Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – The Mistress of Spices


In The Mistress of Spices, Divakaruni wraps a fantastical premise around the experiences of Indian immigrants in the USA. Though Tilo appears to be an elderly woman living in Oakfield, California, she is in fact a Mistress of Spices, able to give her store’s customers the spices they need to achieve happiness. She has devoted herself to the spices, who have granted her immortality and magical abilities but will punish her harshly if she pursues desires of her own.

The fantasy aspects are original and the story has some poignant moments, but The Mistress of Spices is neither as rich nor as surprising as the premise suggests. Tilo is blatantly unsuited to her position: she’s vain and passionate, becomes attached to others too easily, and longs for earthly love. It’s just a matter of time before she surrenders to temptation.

Tilo’s romance with the mysterious Raven shows a strong chick-lit streak and is harder to accept than the novel’s magical elements. Raven is very wealthy and attractive, and can clearly see that Tilo is not as she appears, which makes it all too perfect and too easy. Their relationship does have some serious conflicts beyond the obstacles of the jealous spices and Tilo’s illusory body. However, these are not the story’s focus. At the point where the characters do acknowledge them, the plot whips back and forth so abruptly that the novel’s conclusions, both literal and philosophical, aren’t given enough room.

Meanwhile, the writing too often fumbles in its attempts to create sensuous imagery. The metaphors are frequently forced. From these smaller details to its underlying structure, Divakaruni’s novel fails to live up to her her insights and imaginative ideas.


Nicola Griffith – Ammonite


When the Company colonised Grenchstom’s Planet, or Jeep, it was already inhabited by humans. Not only was their origin unknown, they were all women. Soon enough, a virus swept through the Company’s employees, killing all of the men and many of the women. To stop the virus from spreading, the Company keeps a ship in orbit, ready to destroy everything that lives on it, or tries to escape it. A government agency sends a representative to Jeep to determine if the Company is exploiting the planet’s ‘natives.’ This woman, Marghe Taishan, is also a test subject for a vaccine against the virus. She knew that this was a one way trip, no matter what. But she never anticipated how irrevocably Jeep would change her.

Griffith is respected as a writer of both science-fiction and crime stories concerned with gender and sexuality. First published in 1992, Ammonite is her first novel, and a winner of Lambda and Tiptree awards. It begins strongly, establishing several deeply intriguing mysteries about Jeep and its natives – principally, how they manage to reproduce. With a silent spectre hanging over the planet, and unknown dangers waiting on its surface, Marghe has many challenges to face. Her journey is disappointing in more ways than one, however.

Ammonite’s sense of tension quickly dissipates as it lets go of its hold on a focused plot. Marghe’s exploration of Jeep becomes less important than her inner growth. The link between these things seems natural but, unfortunately, it’s not often clear where Marghe is going and why. A sub-plot in which the colony’s commander, Hannah Danner, trys to keep the Company ship at bay almost revives the story, but again, this is lost as it becomes clear that months pass between the important developments. This is obviously necessary to make Marghe and Danner cross paths at certain times, but when little actually happens after Danner passes the supposed point of no return, it’s the death knell for the story’s sense of urgency.

Griffith is primarily concerned with a character study, and creating an evocative world. It’s just not an exciting story, though, and when it eventually does answer some of its mysteries, the reader may feel even more strongly that this isn’t the type of story they were expecting. They’re not bad answers, just not entirely satisfying. And the novel is totally undermined by the fact that Marghe just happens to be the ideal person to discover certain things about the natives – even though no one could have anticipated this.

Strangely, the off-worlders don’t discuss or dwell on the fact that Jeep is populated entirely by women. Perhaps Griffith is trying to make it clear that women are people first and foremost. However, Jeep is so different to what the off-world characters are used to that it’s surely worth having a conversation about! Beyond being common sense, this would tell us more about some of the social norms that the human race has in this future, and it would also tell us more about the characters. How do they feel about the idea of never seeing another man ever again? Is this the reason (never revealed) why some of the characters want to escape from Jeep, no matter the cost?

Jeep does feel like a detailed, interesting world. Griffith often uses striking descriptions, particularly of the planet’s sky. Sometimes it is full of clouds that are “low and rounded, as featureless as a basket of eggs,” and sometimes it is “the grey yellow of lentil scum, a sky full of snow.” Skilful use of imagery and language is laudable, but not a story’s sole appeal for many readers (and certainly not this one). Learning about Jeep would be more enjoyable if Ammonite did not meander so much.

Though it has an engaging premise and succeeds in presenting a story where practically every character is female (a strong statement in and of itself), Ammonite is dissatisfying in regards to plot. This is made worse by the fact that many of the conflicts that it establishes are not fully resolved. Unless Griffith returns to Jeep, which seems unlikely given that twenty years have passed, this story will still feel incomplete.

Amy Thomson – The Color of Distance


Juna is left for dead on an alien world, presumed lost along with the rest of her survey team, but help comes from an unexpected source. The planet’s hithertofore-reclusive intelligent beings save her in a frightening and astonishing way: though they scarcely even use tools, the Tendu are masters of biology, able to heal illness, regrow limbs, and even alter Juna’s own body to survive in an environment that should kill her. Juna must live amongst them until humans return, but the two races are so dissimilar that she fears what that day will bring.

Thomson’s narrative choices often surprised me in how they avoided shock and escalations of conflict. Many plot points are clearly telegraphed in advance, and whenever the story could seriously take a turn for the worse, Thomson tends to choose a less dark and calamitous direction. She instead emphasises the better natures of both humans and the Tendu, and her calm tone prevents even painful moments from biting too deeply. The result is a story with not a lot of edge or tension, though it could potentially have had both.

None of that is really meant as a criticism. Though I never felt especially worried for the characters, I was instantly pulled into their lives. Thomson creates a complex alien race who resemble frogs and speak through patterns and colours on their skin, and yet are constantly relatable. She does this with seeming ease, resulting in a novel with a warm and personable feel.

Thomson divides the story largely between the points of view of Juna and Anito, a Tendu who is coming into adulthood. The first contact is shown from Anito’s point of view, and reading this from a human perspective makes the future challenges and potentials spring into the imagination. Anito finds her life going in a direction vastly different to that which she expected, and this puts an interesting slant on Tendu culture and keeps her engaging. Juna also causes her, and other Tendu, to look differently at their own morality and customs, which helps to keep these aliens’ lives from seeming simplistically idyllic.

A question looms over The Color of Distance: how will the Tendu react when they realise how deeply humans have neglected the aliens’ highest principle, the maintenance of harmony in their ecosystems? However, this isn’t truly answered here. I presume it will come to the fore in the sequel, Through Alien Eyes, but some of its reviews concern me. I would like to see more of this future human race as glimpsed in The Color of Distance, but some people see the sequel as a near betrayal of this novel, so I’ll leave it for another day.

Jack Campbell – The Lost Fleet: Dauntless and Fearless


I wouldn’t call Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series junk, but you know that feeling that happens after you start eating a large serving of chips and they taste so good that you eat much more than you should? That’s me after reading Dauntless and Fearless in quick succession.

The series’ protagonist, Captain Jack Geary, is a man who’s been in suspended animation for a century and has reawakened to find that the war he had been fighting in never ended. Not only that, but his actions in his last battle have made him a legendary hero. Due to desperate circumstances, he’s placed in charge of an Alliance fleet faced with overwhelming odds. The changes that have been made to military protocol over the years are as much an enemy as the Syndicate as he tries to return the fleet, and the valuable technology its flagship carries, safely to Alliance space.

The action in this series is addictive; Campbell sets out his pieces well. Geary faces so many challenges and the plot moves through them so relentlessly that reading on becomes irresistible. The setting has friendly glimmers of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, albeit with an element that could not be shown on television: ships move at speeds relative to the speed of light, so space battles can be planned well in advance and take hours or days to begin. The acceleration involved means that when the ships do draw near, they pass each other at speeds imperceptibly fast for humans.

The setting also has elements of sea-faring series such as those by C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. Mathematical skill is just as important to victory in these battles as it is to those fought on the ocean waves. The fleet’s structure is naval in design, and the depths of space garner folklore much as the sea did for its sailors. Geary, meanwhile, has almost as many insecurities as Horatio Hornblower.

Appealing though Dauntless is, Fearless grows tedious by just offering more of the same. Everything starts to seem too much like pieces being pushed around a board, including the character relationships. Developments are telegraphed in advance so clearly that there’s no surprise involved. The story is all surface, and what seemed to be an enjoyable adventure becomes pointless and tiresome. I don’t always learn my lesson after binging on chips, but I have here. Maybe these books would be more palatable if read only occasionally, but that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t have much substance. I won’t be going back for more.

Peter Watts – Starfish


The first book in his Rifters series, Peter Watts’ Starfish creates a world made more disturbing by being concretely believable, yet makes it not just bearable but fascinating through writing that has all the powerful ease of a hammerhead’s tail.

In this future, humanity has managed to harness the geothermal energy formed in the rifts at the bottom of the ocean, where the earth tortures itself unceasingly through the grinding of tectonic plates. It takes a special kind of person to work down there, and not just a person with a mechanical lung, corneal caps, altered brain chemistry, and a protective skinsuit. Only someone who is accustomed to being predator, prey, or both, to a cycle of abuse, can tolerate the inhuman pressure. And the Rifters don’t just tolerate it, they thrive. The more inhuman they become the better they feel, the more power they gain, and the more they come to realise just how dangerous this operation really is.

As a marine biologist, Watts knows he doesn’t need to stray far from reality to populate the ocean floor with things skeletal and bloated, sharp and supple, things that can fill the starless depths with light or just slip by silently in the darkness, felt as no more than a stirring of the water. But it’s imagination and talent with metaphors that makes him able to depict a jellyfish as something to make you nauseated, or turn the humble starfish into something to fill you with despair for the human race.

Watts certainly spares the reader nothing when it comes to the novel’s human characters. Working on a theory that sexual abuse is addictive, he explores the hopeless crevasses of their ruptured psyches. And in a world of rampant internet viruses, overpopulation, and semi-beings formed from human brain tissues, the people who can function on the surface aren’t exactly charmers either.

If these aren’t enough psychologically and scientifically plausible horrors for you, Watts has another surprise down in the planet’s forgotten depths, where ßehemoth waits for its moment to rise. This startlingly ingenious creation seems all the more unstoppable in a context so cynically drawn, and peopled with individuals so driven by paranoia, pride, revenge, and twisted love. The end of the world looks inevitable. Let’s see what happens in the next book.

Jamie James – The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge


Jamie James has written a respectful biography of Joe Slowinski, a passionate and perhaps obsessive herpetologist who was fatally bitten by a many-banded krait while on an expedition in Burma. Slowinski was only 38 and his accomplishments gave every indication that he had a distinguished career ahead of him, if his often difficult personality didn’t alienate his colleagues. His fascination with dangerous snakes, however, made the manner of his death near-inevitable.

The book proceeds methodically through Joe’s life, detailing the hyper-masculine world of herpetology along the way. It also focuses on Burma, a place that Slowinski had a particular affection for. Foreign scientists face a dilemma if they want to conduct research in this country. Do they acquiesce to the government in the name of ground-breaking research, and do they risk the dangers? With many potential discoveries to be made, personal egos remain bound to scientists’ decisions – as was Slowinski’s.

James continues his stubbornly slow pace while describing Slowinski’s final mission, his fatal bite, and the desperate struggle to keep him alive. This increases the tension and makes the latter part of the book the most readable. James’ careful establishment of Slowinski’s teammates’ personalities helps give impact to their behaviour during and after those terrible hours.

The Snake Charmer is an unassuming and not often deeply involving read, with the diffcult Slowinski himself not helping to charm the reader. However, the involvement of some of his friends and family makes it feel quite personal. And although he keeps the tone quiet and detached, James’ respect and liking for Slowinski and his life, accomplishments, and ideals permeates the book.

M. J. Locke – Up Against It


Up Against It comes with recommendations from some big names -Cory Doctorow, G.R.R. Martin, Kate Elliott- but of them all, the one you really need to pay attention to is Steve Miller, who calls the book “twenty-first-century YA SF writ large.” The blurb doesn’t make it sound like YA. It makes it sound like a hard sci-fi novel about Jane Navio, resource manager for asteroid colony Phocaea, who finds herself struggling to keep its citizens alive after a terrorist attack on the main settlement vents its stores of water and methane into space. Jane’s over a century old and her children have grown up and left the asteroid belt. She has to deal with the Martian mob, a newly-sentient AI, the popularity-based sammy system, an invasive reality entertainment show that films almost everything that happens on Phocaea, a transhumanist cult, and a mysterious voice inside her head… Where does the YA come in, then?

Well, much of the novel focuses on Geoff, Amaya, Ian and Kamal. They’re average teenagers who are also really smart and really brave and constantly wind up in the middle of the action and holding the solution to one of Phocaea’s many problems. There’s several adult viewpoint characters, but the story keeps coming back to Geoff and his personal issues. If you’re not interested in his hobby of zipping about on his rocketbike with his friends or his struggle to get out of his dead brother’s shadow, Geoff’s going to drag the whole novel down.

Up Against It is jam-packed with ideas that it incorporates into a fast-moving plot and complex setting. For hard sci-fi, it’s appreciably committed to its characters. However, while Phocaea may be detailed, it never feels worth lingering on to take everything in. And having teenage characters might not put the novel squarely within the nebulous genre that is YA, but if you have no enthusiasm for YA then you might find a significantly large part of Up Againt It hard to tolerate.

Erik Larson – The Devil in the White City


In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson attempts to illluminate both the depths and the heights of human nature by intertwining the lives of two men, Daniel H. Burnham and H. H. Holmes. Burnham, an accomplished architect, was the driving force behind the 1893 Chicago World Fair. He wanted the Fair to be a spectacular symbol of civic pride and community, an inspiration to the nation and to the world. Meanwhile, Holmes seemed to be a charming, handsome hotel owner and businessman, but this was a deception that he used for horrific ends: the murders of vulnerable, isolated young women, whose bodies he then dismantled and sold. His hotel, to which the Fair drew patrons, was in fact designed and contructed to aid him in these goals.

That’s an interesting premise, surely. Unfortunately, the historical record brings Larson up short—where it doesn’t permit him to ramble. Though he has clearly done extensive research, a good deal of evidence about Holmes’ life and crimes is contradictory or no longer exists. Even if Larson has exhausted all possible sources, this book gives the impression that there’s not much to say about Holmes, perhaps not even more than a few chapters worth.

There’s plenty to say about the Fair, however, and readers who don’t want to know detail after detail about the bureaucracy and high society squabbling that surrounded it, and about every display, feature, and event that took place while it lasted, are going to be disappointed. I’m not saying a serial killer is all I wanted to read about, or that Larson should have written this book with a different aim in mind. With its most sensational aspect under-used, however, Larson worsens the book by making it feel more like a methodical recounting of historical events than an engaging story.

On top of this, the Holmes chapters are padded, and to little end. His looks and his effects on women are described over and over again, as though we may have somehow forgotten, while we were reading about the Fair, that he has blue eyes. He is also too often described as feeling peaceful during threatening or horrendous situations—on one occasion, twice in consecutive sentences. It’s frustrating to read chapters about him that may be only a few pages long before returning to considerably larger chapters about repetitive rivalries and setbacks involving an ever increasing number of people.

Larson attempts to put some drive into the story by dramatically foreshadowing events, but these weren’t effective. Deaths by pneumonia and disastrous fires are hinted at before they occur, but these hints are so artificial that they have little impact. It’s also difficult to be interested in all of the people who appear in the book, as there’s so very many of them. I cared little about the murder of Chicago’s mayor, and the various chapters throughout the book that described his killer did nothing to create a sense of suspense. This left me disinterested even by the final reveal of this madman’s long-portended actions.

I did enjoy parts of the book. The sinking of the Titanic is treated with pathos and the story of George Ferris and his remarkable creation is strongly memorable. And just as I was getting well and truly fed up, I reached the book’s two final sections. One describes the method through which Holmes was discovered, his final victims were found, and he was tried. It’s well-paced, focused, and truly saddening. The other describes the long-lasting effects of the Fair and the later lives of the people who were involved with it. Larson creates a wonderfully distant sense of the end of an era and the beginning of something new, something more like what we know, something that those people helped to create. If only the rest of the book were so affecting.