Scrolls Review – Haywired

Haywired by Alex Keller (ISBN 9781906132330)

One of the joys of the convention circuit is getting to meet creators face to face and having them pitch their work to you personally.  Not only do you get to meet some really interesting people but you often find yourself picking up books and comics that you may never have spotted otherwise.  At the London MCM Expo this year I met Alex Keller and bought his debut book Haywired.  On the back it’s subtitled: A Steampunk Fairytale and I think that’s a pretty good description, falling as it does somewhere between the Child and Young Adult markets.

Plot-wise it’s a classic children’s adventure full of dark secrets, hidden (rich) relatives, chase, capture and escape.  Ludwig von Guggenstein is an isolated but happy child, brought up in his father’s castle with just the gardener and the cook for company and his father’s library to study in.  Assisting his father in his scientific experiments he has no real notion of what the machines are used for or the dangers they represent, but the death of a local farmhand in one of the contraptions sets events in motion which force the boy to flee his home in the company of his monstrous brother, Hephaestus.  Pursued by HELOTS (mechanical abominations created by their father) they make their way across country and finally across the sea to enemy territory.  Along the way Ludwig gradually unravels family secrets, political plots and personal tragedies – and ultimately will find the way he sees the world changed forever.

For adults like myself who have gotten into the habit of reading ‘young adult’ fiction alongside our ‘grown up’ books since the Harry Potter renovation this feels perhaps a little too young, and reads a little too familiarly to be an altogether satisying read.  On the plus side it moves along at a fair old pace and twists around enough to keep the readers interest throughout (which is sadly a lot more than can be said for many bloated volumes clogging up the shelves.)  Unusually for a young adult book the author has focussed more on the personal journey that his character takes than in filling his book with whizz-bang distractions.  It makes for a more intensely emotional response in some particularly dark places and, though it leaves the world feeling a little sketchy on occasion, captures well the intense self-focus of children who simply aren’t aware of (and see no reason to care about) events, people and places outside of their immediate lives.  On occasion it can feel a little rushed, particularly in the last quarter of the book, and the cogs’n’leather fantasti-science doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of invention found in the Mortal Engines series by Phillip Reeve. Nevertheless Keller brings enough spark to the tale to fire up the imagination and make the world feel a bit different, especially for a readership much more familiar with traditional science fiction or fantasy.  It’s important to remember who the target audience is, and I have to say, as a kid I would have devoured this and clamoured for more.

As it is, I can appreciate it as a cracking little read to bring youngsters into the genre, whilst not being able to wholeheartedly recommend it to bookworm kidults of my own age.

The sequel, ‘Rewired’ is being written at the moment – I’ll be interested to see how the characters and world develop – and then Alex is moving on to a new project.

3/5

Reviewed by Dion Winton-Polak.

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Published in: on 12/01/2011 at 9:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Scrolls Review – Flashforward

Flashforward by Robert J Sawyer (ISBN 9780812580341)

It is Tuesday 21 April, 2009 and Dr Lloyd Simcoe is preparing to run an experiment which will result in everyone on the planet blacking out simultaneously….

Right, if you’ve seen the TV series with Jospeh Fiennes then put it out of your mind.  The theory is the same but the story is less world conspiracies and more theoretical physics.  Now that we’ve cleared that up let’s get on with the review.

Lloyd Simcoe and his research partner Theo Procopides are physicists searching for the elusive Higgs Boson particle by using CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  The only problem is, when they press the button to start their experiment everyone on the planet blacks out for two minutes.  During the blackout billions of people experience visions of their lives 21 years in the future; their Flashforwards.  But some people didn’t.  Some people like Theo Procopides.

And this sets out the basic, yet brilliant, premise for the story.  What would you do if you knew exactly what you would be doing 21 years in the future?  What would you do if you knew you were going to be dead then?  And is the future set in stone or can it be changed?

Sawyer explores this theme of the immutability of the future through his main characters Lloyd and Theo.  Lloyd, who is engaged to fellow scientist Michiko, has his vision showing him in bed married to another woman whilst Theo’s is of nothing due to his forthcoming death two days before the date seen by people in their Flashforwards.

Lloyd’s belief in the fixed nature of the future plays out wonderfully with his relationship with Michiko.  Here is the woman that he loves and wants to marry with all his heart and yet his head tells him he will be married to someone else who he hasn’t met yet.  The past cannot be changed in Lloyd’s opinion therefore neither can the future.  Why get married if you know it isn’t going to be forever?

Twenty-seven year old Theo is not prepared to accept that the future is fixed and desperately searches to find the cause of his death and how he can prevent it.  This is the main story for me as it provides a mystery to engage the reader further which delivers action and tension throughout.  It becomes an obsession to him, after all it’s his life and death, and there are good reveals as we go along.

Throughout the book there’s lots of moral and political issues around the ethics of what has happened and this is definitely one of those books to spark major debates amongst friends.  Weighing the deaths of those killed due to plane crashes and similar during the Flashforward against the advantages of seeing the future is, for me, the most difficult issue to rationalise and yet Sawyer deals with it well.  The clever interweaving of positive and negative sub-plots for secondary characters mixed with a good understanding of the political world we live in is the key to making this work.

Sawyer sometimes goes into too much theory around the physics of time but that’s my non-scientifically minded take on it.  Someone with a scholarly passion for this field might get more from it.  Saying that, it did get me thinking about, and questioning, the laws of physics and the varying theoretical debates interlaced throughout the book.

For me, there is a marvellous section towards the end of the book which goes very Arthur C Clarke by propelling us into a vastly future world.  I loved this with it being so vastly different to anything I’d previously envisaged and I’m sure will appeal to the many geeks out there.

Overall, Sawyer has written a great book which makes a complex scientific debate accessible and, more to the point, entertaining.  I cared about the characters, I loved the cynicism layered throughout and I knew the future yet still wanted to find out what was going to happen.

4 out of 5

(3 out of 5 if physics is really, really not your thing)

Review by Phil Ambler

Published in: on 16/11/2010 at 9:11 am  Leave a Comment  

Scrolls Review – I Shall Wear Midnight

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (ISBN 9780385611077)

The trouble with reviewing books is that reading a full length novel is a much more time-consuming activity than, say, watching the latest episode of a TV series or ploughing through a comic.  It’s difficult to keep up with the latest releases, especially when you’ve got several shelves full of older ‘new’ books looking at you accusingly and demanding to know when it will finally be their turn.  However, I will always make room in my schedule for the latest Terry Pratchett book because a: they are always very good and b: they never take very long to get through.  In fact, in the case of I Shall Wear Midnight I got through it over the course of a weekend.

This is the latest in the Tiffany Aching series which are categorised as children’s books but, as any Pratchett fan will know, that doesn’t really mean much.  He is quite prepared to bring as much in the way of darkness and big ideas to his younger readers as you will find any of the ‘adult’ Discworld books.  In fact, I Shall Wear Midnight is one of the darkest books in the entire Discworld series.  He sets the tone early on when young witch Tiffany Aching has to deal with a particularly nasty instance of domestic violence.  Throughout the book he raises big questions about the nature of good and evil and what makes good (and less good) people do evil things.  Themes of religion, superstition and intolerance are touched on as well.  Of course, the Nac Mac Feegles are on hand to ensure that the weightiness is balanced with a wee dram of pint-sized, punchy humour.

As Tiffany carries out the often thankless and distinctly unglamorous task of being the resident witch of the Chalk she begins to notice that something is wrong.  Some of the local people have begun to treat her with suspicion and the ill feeling seems to be spreading.  It doesn’t help that her semi-romantic interest Roland is due to marry someone else within a few days and he too has started acting oddly.  Something dark and very unpleasant has awoken and it has its sights set of Tiffany.  Of course Tiffany has lost nothing of her characteristic resourcefulness and determination and she is not about to go down without a fight.

I Shall Wear Midnight rattles along at a fair old pace but Pratchett  still finds room for character development, a few powerfully emotional moments and a healthy dose of silliness.  The only criticism I have of this book is that because of its fairly slight word count some potentially interesting plot elements are left unexplored.  However he does hint that there might be wider implications to Tiffany’s adventures which may carry through to the ongoing Discworld series.  If you are new to the Discworld, this probably isn’t the best place to start (at least read the other Tiffany Aching books first) but if you are a fan it is a must-have for your collection.

4 ½ out of 5

Review by Clover Winton-Polak

Published in: on 14/10/2010 at 8:47 am  Leave a Comment