So, despite the debacle of Kell's Legend, I decided to give Angry Robot a second chance. The publisher is filling shelves with new genre fiction, which is no bad thing. And I applaud their enthusiasm (if not their editing, proofreading** or taste). So, with an open mind, I returned to Angry Robot for another of their launch books: Colin Harvey's Winter Song.***
I'm glad I did. Although Winter Song still isn't the cutting-edge science fiction that the imprint promises, it is a genuinely solid effort that made my morning commute a lot shorter. Literature, it ain't - but Winter Song combines good storytelling and strong (but not overwhelming) world-building to make for an entertaining read. It doesn't push any boundaries - if anything, this is a throwback to the Ace or DAW era. But that's no bad thing.
Winter Song takes place on a desolate, icy world in the backwoods of space. After a brief kerfuffle with space pirates, Karl Allman crash-lands on this hillbilly snowball. Fortunately, he's not totally alone - the planet is home to Icelandic space colonists. These Nordic stragglers have been cut off for centuries and, although they're still keeping alive and using space-age technology, they've regressed quite badly from a social standpoint.
Karl begins his life with the settlers as a raving lunatic - his spaceship (now so much rubbish) managed to download its entire database into Karl's head. So not only does he have to survive space-age Viking culture and find a way home, he's got to do it while being the man-with-two-brains.
For a small paperback, this is a book with some big topics. Between the front and the back covers, Karl stumbles across a second tribe of lost colonists, conducts a detailed exploration of space-Viking culture, gets mauled by a wild bestiary of alien critters, hikes across a frozen wilderness and saves the world from magnetic mangling. Makes for a long day. And, in the breaks, Karl explains the rest of the universe to his Girl Friday.
To Harvey's credit, although this is a lot of world-building, it is never intrusive. The characters are all genuinely, legitimately curious, and the detail comes across in dialogue and description, not pages of dry future-history. It is clear that the author has an extraordinarily detailed universe - I would be surprised (and disappointed) if Winter Song is our only visit.
This meticulous planning is even more noteworthy when set against the ramshackle chaos of Kell's Legend, which I still maintain must have been written overnight (perhaps by a half-dozen people... on Twitter). Winter Song is a good, well-composed science fiction story - presumably it was just waiting for the chance to get published. Kell's Legend reads like loosely-themed word-vomit, briefed by the marketing team a day before launch. In the first case, I see what Angry Robot should be. In the second, I see everything I fear it could become.
In the meantime, although my first impression of this publisher was unfavorable, Colin Harvey's Winter Song was good enough to make me reconsider. I'm glad I read this book - not only did it improve several tube journeys, but it saved my open mind.
*A lie. I hold grudges for decades.
**If anyone from Angry Robot DOES read this, please get your team to spend more time proofreading. In Winter Song, a character is referred to as 'Thorir' and 'Thorin' on the same page. That's embarrassing.
***Lies lies lies. I had already bought the book, so figured I'd take a stab at it.