Harry Turtledove inhabits a fairly strange genre, he writes what is often called "alternative history". If you've ever wondered what would have happened to the world if aggressive alien lizards from the star Tau Ceti invaded earth at the beginning of World War 2 or what the possibilities would be if we had a machine that could move us "sideways" into multiple universes that diverged from our timeline at some (usually recent) point in the past, then Harry Turtledove is your man. He does this one thing and he does it extremely well.
"Beyond The Gap" is slightly different. It depicts human society, yes, but not on any earth we would recognise. The communities in the novel range from pre-historic (the Bizogots herd mammoths) to medieval (Raumsdalians live in castles and fight with swords). All of them share an existence that is dominated by a huge earth encircling Glacier (always with a capital G) to the north. Except that the Glacier has been retreating for the last few centuries and now a gap has appeared that allows travel to the other side. The descriptions of living and travelling in the shadow of the Glacier are very well done, you almost feel the chill as you read it.
"Beyond The Gap" is also the first book in the "Opening Of The Earth" trilogy and, given that the three books tell a single story, should really be read with "The Breath Of God" and "The Golden Shrine". There is a definite stylistic difference between the first two books and the last one; the first two are written in the style of Turtledove's "Crosstime Traffic" series which is aimed at a younger audience but "The Golden Shrine", while maintaining some aspects of this style such as the annoyingly frequent repetition of key phrases like "he couldn't tell him he was wrong", has a much more adult feel about it. The critical plot element that resolves the story was obvious, at least to me, by about half way through the first book but was well done nonetheless and was immediately followed by a final plot twist of biblical proportions that I hadn't anticipated and greatly added to my enjoyment of the story and my appreciation of Turtledove's skills as a writer.
This series was an enjoyable read over a week or so on the train. I think I've had enough Turtledove at the moment, though, so although I've got "Give Me Back My Legions!" sitting beside the bed, I suspect I'll return it to the library unread. Turtledove fans can, however, expect me to return to the author later in the year.
"Beyond The Gap" itself is a bit difficult to track down at The Book Depository unless you are happy to get the Talking Book CD versions but there are plenty of second hand copies available at AbeBooks
. "The Breath Of God" and "The Golden Shrine" are both available at The Book Depository (click on the link below) with paperback copies hitting New Zealand shores for a little over ten dollars each.
In the first book review I did on this site I mentioned that there were only two authors at present that I would walk over broken glass to get their new novels and I bemoaned the fact the Peter F Hamilton's novel "Great North Rd" was not due out until next year. What I didn't mention was that Hamilton has a new book of short stories out. I didn't mention it because, well, I'm not really a fan of short stories and I didn't wasn't sure whether my love of Hamilton's writing would outweigh my dislike of the genre.
Well, I've now read "Manhattan in Reverse" and I can reccommend it. As Hamilton comments in his introduction, most of the stories are only called "short" because they're shorter than a novel and with Hamilton routinely using 1000 pages + to tell a story in the novel format it is no surprise that this entire collection consists of only seven or eight stories. The first few are set in completely new universes for Hamilton with the last couple, including the title story, solidly based in the same universe as his last half dozen novels. While I was obviously most comfortable with the two Paula Myo stories, the one that captured my imagination the most was "Watching Trees Grow", a murder mystery set over a period of a couple of hundred years from 1850 - 2050 in a universe not entirely unlike our own but populated by people with 400 year lifespans and, probably as a result, a slightly accelerated technological development history. I'd like to see Hamilton set more stories in this universe and perhaps even explain what the "Sport of Emperors" really is. One of the Paula Myo stories was a bit underwhelming as it relied on a plot twist that was used extensively in the Void novels so came as no surprise when it was revealed to be at work here. The character development of Paula was encouraging, I've always felt she was a bit too unecessarily one dimensional in the novels. The other one, involving the possibility of a non-diagnosed proto-sentinent species on an outlying planet had a well worked plot but the use of Paula as a main character seemed a little contrived. Perhaps it would have been better done as a stand alone story.
For Hamilton fans, and for fans of science fiction short stories, this volume will provide a short but enjoyable read.
Manhattan In Reverse is available from The Book Repository in both hard back ($31) and paper back ($23).
There are only two authors writing today whose novels are a "must have", such that I will pre-order them from The Book Depository even before I've read any reviews. One is Peter F Hamilton (sadly, it is another year before "Great North Road" is due to be released) and the other is Neal Stephenson.
"Reamde' was released in the UK a scant week before I was off on a two week holiday in Australia and I spent most of that week worrying about whether it would arrive before I had to leave. Luckily, it turned up with nearly eighteen hours to spare and so I was able to open it to the first of over a thousand pages as the plane thundered down the runway.
Early reviews over the past week had been mixed, some people felt it wasn't Neal's best work while others thought this might well be the book that propels him into the mainstream. The blurb on the back suggested a typical Stephenson plot-line that seemed overly comedic and bizarre with Canadian drug runners, Russian Mafioso and Chinese hackers all mixed together with an Eritrean girl brought up in Iowa. The first chapter started off the way that Stephenson meant to go on, with guns being fired left, right and centre. It also introduced us to Richard Forthrast and Zula Forthrast, two of the main characters in the book. The first 100 pages or so are fairly slow going as various scenes are set but, once the action takes off with the murder of a minor character, it doesn't let up for the remaining 900 pages.
"Reamde" is the 2011 equivalent of what "Cryptonomican" was in 1999. It is a novel that is vast in scope, that explores different subjects and settings intelligently. If you can understand why Zula would spend much of her early life carting around a complete Encyclopedia Brittanica, you'll love this book. It is also a surprisingly readable book. Although Neal Stephenson has a background in Science Fiction (of sorts), you'd struggle to find any of that in this book. Lots of Science Fact, yes, but fiction? Well, maybe T'Rain (the online computer game that dominates the lives of so many of the characters) but even that will not tax the imagination of anyone brought up in the internet era. I have to agree with other reviewers - this just might be the book that launches Stephenson in the mainstream market; anyone who enjoys a good old fashion thriller or spy novel might just enjoy this one.
Oh, and that name? Linda took one look at it and declared that someone had spelt "Remade" incorrectly but, as most geeks will have spotted and as the book explains, it derives from "Read Me", a common file name.
At the time of writing, Reamde is available from The Book Depository in a large paperback version for $28.73. You can buy it by clicking on the link below: