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The Fall of Tartarus

by Eric Brown

(Gollancz, £6.99, 312 pages, paperback, published 14 April 2005.)

Review by Nick Jackson

cover scanThe eight stories making up this collection are set mainly or wholly on the world of Tartarus in the final years before a predicted supernova obliterates the planet. This doom-laden climate saturates the stories with a unified sense of tension.

One of Eric Brown's strengths is his simple plotting which relies much on his characters' actions and feelings. His other main strength is the innovative visualisation of his worlds which will appeal to fans of sci fi.

His themes are powerful. Many of his characters are searching for long lost members of their family or trying to escape from or come to terms with a recent bereavement. The stories take the form of quests and the impending supernova lends them a sense of urgency and makes Brown's writing flow in a filmic way. In the first story, one of the best, a young man visits Tartarus to search for evidence of his father who he believes died there. He is drawn into a dangerous and thrilling maritime chase and finally uncovers the evidence he is seeking in a surprising and emotional twist.

Eric Brown's tendency to reveal major plot developments in sudden, unexpected ways, puts great demands on his characters who often seem overburdened with emotional dilemmas and I have a feeling that some of these revelations would be better developed in the space of a novel. Such might be the case with 'Vulpheous' a story in which a scientist voyages to Tartarus in the last days before its destruction to obtain the liver of a creature (the last in existence) which could be used to cure a terminal disease only to discover that a girl he meets and enters into a relationship with, is hoping to receive a cure from the same creature in its living state. The tug-of-love situation has to be resolved in the space of about three pages and I'm not sure Brown's writing is best suited to this kind of abrupt conclusion.

In other stories, however, Brown's characters take charge of the stories to create compelling entities. His varied cast includes scientists, an artist, a naturalist and, my favourite, a black female journalist--an orphan who has made good and sets out to trace a long-lost brother who she finds has been taken in by an extreme religious sect. This story manages to combine a sense of a child's day-to-day struggles in a familiar setting on planet Earth with a fantasy space odyssey leading to a moving closure.

Eric Brown is capable of transporting his reader with some fantastic inventions: a train pulled by giant pterodactyl-like creatures and a plant that produces growths that humans can sleep and make love in, soothed by a narcotic balm. It's a bit of a shame, then, that some of his creations fail to convince me: such as the rather leaden amphibious 'vulpheous' and the 'slarque', a race of devolved humans, which never quite live up to their dreadful reputation. On the other hand, the winged 'messengers' are wonderfully evoked and make some of the most charming protagonists.

Overall this is a very engaging and imaginative collection of stories with some occasionally surprising moments of revelation for its characters. As someone who is relatively new to science fiction, I have found this an encouraging introduction to the genre and to this author's work.

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