Wednesday 1 December 2010

Book Review: Guardians of the Phoenix by Eric Brown

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Global warming has taken its terrible toll. The seas have dried up and deserts cover much of the Earth's surface. Humankind has been annihilated by drought and the nuclear and biological conflicts following the Great Breakdown. Desperate bands of humans still survive. Some live far underground, away from the searing temperatures and ongoing conflicts on the surface; others scrape a living in the remains of shattered cities above ground. In Paris, Pierre lives like an animal among the sand-drifted ruins of the once great city. Near death, he faces a choice: join the strangers heading south in search of water, or remain in the city and perish.


The end of the world again, is it?

Well, at least this time it's not grey.

Saying veteran sci-fi author and erstwhile genre reviewer for The Guardian Eric Brown is prolific just doesn't do the gentleman in question justice. At times, he seems a production house unto himself. Only a few months ago, Solaris reissued a decade-old novel of his, Engineman, in a sumptuous new edition complete with extensive revisions, a lovely new cover and a handful of related short stories. Engineman was this here reader's first experience of Eric Brown's fiction, and if it didn't quite - hyperbole ahoy! - blow me away, I had a great time with it all the same.

With Engineman behind us, there's Kings of Eternity to look forward to come the new year: a epic narrative about some kids who stumble upon a portal to outer space Brown himself describes as "probably the best thing I've done." In the same interview, in fact - over at Mark Chitty's rather fabulous Walker of Worlds - you get the distinct sense Brown is talking up Kings of Eternity in lieu of pimping his next novel proper.

Now you often hear of authors loving their latest babies above all their other literary children, so I wasn't overly concerned that Brown seemed to be giving Guardians of the Phoenix the cold shoulder. And whatever the collective exhaustion at the prospect of such stories, I have a special place in my heart for shindigs set after the apocalypse, which this very much is: a story of a young man eking out an existence in a city of sand who comes across the very best - and the very worst - of humanity in the shape of two bands of survivors come to town.

Sadly, Guardians of the Phoenix is a bit of a mess. It's obvious. It's dull. It's predictable. It's borderline offensive, come to that, with an anti-hero who'll drop her tattered combats at the mere thought of another obscene sex scene and some bad dudes who you know are properly bad because they threaten our hero - such as he is - with homosexual intercourse! Guardians of the Phoenix is a by-the-numbers exercise in a genre so run-to-ground as to demand originality from those who attempt to work within its bounds, and that vital spark just isn't here. There's not an original nor even an interesting character in sight.

It has its moments, of course. When Brown gets his sci-fi on his footing is far surer; when he relates the details of humanity's last, best (not to mention cruelly thwarted) hope - a null-space escape ship the best and brightest built to get away from Earth while the getting was still good - Guardians of the Phoenix threatens to rise like its namesake from the ashes that are the narrative's dreary larger part. Unfortunately, even then, Brown's latest never quite catches a drift, and that the closest thing to a redeeming feature in a post-apocalypse novel such as this is a sprinkling of sci-fi come the endgame speaks volumes as to its overall worthiness.

Which is to say its dire lack in that regard...

You know, Guardians of the Phoenix isn't an awful novel by any stretch, but oddly, it reeks at times of amateurishness, and here I'd thought Eric Brown as professional as pros got. What can I say? I'm disappointed.

But let's not end on such a negative note. Here, a friendly pull-quote I can honestly get behind: whatever its issues, Guardians of the Phoenix is still better than Twilight.

(Which could be just about the most self-evident thing I've ever written.)


Guardians of the Phoenix
by Eric Brown

UK Publication: December 2010, Solaris

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  1. Well, sure, but I honestly can't think of a book where 'x is better than Twilight' isn't true... Thanks for the review on this one though, I was eyeing it on account of the pretty cover, it's handy to know that that prettiness doesn't extend within.

  2. Have to admit the notion of a world that's succumbed to Global Warming initially puts me off. But it is fiction, so I'll withdraw the claws. Sadly for Eric Brown though, if you didn't like it, I'll probably completely pass on it.

    Just how the hell many books do you read in a week, anyway?

    Kristopher A. Denby
    The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby

  3. Two, usually?

    Some weeks more, some weeks less. But two's the target I can hit, and as often as I can find the damn time to, I do.

    To your question the other day, Kris: the snow. My god the snow! It's horrendous, and it's still going, and though there's a part of me that blames the way Scotland's just stopped on poor planning and local councils so disorganised they can't even find the salt to grit a road when on rare occasion a road needs gritting... the snow's been pretty intense. Even the internet's been spotty!

    Luckily I'd managed to squirrel away a couple of reviews to tide everyone over this week. Otherwise it'd be all quiet on the Scotsman front, I fear. Getting even the least little thing done has been a nightmare since all this started.

    Anyway. Appreciate you stopping in, Kris. Wish us luck! :/

  4. Just finished it. I will admit that I liked it. It reminded me of some of the "less than polished" science fiction that I read as a kid. Admittedly, there are serious problems with the premise. I mean, how exactly could all of the world's oceans "evaporate" in less than a century? Where did the water go? I'd like to have seen that explained.

    The prose was weak and a bit amateurish. The story and plot was simple. But I liked the imagery and the pulp fiction feel. Egdar Burroughs Rice could have written something like this...

  5. Just got the book today. Sadly, since I was a little older than 12, I got kinda... you know... One thing to say for sure, this book is not for kids. In the first chapter it mentions the idea of intercourse twice, and the word f**k thrice. Seriously, if your under the age of about 14-16, do NOT buy this book.