While Otherland is about virtual reality and cyberspace, it feels more like Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn epic fantasy than Gibsonian cyberpunk. Williams isn't concerned about postulating nifty new technologies, or exploring the socio-political ramifications of a high-speed global data network. Instead, he uses it as a means to flit his characters between different settings; one moment they're in E.R. Burroughs' Mars, the next they're in World War I. Williams keeps the action moving along nicely, and the book never feels slow, despite its considerable length. Nevertheless, it's somewhat disappointing when -- 600 pages into the book -- you realize that the entire novel was just setting the stage for the rest of the series. If later books in the series can deliver on the promise this book sets up, it'll probably earn itself a retroactive star.
The first book of Willis' I read was her Hugo and Nebula award-winning Doomsday Book, by which I was quite underwhelmed. So it was without particularly high hopes that I sat down to read To Say Nothing of the Dog, a sequel of sorts to that earlier book. To my surprise and delight, I found myself enjoying this book a great deal, largely because it was nothing at all like her earlier work. Whereas Doomsday Book had a dark tone and was set during the Black Death, To Say Nothing of the Dog is an outright farce set in the Victorian period. It possesses all the standard trimmings of the farce: improbable happenings, characters dashing about hither and yon, and a general light-hearted tone. Here's hoping that Willis sticks to comedic fare in the future.
This is another Willis comedy, and manages to be both as funny and as charming as To Say Nothing of the Dog. Here, though, the plot revolves not around time travel, but trends: the protagonist researches the origin and spread of fads and trends, and as the story opens is at a bit of an impasse. What follows involves a humorous look at corporate life, interesting "fad facts", lots of unlikely happenings, and even some romance. This isn't high literature, but it's a lot of fun.
The Book of the New Sun is a very ... well, for lack of a better word, literary work. It's the sort of work where you can read for symbolism and not feel that you're reading a lot deeper than the author ever intended; it's the sort of work where you can savor deliciously written phrases; it's the sort of work that tries audacious tricks like including a folktale written entirely in revolutionary slogans; moreover, it's the sort of work that's just plain good. The books straddle the line between hard SF and epic fantasy -- they're set in a far-future world where technology is still very much evident, but the storyline (an apprentice torturer's coming of age) and style are redolent of epic fantasy -- and end up being something entirely unique and brilliant.