15 August 2018

Review - Resin by Ane Riel

Ane Riel (Translated by Charlotte Barslund)
Doubleday, 9 August
Trade paperback, 313pp

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

This is a hard book to review. At times, it was a hard book to read. There are some grim scenes, with a central character mistreating their family and also its animals. There are murders. There is a sort of self-reinforcing, almost cultish, thing going on and at times I wanted to scream at one character or another to just get out, or at least, step back, and notice what is happening to them.

But of course they don't, because they're caught in the moral stickiness, the resinous, clammy trap that is set.

That makes for painful reading. The greater difficulty, though, for both reading and reviewing is coming to terms not with what happens here but why. The title - and a recurring image in the book - Resin, goes to the heart of that. Here is a man who is obsessed with preserving what he has, with not letting go -  just as the lump of amber he cherishes preserves an ant, caught millions of years ago in the sticky resin from a pine tree. That fixation oozes through the book, bubbling up again and again, and the tragic consequences are set out here in shocking detail - the more shocking for a certain affectless style which (you soon realise) is normalising this stuff, making it seem like everyday life.

It's only towards the end, when we see events through the eyes of someone who has not been involved, that the full state of affairs becomes clear.

And yet, in the end, the why still remains, I think, a living mystery. I didn't ever really understand Jens, or his making - or I don't yet: again, this book is sticky, it lingers and there's a bit of my mind now that is still pondering him just as, in the book, one character takes away what has happened and will, it seems, be spending a lifetime coming to terms with it. Or not, based on a horrifying sentence that comes just as you think things are calming down.

This is the story of a family living on a remote island off the Danish coast. We see three generations of the Horder family (aptly named, at least in English, though I don't know whether in Danish the name has implications of one who piles up and keeps junk). There is grandfather Silas and grandmother Else, father Jens, mother Maria and children Liv and Carl. Riel takes her time in building up the oddness of this family, the train of accidents and losses that befall them - and the developing condition of Jens. There is all manner of weirdness here: a scavenging lifestyle, deaths due to both accident and murder, a bleak and inward looking family. It's as if The Borrowers went evil: Jens teaches his young daughter that the nearby village is there to be raided, not only for useful items but simply for stuff which he will then "keep safe".

The book is written from a number of viewpoints: a narrator, who sometimes follows a particular character for a chapter, giving a close insight into their thoughts, and sometimes gives a more general perspective, but also letters and other writings by Maria, Jens' wife and Liv's mother. And Liv's voice, telling her own story.

We see Else - controlling, attention-seeking and hypochondriac as Jens, relatively young, falls for Maria, who's been employed to care for Else. For a while, things teeter on the edge of normality - before catastrophe strikes.

We later see Maria, stricken by illness and overeating, gradually withdraw from the world.

And we see Jens withdraw into himself.

And we see the effect on Liv.

The writing is sharp and has a knack of nailing both the literal and the metaphorical at the same time ("Lars suffered from gout and struggled to walk, and his wife never went anywhere but crazy...", "My eyes had grown so used to darkness that in time I saw best at night"). The detail is painted in patiently, those different perspectives I mentioned before giving a kind of discordant and jarring view of the world: Liv's viewpoint, especially, is well done, a convincing portrayal of a child mostly saying and doing childish things but occasionally plunging into much darker, much more adult moments. This is truly unsettling and is another aspect of the book that will haunt me.

It's one of those stories that has you reluctant to turn the next page, fearing what you might read. The discord begins right at the start - that first sentence "The white room was completely dark when my dad killed my granny" - with almost immediately after, a lament that there wasn't a "proper White Christmas" that year. All is out of joint, the times and skew, something is rotten here.

And slowly, painstakingly, Riel explores and exposes that rottenness in compelling, slick writing that sticks in your head.

Like resin...

13 August 2018

Review - Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Cover by Robert Frank Hunter 
Early Riser
Jasper Fforde
Hodder & Stoughton, 2 August 2018
HB, 407pp

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

Skinny Pete went to sleep, underfed and bony
Skinny Pete went to sleep, and died a death so lonely.

The enemy aren't the Villains, nomads, scavengers, insomniacs, Ice-Hermits, Megafauna, nightwalker, hiburnal rodents or flesh eating cold slime - it's the Winter.

This is a standalone volume from Jasper Fforde, not part of the ongoing Thursday Next series or a continuation of Shades of Grey, a potential series that seems to have been blighted by a quite different book with a similar name. However, in tone I'd say it is more similar to Grey than to Next, taking place in a fictional version of our world which is, while fantastical in some ways, not magical.

The world of Early Riser might best be described as an alternate timeline, a planet and landscape identical in many ways to our own, with a lot of technology, cultural references ("Fawlty Dormiorium with Sybil, Basil and Polly and so forth - 'don't mention the Ottoman' ") and history in common, but where - rather than a trend to warming - global cooling ("snowball Earth") is happening, with the winters bitter and a glacier advancing across "the Albion peninsula" (the separation from the mainland never having quite happened, although a belt of marshland following what to us is the Channel shows where a warmer era led to higher sea levels).

The sheer wintriness of this book (apart from being very agreeable to read during the 2018 summer heatwave) motivates the plot in many ways. In this reality, humans hibernate and always have, clustering in "hibernatoria" - multistorey, circular buildings with floor upon floor of sleeping cells, all heated by cosy nuclear piles in the basement ("Hotpots"). Hibernating is a serious business, governed by law and custom. One needs to put on enough fat in the Autumn to last through till Spring, and anyone not attaining their healthy "Winter weight" is looked at askance. Forde loving describes the whole culture around hibernation, making it, in the end, quite a cosy idea. The hibernatorium is more than a sleeping cave, it is a home, a community, with dining room and (as a fine illustration here shows) many other facilities. And a Porter guards the entrance, staying awake through the Winter to protect their charges.

Of course, it's not all cosy. Only the lucky (and rich) are entitled to supplies Morphenox, a drug that prevents dreams and so saves on energy (and fat depletion) allowing a greater chance of survival. But Morphenox has a potential side effect... a small number of those who take it lose their minds in sleep, waking as "nightwalkers", effectively zombies. Yet the risk is considered worth it, not only for individuals who are less likely to starve over Winter but for the good of the species - survival is vital because, in such a hostile climate, population is under threat, so there is mandated childbearing and a great deal of care is taken of orphans in "the Pool". Anything that reduces attrition is welcomed and HiberTech, the company that makes Morphenox, is a power in the land.

The land itself is Wales, the story taking place in early winter in mid Wales when Charlie, a newly appointed novice Winter Consul - an order who stay awake through the cold months, guarding the population against Villains, Wintervolk (monsters) and disasters (like meltdowns in the Hotpots -  ventures from Cardiff to the interior to deliver a "nightwalker" to HiberTech. A simple job for a newbie, and he's accompanies by a vertebral Consul, so what can go wrong?

A great deal, of course. What with hostile colleagues in Sector 12, the formidable duo of Arcadia, head of security at HiberTech and Toccata, the top Consul in Sector 12, missing nightwalkers, a massive bet hanging on whether or not the Gronk is real, hippies on a quest for real dreams, and a terrorist movement seeking a return to Real Sleep - and more - there is plenty going on. Indeed the book is so rich, with such a cast of characters that it can be overwhelming at times, or at least it would be if those characters, and the setting wren't so perfectly realised.

There are also some hilarious strands, such as the Villains, ("Villains generally lives on the edge of the ice-fields and often raided nearby towns for pantry and domestic servants") who prove, of course, to be English and upper class, the banter between Jonesy and Charlie in which they spin a wholly fiction, longstanding love affair out of thin air despite having only just met (and never actually bundled each other) or barely fictional names such as that of " 'sleep extreme' guru Gaer Brills". There are also some very sharp observations ("She was making up nostalgia", "right-wing hardliners loved a good panic").

Behind all this, though, there is a well constructed and devious thriller plot. As Winter falls, a secret is in play, its preservation essential to the way of life of Charlie, his colleagues and the wider population - and its revelation key to preventing  rather nasty fate for many. In a headlong, catastrophe-stern series of encounters, not all of them waking, Charlie will be tested to the limit and find out who he can really trust. Because she of those around him are basically two-faced and have their own agendas...

It's not a short book, but the pages fly by, with fascinating new details of that intricate, well-delineated world coming in all the time, even as the sinister events of Winter unwind and Charlie fears for his life. By the end, I was sorry that the story had to stop but there is a wonderful coda in the form of some posters and other material including, of course, advice from the Ministry of Sleep.

In all an excellent addition to Fforde's imaginary worlds, even if it does remain standalone (but i hope it won't).

10 August 2018

Review - King of Assassins by RJ Barker

King of Assassins (The Wounded Kingdom, 3)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 9 August 2018
PB, 508pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of King of Assassins.

So it's over. Barker's trilogy chronicling the life of Girton Club-Foot, assassin, sorcerer, friend, enemy, Heartblade to King Rufra ap Vythr - and murderer - finishes in triumph. I don't mean that the book is about triumph - it isn't, that would be client to the nature of the series which is about small wins, loyalty, friendship and suffering. Girton doesn't end loaded with honours, titles and lands - rather he foresees a blade coming in the dark (in other words, his life is much as it ever was).

No, I mean the story is a triumph. We've followed Girton through highs and lows, hoped for him, feared for him and, frankly, loved him. One moment in Blood of Assassins, when he does something deeply dishonourable (but totally understandable) gave rise to the hashtag #OhGirton, a phrase I've increasingly muttered to myself as I read these books. I don't think I can recall a protagonist over whom I have worried as I have with Girton. Through the books he has carried a terrible secret: that he can practice magic, a thing abhorred and forbidden in this world. If this came out, Girton would die a horrible death. The secret has driven a wedge between him and his King, Rufra, and has nearly been  revealed several times. Yes the real worry is not Girton being "found out" so much as him overreaching, acting out of pride or fear and being unable to step back again. That he will lose himself. That we will lose him.

And now, as we reach the endgame, we fear for Girton as never before. Rufra is taking his Court to the capital, Ceadoc, where the High King is dead and the nobles of the Tired Lands will conspire and politic to elect a replacement. Ceadoc proves a truly awful place, riven by treachery and deeply corrupt. The trials will pose many dangers and temptations and will test Girton to his limits, and beyond - will they reveal what he is, and separate him from Rufra forever?

All the familiar elements are here: the Sons of Arnst with their fanatic leader Danfoth, sinister priest Neander, the Landsmen whose duty is to hunt down and kill sorcerers. And there are new perils too, new and troubling magic right at the heart of the Kingdom.

Barker weaves a compelling and heartstopping tale around all this, giving us mystery inside mystery - not only new puzzles (assassinations, the curious state of Ceadoc itself, the enigmatic Gamelon, Steward of Ceadoc) but the culmination of things going back decades - including the story of Merala herself, Girton's Master, and the explanation of certain events in Age of Assassins and Blood of Assassins.  (I will, I think, have to go back and reread those books in the right of what I know now). It's all very neatly done, but that's not why I declare this book a triumph. No, the reason for that is the subject matter and how Barker handles it.

There are big issues around the Tired Lands - why magic use is so destructive, what became of the Gods and whether they can ever return, how the Age of Balance came to an end, to name only three. As a magic-user Rufra is at the heart of some of this, sensing the "souring" of the Land, walking (almost, perhaps) with the Gods. In a more conventional fantasy Girton would be declared the Chosen One and the quest would be for answers to all this. Or perhaps Rufra's task would be to guard the Land from some unspeakably evil invader. Or both Certainly, Rufra's bid for the High Kingship would carry a cosmic significance - not just potentially allow his modest reforms in Maniyadoc to spread more widely.

Barker's brilliance is that he doesn't make these books about the fate of worlds. There is good and evil here, yes, and they clash, but it's about how people express that. It's about relationships - Girton and Merala (I have to confess there were moments in this book with those two where I seemed to get something in my eye...), Girton and Rufra, Girton and Aydor. The struggle is for these people to be better people, to be what they should to each other, to confess to what they mean to each other. The magic and the assassining and the battles with Landsmen are less the ends, than the means - forums where these relationships are tried, tested - and broken.

The potential tragedies here are not the land falling to some ancient evil, but the prospect of personal loss, of a dear one being lost (as happens to a friend of Girton's early in the book), relationships wasted or broken. Because Barker makes us care for these people - or perhaps, shows us  that we should care for them - this all matters to the reader far more than the fates of empires and kingdoms, would far more than abstract evil does.

Because when evil stalks Ceadoc, people we have come to love suffer and die. And boy how they suffer - some parts of this book make very hard reading, with some cruel deaths.

The greatest fear we have, though, is the fear - the knowledge? - that Girton will go too far, and it will be impossible for things to ever be the same again. So far in these books he has, just, managed to draw back, but with the deadly game in a new and most deadly phrase, how long can that last?

Oh, Girton.

In short, an excellent end to a groundbreaking  and glittering trilogy. A real treat, you need to get a copy of this, put everything on hold for a couple of days, and sit down and enjoy it.

Indeed my only frustration was how much more I'd like to have been told - about Festival, about the Age of Balance, about Girton and Merala - but most of all, about Xus, Girton's Mount. Barker's writing is at its best when it comes to the relationship between the two, and I could happily have read whole chapters about this subject. Perhaps, as he hints in the Afterword, he might be persuaded to write some of that...

8 August 2018

Review - Haven by Adam Roberts

Cover by Sam Gretton
Haven (Tales of The Aftermath, 2)
Adam Roberts
Solaris, 9 August 2018
PB, 320pp

I'm grateful to the publishers for an advance copy of Haven via NetGalley.

Set in a shared post-apocalyptic world created by Dave Hutchinson and by Roberts, Haven is the followup to Hutchinson's Shelter (my review). It features a boy called Davy Forktongue - Shelter featured an Adam, so possibly there are author games going on here...

Davy (the character) is very much the crux of Haven. Decades after the Sisters - annihilating asteroids - impacted the Earth and destroyed civilisation, Davy lives with his mother and sisters farming on Shillingford Hill, above the swollen Thames south of Oxford.  In a rather nasty, dog-eat-dog world Davy is a threat to nobody, minding his own business and especially the farm's five cows. but suddenly, it seems everyone is after him - the militaristic authorities from Guz, the former naval base on the South coast which featured in Shelter; the footsoldiers of Father John, from the North, of whom we heard less; and the mysterious, women-only society based at High Wycombe, of which we heard almost nothing.

What do they all want? Can it be related to Davy's epilepsy? Will he survive to find out? As Davy is fought over by the factions, Haven escalates into a fast-paced thriller full of action and conflict. Some of this can be pretty grim - as in Hutchinson's Shelter, it's hard to find anyone here to like (beyond Davy himself).  The Sisters seemingly destroyed not only civilisation, but civilisation - the complex of values and empathy that prevents us all murdering each other. If you found Shelter - which featured an outbreak of such murders - bleak I think you'll feel the same way about Haven. Indeed, the parochial and random warfare that featured in Shelter is surpassed by a more ordered and deadly conflict in Haven (and I wish I could say that this conflict achieves something but I fear that it really doesn't).

Nevertheless there is a lot to like in Haven. Roberts tells a tight, well constructed story bringing together two quite different strands - the adventures of Davy, basically trying to get home (there and back again, perhaps...?) and a parallel series of trials listed on the rather stoic boatman, Hat, of whom I would like to have heard more. Nothing in either thread stray, nothing is lost, the most minor points proving relevant before the end.

Roberts' writing is excellent throughout, in particular his descriptions of the deep winter - puddles which "were saucers and half-moons of pure silver locked hard into the ground", "sharp blades of frost stiffened grass that broke under his feet like twigs", "Another wilderness of sedge, yellow as cream, brittle and sharp-edged as upended icicles". He can dip into a kind of Thick Of It mode (" 'Hark,' said Abigail, putting a hand to her ear, 'what is that I hear, ululating from afar? Is it the call for swear language? I do believe it fucking is! None other than the fucking shit-shouting call for sweary language!' ") He can evoke things almost poetically, beyond the literal meaning of the words ("Someone had sheathed a blade in his shoulder and by Christ it hurt. A paralallip rhythm. A paralallip. Rhythm of paralallip.") It's hard to convey by grabbing a few quotes just how much fun this book is to read for the language, the words themselves. 

Of course, in a book by Roberts you also expect puns and allusions and Haven doesn't disappoint. There's a rather intense degree of wordplay ("Because he's the new messiah? The new mess-his-pants-hire? Why?"). At times it rather takes over the characters - for example this exchange between Daniel and Davy. (Read the book to find out who Daniel is).

" 'And if they don't apprehend you on the way - which, incidentally, they will if you just go stumbling down the rive gauche of the river the way you have been - why then they'll pick up up neatly in Goring town itself.'

'Reeve goes?' Davy queried."


" 'Boats are still our forte.'

'That is a lot of boats,' agreed Davy.

Daniel gave him another hard stare."

There is a sense of quick wittedness, of verbal mastery, here to Davy which Daniel seems to recognise. Davy seems to deploy some sophisticated quotes for a thirteen year old who can't read or write and has been brought up in what one might assume is an intellectually, as well as materially, impoverished culture

" 'It is a strange fate," said Davy, "that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing.' Daniel looked at him oddly for a moment..."

Even when not quoting or playing with words, Davy can also show a maturer understanding of things than you might expect. ("I understand the emotional dynamic of my own family than a stranger." "Waste was the worst thing. The unfairness of it. The wealth of the world poured away into the dirt.")

What I think is going on here is that for most of the book, Davy acts as a kind of chorus, the representative of the author (or the reader) in this grim world. That works rather well, not least because, for much of the story, Davy is a rather passive character, done to and not doing, but mainly observing and commenting. He needs a good level of insight and language to make the experience bearable for us.

Similarly, Roberts freely employs (both in the speech of his characters and in the narration) metaphors and turns of phrase that only make sense to us but are unlikely to mean anything to the fourth, fifth or sixth post Sisters generation. One of these ("Senses working overtime") is highlighted at the start of the book - nobody understands the phrase and there are various theories about it - but most are not. So we have "You'll have to join the end of the queue" and 'Close enough... for government work", a "Morse-code under clack" to someone's speech, and so forth.

While this might seem incongruous, it really isn't. Roberts is not trying to develop post-apocalyptic language, something like Russell Hoban in Ridley Walker. he's not trying to represent how these people might really speak. Rather he's using language - even in the mouths of the protagonists - that works for us, the readers. I was reminded of Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings (perhaps one ought to assume a translation, as though Haven were derived from a kind of Red Book of the Southmarch. And indeed there is a lot of Tolkien here -  we do also have "Speak friend and enter", a Gollum like follower, a reference to the Moon as a fruit taken from a silver tree, and much more besides.) By using language this was, the impact of the Sisters on society becomes more apparent, not less. Via the disconnect between a language that assumes the existence of modern technology, modern luxuries and modern conveniences and the strange, wild and deeply dangerous world it is used to describe, we see how far things have really fallen.

A specific example of this might be Hat's (the boatman's) love of smoking, something shared by the customers at an inn and described by Robertson particularly sensuous terms. Roberts makes clear that at this point in history real tobacco is an expensive and hard to come by commodity - I wonder if in reality it would simply not exist at all, but at any rate it is so hard to come by that I suspect most people would be unaware of it and unlikely to enjoy Hat's second hand smoke in the way described. So, no, perhaps not realistic - but as a way to convey how far that world is from ours, this is simply genius. (Unless of course it's another Tolkien thing.)

This is just one of the respects in which Roberts' on the nose observation makes this an absorbing read. Another is the character - I won't name then because spoilers - who achieves incredible things despite being "old" - whatever that means in this world - "People simply stop noticing you. You become a background figure, a three-legged still or an old jug..." And there is the society of the High Wycombe women, marking one path a culture might take alongside others that become intensely patriarchal, very quickly.

So, what do we have? At one level this is a grim, even heartbreaking story of a society gone savage. But it's leavened, or lifted, by that sense of author-in-the-story, of shrewd commentary, by the sense of an authorial wink, that this may be a slightly different story to the one we think we're reading. In other words it's a clever book - which I mean as undiluted praise. And, as I have said, despite the darkness, it is also often a fun book. I would strongly recommend reading (with a bit of a content waring that if you found the darkness of Shelter a bit too much, this does go to similar places).

One closing point. I actually live near Davy! Here, then, is a picture of Shillingford Hill (to the left) from across the Thames (which is among the trees in the middle). You can see what a good place this would be for Davy and his family to farm, albeit in their world the effect of the Sisters has been to cause rain and cold, in contrast to the UK's current mini heatwave... I think the nearer field would have been under icy water, but I can imagine it as one of the places Davy might have crossed a frozen  river.

Shillingford Hill

7 August 2018

#Blogtour Review - The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories by Teresa Solana

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories
Teresa Solana (Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush)
Bitter Lemon Press, 15 August 2018
PB, 208 pp

I'm grateful to Bitter Lemon Press for an advance e-copy of this book and to Anne for the opportunity to take part in the blogtour for the book.

This is a collection of very sharp, often fantastical, and always entertaining stories, many of which place women's viewpoints or positions to the fore. These stories manage to have, at the same time, a cool mastery of the everyday and also - when Solana switches context slightly or brings in some detail previously avoided - their own deliciously skewed viewpoint, a bigger picture that comes into focus.

For example, the titular story, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer, seems a very playful piece - at first.  A serial killer apparently strikes among a tribe of Neanderthal people. Over a period of months, three men are found at the back of the cave with their heads beaten in. The chief appoints one of the tribe to investigate. Solana touches on the conventions and language of the traditional detective narrative, hitting deliberately anachronistic notes (such as references to autopsies, psychological profiles and scientific evidence, or the order "Come on, Mycroft, [the name of the 'detective'] stop being such a Sherlock and get cracking". Underneath, though, there is a more serious mystery - one that affects the balance between the men and women of the tribe. Can it be that the deaths are connected with this? can the secret be preserved?

Another story that turns on the relations between men and women, The Son-in-Law sees an elderly mother become concerned by the way her son-in-law is treating her daughter. Notable for its well thought-out detail, as well as the macabre twist at the end, this story shows how ways will be found runs oppressive social structures and feeble law enforcement to ensure justice.

Still Life No 41 represents another theme in the book - the self-obsessed protagonist, who sees everything very much from their own point of view. Here it's a gallery director, and she's the most self-centred and entitled character I've met in a story for a long time. Running a gallery because of the influence of her daddy, she has to accept blame when things go wrong. We start the story feeling some sympathy - she's lost her job - but as the awful details emerge all this drains away, at least nearly all. Solana is good at showing a piece of terrible behaviour but still keeping the reader sympathising. So for example, in Flesh-Coloured People, a young woman woman has witnessed a shooting. She's being interviewed by the police about this and her inner monologue suggests, again, total self-absorption - from a distancing narrative about the ethnicity of the killers to a coldly calculating plan to select mugshots at random so she can get away to attend a concert. But then... well, Solana shows us something about Eulària and the effect of what she's seen that suddenly puts the rest of the story in a different context.

Flesh-Coloured People is one of a group of stories subtitled Connections, which are loosely described here as "Barcelona Noir".  ("...that delinquent scenario of intrigue on seedy side streets, in warehouses on the city's outskirts or down-at-heel bars...") They are interrelated and form a larger, loose narrative. So for example the next story, The Second Mrs Appleton, is linked to Flesh-Coloured People as well as being a self-contained little tragedy of its own, turning on the relation between a British diplomat and his trophy wife. It's a sad little piece, showing neither partner in a very good light and raising sympathy for all concerned (including the first Mrs Appleton).

Happy Families and I'm a Vampire are two stories that - while not connected - share a common theme: they both explore class in a modern Catalonia that - thanks to that element of the an elements of the supernatural - literally has deep roots in the past. In one case, we have a 900 year old vampire, in the other, a family (tribe? coven?) of ghosts haunting a country mansion who have, some of them, been there for hundreds of years. In both cases, there is a struggle to come to terms with the present day. Both stories are witty and spare, allowing one to fill in the details from popular mythology and focussing on peculiar local features (like German bombing in the Civil War) that matter to the story.

Paradise Gained is another of the Connections stories, and I spotted the connection which ties together Sergi's crime boss Uncle with the earlier stories. Rather than being noir as such, Paradise Gained has a slight atmosphere of Ealing comedy as criminals try to hide a large quantity of cash. Mansion with Sea Views has a more direct connection, and brings up a theme of concealment, of long-hidden crime and of knowing where the bodies are buried which goes back to that idea of a hidden history, of crimes suppressed. Rafael is a darker figure than Sergi, more adapt at concealment, sharper to suspect, a man with secrets.

I Detest Mozart is one of the most standalone stories in this part of the book, its connection with the others being limited to two characters having a nodding acquaintance. But in its theme - the relations between men and women, secrets, the toxic politics of the Franco era poisoning the present, concealed crimes - it is squarely in line with the rest and its portrayal of an elderly widow whose life has, literally, been stolen by these things but who has created her own way of getting by - is both tender and chilling.

Birds of a Feather is also less 'connected' (I think). It's the story of six women serving time (which gave a nice resonance, for this UK reader, because of the long-running sitcom, albeit that was about prisoners' wives). The new arrival, referred to as "posh pussy", is stand-offish as well as apparently wealthy - making her an easy target, you'd think. But appearances can deceive...

Barcelona, Mon Amour and But There Was Another Solution are more closely connected both with each other and with the wider 'connection' theme, and together they represent something of a climax to the sprawling underworld theme of the collection. In Barcelona, Mon Amour a woman who has made her living as a translator for criminal syndicates is called back to Barcelona to undertake one last job, prompting her to reflect on why she ever thought she wanted to moulder in the countryside. It's as much a tribute to the life of the city as it is a perfect vignette of the gangster life. But there was Another Solution gives us almost a different view of the same events. The chief protagonists of the two stories never actually meet, but at the same time they are living around and profiting from the same events in different ways, almost a microcosm of the Connections stories as a whole.

Overall, these are excellent stories giving a very distinct view of life in the 21st century, haunted as it is by the recent and less recent past. I should also mention the translation by Peter Bush. This reads excellently in English, ranging in tone to suit the story from the slightly fatuous in the more comic of the stories to a steely note in the noirish parts.

For more information about Solana and about the book see the publisher's website here.

31 July 2018

Review - Bright Ruin by Vic James

Bright Ruin (Dark Gifts, 3)
Vic James
Pan (Macmillan), 26 July 2018
PB, 484pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a review copy of Bright Ruin (and a pretty postcard signed by Vic herself).

I sometimes get sent books for review that are later episodes in a series I haven't been reading. Generally I don't review these, for two reasons. First, who would I be reviewing for? Generally if readers are following a series they will know to read the next. People probably won't want to read the third book in a trilogy first, so I assume they will be less interested in a review of a later book than of the first.

Secondly, if I haven't read the earlier books, how will I know what to say? How to avoid spoilers for the earlier books and ignorant comments about plot points that came up in the earlier books ("Character X seems very two dimensional and engaged with those around her" when actually X suffered a terrible trauma in Book 1 and is slowly healing).

I still hold to these reasons, but am ignoring them for Bright Ruin. Not because of that postcard (or not solely because of it...) but because the synopsis of this book, and the snippets of reviews for the  earlier books, just looked so promising.

A shattered country

A world-changing magic

Magically gifted aristocrats rule Britain, and the people must serve them. But rebellion now strikes at the heart of the old order. Abi has escaped public execution, thanks to an unexpected ally. Her brother Luke is on the run with Silyen Jardine, the most mysterious aristocrat of all. And as political and magical conflicts escalate, each must decide how far they’ll go for their beliefs.

Dragons clash in the skies, as two powerful women duel for the soul of Britain. A symbol of government will blaze as it dies, and doors between worlds will open – and close forever. But the battle within human hearts will be the fiercest of all.

I'll try to avoid spoilers and ignorance (but beg forgiveness in advance if I malign a much-loved character). I hope I have something useful to say for, at least, those who haven't been following the trilogy, that might encourage them to go and read from the start (which is the right thing to do here - this isn't anything like a standalone and the story follows pretty seamlessly on from the previous book, Tarnished City).

So. Bright Ruin is set in a recognisably modern and contemporary UK. There have clearly been a few different twists to history and some names and details of buildings and locations are different, but most of what you'd expect to see is there, from tech to fashion. The big difference is that power is very much in the hands of a privileged self-serving clique who bend everything to their own advantage... sorry, I should have said, a privileged self-serving clique who use magic and bend everything to their own advantage.

Magic here is referred to as "Skill" (a nice look back to 80s slang, perhaps!) and those who have it (the so-called "Equals") boy do they think a lot of themselves. They're all Skilful this and Skilful that and Skill-filled the other, using it for power over others or simply for fun.

Oh, and they have slaves.

In this world, citizens who don't have Skill are obliged to work as slaves. I think (and this is something that, obviously, would have been explained earlier) there are limited terms for this but, still, slavery. Bad for everyone: awful for the slaves, corrupting for the masters and, even, undermining of the economy (it's pointed out here that "commoner" businesses have failed because they couldn't compete against free labour). There is a rebellion brewing against this system, but it's up against not only an authoritarian government but one backed by Skill. Much of this book is about people - both Equal and commoner - caught up in this rebellion, and that story is, very, organically one with events in the first two books which are referred back to and underlie differences in attitudes explored here.

All of that is never explained in detail, but the gist of it is clear: the trajectory of the rebellion, led by Equals, was wrong and it needs to be driven by those oppressed by the system, not by those who benefit from it, however well-meaning. The events that unfold here only back up that message (though it would be spoilers to say exactly how).

This is the part of the story concerning (mainly) Equal Midsummer Zelston (I love James' flair for names!) and commoner Abi Hadley. The viewpoint moves between characters both on the side of the rebellion and in the government, so we see the moves and counter moves in what has become a fairly desperate struggle. I enjoyed the way James gives each characters their own motivation - there are "villains" here with whom one might sympathise, to a degree, rebels with whom one might not agree, and plenty of in-between figures whose sympathies are dubious.

Prominent among this last group is Silken.  An Equal, he has high connections on the government side but who mainly seems to be interested in Skill for its own sake (and in Luke, Abi's brother). James writes well about how Skill is used, the sheer thrill and exhilaration of the thing (this is one of the reasons one might almost sympathise with Bouda Matravers, security chief in the government but who is discovering what she can do with her Skill and who thrills as she draws up water from the rivers and wells below London, almost becoming one with the city through its hidden veins). This theme bleeds into the second main thread of the story, largely featuring Silyen and Luke, which is an exploration of the origin and history of Skill. While that is, in the end, pertinent to the fate of the rebellion for much of the story it seemed like a side issue, interesting through the subject was. I think (I hope) that James might be setting up potential sequels here, involving some characters who feature relatively briefly.

Overall this was a well-written, suspenseful and engaging fantasy with credible characters and a well-developed setting. I'd strongly recommend the trilogy as a whole, if you haven't read the earlier books, and if you have but have any doubts about the conclusion, I'd say - READ THIS.

For more information about Vic James and her books, see the Pan website here.

29 July 2018

Review - The War in the Dark by Nick Setchfield

Cover by Natasha MacKenzie
The War in the Dark
Nick Setchfield
Titan Books, 17 July 2018
PB, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of The War in the Dark for review.

1963, and SIS assassin Christopher Winter is on the brink. He's caught between postwar austerity (bombed out building from the War still feature) and a 60s that has yet to begin swinging. He's a murderer, working in the service of law and freedom. It's a tangibly sooty, smoky world of depressing brownish cafes and Bakelite, set against the alluring prospect of technological white heat and progress.

But now, Winter's about to step into a war with the invisible powers, the rulers and principalities of this age, a war fought with runes and rituals and arcane knowledge that seem centuries away from satellites, nuclear weapons and computers.

It all begins with a routine job, the offing of a priest who's been selling secrets to the Russians. Winter's never killed a priest before, but why not? Things don't, though, go according to plan and soon there;s a trail of blood across London and Winter's encountering the Almost men. Convinced that he's been betrayed, he puts together what clues he can and head for Vienna...

This blend of the occult and espionage moves at a brisk pace. While it's clear there is a bigger picture, and the hints that Setchfield drops will eventually build to reveal what it is, the focus is mainly on Winter's immediate plight, hunted by all sides - the Russians, his own Service and shadowier enemies as well. There's no need, I think, to worry too yard about the trail that he's following as it leads him from one confrontation to the next - rather, one might worry about where he's going and what he will do when he gets there. Because Christopher Winter does have skin in this game, even if he doen't realise it. In fact, in a sense he is the skin in the game.

In counterpoint to Winter we also see the progress of a mysterious figure, Hart. Between them, he and Winter hold the fate of nations, of universes. But, enmeshed as they are in the rivalry between a decaying Empire and a rising Soviet Union, will they be able to do their duty - and what will that cost?

I enjoyed this mixture of treachery, blood and magic. Setchfield explores a crossover I've seen dealt with in various ways - from the World War Two sage of Ian Tregillis's Bitter Seeds trilogy to Tim Powers' Le Carre-esque Declare to Charles Stross's Laundry books, but The War in the Dark carves out its own distinctive space infused with a sense of paranoia and doubt that seems to foreshadow the domestic political chicanery of the 70s rather than the Great Game played against Russia (another way, perhaps, in which Winter is on the edge of a change).

It is an absorbing book, one which kept me guessing till the end and one which palpably creates a wider world to which I hope Setchfield can return, with or without Christopher Winter.