Bookshelf (Starburst Reviews) Bookshelf compiled by David Howe
• part of Starburst's monthly Reviews section
Selected from Starburst #271

Selected this month: Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod and
The Burning City, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

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by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle • Published by Orbit 486pp, hardback • Reviewer: Barbara Davies

The Burning City by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

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‘The use of Atlantis made me fear Niven and Pournelle were going to recycle old genre Fantasy clichés.’

It is 12,000 BC, just after the drowning of Atlantis, and manna (wild magic) is disappearing from the world. Most of the gods have ‘gone mythical’, but some remain, chief among them fire god Yangin-Atep, who periodically transforms young males into pyromaniacs.

Whandall Placehold, a young Lordkin, is a member of the Serpents gang. In between the Yangin-Atep inspired Burnings, his life is spent ‘gathering’ (stealing) from rival gangs and advancing up the ranks. Unlike his peers, though, Whandall has curiosity and patience, and most importantly a desire to know what’s outside Tep’s Town and its encircling hostile forest.

When Whandall meets the unreliable Morth, only surviving wizard of Atlantis, it sparks a chain of events that will lead to his leaving Tep’s Town in search of a different life. And some twenty-two years later, an older and wiser Whandall returns home, this time with a very different goal in mind: to help Morth outwit the water elemental who has been hunting the wizard since the fall of Atlantis …

The use of Atlantis made me fear Niven and Pournelle were going to recycle old genre Fantasy clichés. But they have come up with a convincing and detailed setting, and an original and involving plot that dissects what makes young men tick with an unflinching and accurate eye. I also loved the idea of magic varying geographically, leading to the disconcerting transformation of a pony into a unicorn during one journey!

The Burning City is a bit slow to get going, but, once up to speed, advances at a brisk trot. Most fantasy is too verbose, but if anything this one is too terse – which is great until you hit a dialogue heavy section and are left clueless as to who is speaking. That quibble aside, though, this is an absorbing and original book.

Starburst rating: 8 / 10

by Ken MacLeod • Published by Orbit, 308pp • hardback • Reviewer: Anthony Brown

Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod

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'Ken McLeod’s distinctly Scottish and unashamedly Socialist tales have become one of the highlights of the Science Fiction year'

Matt Cairns is a 21st century systems analyst who comes across a disc of classified data (as you do) and ends up on the run, caught between the Communists of the European Union and the free-booting Capitalists of the good ol’US of A. Gregor Cairns is a marine biologist researching the seas of Mingulay, a world of the ‘Second Sphere’, home to humans and intelligent Saurs with a suspicious resemblance to the Greys. And as Ken McLeod’s accomplished tale Cosmonaut Keep flips between their stories it becomes all too clear that the similarity in their names isn’t a coincidence, and Matt has got an awfully long journey ahead of him.

Ken McLeod’s distinctly Scottish and unashamedly Socialist tales have become one of the highlights of the Science Fiction year, but by last time round the constraints of working in the world of his debut were beginning to tell. Cosmonaut Keep kicks off a new saga free from these problems, and as in his magnificent Stone Canal the dual plots provide an addictive mystery as each link between them makes the changes characters will have to undergo a little more clear.

This time round, McLeod’s a lot more cynical about socialism and a little more indulgent towards entrepreneurism, but his old theme of idealism turning into self-interest shines through, given a fresh feel by the new perspective a few extra years of experience provides (and his cynical humour stands out in the references to the out-of-Europe England as the Former UK).

The only disappointment is an anti-climactic ending which clears the stage for the remainder of the Engines of Light series without making the impact it should, because it’s something which had to happen to link the two plots. But a throwaway line suggest there’s deeper mysteries still to come, so perhaps it’s best to think of Cosmonaut Keep as the pilot episode of a series you’d be wise to follow from the start.

Starburst rating: 8 / 10

Reviews © Visual Imagination 2001. Not for reproduction