Bookshelf (Starburst Reviews) Bookshelf compiled by David Howe
• part of Starburst's monthly Reviews section
selected from Starburst #266

Reviews selected this month: mind-expanding future-history in Iain M Banks' latest Culture novel Look to Windward, and Elizabeth Haydon's début epic fantasy, Rhapsody

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by Iain M Banks
Published by Orbit • 357pp hardback

Iain M Banks' Look to Windward

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‘Banks' mind-expanding future-history is unrivalled for imaginative sweep, startling ideas, and savage but wry sense of humour.’

Any new book from Iain Banks is cause for celebration, especially if it's an addition to his ongoing Culture series concerning a vast galactic civilization of 'decadent aesthetes'. Taking its title from the same T S Eliot quote as the earlier novel, Consider Phlebas (1987), hints that Banks has come full circle and returned to the warfare theme of his first Culture tale. This is partly true, yet this narrative remains unpredictable.

Look to Windward centres on Masaq Orbital, a vast living space for 50 billion (not unlike Larry Niven's famous Ringworld) where outcast Chelgrian composer Ziller lives in exile, working on a new symphony to mark the expected arrival of light from a distant supernova, and the moral dilemma of highly trained army officer Quilan, sent by the government of Chel to Masaq on a sinister mission that coincides with the celebrations. Meanwhile, in a Space wandering Airsphere, modified-human biologist Uagen discovers the gigantic carcass of dirigible behemothaur, and finds a dying secret agent inside it with an urgent warning about an assassination plot.

The Culture isn't Star Trek. Their citizens are not explorers, traders or even scientists because they've been everywhere, got everything, and know it all. The Culture peoples are diplomats and scholars on occasion, but adventurers and tourists by choice. They invent dangerous sports like lava rafting for amusement, and think nothing of buying a starship just to get home early.

This novel features flashbacks disguised as an amnesiac's returning memories, and such indulgences as wordplay dialogue speaking only in the Culture's eccentrically named spacecraft. There's more comedy, horror, action, thrills, mystery and pathos than you will find in a dozen lesser genre works. A loose-limbed, almost gangling work, Banks' mind-expanding future-history is unrivalled for imaginative sweep, startling ideas, and savage but wry sense of humour. One of the very best just got even better.

Starburst rating: 10 / 10
Tony Lee

By Elizabeth Haydon
Published by Millennium • 609pp paperback

Elizabeth Haydon's Rhapsody

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'She handles her huge plot, richly imagined setting, and huge cast of engaging and complex characters well'

The Publishers really should have mentioned, either on the cover or inside, that Rhapsody is the first volume in an epic Fantasy trilogy. Readers expecting resolution will instead find major plot threads left dangling, so be warned.

Ex-prostitute Rhapsody is a Lirin Singer and Namer who can invoke the real names of things to magical effect. On the run from a sadistic ex-client, she bumps into Grunthor, a massive Bolg warrior, and Achmed, a Dhracian assassin. When she asks the odd couple for their help, they agree - with unexpected results. Rhapsody accidentally 'renames' Achmed, thus breaking his enslavement to evil fire spirit Tsoltan; the two men then insist the unwilling singer accompany them not only to the sacred Great Tree Sagia, but also deep inside it. When the three finally emerge, having crawled along Sagia's amazing taproot from one side of the world to the other, they have been literally transformed, and Rhapsody now owns a magical sword.

They are shocked to learn 1400 years have passed, and they are on a different continent, their island home long since submerged beneath the waves. Though the new land seems initially to be a rural idyll, sinister forces involving the blood sacrifice of children are at work. Has Tsoltan survived the centuries, and will he find and re-enslave Achmed? And who is the mysterious dragon-blooded man, Ashe, who seems so attracted to Rhapsody?

This is Elizabeth Haydon's début, and though her prose is occasionally clumsy and relationships overly romanticized, she handles her huge plot, richly imagined setting, and huge cast of engaging and complex characters well. Some judicious pruning would help, though; the section where the protagonists are crawling along the root simply goes on too long.

A promising début. It will be interesting to see whether the sequel, Prophecy, can build on Haydon's undoubted potential.

Starburst rating: 7 / 10
Barbara Davies

Reviews © Visual Imagination 2000. Not for reproduction