10 December 2017

Review - The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

Cover by Neil Lang
The Lost Plot (Invisible Library, 4)
Genevieve Cogman
Pan, 14 December 2017
PB, 342pp

Many thanks to Pan for an advance copy of this book.

As the fourth instalment of her adventures opens, Irene Winters is in trouble. In quest of a book, she's stumbled into a nest of vampires and is about to have her veins opened.

And it only gets worse from then on...

I think I can safely say that these stories of Irene and her desperate, book-seeking journeys are - alongside anything by Emma Newman or Charles Stross - my favourite ongoing series.

It's something about Irene herself: the kick-ass librarian who drills like a laser through reams of alternate realities pursuing the precious books that will bind the universe together, once gathered in the multidimensional Library. Irene has a dream job and I envy her (despite the inevitable peril).

It's also something about that Library itself, the ultimate book pile, protruding into this street on one Earth, that quad on another, enormous, serene, self-contained, safe. (Or perhaps not so safe - as we saw in the previous three books that it could be menaced and Irene was only able to save it at some personal risk - and cost).

But most of all it's Cogman's writing. The pithy, sharp references, such as how, to befuddle pursuers, Librarians have adopted that pop culture phrase "These are not the [whatever] you're looking" in their ur-Language that can alter realities. The unbridled violence and chaos that follows in Irene's well-meaning wake. The perfectly realised alternate Earths (and other worlds).

Most of all, though, it's the joy that Cogman takes in her creation, like a genial deity who has made a world and seen that it is good.

If that whets your appetite, this book would be an excellent jumping-on point (is that a thing?)  It doesn't require any knowledge of the earlier plot and is basically a standalone adventure for Irene and her dragon apprentice Kai. Drawn into murky dragon politics (rather than the machinations of the Fae) Irene is co-opted by Security to track down a Librarian who may be endangering the hard-preserved neutrality of the Library. She has to face off with mobsters, the police, molls and, worst of all, rogue dragons, in a 1920s New York analogue. There are speakeasies, artefacts and museum stacks together with lashings of mayhem

Taken together, these give the book something of an Indiana Jones crossed with Doctor Who vibe. It's deliriously captivating reading, real cliff-hangery, page turning stuff. Behind this, it is, though, the dragon politics that and their ultimate impact on Irene that I sense are driving this story and setting up future events. Irene is anxious to demonstrate the Library's neutrality, but has to confront the fact that Kai's presence seems to suggest something else. And Irene's personal feelings are engaged as well so that she begins to feel doubly compromised. What is she to do?

Cogman stokes the tension and attraction between Irene and Kai as a counterpoint to the main adventure until you just wish they'd let neutrality go hang and just... well, this is a respectable blog so I'll go no further. Let's just say there are Feelings here and leave it at that.

If you're looking for a present for the (urban) fantasy geek in your life, this may just be the one. And if you find they don't love it, well, perhaps that's telling you something about them.

One final thing. Reading this book I found actual silver glitter on my fingers. I think the magic's rubbing off on me!

9 December 2017

Review - The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen

Cover by Elizabeth Story
The Emerald Circus
Jane Yolen
Tachyon, 24 November 2017
PB, e-book, 288pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

The title of this collection of short stories and poems alludes to the fourth, Blown Away, which is a reworking of The Wizard of Oz - or perhaps a prequel, sequel or accompaniment, featuring a Dorothy who, though blown away by a tornado, does not - or at she claims not - end up in the land of Oz the Great and Powerful but in a circus. When she returns to Kansas with many new skills it seems though as if she might as well have been whisked to that land of magic and illusion.

And so it is with most of the stories here. They present new insights, new takes, on a familiar fairy story or childhood classic. Sometimes, as with Andersen's Witch or Rabbit Hole, the creator is entangled with the creation, as we see the young boy Hans bargaining with a witch over his future, or Alice at the end of her life pondering what her attraction for Mr Dodgson was (genuinely unsettling, the end of this one).

Sometimes Yolen's take is implicit in the original story, once you look, that is, and then you wonder that no-one had joined the dots before. For example, in Lost Girls, we're shown Neverneverland from a distinctly feminist point of view, with Peter shown up for keeping the women cooking and cleaning while he and the other Boys have all the fun (and in so doing he misses something very significant about his world).

Yolen sometimes returns to a setting or a theme. As well as Rabbit Hole, there is Tough Alice in which her younger self is making one of what appear to be a series of visits. As well as the usual Carrollian Surrealism - a pig turning into pork loin and back again, Alice pondering, on seeing that the Caterpillar has gone fishing, whether he uses with worms or whether that would be "too much like using his own family for bait" - there is a darker strand, the need to battle the Jabberwock. Alice looks for a champion, but where will she find one?

A Knot of Toads is a rather different story. It's not a riff on fairy stories so much as a more straightforward take on a favourite author of mine, MR James. This is a tale of Janet, a 1930s scholar from Cambridge (of course) come home to settle her father's affairs in the remote Scottish town of St Monan's. Janet is estranged from her dad ("Father and I had broken so many fences - stones, dykes, stiles and all") but sis till troubled by his mysterious death and his writings about an unsettling encounter with a  toad. In true Jamesian spirit he has meddled with something best left alone, and in true Jamesian spirit he recorded his doings in manuscript, for Janet to unravel. Of course Monty never wrote a female lead and as this nice little story observes the proper forms it dynamites their conventions, not least by bringing in a love interest. My favourite story in the collection.

The Quiet Monk is the first of several stories in this book with an Arthurian theme (but we never meet Arthur himself, of course). Set in Glastonbury in 1191, it features the opening up of a rather remarkable grave, and a brother who claims to have wandered long and who has stories to tell.

The Bird is the story of a raven, and Virginia, and a writer named Edgar - one of several stories in which, like Andersen's Witch or Sister Emily's Lightship (where Emily Dickinson has a strange encounter which shows her the whole world and how she can live in a narrow place) Yolen winds a little magic round a writer's life.

Belle Bloody Merciless Dame is an eerie and effective collision between a gritty Glasgow and the otherness of - what exactly? There is mention of an elf, on a Solstice - and Sam Herriot has an encounter that he'll always remember (if, that is, he ever finds his way home).

The Jewel in the Toad Queen's Crown is a wonderful story, a mashup of 19th century British politics, cabalism and fairytales. It shows the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom as an outsider figure, who, faced with the Widow of Windsor, resorts to certain... unusual... methods of managing his monarch.

The Gift of the Magicians, with Apologies to You Know Who, is a deeply strange take on Beauty and the Beast which both explores the practicalities and possibilities of Beauty's situation. What is the relationship between that castle and the outside world? Where does the food come from? Just how much can you achieve - even which "the magical help"? And what might that drive a girl to do?

Our Lady of the Greenwood is about the birth of Robin Hood. It's a table of moonlight, magic, promises, and protection, taking another, rather mysterious folk hero and plugging him firmly into a wider, yet living, context.

The Confession of Brother Blaise is a kind of counterpart to Our Lady of the Greenwood focussing this time on Merlin and, again, plugging into real history via the real Geoffrey of Monmouth. What is real and what's merely written down? When does the writing make the reality?

Wonder Land, despite its title, isn't another Alice story but has loose overtones of Red Riding hood. A girl is making a journey through the wood to tell her friend where Billy Jamieson had tried to put his hand...and where she let him put it. The animals she meets seem to illustrate her theme -  a fox exposing its private parts, a pair of crows "doing it right there". It's not an innocent woodland, but Allison seems to know what she's about. And yes, there is a wolf too.

Evian Steel again takes us to the world of King Arthur with a simply bewitching tale of pagan women swordsmiths working in the mysterious mists of Somerset. A perfect story and I don't want to spoil it by saying anything about what takes place, but in many ways it encapsulates this book: these are women who are explicitly marginalised, who will be left out of the main story (reduced to an arm holding a sword out of the lake) yet they are central, indispensable, skilled - in control.

Yolen rounds off the book with notes on all the stories and with a poems suggested by each, or which suggested them or explores the same themes. As a way of gently closing down the book, echoing the themes of the stories and showing a wider world there from which they are drawn, this is hard to beat.

Overall a very strong collection of stories showcasing the talents of a master practitioner. Definitely not a book to miss.




7 December 2017

Review - The Things We Learn When We're Dead

The Things We Learn When We're Dead
Charlie Laidlaw
Accent Press, 21 September 2017
PB, 476pp

I'm grateful to the author for a copy of this book for review (indeed, a signed copy).

I don't tend to be over fussy about genre labels for books, but sometimes it can be enlightening to consider where in the shop you might find a particular one. Things We Learn... is one of these. It is a really hard book to classify. From a simple precis - Lorna Love dies in a road accident and wakes up in Heaven, attended on by God (and Irene), but it turns out that Heaven (or rather HVN) is a super-advanced spaceship whose presence near Earth has inspired the entire corpus of world religions) - you might be forgiven for assuming this is SF, perhaps in a Douglas Adams-ish vein.

And that is certainly true, up to a point. Spaceships, hyperspace drives, the possibility of things being in more than one state at the same time, all come up in the story.

They aren't, though, the heart of the story. To capture that, I think you'd have to cast your net a little wider. The process which has brought Lorna - apparently in perfect physical health, apart from a recurring headache and a pain in one arm - to HVN has also preserved her memories, but they are jumbled. So through the course of the book she is relearning who she is (was), integrating this and reflecting on the events of her short life. She has, as it were, been given an opportunity to ponder on how she lived and what she did and to explore it. That is enabled by the way that the authorities in HVN attempt to replicate the significant landscapes of Lorna's life, from the high street in North Berwick, Scotland, where she grew up to the sand dunes where she first had sex. It's all superficially convincing, but Lorna sees through it. Still, it shows they care.

(If that sounds to you rather less like Heaven as traditionally envisaged than something more like Purgatory, then you need to remember that in the world of Things We Learn... religions are simply echoes or rumours of a hippyish captain (God) stranded with his dwindling crew on a disabled spaceship infested with hamsters (really!) So we might have got things a bit mixed up.)

What is at the heart of this book, then, is that recapitulation, that reassembly by Lorna, of her lifetime and her memories.

Her weak, alcoholic father who crumples when he loses his job as an insurance clerk.

Her brother.

A holiday the family took just before things went wrong.

Her job working in an Edinburgh supermarket. (Laidlaw has a gift for creating characters, peopling with book with individuals who aren't heroes, villains or symbols but real figures who are there because they belong - I'm thinking especially of those colleagues).

Abobe all, her best friend Suzie. The portrayal of Lorna's and Suzie's friendship is excellent. It was formed in their schooldays but endured as their paths diverge, Lorna studying law and Suzie becoming a model and actress. Their friendship is a delight. With all its ups and downs, they are (mostly) there to support each other, sharing everything. That friendship is though as much a source of guilt to Lorna, once in HVN and remembering, as it is of comfort. She has to admit to herself that she has done things that she ought not to have done. Laidlaw weaves a convincing and interesting story out of the ordinary details of Lorna's life.

It's this central preoccupation with Lorna's actions and their consequences that makes me question a simple label of SF for the book. That isn't meant to sound anti-SF and snobbish, what I mean is that in a sense the spaceship stuff is really just framing for this central story. Lorna could just as easily, say, have been kidnapped, or stranded in a remote airport in a snowstorm and forced, or enabled, to consider her life. That would, though, take away the humour that lightens this book. The breaks provided by Lorna's encounters with chain-smoking Irene, with God or when strolling in the obviously fake world delivered by Trinity, the AI who runs HVN, do allow Lorna's own story to breathe, as it were. It would also - and this is hard to put well without spoilers - be more objective, less about Lorna and her world and more about what is done to her. If there's one thing in this book which is clear it's Lorna's agency (apart from that accident) that drives events and in a sense which becomes clear in the end, HVN reflects that, too.

Ultimately, the juxtaposition of Lorna's life on Earth with her reflections on them in HVN makes this book very much a matter of life and death, Laidlaw providing an enthralling and different take that is at the same time a captivating story.


3 December 2017

Blogtour review - White Out by Ragnar Jónasson

White Out (Dark Iceland)
Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 1 November 2017
PB, 215pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for White Out, a book I've looked forward to reading and reviewing. I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne for a copy of the book and for inviting me to take part in the tour.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year...

Ari Thór is back in Jónasson fifth Dark Iceland book (though - reader beware! - they have not appeared in order, so the events in this book occurs earlier than in some I'd already read).

Here, he's drawn by his ex boss Tómas into investigating a death taking place just before Christmas. Rather than leave the heavily pregnant Kristín home alone over the festive period, she accompanies him to Kalfshamarvik. There, Ari Thór and Tómas find an isolated group living in a remote house on the north coast - the edge of the inhabitable world.

A young woman, Ásta  has been found dead at the foot of a cliff - the same cliff where her mother and sister died. Did she travel there from Reykjavik to kill herself?

What really happened to the rest of her family?

Mystery interweaves with the lives of all the others who live on the isolated headland - brother and sister, Thóra and Óskar, local farmer Arnór and wealthy businessman, Reynir. For that matter, Ásta's past is something of a mystery. This story is perhaps a much more conventional mystery story - almost a classic setup - that the Other Dark Iceland books that I have read. There isn't the thrillery sense of other books in this sequence. To begin with, Ari Thór isn't called on to do more than observe and question, we have a very, very narrow field of suspects and the setting is drawn in such a way that wider entanglements such as political corruption or organised crime seem unlikely.

Rather we have an intense psychological study of the four residents (not forgetting Arnor's wife, of Asta and even, to a degree, of Ari Thór and Tómas themselves.  Motivations, locations and lies are slowly teased out and layer after layer of the past turned over and exhibited.

Ragnar Jónasson
Why did Ásta return?

What does Oskar get up to when he shuts himself away in his room?

What is Thora hinting she knows?

But above all, are those deaths all linked?

With no certainty that a crime has actually been committed, Tómas is under pressure to wrap things up quickly. His superiors would, it is implied, welcome the whole thing being sorted before the Christmas holiday. Similarly Ari Thór wants to return home to spend Christmas alone with his family.  You can feel the tension rising as things probe more complicated than they seemed. It's a short book, but an intense one, with a claustrophobic atmosphere oddly heightened by the Christmas cheer being doled out on the radio, in the hotel, in the church.

That makes it, in my view, an excellent Christmas read (we need a touch of darkness alongside the enforced jollity) and it is an excellent primer on Icelandic Christmas customs, too, which may have picked up some of the cultural baggage of the UK and USA but clearly still retain much of their distinctiveness.

As ever, Quentin Bates's translation is excellent, achieving both familiar, natural English that makes the translatedness near invisible but also a distinct sense of difference appropriate to portraying a different country.



1 December 2017

Blogtour - Know Me Now by CJ Carver - Giveaway!

Today I'm honoured to join the blogtour for Know Me Now, the new book from CJ Carver, with a GIVEAWAY, Courtesy of the lovely people at Zaffre, I can offer not one but TWO copies of the book.

Just look:

A SUICIDE. A MURDER. A CONSPIRACY.
DIGGING UP THE PAST CAN BE DEADLY . . .

A thirteen-year-old boy commits suicide.

A sixty-five-year old man dies of a heart attack.

Dan Forrester, ex-MI5 officer, is connected to them both.

And when he discovers that his godson and his father have been murdered, he teams up with his old friend, DC Lucy Davies, to find answers.

C J Carver
But as the pair investigate, they unravel a dark and violent mystery stretching decades into the past and uncover a terrible secret.

A secret someone will do anything to keep buried...

'A top notch thriller writer' SIMON KERNICK

'Perfect for fans of Lee Child and Mason Cross' GUARDIAN

'CJ Carver is one of the best thriller writers working today' TOM HARPER

The book is out in e-book on 14 December and paperback on 11 January and will be available from your friendly local bookshop, including via Hive, or from other places such as here and here.



BUT if you're incredibly lucky and win the giveaway you can get your hands on one to read over Christmas!

All you have to do is to retweet my tweet announcing this post, or to comment below. I'll pick the winners next Friday (8th December) and the books will follow.


29 November 2017

Blogtour - The Perfect Victim

I'm honoured today to be joining the blogtour for The Perfect Victim by Corrie Jackson, which is out now from Zaffre - a book I know has caused a lot of excitement. Corrie's kindly set out some thoughts on How to write when life keeps getting in the way. Some of this would be useful advice in ANY endeavour, I'd say, not only in writing.

First, though, a little about the book.

For fans of Nicci French and Sophie Hannah, Corrie Jackson's explosive new novel will leave you questioning how far you would go for friendship.

Husband, friend, colleague . . . killer?

Charlie and Emily Swift are the Instagram-perfect couple: gorgeous, successful and in love. But then Charlie is named as the prime suspect in a gruesome murder and Emily's world falls apart. Desperate for answers, she turns to Charlie's troubled best friend, London Herald journalist, Sophie Kent. Sophie knows police have the wrong man - she trusts Charlie with her life.

Then Charlie flees. Sophie puts her reputation on the line to clear his name. But as she's drawn deeper into Charlie and Emily's unravelling marriage, she realises that there is nothing perfect about the Swifts. As she begins to question Charlie's innocence, something happens that blows the investigation - and their friendship - apart.

Now Sophie isn't just fighting for justice, she's fighting for her life.

Corrie Jackson has been a journalist for fifteen years. During that time she has worked at Harper's Bazaar, the Daily Mail, Grazia and Glamour.  Corrie now lives in Greenwich, Connecticut with her husband and two children. Breaking Dead, her debut novel, was the first in the journalist Sophie Kent series and was described by Glamour as 'Gripping . . .  crime with a side order of chic' and by the Sun as 'Original, amazingly written and tense'.

So, after that - over to Corrie!

Picture the scene: it’s a muggy August morning. I’m heavily pregnant and have just relocated back to the UK, after a two-year stint in Los Angeles. I’m tackling a pile of boxes, while simultaneously sorting my hospital bag, and yelling blue murder at my three-year-old son. Suddenly the phone rings. It’s my agent.

Corrie Jackson
‘We have an offer,’ she says and, for a split-second, everything stops. My thriller, Breaking Dead, has found a home. ‘But the publisher wants a second book within a year.’

My ecstasy dissolves into panic. I’m giving birth next month. I still haven’t unpacked. It’s impossible. Ludicrous. But, even as the baby jabs me in the ribs, and my son topples off his cardboard tower, I know deep down I’m going to try. Because it’s a book deal, and I might only get one shot.

Fast-forward a month: baby Evelyn arrives and our world turns pink. With one eye on my newborn, the other on my deadline, I dive into book two. I spread myself thin. I play the role of mum, wife, writer; not winning at any of them, but doing the best I can. My husband is also working phenomenal hours and life is exhausting. Then – WAIT FOR IT - six months into this precarious reality (and for reasons too long to explain here) we make the tough-assed decision to move back to the US. I know, we’re masochists! Suddenly I’m juggling two tiny kids, a monumental writing deadline and another transatlantic move.

The reason I’m telling you all this? Because, spoiler: I survive! My kids don’t die! My husband doesn’t divorce me! In short, the book gets written. And yours will, too. Because, if you’re a writer, you write. No matter what. You don’t ditch your dream because the timing sucks. You learn to multitask. Hard. These tricks helped me through it. Apply them to your own life, and go at it.

Set a deadline

Trust me, I’ve been a journalist for fifteen years and nothing sharpens the mind like the red-hot fear of a looming deadline. Don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck (yet)? Set your own deadline. Make it realistic; you’re not trying to break a record (or your spirit). It could be three hundred words a day. A chapter a week. Hell, we could be talking three sentences. The point is: set a deadline and STICK TO IT. The sense of achievement will power you onto the next deadline. And the next. Until, bingo: a novel.

Write anywhere

So, the day job’s a bugger and the kids suck up your spare time? Get creative. Just because you can’t get to your computer, doesn’t mean you can’t write. I sketched out scenes in my head while breastfeeding. I road-tested dialogue aloud on the school run. Even bleary-eyed outings to cafes with the baby were opportunities to observe the people around me; noting down mannerisms that later made it into the book. I guarantee, the more you think about your book, the easier it is to pick up where you left off. Make sure you know exactly what you’re going to tackle before your bum hits the chair. Which brings me to my next point…

Learn to sprint

You’ve brainstormed your next chapter in the Tesco queue, and finally got twenty minutes to spare? Don’t waste it staring at a blank page. I follow the ‘nifty 350 rule’. When you first sit down to write, bash out 350 words without stopping. Some days it’s drivel, other days it’s dynamite. The point is: it forces you to write, and that’s half the battle. Your writing muscle is just like any other. Train it. You’ll be amazed how your brain starts to respond to quick bursts. And remember this: a fairly good chapter on paper is better than a perfect chapter in your head. As we (very classy) journalists say: polish that turd later.

Choose yourself

This is the most important step of all. If you don’t give yourself permission, you’ll never get out of the starter blocks. You can be a good parent/spouse/friend/employee and be selfish, so dump the guilt. Go on, DUMP IT. The world won’t end if you carve out twenty minutes a day for yourself. It just won’t. I know what you’re thinking: maybe I’ll wait until things calm down a bit. But what if they don’t? Or what if they do and you’re no longer inspired? Seize the moment, my friends. Postpone the laundry (why else did the universe invent Febreze?). Plonk your kids in front of the TV for thirty minutes (contrary to modern thinking it won’t kill them). But make a pact with yourself. That small break in the chaos is for you, and you alone. Don’t waste it paying bills or ticking off your to-do list. Good luck!

Thank you, Corrie - best wishes for the book, I hope it finds lots of readers (and presumably, based on what you've explained above, you're already deep into the next one).

You can find The Perfect Victim in all the usual places: at your friendly local bookshop, including via Hive, or here or here if you prefer.

There are more great stops coming up on the tour - collect them all - just look at the poster for details.


The Perfect Victim | Corrie Jackson | Zaffre, 16 November 2017 | PB, e 442pp


Review - A Matter of Oaths by Helen S Wright

Cover by Phil Beresford
A Matter of Oaths
Helen S Wright
Bloomsbury Caravel, 23 November 2017
PB, e, 424pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book.

A Matter of Oaths was, as the preface by Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit) makes clear in an interesting introduction first published in 1988 but seems to have gone relatively unnoticed then. Bloomsbury Caravel have now rescued it from obscurity and republished it.

The book certainly deserves that second chance, for at least two reasons.

First, we are endlessly told that women writing SFF, or SFF that features female or POC or LGBT protagonists, is a recent development (and, a certain sort of SFF fan implies, an unwelcome one which means sacrificing plot to diversity).

It shouldn't need saying, but both assertions are rubbish, and A Matter of Oaths is one data point that shows that argument up for what it is.

Secondly, it's simply a rattling good story, the sort that would capture the imagination of any space opera aficionado.

Prepare for a galaxy where endless war is fought between two immortal Emperors who have divided it between them; for modified humans ("webbers") who can mesh with their spaceships and who provide the forces who fight for both Emperors as part of a semi-independent Guild; a mysterious officer whose memory was wiped (a disgraceful thing, as it suggests he broke his Oath); Outsiders who menace the Empire's Convoys (and a very well realised escort sequence which made me recall CS Forrester's Hornblower novel - surely the original inspiration for this whole genre?); and real, credible human interactions between the ship's company.

Prepare to meet Rallya, Commander of the patrolship Bhattya, currently assigned to convoy escort duties, and her officers Vidar and Joshim. Rallya is a celebrated Commander, renowned for her abilities as a webber, but now ageing rather and facing the decay of those abilities. So she's apprehensive about her future, just as Joshim is facing up to the need to manage her replacement. As the story opens, though, these three are more concerned about filling their vacancy for a First Officer. A candidate presents himself - but it soon becomes clear that Rafe has something of a Past...

The plot is very much driven by the interaction between the four officers, and by the gradual unravelling of Rafe's memory-wipe. There's a background of high honour, as the title suggests: the Oaths sworn by the webbers, their Guild and by the two Emperors. For any to break these would put them outside the pale: but as becomes clear, that leaves plenty of scope for mischief (in which regard, I was reminded rather of the murky status of Asimov's Laws of Robotics).

Wright is especially good at taking her weird, hypothetical technologies and describing them so that they sound utterly unexceptional, part of everyday life. Of course a ship can't Jump when it's in the "mass shadow" of a space station or fleet. That just seems obvious. Of course the webbers would interact with the hardware using code systems such as "the standard fives used upon the cargoships, the eights of a surveyship, the extended tens of a patrolship". Just look at the passages where Rafe  finds, commissions and explores an ancient web system ("He sent [Magnify] with a pointer to the area of the diagram and watched it reform on a larger scale, spanning four of his input matrices. he thought he would go crazy, shifting them from their old relationship to the new upside-down back-t-front world...") or where the team are engaged in combat with an Outsider raider.

I don't think I've seen such a convincing description of an invented technology since Terry Pratchett's history monks and their time cylinders (complete with load shedding). (I note from the biography on the Bloomsbury website that Wright worked "in a wide variety of Information Technology roles in the electricity generation and supply industry". Pratchett was at one time press officer in the Central Electricity Generating Board... I wonder if that industry spawned other first class SFF writers in the 1980s...)

She also makes the story seem vividly part of a larger whole, of being in media res, as though it's the middle volume of a trilogy - there is a central plot against the Empire which is partly, but not wholly resolved, leaving everything set up for a sequel; that ancient web which points to some previous story (plus the whole epic that's hinted at of the Empires being divided); Rallya's regrets over what happened thirty five years ago (no details are given) or Rafe's whole backstory.

Despite being nearly thirty years old, the story doesn't seem particularly dated (though of course the dominant technology being "The Web" made me smile) except perhaps that were this book written now it would probably be twice as long; there is little delay here between the ship setting out on a journey and it arriving. But that's not necessarily a bad thing!

To sum up, an engaging story that definitely has that stay-up-till-midnight, just-one-more-chapter vibe, that features a blazingly diverse cast of characters and that plays exuberantly in a convincing and feature-rich universe.

I wish I could read more about Rallya, Rafe & co.

The author's website is here. Bloomsbury's page is here. The book is available here, here or here. Liz Bourke's "Sleeps with Monsters" review here is excellent.

25 November 2017

Review - The Hidden Face by SC Flynn

Cover by John di Giovanni
The Hidden Face (The Fifth Unmasking, Book 1)
S C Flynn
The Hive, 25 November 2017
e-book, print length 403pp

I'm grateful to the author for providing an e-copy of this book for review.

Every five hundred years or so, the Face of the Akhen is unmasked. Each Unmasking raises a new Empire, making the ruler of whichever land the Akhen favours wealthy, powerful and strong.

And allowing it to eclipse those who benefitted from previous Unmaskings.

The Fifth Unmasking is now overdue, and Calvo, the Emperor of Faustia, which was raised to dominance by the fourth, waits to see what will happen next. But others want to control and manipulate the Unmasking.

Against this background, The Hidden Face follows Dayraven, a young man returned bitter from years of exile as a hostage in far (and alien) Magia, and Sunniva, a warrior trying to find her father who has disappeared.

The result is something like Raiders of the Lost Ark meets I, Claudius. Dayraven and Sunniva find they've been set a series of puzzles - puzzles they have literally been brought up to solve. At first it's about discovering who murdered the old scholar Halakh and finding Sunniva's father - but as layers and layers of meaning are peeled away we begin to see enemies gather, and the two are forced onto the run as they discover that much more is at risk.

This is fantasy of a very definite stamp - fantasy boiled down, you might say, not a 1000 page tome with a cast of thousands but a spare and focussed story. What we don't get here is the saga of a great journey in which our protagonists change beyond all recognition. The landscape sketched in the map at the beginning of the book is broad (based I think on a North Western Europe where the land bridge to Britain is still in place) but we don't explore much of it in this book; the quest described is a very particular and localised one and Dayraven and Sunniva dash from one encounter to the next.

It's very cinematic in that respect, concentrating on the essentials of the plot. You'll like it if you found yourself muttering "get on with it" at the Tom Bombadil interlude in Lord of the Rings. (Some other readers may wish, for example, that we heard a little more about how, the journey on the boat was managed or that Sunniva had to fend more for herself more. That said, the Twister - who helps her out with supplies - is a magnificent character; an outcast, deformed in the eyes of his society, freed from prison by a High Priest for mysterious ends but very much his own man and, to be honest, a bit of a thorn in everyone's side. I want to hear more about the Twister, and also about the dangerous and seductive Malombra.

Overall, a rattling good story with strong central characters and a well realised setting. (I'm not sure I can remember a fantasy that made a key point of  a character who was an architect and built things, rather than a warrior who destroyed them). I could perhaps have wished that in places the story was left to breathe a bit more, but the relentless action is compelling and hooks the reader in right from the start.

To read more about The Hidden face, see the author's website here or follow him on Twitter

The book is available on Amazon and its Goodreads is here.




23 November 2017

Review - Artefacts and Other Stories by Rebecca Burns

Artefacts and Other Stories
Rebecca Burns
Odyssey Books, 30 September 2017
PB, 154 pp

I'm grateful to the author for a review e-copy of this book.

Having previously enjoyed Burns' collection The Settling Earth I was keen to read more of her stories and wasn't disappointed. The seventeen here are all, in their different ways, treats. There are stories that find hope in bleak times; stories that leap time, joining moments across the decades through the recollection of a dandelion, a display of hats in a museum, or the gathering of a family after a death.

Many of them come at their point sideways - or, perhaps, they approach it from the margins, from the kitchen, typically, not the front hall. We often get a view from below of history - especially of war, and in particular of the First World War. A soldier home from France mourning the loss of his best mate with whom he shared a death and coat. A last cricket match, the boys taking it slowly, making the afternoon last, before marching off to war.

In keeping with that sidelong viewpoint, Burns often uses food to show what a character is like, where they stand in relation to others. Essential yet often neglected, the meals eaten or a lack of food to eat illuminate lives here.

The first story, The Dandelion, reminded me with something of a shock how controversial the building of the Channel Tunnel once was. We're back in the 80s, pre Tunnel. Monica is travelling to France with her daughter Rachel who's going to study French at a language college. Monica is against the idea and at first seems something of a fusspot, but it's not till the journey stirs painful memories that we understand why - and begin to sympathise with her.

The Last Game, August 1914 has an elegiac qualty, one of a number which examine the impact of the Great War, one hundred years on. It's no less powerful for the fact the War itself is never directly mentioned. Sport as a metaphor for war - and, in England, cricket as a metaphor for life, especially stiff-backed, English imperial life - is a recurring image in fiction from England but Burns does something remarkable and different here, turning the idea inside out. The cricket game being played is at once a rehearsal for the imminent conflict and a means of deferring it. Could we, her characters seem to feel, remain here, now, poised forever in this perfect moment, on the eve of the great catastrophe?

The Bread Princess similarly looks at a series of moments in successive generations in the life of a colliery town through the eyes of the young women chosen to distribute loaves to the poor (they're commemorated in their ceremonial bonnets, displayed in that museum). We see the changing life of the community, families rising and falling, hopes for the future dashed, we see injury, disease and death. From the bits and scraps of stories we can infer the whole sweep of nearly a century in the town. Here we're not trying to remain in a single moment but experiencing history as dynamic, forward moving and vibrant.

Walter Bidelow's Egg sets a change of mood. Rather comic in tone, it chronicles rotund Professor Julian Cramp's attempts to lay hands on a precious dodo egg from what he sees as an obscure Colonial museum. Meanwhile, his wife grows frustrated and his daughter dabbles with Suffragism. Cramp's stomach complains and his weighty breakfasts and dinners act as a fine metaphor here for his (Imperial?) acquisitiveness. But why is this fifty-two year old professor so obsessed with a bird that was notoriously stupid and prone to gluttony?

The Greatcoat returns to the theme of the Great War. A discharged soldier cherishes the coat that sheltered him and his mate on the battlefield (he's supposed to hand it back in within two weeks). A gentle story, teasing out the impact on Jack of four years of war, this is all the more powerful for being low key, understated.

Spark is in the minority here for being set in the present day. Wanda awaits her husband, Ray's, coming come to their house in Alaska. She suspects infidelity. One of several stories that feature women who want, but can't have, children ("the house was a womb of wadded calm") this story also explores a moment in Wanda's life: one where everything seems on hold, waiting, perhaps for a great change - we never find out.

The Waiting Room is another Great War themed story. Here the protagonists - an artist and her brother - have escaped direct consequences, but the preoccupation is still with death and loss, almost more dreadful for being indirect, not a matter of shells and gas but of some more creeping doom. Again, history from the sidelines.

I enjoyed the titular story in this collection, Artefacts, the most of all. Set in 1940, this is the only one with a hint of the supernatural. It revolves around Leah - "the woman in the registry office" - who has a secret ability to "see" things about people by touching their possessions. Following her and a colleague, Patrick, on a date at the cinema, we learn a great deal about Leah and her life with her grandmother. Good on the details, the daily inconveniences, of life in the Blitz, this story is perfectly paced and, I thought, deeply moving. I wanted to know what came next!

In Mayflies of Apollo, Burns agains uses the present day - so many of these stories are historical that those that don't need to delicately imagine the feelings and routines of a century ago almost seem strange, almost seem alien. Daphne hears on TV about a giant swarm of mayflies nearby on lake Erie and, on a whim, goes off to see them. The story works by frustrating the reader, by avoiding what one might expect - some epiphany brought on by the wonders of Nature - when Daphne is unimpressed and leaves in a hurry to take in a new vodka vapour bar.

An Old Man Walks up a Road shows the dangers of keeping family secrets for too long. Families change, it seems to be saying, secrets that might safely be kept at one time grow stale and things need to be shared, and until you're ready to that, relationships will go sour.

Lamb's Lettuce returns to the aftermath of the Great War. Adrian is back in his childhood home. Everything is the same - except that people are older - but nothing is the same. His father's stuffed animals evoke the horrors of war. "The hawk's eyes were black, like drops of ink. No brightness to them at all. And this is how it really is, he thought, remembering figures prone in mud."

In Tide we see a boy and a girl separated by a bridge - more a symbolic than actual barrier but it seems as though they will never be together. As in several of the other stories, there is a moment of choice, a moment of potential change but it's not clear whether it will come to something or just wither.

On This Day shows the dangers of being too drawn into memory, into commemoration. Richard Brakeman sees the past through the events described in one of those "On This Day" books. Starting by recapitulating the start of a Great War attack, he jumps through  variety of personas in an almost Walter Mitty way. But never on a Sunday. In the meantime his life in the here and now, the present, seems to dissolve.

In Cleaning the Gite a woman tends the holiday cottage that she lets out. Why does a baby's bootie, left by a mother who's otherwise been meticulous in clearing up before leaving, move her so? A sort of counterpoint to Spark, this isn a story about a woman who's lost (well, kicked out) her husband, a story of where Wanda may be several years down the line. There almost seems an affinity though between those characters.

Defibrillate gives us a surgeon suspended after an operation goes wrong contemplates her life in a a remote cottage in Scotland. Rather than food metaphors we have the commentary from the surgery to counterpoint her reacquaintance with a figure form her past.

The final story, A Gathering of Relics, features a big, ramified family (the relics of the title). Three generations of women (sisters, aunts, nieces) are gathered for a funeral. (No men - "menfolk always die early") Change may be in the air - Ruth hopes for forgiveness (from who? For what?) Again the story has a sideways feel. A lot is implied, a lot has been going on that no-one wants to state directly: Veronica knows this and uses tricks to bring some of it out in the open. Hovering over all is loss, and secrets and, as with An Old Man Walks up a Road, there is a question about whether those secrets should remain that way, or not.

Overall this is a strong collection of stories. They're all excellent taken separately but the themes that thread their way from one to another - or perhaps, I might say, season them, like a series of dishes prepared in the same kitchen - mean there's a unity and clarity here. Something is being worked out, something about what's missing from lives and how time plays tricks on us all. And Artefacts is well chosen as the title since in that story perhaps we come closest to what Burns is doing here - it's as though she is, like Leah, putting out her hand and touching something significant, seeing the whole in the part - and sharing that insight with the reader,




18 November 2017

Review - The Overneath by Peter S Beagle

The Overneath
Peter S Beagle
Tachyon, 30 November 2017
PB, 336pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

The Overneath is a kind of non-Euclidian, extradimensional connectedness linking certain special places in our world via a ramified set of routes through another - provided you make the right moves. It's discovered by Avram in the story The Way It Works Out And All which is part of this collection and it might function as a useful metaphor for the book. Overneath. "The sub-basement of reality-all those pipes far down under pipes, tunnels beyond tunnels, vast valves and connections, profound couplings and joints and elbows."

Like the imaginary Overneath, this collection joins things up - it will take you to unexpected places. Here be unicorns, and fantasy worlds (well, you might expect that) but also fairytales, urban fantasy, steampunk (of a sort), ghost and horror stories - and a great deal beside.

I'm ashamed to say that I hadn't previously read Beagle but, on the evidence of this book, there is a great range and variety of his work to explore.

There are thirteen stories here, including The Way It Works Out And All. Each is briefly introduced by Beagle. Thus, for example, he informs the reader who hasn't yet encountered Schmendrick the Magician, one of Beagle's most popular characters, of his place in the wider canon before, in The Green-Eyed Boy, we read his "origin story". Schmendrick is apprenticed at an early age to a magician who takes him on almost, it seems, to prove his father wrong to dismiss him. It seems to be a rocky start to an illustrious career, with many mistakes. Part comedic, part fond, the story looks at a boy on the cusp of growing up, and at what that might mean when he has powerful, if ill-controlled, magical abilities.

Then, in Schmendrick Alone, we see the first adventure, in which he confronts an arrogant lord ("His voice had the sound of boot heels in it") and eventually summons something unpleasant that he can't control. Schmendrick isn't the first young and inexperienced wizard to have done this (I thought of Sparrowhawk in Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea), but Beagle's story really captures the reader's attention and shows us why he did what he did (it involves a girl, of course).

The Story of Kao Yu is the first in this book that reflects a recurring theme of unicorns. Set in China - or in a Chinese fantasy mileu - it features a rigidly honest judge who travels the country trying cases and comes up against something he never expected to, something even the unicorn that sometimes shows up in the courtroom to help him out may have trouble with. My Son Heydari and the Karkadann is another unicorn story. The karkadann is a destructive, implacable Near Eastern variant of the creature, modelled on the rhinoceros but is sadly dying out at the time the story is narrated. This is a fact the narrator rather rejoices over, since one karkadann in particular has caused trouble for him and his son - but we feel that it may actually have led the boy to something better.

The Queen Who Could Not Walk is very much a fairy story, with a curse and a quest, love, loyalty, revenge and consequences. Featuring the oft used trope of a king and queen who lose their royal privileges, it shows have true love may still endure.

In a brisk change of mood, Trinity County, CA: You'll Want to Come Again and We'll be Glad to See You reads to me as urban fantasy (although Beagle doesn't use the phrase). I loved this story which examines what might happen if dragons were real, and common, in our world. Who would deal with them and how? Under-funded and hard pressed, it focuses on the D patrol, who police the backwoods of California. At the same time realistic and fantastic, it is very convincing and fun.

Also set in the modern world - but in, perhaps, an SF vein - Kaskia is a strange, haunting story in which a supermarket manager acquires a miraculous laptop. We'll all recognise his nervousness at invoking a feature we don't understand or can't control ("There were keys he carefully avoided touching, software settings he never once changed... areas of the screen where he never let the mouse wander...") but in this case the consequences go far beyond lost data or unfriendly account settings, they place Martin in contact with something that draws him in...

Great-Grandmother in the Cellar is, I think, more of a horror story, if an amusing one, and set in one of Beagle's fantasy worlds. A solid merchant family is confronted by a (one suspects) slightly deranged witch-boy who wants his way with the daughter. Father's away - how will they defend themselves, what resources might have to be called upon, and what will the price be? Creepy, funny, convincing, this was my favourite story in the collection. While not sequential I'd pair it  with The Very Nasty Aquarium which I think is firmly a horror or ghost story and reminded me of M R James classics such "The Haunted Doll's House" or "The Mezzotint". When Mrs Lopsided purchases a pirate figure to place in her new aquarium, she's struck by how keen the shopkeeper seems to be to get rid of it. Maybe she should have paid more attention, as it begins to transform her fish tank into something darker. This story is notable for introducing the redoubtable Mrs Bascomb ("She had taught junior high school English, and feared nothing") who steps in to help.

With Underbridge we return to the fairy story, perhaps, yet in a modern world. A variant on the troll legend, this is the story of a jobbing academic and his obsession with a very unusual troll. Notable for pairing Richardson's gradual slide into despair of ever getting a safe university position with his growing obsession and loss of restraint this story grounds a horrifying and creepy narrative in a modern setting.

Music, When Soft Voices Die is a strange story. Beagle confesses in the introduction that he's got no background in steampunk (a point he then illustrates perfectly by mentioning William Gibson - confusing "cyber" and "steam"?) yet this was an attempt at such a story. Thankfully he eschewed brass goggles and airships and instead produced a rather effective alt-Victorian tale (I think that is the essence of steampunk?) set after a UK-Turkish war which went badly for Britain ("Ramadan came early that year"). Four slightly Bohemian young men occupy a flat in Bloomsbury, where one of them embarks upon a series of experiments. Again almost a ghost story, I felt that this skilfully blended its Western and Turkish themes, as well as - without labouring the point - exposing the casual racism beneath the surface of the Imperial power.

The final story, Olmert Dapper's Day, stands out slightly as it is, while still fantastical, a historical tale, set mainly in New England and based on an actual recorded sighting of a unicorn by Dr Olfert Dapper in 1673. How cool is that? We want to know, however, who Dapper was, how he came to be in Maine, what became of him - and how he met a unicorn. Beagle sets out to answer these questions in what is a beautiful little tale.

Altogether an exceptional collection, a beautiful introduction, as I've said, to Beagle's writing.

One note of warning. The Overneath may be a convenient way to travel, but it doesn't always get you exactly where you expect, and you may find yourself attracting attention from what dwells there. venture in, and eyes will be one you. You may not be the same when you come out.



16 November 2017

Blogtour review - Blood Rites

Blood Rites
David Stuart Davies
Urbane Publications, 9 November 2017
PB, e 288pp

Today we join the blogtour for Blood Rites by David Stuart Davies, the third book featuring DI Paul Snow. You can see all the dates on the tour below.

I'm grateful for an advance copy of this book as part of the blogtour.

This is a short book and a spare one. Despite covering five grotesque murders and going deep into the character of investigating police officer DI Paul Snow, Blood Rites doesn't have the level of detail - or the baggage - of a typical police procedural, or the accumulation of clues, red herrings and deductions of a mystery. (Indeed, I guessed who the murderer was going to be pretty early on - this is not, I think, a "whodunnit?")

Rather, Davies uses the story of the murders to counterpoint the isolation of his protagonist, Snow (the name itself suggesting coldness, and indeed the book does have a socially bleak atmosphere, concluding in suitably wintry weather). Paul Snow is a gay man, a gay police officer, in 1980s Huddersfield. It's not a forgiving time, with Clause 28 and the moral panic in the background - despite being only 30 years ago, it is a bit of a shock to be reminded how things were.

Accordingly, Snow has ruthlessly suppressed his sexuality in order to survive in the Force and in the town. Indeed, Davies flags this a couple of times by having Snow refer to his 'proclivity', rather than his sexuality or orientation - a cold, distancing term if ever I saw one, but accurate in that he's been rigidly celibate for years.

David Stuart Davies
Snow's denial of his nature means he is truly alone. He is not in touch with anyone else who is like him or who might understand. He's begun to cultivate a relationship with a woman - though whether primarily as a smokescreen (he has a boss who 'likes my officers to be married') or as a way to overcome the loneliness, isn't really clear. But even this paradoxically isolates him, as she wants it to develop in ways which, he begins to understand, aren't what he really wants.

Ironically, the story is then a study in how Snow becomes more lonely, more isolated, both personally and professionally, as he attempts to solve a baffling series of murders which seem to have nothing in common bar the weapon used.

As if that wasn't bleak enough, in setting up the crimes, Davies shows us a whole slew of truly desperate people, living far from hope; the girl raped by her father, the despairing single mother, the wife abused by her husband, the young woman so desperate for a few pounds that she'll go home to a seedy flat with an ex-con who picked her up in a bar...

A lot to pack in to what is, as I said, a fairly short book, and it leaves no space for detective theatrics or elaborate theories. Rather, the focus is on Snow's gradual unravelling and on the motivations of the murderer. Of these, I felt that Snow was the more interesting and - not surprisingly - sympathetic.

This was a very different sort of detective fiction from what I'd have expected, more of a book about isolation and corruption than it is a crime or mystery novel. It is truly, exceptionally, dark and atmospheric.


For more information about the book or David, you can visit his website at 

http://www.davidstuartdavies.co.uk/ or

http://urbanepublications.com/book_author/david-stuart-davies/

You can follow David on Twitter @DStuartDavies

Buy the book at Hive here, at Waterstones here or from Amazon here.


11 November 2017

Review - Jade City by Fonda Lee

Image from http://fondalee.com/books/jade-city/
Jade City
Fonda Lee (maps by Tim Paul)
Orbit, 7 November 2017
HB, 498pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of this book.

Jade City is an extremely readable, smart - and violent - account of life and street power. The setting might, I'd guess, be somewhere, in South East Asia based on the historical background (military occupation some decades ago; a liberation struggle during the "Many Nations War"), culture and atmosphere but the country names, politics and religion make clear that this is a fantasy world.  Not being set in another retread vaguely Northern Europe fantasy kingdom gave it all a distinct freshness. Every detail (the names of cars, models of sub-machine guns, foods) of the intricate, convincing worldbuilding adds something and - since there's a lot of this book - Fonda Lee has the space to do it properly, digressing to give us religious myths, fragments of the history of Kekon, the island where the story takes places, and information about the codes of the families who run the city of Janloon. The map of Janloon itself is a marvel - it could have come straight out a Rough Guide.

It's not only the little things, but the power structures here convince. Take those families. "Family" is a good word, isn't it? Families are warm, nurturing places to be. But the word can have other connotations. As the cover proclaims

Family is Duty. 
Magic is power. 
Honour is Everything.

If that (barring the magic) reminds you of, say The Godfather or perhaps of Dune, you aren't far wrong. At the heart of Jade City is a struggle between rival families for control of the city. It's not a pretty sire, but makes for a captivating read with real tension. In its intricate plots, manoeuvrings, betrayals and - above all - outbreaks of bloody slaughter, the book has an irresistible dynamism, a sort of tragic momentum. We know it's going to end badly but we still watch enthralled as each move and counter-move plays out. Yes, I know that sounds as though it's a film, not a book: it's a very visual book, OK?

Two noble families, alike in dignity, former allies in the struggle for national freedom, descended to the level of mobsters, carving up the city between them, accommodated by a weak and corrupt political class. They were The Mountain, and No Peak. We see the story mainly from the perspective of No Peak, a clan whose aged boss is sinking into senility. The grandson, Lal, is the new Pillar of the Clan; his brother Hilo is the Horn, the military leader, while sister, Shae, groomed to manage the business side as Weather Man, is absent, having rejected the life and left to study in foreign Espenia. The tensions and history between these three will drive much of the action: Lee has provided a triplet of deeply believable, flawed yet human characters and shows is enough of their history to show just where they're coming from, and likely to end up.

It's not only these three who convince. Almost everyone in the book, you might meet on the street or in a bar (though you probably wouldn't want to). In particular there's Anden, the adopted sone of the clan who's at the Academy honing his magical abilities but whose internal conflict - where does he belong? Does he really want to wield the jade? Can he handle it? - is key here

One might almost include the jade itself as a character. How to explain the jade? "Bioenergetic jade", it's described as in one place - by an outsider - and it only exists on Kekon. A focus for power, addictive to those who are sensitive, it can consume its users, enabling the six forms of magic used by the Green Bones, adepts who have learned to control it. (In passing, the author has designed a lovely way of referring to these powers. A character will "jump Lightly" or a bullet will "meet her Steel" meaning that she's used the ability to become nearly weightless, or to deploy an impenetrable barrier against missiles).

When a Green Bones is killed by another, the victor takes the loser's jade. The more you wear, the more dangerous you are - and the more danger you're in. Trade in the gemstones is lucrative, a faultline for clan rivalries (alongside more traditional mob businesses such as gambling or girls). Jade is central to the history, moral system and religion of the Kekonese people - and those who don't have it, like young hoodlum Bero, can hunger for it almost to the point of madness.

With jade, Fonda Lee delivers, I think, a metaphor for corruption, temptation and hunger for power such as I've seldom seem before. Perhaps, as I hinted above, the place of spice in the Dune books is similar, though less extreme: jade is much less a commodity, much more a way of life. It's hard to overstate its importance to the lives of these characters: whether they reject it, like Shae, or want more, like Bero, it's jade that rules here, whatever clan you belong to. Do what you will - dress it up in codes of honour, limit the quantities available as the KJA cartel tries to do, or train yourself to master it - you'll end at the same place.

Even as a reader, I'm hungry for more jade - this book stops at a natural pause in the war that has broken out, but it's not over; "a Mountain is not easily pushed into the sea", we read towards the end. I'm eagerly looking forward to more corruption, violence, good intentions gone awry, and honour bleeding out on the streets of Janloon.




9 November 2017

Review - Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

Places in the Darkness
Chris Brookmyre
Orbit, 9 November 2017
HB, 403pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of this book.

Chris Brookmyre is well known for his successful series of crime novels featuring journalist Jack Parlabane and for his Jasmine Sharp trilogy. Among these, he has also published SF (Pandemonium and Bedlam) and I was interested to see how Pandemonium in particular seems to have divided the fanbase. Look at the Amazon reviews - some baffled crime fans there wanting to know why their favourite author is suddenly writing SF.

Places may have a similar effect, because it's heavily SF influenced (A space station! In space! Mysterious advanced technologies! World governments!)

...but it may not, because it's also a murder mystery.

The hero, Nikki Freeman (aka Nikki Fixx, who can make any problem go away, for the right consideration) is a detective on futuristic Ciudad de Cielo (as Spanish is the majority language in the US, much of the nomenclature on Seedee is Spanish influenced). Nikki is a player, cynical, connected and in the sights of morality campaigners like Helen Pititjean. So having to team up with the straitlaced Alice Blake to investigate the gruesome murder of gangster Omega (the first murder ever on CdC) is not her idea of a good career move.

So far, perhaps, so stereotyped. Nikki is the partner with the street (or rather Seedee) knowledge), Alice the senior, by-the-book cop. We know it'll be Nikki's role to bring the realities home to Alice, show here how things really work. And, yes, there is a big gap on Seedee between the public version - what the four corporations of the Quadriga, who run the place, want everyone to believe - and the reality which is rather, er, seedy. Drinking dens, sex clubs and fighting holes are the least of it.

And Alice will show Nikki that rules are there for a purpose.

So, a run-of-the-mill setup, despite the location and futuristic background?

NOT AT ALL.

I don't think Brookmyre could do run-of-the-mill if his writing hand depended on it. There is so much more here.

First, the relationship between the two women is a novel in itself. Of course there is stuff in both their backgrounds which slowly emerges - and mysteries about their present (why do both keep forgetting stuff?) but that aside they're both, from the start, seriously competent (in different ways) and on top of their jobs. Brookmyre sketches enough of the political background to show how much depends on their success, and how they are invested in their different viewpoints (Alice starts with an almost puritanical zeal: Nikki has a fire of righteous fury in her about the treatment of CdC's more disposable citizens) but he does this subtly and allows us to see the multiple levels of the relationship.

Secondly, there is just enough unreliability in what we're shown that almost until the end of the book, multiple perspectives are plausible. (A quantum novel?) I liked Alice, but suspected there was more to her than she - or Brookmyre - was letting on. I liked Nikki, but I didn't trust her. A lot of the book focuses on memory technologies, ways to assist and manipulate the brain, and I felt Brookmyre was up to a fair amount of that himself. Yet when all(?) does become clear, he had, I think, played fair with the reader. The risk, and temptation, of SF-detective fiction, is that a previously unmentioned technology was responsible for everything. That would be cheating, just as it would in a classic detective story if it turns out to have been a twin who did it all. Brookmyre knows his rules, I think.

Finally, the location is gloriously realised and imagined. From the two Wheels spinning round the Core to the space elevator itself, this is a very plausible city in the sky, large enough to require its own Metro and broken enough to have its own underclass and its own dodgy neighbourhoods (and posh suburbs). There's more than a dash of the noir here though, obviously, no rainstorms. I only found one aspect a little hard to swallow - I don't think rotating cylinders create artificial gravity in the way Brookmyre describes. But that's still a good deal less absurd than the typical Star Trek episode, so let's not quibble.

But beyond that - this book simply has heart. In their different ways, Alice, Nikki and CdC - and its people, especially the forgotten ones - aren't being what they could be they need (different types of) healing. And that isn't going to happen while the four corporations, the Federation of National Governments, who oversee the who thing, tussle over control.

That's even before we factor in the others who have a role here, out in the darkness, who have their own plans - which Nikki and Alice may be part of, whether they want to or not.

Cracking the case will take the two women to the heart of this deeper mystery, to confront a threat they could never imagine.

This is a lovely book, pacy, intelligent, fun, and, as I said, with a big heart. If you read SF, you'll love this. If you don't, you should still love it.






2 November 2017

Review - Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Image from www.nickharkaway.com
Gnomon
Nick Harkaway
Penguin, 2 November 2017
HB, 684pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

This has been a hard book to review. I find this is surprisingly often of true the very best books, say the ones you'd give six out of five stars to if you could. The main reason is that while not a short book, it's very compact, the very least it needs to be to reshape the reader's mind and make something new. So it's impossible to distil it any further and present the essence.

Nevertheless, I want to persuade you to go and get this book and to read it next, before the heap of other books you doubtless have waiting. So here goes.

Gnomon is unusual.  It reminds me at times of Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, at other times of Umberto Eco. The structure encapsulates the subject, is recursive and ramified; it is preoccupied, I think, by what is real - which is explored by setting up alternate viewpoints that the reader can only accept if some of them aren't, at some level, real.

Starting with the death of a suspect in custody in a near future UK (after 2040, but it's not clear exactly when) the story follows the investigation of Diana Hunter's life and death during her final interrogation by Inspector The Witness. - an AI supported nightmare of future surveillance policing - all for our own good, you understand.

Hunter was, it seems, a dissident, living off-grid, her home Faraday-caged, her past mysteriously firewalled. As Inspector Neith is drawn deeper into trying to understand her, one question dominates: what did Hunter think she could achieve, resisting interrogation, retreating further and further into her own mind? What was she running from? What was she running towards?

The book makes use of several loosely related sub-narratives, revealed as characters in Hunter's interrogation. Living, experiencing the records of that interrogation, Neith discovers these layers of stories. Are they stories true, within the structure of the book? Do they encode deeper information? Are the subjects real (and at what level?)

The stories begin as fairly self-contained with their own themes and concerns. Then resonances and connections appear. The separate tales begin to outgrow their framing. While there is an explanation within the context of the continuing narrative, rooted in Hunter's mysterious aims, the stories evolve and their protagonists become something more, acquiring deeper purposes and doing things that echo in the (that is, Neith's) 'real' world. But they don't, didn't, exist in that world, as her enquiries show. Just how powerful was Hunter's ability to fox The System? is she foxing us, too? (Almost certainly).

At the centre of the book is a concern with all that data. The System is benign, we are told. It is there for us. Democratic checks and balances are included so that the technology serves us, not the other way round. Yet the result is sinister, Harkaway brilliantly hinting at the doubts that even a loyal and successful member of society like Neith might hold, at the shadows behind the reality. 'All this technology flowed in its earliest days from America. With it came the political and social assumptions of a small number of engineers and entrepreneurs, predominantly male and white...'

There's beautiful writing here ('a lonely detective pursuing or fleeing a killer along a film noir alleyway whose shadows were cast not by dressed net-gothic stone but by the steel and glass of tomorrow's Skid Row'). There's humour ('Here I am, a Greek in a sack, in the back of a truck... It does slightly seem as if it might be a very violent Dr Suess book...')

And there are secrets.  Perhaps the key is a throwaway comment that something is 'like reading a book where all the stories are jumbled up and there's just a line of numbers at the beginning to tell you where to start'.

The stories in this book are jumbled up.

There is a line of numbers at the start...

A fuller review will be published in Shiny New Books later in November - but I didn't want to let publication pass without some thoughts on this remarkable book.





1 November 2017

Review - Malice of Crows by Lila Bowen

Image from www.orbitbooks.net
Malice of Crows (Shadow, 3)
Lila Bowen
Orbit, 2 November 2017
PB, 344pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Following directly on from Wake of Vultures and Conspiracy of Ravens, Malice of Crows picks up Rhett Walker's story immediately after Conspiracy ends. He's defeated the necromancer Trevisan, who was using gruesome magic to control monsters like Rhett - ordinary men and women with the ability to transform into animals, both mundane and esoteric - and compel them to labour building his railroad.

Yes - Trevisan was defeated, but fleeing he possessed the body of six year old Meimei, sister to Cora the healer (who is able to become a dragon when she wishes). Now Rhett - in his persona as The Shadow, avenger of wrongs and slayer of what needs to be killed, must track down Trevisan and free Meimei. Thus the story is really one long chase through the barren wastes of Durango Territory, with Rhett's posse confronting ever more daunting threats (not going to give details because spoilers).

Walker is a Durango Ranger and proud of it. It's his identity, given to him by his beloved Captain. But we learn more in the course of this book about what that means. Rhett's pride in this status takes a hammering: it seems the Rangers aren't all he believed. Not just slayers of monsters, they are a weapon of the 'civilized' world, driving out the native people - and Rhett happens to be one of those himself. In many dialogues with Coyote Dan and his sister, Winifred, Rhett seeks to come to terms with who he is and what his destiny will be. In another sense, he is learning who he is from Sam. Beautiful, golden haired Sam, who he has loved since Rhett was called Nettie Lonesome. The story of Rhett and Sam gives the book a whole different dimension though there are some heart stopping moments when it seems Rhett may give away his former identity. What will happen if Sam discovers how old Monty, his (and Nettie/ Rhett's) former mentor, actually died?

There are secrets here, and complicated identities jostling against each other: in other hands it could all seem overcomplicated but Bowen (Delilah S Dawson) knows just what she's doing and she makes Rhett, Sam, Winifred, Cora, Earl so alive, and drives them along through such a pacy series of fights, flights, escapes and puzzles, that characters and story just leap from the page.

Gradually Rhett becomes more comfortable with his identities both as man and as monster. Bowen animates her story by making the 'outsiders' into so-called 'monsters' who are at the same time the most human of the characters. At one point a frustrated Rhett shouts out that he's 'unnatural': his friends help him see that isn't true at all. But Rhett is a monster and Trevisan, for all his necromancy and murder, isn't a 'monster', he remains just a man. Being able to pass in polite society, wield power and money and claim the protection of sheriffs - and Rangers - is no guarantee of a good heart.

I loved this book. As a continuation of Rhett's story it has the same epic storytelling as the earlier volumes, but I think it explores his personality more throughly and shows him growing. The book is proudly, obstinately diverse, on a number of different dimensions while at the same time being a sharply written, exciting and in some ways endearingly old-fashioned Western, albeit one set in a slightly parallel world with magic - and monsters - acknowledged. Whether you like action, fantasy, a bit of tender romance or just a well-written, entertaining story, you'll find them - and more - here.

The author very kindly answered some questions about the books for me last year - you can read what she said here.



28 October 2017

Review - The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Beautiful Ones
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Thomas Dunne Books, 24 October 2017
HB, 323pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

Moreno-Garcia's new novel is an engaging fantasy-romance with a hint of magic. It's set in Levrene, a country like... well, perhaps a bit like somewhere in central Europe, on a planet a bit like Earth, around the turn of the 20th century. While clearly an imaginary world, many of the place names, both local (Loisail, Montipouret, Luquennay) and remote (Port Anselm, Yehenn, Carivatoo), evoke that, as does the atmosphere of carriages, telegraphs and newly built railways.

Despite these stirrings of modernity it is still a ferociously traditional society, not to say patriarchal, with women's roles in particular fiercely constrained by the rules of etiquette and the fear of what Society will make of any scandal. A woman's only asset is, it seems, her reputation.

Against this background we follow the lives of Antonina (Nina) Beaulieu, a young woman from the country in the capital for her first Grand Season and Hector Auvray ("a castaway who had washed up on a room of velvet curtains and marble floors").

Nina would rather be at home collecting beetles and exploring the woods. She'd certainly prefer not to be under the dominion of her martinet Aunt Valérie. Valérie despises Nina and takes delight in being cruel to her: Nina, young and inexperienced, chaffed at the restrictions imposed on her and unknowingly torments Valérie with visions of what she has lost.

Hector is a performing magician - and here we meet the first feature that makes this book a little different. Hector can, in reality, perform magic - he can move objects by thought alone and has made a spectacular career of this. The place of magic in this book is well thought out - it's not high fantasy, we have no duelling mages here, and on the whole, "Talents" as they're called are accepted, if treated with a bit of suspicion. But there's no doubt Hector is an outsider to the carefully modulated social set who call themselves The Beautiful Ones.

This isn't only because of his abilities - Hector is of humble birth and that isn't forgotten, but he has amassed a fortune, and The Beautiful Ones do crave money for the upkeep of their ragged castles and their lavish lifestyles. ("Nothing matters more than money to us, the proper people who walk down these city streets in pristine gloves and silk-lined garments").

Silvia Moreno-Garcia (picture by Martin Dee)
In fact, the quest for money via an advantageous marriage is ever present in this book, giving distinct echoes of Austen: Aunt Valérie in particular wouldn't be out of place in a drawing room weighing up newly arrived officers and considering which daughter should pair off with which. But there's more to Valérie than that - a tragically romantic past that has marked her life and drives here still. It wouldn't be too much to say she's the presiding spirit of this book, setting much of the plot in motion and pulling strings behind the scenes to get what she wants. It's a chilling, at times frightening role that makes one both hate and pity her. Warped by having had to conform herself and enter a loveless, childless marriage ten years, she's something of a cross between Lady MacBeth and Anna Karenina, she's now determined to inflict the same on others, her own hatred a measure of the love she believes she could have had.

I enjoyed the way that Moreno-Garcia makes Valérie both the voice, and the victim, of the stuffily rigidity society. It's a very character-driven, people-focussed story - beyond names and cultural trappings we don't learn a great deal about wider society, we don't see ordinary people at work or see anything of the politics (apart from learning, in a couple of throwaway lines, that there is a King). Yet by skewering that one one aspect - the position of women in the more privileged layer - we can I think infer the rest.

A very enjoyable read, with characters who felt real to me and about whom I found myself caring a great deal, and gripping to the very end.