Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

An excellent piece of science fiction and a true asset to the genre, Doomsday Book is set in a futuristic Oxford and follows the exploits of a young history student who travels to the Middle Ages to study its contemporaries at first hand. It is a riveting, fast-paced and enthralling novel which is truly difficult to put down. Written in 1992, Willis’s imagination shows Oxford in 2048 to be vastly modernised. One stroke of genius is that the underground system now links the city to London, but the biggest innovation is that the ability to time travel has vastly overhauled the History Faculty.

Kivrin is a young student whose determination to travel back to the 14th century to garner first hand evidence of life in the Middle Ages has persuaded her tutors Professor Dunworthy and Professor Gilchrist to agree to the mission. Kivrin certainly is well-prepared: she learns Old English and a huge list of medieval practical skills in order to pass as a ‘contemp’. On the day of the ‘drop’, technical details are double-checked, triple-checked. But no sooner has Kivrin vanished when a mysterious strain of influenza strikes down a member of staff at the laboratory. The disease spreads across the city at a frightening speed, and the death toll soon begins to rise. Where did the illness come from? Professor Dunworthy is caught up in the crisis, but is assured that Kivrin is safe. However, alone in the Middle Ages and unaware of the crisis she has left behind her, Kivrin’s meticulous preparation is not enough for what she will have to face.

Connie Willis manages to pair a dark subject matter with brilliant splashes of humour. The imagining of modern life in this book is bizarre but brilliant. Her vision of the various types of Church liturgy in 2048 is hilarious and yet also strangely believable – for other examples of humour, you’ll have to read it yourself because there are too many to list. Overall Doomsday Book is a real gem of science fiction, with a gripping and powerful plot, a relentless narrative, and superb vision.

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New Stars For Old, by Marc Read

An interesting collection of short stories which brings together some of the most pivotal moments in the history of astronomy. Read has chosen to fictionalise accounts of well-known scientists and their contemporaries, alongside others which are more obscure yet just as important. Each person’s importance to the development of scientific thought is clearly brought out in New Stars For Old as most chapters refer back to something or somebody mentioned in a previous story: the discoveries and theories of previous thinkers influenced those in later ages.

The stories are told in a variety of different ways, which keeps the narrative fresh. There are letters, diary entries, conversations, and inner monologues. Some chapters use invented characters to tell the story of real people, and this can be a particularly rewarding device. For example in one chapter Tycho Brahe’s daughter attempts to explain her father’s genius to a young soldier, who cannot understand. This enables Read to get the information across to his reader without resorting to didacticism in a normal chronological story-frame. Naturally some chapters are more successful than others – I particularly enjoyed those from Kepler’s point of view as his inner thoughts were nicely interspersed with the rest of the narrative; a very lively couple of chapters which really brought personality to what can sometimes just be a name in a scientific textbook.

Overall this is a refreshing collection of stories with a strong unifying theme. Together they narrate the evolution of theories surrounding astronomy. Each chapter is a glimpse into the world of a great thinker, and brings them sharply into focus as real human beings. Today we take knowledge about astronomy for granted, and tend to forget all the battles which past scientists fought in order to obtain support for their theories. Conversely we also tend to forget just quite how much people did know hundreds of years ago – thousands, even. New Stars For Old combines fiction and fact to remind us of our debt to those scholars who enabled us to better understand our universe.

Russian Roulette, by Anthony Horowitz

Russian Roulette is a prequel to the bestselling ‘Alex Rider’ series. It focuses on the life of Yassen Gregorovich, whom fans will know to be the accomplished Russian assassin and sometime enemy of Alex Rider. The death of Alex’s uncle is the event which launches Alex into his years of breakneck espionage and adventure, and it comes at the hands of Yassen. Alex himself is warned by M16 on his first mission that if he spots Yassen Gregorovich, he has to immediately pull out of the mission. But they have more than one reason for this instruction, and Ian Rider’s death is not all that Yassen is responsible for. Although secrets about Yassen’s past began to emerge in Eagle Strike, and the plot thickened in Scorpia, yet more information awaits the Alex Rider fan within the pages of Russian Roulette.

Horowitz took on a challenge by writing about Yassen. The lynch-pin of the Alex Rider books has been the fact that Alex did not want to be a spy, and simply got himself caught up in numerous events which led from one thing to another. By contrast, we know that Yassen will end up being a fearsome assassin, despite more than a little reluctance to become a killer. What interests the reader is how the two ends of his story join up. How does the poverty-stricken fourteen-year-old become the character we know in the other books? How does each step of his journey contribute to his future? And that journey is not a smooth one. If you thought Alex’s problems were bad, wait until you encounter Yassen’s. His path is full of disaster, hurt (both emotional and physical), and the struggle to survive.

The story-telling is well executed by Horowitz and follows a similar structure to the books of the main series, despite the very different format. We encounter clearly sign-posted villains, and situations we know will be played out. The difference is that in Russian Roulette the story is  in the form of a memoir which Yassen is reading back in the Prologue just as he has been issued with an order: Kill Alex Rider. The main body is told entirely using the first person viewpoint, and my only criticism about it is that the story doesn’t really sound like a diary or a memoir. However, if you immerse yourself in the story then that doesn’t matter. The plot twists and turns despite all the prior knowledge which a fan of the series will already have about Yassen and Alex.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has read the Alex Rider novels. While it’s not essential to have completed the series, I strongly advise the reader to have read at least up to the end of Book 5, Scorpia, before reading Russian Roulette. This novel is darker than the majority of the series, yet contains all the essential elements, and has some fantastic scenes, most notably the finale. The story’s conclusion is surprisingly thought-provoking; and I leave it to you to decide which out of Yassen and Alex have had more control over their lives.