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Otherland Volume Two: River of Blue Fire by Tad Williams (Orbit, £16.99, 634 pages, hardback. Published 2 July 1998.)

River of Blue Fire is a good solid SF epic and if someone doesnít send me the next volume of the Otherland saga to review when it comes out then Iíll go and buy the book as soon as it hits the shops.

Itís just... somehow Blue Fire isnít quite as gripping as the opening volume, City of Golden Shadow. Though maybe that just comes from City being brilliant and my already knowing the characters from !Xabbu, the bushman/baboon to RPG-freaks Fredericks and Orlando... Although thereís a nice little twist in that Orlando now knows that outside of VR Fredericks in really a girl.

This is the fantasy epic with the dancing carrots. Yes, really. Okay, so theyíre actually in a cartoon world that features a pair of vicious sugar tongs as the crocodile from Peter Pan and an Indian Chief called Strike Carefully, his sqaw Dispose Carefully and a missing matchstick baby whoís got a sore head because someone struck it! But still...

That Tad Williams can aim to get away with jiving carrots and zoot-suited zukini is both the strength of River of Blue Fire and its weakness. Virtual reality works only so long as it is convincingly real. (Even Jeff Noonís weird dog humans and vegetable people are real. Well, I believe them). And one of the problems with this book is that belief occasionally gets stretched beyond suspension.

Mainly this is because there is less emphasis this time round placed on whatís happening back in real life. Or maybe itís that what happens back in reality impacts less on the horrors going on in VR. And without the strong sense of real reality present in the first book itís all too easy for the weirder scenes in VR like a night club for vegetables to start reading like drug-induced dream sequences rather than something thatís actually happening.

Which isnít to say that Blue Fireís not well written, often gripping and frequently addictive. Thereís a sequence thatís gripping - in all senses of the word - involving giant ants where some of the main characters finally realise the fact theyíre in VR doesnít mean it isnít going to hurt if some ant rips off someoneís arm with its pincers.

The real problems come with the sections that donít fall into the category of brilliant or gripping: mostly those where characters travel laboriously from A-B, even though but - in plot terms - nothing significant happens.

Of course none of this means River of Blue Fire isnít still way above the competition, just that some editor somewhere should have said, ĎLook, this needs cutting and you need to tighten the structure.í Because thatís the other problem.

Weíre given a book that runs straight on from Book One and, no doubt, will run straight into Book Three. And weíre not meant to complain about it or wish that the author allowed us some kind of denouement . At the start of Blue Fire, Tad Williams writes, ĎI have a difficult choice to make: end each part in more abrupt fashion than some readers find ideal, or create artificial endings for each volume which I believe will change the over all shape of the book, and perhaps even adversly affect the structure of the story.í

So what you get here is the second 600 pages of a story arc that could well run to thousands of pages. In the end what makes this book worth reading is Tad Williams' real strength. His ability to take Western culture, from Homer to The Wizard of Oz and put a dark spin on it. Read this book and youíll never feel the same again about Dorothy, the Lion or the Tin Man...

Review by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.

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© Jon Courtenay Grimwood 19 September 1998