Book Review: Half Sick of Shadows (With Giveaway)

Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy
by Richard Abbott

See below for details about winning a free paperback copy of Half Sick of Shadows

In the first half of the twentieth century, Victorian poetry began to be marginalized by the developing field of scholarly literary criticism, which focused on works fitting complex parameters requiring a rather esoteric body of knowledge for successful interpretation. Earlier poets such as Tennyson, whose works were written for and appealed to a broader readership, fell out of favor.

Perhaps post-war audiences “re-discovered” Victorian poetry once it was realized that it often actually integrated and entailed some of the elements it had been criticized for lacking. Given its enduring Arthurian theme, it is no surprise then, that amongst Tennyson’s work, “The Lady of Shalott” should be one of the first rising to resurgence in popularity: countlessly anthologized and appearing in numerous cultural contexts (video, music, theater, art, literature and more) even into our own time nearly 200 years after publication, it provokes wider analysis and re-interpretation than much modernist poetry, whose seemingly impenetrable nature often contributes to its own dismissal, despite its aim of getting people to culture up. While this is a worthy goal and there certainly is no shortage of study for early twentieth-century poetry, it disregards the lesson Tennyson already understood: holding something out of people’s reach won’t allow them to grasp it any easier.

Contemporary author Richard Abbott takes this one step further by incorporating his own already popular literary bents—historical and science fiction—into a highly accessible re-interpretation of Tennyson’s masterpiece, itself based on the life of Elaine of Astolat, a tragic figure within the Arthurian catalogue. Written in prose and sectioned off a few more times than “The Lady of Shalott,” Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows takes us into a world of beauty and cruelty, loving and longing, a world of isolation in which the Lady yearns for her own voice and must choose which sacrifice to perform.

Significantly, Abbott opens Half Sick of Shadows with an awakening, though it is veiled by a “kindly darkness” and marked as the Lady’s birth. It is as smooth and relaxed as Tennyson’s own lead-in, “On either side of the river lie/Long fields of barley and rye,” as it initiates the creation and, later, upbringing, so to speak, of an infant and then adolescent who will be the Lady villagers come to know by way of her song. She, in turn, learns about them via her second-hand observations of the people in a mirror housed with her, and to which she eventually begins to talk and, later, question. Their communication is of the telepathic sort, at least the expressive language is on the part of the mirror, which the Lady silently receives.

The metamorphosis of this re-telling gifts readers the feeling that they are receiving the Lady’s story for the very first time. For those familiar with Abbott’s previous work, the historical may be an expected element, but the speculative angle is a definitive bonus, and done with a subtly that enhances rather than reduces the Arthurian and historical within Tennyson’s version. There is a machination about the mirror, in its gathering of data as the Lady sleeps between instars, or growth states, and during her acquisition of knowledge, and periodically we hear a word or phrase (e.g. gibbous) that injects the story with a small flavor of the author’s previous forays into a galactical colony. Indeed, the Lady travels through time and space as “[s]he ate, and she slept, and she changed[,]” as “[t]he world outside, with its fleeting years, took no notice of her sleep, and changed even more rapidly than she did.” These centuries of growth bring her from a time before people existed and “[n]obody was watching” through the eras until settling into the Arthurian, widening the form of science fiction the book engages.

For me, this speaks volumes about Abbott’s ability to transition from genre to genre: he clearly is comfortable writing in a variety, and with Half Sick of Shadows we see this taken to another level as he combines it into one: history, mythology, fantasy and speculative. Perhaps some might even add mystery and/or romance, for the Lady catches a glimpse of Lancelot in her mirror, and from then on everything she acts upon, whether in pragmatic caution or foolish abandon, is in response to the spell she knows she is under, a magic that will destroy her should she try to look directly at the world outside. The manner in which Abbott expands upon the Lady’s life and events within, simultaneously breaking ground while remaining true to Tennyson as he retains the spiritual within the legends of Camelot, is inspiring and captivating. The imagery and descriptive language is economic yet rich.

As she grows, so too do the Lady’s awareness, needs, questions, demands and reaching out to the larger world. She observes and bonds, solitary as the association is, with a prehistoric family whose habits she admires and thrills to. It is this family whose actions first lend her an unarticulated awareness of herself as a shadow, only half existing, a theme that permeates the novella along with the idea of voice in its physical form and as metaphor. Upon re-awakening from one of her sleep phases, she comes to realize that the nature of the world’s growth and movement forward necessitates forfeiture, though awareness make it no less difficult. She laments her loss and fate within her existence, and one of Abbott’s most poignant passages gives new voice, as it were, to the idea of futility of life within isolation. Having already questioned the purpose of knowing how to speak if there was no one to listen,

[s]he noticed the Mirror’s stream of information falter and then, almost immediately, restart when she spoke of her beginnings. This, then, was the source of the deception. A little tingle of anxiety pattered inside her … Outside of these walls neither person, nor bird, nor animal could properly see her. Perhaps in truth she was no more than a fiction, an incorporeal figment, no more than someone else’s projection. Her fretful feet rattled on the floor, until she seized on a memory of song, a memory of the last time around.

 Surely I am like them? Surely I am as real as they are? I am not just a shadow. I am not.

 She felt a tentative acceptance from the Mirror, but knew that it was still holding something back. The truth she was given was always partial, always qualified. She flung herself full-length on the couch and … screamed at the unresponsive face in front of her.

 “I’m half sick of shadows.”

It is significant that the author utilizes this most famous of all “Lady of Shalott” lines to so masterfully illustrate the power of powerlessness, which might at times contain a wealth of talented, gorgeous magnificence waiting for the freedom to flourish, or the explosive consequences of destruction felt by some in history forced into idleness as a way of life (women), or blocked from society (poets), a lifetime of being thwarted by doubt and questioning by individuals of how real they actually are. The inscrutable, vexing shadows may eventually drive the Lady to one rupture or the other—determined productivity or her own end—and the growth of Abbott’s protagonist as well as the narrative itself as it progresses, contains an additional message within as to the value of any given circumstance and whose purpose it serves.

One easily noticeable trait about Half Sick of Shadows is that there is very little dialogue. It is only recently that this reviewer  discovered how much stronger this can render a well-told tale, and in this case such a possibility rings absolutely true. Abbott’s technique of utilizing the omnipotent observer—in some stories a gamble that may not always pay—works perfectly, and contains a silence and mystery to the feel of the tale as we move through, lending substance and support to the Lady’s feelings of loneliness and anguish following her efforts to oblige the mirror to answer her and later, access others to interact with her.

“I am Half Sick of Shadows,” Said the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons (Click image)

While quite different to such a work as The Metamorphosis, which also experiences very little dialogue and involves a character cut off from others but remaining cognizant of life and events around him, Abbott throughout expertly utilizes allusion in form and narrative, including when the Lady “become[s] desperate with the need to speak and be spoken to.” As in Kafka’s great classic, the theme of voice is part of how the author explores the meaning of being alive and aware as psychological and physical change occurs.

She knew that her voice was high, reed-like compared to any of his own people, and that she could not form the words properly. The parts of her mouth and throat would not allow anything closer. But it was better than nothing[.]

One needn’t be familiar at all with Tennyson or Kafka to appreciate, understand and thoroughly enjoy Half Sick of Shadows, an amazing study as much as it is pleasing story. Whether re-visiting or new to the legend, readers will cherish Abbott’s novella, an original and enthralling re-telling suitable to current sensibilities, with a blend of Victorian sensory and critical, and the Modernist aim to further pique cultural curiosity. It is a merger in which Abbott splendidly succeeds.

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Would you like to win a free paperback copy of Half Sick of Shadows? Simply comment below – even a quickie hello works! – and you are automatically entered into the drawing, which will occur in mid November. (This would also make a great gift!!!)

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Click titles to read our reviews for Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports or Timing

For more on “The Lady of Shalott,” please click here.

About the author…

Richard Abbott writes fiction of several varieties, including both historical and speculative fiction. His historical is set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. It explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His heretofore speculative writing is set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships.

Far from the Spaceports introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

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You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

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A copy of Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

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Author photo courtesy Richard Abbott

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Audio Book Excerpt: Timing, Extracts B & C (Richard Abbott)

Excerpts from Timing, Book 2 in the Far from the Spaceports series by Richard Abbott

Click image for book description
Click image for more info

Today I’m pleased to present to readers what’s next up in our series featuring author Richard Abbott, whose space jaunts have so delighted meand many others. Of course, I’d previously reviewed Abbott’s debut sci-fi novel, Far from the Spaceports, followed up by another for its sequel, Timing. The audio excerpts below come from the second novel and, like our previous entry, utilize Amazon’s Polly software, which is enabled for text-to-speech in multiple accents and intonations. This compares to Alexa, a single voice.

Before moving forward, for those unfamiliar with the novels and their plots, I’ve linked the book covers to their respective Amazon blurbs. Abbott’s world-building opens a new type of sci-fi, one accessible even to those not typically enamored of the genre (such as myself), and Mitnash, along with his partner Slate, originating from artificial intelligence (AI), will capture your imagination as they seek to solve the mysteries of high-tech crime in space. Last time we listened in as a group discussed data they’d studied; today we pick up our place within Timing at a moment when Mitnash and Slate are perplexed about Callisto, then continue as the pair are joined by Parvati and Chandrika, who share their conversation regarding the loss of Selif’s ship.

Owing to the limitations on the range of voices offered just now, as Abbott points out, one voice’s accent isn’t quite where it should be. Will you spot it? Readers with previous experience in this technology, unlike myself, are likely to agree with the author, who expresses his fascination at “just how much the field has moved on since the first ‘computer voice’ some years back.” He adds that the wording is “broadly the same as the book, but changed in a few places where it sounded more flowing to move words around (funny how different spoken-aloud can sound than read-in-your-head).” (Indeed, that is so!) I’ve indicated changes in red, with words omitted from the original text in brackets and red font, and any added text (just one spot, in this instance) in red.

Note that there is more omitted text than what I’ve indicated, and can be seen in the paperback edition on pages 38-43. Toward the end of Extract A, however, while Abbott’s choice of excerpt makes perfect sense, I added in the rest of Mitnash’s statement (Maybe. But I’m not convinced. Is there any way to see if there’s any crossover of personnel?) as a point of interest to indicate some text that does not yet transfer as smoothly within text-to-voice. However, if I left out the rest (see red below) the remaining text on its own would be unclear as to who is speaking, and the missing text would be sensed. Hence my longer addition here, where I did not do it elsewhere.

Finally, related to this technology are two articles pertaining to development, limitations and what awaits in the margins of progress, for better or worse. “Computer-dictation systems have been around for years. But they were unreliable and required lengthy training to learn a specific user’s voice[,]” writes The Economist at the start of this year (click here and see note below). By June, Baidu, Inc.’s Deep Voice 2 text-to-speech technology was being reported on following a paper presented the previous month, detailing its ability to “listen to hundreds of voices to learn certain speaking styles. After less than 30 minutes of time listening to each speaker, Deep Voice 2 then can recreate the style perfectly[.]” (Click for article.) Where do we go from here?

And without further ado, simply click the arrow to listen–and enjoy!

 Extract B

After that debacle, [we] Slate and I gave up investigations for a while, and just had fun. But eventually we both decided it was time to start work properly.

“Slate, perhaps we should go through the details of the problem on Phobos?”

She cleared the wall screen, and scattered a whole array of documents across the surface.

“Where shall we start?”

With a top-level summary of the losses, compared with the ones we saw on Callisto.”

A chart opened, with two traces spilling across it. Red for Phobos, blue for Callisto. They were mostly flat, with irregular spikes showing the discrepancy pattern. Irregular, but averaging out at more or less one a week when you looked at the big picture. Callisto came out slightly more often,  Phobos slightly less. Other than that, there really wasn’t a great deal of similarity. Different days, different amounts, different principal components.

I was missing something.

“Slate, we did leave the old code on Callisto running in parallel with the new, didn’t we?”

“Absolutely. With triggers to send an alert down to us, if ever the problem surfaced again.”

“And have the triggers fired at all?”

“Not at all Mit. Not even once.”

“But why not? We never found the root cause. Why isn’t the same problem happening every few days still?”

Slate was silent for a while.

“That’s a really good question. I have no idea. Maybe, whatever situation was causing it has gone away?”

“That would be an absurd coincidence.”

“Or maybe it was an insider job, and the person is keeping a low profile? Maybe we frightened them off?” [In which case Jo’s coding style has nothing to do with the problem.]

I wasn’t convinced, but we lacked information. [Maybe. But I’m not convinced. Is there any way to see if there’s any crossover of personnel?]

[I can request the staff roster. But remember Callisto: the records are very skimpy. I’ll ask Khufu what he can find out.]

[Meanwhile, is there any chance of getting a look at the code repository on Phobos?]

[No. I asked last night while you were asleep, and they won’t open a remote link. Not for anyone, not for any reason. You’ll have to wait until we get there.]

“So, is there any more we can do for now?”

“Not really. I can show you the same data in different charts, but you’re not going to learn anything helpful by looking at them.”

So we didn’t do that. We cleared the screens, out of habit, then Slate got on with whatever she did when I was not conversing with her.

 

Extract C

I wanted human company again, so I stretched, and went in search of Parvati. She was brewing chai as I wandered in to the kitchen. Seeing me, she doubled up the amounts, found a second mug, and arranged some savoury crackers and a red and yellow striped cake on a tray.

“Did you and Slate get anywhere?”

I shook my head.

“Total blank. The figures don’t tell us any more than the basic alert message we got from Finsbury, and they won’t let us access the code yet. There’s almost nothing we can do until we get there.”

We moved back to the bridge, and enjoyed the snack together.

“Chandrika just picked up the latest from the wreck site for Selif’s ship, if you’re interested?”

I very definitely was interested. We finished the crackers, and she sliced two generous portions of the cake.

“They’ve made available the results from the data recorders. There’s nothing at all unusual until about three minutes before the crash. At that point, Selif took the vessel’s riding lights offline, and uploaded an amendment to the nav plan. [Anyway,] The upload was completed successfully, taking only the expected lag. Except that a couple of seconds later, both recording devices ceased gathering data. At the same instant. That is unheard of.”

I looked at her.

“How did that happen?”

“The maintenance log for the recorders showed that Selif had skipped two routine services. So they highlighted that in the report, and almost immediately the manufacturer put out advisory notices, basically denying all responsibility if people ignore the recommended schedule. So the official version simply lists an open verdict.”

“Is there an unofficial version?”

She grinned.

“Of course. Chandrika, why don’t you tell them?”

“To be sure. I heard this from one of the personas on Martin’s. He works part-time with a man who’s an expert on the embedded systems in boat engines.”

I nodded. It was a highly specialised area, and one that I knew next to nothing about. But it made sense that a man with those skills would have an opinion on data recorders.

“Well, he said two things. One is that a full restart cycle for those boxes is about half a second longer than the time from the point of failure, up until the impact on Tean. And the second thing is that there are only two known exploits for that model of recorder which could bring down both boxes together. One of them cannot possibly have anything to do with this case: a different ship configuration altogether. The other one happens to rely on a routing plan change.”

I sat there, absorbing the news. It made sense that these units would go into an automatic reboot mode if they went dark for some reason. Normally, that would restore them to full operation in plenty of time to carry on doing their job. But in this case, the boat had hit Tean before they had started up again. I stirred in my seat, but Slate beat me to it.

“That’s very precise timing on someone’s part. Does anybody think it is just a coincidence?”

“Oh, Slate, the official verdict is open. Nobody is suggesting anything.”

We all laughed together.

“Either it was phenomenally bad luck on their part, or…”

I paused, and Parvati continued.

“Or else someone wanted rid of them, and found a clever way to do it.”

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Click here for the previous entry in this series, Extract A, and stay tuned for my review of Half Sick of Shadows as well as more from Richard Abbott!

About the author…

Richard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships. The second area is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.

His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His historical fiction books explore events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

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You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

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Note: The Economist link loads slowly, if at all, though I’ve noticed a direct copy/paste of address to bar, as opposed to linkage, seems to do the trick: https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21713836-casting-magic-spell-it-lets-people-control-world-through-words-alone-how-voice

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Audio Book Excerpt: Timing, Extract A (Richard Abbott)

As readers recall, I’d previously reviewed Richard Abbott’s debut sci-fi novel, Far from the Spaceports, later returning for more Mitnash and Slate in its sequel, Timing. Today the author graces our pages with an audio excerpt from Timing—the first for us here at the blogola! It was rather exciting listening to it, and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to share it here, along with some author comments as to the linguistics involved in setting up the pieces.

First, for those unfamiliar with the novels and their plots, I’ve linked the book covers to their respective Amazon blurbs. Abbott’s world-building opens a new type of sci-fi, one accessible even to those not typically enamored of the genre (such as myself), and the above-mentioned duo will capture your imagination as they seek to solve the mysteries of high-tech crime in space.

Click image to read plot description
For more about Timing, click the pic!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today you’ll hear—and can read along—a bit of discussion between Mitnash and Slate, along with another pair, Rydal and Capstone, as the group talks about oddities in the data they are studying. It comes from a narrated portion utilizing Amazon’s Polly software; Abbott points out that unlike Alexa, which is a single voice, Polly can do text to speech in several.

Previous to hearing this excerpt, I was still in marvel mode at any of this, though my conversation with the author brought me forward a bit, into a place where I began to distinguish characteristics and contemplate the mechanics of setting it all up.

“[I]t’s like all programming really… a slow start to get all in place, then once it’s there, you kind of just turn the handle.” Of course, I know very little about programming—probably readers are way ahead of me on that—but his comments enabled me to view it more as technology rather than something huge and undefinable. While constraints remain, it nevertheless is exciting to “witness” the process unfold.

“In this case [included are] limitations of the text-to-speech engine, which at current state of the art can’t correctly parse some complex sentences! I often put a qualifying clause at the end of a sentence instead of earlier on, and Alexa and Polly don’t know how to say it within the overall shape. So [in places] I’ve moved some phrases around in a sentence to give better flow.”

In today’s excerpt the audio remains faithful to the text, but as we move on in this series, we’ll catch glimpses of the accommodations. Listen, however, for the nuances that appear: accents, pronunciation inconsistencies (I thought I heard at least one), vocal pitch and so on. At post’s bottom, see the link to an article about using technology for far more than entertainment.

And without further ado, let’s listen up. Simply click the arrow below to start.

Extract A

Rydal’s gig, the Heron, was moored in amongst half a dozen vaguely similar craft. I had expected something about the size of the Mermaid, in which Nick had ferried me, last time I was here.

The Heron was considerably smaller though, and it would be a squeeze getting more than the two of us into her. A purist would say it was more of a scull, than a gig.

We sat side by side in the bridge to look at her analysis. It was rather less roomy there than my bedroom at the Rileys’, but since the Harbour Porpoise was still with Boris, there wasn’t much choice.

Rydal first got Capstone to display the increments as a kind of contour map, overlaid onto the Isles of Scilly. It wasn’t very revealing. There were certainly some minor local variations from island to island, but it looked random to me.

Then she pulled back to show the whole asteroid belt. That was different. Just as she had said, Ceres and Vesta showed huge peaks – Ceres was the larger – and the amount across the Scilly Isles was dwarfed in comparison. I nodded.

“That looks convincing. But it doesn’t tell us much about the cause.”

“Now see what happens if we scale for population size rather than show simple totals.”

The red planet as seen from the ESA Rosetta during its 2007 flyby [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo], via Wikimedia Commons
The display changed. This time the Ceres and Vesta peaks were almost identical in size. The total values might be different, but the subsequent disbursements had been chosen so as to make the amount per recipient the same. That spoke of careful planning. Meanwhile, Pallas was flat, and the various other domes here and there, around the belt, showed nothing as well. That was really interesting.

“You mentioned Mars?”

“Well, yes. There’s a few places on Mars itself, and a tiny scatter on Phobos. Nothing on Deimos. Here…”

The Martian system appeared. As she had said, Deimos showed the same low-level random splutter as the Scillies. Phobos showed a little bit more, but nothing very definite. Mars, with its wide diversity of settlements in different places, showed an equally wide variety. In amongst that, were several peaks, reaching almost the same value as Ceres and Vesta, but the data was patchy. I leaned back.

“Slate, what is there in common between those places?”

“I’ll see what I can find out. And I’ve just fired off a query to Khufu down in London to see if we have any similar data on the Jovian system. Capstone tells me that he and Rydal have no details for there.”

Khufu was the main Pyramid installation supporting the Finsbury Circus office, together with those other scattered souls who, like Slate and I, were on detached work off planet. Vaster than a persona and more capable, he was also more serious, less easily sparked into lively debate, and not really the sort of individual you would want to spend time with. He did, however, have access to a colossal amount of information, and was able to leverage this to make connections the rest of us might miss.

At any rate, a query going down to the Finsbury Office and back would take the better part of an hour, given the relative locations of Bryher and Earth just now. So we had time to spare. Time to see what we could do for ourselves with this puzzle.

While waiting for Slate’s analytics to initialise, I half-turned to look at Rydal. Her skin was darker than mine, and as we had boarded the Heron, she had gathered her unruly ringletted hair back into a more orderly bob. She glanced at me briefly, and I looked back at the screen. It was ready now.

“Any ideas?”

“We need to find the common factor. Let’s see what Khufu comes up with.”

To my surprise, it was Capstone who answered.

“Slate and I have been working together on this, Mitnash. You see, I have a lot of demographic data that isn’t relevant for your normal investigations into fraud. But it fits very neatly with what Slate already knows, and means we can eliminate most possibilities. So far as we can tell, there’s only one common feature that appears to have any relevance to the matter. Ceres and Vesta use a twinned Sarsen pair as the main financial deal hub. Deimos and Pallas do not. Mars has a lot of different systems here and there, so it’s harder to tell.”

Artist’s concept of the Dawn spacecraft with Vesta and Ceres. NASA image. (Click image for details; once there click “open in media viewer” for a really fantastic closeup. Also see link for NASA gallery)

“He’s right, Mit. Pallas has a single Sarsen with a lot of upgrades to quicken her up. Deimos has a routing engine down to Mars, based on a cut-down Ziggurat. No real local processing at all. The main Mars site at Elysium Planitia has a full Pyramid, but there are a lot of sites elsewhere on the planet which do have twins. A couple of them are reasonably close to the peaks, but there is no direct connection that I can see yet.”

“From memory though, the twinned pair is a fairly common configuration. We mainly see it in finance, but it’s very widespread beyond that too. Ship navigation and all. I’m not surprised that there are several like that on Mars. Slate and I can send a query to get a full list across the system, if we think it would help. But does anyone here on the islands use twinned Sarsens?”

“Oh yes. The main financial hub on St Mary’s. You remember, we talked about it, last time we were here.”

Rydal stirred.

“Actually there is another, though hardly anybody knows about it yet. Back on Martin’s we have one as well. I’m telling you this in absolute confidence, but there is a move by some of us there, to take the islands’ deal processing away from Mary’s. We’re putting together a proposal right now, listing a number of occasions when the Mary’s hub has either underperformed or thrown errors. Acquiring the twinned pair was part of the proof of concept.”

This was news to Slate and I. At a guess, it would be news to Elias as well, but Rydal had effectively sworn us to secrecy, for the time being.

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Click here to read about some remarkable advances used to help people with autism enjoy higher levels of productivity, meaningful interactions and privacy. 

About the author…

Richard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships. The second area is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.

His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His historical fiction books explore events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

*********

You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

*********

Stay tuned for more excerpts, my review of Richard Abbott’s next book, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot,” and some conversation with the author!

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This post has been updated to include an embedded audio box for excerpt as opposed to the hyperlink previously created. 

Book Review: Timing

Timing (Far from the Spaceports: Book 2)
by Richard Abbott

There are some sequels we get around to reading, or even purchase enthusiastically, remembering the pleasure experienced from their predecessors. Rarer, however, is the follow-on one prodigiously hopes is being written before they even conclude the first. In this instance, I became a beneficiary of the reality behind that wish when I learned of Timing, second in Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports series. Having read and reviewed the first novel last year, I became quite attached to Mitnash Thakur, financial fraud investigator to the Scilly Isles, an asteroid belt near Jupiter, and couldn’t get enough of his prepossessing personality and, dare I say, aura.

This time around I fairly dove into the narrative, enabled by Abbott’s smoother story opening in Frag Rockers, a then nearly-empty Bryher bar in which Mitnash feels “old contentment resurfacing,” an apt manner in which to re-unite previous readers with this protagonist, given the memories re-kindled as we observe Mitnash’s gaze circle around his group and, together, remember. This is not to say one must have read Far from the Spaceports to understand what occurs here. Timing is most definitely a strong standalone, and any reader coming to it first also experiences an order advantage.


Neither of us had considered transferring her to a handheld, or some other portable gadget, since our last experience of that was still too painful.


What I mean by this is that periodically within Timing Abbott references an episode that occurred in the first novel; as a previous reader I feel the satisfaction of recognition. Newer readers have this in store for them as well, even if they read the two novels in reverse order: in the series debut, happening upon full events only referenced in Timing consummates each occasion, resulting in a gratifying sense of completion, an “Ahh, so that’s how it played out!” Mitnash tells his story with an intimate feel, as if he is speaking only to you the reader, so links between the novels as well as those connecting readers to the narrative and real-life society’s imaginings of their own future, link two worlds not only with technological realities and fantasies in common, but also the range of emotions that accompany them. We don’t just care for the characters; we feel a kinship.

Within the narrative, Abbott avoids weighty jargon, relying instead on a writing style that runs as smoothly as water, and an ability to communicate succinctly and economically some layered and otherwise complicated information. In this manner he takes us from Jupiter now to Mars, where a financial scam spirals into terror activity, negatively affecting even Slate, Mitnash’s artificial intelligence (AI) partner, whose own agency as persona is demonstrated in a robust personality, preferences, even bias and occasional snobbery. Her fears, too, play a role in how they navigate their way through the case, for the fallout might be serious indeed. At one point Slate attempts to interact with a set of personas centrally located within the attack directed against a college computer system.

They were still metaphorically limping along very awkwardly, their normal coordinated step disrupted by the trauma. When they did approach the subject, cautiously and with much hesitation, the level of fear they felt was like nothing Slate had witnessed before.

 [T]hey had also been unable to communicate with one another. For a pair whose initial, halting attempts at chat had been with one another, whose awareness had included each other from their very first cold startup, the loss was catastrophic. It was still difficult for them to build a trusting rapport with anything external.

 Slate was, I understood, very gentle with them, and avoided probing too deeply.

Slate’s compassion is tinged with fear for herself as well, and as events escalate with threats and extortion from a new band of outlaws called Robin’s Rebels, the pair must join forces with an unlikely partner, one they are not sure they can trust, even as they know they have to. The author maintains a fine balance with this angle, re-introducing a previous character and keeping us sitting up straight as we journey from spot to spot—experiencing the idiosyncratic nature of each—keeping a close lookout for someone we don’t know. Abbott also splices in details about our protagonist’s relationship with Shayna, back on Earth, and the peculiar weave of time that affects how days are experienced in these parts, on occasion plaiting them together in a brief comment about his poor timing, the utilization of which he would need to execute more efficiently if he is to crack this case. As we move along, Abbott silently teases out the question hovering between the lines about Mitnash and Shayla: Are their own weaves of time, and the manner in which they experience them, compatible? Or does the timing of each exist on planes far too separate for their union to be a success?

These questions and the situation they inhabit, paired with Mitnash’s continuing working relationship with Slate make one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Not that I admire trouble, mind you. In Far from the Spaceports the investigative duo get on well despite the occasional stumble, and carry on nicely. It works and is, as part of the introductory novel to this world, appropriate. In Timing, Mitnash and Slate experience deeper disagreement, some rather more serious as Abbott gives us a more profound view to the nature of the discord, or at least their conflicting perception and opinion. It also solidifies Slate’s role as more than a sidekick, intensifies the pressure of work in space and the stress of a human and AI relating to each other—not to mention humans raised in a number of extremely different environments—and lends questions to where Mitnash’s deeper feelings, preferences and loyalties lie.

As Mitnash struggles to write and dispatch a message to Shayna, partly attempting to explain his excessive amount of time away, we see how relationships affect those within them as well as those who observe. As in so many other passages through the book, Abbott provides insight into how a persona—this particular one, anyway—thinks, even if her logic is flawed, and the influence it has on Mit’s behavior.

“If we did succeed in getting straight back, we’ll still have been away from Earth for about six months. You need a better note than that.”

 An hour later I had crafted something which, I thought, sounded warm and conciliatory rather than just trite … Signal lag was about a quarter of an hour to Earth, and it was morning in Greenwich just now. Shayna would read it before too much longer.

 “Is that why you and Rocky gave up sooner than us?”

 [Slate] was not impressed.

 “Don’t you think that’s rather glib, Mit? On the Lovelace scale, we had the equivalent of nearly ninety years as a couple. And managed some five year separations within that. Do you think you will be together that long? How many human couples do you know who get to ninety years together?”

 Of course I apologised, and she accepted, and I settled down for the night.

Abbott as a science-fiction author, the characters and the plot itself mature as the complexities of all three, plus more, interact and give us a story that provides questions as well as answers, thrill and satisfaction, and an adventure that can’t be beat. The psychology of relationships being a huge theme running through the book follows superbly, in human terms and within a storyline unencumbered by excessive examination to bog down events. As a reader not typically attracted to sci-fi, it enthralled for itself, as well as the awareness that I could be drawn to the genre not once now, but twice, a condition that underlines the author’s ability to captivate readers from inside as well as out of the genre’s general readership.

The asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. In 1596, Johannes Kepler noted the excessive gap in the orbits between the two and believed there must be an undiscovered planet there. There is in fact a dwarf planet, Ceres. By Mdf at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Click image for more information)
So where do we go from here? Interestingly, I find myself contemplating a second reading of both novels—and soon—something I often pass up on other books I unsurprisingly loved because the timing was always off. I feel as if I am the only one Mitnash is telling his story to, and am drawn into the world Abbott builds with such fluidity, a perfect mix of fantasy elements with reality, the differences of the people in his world to us, as well as how similar and ordinary much of it is. (As readers may know, I’m a great lover of the ordinary.) As the story wraps itself around us, we become a part of that world, a magical attachment that lingers even when we step away.

About the author …

Richard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships. The second area is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.

His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His historical fiction books explore events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

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You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

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The blogger was furnished with a complimentary copy of Timing in order to facilitate an honest review.

For my review of Far from the Spaceports, click here

Stay tuned for my review of Richard Abbott’s latest, Half Sick of Shadows, a guest blog and more!

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Author image courtesy Richard Abbott

 

Book Review: Far from the Spaceports (with Giveaway)

Author Richard Abbott is generously gifting a FREE COPY (Kindle or e-pub) of

Far from the Spaceports

for one lucky winner! Read the review and comment below or here to get you name in the draw!

Update: The draw has been completed and we have a winner. Congratulations to Nataliya, and thank you so much to author Richard Abbott for generously providing a copy of his marvelous novel for our contest!

Far from the Spaceports by Richard Abbott

Spaceports cover

I’ll be honest up front: I don’t normally read science fiction, and in fact am not really a huge fan. Nevertheless, when a read of Far from the Spaceports was presented for possible review, I was open to it because I’d seen reviews for other novels by Richard Abbott, which … means nothing really, I know, given they aren’t sci-fi. But he’d piqued my curiosity in the past and a preview at the blurb gave me a sneaking suspicion this wasn’t “typical” sci-fi.

How glad I was I didn’t dismiss it out of hand, for Far from the Spaceports was a delightfully pleasant read, not only with a fantastic plot but also personable characters (one as artificial intelligence!), intriguing world-building, an especially thrilling and sweat-breaking scene and lures from one transition to the next—all the way through.

The sole bump for me was an opening chapter segment with a tad bit of disconnect, but I put this down to the narrative and I getting to know one other, and walking into a scene in progress smoothed over quite quickly. Potential readers with the same sort of relationship to sci-fi as I generally have can also rest assured that the jargon written into the tale is not the dense or fearsome linguistic mine trap from which we often recoil: in fact it’s fun to read and typically rather understandable: “Slate … had flicked on the message within a couple of femtoseconds of reception.” Abbott does a great job, as I came to see early on, of keeping his readers informed and on track with contextual passages of dialogue or prose that need little information padding at all.

Far from the Spaceports, set in the Scilly Isles, an asteroid belt close to Jupiter, is Mitnash’s story of his mission to the Isles to investigate financial fraud. He works under the jurisdiction of the Economic Crime Review Board (ECRB), along with his “onboard persona,” Slate, also referred to in the beginning as a stele. This I found rather fascinating, given that Slate performs, really, essentially the same function as ancient stelae in terms of the passing of information, though electronically and with the added modern ability to communicate via cochlear implant.

Ceres
Ceres, largest of the real-life asteroids, discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. It lies in the orbit between Mars and Jupiter (NASA/JPL)

Abbott’s choice to tell Mit’s tale in first person is a splendid one, as readers can more closely get to the heart of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling, whereas there would be a remove with even an omniscient but detached narrator. We engage in more of a personal feel to what Mit experiences, such as the whining of an electric car, “probably older than I was,” in double-duty fashion providing readers an idea of just how long the colony has been functioning as well as the character’s sense of resigned acceptance regarding priorities of supply.

Mit has been doing this for a while as well, as indicated by his statement that, “Some years ago I’d asked Slate to use [his partner] Shayna’s voice as the audio basis whenever we were away from Earth.” As the story progresses we are privy to Mit’s impressions as he takes up his newest mission as well as his relationship with the loyal Slate, who provides him with data computations and information helpful to his investigation.

The information technology is what in part makes this novel different to many other sci-fi stories I’ve given a shot: it is the focus, not stereotypical laser battles with weapons that can melt your enemy, nor outstanding physical feats of bravado acted out by your hero. Mind you there is action and Mit is tested, required to engage his wits to escape physical and other danger that he finds himself embroiled in, can predict or see coming. His arsenal is awareness and prep, intelligence—of the cerebral as well as provided sort—and quick wits in detecting and escaping the mysterious, suspicious and dangerous. Abbott’s persuasive mixture of just the right ingredients at particular moments shows off a research and storytelling expertise blended together with such dexterity readers periodically pause to admire the effect—of writer as well as character.

“[He] was looking at me with the unfocused expression of someone who was querying a remote [stele]. I had practiced for hours in front of mirrors and human trainers to avoid exactly that look. He saw me watching and tried to cover himself.

 ‘[My contact] tells me your supplies will be transferred within the hour, Mr Thakur.’

 I nodded, knowing full well he had been running a completely different query.”

 Indeed, Far from the Spaceports is a mystery novel, complete with queries and lies, and the author skillfully balances this genre mix with humor, including that coming from interaction with Slate, who has a developed personality as well as perspectives. On occasion she is suspicious, which makes sense given her ability to mine data and utilize formulae to determine viability. But Abbott bestows her with more than that, allowing her to avoid the paradigm of “sidekick” by making her a greater part of the story and not merely a tool Mit utilizes to progress in his detective work; he needs her as much as she needs him, and not just for efficiency. Readers will appreciate her worry about being marginalized, for example, or frustrations, even snobbery regarding equipment. Already miffed in one scene, she retreats into mostly silence.

’The fake[ flowers] are better on Deimos.’

 Pretty, though.’

 She made a noncommittal noise. Neither of us had seen a real agapanthus plant, but Slate would have been able to acquire much more accurate sensory data than I could, so she was probably right.

 Whether right or not about the quality of the flowers, she also disliked her current living space and was letting me know. A hand-held was small, slow, and impoverished compared to her usual frame. She always made her voice sound tinny when she was transferred to inadequate hardware to remind me of her frustration.”

 At one point Mit partners with a new character who, despite her late appearance in the book, is also well developed, though presented in such a way I often wondered if she was helping Mit or would turn out to be a double agent or baddie. This continued the anticipation earlier created—and that provoked actual sweat on my forehead—when Mit has to work his way through a spell of psychological warfare perhaps even more frightening than super-powered space arms.

This links also to contemplations of what a futuristic world looks like, though to Abbott’s credit, he doesn’t fall into any sort of dystopian-like trap with machinations of evil—also sci-fi staples that may have turned me off in the past. Instead, he gracefully explores various elements, periodically pointing to new versions of what appears in our existing world: small anachronisms used to define or identify actions no longer actually performed in the manner described. For example, someone today might counter repetition with, “You sound like a broken record,” despite these devices being obsolete. In Mit’s world, errors in a systematic analysis are “still call[ed] a fat finger problem even if no fingers are actually used.”

Things can also get a little intrusive, such as it being “almost impossible to persuade anybody you were out of contact,” to the very dangerous, such as hacking and a higher level of identity theft. Abbott makes it believable because though it amps up the results to something quite deceptive and potentially very destructive, more so than we deal with today, it was birthed from our current technology. It adroitly fits readers of all stripes.

Dawn
Artist’s impression of the Dawn spacecraft above Ceres (NASA/JPL)

At the end of the day one could describe Far from the Spaceports as a sci-fi mystery, which it is, though it is so much more than merely that sum. With likeable characters and bad guys readers can’t easily identify, believable futuristic technology, a well-balanced mix of drama and dry humor, and a very engaging and well-told storyline, it is a new take on detecting, with enough questions arising in the end or remaining unanswered from earlier that it seems open to a sequel.

Like many books before it, Far from the Spaceports surely contains elements I missed that could be caught on a subsequent read. Of course, readers know only too well this is near impossible in these days of to-be-read piles threatening to topple over. However, as I approached the end I felt sorry not to be moving through more breathtaking scenes with Mitnash (I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve been calling him Mit), that there weren’t at least 200 more pages. So then, as now, I resolved it shall be read again and I hope I’ll be doing it in anticipation indeed of that sequel I mentioned as possibility.

Far from the Spaceports is simply an amazing book that took me to a world I was alien in yet felt comfortable exploring and want to return to. Combining all the right elements of mystery, psychological thriller, sci-fi, adventure—not an easy balance—this is a novel that will bring aboard a wave of new readers for sci-fi, and have Richard Abbott to thank for it.

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Update: I am so pleased to announce that the author is indeed working on Timing, a sequel to Far from the Spaceports projected for release in early autumn. Stay tuned for my review as well as some chatting with and a guest blog from author Richard Abbott. 

In the meantime, be sure to comment below or here to get your name in the draw for your  FREE Kindle or e-pub copy of Far from the Spaceports

About the author …

richardabbottRichard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships. The second area is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.

His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. A sequel, Timing, is in preparation for release in the second half of 2016.

His historical fiction books explore events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! Far from the Spaceports is also available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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The blogger was furnished with a complimentary copy of Far from the Spaceports in exchange for an honest review.

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All images courtesy of and/or provided by Richard Abbott.