17 October 2017

Review - Shadowblack by Sebastien de Castel

Shadowblack (Spellslinger, 2)
Sebastien de Castell (illustrated by Sam Hadley)
Hot Key Books, 5 October 2017
HB, 352pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via NetGalley.

Shadowblack takes up Kellen's story from Spellslinger soon after his flight into exile from his homeland and the haughty magicians of the Jan'Tep, accompanied by the mysterious Argosi woman Ferius (whose real name, we learn here, is The Path of the Wild Daisy) and the thieving squirrel cat Reichis.

The story is rather simpler, rather more pared down than that of Spellslinger, which introduced not only the Jan'Tep and their magic (most of which Kellen has been blocked from) but their world (and especially the freespirited Argosi).  It's all about the shadow black, the demon-haunted marking which has cursed Kellen and caused him to be exiled. Others are beginning to show the signs too. is this the start of a plague? If so, Ferius's fellow Argosi, Rosie, maintains that the ominous-sounding Way of Thunder may need to be invoked. Kellen, Ferius and Reichis must investigate.

The book is well written and the story fairly rattles along, presenting Kellen with successive challenges: combat, new forms of magic, and, perhaps, the stirrings of romance when he meets Seneira (the scene where Ferius tries to teach Kellen how to be "handsome" is both funny and touching). Like Spellslinger, it consciously has some of the atmosphere of a Western - most obviously in the outlaw setup and in Ferius's drawling language, but also in Kellen's response to his surroundings: "I might have found the landscape pretty if people here would just stop trying to kill me". Unlike Spellslinger that comes across as... perhaps if I say it's a bit purer? We don't have the Jan'Tep ritual magic setup, we open with the outlaws attempting a heist and move on quickly to them riding the scrub and sage of the Seven Sands. The theme seems clearer, perhaps (not that I'm saying Spellslinger isn't great, it is, but I think Shadowblack is slightly better).

The secondary characters here are also well drawn, from Seneira and her father to Dexan, another spellslinger who knows the trials kelley's going through and offers help - at a price - and the Whisper Witch, about whom I'd like to know a LOT more. They people this world convincingly, and present kelley with new kinds of challenge and as has to ask himself what path he will follow. That of the Argosi? Of the spellslinger? of the student, with people of his own age and background?

Kellen is starting to grow up, to become more confident in his power and in who he is. he is still angry at what has been done to him and at the danger his friends and family are placed in, but we can begin to see him mature into somebody who will be able to do things about that.

I can't wait for Charmcaster, due next May.




14 October 2017

Review - A Long Day in Lychford by Paul Cornell

A Long Day in Lychford (Witches of Lychford 3)
Paul Cornell
Tor, 1 November (PB), 10 October (e)
144pp

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

This book is a continuation of the Witches of Lychford series, but it's rather different from Witches of Lychford and The Lost Child of Lychford.  The change of approach may put some readers off: I felt it makes this book decidedly the best of the series so far.

The story again revolves around Autumn, Judith and Lizzie, shopkeeper, wise woman and Vicar, collectively the Witches of Lychford, protectors of that ancient Cotswold town from outside supernatural threats. Except that, in this book, they're not. Not exactly.

That's where the review gets tricky because I don't want to give too much away. I'll just say that this is a more psychological book, more internally focussed, more driven by the character and experiences of the three and especially, of Autumn. Indeed, Autumn's identity as the only woman (indeed person) of colour in the town is key, here, to understanding what happens. In a story that cleverly hooks into threats in the wider outside world - the divisions caused by the Brexit referendum, the evil banality that is Trump - we see the impact on what are now well-loved characters.

That political angle may alienate some, like Cornell's last book, Chalk, which picked up on the Thatcherite 80s, although of course that is further off and less relevant, perhaps, to non British readers. But it gives the book a real sense of groundedness.

The other respect in which this book is different is that - to a degree - it challenges some conventions of fantasy. For example - and relevant to Autumn's experience - the use of the word "dark" for "evil" is questioned (by Lizzie). And in a story that's pointing up real-world developments around control, exclusion and access, the role of the Witches in "guarding Lychford's boundaries" raises some discomfort. Does this whole outlook not come uncomfortably close to the "let's build a wall and keep them out" rhetoric that we're now seeing?

Cornell isn't so presumptuous as to provide answers to all this, but in a short novella, he certainly raises issues and that gives this story a freshness and interest. No, some may not like it, but I think this is nonetheless an important book in its genre and more widely.

Excellent, and with the seeds, clearly, of further stories planted, I'm looking forward to more.

11 October 2017

Blogtour review - Blue Shift by Jane O'Reilly

Blue Shift (The Second Species Trilogy, 1)
Jane O'Reilly
Piatkus, 5 October 2017
PB, e 327pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of this book and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

This is the story of Jinnifer Blue, privileged offspring of Senator Blue, child of the protected Dome, and of dread pirate Caspian Dax, scion of the squalid Underworld.

It's set in a not so distant future where climate collapse - though cooling, rather than heating - is rapidly making Earth uninhabitable. While some colonies have been established nearby on asteroids and the like, the future of humanity lies in the stars - if we can get there.

And if the aliens whose territory lies in the was allow transit.

It's a harsh, almost dystopian, world that O'Reilly describes, one where the privileged have it easy while the poor suffer. It's grim in other ways, to, from the conditions on the prison ship A2 to the routine use of sexbots for pleasure to a trade in Underworld children to the political machinations behind the plot of the novel. Blue's, and Dax's, stories intertwine as they rightly shouldn't - she a pilot for the Security Service, he a bold outlaw - but they also come to the attention of powerful people.

I was impressed by the way that O'Reilly creates convincing worlds on the variety of space stations, mining bases and craft. It's very much written in tones of industrial grime. These are used settings, not the pristine, optimistic colonies and ships of a 2001 or a Star Trek. In these settings she deploys pretty much non stop action - both combat, and, in a couple of scenes, some very steamy sex, making the descriptions of both effective in driving the plot forward.

For all that, my favourite character in this book wasn't either of the main human protagonists but the intelligent droid, Theon, whose cool, slightly detached humour often lightens the writing and provides a contrast to both the passion and the violence of the humans. He has history with Dax and I'd like to hear much more about this.

The story is very much the first part of a trilogy, with things ending on a cliffhanger: I felt they'd perhaps been somewhat pushed into that, perhaps slightly against the way I'd understood the characters - but it might equally be I hadn't understood how damaged Dax has been by her mother's attempts to control her. The remaining volumes will, I hope, shed more light on that.

For more about the book, see here. You can buy it here, here or here.



9 October 2017

Blogtour - Fox Hunter - Q&A with Zoë Sharp

Today I'm hosting the blogtour for Zoë Sharp's new book, Foxhunter, the latest adventure for her hero Charlie Fox:

Charlie Fox is sent to Iraq to find her missing lover, Sean Meyer, and her mission is clear: to find Sean Meyer and stop him. By any means necessary.

Her boss at the New York-based close-protection agency spells it out chillingly: "If he can't be reasoned with, he must be stopped …"

Zoe has very kindly answered some questions I put to her about her writing and her life. So  over to you, Zoe!

BBB: What inspired you to write in the first place (particular books, something that happened...) —how did you get started writing?

ZS: I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to write. I do recall starting an awful lot more stories than I ever finished, though. I suppose there must have been some short stories, but it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I managed to sustain a plot idea to its logical novel-length conclusion. I still have that manuscript somewhere, but am determined it will never see the light of day. I’m grateful, looking back, that there was no real opportunity for self-publishing back then. Some apprentice pieces are never supposed to be widely shown to anyone.

My first experience with the publishing industry convinced me that I ought to seek an alternative way of working with words, so I started writing non-fiction instead. First came reports for a local classic car club newsletter, then articles for the classic car magazines, and then I branched out into freelance writing for the motoring press in general. I seem to remember giving up my day-job to write full-time on the strength of one accepted article and the promise of more work to come. That was in 1988. I haven’t had a ‘proper’ job since.

It was during the years I worked as a photojournalist (the photography rapidly followed the initial words-only commissions) that I received death-threat letters. They were proper cut-out-of-newspaper things, like a ransom note, telling me my days were numbered and they knew where I lived. It was scary at the time—particularly as the police never pinned down who sent them—and my way of dealing with this unresolved threat was to write through it. So, I started on the book that became KILLER INSTINCT. I finished that book in 1999, and by the following year had an agent and a publisher.

I think that in many ways it’s easier to get into writing now—anyone can start a blog, or indie-publish short stories or a novel—but in other ways it’s harder to earn a living doing so. As I said, anyone can do it, and so many people are that it’s difficult to make one voice heard among the many. The arts are an area where the quality of what you do has absolutely no bearing on how successful you might be.

BBB: ... and what did you expect from it? How did it compare with what you expected?

ZS: I supposed I hoped, like anyone, that writing would be self-sustaining. It has never been simply a job for me—it’s a compulsion bordering on obsession. The idea that I might be able to make a living doing the thing I loved best was a very attractive one. And yes, there are days when I seem to have to fight for every full-stop and comma I get onto the page, but these are balanced by the other (occasional) days when the words just flow, apparently channelled from the ether.

While the business side of things has often proved very frustrating, and the amount of criticism an author can face on a daily basis would make a rhino weep, overall I can’t envision a time when writing would not be an important part of my life. The wonderful thing is, it can be done anywhere I can plug in a laptop and access the internet. I’ve just been crewing on a yacht in the eastern Mediterranean, researching a possible book, and managed to get part of the current work written while I was out there. What’s not to love about that?

BBB: I'm always interested to ask authors if the protagonist came first, or emerged from the story. You write in the endnote to Fox Hunter that the idea of Charlie as a "tough, self-sufficient heroine" had been with you for some time—but was it any more specific than that? Did she change much as you wrote her?

ZS: The protagonist came first, definitely. Charlie Fox arrived more or less fully fledged right from the start. I sometimes joke that she walked in out of the blue one day, pointed a gun to my head and said, “I have a story to tell. You’re going to listen. And you may want to write this down …”

I remember writing the very first piece featuring her, years before I started on the first book. It was a scene of her over-reacting to a close-protection training exercise. At the time I had no idea where that scene might be going, or even quite where it had come from. Eventually it made its way, almost wholesale, into the third book, HARD KNOCKS, which is set at a bodyguard school in Germany. Charlie goes in undercover to find out what happened to a previous trainee, and has to try to play down her skill-set in the face of what proves to be overwhelming provocation.

Yes, she has changed over the course of the series—after all, FOX HUNTER is book twelve. Either you choose to let the character evolve as the series goes on, or you try to keep them forever frozen in time, like an insect in amber. I knew right from the beginning that she was going to change, and although I didn’t plan it, the books have fallen naturally into a series of trilogies as her life and circumstances have altered. The first three are her amateur period; the next three have her working for Sean Meyer’s UK-based security agency; then the following three see her and Sean working for Parker Armstrong in New York, and include major upsets in Charlie’s life. The last three have Charlie coming to terms with the aftermath of that turmoil. And, without giving any spoilers, the next book will be the start of a new period, with new challenges up ahead.

BBB: You've written a string of books now about Charlie. Do you ever find her taking over—or are you firmly in control as you write?

ZS: It’s a nice theory that writers are in control of the world we create, but in practise I find I’m usually just along for the ride. I think this is partly down to the way I plan a novel. I don’t write by the seat of my pants, but neither do I try to work out every tiny detail before I begin. I plan the main structure of the story, the dramatic high points of the plot, but I leave the reactions of the characters to those events to coalesce in a more organic fashion.

Likewise, I don’t do complicated character biographies for new characters in each book, but rather I like to leave them to introduce themselves to me on the page. Some have turned out very differently to the way I originally envisioned them—usually for the better, I hope …

BBB: Is it difficult working with a long-running series and characters?

ZS: I think the difficulties with a series are twofold. How to keep presenting fresh challenges for the protagonist is the first of these, but I suppose the same could be said of any author writing standalone crime novels. I’m always trying to think of a new take on a plot—an approach or a scenario that I haven’t explored before.

In the latest book, FOX HUNTER, Charlie’s role is more that of a detective than a straightforward bodyguard. She is trying to protect Sean, certainly, but by finding out who is really responsible for the crimes he is suspected of committing rather than putting herself physically between him and any dangers he faces. At the same time, it contains elements of the hunt the title suggests—before she can protect Sean, first she has to find him. And she’s not the only one on his trail.

The other difficulty is far more closely related to the fact this is indeed a long-running series, and that is how to present backstory in a new and engaging way. For a start, Charlie’s got history—history with Sean; history with their boss in the New York security agency, Parker Armstrong; and history dating back to when she was still in the military. I try to include a slightly different facet of the story so it will build up into a cohesive whole over a number of books.

With each instalment, I need to get all that across for the benefit of new readers, without labouring the point for people who’ve read the previous books. And in this case there’s also explaining Charlie’s relationship with recurring characters who appeared in earlier books and have popped up again now. Plus, I like to insert something in an earlier book that I know—or at least have a feeling—will come in useful at a later date. Nothing too cryptic, but a nod for those who’ve followed Charlie’s story from the beginning.

So, the brand new Honda FireBlade motorcycle Charlie receives for professional services rendered at the end of HARD KNOCKS, for example, enables part of the storyline of book five, ROAD KILL. A character in ABSENCE OF LIGHT returns to play an important off-stage role in FOX HUNTER. Something that happens in DIE EASY: book 10, will return in the next in the series, so watch this space!

BBB: I can see from Fox Hunter that there's more to come—can you drop any hints about what's next for Charlie?

ZS: Next for Charlie is a change of direction. She’s been changing over the course of the series, as we’ve already discussed, but within the world of close protection. Now she’s going to step slightly outside the safety of that zone. She’s going to move from a profession that is, by its nature, re-active, to something that’s a little more on the pro-active side. More than that, I’m not prepared to say at the moment …

BBB: The book reflects your travels in Jordan—do you normally do a lot of research (and travel!) for the books? (That sounds to me like a great perk of being a writer!)

ZS: I try to do a huge amount of research for the books … and then I try to leave as much of it as possible out of the story. Research is necessary for flavour, atmosphere, and authenticity, but at the same time I am acutely aware that I’m writing a book designed to entertain, not to lecture. It’s not supposed to be a travel guide, or a textbook. But, people love to feel they’ve been privy to trade secrets and otherwise hidden bits of detail, so those are the snippets I try to include.

Besides, there’s a limit to how much you can glean from outside sources—sometimes you are in danger of merely repeating the errors of others. Yes, you can do an enormous amount of research from books, or over the internet, but at the end of the day there’s no substitute for being there if you can make it happen.

Q: You mentioned that you have a book locked away that you wrote when you were 15. Is there any chance of it seeing the light? Or will it get the Terry Pratchett steamroller treatment? (I suppose that's a roundabout way of asking—are you on the side of those who always want to know more about the writing process, or do you think a line needs to be drawn?)

ZS: Oh, the steamroller, ever time! I love insider notes—I’m one of the only people I know who loves to listen to the director’s commentary on movies and TV episodes on DVD, and watch the making-of documentaries, but I don’t necessarily want to see all the outtakes where the actors cracked up, fluffed their lines, or tripped over their own feet. I may want to know how the magic is created, but that doesn’t mean I want it destroying before my very eyes.

BBB: Where do you stand on genre (every time I look there seem to be more of them…)—useful in writing or just a marketing label?

ZS: I’m a bit ambivalent about genre classifications, I have to confess. They’re useful as a general guide, but I think these days there are more books that fall outside the traditional boxes than are contained within them. And authors do try to stretch the definitions. Everyone wants to think they’ve written a page-turning story that is hard to put down, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a thriller in the general sense of the word. When asked this question, I usually quote the one category that caused me the most confusion: cutting-edge cosy. Anybody care to explain that one to me?

Readers do want—and deserve—to know what they’re getting, however. If you invest time and money by purchasing a book, you want the confidence before you begin that it’s going to fall within your sphere of enjoyment, on all kinds of levels. If you start reading what seems to be a straightforward police procedural about a serial killer with seemingly superhuman strength who exsanguinates his victims, you want to be able to trust that you’ll be wowed by how the criminal has been carrying out his crimes and how the detective put together the clues to catch him. You don’t want to find out at the end that the killer is a vampire and the detective used their heightened werewolf senses to hunt him down. If you wanted and were expecting a supernatural element, great. But if not …

I understand there have recently had to be more classifications for erotica, in order to make it clear to both retailers and readers what they might be getting into. Books containing certain taboo themes will find very few retailers prepared to stock them, and I can’t say I’m surprised by this. Just because you can now write and publish a book about any deviation under the sun, that doesn’t mean you should do so.

BBB: Finally, a question that isn’t (directly) about the books. You’ve stumbled into a devious plot while researching a new novel, as a result of which you’re trapped in a lonely forest tower. A rescue party is on its way but will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food and water, and you can have one book with you. Which would it be?

A: Ooh, that’s a tricky one. Besides, I’m already off down the road of wondering what the devious plot that I’ve stumbled into might be, and what the interior of this lonely forest tower might look like or contain, and what perils the rescue party might be encountering on its way to me. And …

Anyway … one book, huh? A dictionary. Preferably a very large and comprehensive one, that not only gives the meaning of words and phrases, but their original derivations and altering usage as well. I love words in all their forms, and strolling through such a dictionary of treasures would keep me occupied no matter what obstacles were put in the path of my plucky rescuers. Maybe even long enough for my hair to grow so they could climb up into my tower? Nah, who am I kidding? Soon as their couple of days was up, I’d improvise some weaponry out of ordinary household items and fight my own way out.

Zoë, thanks for those answers, which shed a lot of light on your writing and on Charlie Fox in particular. Before I go off to ponder what "cutting edge cosy" might be (razor sharp knitting needles?) can I remind you that you can buy the book through Zoë's website (link below) or from various flavours of Amazon - and to catch the other stops on the blogtour (see poster for details).

Zoë Sharp’s criminal tendencies were predisposed when she was born in Nottinghamshire within sight of Robin Hood’s hangout in Sherwood Forest. She opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and blames her lowbrow sense of humour on spending far too long hanging round with mechanics. She believes life should be lived the same way as riding a motorcycle—with one knee on the deck and the throttle wide open. www.ZoeSharp.com


7 October 2017

Review - Strange Sight by Syd Moore

Image from https://oneworld-publications.com
Strange Sight
Syd Moore
Point Blank, 5 October 2017
PB, 369pp

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

This is the second in Syd's new series about "witches, magic and Essex Girls". My review of the first, Strange Magic, is here and a piece she kindly wrote for the blog, about Essex Girls and Essex witches, is here.

Another adventure for museum owner and Benefit Fraud investigator Rosie Strange and her curator and sidekick, Sam Stone. Barely having drawn breath from the events of Strange Magic, they're contacted by erstwhile hardman Ray Boundersby who's having a spot of bother at his restaurant.

Psychic bother.

Ray's not a man you say no to - at least, not if you're fond of your kneecaps - so Rosie and Sam pack up their (well, his) spookhunting equipment, leave the Essex Witch Museum, and begin to ask questions. Of course, by the time they do this we know - from the rather gripping prologue - that there is rather more than a few ghostly knockings in play here. Murder has been committed, murder of a specially gruesome kind, and Ray's daughter Mary is in the frame...

Moore's pair of investigators - not, please, "ghostbusters" as they keep telling everyone - are well placed here, in pursuing their own enquiries, to also unravel the murder mystery - a perennial difficulty for modern-day amateur and private investigators in crime stories. And make no mistake, this is a crime story - whether or not the perpetrator turns out to be living flesh and blood. But it has other aspects too, of course and indeed one of the things I enjoyed about this book was the sharp way that the investigation bobs to and fro between criminal and psychical investigations, with information often relevant to both sides.

Another was the personalities of Moore's two main characters. I have to be honest and say they might not appeal to everyone - neither is exactly likeable: Strange is, well, a strange combination: excellent good at reading others (except for Stone) and ultra confident, but often almost clunkingly un self-aware. As a result her narration is very funny at times, but you might well not warm to her (I did!)

Stone is more enigmatic, but then we don't get his viewpoint, only Strange's perception and this is - I think - distorted by the fact that she fancies him but doesn't ever quite come out and admit to herself. Yes, I think I see where this going but I hope Moore keeps them apart for a few more books because it's more fun that way.

The story takes Strange and Stone out of Essex into London, where the restaurant "La Fleur" stands, just off Fetter lane, north of Fleet Street. (Weirdly I was walking past that corner only yesterday). The spooky goings on require them to delve into the nastier side of London't past and, indeed, present. While that was very interesting I felt the book slightly lost its distinctiveness there - a LOT of UF has been written in the vein of "London's past comes back to haunt us" and one of the things I liked about Strange Magic was that it wasn't drawing on London.

Nevertheless, Moore does an excellent job here of highlighting a real historical scandal with echoes in the present day and this also means the story is a bit more grounded than Strange Magic was so I think the visit to London pays off - I just hope our heroes are back in Essex soon. I think they will be, because alongside the main plot, Rosie's been learning more about her family background and that, also, screams MYSTERY in 36pt flashing neon gothic. So while there was perhaps less in this book concerning the Museum, and Essex, we have some pointers that more is to be learned about both.

Overall, then, a good followup to the earlier book, keeping things moving nicely, baffling the reader as to just how much of what's going is supernatural, and setting up an intriguing mystery for the future. Not all the loose ends from the crime were tied up (why the flour?) but I can live with that as long as I've got plenty of Rosie and Sam to distract me.







5 October 2017

Review - The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood

The Crow Garden
Alison Littlewood
Jo Fletcher Books, 5 October 2017
HB, 366pp

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

In Littlewood's latest horror story we are back in Victorian England, visiting that quintessential Gothic location (second, perhaps, to the ruined Priory), the lunatic asylum.

Dr Nathaniel Kerner has taken up a post at Crakethorne Asylum, described most encouragingly in the opening chapter: a brooding, chilly building beset by wind and haunted by the crows after which it is named (Grey stone was unleavened by lightness or decoration") and presided over the Dr Chettle who, we soon learn, has little interest in his patients and spends most of his time pursuing phrenology - even then, a marginal and quackish science. Kerner has tragedies in his own past and is driven to earn the (posthumous) approval of his discredited father, indeed one might think he's not the most stable and suitable of characters to be treating the "insane" (as they're labelled).

Despite this, Kerner's ideas of treatment by talking seem modern and enlightened compared with the regimes of blisters, bleeding, electric shocks and cold baths apparently in vogue at the time. The book is sharp in its perceptions, discussing what's almost a hierarchy of establishments practicing more or less modern or primitive treatments, and of the way this plays into the choices made by those responsible for committing unfortunate relatives to their "care".

In particular, Kerner's life is to become entangled with that of Mrs Victoria Harleston, committed for shrinking form performing her "wifely duties". Mr Harleston is eager that his wife be brought to obedience and presses Kerner and Chettle to do whatever is necessary. The scenes in which Littlewood exposes the situation of a woman at the mercy of the (male) law and society are some of the most chilling I've read in fiction, supernatural or otherwise - but that isn't the end of this story. Rather there is much, much to be told with Victoria herself emerging as a fascinating, passionate and contradictory character - especially compared with poor Nathaniel who's mostly two steps behind her. (indeed, as a viewpoint character he can become a bit tiresome at times, with his assumptions about women's fragility and a rather touchy ego to boot - at others his pomposity becomes almost endearing).

Littlewood uses a clever motif to explore Victoria and Nathaniel's relationship, quoting from Byron (for her) and Robert Browning (for him). These are their preferred poets (the good Doctor rather huffily confiscating her book of Byron's verse which he declares unsuitable and likely to make her delusions worse) and indeed as the story proceeds they take to referring to "my poet" or "your poet", the subtlety of the relationship marked by Kerner's beginning to see more passionate depths in his Browning that he had realised before. The whole effect has something of the Gothic romance - and claustrophobia - of Wuthering Heights combined with the menace of Wilkie Collins or Dickens exposing the cruelty of the Victorian mental health system. At the same time, this system is contrasted with short but spells that do, indeed, promise "asylum" from the darkness without, moments when the reader does begin to hope for some good resolution.

Reading over this I realise I have said anything about the supernatural elements in the book - well, they are there, contributing especially to the brooding menace of the final part but in this story the burden of the horror is, I think, really borne by darkness that emanates from humanity. The questions the story raises - about sanity, madness and evil - are independent of whatever it is those restless crow spirits may be up to, and in the end, it's man (or Man) who is the monster here, I think.

An excellent, chilling, autumn read, all about the dangers of power, obsession, and guilt, this is sure to be another hit from Littlewood to follow up The Hidden People.




4 October 2017

Review - Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng

Under the Pendulum Sun (A Novel of the Fae)
Jeannette Ng
Angry Robot, 5 October 2017
PB, 400pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

Under the Pendulum Sun is a remarkable book. It's at once gothic, literary, magical, and comfortable with the viewpoint of a mid-Victorian world of missionaries and Christianity (whilst equally comfortable dissecting their viewpoints).

To begin with, the story looks as though it is going to be a variant on the Heart of Darkness/ Apocalypse Now myth: a White Man has disappeared or gone rogue in Native Country and must be tracked down, at some peril. Here the White Man is missionary Rev Laon Helstone, and the would-be rescuer his sister Catherine. We see Catherine at the start travelling to a far country by ship and the story is largely narrated from her point of view 9others being introduced only as diary readings or quotations).

The twist is that the far country is the country of the Fae, Elfland, or as it's called here, Elphane, or Arcadia. Through some colonialist triumph the British Empire has secured rights to "open up" Arcadia to trade and influence just as it did countries like China and India: exactly how isn't ever clear and doesn't really matter. Laon, as a dutiful son of the Church of England, has travelled to convert the heathen ("those that languished in the grim epires without word of the Redeemer") - but nothing has been heard from him and so his worried sister obtains the blessing of the missionary society to seek him out.

We discover in time that there's more too it than that, of course, and so the story begins...

Arcadia itself is a well realised, fantastical and gruesome creation, spread out as it is under a sun that is, literally, a pendulum. Ng makes this deeply credible, emphasising not the magical nature of the pendulum but its obedience to physics, with the period constant even as the amplitude changes over the seasons. The idea is curious but works and counterpoints the even stranger nature of Arcadia's moon.

The inhabitants of this unknown country are convincing, too, from Mr Benjamin the gardener (and the only convert) to Miss Davenport the changeling to the frightful Queen Mab, who has taken an interesting in the missionaries and their doings. Then there are the less structured residents such as the "ethereal sylph faces" glimpsed in the mist and the "gnome forms" with a gait "like that of a strutting Lancashire moonie". There are strange beings such as the Salamander, cook to the mission, and the court of Queen Mab with its clockwork revellers

Most of the story is set in a remote house, ominously named Gethsemane ("...more of a castle than a manor, a knot of spires and flying buttresses atop a jagged hill...") which has been granted to the mission. Here Ng is able to indulge in all the trappings of Gothic - from that spiky first glimpse, to the mysterious Lady in Black to the Door to Empty Air which will keep opening in the night and letting bad dreams in. In case this sounds over the top, it's actually marvellously grounded through such details as the salt "from human hands" which must be sprinkled on food to make it safe ("Captain Cook and his crew, the first British explorers to reach Arcadia, were said to have perished because of their misdealings with salt"), or the marvellously convincing chapter headings: Ng quotes equally from real 19th century texts (including some wonderfully pompous hymns and religious tracts, which she does amend somewhat but I couldn't see the joins), from the "journals" and writings of her characters and from fictitious histories. The effect is very convincing, and - although you don't spot this until some way on - she's also laying a trail of breadcrumbs that, with hindsight, shows a little of where the plot came from. I've rarely seem such careful or effective worldbuilding, with the reader never feeling that there's an infodump going on.

All this creates an increasingly menacing atmosphere as the mysteries deepen. Where is Laon? What is the nature of the relationship between him and Catherine? There are hints that it is very intense for a brother and sister. ("I had been taught to tame my wild impulses" she remarks at one point and "I remembered the curve of his ears agianst my lips") In passing, the details of their early life seem rather Bronteish - the remote moorland background background, writing fantasy stories about toy soldiers, dead siblings ("...the very idea of ghosts both enthralled and repulsed us. We had buried so many in our youth.")

Above all, what is the real nature of Arcadia, and what part to Laon and Catherine have to play there? In a world which is all shifting mist, surface glamour and illusion, what is there to hold onto? Will faith serve, or are Catherine and Laon they so far from the face of God as to be cast adrift? What are they even doing there? I think it's a notable achievement to write a work of modern fantasy that takes seriously ideas such as the soul (do the Fae have them?), transubstantiation and the proper interpretation of parables (Mr Benjamin is troubled and raises many questions about the Bible with Catherine: she doesn't have the answers).

If you think seem rather dry, Sunday-schoolish questions, that couldn't be further from the truth. This is in many ways a deeply sensual book - not only in the more obvious sense ("I leaned into his touch... at some point he had dropped the rag and it was his hands that traversed my body...") but in its focus on the nature of the body, the soul, its characters' real sense of sin, of shame, of temptation: the possibility of literally going astray in this strange land (at one point we visit the Goblin Market, where anything can be had, for a price). Identities, and with them, whole systems of values, shift - almost as though Arcadia is a furnace of the self, melting down and reforging the very self and calling forth strange, grotesque behaviour (This was not the innocent games of our past selves, even as I wondered how innocent our games had been").

Ng's writing is first rate and this is an enjoyable, immersive book that is able both to take seriously the perspective of its Victorian characters and to show their worldview under assault from a cultural encounter for which they're wholly unfitted. It's a haunting, intricate book which is like nothing I'd read before. I'd strongly recommend it.