Book Review: Dreamtime


“The details of that day continue to shimmer and twist, overlaid by layers of stories. What is memory, what dream, what haunting?”

Dreamtime, by Venetia Welby, opens in September 2035. Sol, an American woman approaching her thirtieth birthday, is nearing the end of her stay in a rehab facility that has weaned her from a drug habit. Sol spent her childhood in a controlling desert commune in Arizona before being taken into care, where she was regarded as troublesome and moved around frequently. Her best friend from her early years, Kit, may be the only person in her life who has not used and abused her. She gravitates towards older men, father figures, hankering after the man who left before she could know him. Her mother has always refused to talk of Sol’s father other than to berate his desertion. When she finally gives up his name and occupation, Sol determines to track him down.

Since leaving the commune, Kit has had a more stable upbringing. He remains damaged by his early experiences, grounding himself by always being there for Sol. When he learns of her plan to travel halfway round the world in order to meet the father she believes she has found via the internet, Kit agrees to accompany her. He is in love with Sol but harbours an unspoken fear that they may share paternity.

“The ever-present suspicion that what he wanted most might never happen was a tinnitus of the soul.”

The near future setting is key. Climate change and man-made pollution have rendered parts of the world all but uninhabitable. Sea levels have risen and ‘natural’ disasters increased in frequency and severity. Commercial flights are to be banned imminently giving Sol and Kit’s journey a time-critical element.

The pair fly to Japan where they discover the virtual world conjured via the internet does not reflect reality. Floods and earthquakes have unleashed pollutants and viruses. Wars and colonisers have all but wiped out indigenous cultures. Americans, who maintain a large military presence in the region, have caused much of the damage yet they mostly remain immune from justice. Those living back in their homeland hear nothing about the desecration wreaked.

“If you can’t trust what you see in the news, isn’t your only choice to live? Seize every experience by the balls. If you thought about the long-term consequence of every action you’d never do anything at all, would you? Terrified into inertia.”

Following the few leads they have, Kit and Sol travel from Tokyo to Okinawa, an island shadowed by dozens of US bases, there under the pretext of offering protection from China. As Sol descends once again into self-destructive behaviour, Kit finds himself struggling to protect her. Both are discovering that the Ryukyu archipelago harbours many ghosts of its past.

“Children don’t really need it explaining, though, that there’s another world that’s just as real as this one we call reality. I’ve always felt it. It’s just that it can’t be pinned down to any point on our spectrums of time or space. An in-between place.”

The author captures evocatively the hallucinatory nature of existence when in a strange place and under the influence of narcotics. She introduces many elements of local folklore alongside the impact of fear – real and from dreams. Kit may be more stable than Sol in his chosen behaviour but they both carry the scars of their shared history.

The intensity of the tale ratchets up when Sol and Kit are separated. The islands are hit by a typhoon and then an earthquake. Rumours of where her father could be lead Sol on an ever more risky trajectory. Kit must decide if the cost of trying to rescue her yet again is worth paying.

Welby’s writing style is original and uncompromising – as she proved in her debut, Mother of Darkness. Dreamtime is a step up but not away from this ability to conjure empathy for those whose behaviour is rebarbative. The sense of place – and how out of place incomers can be with their self-entitled behaviour – adds strength to a captivating tale tinged with regret. Man’s destructive behaviour continues despite the clear warnings of where it will lead. This is a disturbing journey exploring many varieties of abuse – of people and place – and the ripples triggered.

A story laced with shadows and beauty that reminds the reader how much we look away when to see becomes challenging. An arresting window into a future that is worryingly believable.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.


Book Review: Sealed

“I’d felt it too, the too-muchness of being in love. But I hated Pete for it at the same time. I hated his freedom and how guiltlessly he lived, how easily he took love and gave love, and how much danger he’d put me in. And most of all, I hated that he might be right, that he was living the right way and that I was wrong: too frightened, too careful, too guarded to really enjoy life.”

Sealed, by Naomi Booth, is set in a near future Australia. Rising temperatures have brought with them storms and deadly heat events. Wild fires, pollution and other environmental catastrophes make day to day living uncomfortable for all.

Alice and her partner, Pete, are expecting their first child. With less than a month to go before the baby is due they leave the city, its toxic air and growing climate of fear. They move from their cramped apartment to a remote house overlooking the Blue Mountains. It is planned as a fresh start in cleaner air, somewhere to establish their little family.

Alice has recently lost her mother. She lives in fear of a new condition known as cutis which causes skin to grow where it should not. People have died and Alice suspects a cover-up as few cases are being reported. Pete believes she is looking for problems that do not exist.

The government is trying to manage the growing threats from all quarters by moving its poorer citizens into camps where they may be cared for, monitored and controlled. As part of her job in the city housing department, Alice had visited one such camp during its regular inspection. Privately run, it ensured records of residents’ health and behaviour reflected only good practice. Detailed causes of death were not disclosed, the manager citing reasons of patient confidentiality.

Pete is excited at the prospect of fatherhood. He becomes frustrated when Alice fixates on what he regards as imaginary threats and conspiracies. Eager to fit in he befriend locals. They question why he has taken Alice from the city to a place such as this but will not explain to her what they mean. They regard Alice as a killjoy as they try to make the best of a situation they cannot change. Pete dismisses Alice’s concerns as the irrational behaviour she agreed to leave behind. She mingles with their new acquaintances but cannot put aside her fears.

“She gasps with laughter and I can’t help it, it’s totally contagious, I’m not even stoned and I start to laugh a bit too. She squeezes my hand again. This is how I used to make friends, when I didn’t see every person and every place as a contagion to be guarded against.”

With Alice’s due date approaching she tries to register for medical care but what little exists is already overwhelmed. Alice tells Pete she believes she spotted a case of cutis. He does not wish to face such a possibility.

The tension in the story builds as Alice and Pete’s backgrounds are revealed. The reader cannot be sure if her paranoia is justified, if there is any point in fighting back given the wider situation. The climax is reached when Alice goes into labour. The denouement is horrifying yet somehow inevitable.

As with the best dystopian fiction this is a parable for today. The reader fears what is being gradually revealed yet cannot look away. Government reactions are all too believable.

A tale that I flew through and shuddered at the possibilities presented. By the end both Alice and Pete’s behaviours are better understood, the outcome as complex as the circumstances all had to deal with. As grotesque as the premise may be, this is a compelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.

Book Review: 2084

2084 is an anthology of fifteen short stories specially commissioned by the publisher, Unsung Stories, and supported by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. It offers

“15 predictions of the world, 67 years in the future.”

The authors have created a variety of dystopian societies that it is distressingly easy to believe could come to be.

In each of the stories technological innovation has created a shift in the way people live, not necessarily for the better. Monitoring of everyday activity by the state and for entertainment is widely regarded as expedient. An elite retain control and breed fear in the proletariat as a means of suppression. These stories bring up to date the underlying message behind the book’s inspiration, 1984 by George Orwell. As the editor, George Sandison, writes

“There are warnings in this book – we would do well to heed them.”

The first story, Babylon by Dave Hutchinson, takes as its theme immigration. The protagonist, Da’uud, is seeking to gain entry into a Europe that has

“encysted itself behind concentric borders and buffer zones, the better to protect itself and its citizens from the likes of him.”

Da’uud carries with him a device, developed by and then stolen from North Korea. The chilling purpose of this is a powerful reminder of ingrained prejudice, all too obvious today.

Here Comes The Flood by Desirina Boskovich is set in a sealed city on the American coast that is struggling to remain functional. Climate Change has resulted in more displaced people than the authorities are willing to accept so these DisPers are kept outside, abandoned to die. Those inside are entertained by publicly broadcast trials of the elderly who are blamed for the current situation.

“Did he buy goods shipped halfway across the world? […] Never a moment’s consideration for future generations as he enjoyed the spoils, savoured the loot: the belching, farting jet planes; the human greed-machines on their hoard of ill-gotten treasures, their water gulping industry, their cheap plastic trash. Did he own a vehicle? Yes? Disgusting.”

Despite the bleak prospects for the city, young couples still apply to the population lottery for permission to procreate.

Glitterati by Oliver Langmead offers the perspective of one of future society’s elite. Its protagonist’s raison d’être is to be seen. Simone spends his days keeping abreast of current fashions, the most important part of his working day being his arrival at the office where he may walk the red carpet, be photographed and applauded. He deplores the lives of those unfashionables he catches sight of on his daily commute.

“The uglies. The unwashed, unmanicured masses. […] It pained him to see them down there, milling around without the first idea of how dreadful they appeared; how their untrained aesthetic snses were so underdeveloped that they could barely comprehend their own hideousnesses. To think they did actual labour! […] It was unfathomable that people existed like that.”

When Simone mistakenly wears the wrong colour for a day he worries that he will suffer demotion. Instead he finds himself trend-setting, which brings new pressures to bear.

The Infinite Eye by JP Smythe looks at life from the viewpoint of an illegal, living in a camp and looking for work. He applies to a start-up which pulls together surveillance from traffic cameras, drones, security systems, photos and videos shot by tourists. The developers had intended to use AI but were concerned about handing over control. Instead they plug people into their network to observe and act as needed.

“You’ll be eyes for the cameras, for the drones. Assisting the police in catching people, finding crimes that are happening or going to happen, apprehending illegals.”

“Inhabit this camera, and watch, the software told me. Wait until there is something worth paying attention to. Then switch to a drone, follow the incident.”

The man is good at this job, but the violation he cannot observe is the one that involves himself.

Several of the stories explore a world where a new generation of robotic helpers become sentient, where there is an overlap between man and machine. The use of AI in electromechanical devices is imagined in many forms: workers, warriors, children. Abilities are enhanced whilst numbing the senses that may balk at required actions.

Shooting An Episode by Christopher Priest offers these enhancements in the form of armour, the numbing a collective conditioning. The population in this story are kept entertained by constantly running reality shows which they may interact with, affecting outcomes. That real people die goes unregarded, those at the sharp end generously compensated to do whatever it takes to increase ratings. The protagonist may be sickened but if they do not do their job someone else will. The demands of the players for action dictates the form of this evolving reality.

March, April, May by Malcolm Devlin looks at a ubiquitous social media, The Space, where individuals’ feeds are personalised and curated by algorithms. Certain behaviour by users is expected, negativity disapproved. One friend in a group refuses to conform.

“April used The Space as she damn well pleased. At least, she did until she disappeared.”

There is discussion about where she may have gone, who she really was, if indeed she existed. There is disquiet about the role played by The Space, but this is laughed away.

“It’s only The Space, we say. The idea is preposterous. It would be like rebelling against a kitchen appliance.”

Nobody really knows what happens to those who contravene the terms of service. It is not a subject for discourse, negativity being unwelcome on The Space.

Each of these stories builds on topics raised today, playing out possibilities in disquieting directions. Ways of living may have moved on but attitudes have not changed.

The writing throughout is excellent, each tale darkly compelling. A collection that deserves to be widely read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories. 

Book Review: Ways of the Doomed


Ways of the Doomed, by Moira McPartlin, is a YA novel set in a dystopian future where society has been divided into Privileged and Native based on genetics. The natives serve the privileged and it is expected that they be treated as less than human, never referred to by name, and disposed of if they fail to perform as required. Lives are strictly controlled and constantly observed. Transgressors from both castes are quickly removed, never to be heard from again.

The protagonist, Sorlie, is the only child of military parents whom he believes are well regarded. When they are away on missions Sorlie is cared for by the family native. He has observed that his parents treat her with frowned upon kindness. At sixteen his concerns are for the quality of his gaming machine and his status amongst his peers at the Academy where he is educated. He has learned not to question the status quo.

All of this changes when he is forced to flee the family home and live with his grandfather who runs an island penal colony. In the days leading up to this shocking transition both his father and their native had tried to explain some of his personal history along with the truth behind the setting up of the societal structure in which they live. It is all too much for Sorlie to take in and he struggles to contain his anger and despair at his sudden change in circumstances.

On the island his freedom is curtailed and he slowly begins to understand the horrors of the place in which he now resides. With the help of a prisoner assigned to assist with his education he hatches a plan to escape. His problems escalate when he realises that those he trusts have a more audacious plan in which he is expected to play an integral part. The new world order may have eradicated religion but it has been replaced by a different kind of belief.

The tension builds nicely as the story progresses. I felt Sorlie’s irritation as he was treated as a child and then expected to accept the adult plans without question. It is rarely clear who can be trusted or whose side they are on.

This is the first book in a planned trilogy. Although it stands alone it sets the scene for further action and intrigue as the political landscape of this world and its factions are revealed. An enjoyable read and proof once again that YA novels can be appreciated by all. I look forward to reading the sequels.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Saraband Books. 

Book Review: The Chimes


The Chimes, by Anna Smaill, is unlike any book I have read before. Using the language of music it tells the tale of a dystopian world where information is shared through snatches of melody and the written word is banned. Each day is modulated by collective music making, much of it overseen by a ruling Order. A life of repetition is required to keep people grounded and functioning as most personal memories are lost over the course of a few days.

The protagonist, Simon, makes his way to London following the deaths of his parents. With the help of items that he keeps in his memory bag he remembers snatches of his former life but struggles to make sense of the reason he has made the journey from family farm to city. He ekes out a rough existence as a member of a pact whose leader tries to probe for the few memories which Simon can recall. Such interest in the before goes against everything that society has been conditioned to accept. It is considered blasphony.

It took me some time to immerse myself in the story. However, once I had got used to the strange use of words and the references to items I would recognise, I was gripped. The language is not difficult but it is original.

It is interesting to consider the role that memory has in day to day life: its removal minimises grief; change is easier to accept when it quickly becomes all that is known; occupations are necessary as without them skills are forgotten and people are at risk of becoming memorylost, unhinged on the margins of a society which thrives on order.

The story of Simon’s emergence and his acceptance of the role that he is being asked to play follows a well worn path of dystopian fiction. However, the creative use of sound and music adds distinction.

The writing is crafted and orchestrated with a deft touch that holds the reader’s attention. I was eager to know how it was all going to end. I was not disappointed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre.


Book Review: Golden Son


Golden Son, by Pierce Brown, is an uncomfortable read. The writing is tight and the dystopian world plausible. It is Lord of the Rings meets a futuristic Game of Thrones. The pace is relentless, the politics twisted. Much of the story is of violent clashes with heroism and luck keeping the protagonist alive as his friends and foes die. It is unclear who stands for what as allegiances shift alongside the tides of battle.

The protagonist, Darrow, is fighting to bring down a rigid society based on a colour coded hierarchy. He was born a lowly Red but has been surgically changed to pass as one of the ruling Golds. Along with other rebels he has infiltrated the leadership in order to kick-start a revolution.

This is not just a tale of good trying to overthrow evil. The reason for the setting up of such a society was to create order for the sake of mankind’s future. As one of the leaders tells Darrow it replaced a system that was heading towards self-destruction, a system that sounds like the one in which we currently abide.

“Humanity came out of hell, Darrow. Gold did not rise out of chance. We rose out of necessity. Out of chaos, born from a species that devoured its planet instead of investing in the future. Pleasure over all, damn the consequences. The brightest minds enslaved to an economy that demanded toys instead of space exploration or technologies that could revolutionize our race. They created robots, neutering the work ethic of mankind, creating generations of entitled locusts. Countries hoarded their resources, suspicious of one another. There grew to be twenty different factions with nuclear weapons. Twenty – each ruled by greed or zealotry.”

Throughout the book is the recurring question of whether overthrowing the hierarchical order will lead to a better life for the majority of citizens. Darrow’s reasoning may be sound with his desire for individual choice and equality but any society requires decision makers and history shows time and again how power corrupts.

The strength of this book, aside from the quality of the writing, is that it acknowledges the shades of grey. It demands that the reader consider the many reasons behind any decision. It challenges idealism. Friendship, family, revenge and a lust for power are all explored. Key characters are multi dimensional, imperfect and believable.

Golden Son is the second book in a planned trilogy which started with Red Rising. I have not read this first book so came to it unaware of the back story. It took me some time to work out who was who in the large cast of characters but the story is well enough written to stand alone.

Politics is a dirty game and this book is full of the selfish and duplicitous as well as the brave and patriotic. It is written for and I would recommend it to young adults not least because it could demonstrate how revolution, even for a just cause, can have unforeseen and unintended consequences. Easy to read but not an easy read this is action adventure in a dystopian science fiction that will leave the reader eager for book three.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.


Book Review: MaddAddam


MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood, is the final book in a trilogy which started with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and continued with The Year of the Flood in 2009. All three books tell stories that run in parallel, although each takes the overlapping characters a little further along in time.

MaddAddam focuses on the street-wise Zeb. In telling his story we get the final links in the plot strands that join characters we have been introduced to in the previous books, the MaddAddamites and God’s Gardeners. The survivors from these groups are now living as a small community, trying to eke out an existence following the chaos that Crake unleashed in his attempt to rid the world of the evils of humanity.

The peaceful replacements that he created, the Crakers, play a prominent role in this instalment as do several of the other creatures bioengineered by the gene splicing scientists before the waterless flood. As well as more detailed background we are given a glimpse of how the new world order will develop once the chaos has settled. I found this glimpse the most depressing aspect of the book as it looked rather too familiar. It suggested that the world is condemned to repeat its mistakes from whatever new start, perhaps that is the point which the author wishes to make.

The MaddAddam trilogy tells of a dystopian future that makes for powerful reading because it is so perceptive, detailed and believable. This final part is as compelling and skillfully written as the previous two. Key plot details are first unveiled as simplified stories told each evening to the Crakers. These are biblical in style, the writing of them serving as a spiritual text more than a history. The whole book has an allegorical feel running alongside the tension and action.

It is hard to regret the destruction of the world described, yet I felt sad that the reboot could not offer more hope for the future. I suspect that a happy ever after would not have stood up after all that had gone before. Despite the leaps in science and the many strange creatures, this book comes across as a disturbing possibility.

MaddAddam is clever and readable, neatly concluding a fabulous tale from a master story teller. Questions are answered, loose ends tied and a future suggested. There is doubtless a moral message running through the writing but it does not come across as preaching.

A fast moving, tightly told story with a cast of strong and complex characters; this eagerly anticipated offering from Margaret Atwood, one of my favourite authors, did not disappoint.