Neal Stephenson writes very long books, and it is a measure of his talent that he can spend pages describing a series of very complicated events - every sideways roll, every ejected cartridge - that go to make up, say, a twenty-five second gun battle and not have it seem verbose and tedious. And it had better not, because there are an awful lot of cartridges ejected in the course of this thriller.
The stand out characters are the women. Our hero (the real hero - not the Richard Forthrast referred to in the blurb but his niece Zula) is a fantastic (in both senses) creation - conditioned by experience and upbringing to be resourceful and self-reliant. Thank goodness, as she is about to find herself unwillingly in the company of a lot of genuinely menacing and scary men in circumstances that would have anyone else whimpering in a corner with terror (provided the chain round one's neck would permit one getting to the corner). The other great female character is Yuxia, Chinese tea merchant and force of nature.
Filled with characteristic Stephensonian passages - an explanation of installing Linux and a Tor browser, descriptions of the underlying economic principles of a MMORPG, et multiply cetera - this is, despite its length, a taut, fast-paced fingernail biter of a read, lavished with loving gore and peopled by terrific characters. It isn't as funny as Cryptonomicon, nor does it overflow with ideas like that that earlier work (or The Diamond Age) but it's a winner, and Malcolm Hillgartner's narration is absolutely perfect. It only just misses out on five stars because I know that Stephenson can do better - but you probably only get one Cryptonomicon in any career, so perhaps that's churlish.
Never has a book so nearly given me the impression of looking out of the eyes of another human being. The Thomas Cromwell depicted in this nearly perfect novel is a complex, real man, the product of his upbringing and his society, shaped by tragedies and triumphs as narrow in scope as his brilliantly drawn household and as broad as all Christendom, and himself the shaper of a whole new England - one that would in due course change the world forever.
Slater's narration is also simply magical. He gives each character his or her (and there are many significant hers) own voice, manner and personality. I swore when I learned that the sequel is not narrated by him, because I wanted desperately for this astonishing experience to continue seamlessly for the length of another novel. At least.
The rating I have given is not accustomed hyperbole - in half a dozen reviews this is my first 5/5/5 stars, and richly deserved for the delight I have had over the last few days. Enjoy.
Connie Willis's time travel epic chronicles the experiences of three twenty-first century historians in early 1940s England. The protagonists have travelled back more than a century to explore wartime England and find themselves both unable to return and increasingly anxious that their actions are, contrary to theory, altering the course of history.
Set chiefly in London during the Blitz, the novel contains some utterly gripping passages describing conditions as the city is bombed, night after terrible night. The native Londoners ("contemps" to our heroes) are portrayed vividly and the true horror of the events is effectively and movingly described.
If the protagonists occasionally come across as naive and vacillating - well, they are university students, and their youth may also explain their apparent ability to function for days at a time without sleep. These are quibbles - the more substantive complaint is that the novel (itself only the first half of the story) is too long, obsessively following every minute of every day of the characters' experiences (or seeming to, at times). This, of course, is a widespread fault in this age of 1,000 page shelf-breakers.
My only other complaint is with Katherine Kellgren's narration, which is, at least at times, too breathlessly emotional for this listener's taste. However, none of those faults stopped me listening to the end and neither will they stop me downloading All Clear when a credit is available.
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