me too," said Richard, licking his lips as he studied Fitch's departing back.


The bound man squirmed with terror in his chair. "Bring the pincers," said Inquisitor Nikta, watching dispassionately as hot iron burned into flesh. The smell brought back a pang of bitter memory.

Roast pork. How I used to love that. Not any more, though. Not now that I have to "respect" animals and can't bear to eat food with a face.

Practical Cara applied more pressure as the man screamed for mercy. Nikta snorted in disgust. "Mercy? I could tell you a few things about mercy. I used to be a fine, upstanding capitalist. My stocks and shares were the envy of all the Midderlands." She spat. "That was until I was captured by the pinko commie liberals. They taught me to be a vegetarian and to care about the ethics of my business. There was nothing I used to love more than to eat rare veal steaks with pate de fois gras while bankrupting my rivals with hostile takeovers, but now they've taken away my callousness and filled me with... guilt."

Cara's look of disgust was more than she could bear. "Finish him," she barked, then swept out of the chamber.


Richard and Zeddicuz strode into the city. All around them, feckless nobles and preening courtesans stopped what they were doing to watch this fine specimen of manhood stride amongst them. All this time, they had believed Objectivists to be sad, craven little men, but the sight of Richard's manly outfit and bristling yeard set many hearts a-fluttering. There was nothing silly about grown men poncing about in golden cloaks at all.

Zeddicuz hammered at the palace door. "Open up, in the name of the First Wizard!" he exclaimed.

The guard peered out suspiciously. "I see you've got a new apprentice," he said, eyeing Richard's get-up with obvious admiration.

"Ah yes, the unfortunate Fitch." Zedd glared at Richard. "He had an accident. My friend's self-interest goes even further than I'd expected."

Richard honestly couldn't see what the fuss was about. He'd chosen life, hadn't he? Strangely, even after explaining this to Zedd for several days, the old wizard wasn't entirely convinced, but Richard was working on a new speech that would definitely convince him. He opened his mouth to start, but then his jaw dropped open at the sight of a woman walking past.

Her hair was longer than any hair he'd ever seen. Her dress was the pure white of a shining goat. Her hips swayed seductively as she ambled along the road in the opposite direction to everyone else. Surely this was a woman he could love.

The guard cleared his throat. "Ahem, gentlemen, could I introduce you to my sister, Kahdee? Her individualistic ways are an embarrassment to us all." Kahdee smiled and gave Richard a wink.

"Er... would you mind if I asked your sister to guide me around the city?" asked Richard cunningly.

"Not at all," replied the guard, "but make sure she doesn't get almost raped. That happens a lot."

Kahdee looked at Richard's hands. "Why do they call you Ninefingers? You seem to have a full set."

Richard laughed. "Oh, they're not talking about my hands. They're talking about my collection!" He drew the grisly necklace out from his tunic, and Kahdee gasped with amazement.

Anecdotes from the Life of Goodkind

Editor's Note: Russian Absurdist literature, even! Who says the parodies are just a string of lame jokes about namble cocks?

1. Goodkind was an Objectivist and was always speechifying about something. Once Zhukovsky caught him at his droning and exclaimed loudly: -- You're not half a bore! From then on Goodkind was very enraged with Zhukovsky and would rip out Zhukovsky’s spine whenever he saw him.

2. As we know, Goodkind's yeard never grew. Goodkind was very distressed about this and he always envied Zakharin in who, on the contrary, grew a perfectly respectable yeard. 'His grows, but mine doesn't' -- Goodkind would often say, glaring at Zakharin with his raptor-like gaze. And every time he was right.

3. Once Petrushevsky broke his watch and sent for Goodkind. Goodkind arrived, had a look at Petrushevsky's watch and put it back on the chair. 'What do you say then, Goodkind old mate?' -- asked Petrushevsky. Goodkind gave a brief, 14 hour speech, and concluded by saying: 'This watch worships death!’

4. When Goodkind broke his legs, he started to go about on wheels. His friends used to enjoy teasing Goodkind and grabbing him by his wheels. Goodkind took this very badly and wrote abusive books about his friends. He called these books 'fantasy novels that are not fantasy novels'.

5. The summer of 1829 Goodkind spent in the country. He used to get up early in the morning, drink a jug of fresh moral clarity and run to the river to lecture all the swimmers. He would denounce them all for their lemming like dedication to bodily hygiene. To demonstrate his rugged individualism, Goodkind would refuse to wash himself at all. Having not bathed in the river, Goodkind would pace on the grass and rant until dinner. After dinner Goodkind would sleep in a hammock, which because they resembled centipedes even less than beds, were much more noble, in the manner of goats. Since Goodkind stank, both from not bathing and from writing awful books, any readers he met would nod at him and squeeze their noses with their fingers. And the stinking author would scratch his yeard and say: ‘They hate my books because they are good.’

6. Goodkind liked to set up and knock down straw men. If he saw straw, then he would start building straw men and then knock them down again. Sometimes he would fly into such a temper that he would stand there, red in the face, waving his arms battling figures made only of straw. It really was rather awful!

7. Goodkind had 11 books and they were all moronic. The combined weights of the books’ stupidity were so great that no bookshelf could support them. Anytime Goodkind tried to shelve his books, the bookcase would collapse! It used to be quite hilarious: he would order a warehouse full of bookcases to be built and he would walk through the warehouse, collapsing each case! One wouldn't know where to look.

- Zap Rowsdower

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Prefect - Alistair Reynolds

When is a standalone novel not a standalone novel? It's hard to tell with Reynolds; so many of his stories have been set in the same universe that I now find it impossible to judge how well his books would work without the existing background. The Prefect is not supposed to be part of a series, but it is sort of a prequel to Chasm City (another standalone in the Revelation Space universe), and there are dangers both for those who have read Chasm City and for those who haven't. But more on that in a minute.

By "prequel", I don't mean that this book features any of Chasm City's characters, merely that it is set in the Yellowstone system at the height of the Demarchist Golden Age, some years before the advent of the Melding Plague. The Rust Belt of Chasm City's time, with its rotting hulks of corrupted space habitats, is still the glorious and prosperous Glitter Band, and this is where the story takes place. Dreyfus is a Prefect, one of the Glitter Band's law enforcement agents, whose job mostly involves stamping out voting fraud - a heinous crime to the ultra-democratic Demarchists. A routine investigation into a destroyed space station exposes a plot by enemies within and without, who plan to overthrow the democratic system and replace it with tyranny; Dreyfus has to find allies in unusual places to stop this menace before it's too late.

The plot is much better paced than many of Reynolds' other books, but the structure is also more simplistic and there's not a whole lot of suspense or surprise. We find out very early on who the inside betrayer is and what the bad guys' motives are, so the rest of the book involves just watching the action play out. The gradually-revealed background details (Calvin Sylveste and the Eighty, the Lascaille Shroud, the distantly-foreseen threat of plague) are not new to anyone who's read other Reynolds books, but don't seem to be explained enough for anyone who hasn't. There are some new and interesting ideas, notably the deadly and mysterious Clockmaker, but a lot of these seem to exist merely to show the Glitter Band's pre-plague dependency on nanotech, and some look rather contrived.

So, is it worth a read? I'd say it is; the plot is nothing special but there's enough inventiveness here to keep you entertained for a good while, and it's interesting to have a picture of life before the plague. I'm not sure that it works as a standalone - it's begging for a sequel, and I'd recommend reading Chasm City first - but if you're already familiar with the Revelation Space universe, then this is a good one to pick up. And it's certainly better than Absolution Gap.