No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

2014/12: The Machine -- James Smythe

The Machine contains all that is left of who he once was. Already it’s processed his story, the speech-to-text system inside it turning his spoken, quivering memories into data and patching them. Filling in the cracks in his story. Somewhere, inside the Machine, are the exact constituents of what – who – Vic will be. [loc 1726]
I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Beth's soldier husband Vic isn't on a tour of duty abroad, though that's what Beth tells people. He's confined to a care home in London, helpless and silent, after an experimental treatment for PTSD went horribly wrong.

A teacher's salary has condemned Beth to a solitary, frugal life on the Isle of Wight, while every spare penny has been saved up for an illegal Machine -- an obsolete model of the device that stole Vic's painful memories and stored them as data. Beth is determined to get her husband back. After all, his current state is partly her fault.

Life on the Isle of Wight is not a pleasant experience. Gangs of feral teenagers roam the streets; climate change has baked the landscape to desert. Beth swims in the sea every morning, the only way she can cool down. She's been planning Vic's return for a while, stockpiling food and supplies: soon the school holidays will start and she can put her plans into action. The Machine, huge and black and impenetrable, looms in the spare room, waiting. But her new friend Laura realises that something's afoot ...

The Machine is well-paced, deals with PTSD sensitively, and is horribly accurate about the unease which a woman alone might feel when verbally abused by a group of teenagers. The sense of imminent doom increases gradually, and the desolate landscape outside Beth's window is a good metaphor for the aridity and emptiness of her life: she might as well be in the desert with Vic. But when I'd finished reading and started reflecting, the novel seems somehow empty. Having Beth as the sole narrative voice is very effective in terms of suspense, but it's harder to suspend disbelief when certain plot twists become clear. And it's ultimately a very depressing story.

(Irritatingly, the last 15% of the Kindle version is taken up with notes and an excerpt from another book: so, just when you think you've reached the final twist, you 'turn' the 'page' and realise the novel's over.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

2014/11: Nexus -- Ramez Naam

Evolution and human cleverness were cast against filter daemon cleverness. Bit by bit, crowdsourced evolution pulled ahead.
NSA agents were slow to grasp the enormity of the new outbreak. When they did, they pulled the plug on all peer-sharing traffic within the United States, [loc.5486]

I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Nexus is a drug that's also an operating system: it connects people to each other and to the web, and enhances their senses. The narrator of Nexus, Kaden Lane, has just upgraded to the latest version when he is apprehended by the security services and pressured into helping them investigate a Chinese variant of the same technology.

Kade is an idealist: Sam, the other protagonist, is a hard-boiled government agent with a Tragic Secret. She's adamant that Nexus is dangerous and flawed. Sam and Kade, with three of Kade's stoner friends (each espousing a different agenda regarding Nexus) have plenty of arguments whilst fleeing those who want to use Nexus as a method of enslavement. Ranged against the more conservative forces are the wannabe posthumans, who believe that Nexus holds the key to future evolution.

It's clear from various remarks about open source, compilation, development environments etc that the author has previous in the IT business: turns out he's worked for Microsoft, and for Apex Nanotechnologies. And his afterword is informative: "it's still fiction. The research to date has been a great proof of principle. It's shown that we can get data in and out of the brain. It's shown that we can interpret that data to make sense of what the brain is doing, or to input new data in a way that the brain can make sense of." [loc.5736]

Nexus is a fast-paced cyberpunk thriller that somehow, despite reflecting cutting-edge neuroscience, feels a little dated. Kade and Sam, separately and together, spend a lot of time either fighting (it's a pretty violent book) or fleeing. The pace of the novel is breathless, but slowing down reveals some fundamental inconsistencies in the way that Nexus works. Interesting, but (for me, anyway) unfulfilling.

2014/10: The Adjacent -- Christopher Priest

‘Quantum technology has been declared toxic. There are known to be occasional health risks for the user, and for anyone else in range. Too many side-effects.’
‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this. How can a camera have side-effects? [loc.860]

I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

I am not a faithful reader of Christopher Priest's novels, so suspect I have missed a plethora of references to his previous work: from what I did spot, I'm tempted to describe this as a 'Greatest Hits' compilation. There are magicians, the Archipelago, World Wars I and II, multiple variants of the same character (or are they), amnesia, misunderstood / insufficiently pragmatic scientists, et cetera. The different sections of the novel are interrelated in odd and unexpected ways: names connected with water (Flo, Torrence known as Floody); variants on the names Melanie Roscoe and Tibor Tarent; a weapon that leaves only equilateral black triangles; a camera that uses a quantum lens, based on the work of a scientist named Rietveld -- an echo of Wilhelm Reich? -- who invented adjacency technology.

Adjacency, as explained in the novel, is a standard technique of stage magic. 'the audience... should become interested and look away in the wrong direction. An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacent distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates.' [loc.1676] I'm still not sure that I understand how this relates to quantum photography, except that 'the adjacency defence' relocates an incoming missile to an adjacent dimension. But is that the same as a magician's adjacency? And does the quantum camera record adjacent realities, or enable (or force) the photographer to slip between them?

The Adjacent is a novel in eight parts, each set in a distinct reality: the near-future Islamic Republic of Great Britain, ravaged by superstorms; a Lincolnshire airfield in World War II where a female ATA pilot is delivering a plane; the island of Prachous in the Dream Archipelago, where refugees are banished to a shanty town named Adjacent ... and France, 1916, where a stage magician discusses new technology and warfare with H. G. Wells.

Every time I think about this book I note another connection, another congruence. I suspect that to reach understanding would be to internalise Priest's entire oeuvre and to familiarise myself with every sentence. I suspect this would be unsettling, but I believe it would be rewarding.

2014/09: Ancillary Justice -- Ann Leckie

She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. ... Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak — my own first language — doesn’t mark gender in any way. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me. [loc.63]

I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Much has been made of the use of gendered pronouns in Ancillary Justice. One Esk (or Breq, the narrator's 'human' name) uses the female pronoun indiscriminately -- uncomprehendingly -- for all humans, with ... surprisingly few consequences. Breq doesn't care about gender or sexuality, and so her narrative glosses over aspects of the story that might be foregrounded by another narrator. One or more of the sexual / romantic relationships in the novel may be between characters of the same gender, but there is insufficient evidence -- and, frankly, it doesn't matter.

More intriguing is the blurring of first-person singular and plural: 'I', and 'we'. Breq is the sole remaining ancillary of Justice of Torren, a millennia-old, AI-controlled starship. The ancillaries, colloquially known as corpse soldiers, are the Radch Empire's footsoldiers, the zombified husks of annexed populations, animated by AIs. So in one of the threads in Ancillary Justice we encounter One Esk, a detached unit under the command of Decade Lieutenant Awn. In another thread the narrator is Breq, still mourning Justice of Torren, and possibly more than a little insane. Breq and One Esk are the same person, except that in One Esk's story the pronoun 'I' can refer to One Esk, or to another ancillary, or to Justice of Torren.

Justice of Torren loves music. One Esk can sing harmony: "I opened three of my mouths, all in close proximity to each other on the temple plaza, and sang with those three voices, “My heart is a fish, hiding in the water-grass…” " [loc.373]

Breq knows who destroyed Justice of Torren: Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, who dwells in a thousand bodies and rules supreme. Anaander Mianaai was also responsible for the death of Lieutenant Awn, for whom One Esk (or Justice of Torren?) had complex emotions. To vow revenge on Anaander Mianaai is to wreak destruction on the whole interstellar empire. But Breq knows of a device ...

Breq's search for the person who possesses the solution is complicated by Seivarden, a crew member from a thousand years ago, who's spent centuries in cryosleep and woken to find the whole of the Radch has changed beyond recognition. Breq encounters Seivarden near death, in the snow: the two have unexpected, and largely positive, effects on one another. Because Breq does have emotions, though not human ones: "Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions." [loc.1199] Indeed, the whole novel could be said to pivot on Breq's / One Esk's / Justice of Torren's emotional reactions to various humans.

I find it hard to review this book without rambling, because I keep remembering new aspects that I loved. It reminds me of Iain M Banks' Culture novels and of Justina Robson's inhuman Forged, in Natural History. Ancillary Justice deals with identity, loyalty, vengeance and war: it's cinematic in scope and devious in nuance: it is, bah, the first in a trilogy, but stands alone. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

2014/08: The Disestablishment of Paradise -- Phillip Mann

We as a race will make the same mistake as we always have. We will try to control by force what we could perfectly well live with by reason alone.’ [loc.901]

I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

The Disestablishment of Paradise tries hard to be topical, relevant, cutting-edge: it deals with ecological and political conflicts, and with alien lifeforms. The planet Paradise has been settled for several centuries, but evolution seems to be happening remarkably rapidly. Humans have destroyed much of the native life -- which, though neither fauna nor flora, is referred to throughout in botanic terms -- and the planet seems to be fighting back: agriculture has become more difficult, century-old corpses are being expelled from the ground, thickets are actively malevolent. Meanwhile, there are several factions vying for control of Paradise: should it be disestablished as a colony? If so, who'll be first on the spot when profit can be made from the no-longer-inhabited planet?

The novel's protagonist (at least for the first half of the book) is Dr Hera Melhuish, a biologist who is director of the Observation, Regeneration and Botanic Expansion (ORBE) project on Paradise. She is definitely a Strong Woman, and the framing narrative of the novel consists of her sessions with 'Olivia', a children's author whom Hera has personally selected to tell the story of Paradise. There are comfortable vignettes of the two sharing wine and reminiscences. There are also some uncomfortably twee phrases (Olivia writes primarily for children), for instance when a mind-controlling alien being is referred to as a 'naughty little thing'.

However, despite the existence of women in positions of power (ORBE director, spaceship captain, etc) The Disestablishment of Paradise has an old-fashioned feel when it comes to gender. The climax (ahem) of the novel involves Hera and her new lover, illiterate demolition specialist Mack, facilitating the reproduction of a massive native lifeform. Hera (who is in love for the first time in her life, 'awake and enlived') is seen 'soused and gleaming with the sap of the Dendron'; Mack does the heavy lifting. The word 'codds' is used excessively, i.e. at all. It's a very sexualised scene, strongly reminiscent of New Wave SF.

There is, however, a plot-related rationale for all the glistening fluids and interspecies frottage. There's no obvious reason for the strangely archaic and distant ways in which the women in this novel talk about their gender ('it is women’s logic, as old as time' [loc.162]; 'What fools we women are sometimes!' [loc. 724]; 'A woman’s lot, Olivia, to see them into life and out of life' [loc.6838]) or the rather patronising tone of Hera's, or Olivia's, observations ('the captain, who was sitting back in her chair, had undone the top button of her uniform jacket and was now paying attention to her make-up' [loc.570]; 'Abhuradin whistled – a very masculine sound for one so feminine' [loc.1360]; 'wearing a survival suit and pummelled by the wind, she still managed to look elegant' [loc.1778]).

There are some very interesting ideas in this novel, and some fascinating background characters: but in tone and characterisation, and especially in its depiction of women and gender issues, it fell flat for me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014/07: Annihilation -- Jeff VanderMeer

At first, only I saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. [loc.54]

First in a trilogy (all due for publication in 2014), Annihilation is a short novel which raises more questions than it answers. An expedition, the twelfth in a series, is sent into the mysterious Area X -- possibly a transformed wilderness, possibly an incursion of another world into the human world. The previous eleven expeditions have each taken a different approach: all failed, and some of the explorers died by murder or suicide. Those that did return came back changed. Among the survivors of the previous expedition was the husband of Annihilation's biologist protagonist.

The current expedition consists of four women: a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist. (There was supposed to be a fifth member, a linguist, but she fled at the last moment.) None of the women are named ("Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were" [loc.87]) and their appearances are not described. Yet they have distinct characters. The biologist is an introvert, preferring to avoid human contact: her relationship with her husband seems to have consisted of him seeing something in her that was not there. The anthropologist is the blandest, and possibly most likeable, member of the expedition. The surveyor seems to be ex-military (raising the question of her true purpose): and the psychologist has a secret agenda.

The four are equipped with strange devices which will, apparently, light up if there's a need to retreat to a safe place. They don't know what the devices measure. They don't know details of the previous expeditions, or why they have been sent into Area X when so many others have failed to uncover its secrets. Meanwhile, with "no cell or satellite phones, no computers, no camcorders, no complex measuring instruments" [loc.66] they are utterly separate from the rest of the world, reliant solely upon one another.

The landscape in which they find themselves -- after a brief, blurry transition through the border -- is desolate, uninhabited save by animals and birds. There's something strange about the dolphins in the creek: something unsettling about the unseen, moaning beast in the reeds. And there's the tower, which does not rise up but extends down into the ground. (There's a lighthouse in plain view, apparently marking a boundary of Area X: but that is never referred to as a tower.)

It's hard to convey the eerieness of this setting, or the sense of isolation. There's a Lovecraftian feel to the tower and its mysteries, but the expedition -- and the 'real' world they've left behind -- is more reminiscent of Kafka than of genre. The biologist's distrust of and disconnection from her fellow scientists is probably what allows her to survive for longer than others: it's by no means clear that she will unravel the mysteries of Area X. Her fascination with unused spaces -- empty lots, transitional environments, 'tangled gardens and fallow fields' -- may help her understand the wasteland through which she moves: but it is unclear whether anything in her experience will grant understanding of what she finds in the tower.

2014/06: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves -- Karen Joy Fowler

... the happening and the telling are very different things. This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it. Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture. [loc.630]

Despite reviews (print and online) and the blurb of the physical book itself, I managed to remain ignorant of the major twist in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and suspect my reading experience was much the better for it. There is, after all, a reason why a particular fact isn't revealed for the first eighty pages or so: the story is much stronger if the reader gets to know each character as an individual person, rather than knowing from the outset just what it is that sets one member of Rose's family apart from the rest.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel about family, memory and the disintegration -- the failure -- of both. Rose grew up with a sister and a brother, and their two emotionally distant parents: she lost her sister when she was five, and her brother left when she was eleven. I definitely blame the parents here: as events unfold it's difficult to understand just how oblivious they seem to be to the problems of their remaining child. Yes, at the age of five she told a lie that had a profound effect on the family. Yes, her memories are unreliable. Yes, her brother has become a domestic terrorist ('Every girl’s dream, if she can’t have a vampire', observes Rose rather snidely. [loc.2776]) But her parents are scientists: her father is a psychologist, her mother, perhaps, an anthropologist, though her field of study is never mentioned. How could they not notice how damaged Rose is? How can they fail to see that something's wrong, when a campus cop zeroes in on Rose instantly (and mistakenly) as a perpetrator of violence?

There are recurring themes of lost and found: Rose loses her mother's journals (well, an airline loses her luggage); her long-absent brother Lowell returns, albeit briefly; Fern, Rose's sister, is located. But Rose's memories are not so much lost as overwritten. "Sometimes in matters of great emotion, one representation, retaining all the original intensity, comes to replace another, which is then discarded and forgotten. The new representation is called a screen memory. A screen memory is a compromise between remembering something painful and defending yourself against that very remembering." [loc.2902] Rose seems certain, by the end of the book, that she's regained the true memories of her childhood: but I can't help wondering what remains lost.

2014/05: A Clash of Kings -- George R R Martin

if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why do we pretend our kings hold the power? [loc.2227]

Finally finished this after watching season 2 of the TV version. I won't attempt to summarise plot (of which there is a great deal) or characterisation (mostly pretty sound). I am intrigued by the way the story's been adapted for TV: concatenating two characters to simplify the story; playing up the likeable aspects of various Lannisters right before they do something especially villainous; eschewing the characters' inner thoughts in favour of what can be shown.

There are some interesting new viewpoint characters, in particular Davos Seaworth (the Onion Knight) whose age and lowly origins give a different perspective on the antics of the would-be rulers. I think I might like Margaery Tyrrell, too. And Cat Stark is evidently a fearsome politician in her own right. How I would love to lock her in a room with Cersei Lannister: may the best woman win.

Perhaps there is less sense of progress than in A Game of Thrones, but the sense of magic returning to the world is growing stronger. It's not only Danaerys' dragons (whose very existence is making spells more effective a thousand miles away) but Bran's wolf-dreams, and the walkers beyond the Wall.

Martin is a plain, punchy stylist with a gift for resonant images: 'Janos Slynt was a butcher's son, and he laughed like a man chopping meat' [loc 2059]; 'His whispers scurried across the lapping water like a line of mice on soft pink feet'. [loc.10135] I could still do with more humour -- Tyrion excepted, what humour there is has more to do with cruelty than amusement -- and I doubt I'll warm further to any of the characters, but their machinations continue to be twistily entertaining.

2014/04: Gemsigns -- Stephanie Saulter

'...when the various governments allowed embryos to be genetically modified beyond what was necessary to avert the Syndrome and other illnesses, they neglected to define the legal status of the resulting people. They just let the gemtechs get on with it.' [loc.2050]

Over a century ago, the incurable neurological Syndrome devastated humanity. A number of big companies (the 'gemtechs') developed genetic modification techniques that, applied at the pre-embryonic stage, imparted resistance. But the gemtechs didn't stop there: with the majority of a generation lost to the Syndrome, there was a huge demand for labour forces. And science is endlessly curious: what if we try this?

Hence, the gems: genetically-modified humans, often with distinctively neon hair or other visible signs of their status. Some are adapted to specific environments: others have been engineered to perform particular tasks. Many are socially (or psychologically) dysfunctional, valued for their abilities rather than their personalities. Are gems an artificial subspecies? Or are they less than human?

Gemsigns deals with the days before a major international conference at which these questions will be debated. There are multiple viewpoint characters, from Dr Eli Walker (genetic anthropologist: "I try to identify connections between human genetypes and behaviour"), to religous extremist John Senton, to Gaela, mother of the precociously gifted Gabriel. Gabriel, and Aryel Morningstar (a charismatic Gem activist whose Sign is not immediately apparent), drive the action of the novel: although many of the events don't affect them directly, their specific modifications (mutations?) are vital to the denouement.

The gemtechs have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They hark back to the 'good old days' when gems were intellectual property, with no rights at all. There's a lot of profit to be made in genetic modification: indeed, it seems to be the only area of science / technology where much progress is being made. In media and communication, for instance, 'socialstreaming' and something very like the internet are still going strong. So is the Observer. On the other hand, one theory has it that the Syndrome was caused by '[exposure] not only to a plethora of computing and communications devices, but to the immense load of interactions, analysis and responses they demanded, and the radio frequencies over which they travelled'. [loc.635] Advances in digital culture might be counterproductive.

There's a lot of worldbuilding here, and it's delightfully complex. That means there's the occasional infodump, and some of the essential background information is conveyed as reportage rather than narrative. But it's seldom intrusive, and serves to maintain an air of impartial omniscience.

Plenty of Big Themes here: slavery, surrogacy, the ethics and techniques of genetic modification, the obligations of society towards its weaker members, the nature / nurture debate, the future of London, the future of religion. Saulter deals with them provocatively and maturely. I'm looking forward to the next in the series.

2014/03: The Incrementalists - Steven Brust and Skyler White

No one is going to turn Rupert Murdoch into a liberal, but a few nudges might convince some British investigators to follow up on what he's done, if they're inclined in that direction anyway. [p. 30]

For the past 40,000 years, a small group of gifted individuals (the Incrementalists) have been nudging human history along, making trivial changes that beget greater ones. The Incrementalists practice a kind of functional immortality: each member has a Second, and when the original weakens they put their 'stub' (a, probably metaphorical, burning spike between the eyes) into that Second. Thus, continuity is maintained, and long-term plans can come to fruition.

That's the book I wanted to read.

For the past 400 years, Celeste and Phil have been lovers. Now it's time for Celeste's personality to be merged with that of young user interface designer Renée, who he's selected as a suitable vessel. Ren helps this process by falling instantly and irrevocably in love with Phil: they have a lot of unexceptional sex. But will Celeste merge with Ren, or does (did) she have another agenda?

That's the book I did read.

The romance between Phil and Ren is a much smaller story than I was expecting ... though, to be fair, it has far-reaching effects (which is after all the whole premise of Incrementalism). There were some interesting descriptions of 'meddlework' -- social engineering -- and an exploration of some variants on the memory palace model. But I didn't find Ren especially engaging (she's been meddled with, after all) and would much rather have read about the 39,600 Celeste-free years of Phil's existence.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

2014/02: Life After Life -- Kate Atkinson

Would she really be able to come back and start again? Or was it, as everyone told her, and as she must believe, all in her head? And so what if it was – wasn’t everything in her head real too? [loc. 2437]
A snowy night in the early years of the 20th century. Sylvie hopes the doctor will arrive in time. Will her daughter Ursula live or die?

But time's a loop, and though one Ursula dies at birth (for lack of a pair of surgical scissors to snip the strangling umbilical), others survive the experience.

It turns out there are many, many ways that a little girl (and, eventually, a grown woman) can die. And a great many other terrible things that can befall her.

The surprising thing, perhaps, is that Ursula starts to remember:
They mustn’t go downstairs. They mustn’t see Bridget. Ursula didn’t know why this was so, where this awful sense of dread came from, but she pulled the blankets over her head to hide from whatever was out there. She hoped it was out there and not inside her. [loc. 1047]
Aware of previous deaths, she becomes determined to survive, though she has no idea of what is happening to her, or why, or why she alone has this gift or curse.

Habituees of the alt.hist genre will quickly appreciate that Ursula, forearmed with knowledge of the future, might set out to change history. I don't think that's supposed to be a surprise: it's foreshadowed several times. What sets this book apart from a run-of-the-mill alternate history or time-travel narrative is Kate Atkinson's writing. Ursula is not an especially likeable character (though much more accessible than her mother, Sylvie) but she's so resilient and indomitable -- and her experience is at once representative of 20th-century Englishwomen, and uniquely filtered by her sense of deja vu -- that she is a fascinating protagonist.

Some of her experiences are shocking or incomprehensible to me. (This is not the airbrushed heroic Blitz Spirit.) Other aspects resonate uncomfortably: Ursula's anxiety that she's "a magnet for unsavoury types ... and worried that they could read something in her that she couldn’t read herself." [loc. 4413] And her sense of inadequacy: why is she coming back again and again, if she can't make a difference? Is she somehow responsible? Or is she simply not up to the challenge?

The reason for, the cause of, the timeloop is never made clear. I think there are hints, though. And I don't think it's only Ursula. And that makes me dizzy, makes the novel a bleaker reality. But Kate Atkinson manages to inject humour into the grimmest of predicaments: there's also beauty, in Ursula's relationship with her sister Pamela, and in the moments when she glimpses the darkness about to fall, about to reach out and embrace her.

She had become almost indifferent to death. Her soft soul had crystallized. (Just as well, she thought.) She was a sword tempered in the fire. And again she was somewhere else, a little flicker in time.[loc. 5801]

2014/01: The Gospel of Loki – Joanne Harris

Order is like ice that creeps, bringing life to a standstill ... the ice will creep back. Stagnation will come. My kingdom will fall into darkness. I cannot be seen to break my own rules. But I do need someone on my side who can break them for me when necessary. [p. 42]
The Gospel of Loki is a prequel to Joanne Harris' Runemarks and Runelight, which are set 'five hundred years after the end of the world'. This novel, narrated by Loki himself, is the story of how a creature of Chaos was tamed (ish), brought on board by Odin to do his dirty work. Using the poem Völuspá (a version -- I believe it's Harris' own translation -- of which is appended to the novel) as an outline, it tells the story of Loki from Chaos to, er, Chaos. (Ragnarok, anyway.) Many of the episodes will be familiar from Norse mythology: others are invented, but are seamlessly in-character.

The thing is, I don't find Loki as likeable in the first person as he is in the third, in Runemarks / Runelight, where he's seen from fifteen-year-old Maddy's perspective. Maddy sees Loki as someone sharp, cunning, clever, magical. Loki's certainly clever, not to mention vain: but in his Gospel he's also somewhat whiny. (Justifiably so: nobody treats him very well, even before he's played some of his more malicious tricks.) He doesn't seem to like or respect anyone. Female characters get a rough deal, especially poor Sigyn whose loyalty is portrayed as stubborn stupidity. Male characters don't come off much better. ('As far as I could tell, love made you weak and boring. Balder, who by that token must have been in love all the time ...' [p. 157]) But I blame the narrator -- and note that many of the women who Loki maligns are actually smarter than he is, or at least better strategists. 

In fact, it's a woman (well, a female) who is the cause of Loki's downfall. Gullveig-Heid (who gets speared, roasted and resurrected in the Eddas) seldom appears in modern versions of the myths, but Harris gives her plenty of agency. Between Gullveig-Heid and the Oracle (whose Cunning Plan it all is), Loki -- and the Aesir -- don't stand a chance.

I could have done with fewer colloquialisms (not least because they'll date the book horribly in a remarkably short time). And I'd have liked a bit more about Loki's time in Chaos. Overall, though, this'll go nicely with my growing collection of Loki-centric fiction.
If we believe the Oracle, free will is merely an illusion, and all our actions were written in runes that were pre-ordained from the beginning of time. But if we take matters into our own hands, then we can write our own runes, remake our own reality. (p. 375)