Search This Blog

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Last Days - review

Although this book is new in Australia, where the author spends part of every year, it has appeared in the US already, in 2006. I thought it well worth commenting on. Here's my review.

THE LAST DAYS By Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld is a prolific - and versatile - writer for teens. His characters are believable teenagers in situations that are often bizarre. His novels begin with lines that pull the reader in. I won’t quote the opening of this one, but it’s no exception.

This novel is a sequel to Peeps. The main characters are new, but it’s set in the same universe and the protagonists from the previous book appear towards the end. While you can more or less pick up what’s going on in this one without having read Peeps, it’s probably a good idea to have read that novel first. It saves time and means you can pick up clues that the novel’s characters can’t.

In Peeps, we met Cal, a nice young man from Texas who had lost his virginity to a woman he met in a New York bar one night. He discovered, soon afterwards, that he’d caught something a lot nastier than a venereal disease - and he’d spread it. Joining a mysterious organisation called the Night Watch, he tried to make things right.

Vampirism, in Westerfeld’s universe, is not about being undead, but about being infected by a parasite. Vampires don’t need to bite you to make you one of them, though they might eat you if they think you’re pretty enough. A kiss will do it, or even a cat breathing on you while you sleep. If you’re lucky, like Cal, the hero of Peeps, you might be a carrier, rather than a victim. If you’re not lucky, you find yourself hating things you used to love, running away from it all to live in holes and tunnels, with rats for company and possibly having a taste for human flesh. It’s controllable; the vampire members of the Night Watch, known as angels, go “vampire hunting” with the aim of catching and treating other victims. Vampires are always hungry and usually horny, because the parasite needs feeding and wants to spread. In exchange, the vampire gets unusual speed and strength and centuries of life, just like the traditional kind. And they’re here for a reason. They’re the only ones strong enough to fight something much worse...

In The Last Days, five teenagers form a rock band in a New York which is being gradually abandoned. Parts of the city are overflowing with rubbish and rats, because the rubbish collectors will no longer go there. The lead singer is a vampire girl whose parents have tried to keep her illness under control. The drummer is a girl with some psychic abilities. There are two boys and a rich girl who doesn’t understand, yet, why all her friends from music school are leaving the city.

As they come to realise the truth, they also find that their music has the power to help save the world - at huge risk to themselves.

This is one helluva rip-roaring thriller. It’s also closer to SF than horror. Westerfeld takes a lot of trouble to explain how it might work, and very convincing it is, too.

Well worth a read.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Latest reviews - Anna Ciddor, Simon Haynes

This review was written before Livre Hachette closed down the Quentaris series. I thought I’d sent it to January Magazine, but as it has never appeared, I assume I didn’t and it’s now too late to send it, so it will appear here instead. Fans of the series will be pleased to know that there will be two more books before the series is officially closed down, and the existing books should still be available in the shops. I do recommend them.

PRISONER OF QUENTARIS By Anna Ciddor. Lothian, 2006.

In the 1970s, a series of fantasy stories were published centred around a place called Sanctuary, in a series known as Thieves’ World. The difference between Thieves’ World and other series fiction was that it was a shared universe. There was a set-up - a world, a certain number of characters, rules about what could and couldn’t happen. It was edited by Robert Lynn Asprin and several well-known writers, including Marion Zimmer Bradley, wrote stories set in this universe. The concept of shared worlds is, of course, well-known to science fiction fan writers, who write their amateur tales set in other people’s universes, but this was deliberate, and written by professionals, who shared characters and events.

During the last few years, Australian children’s/YA writers Paul Collins and Michael Pryor have created a sort of Thieves’ World for children, centred around a city called Quentaris, which is meant to be equivalent to Renaissance Italy in culture and technology (though at times it bears a certain resemblance to Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork). Quentaris is next to a set of caves known as the Rift Caves, which open on to other worlds, cleverly making it possible to send young Quentaran heroes and heroines out on adventures or bring adventure - often invasion - to Quentaris. Each novel in the series has been written by a well-known Australian fantasy/YA novelist, including Lucy Sussex, Jenny Pausacker, Sean McMullen, Isobelle Carmody, Gary Crew, Margo Lanagan and, of course, several by the series editors themselves. They have ranged from very funny to terribly serious and, between them, the authors have built up the universe and shared the characters they have created. The Commander of the City Watch is a Xena-like woman called Storm. The city is run by a fussy little man who is not as silly as he looks, though not as smart as Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician. There is strong rivalry between the city’s two patrician families, who have the familiar-sounding names of Duelph and Nhibelline.

The entire series is great fun and the book covers feature gorgeous art by Australia’s top cover artists. It introduces children to fantasy without patronising them. Best of all, the books are stand-alone and don’t have to be read in any particular order.

Anna Ciddor’s Prisoner of Quentaris is the most recent book in the series. Those children who have read and enjoyed her Viking Magic trilogy and expect her work to be funny won’t be disappointed. Who else but Anna Ciddor would decide that the latest invasion of Quentaris should be, not by monsters or sky pirates but by leprechauns?

The whole problem begins with the apprentice bard, Heaney, who stumbles into Quentaris by accident and, returning to report his visit to a land of giants, is ordered to bring something home to prove it. He makes an unexpected ally in Quentaran child Seb, whose older brother runs a market stall and wants to trade for the leprechauns’ cute little artefacts. When the leprechaun king wants to have a look for himself, he is captured by Lord Chalm, the Archon, who isn’t going to be dictated to by this bunch of rabbit-riding beings, waving their tiny swords at him, thank you very much. The leprechauns will have to find some other way than direct attack. Their various attempts to free their king make for a hilarious romp - and yes, they do succeed in the end, in a way that might not have been expected, although if you know your legend, or even if you have been reading the Harry Potter series, you will know why it’s not a good idea to accept gold from leprechauns.

An interesting feature of these leprechauns is that, far from being green-dressed little men wearing buckled shoes and hats, saying things like, “Top o’the mornin’ to ye!” they’re a miniature version of early Irish society, including court champions who argue over the “hero’s portion” of the roast (though a leprechaun roast is likely to be a mouse rather than a boar or deer.). They have families and jobs and a human lifestyle.

This is a delightful addition to the series. Children love series fiction and there are, so far, nearly two dozen in this one. They are not only a good introduction to fantasy, but a good introduction to the authors, if the young readers haven’t discovered them yet. They should appeal to children from late primary school to early secondary and to older reluctant readers.

HAL SPACEJOCK #3: JUST DESSERTS By Simon Haynes Fremantle Press, 2007.

This is the third in what is likely to be a long-lasting series. At least, the author says at the front of the book that there will be about fifteen, or until someone takes away his keyboard.

In the first novel, we met Hal Spacejock, the utterly incompetent, luckless interstellar truck driver. Hal’s spaceship was held together by chewing gum and rubber bands. By the end of the novel, he’d acquired a much better ship, the Volante (meaning “stolen”?), courtesy of the villains. Well, they didn’t need it any more. He had also acquired a robot companion, Clunk, who was, fortunately, a lot brighter than Hal, unless you count his willingness to stick by Hal.

The universe of this series features no super-villains in breath-masks, no Dark Lords trying to take over the universe or Imperial Storm Troopers, only multimillionaires trying to become even wealthier and the thugs they employ to help them in their plans to rip off everyone. People are still people and just as likely to be fooled. All Hal wants, in this book, is a cup of coffee and a sweet snack, but it’s not to be.

This time, the evil plot extends beyond scheming businessmen to planetary trade. There’s a beautiful woman who is actually a robot. She has a mission, but doesn’t know what it is. She does have a large budget to offer Hal to transport a certain cargo, but the Volante, still a good ship, needs replacement parts which aren’t available locally. Hal and Clunk have to take a job on a space liner to get where they can buy the parts. When they return to find the Volante missing, they’re stuck with another chewing-gum and rubber-band ship with which to pursue the thief and - quite accidentally - save the day, while causing the usual mayhem. Think “A Night At The Opera” or any other Marx Brothers movie.

At times, I wondered if the author was throwing in unnecessary scenes just to add to the humour, but somehow all loose ends were tied by the end. The female robot was actually a sympathetic character who didn’t, in my opinion, deserve what happened to her. Oh, well.

The book is pretty much stand-alone, a separate adventure, but you’ll probably get more out of it if you know who the characters are and how they relate to each other. If you enjoy Golden Age comic space operas, such as Harry Harrison’s, you’ll like this.