The Constellation of Alarion and other stories – A review and an interview with the author

The Constellation of Alarion and Other Stories by John Houlihan

I was lucky enough to be sent an advanced copy of the book in return for a review. This is a collection of ten SF tales two of which have appeared in anthologies I’ve edited and published. I liked both those stories enough to buy and publish them so hopefully that’s a good seal of approval! Those stories being Charioteer – an exciting mix of ancient Rome chariot races set upon a far distant and alien world. I published that one in Forgotten Sidekicks from Grimbold Books. The first story I acquired from John was Dead Reckoning set in David Rodger’s Yellow Dawn universe and published in The Hotwells Horror and Other Stories published in memory of David. A dead city, orcs, zombies and a desperate mission to find a long lost AI – a real action packed story that I’m glad is seeing another lease of life in this collection since it was donated for charity in the anthology I edited.

So what of the eight stories I didn’t acquire? Eight very different yet equally compelling tales. In Carers Houlihan examines what it would be like to be replaced by an artificial being. A touching and emotional tale. Then there’s Most Exalted with a wickedly entertainingly evil protagonist which I won’t spoil by saying what it’s about, except it’s military SF set in a nursing home. Trial by Combat is another military SF that sees two armies pitched in deadly battle, but with a twist in the tale.

Post Lies is set in a near future when fake news is out of control and someone does something about it – creating a way of showing up each lie. Of course when a politician lies there are unforeseen consequences. Tolerance is another tale in space and a bigoted (against AI) technician named Kerrigan has a simple but demanding job to maintain the planet’s defences however his animosity towards the machines causes problems.

In Trigger the lone spaceman has the reverse job to Kerrigan in Tolerance in that he holds the planet’s destruction in her hands. And yet no order arrives and she is forced to wait and repair the ever more decaying superweapon. Another great character study and my favourite story in the collection.

The Constellation of Alarion is a fabulous heist where aliens and their AI companion arrive on a planet, abduct a farmer and force him to guide them to The Labyrinth within which lies the fabled Constellation. They don’t know what it is or what it’s worth but they’re determined to get it. Houlihan puts his skills in creating characters to great use here with a whole team of them, his dark sense of humour definitely at the fore in this one too.

The final story in the collection, Bomber Command told as in script format making it very fast-paced sees the crew of a damaged bomber try to nurse it back home.

The collection flows well and the stories are varied in both tone and sub-genre, showing that Houlihan has a great range. A lot of them have unexpected developments that are, although surprising, totally fitting. Hard to pull off. This is a very accomplished and entertaining read and I have no hesitation in recommending it to all SF fans.

I got John to answer some questions:

Tell us about your book?

The Constellation of Alarion and Other Stories is a collection of ten of the best of my recent short sci-fi writing. There’s no real theme or guiding principle, but just a mix of short and longer fiction, in a variety of sci-fi genres from space opera to near-future, to post-apocalyptic.

My previous published work has been a blend of historical fantasy and Cthulhu mythos, so I wanted to stretch my wings at bit in one of my favourite genres and show a little of what I can do. There’s some stories I think are not half bad here (British for I’m pretty proud of) plus a first audio play, Bomber Command, so I’ll be interested to see what readers make of it. The splendid Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviewer was kind enough to recently post the very first review which you can read here.

Tell us a bit more about some of the stories?
Well, it’s quite an eclectic mix, but here’s a short sample to give you a flavour. Most Exalted is a mystery set in a far flung former empire. The hero of the seven systems now resides in retirement, but when a series of suspicious deaths rock his veterans’ home, will his dubious past catch finally up with him?

Charioteer first appeared in Forgotten Sidekicks and it sees a future where countries settle disputes the old fashioned way, trial by combat. As the eve of a great contest draws close, can downtrodden charioteer Soola finally step out of her brother’s shadow and embrace her destiny?

Bomber Command is my first audio play and sees the crew of the heavy bomber Phoebe limping back home from a mission. When they crash land on a deserted moon, tensions rise, not only from their seemingly hopeless predicament, but about the very ethics of the war they’re fighting.

If you could be a character in the book who would you be and why?
Heh, that’s a tough one, as most of them aren’t in the most comfortable of situations. I think I’d probably choose Grom, one of the misfits from The Constellation of Alarion, she has a fairly straightforward, hedonistic approach to life.

They are three rather inept, bumbling galactic rogues, freshly sprung from prison and unleashed on the wider galaxy in the Scintilla, an advanced ship they’ve somehow found, and are out to seek fame, fortune, and glory. It’s a bit of homage to some classic Harry Harrison Stainless Steel Rat adventures and sees the trio undergo all sorts of scrapes and mishaps, but usually finding a way to stumble through —although sometimes picking up more than they bargained for in the process.

What did you learn about writing by writing this book?
That it’s always good to stretch yourself that little bit further, and to keep honing your craft by writing in genres and formats you haven’t worked in before (even if you’ve read and love them). I’m passionate about mythos and historical writing, and always will be, but writing in a new genre forces you to move outside of your usual routine and makes you confront new challenges and perspectives.

Do you have a set writing process, if so what is it?
Nothing set in stone, but I try to make it a habit to write every single day if real-life doesn’t intervene and to just keep plugging away. I always work best in the morning too, a day spent in front of a screen seems to suck all the creativity out of me by evening.

Even your worst writing day is better than not writing at all. On those days maybe half of what you write isn’t ideal, but there’s always a phrase that sticks, or an idea that’s usable. Writing is all about rewriting too. Come back to it 24 hours later and nine times out of then you can shape what you thought was questionable into something useful.

What’s one question you think would be really fun to answer, but has never been asked of you?
Hm, I guess “What are the things outside of writing your most proud of?” The answers: I’m a qualified snowboard instructor, and I once commentated on a world cup final (the 1999 Cricket World Cup, Pakistan vs Australia at Lord’s for Cricinfo).

Do you remember the first story you told? What was it?
I think I scribbled all sorts of things when I was a kid, though strangely, I was much more into drawing then. The first adult thing I wrote was for the short story course on my degree. It was based on an encounter I had with a child beggar in Istanbul when I went Inter-railing. I must dig it out sometime, I’d be curious to see what I was like as a writer 25 odd years ago.

What are you reading? Who do you think we should be reading (apart from you!)?
I recently finished The Mirror and the Light by Hillary Mantel, an awesome writer whose technical talents are staggering. I followed that up with Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales which somehow I’d never read, and I’m now onto Gridlinked by Neil Asher which is great transhuman sci-fi. Quite a mix. I’ve recently read got back into reading a lot more Ursula K Le Guinn too, which I’d thoroughly recommend.

In one sentence what’s your best piece of advice for writers?
Keep going, never quit, be patient, keep learning and become a ruthless rewriter and editor.

If you want to know more, check out my web site at or Facebook Page or follow me on Twitter @Johnh259… I’m always happy to hear from readers and writers, so don’t be shy.

Many thanks to John for trusting me to write a review and for answering my questions!

Published by suttope

Pete W Sutton is a writer and editor. His two short story collections – A Tiding of Magpies and The Museum for Forgetting – were shortlisted for Best Collection in the British Fantasy Awards in 2017 & 2022 respectively. His novel – Seven Deadly Swords – was published by Grimbold Books. He has edited several short story anthologies and is the editor for the British Fantasy Society Horizons fiction magazine.

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