Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Dogs of War

Posted: August 31, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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dogs-of-war-16By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rex is a good dog.

He’s also a 7 foot tall canine/human hybrid killing machine. A bioform bred for war by a private security firm, he leads a multiform combat team that also includes Honey, a heavy weapons toting bear, Dragon, a serpentine infiltrator come sniper, and Bees, a distributed intelligence in the form of, well, a swarm of bees.

Loyal to his Master and his inbuilt hierarchies, Rex just wants to be a good dog and fight Master’s enemies, but when he and his comrades are deployed in Mexico to battle insurgents, the lines between friend and foe blur, and when his Master is charged as a war criminal, Rex’s whole existence is up for grabs. Are he and the other bioforms mere things, or are they sentient creatures worthy of rights?

*****

If you read my review of Children of Time you’ll see I absolutely loved it (still the best book I’ve read in years) but this left me with something of an odd conundrum, on the one hand it encouraged me to seek out more from Tchaikovsky, but it did make me worry that whatever I read next wouldn’t be as good as Children of Time.

Well if I’m being honest Dogs of War isn’t as good as Children of Time, the good news is that it’s still an enjoyable read.

On the surface it’s a very different kind of book, less expansive, and a much leaner read, and yet there are similarities. Again Tchaikovsky excels in writing sentient, non-human characters, and where Dogs of War works best is in the shape of its central character, Rex, who feels completely three dimensional, and Tchaikovsky never feels the need to fully anthropomorphise the character. Rex isn’t human, and Tchaikovsky never cheats the reader by pretending he is, yet still makes him a character we can empathise with.

And you have to applaud the sheer chutzpa of making your lead characters a sentient dogman, a surprisingly eloquent bear, a lazy reptile and an intelligent swarm of bees! Really, you’ve never read anything like it, and the sheer imagination of show here’s is amazing.

It isn’t perfect, after a strong start the middle portion of the book feels somewhat disjointed and meanders a little before the pace and the plot pick up again, and given there are so many big ideas at play here (sentience, distributed intelligence, cloning, private security firms doing governmental dirty work etc.) at times I wanted it to become more epic in scope, but then again we’d have lost the intimacy we have with Rex and the other characters if the author had gone down that route, so swings and roundabouts and all that!

All in all a though provoking and enjoyable read.

Rex is a good dog, and this is a good book!

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8391123Edited by Mike Ashley

As regular readers of this blog may have worked out by now, I have a certain love of the post-apocalyptic genre. It’s not that I want the world to end, I just find the concept fascinating, so when I spotted this book, promising 24 tales of earth shattering cataclysm, well, how could I resist!

Ashley neatly splits the anthology into three sections, the first deals with the apocalypse itself, and its immediate aftermath, the second focuses on the medium term future, and the final, shortest section throws us thousands, even millions of years into the future, to a world beyond humanity.

I feel a little like a broken record here, but as I always say an anthology is something of a lucky dip, on the downside this means there will be stories you don’t like—and there were more than a few of those in here—but the flipside is there will always be some diamonds in the rough—and again there were plenty of those.

I won’t go through all 24 tales, but I’ll try and highlight the ones I enjoyed most, and mention some couple I really didn’t like at all.

The anthology begins with When We Went to See the End of the World by Robert Silverberg, it’s a fairly lightweight, amusing tale but when dealing with apocalypses it’s probably best to start small.

When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow has a novel set of heroes who begin to rebuild society in the aftermath of a global bioweapon attack. Despite a certain level of nerdy wish fulfilment I enjoyed it.

The End of the World Show by David Barnett slips humour back into the equation, as the world faces an increasingly surreal end, and the last line’s just wonderful in context.

Fermi and Frost by Frederik Pohl is a grim, yet curiously hopeful portrayal of survival during nuclear, and is definitely one of the more realistic stories in the collection.

I’m a big fan of Alastair Reynolds, and his story, sleepover, is a humdinger, incredibly inventive it postulates a apocalypse like no other and he deftly keeps you guessing for some time as to what the nature of the cataclysm actually is. As with most great mysteries, you can argue the story falls apart once you know the secret, and there’s definitely an element of The Matrix about it, but still very enjoyable.

Now we move into the medium-term post-apocalyptic future.

I wasn’t keen on Moments of Inertia by William Barton. It’s tale of a rogue star went to some interesting places but took too damn long to get there and I couldn’t really empathise with any of the characters.

Pallbearer by Robert Reed was probably one of my favourite stories in the collection. Can’t say it was stunningly original, but I just loved the author’s voice as he describes a post pandemic world where evangelical Christians believe they’re the chosen survivors of God, but the truth might be very different. Really, I could have kept reading this story for the rest of the book.

And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear starts out like an old school Mad Max style story, with the heroine, a biker courier, racing across irradiated American to deliver a package, but it goes somewhere very unexpected. It ends rather abruptly but I’m willing to forgive the author.

A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber is a story I’ve read before, many, many years ago in my teens. I’d found it really interesting back then, but sadly in hindsight it’s clunky and archaic. Bonus points for the nostalgia rush however.

Guardians of the Phoenix by Eric Brown is another somewhat old school Mad Max style tale of survivors struggling in a drought ridden world where the only water is buried deep underground. There’s some great imagery (ships becalmed in the middle of deserts) and a smidgen of hope at the end. Another highly recommended one.

Life in the Anthropocene by Paul Di Fillippo on the other hand might be the one story I really hated, full of longwinded names, made up gobbledygook technology and annoying post-humans. It isn’t that long, but I really struggled to get through it.

Terraforming Terra by Jack Williamson has a neat idea about successive generations of clones on the Moon watching Earth recover from an apocalypse so they can reclaim it, but I wasn’t keen. I couldn’t get my head around the characters, and the narrative is told in the first person by successive iterations of the same individual which makes no sense. It goes on way too long and ends with a Bradbury style twist that frankly Bradbury did better.

We’re into the distant future now, with tales that finish off the anthology by taking the (very) long view.

F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre’s World Without End is an utterly depressing, yet utterly engrossing tale of a young woman cursed with immorality who ends up the last human, doomed to wander the Earth as millennia pass. The choice of main character is interesting, and again the author’s voice very good. I really liked this one.

Hard Sci-fi legend Stephen Baxter has a wonderful grasp of deep time, and he demonstrates his skill here as The Children of Time provides snapshots of successive human offshoots that survive millions of years into the future. Again there’s a melancholic tone to the tale, but again it’s well enough written that I enjoyed it.

The final story, The Star Called Wormwood by Elizabeth Counihan, on the other hand, left me cold, and it’s a shame the book didn’t end with Baxter’s tale.

On the whole I enjoyed this anthology, though it maybe dragged on a little, and whilst a more general horror/sci-fi anthology can mix things up a little, here the relentless grimdark gets a tad wearing, even though Ashley tries his best to inject hope and humour where he can. In the end there’s only so much world ending even a fan of the genre can take!

Embers of War

Posted: June 11, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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30748899By Gareth L Powell

It’s the future, and a devastating conflict known as the Archipelago War is bought to a shuddering conclusion by a heinous war crime that devastates large swathes of a planet. One of the perpetrators of this attack, albeit under orders, is the sentient warship Trouble Dog. In the aftermath of the conflict Trouble Dog develops a conscience and resigns her commission, signing on with the noble, if underfunded, House of Reclamation, an organisation whose purpose is to provide aid and rescue to those in distress. The ship has a minimal crew and is captained by Sal Konstanz who was on the opposite side during the war.

After a tragedy, Sal imagines she might lose her captaincy, but when a pleasure liner is attacked in a mysterious solar system known as the gallery—where an alien intelligence carved planets into giant sculptures—the Trouble Dog is the only ship that can speed to its rescue in time.

Meanwhile, on a distant jungle world Ashton Childe, a burned-out spy, is given new orders. He’s to also make his way to the Gallery, and he’s to rescue one particular passenger from the downed liner, the renowned poet Ona Sudak.

Sudak isn’t quite who she appears to be however, and the Trouble Dog is heading towards more danger than she realises, which given this particular dog has had most of her fangs removed, could mean trouble!

There’s some ship to ship combat towards the end of this book that’s almost worth the cover price alone. It’s like the very best Star Trek battle transferred onto the page. Beyond this there’s a lot else to enjoy here, though this isn’t a perfect book by any means.

Powell’s world building feels a little sparse at times, but on the whole he does a good job of imagining a conceivable universe. I’m sure people might say it feels a bit derivative, but while sentient starships are nothing new, I liked the idea of a ship with a conscience, a ship that regrets what she was ordered to do and wants to make amends, and I loved the fact that, despite her noble aspirations, this is a ship that still enjoys a good fight!

If I had a problem with the book then it’s the use of first person, or more specifically the use of first person to cover multiple points of view. This would be fine but, despite Powell’s obvious talent as a writer, too often it was hard to tell one voice apart from another, and if it wasn’t for the handy aide memoir that each chapter is named for the character, it would have taken a while to determine which character’s POV we were with at any given time, especially once most of the characters are on board (or are!) Trouble Dog. Ironically the one character whose chapters do feel different is the alien engineer Nod, though it’s chapters are kinda superfluous, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

Yes it’s a tad lightweight in tone, never quite managing to hit the epic sweep it clearly wants to, but it was a fun read, with an interesting central conceit, and Powell writes well, especially scenes of combat, and it’s certainly a way better sci-fi novel than the last one I read.

So long as you don’t go in expecting Banks or Reynolds this is an enjoyable book, I’m certainly on board for any sequels and I’d really like to see Trouble Dog get into a few more scraps!

9781509833559the space between the stars_2_jpg_264_400.jpgby Anne Corlett

Jamie Allenby wakes from a fever to find she is one of the lucky few to have survived a virulent plague that has almost obliterated humanity. It’s fatal in 99.9999% of cases and so initially Jamie wonders if she might be the only survivor on this far flung colny world she’d travelled to in order to work as a vet, escaping from the pain of a miscarriage and the breakup of her relationship with her former partner Daniel.

She soon discovers she isn’t the only survivor on this planet, and it soon becomes apparent that there are survivors scatters across space. Soon Jamie is part of a disparate group of survivors aboard a battered freighter. They have no real plan, but Jamie wants to get back to Earth, certain that a garbled message she received is proof that Daniel has survived as well.

As the band make their way to Earth they will face dangers, and each group of survivors they encounter has their own ideas about the future of humanity, but the real danger might be closer to home.

 

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, and I’d add that you should never judge a book by it’s blurb. The cover of this book is gorgeous, and the blurb is enticing, talking about a plague that has decimated humanity across dozens of colony worlds, and promising an exciting, and somewhat novel, tale of post-apocalyptic survival.

If only the book had lived up to it’s cover, or it’s premise. Even my synopsis above probably does the book more justice than it actually deserves.

First it needs to be stressed that this is science fiction only in the loosest possible sense. Of course sci-fi is a broad church, ranging from space opera to hard, ultra-realistic science fiction, but all share, to a greater or lesser extent, a speculative element. Aside from references to space ships, and colonies, there is very little here that qualifies. In fact from the way people dress, act and talk, and from the technology on display, this could just as easily been set on Earth today, with Jamie waking up on the Isle of Wight, for example, rather than a far flung world. In fact it’s almost a period piece because at times it feels dated even by today’s technology—see reference to the net for example.

Each of the colony worlds they visit seems indistinguishable from the last, and whilst not every science fiction novel needs to go into detail about the technology of space travel, Corlett doesn’t even make a sop to it. There’s no hint of how space travel works, how artificial gravity works, what kind of fuel the ship uses—they keep having to refuel but it’s just generic ‘fuel’—and worst of all no real attention given to the unfathomable distances between these worlds. They may as well be in a transit van driving from London to Newcastle and stopping off at various service stations along the way.

I’ve seen one reviewer say that it isn’t so much sci-fi as a melodrama, but even there I think it falls down, because few really dramatic things actually happen. In terms of the survivors they meet only a couple of groups who pose any threat, and even here the group evade them with relative ease. Every obstruction to their journey is avoided with the ease of that transit van swerving around potholes. Even the nature of the plague itself is curiously bloodless, you may have thought John Wyndham did cosy catastrophes, but you’ve seen nothing yet. The plague kills billions, but helpfully turns everyone to dust so the survivors rarely have to see any bodies.

I guess Corlett really just wanted to examine the human condition, and there is a lot of navel gazing going on, but if you’re going to view the apocalypse from this angle you need to have more meat to grab onto. Some well-rounded characters would be a start, but sadly there are none.

Did you ever see the TV show Firefly? I’m guessing Corlett must have given the similarities of certain characters. The battered freighter itself reminded me of Serenity with it’s big loading ramp, it’s captained by a taciturn cowboy type named Callan, who has a surly female second in command. Their group also contains a priest with a troubled past, a hooker with a heart of gold and a youngster who appears to have Asperger’s. Pretty much every character in the book comes straight out of central casting, take Rena the religious fanatic. As for Jamie, it’s hard to like her. She seems more concerned with her own troubles than the fact that the human race has been wiped out.

And I haven’t even got to how contrived the ‘plot’ is, especially in terms of who miraculously survives the plague. There was one surprise midway through, one curveball I didn’t see coming, but everything else was horribly predictable, even the romance seems perfunctory.

The worst of it is that it’s a really good premise, and Corlett can clearly write, I liked a lot of her prose, it’s just that she didn’t seem to have a whole lot to say with it.

A missed opportunity and I can’t really recommend it.

Arrival

Posted: March 31, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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arrivalBy Ted Chiang

The first thing to note is that this isn’t a novelisation of the movie, instead it’s a repackaged anthology of stories by American science fiction writer Chiang, which does include Story of Your Life, the novella the film was adapted from, but also contains seven other stories. Given there’s only eight stories in the book I’ll talk a little about each one. Some I liked, some I was less keen on. C’est la vie…

The anthology opens with Tower of Babylon, a curious tale set in an alternate world where the titular tower was actually built. It took me a little while to get into this, it goes on a bit and it feels a tad repetitive at times (but this might have been intentional to serve as a metaphor for the time taken to climb the tower) and the ending, where it turns out cosmology functions differently in this universe, left me cold, but Chiang’s world building inside the tower that’s so huge it takes a year to climb is certainly evocative, and it’s original if nothing else.

Next up is Understand, where a man given a revolutionary drug to regenerate brain tissue following an accident finds his intelligence increasing at an exponential rate. I liked this, especially the fact that the protagonist starts to become quite alien in his interactions with the rest of humanity, and despite his superior intellect he doesn’t seem to really do anything with it. It reminded me a lot of the film Lucy, which the story obviously predates. Only the ending lets this down.

Division by Zero is something I just couldn’t get my head around, as a genius mathematician finds her mind unravelling when she discovers a fundamental flaw at the heart of mathematics. It left me a trifle cold if I’m honest.

Story of Your Life is probably the best tale in the book, and you can see why someone in Hollywood decided this would make a great science fiction movie. Chiang’s story delves more into the nature of time, or more specifically the perception of time, and explains why the Heptapods see things so differently. There’s a lot of science here, and even some diagrams, yet Chiang never lost me and there remains an emotional core to the story that’s mirrored in the film, and the end did bring a lump to my throat.

Seventy-Two Letters is another tale bordering on fantasy, set in an alternate Victorian England where golems are an everyday part of life, each bought into existence by the writing of names, each of which can command a golem to do different things. That’s where the 72 letters of the title come from. There’s a hefty dash of Jewish mythology here, but Chiang grounds it. Much like Tower of Babylon this is a universe where the natural laws we are used to don’t function the same, only here it’s the basis of biology, and specifically reproduction, that’s different. It’s certainly inventive but I think Chiang asked more of a leap of faith than I was prepared to give it. Maybe if I’d just gone with it I’d have enjoyed it more.

The Evolution of Human Science is a short sharp tale positing how learning would look in a world where super intelligence existed. It’s ok but it’s a trifle too short to really grab you.

Hell is the Absence of God is another alternate Earth story, this time one where Angelic visitations are commonplace, but where they’re perceived almost like natural disasters, and each time an Angel manifests on Earth destruction is wrought in the immediate vicinity and as many people are likely to be injured or killed as are those who are healed by the Angel’s power. It’s a very interesting story around faith, and I loved the idea of Angel’s being perceived, well, as an act of God, with no rhyme or reason sometimes to who they kill and who they save. Infuriatingly yet again it’s the ending that lets it down.

The final story is perhaps my second favourite. Liking What You See: A Documentary posits an intriguing near future where a science known as Calliagnosia can affect your perception so that you no longer recognise if someone is aesthetically beautiful. The story is told in epistolary form, in interviews with people on both sides of the argument. It’s an interesting and very even handed take on something that could change humanity, perhaps for the better, perhaps not, and Chiang is smart enough to leave the interpretation to the reader.

Over all Chiang seems to be an incredibly imaginative writer, coming up with radical and inventive ideas. Whilst these are universally intriguing, the execution is variable. At times he pitches the science at a level I could understand, at times it goes over my head. Several of his more fantastical tales require a suspension of disbelief and I found this harder to undertake in some stories than others.

In addition his prose is a little too academic and anaemic at times. It isn’t that he doesn’t weave emotion into his stories, just that at times is writing felt a little dry, to me.

Still I did enjoy the book and wouldn’t rule out reading more of his stories in future, though I can’t say I feel the urge to suddenly rush out and buy everything he’s ever written!

isbn9781473222687.jpgBy Philip K. Dick

In the future (ok it’s 1992 but it was the future when this was written, ok) and World War Terminus has devastated much of the Earth. With the atmosphere polluted by radiation mass emigration to off-world colonies has begun, with the human emigres incentivised by the presence of humanoid robots (or Andys as they’re known) to provide slave labour and satisfy humanity’s every whim. Those left behind on Earth struggle to survive, taking solace in the ability to dial moods, and to connect with the Christlike figure of Wilber Mercer via the use of empathy boxes. In this world bereft of so much flora and fauna the greatest status symbol you can possess is an animal, preferably a real one but if not an android animal will do.

In San Francisco Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter employed to hunt down and retire (a polite term for kill) andys that have gone rogue. When six highly advanced Nexus-6 andys arrive on Earth, having violently escaped Mars, Deckard is given the task of tracking them down. But few bounty hunters have ever retired six replicants in a single day, and never the Nexus-6 models, andys built by the Rosen Association that are so advanced that even Deckard’s Voight-Kampff empathy test might not pick them up…

 

As a fan of Blade Runner, it’s hard not to be interested in the source material. I had read this before, but that was many, many years ago. To be honest I didn’t much enjoy it first time around but, having picked up a copy free with the Blu-ray of Blade Runner 2049, I thought I might give it another go.

Whilst I still wouldn’t call it a great novel, I have to admit that I enjoyed it more second time around, and it made a lot more sense to me. There are many parts of the book that ended up in the film, Deckard’s Voight-Kampff test on Rachel is word for word in places, but in many other respects this is a very different beast.

For starters the term Blade Runner is never used, Deckard is merely a bounty hunter, and Replicant isn’t used either. It’s hard to imagine how the term Blade Runner first sounded, because now its iconic, but it’s hard to say that using the term replicant isn’t a huge improvement on andy!

Whilst animals—real and fake—play their part in the film, their importance isn’t highlighted as much as here, and their existence in both organic and artificial form feeds into Dick’s wider story about empathy. Deckard feels empathy towards animals, and even his robot sheep, yet he, along with everyone else, sees no contradiction in fawning over animals yet having no empathy for humanoid robots, and one of the major strands of the book is Deckard’s growing empathy towards the Nexus-6s he’s hunting.

Another change is that here Deckard is married, to a woman named Iran with whom he has a fractious relationship, although Rachel is still involved in the mix, only here she’s Rachel Rosen; there’s no Tyrell Corporation, only the Rosen Association (interesting side note, in 1975 an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker featured a killer robot built by the Tyrell Institute!)

In many ways Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a product of its time; whilst there are some female characters of note, in Deckard’s world they’re mainly secretaries rather than cops or bounty hunters, and even the female andys have feminine roles. Dick’s world building is at times really good, and at others quite laughable (men have to wear lead lined codpieces because of all of the radiation.).

The prose is variable. At times it’s quite wonderful, and at others its dreadfully clunky. There’s a palpable lack of tension at times too. Many of the Nexus-6s become quite passive when they’re about to be retired, resigned to their fate—no beating at the hands of Leon or being hunted by a deranged Rutger Hauer here—and it does tend to suck the drama out of things, but then I guess Dick was more interested in meditating on empathy than producing a thrilling detective novel.

For a story about empathy the book still feels a trifle lifeless to me, and too often it wanders off down dead ends to do with Mercerism when what you really want is for Deckard to go andy hunting, but it’s surprising how much of this does translate to the film, even down to the notion that Deckard might be an andy himself (though this strand is resolved rather than being left open as it is in the film) and a trip to a mysterious alternative police precinct existing side by side with Deckard’s is a wonderful mind-bender of a plot twist.

It’s a tad old fashioned and clunky, but this is a more interesting book than I once thought, even if its main significance is as the basis for a film I love way more than I could ever love the book.

House of Suns

Posted: February 19, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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41YN0MhPJWL.jpgBy Alastair Reynolds.

It’s more than six million years in the future and humanity has spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy. There are myriad human and post-human civilisations, although no major civilisation seems to last for long, as the lack of faster than light travel makes it hard to maintain any empire spanning multiple star systems.

One of the few permanent features within the galaxy are the “Lines”. Each line was born from a single individual, six-million years before, who cloned themselves a thousand times, copying their personality into their clones, both male and female, before sending these facets, known as Shatterlings, out into the universe. Genetically enhanced to have incredibly long lifespans, and making use of stasis and abeyance technology, the Shatterlings routinely travel alone, congregating every 200,000 years to exchange stories.

One such line is the Gentian Line, also known as the House of Flowers, composed of the clones of a woman named Abigail Gentian, and two of the shatterlings are Purslane, a female, and Campion, a male. In violation of Line rules, Purslane and Campion have become lovers. Already fifty years late for the latest reunion, their arrival at the festivities is delayed further when they encounter a malevolent space bourn entity, rescuing a being named Hesperus in the process. Hesperus is one of the Machine People, an advanced race of sentient robots.

With Hesperus as their guest, Purslane and Campion resign themselves to a late arrival at the reunion, and probable censure by the rest of the line for their relationship, but a major turn of events will leave the House of Flowers torn apart. As they struggle to determine who has targeted their Line, Purslane and Campion will discover secrets they had forgotten, and potentially embark upon a journey of such epic proportions that it will make their 200,000 year circuits of the galaxy seem like a walk to the local shops.

 

One thing you can say about Reynolds. He thinks big, concocting huge, sprawling epics that embrace not just a few days, or weeks, or months, but millions upon millions of years. This particular tale of Deep Time is a densely packed universe that feels utterly real, despite being utterly divorced from today. The world building at work in House of Suns is just phenomenal, from the notion of the Shatterlings and their endless routine of circuits and reunions, to the enigmatic machine people and the other societies who inhabit the Milky Way. And then there’s the technology, covering everything from space travel to the differing forms of suspended animation, time dilation, stardams, and an exceptionally grisly form of interrogation.

This is a grand sweeping space opera at its grandest and most sweeping, and though the story is long and packed full of detail, Reynolds’ prose and sheer planning make it a hugely enjoyable ride. The story takes several twists and turns, and whilst the ending does feel a little like we’ve seen it before, there’s huge enjoyment to be found in getting there.

Purslane and Campion are perhaps not fleshed out as much as they should be. Campion is the more reckless of the two, but at times this is the only thing that seems to differentiate the two of them, and particularly when they share scenes it can be tricky to decipher which one is speaking because they don’t seem distinct enough, but once separated, and with them taking alternate first-person chapters, this becomes easier.

Similarly, the flashbacks to Abigail’s childhood, and eventual decision to shatter herself, is a little jarring at times, although there is a deeper thread at work.

Any flaws are minor however, overall this was an excellent read, at times exciting, at times thoughtful, at times headache inducing (in a good way!) it just seems a shame that Reynolds hasn’t yet felt the need to return to this universe, after creating it in such great detail, it almost seems a shame to limit it to one novel, however good.

Highly recommended, just don’t expect a quick read!