I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. Fiction is forthcoming as I am working hard to prepare some stories and a novel for self-publication. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.
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Smashwords book reviews by Thomas Cotterill
- Rebellion (Chronicles of Charanthe #1)
on April 20, 2012
Let me make two things clear up front: First, in spite of the shared surname I am not related to Rachel Cotterill. This is not a family-member review. I was attracted to her book by the novelty of seeing my own (rare here in Canada) name on a published novel. Second, don’t let this book’s horrible cover put you off. Yes, I know it looks like some dreary leftist literary novel about Hispanic poverty in the American South-West, but the book is actually a lively fantasy adventure with a mythical setting, an interesting female main character (named simply Eleanor), and a strong martial-arts theme.
Much of the novel’s action – and there’s plenty of it - takes place at what might best be described as a Hogwarts for assassins. These assassins are like medieval knife-wielding poison-toting secret agents who go out on dangerous missions in defence of a shadowy Empire which straddles a forested archipelago. Robin Hobbs’ Assassin’s Apprentice comes to mind. If you liked Hobbs’ book you’ll probably enjoy Rebellion as well. The novel’s pace is fast and fight scenes are abundant. The knife fights are especially good, as are the tense climbing episodes where Eleanor – never short on endurance and courage - scales prison towers or castle walls with only the scantiest of toe and finger holds. Weaponry includes throwing stars and these add a pleasing ninja touch to the young assassins. There are imaginative puzzles to be solved, unusual competitions to be won, occasional glances at Eleanor’s ambiguous feelings towards a young man, and for good measure, some deep-seated grudges among the students which mean scores to be settled. These elements provide more than enough variety to guarantee a good read.
The novel does have some shortcomings. The plot is so vaguely presented that, at times, I had trouble understanding what was going on – or why it was going on. In the early chapters Cotterill seems too focussed on showing us how her main characters try to avoid offending one another - the result of long exposure to political correctness, no doubt – but she does get over this. Then it’s on to flogging the tired old feminist horse. (It is an unceasing wonder to me that the poor beast has yet to expire!) At one point the story dwells somewhat morbidly, but not unrealistically, on torture and being cut. This seems needlessly extended at the time, but turns out to be important in shaping Eleanor’s character and affecting her responses to critical situations later on. There are exceptions, but Cotterill’s depiction of minor characters exhibits an odd juxtaposing of those who are wantonly cruel and those who are ridiculously obliging. What seaside inn-keeper, to choose one incident, would loan his boat to a total stranger, for an indefinite period of time, without asking for some sort of deposit or surety? What is needed is the more typically human – and far more interesting - mix of virtue and vice. People are more often motivated by the realities of basic self-interest (money, sex, prestige) than by the desire to be unspeakably cruel or super nice. Nowhere is this more evident than in simple societies such as those depicted in Rebellion.
Some might question the novel’s implied morality. Eleanor’s values range from astonishingly shallow to questionable in the extreme. The young woman unswervingly assumes that personal need justifies stealing so long as you the keep the thefts small and spread them around (with the occasional grand theft when things get really bad). It seldom occurs to her that she might barter or offer to work for what she wants. I was amused when Eleanor makes a point of conscientiously paying the bill at an inn – with money she has just stolen by the fistful from a jewellery merchant in the marketplace. Why not simply stiff the innkeeper? Presumably, in Eleanor’s eyes, said innkeeper was a nice obliging fellow of modest means while the prosperous merchant was – well – a nasty grasping greedy capitalist oinker; a veritable corporatist in the bud. Perhaps; but on the other hand he just might be an honest lover of beautiful, and beautifully-crafted, things who, through hard work and ingenuity, has found a way to earn his living from the very objects he so admires.
Other problems include poor handling of time and distance. I was startled to discover that Eleanor’s attempts to find her way to the assassin’s school had taken up an entire year, and at one point she seems to consider recovering some stored possessions in a quick visit to a cave which is actually many days travel away. These minor quibbles and the plot difficulties alluded to earlier could have been solved with a little more authorial narrative aimed at clarifying situations and knitting together story elements into a more cohesive whole.
No work of fiction is perfect. This novel’s flaws impede neither the story’s strong forward momentum nor its ability to sustain the reader’s interest. As they should in a good adventure novel, things start happening right away and they keep on happening. Whether on land or at sea, in foreign parts or at home in the Empire, the story laid out in this engrossing novel is often exciting and never boring. The writing is sound with none of the horrendous spelling, grammar, and English usage gaffs so prevalent in indie novels. Cotterill has real talent. Reading Rebellion will get you in on the ground floor with a young writer who has the potential to become a major player in the fantasy genre.
- Revolution (Chronicles of Charanthe #2)
on June 05, 2012
Rachel Cotterill’s second novel, Revolution, is another fast-paced adventure fantasy, and something of an accomplishment. A sequel to Rebellion, the book continues the exciting adventures of the interesting and remarkably independent hero Eleanor. The knife fights keep coming, the rousing action remains all pell-mell and helter-skelter, yet, astonishingly, Eleanor gives birth to two children in the course of the book. Even more surprising is the way Cotterill manages to keep Eleanor in the thick of things – and make it believable.
The political situation laid out in Rebellion is – as you might infer from the title - overturned in Revolution and the story heads off in a fresh direction. Martial arts share centre stage with the classic “ordinary people versus the oppressors” theme. As the book progresses, and Eleanor takes on a major leadership role, she comes across increasingly like a feminine Robin Hood. She even has her own Little John. A fellow revolutionary - by the name of Dash – upends her in a practice knife fight. As with good old Robin after Little John and his quarterstaff have knocked him into the drink, Eleanor takes it all in stride.
A weakness in the prior novel, Rebellion, was the relative lack of any emotional connection with the often sketchily outlined characters. In fact, Eleanor sometimes came across as an unsympathetic character. With Revolution, Cotterill improves her ability to engage the reader’s feelings. She is growing and developing as a novelist. We feel for Eleanor’s husband, Daniel, when Eleanor is unable to return his love. The terrible decisions Eleanor must make regarding the fate of her children are genuinely touching. By book’s end, we are not just curious, we care, about what happens next.
Younger readers may remain unaware, but for more mature readers the book sparkles with occasional glimpses into modern British and Western attitudes. We notice the anti-imperialism in remarks made by some characters. “These people have not asked to have our laws imposed upon them.” Then there is the cultural relativism seen when characters briefly debate the wisdom of one society imposing its values on another. These flashes of sophistication – social commentary - give the story depth.
The primary flaw in Cotterill’s fine second novel is her continued use of – I will get fancy here to make the point - inappropriate linguistic modernisms. People in societies – even imaginary ones - where beasts pull carts do not go “jogging.” They do not “recycle.” They do not talk about someone being “in denial” or a “drop-out.” They do not discuss warfare with First World War terms such as “front line.” These out of place terms needlessly jar the reader and risk spoiling the illusion of a society simpler than our own.
Revolution is such a strong novel it easily survives its minor blemishes. In Rebellion, the writing was sound. Here, it is also confident. The fast pace and sheer number of incidents ensures an engrossing and enjoyable read. I am looking forward to reading the next volume in this dynamic series.
- Birdie Down
on July 07, 2012
Birdie Down is Jim Graham’s second novel and a science fiction version of what Rudyard Kipling would have called a "ripping good yarn." What we have here is high adventure of the best kind with a motley collection of crashed revolutionaries and hostages struggling to survive on a jungle planet rife with bad weather, deadly creatures, and hostile enemy forces. The odd dose of rank treachery adds even more spice to the rich mix.
The book opens with some solid foundation-laying. Birdie Down is an episode within the greater story told in Graham’s first novel, Scat (see my review), and early chapters provide the tie-in. We soon reach the story’s heart.
Andrew “Birdie” Goosen, the Birdie of the book’s title, is flying a shuttle on a critical mission only days into a revolt against an oppressive corporate entity that dominates planets on the “outer rim,” the region of known space farthest from Earth. At the start, he has only one small problem: he does not know how to fly. This soon becomes apparent and government fighters shoot his craft out of the sky. In the process, they also down a shuttle filled with former hostages.
Birdie (and company) survives, only now he has a whole lot of big problems. Bad weather keeps the enemy temporarily at bay, but torrential rain brings on the planet's feeding season, a frenzy reminiscent of the one on the much drier world in Vin Diesel's, “Pitch Black.” The story unfolds as the crash survivors try to reach safe-haven located miles away through a flooding jungle erupting with ravenous fanged fish and swarming man-eating vermin. This is definitely not a tale for the squeamish.
The jungle journey is a thrill in itself, yet there is more to come as the scene shifts to a flooding riverbank where huge monsters and enemy agents await the unwary. It all climaxes in a final shootout between rebel rescuers and corporate forces. However, as so often happens in Graham’s work, the story takes a number of unexpected turns and some things are not what they appear to be.
Besides the suspenseful adventure, what makes this novel work so well is Birdie. He is an extremely likable character and comes across as the decent human being caught up in a nasty situation not of his making. He tries so hard to do the right thing that you cannot help but respect and admire him. Other characters are well drawn, interesting, and effective.
There are some minor indie glitches here and there, but none that impairs the pleasing classic-sci-fi feel this entertaining novel so consistently presents. If you enjoy desperate struggles to survive against long odds, this one is a winner.
- Scat (Scat's Universe, Book 1)
on Nov. 28, 2012
Scat is Jim Graham’s first novel. Best described as a hard science-fiction thriller, the dialogue-driven plot revolves around ruthless resource-based political machinations worthy of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Like Dune, there is also a struggle for planetary independence. While lacking the mystical allure of Herbert’s Muad’ Dib, the book’s main character - hard-nosed laconic ex-soldier, Scat - makes a far more believable rebel leader. We follow his travels and exploits throughout the novel. However, Graham has chosen to use multiple points of view so we sometimes briefly see things through the eyes of other characters.
Events unfold in a number of distinct locales, each one very distant from the others. Notable among these are the Sinai desert on Earth, a mining camp on the small airless planet Prebos, the wonderfully depicted Go Down City on the planet Trevon, and a secret base on planet Runnymede run by the villain of the piece, the giant oppressive corporation Lynthax (an entity so powerful that it has its own warships).
Scat comes to life fairly well, although his low-key, stay out of trouble style means it takes a while to get the sense of him. We more quickly get a good feel for his more expressive friend, “Birdie” Goosen. The novel’s most easily grasped character is Lynthax’s vicious head of planetary security, Petroff. Baddies are seldom subtle. Other characters tend to be just names.
The novel has some notable lines. Graham is himself ex-military and only a soldier would understand the level of risk well enough to write, “The occasional round ripped through the air a little ways off, and the rocks crunched underfoot, but other than that it was remarkably peaceful.” The rest of us would be making like sheets of paper on the ground! Later, Scat gets into an up elevator on Trevon, a near-Earth-gravity world, after spending six weeks in the low-gravity mining camp on Prebos. Graham neatly captures his character’s weakened state with, “It was a brutally fast ride.”
There are also occasional evocative pieces of descriptive writing. I would like to have seen a few more of these. My favourite is the moody silent “bus” ride from the Trevon spaceport to Go Down City. Graham crisply depicts the bleak barren landscape, the snow blowing across the road, and lays on an absorbing description of the city lodged within an immense 450-metre-deep gash in the frozen planet’s surface.
The underground mining camp on Prebos is reminiscent of the titanium operation in “Outland,” the sci-fi thriller where Sean Connery plays the beleaguered outpost sheriff. As in the movie, we get a realistic look at rough tough working men in a dangerous and stressful workplace where off-hours entertainment is limited.
While the overall tone of the novel is sober, Graham works in flashes of humour: the running gag about Scat’s escalating number of salaries is a treat. To add even more spice, we have a mysterious derelict alien vessel replete with bizarre technology. This provides a terrific late plot twist that moves the novel onto a completely new plane and, presumably, sets up for the sequel.
The plot twists a number of times as the story progresses. Just when you think you see where things are going, they suddenly start going somewhere else. I enjoyed this immensely. My interest level got a nice boost at every turn.
At the cost of extending an already lengthy review, I want to say something about an important question raised by Graham’s novel (I love speculative fiction that does this): who will take humankind into space? It is already clear that it will not be government. Politicians are useless here because electors will not vote for massive expenditures on what can only be a speculative adventure – at least in the early going. Like it or not, the job must be done by huge corporations. They are the only entities with both the financial resources and the freedom of decision-making necessary to shoulder the risk. Graham is making the valid point that once such powerful well-funded organizations get beyond the reach of Earth-bound governments there will be no one there to make sure they behave themselves. Democratic nations must ensure that wherever corporations go, proper responsible government goes with them.
Scat is a big, intelligent, interesting novel. If you enjoy hard gritty sf with plenty of well-handled dialogue, you will not go far wrong with this one.
- Hidden Boundaries: a Hand Slaves Novel
on Jan. 04, 2013
With its homosexual relationships and dominant slavery theme, this powerful well-written novel seems a challenging read for those of us who are in the mainstream. Yet George Orwell’s *1984* hardly slots into the norm and we have no trouble reading about Winston Smith’s brutal torments at the hands of the virtual slave-state known as Big Brother. Most Goodreads members who have read *Hidden Boundaries* classify the novel as M/M (male on male) Romance, but that trivializes a work that may best be described as homosexual literature. The question remains as to whether we really need to make a literary sub-category based on sexual orientation.
The novel is set in an alternate universe, which technically makes the book science fiction, but it reads like SF only in the Orwellian sense. The author would have been wiser to choose, like Orwell, a near-future milieu. As it stands, the Earth-like setting plays such a minor role in the novel that it is essentially irrelevant. What matters is that one despised nation among all the others allows slavery.
Some people become slaves in much the same way as debtors once landed in prison in Victorian England. Fail to pay and you forfeit your freedom. Others are sold into slavery by those who have the right to make that decision, much like the African chiefs who once sold unpopular or unwanted tribe members to passing Arab slavers. Illegal and controversial raids on neighbouring countries garner a few more. The novel explores the fate of Cor, one such captured slave. His name is actually much longer, but slaves may not have impressive sounding identifiers.
As someone entitled to a normal life in his own land, Cor bitterly resents his status as a slave. He resists. The highly ritualized system requires that, like Winston Smith in *1984*, he be made more compliant. A large portion of the novel deals with Cor’s prolonged and painful indoctrination process, which does resemble the horrors of *1984*. Cor has no way to escape, so in some way, he must come to terms with his situation. How he does this is quite startling, yet makes perfect sense within the logic of his hopeless position. His owner is not especially keen on slavery, but an hereditary estate and his role as an elected official require him to take part in the unsavoury system. The complex relationship between Cor and his master makes up the other major aspect of the novel.
McClellan’s approach to the searing moral issues implicit in slavery is both insightful and horrific. Cor’s absolute vulnerability to exploitation of every kind, including the sexual, is appalling and illustrated with some brutal emotionally wrenching scenes. Yet this is not a novel of sadomasochism, nor is it homosexual erotica. We are looking at issues faced today by anyone victimized by human trafficking. Here lies some of the novel’s relevance as a literary work. It manages to illuminate the old historical evils of plantation slavery in the American South (and elsewhere in the New World) and the new evils of human trafficking in the present day. At the same time, it explores the kinds of intricate caring relationships that can emerge even under such inauspicious circumstances.
If you relish a thought-provoking read that will open your eyes to aspects of life you may not be familiar with, *Hidden Boundaries* is highly recommended.