The Prince in Waiting Trilogy by John Christopher

christopherj-princeinwaitingThis volume brings together three short novels of around 150 pages each: The Prince in Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands, and The Sword of the Spirits. The saga is set centuries in the future, in a Britain that has recovered from a natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Civilisation somewhat resembles the feudal medieval period. Each city, walled off from all others, is individually governed by its prince. And in summer, cities go to war with each other, more for custom’s sake than for conquest. There is no king governing the land. Machines are forbidden, because of the Disaster, and all fighting is done with bows and swords, all travelling by horse. Among people, classes are divided into humans, dwarfs, and polymufs – those unfortunate enough to be born with mutations and whose role in life is confined to servitude.

Each city has its own Seer, who speaks on behalf of the Spirits – strange disembodied apparitations that appear to men in Seance Halls. Luke Perry, a young nobleman of the city of Winchester, is proclaimed by the Spirits to be Prince in Waiting, and it is propesied that he will become Prince of Princes, ruling the whole land. But what are these Spirits? Real beings from a higher plane, or something else? Luke is soon to find out.

The saga takes many twists and turns, involving politics, war, friendship, love, and betrayal. The reader is guided through several strange and unusual cultures, as Luke’s quest take him far from his city, crossing the Burning Lands, a volcanic area separating Luke’s homeland in the south from the land of the Wilsh in the north. As a book marketed for children, the content is really quite grown up. Luke himself is nothing like a child of our own culture, and in some ways I found it difficult to be sympathetic with his cause at times. Culture clash is a prevalent theme, and the reader is invited to observe that a custom is not necessarily right simply because it is one we happened to grow up with. Another theme is the two-edged sword of technology – its benefit to society measured against its use as a tool of conquest, not forgetting its use as a means to manipulate the “primitive” mind. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The whole story is not quite as epic as Christopher’s The Tripods, but holds its own as a thoroughly engrossing tale, one that gets more interesting with each subsequent book. There’s enough good story material in here to span one of those big multi-volume sagas that are typically over 300 pages per book, as is the trend with modern fantasy writing. But I much prefer Christopher’s brevity. The Prince in Waiting Trilogy is an intelligent, gritty, violent children’s fantasy saga, and if that doesn’t sound politically correct, it’s not meant to. Recommended for all ages.

The Blueprint by Will Hadcroft

Liam Creedy is knocked out in a nasty accident at school. When he comes to, he finds that everything has changed. For a start, he is seeing in black and white. Oddly, though, his own body remains in colour. Flashes of colour also manifest occasionally in other people, but for the most part they are uniformly back and white. Patrick Freeman High has changed even more radically. The school crest now features a fingerprint enclosed by a “no entry” sign, as if to say “No individual identity.” Prefects have become a kind of school police force. Corridors are more like streets, classrooms more like workplaces, and there is no exit to the outside world. In this strange self-enclosed microcosm of society, Liam has one friend, the strange Mr Samson, who tells him enigmatically: “Find the blueprint and change it. Only then will you find the way out.”

It’s clear that the author is using a lot of symbolism. The story is a vehicle for exploring the faults of the education system, its misuse as a means of indoctrination, ensuring that the population thinks a certain way. And the end result of this way of thinking, symbolised by a millstone inscribed with the words “Cause and Effect” rolling down a distant mountain towards the school, is the destruction of us all.

I can get on board with Hadcroft’s thinking to some extent. Like the author, I’m a fierce individualist, which makes me perceptive to the problems caused by mass herd-conformity. People work like crazy to buy like crazy, and this sort of attitude is gradually assassinating the planet. Religious hypocrisy and the pointlessness of war are touched upon in the book. I did find Hadcroft’s stance a little confusing at times, but while reading I was constantly analysing where we both differed.

I think my views would have been more in line with the author’s a few years ago, when I was reading a lot of conspiracy material. But these days, I see the competitive nature of life as something natural – a sort of stratification process, with winners and losers, a process that is mirrored in the animal kingdom. Although we fight against injustice, I don’t see a world without power struggles and exploitation as something that’s even possible. Hence, I don’t see the world we have in quite so dark terms as the author maintains. Even though we are undoubtedly indoctrinated in early life, it’s also true that the world today is so full of exciting education resources, if we would only reach out and take them – rather than spending our evenings wallowing in front of a television set watching soap operas. The real root of the problem is that many people simply don’t wish to learn. In fact, I would say that the TV is a far bigger source of indoctrination than the education system. I see television as the modern replacement for religion. It’s what people use to fill a hole in their lives; meanwhile it subliminally shapes their views and opinions.

I happen to know of the author’s personal religious convictions, so it tickled me when the protagonist had an argument with his teacher about evolution. The author takes the view that evolution is a lie, but the anecdote supplied in the story simply fails to deal properly with the issue. Today, for evolution to be false, there would either have to be a massive worldwide scientific conspiracy, or mass stupidity among scientists. While there is certainly a religious agenda against evolution, motivated entirely by a need to defend an inflexible dogma (which the author himself admits), the same accusation cannot be levelled at the scientific community, whose aim is simply to formulate the best theory from the available evidence.

Fans of the television series The Prisoner will notice a deliberate nod to the show in the design of the book’s cover. Elements of the story are also reminiscent of Life on Mars and Quantum Leap. The Blueprint is an enjoyable story, extremely well written, with an intelligent and thought-provoking subtext.

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Herbert weaves another complex tapestry of religion, politics and magic in this third installment of the Dune series. Dune Messiah ended with Chani’s death during childbirth and a blind emperor Paul Atreides wandering off into the desert to die. Children of Dune begins a decade later, with the focus upon the offspring of this couple, the twins Leto II and Ghanima. Although a mere ten years old, they are not truly children, but are able to access the memories of countless generations from their genetic past.

The control of the empire has been left in the hands of Paul’s sister Alia, who has the same gift. But it is a gift with a price. The memories of those past lives can attempt to overrun the present personality. Alia is at risk of being possessed by none other than her grandfather Baron Harkonnen. Alia’s mother, Jessica, is on route from Caladan, concerned about this very possibility.

To make matters worse, House Corrino, after its defeat at the hands of Paul Atreides in the first novel, is about to hatch a subtle plot to assassinate the twins. The planet Dune is also in the midst of an ecological transformation from desert to green pastures. But what will this mean for the worms, who produce the spice? For without spice, space travel is impossible – which would mean the end of the empire.

That’s a rough summary of the main threads of the story. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, remember that this is the Dune mythos, where characters possess skills of analysis and prescience that are unheard of in the real world. This adds a whole new dimension to human relations and political intigue. These novels are not the most relaxing read; you really have to be paying attention or you can quickly get lost in the complex tapestry.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the religious and philosophical overtones. I’m well versed enough to be able to connect much of what Herbert says about space, time and consciousness to esoteric ideas that have their basis in the real world – ideas that are often close to my heart.

So, I’ve now completed the first three books in Herbert’s six-volume epic. The first is unquestionably the best, but the saga hasn’t lost much momentum. I am certainly keen to continue reading. But not just now; I need a rest after this one.

It’s also worth checking out the television adaptations of Dune (2000) and Children of Dune (2002). The latter is actually a combined telling of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. But don’t spoil the books by watching the episodes first. The televised story is fairly faithful to the original, but not nearly as deep.

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Imagine a world of only two dimensions: length and breadth, but no height. Imagine sentient beings living in this world. Everything appears as a horizontal straight line, like looking at coin on table, keeping your eye level with the edge of the table. Now imagine that a sentient sphere, gazing at this Flatland from above, decides to venture down and communicate with a square. From his vantage point, he can see everything. The walls of Flatland are no barrier to his all-seeing gaze. He speaks to the square, but the square cannot see him, so he physically descends into Flatland. As his girth intersects with the dimension, he appears to the square as a circle which widens as he descends. The poor square has never seen anything like this, and believes that he is experiencing a paranormal visitation. Things become even more alarming for the square when the sphere pulls him up into Spaceland. But the sphere is shortly in for a suprise when the square questions him about the logical possibility of a fourth dimension of which the sphere is not privy, just as the square was not privy to the third.

Now, you either love this sort of a mindfuck or you don’t. I’m a great believer (for philosophical reasons that I won’t go into just now) that there is more to the universe than material reality. This charming fiction provides a mathematical basis for such a notion. It behoves us to try and conceptualise a fouth dimension which sees into the third in much the same way that the third can see into the second. It’s impossible to wrap your head around, just as in the story it’s impossible for the square, once returned to Flatland, to describe his experience to his companions, or even to accurately remember it. I’m someone who has an appreciation for things of a magical or psychic nature, so I know that there’s something to the idea that Abbott presents, although I would hasten to add that his presentation is an approximation, not a factual description, of a higher reality than the physical dimension.

Concurrent with a discourse on dimensionality, the story also provides a satirical commentary on social customs of the Victorian era in which it was written, especially as it concerns the abuses of religious authority in preventing the free speech of those who think different. Although this book is classified as fiction, because it is first and foremost a story, I believe that a reader seeking entertainment will find much less pleasure in it than the philosopher-at-heart. To the latter, I thoroughly recommend this little volume.

Antarktos Rising by Jeremy Robinson

I’ve had my eye on Jeremy Robinson for a while. He’s a self-published author running his own publishing imprint (Breakneck Books), and he’s one who seems to be going places. After spotting a couple of glowing reviews on some blogs, I had to get hold of this.

I love the concept Robinson came up with. America inexplicably freezes, while Russia boils, and Antarctica thaws. The earth’s crust has tilted forty degrees on its axis. All the earth’s nations are now in ruins, with billions dead. As humanity picks itself up from the apocalypse, the remaining governments seek to claim Antarctica (later named Antarktos) as their new home. Rather than descending into war, all the nations agree to a participate in a race. The first three to reach the centre of Antarktos will divide the continent into three equal sections. The losing nations will have to make do with the harsh conditons of their present homeland.

After only two months of mild weather conditions, Antarktos has mysteriously transformed into a lush paradise. Trees and plants have grown at an alarming rate. The thaw also reveals Antarktos to have been inhabited in the distant past, eons ago when it wasn’t covered in ice. Worse still, the thaw has released Antarktos’s wildlife from a state of cryonic suspension. The race teams not only have to outwit and outrun each other (with talented assassins and Arab terrorists in the mix), but they must also face dangerous dinosaurs and do battle with a more intelligent enemy – mentioned briefly in the Bible: giants, known as the Nephilim, recorded in Genesis chapter 6.

From the beginning, the story is divided up into several sub-plots. We follow Dr. Merrill Clark, Antarctic explorer, as he experiences the changes on the continent first-hand. We follow Mira Whitney, in the USA, who must escape an incoming tsunami followed by a rapid freeze. We see right inside the lives of Arab terrorists, intent on sabotaging the American race team. And there are Russians and Chinese sub-plots, too. All the jumping around from place to place does unfortunately have a negative affect on the story’s pacing, but it did help maintain the sense of epic promised in the story’s premise. Occasionally, I got impatent, eager for the race to get moving and the real adventure to start.

The first point where the story faltered a little for me was when Dr. Clark emerged from a naturally dry valley in Antarctica and discovered that all the ice had gone, leaving only soil and rock. The temperature had risen, then the ice had melted and presumably flowed out to sea. But I had to ask myself: why didn’t the water flow into the valley and drown Dr. Clark? A valley, by definition, is lower than the surrounding land. No matter how I tried to think about it, I couldn’t conceive of how one man could survive the “birth pains” of the new continent. I put this plot-hole aside, hoping it would be the only one. Sadly, a little later we see Whitney in the USA hiding from men with guns by pretending to be dead. However, she’s in sub-zero temperatures. The author seemed to forget that the very act of breathing would betray her, as her warm breaths hit the frigid air. Maybe I’m nit-picking, but it bugged me, because I thought it should have been so obvious. To be fair, though, the novel wasn’t littered with these inconsistencies.

The author makes a reasonable attempt to add a more intimate and personal side to the story. The lives of the principle characters are fleshed out. We even see the terrorists’ motives from inside their own heads. But none of it rings true enough for me. The characters were just too straightforward and uncomplicated, their actions occasionally spoiled by melodrama. The novel just lacks a necessary richness in the area of characterisation. And that’s a great pity, because that’s one of the main things I’m after, as a reader. If the characters don’t come alive in my imagination, even the most original and action-packed story will fail for me.

Antarktos Rising is essentially a cross-genre novel. Nothing wrong with that, in principal; genre definitions are merely labels to determine where a book should be placed in a store. Antarktos Rising starts out as a thriller with sci-fi leanings, but by the end it’s in full-fledged fantasy territory. Robinson starts off by appealing to those who like their fiction grounded in something close to reality; he goes to great pains to inject some science into his theory of the earth’s crust shifting. But at the end, we have winged beasts and magical healing powers. Those who where expecting a scientific explanation for the accelerated growth of Antarktos will be disappointed to discover that it boils down to an explanation more at home in a Tolkien-esque fantasy. All I’m saying is, you have to like both genres. You have to be able to handle the massive suspension of disbelief that is part-and-parcel of any fantasy novel right alongside scientific thrillers, which typically thrive on rationality. This strikes me as a hard sell, and it didn’t quite work for me.

It’s more than just thriller plus fantasy. There’s a religious side to the story. I have no problem with that, in principle, and I think it’s good that a writer injects his own beliefs into his fiction. That’s writing from the heart, after all. However, there was something strange about reading two characters debate about the historicity of the Biblical Flood inside a novel that was already steeped in so much fantasy. If you want to convince a reader that the events of the Bible really happened, you’re going to need to place your argument in a more reliable context. As a Christian myself, I felt Robinson went a little too far when he suggested that the Flood was not God punishing mankind for its wickedness (as stated in the Bible), but God wiping out a race of demon-human hybrids that had mixed with man’s bloodline. The Flood, he suggests, was a means of restoring humanity back to a pure bloodline. I’m shocked that a Christian author would dare to mix fantasy with reality and be so bold as to misrepresent the will of God.

I hate having to voice all these criticisms, because I really wanted to love this book. In fairness, there were some really atmospheric scenes. The short chapters, many of which ended in cliff-hangers, kept the pages turning. Robinson, as a self-published author, is one of the minority who are doing self-publishing the right way – taking time to shine their prose up so that it sparkles. Robinsons’s grammar, punctuation and style are almost indistinguishable from a professional novelist’s. I think, however, that the story could have benefitted greatly by being submitted to some hardcore critiques prior to publication. The plot-holes alone make me suspect that Robinson is running a one-man show. Every writer needs his advisers.

Overall, this is a story that attempts to be great and succeeds in being good. It’s clear that the author is working to the best of his ability and aiming for the top, which is something I can respect. And I hope that Jeremy Robinson continues to hone his craft with future novels. It struck me that fans of Jules Verne in particular may appreciate this novel.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

What’s a thirty-four-year-old man doing reading Alice in Wonderland? you might ask. Well, I have a fascination with classic literature, and this is one of the most popular novels. It’s not hard to find references to Alice in modern film and literature: since I’m a sci-fi fan, the character Morpheus in The Matrix is the first one that jumps to my mind. For whatever reason, Alice has stuck in the public’s imagination.

I didn’t find much enjoyment in reading during my pre-adolescent years. Hence, this is the first time I’ve ever read Alice. Can it be enjoyed by an adult? That’s too general a question. Was it enjoyed by this adult? Not overly. It’s a story about a girl who’s sitting by the riverbank with her sister. She spots an odd-looking rabbit; it’s wearing a waistcoat. The rabbit enters a rabbit-hole. Alice goes in after him. She falls and falls, eventually landing on a pile of leaves in a tunnel. What follows is a series of bizarre encounters with characters that range from eccentric to psychopathic (usually talking animals of one kind or another). Alice herself does a lot of growing and shrinking in order to squeeze through small spaces and get from place to place. At one point she creates a lake out of her own tears. Each scene in the story has very little to do with any other, and there is no motivating factor in the story’s progression other than mere curiosity. I am loathe even to call this an adventure, on that basis; it reads more like a child’s acid trip. In the end, the story resorts to the most shameful plot device of all, in order to get Alice home: “It was all a dream.” This just would not fly, if written today.

In fairness, Alice was not written for someone my age, so I should try and ask myself whether I think I would have enjoyed this as a young boy. When I think about what I did like as a boy (Star Wars, Knight Rider, The A-Team), again I have to say no. I suspect Alice is for little girls only (and that’s a place I just can’t take my mind back to!). However, I can’t ignore the fact that there is children’s literature that I do enjoy today. And it’s not all boys’ sci-fi adventures. Take C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The haphazard structure of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland pales by comparison to the carefully woven tapesty of Lewis’s novel. So, I’m sticking to my guns. Alice gets a thumbs down.

Axiom-man by A.P. Fuchs

This is how self-publishing should be done. Too often, a self-published novel is let down instantly by a poorly designed cover that’s nothing more than a piece of stock photography with some text overlaid. But the cover of Axiom-man looks beautiful. Not only is it well drawn (the talents of Justin Shauf and Kyle Zajac), but it shows excellent marketing sense. The comicbook style is designed the capture the attention of superhero comic fans everywhere. I’m not even one of the those, and yet I was intrigued.

If you saw this on the shelves of your local bookshop, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a graphic novel. But it’s a straightforward novel. Superheroes and the written word – I can’t help thinking that’s got to be a hard nut to crack. The kind of stories such characters facilitate are usually visual, containing all kinds of thrills and spills – perfect material for movies and comics. For novels? Well, I can’t fault Fuchs for making a hearty attempt. Rather than going for all-out action, the novel Axiom-man actually spends many of its pages in domestic territory, telling the story of Gabriel Garrison and his struggle to fit his secret life as a hero into his normal life as a helpdesk operator. The story was interesting, and I found myself picking the book up at various points in the day, just to read a little more (this is something I rarely do; I normally just read at bed-time). I have to confess, though, that Gabriel’s dorky, bumbling put-ons were a little too reminiscent of Clark Kent, and his powers not dissimilar from Superman’s.

Partway into the story, a new hero arrives on the scene, calling himself Redsaw. He saves a few lives and soon steals the affection of the city. Although Redsaw’s abilities are on par with Axiom-man’s, Redsaw is a very different person. Axiom-man runs from the press, whereas Redsaw basks in the adoration of the public. Axiom-man wants to team up for the benefit of all, whereas Redsaw is unwilling to share the glory. You all know the saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is the story of what happens when great power is given to the irresponsible – to a self-seeking man filled with pride and prone to outbursts of anger. It’s not long before Redsaw’s hot-headedness causes the accidental death of an innocent man. In one single moment, he is despised by all. Everything changes for him. And then, he changes. I loved this part of the story. Redsaw is a far more believable villain than the likes of the power-crazed General Zod from Superman II. If I have one criticism of this aspect of Fuchs’s novel, it’s merely that it didn’t quite go where I was hoping. I was more interested in reading about the deliberate fall of a man from grace than the possession of a man by an ethereal dark power. There was more potential to this side of the story than I feel was realised.

Towards the end, the story gets down to the anticipated high-octane fisticuffs between hero and villain. And this, for me, was the proof that superhero stories need a visual medium in order to have the proper impact. It was the least interesting part of the book. I can imagine the exciting comicbook frames in my mind, but they don’t carry the same weight in prose. I think the author made a good overall choice to write Axiom-man as a domestic story, with the action scenes sporadic and short.

The book is well edited, with few typing and typesetting errors – streets ahead of the majority of self-published fiction. I’ve read one other book by A.P. Fuchs: A Red Dark Night. Axiom-man shows a distinct improvement, not only in terms of presentation, but in Fuchs’s own maturing style as an author.

Although not marketed as a children’s book, I think Axiom-man would make great reading for boys, not only because boys love superheroes, but because the novel is written from a Christian standpoint, touching on matters such as selflessness, deception and ego. So, if there’s a birthday coming up near you and you can’t think of a gift to buy, consider a personally autographed copy of Axiom-man from the author’s website.