22 August 2017

Review - All the Wicked Girls

All the Wicked Girls
Chris Whitaker
Zaffre, 24 August 2017
PB, 433pp

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

All the Wicked Girls is described as a crime novel, and it certainly features crimes - many crimes, in fact, over and above the disappearances of young women that are the focus of the story - but it's much more than that. Indeed, the crimes(s) are perhaps more of a backdrop, a way into a wounded community and a way of understanding a cast of wounded people.

The young men, Noah and Purv, who set out to find Summer Ryan, bear wounds. So does Summer, the latest in a series of young women who have vanished, raising concerns that the mysterious abductor, "The Bird" is active again. (Or did she just run away? And if so, why?)

There is Raine, Summer's sister, who joins with Noah and Purv and, it has to be said, drives much of the search. She's determined, ruthless and, by her own estimation, not a good girl. Yet she is also self-destructive, as is Black, town sheriff of Grace, a wounded man if ever there was one, laden with guilt over the death of a friend.

A local minister, Bobby, and his wife Savannah, who lost their young boy in tragic circumstances.

Samson, an albino man tormented by his father, Bobby's predecessor.

And that's before we even get to Summer's and Raine's wild father Joe, who marches his "boys", rifles held high, onto the town square to pressurise Black; or the odious Ray Bowdoin, or Peach, the sex worker and mother of the first missing woman.

Whitaker conveys the sense of a community on the edge - hollowed out by corrosive market forces, losing jobs, blighted by drink and drugs and now, the final blow, seeing its young women disappear into the aptly named Hell's Gate National Forest. Against this background, his characters seem to struggle like flies on sticky paper. Missing Summer, who voice some of the chapters, is offered the chance of "escape" via her musical talent (her voice certainly comes over as more literate than most of the other narrators) but seems lukewarm about the idea (while clearly deeply committed to her music). I was reminded of the self destructive rage and rebellion in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the way the runner of the title throws the race rather than collude with respectable values.

Black himself, at the centre of the search for Summer, is in despair, resorting to drugs to keep going - and the townsfolk doubt both his commitment and his ability to rescue their daughters. He also has to deal with any number of raging, violent, drunk fathers, resorting to fists and boots to control their sons and daughters: any number of gun wielding men riding into town in their trucks to threaten order: any amount of swindling, bullying and blackmail. All presenting him with a truly bewildering web to unpick if he wants to solve the case.

Such progress as there is seems to come, not surprisingly, from Raine, Noah and Purv - the "adults" in the town being both more interested in locking horns than trying to find Summer and also distracted by the subsidiary rivalries and buried secrets that come to light over the course of the book. But that progress is won at a price. It's a dark and often sad story, portraying a community that seems to have nothing left except its guns and Bibles, and which sees them both as weapons. The position of women in this society is especially grim: a women's health clinic that tries to support is, in effect, declared outside the protection of the law.

The bleakness is though redeemed by the friendship - no, the love - between Noah and Purv ("we're brave and we're fierce!") and, increasingly, Raine. Despite hard, hard lives the two manage to find humour, albeit dark humour, and they look out for one another and, in searching for her sister, for Raine, too.

It's great writing, capturing the voices of the protagonists perfectly and deftly revealing the central mystery - what actually happened to Summer and the others? - only slowly, keeping the reader hooked throughout. Only one element of the story jarred. At the beginning of the book there is a storm coming. That's a bit over portentous, perhaps, but understandable: in the book Bad Things will happen, and a severe storm echoes that. However, the storm doesn't break and instead a dark cloud hovers over Grace for much of the narrative. It only covers Grace - there is a distinct boundary, so much so that one can stick one's arm in or out and see the difference. At one stage a group of searching police go in and out of Grace, passing between light and dark as they do so. The marvel draws sightseers and even TV crews until the storm does, finally, break.

Yet this cloud, which doesn't refer to anything upon which the story depends, only puzzles. Yes, it's an extended metaphor for the state of Grace (sorry, I couldn't resist that) but Whitaker's gritty writing, his empathy with his characters and his lucid dissections of their motives, fears, hopes and dreams, would easily drive the story without it.

But I'd regard that as a minor point, really. This book is magnificent and I'd strongly recommend it. - I'm off now to read Tall Oaks, Whitaker's first book.

18 August 2017

Review - The Witch at Wayside Cross

The Witch at Wayside Cross (Jesperson and Lane, Book II)
Lisa Tuttle
Jo Fletcher Books, 10 August 2017
PB, 361pp

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

Jesperson and Lane have just solved their first major case when a man bangs violently on their door - and almost immediately drops dead. The police rule death by natural causes, but the detectives are determined to find out what really happened.

Mr Manning was screaming about witches before his death....

If you loved the first Jesperson and Lane book, The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, you'll enjoy this - though Tuttle has written a rather different story, it's every bit as good.

While The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief was very much an action story with lashings of penny dreadful menace, this is a slower, more reflective book. It particularly showcases the abilities of Miss Lane: indeed, while Jesperson comes and goes on a rather erratic schedule, much of the discovery is driven by Lane and her ability to get alongside the inhabitants of the various dwellings - whether vicarage or wise woman's abode - where the clues to Mr Manning's death may be found. (My wife being a vicar, I was rather alarmed at the idea - which I think is accurate for Victorian days - that strangers could just turn up at a remote vicarage and expect to be put up!)

The story that Lane draws out is fascinating, much of the book gradually exposing the range of views that Victorians might hold on witchcraft, cunning-men, fairies and the like. The Norfolk that Jesperson and Lane visit is a mesh of rivalrous arcane practitioners with Manning himself having been involved in something called the "School of British Wisdom" whose purpose is to revive the learning of the "druids". They, and pretty much everyone else our duo meet, have all sorts of views on the so-called "screaming pits" to be found in local fields and woods, as well as different attitudes to witchcraft, whether historical or modern. The book is a reminder - like The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief - of the spread of opinion about the supernatural, and the blurred distinction between that and science, that obtained then. Like the Victorians, we're in real doubt whether or the events have a "natural" explanation (or even what that means).

The key to Manning's death is apparently located somewhere in this complex web, which also draws in a missing baby, poisonings and the "good neighbours" (nothing to do with Ramsay St). But there are many false turns, misleading theories and a startling lack of hard evidence, so it's a tough case to crack with surprises right to the end.

As I said earlier, there is less action in this story than in the previous book, and I felt at times that the conversations over tea in drawing rooms used, especially in the first half, to establish the facts of the case teeter on the edge of becoming long-winded. Teeter, but don't fall over - Tuttle avoids that, not least because alongside the investigation, there are darker veins running through the book.

First, she maps the attitude of men towards women, seeing them as means to ends, whether those are commercial, such as obtaining property, or more "spiritual". This attitude comes out quite nakedly on a couple of occasions but is always simmering away. It's something Lane is alert to, and even the presence of her friend Jesperson makes her uneasy at one point:

"His eyes glinted in the moonlight and I suddenly felt unaccountably nervous, and looked away at the empty, tree-lined road ahead".

Apart from a sense of menace, the books shows women not being listened to. Often, men whom Lane is asking question of respond to Jesperson instead, and at one point we're told, "...the men were not so ready to believe she knew what she was talking about..." These moments give the story a real bite, counterpointed, of course, by the recurring debate about witchcraft and the treatment of women regarded as witches.

As well as the treatment of gender, there are also some carefully observed class attitudes. One may draw a comparison between the treatment by the Rev and Mrs Ringer of their servant, Maria, and the superstitious attitude to the fairies (those "good neighbours"). You mustn't, you see, acknowledge or thank the fairies of they do you a good turn. Similarly, Maria's toil in the kitchen goes unremarked: when she's ill one evening and Jesperson and Lane do the work instead, nobody remarks on it. I'm reminded of George Orwell's observation of old women carrying firewood in North Africa: that it was just wood going by.

So, within this apparently charming and engaging fantasy crime novel, there is a good deal of shrewd social commentary.

Overall, a solid follow-up to The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, showing that Tuttle isn't simply planning to repeat a successful formula - popular though I'm sure that would be - but is letting this series evolve. I wonder what she'll do with it next?

16 August 2017

Review - The New Voices of Fantasy

The New Voices of Fantasy
ed Peter S Beagle and Jacob Weisman
Tachyon, San Francisco,  August 2017
PB, 336pp

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

It was fun to read a themed SFF anthology that wasn't themed, if you see what I mean - not a book about magic, ghosts, the apocalypse (given current events I'm especially glad it wasn't about that) but which still had a focus: showcasing new voices. These are writers who've perhaps had a few stories published (in the case of Rajaniemi at least, a trilogy of novels) but who are still bringing something perceptibly different to the table - whether that be content, point of view or who they are.

Of course, what you regard as "new" will depend where you've coming from and what you read. For the record, I'd only heard of three of the authors here (Wong, Gladstone and Rajaniemi) before and I'd only read one, so for me, the book presented a lot of really new stuff and I look forward to following up many of these authors. Others may have encountered more of them before, but it's such a wide ranging collection that I hope everyone will see something new or different here.

So - what of the stories? They range from the apparent simplicity of the fairy story or fable ("Duck","The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees", “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”) to knotty horror ("Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers", "The Haunting of Apollo A7LB") to fantasy romance (“The Tallest Doll in New York City”) adventure (“My Time Among the Bridge Blowers”) and all points in between. Many are multilayered, reflective stories - see for example how "Pauper Prince" and "Bridge Blowers" in particular both echo and critique the kind of story they appear, on the surface. There is a lot of dialogue with the existing body of SFF work going on here, though it doesn't stop the stories themselves being immediate, entertaining and fun.

In "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers" (Alyssa Wong) the balance of power - and danger - between Jen and the (frankly repellent) men she dates swings back and to, only made less stable by her supernatural abilities. Wong deftly wrongfoots the reader about where it is all going, creating something very disturbing indeed

"Selkie Stories are for Losers" (Sofia Samatar) plays games with the traditional selkie story, the unnamed protagonist both retelling examples of the story and embodying them (or is she?) It's a sweet, touching story in places ("Mona gets out, yanking the little piece of my heart that stays with her wherever she goes") but we don't know if there's a happy ending or not.

"Tornado’s Siren" by Brooke Bolander also has romance, and dash of humour as a tornado falls for Rhea (and why not?) Bolander makes this far fetched idea totally plausible and creates in Rhea a determined and self possessed hero who the reader is cheering on by the end. It's also pretty sharp: "You can't fall in love with destruction. What would that say about a person?"

"Left the Century to Sit Unmoved" (Sarah Pinsker) was my very favourite of these stories. It's an intensely moving, deeply imagined, account of a local place (a pool) and a custom (diving in from the top of a waterfall) that may or may not be linked to a series of disappearances - of what this means to one of the left behind, and of how the community bends and grows around the unexplained, like a tree enclosing a railing. Just mesmerising - at the same time totally mundane, and totally entrancing.

"A Kiss with Teeth" by Max Gladstone is a monster, rather than a horror, story, an imaging of how a vampire might fare in a domestic setting which - at the same time - has clever things to say about modern life, loneliness, the city... and even the plight of the overworked teacher. I don't think I'll soon forget the glimpse of tired Angela, in her one room apartment, at the end of a long day.

"Jackalope Wives" (Ursula Vernon) is another fairytale, loosely Native American in setting, almost a counterpoint to "Selkie Stories are for Losers". Here the transformed beast is rather different but the dynamic - about possession and control, about taming the wild - is the same. An old story in some ways but one that never stales.

"The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees" (E Lily Yu) reminded me of Animal Farm. It's a sort of fable, a story of bees and wasps, of colonialism, survival and evolution, very much a fable, deeply thought provoking and I think a tale one could return to again and again.

"The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate" (A. C. Wise) has  more than a dash of humour as it informs the reader of all the ways to become a homeowner. But it becomes clear that for a witch, this isn't a matter of simply paying for a house - quite apart from the attendant dangers of local prejudice (which are spelled out in an almost unbearably sad section). No, it's more like a courtship, always with the possibility of heartbreak. Funny, yes, also sad and wise.

"The Tallest Doll in New York City" by Maria Dahvana Headley is a mesmerising little love story, set, of curse, on St Valentine's Day. Note perfect, it tales an outrageous concept and makes it works so well.

"The Haunting of Apollo A7LB" (Hannu Rajaniemi) is either a ghost story, or science fiction, or probably both. Apollo A7LB is a space suit displayed in a museum, and it seems that it's not as empty as you'd think.

"Here Be Dragons" (Chris Tarry) isn't really about dragon hunting. It's about domesticity, building a life and raising kids - and maturity. And immaturity. A very odd story, a very old story in many ways but perfectly told and among my favourites here.

"The One They Took Before" (Kelly Sandoval) might be part of an emerging genre, portraying what happens after the cool events of the fantasy story. I thought of Seanan McGuire's "Every Heart a Doorway" or Alan Garner's "Boneland" - both books that, in very different ways, explore the trauma of the survivor, as Sandoval does so well here. A striking and poignant story.

"Tiger Baby" (JY Yang) is, I think, about becoming oneself - and how this might not be quite what you expect - perhaps a common theme but here it's done in such a hauntingly beautiful way while also being so prosaic, centring on the day to day details of a life. Another of my favourites here

"The Duck" (Ben Loory) is about a duck, about love, about devotion... VERY fairytalelike, very beautiful.

"Wing" (Amal El-Mohtar) is a story about books, and people, and finding the right person, and the right book. A gem, and another of my favourites.

"The Philosophers" (Adam Ehrlich Sachs) is actually three stories, which look at aspects of the father-son relationship, making metaphors literal - about communication, about identity and being your own person - and inviting the reader to really think.

"My Time Among the Bridge Blowers" (Eugene Fischer) sees an explorer - perhaps not in our world - visiting  a remote people who have an amazing talent. Can he bear to simply watch and wonder or will he interfere, setting in train future trouble for this already suffering tribe?

"The Husband Stitch"(Carmen Maria Machado) is a profound story that, slightly, broke my heart. It's a story of a life, with very little overt fantasy to it but... something... lurks in the background. One detail. One flaw in a relationship. Can you see it? Can you touch it? Will it matter, in the end?

"The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn" (Usman T. Malik) is the longest story in this book, practically a novella. It tells of a princess, a Jinn and a family legacy, drawing on a rich vein of Islamic folklore is a fresh and arresting way and using this to comment on the lives of modern-day Pakistani Americans. An absorbing story.

The collections as a whole is very strong, with something for everyone. They are all great stories, though different readers will have their favourites. Whether as a solid collection in its own right or as a sampler for these authors, I'd recommend this to anyone interested in where fantasy is going.

12 August 2017

Review - The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack

The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack
Nate Crowley
Abaddon Books, 10 August 2017
PB, 400pp

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

Schneider Wrack wakes in hell.

Then he revises his opinions; he’s on a factory ship.

Then he re-revises – this is Hell, and he’s not out of it. He is dead, and has been reborn as a zombie, condemned to work until he rots, Wrack is part of an undead workforce, slaving to carve up the great sea creatures of the planet Ocean to feed his native city, Lipos-Tholos. On decks slick with blubber, in the driving rail, they toil ceaselessly until, too decomposed to work, too cursed to die, they are left stacked in charnel heaps. All this takes place on the great ship, the Tavuto.  Lipos-Tholos has been besieged for generations and depends on the sea - and especially the Tavuto - for food.

In this far future, there has been time for humanity to spread across the planets, to form a civilization ("the lemniscatus") which is now in decay, but, in its prime, opened gates between far locations - gates forgotten to worlds forgotten, gates and worlds rediscovered and lost again. So the great whale-like creatures that Tavuto (a "nightmare in steel, floodlights and scale") hunts, disassembles and renders, flow back through the gate to whatever world that city's on - while the zombies and their human handlers face the horrors of Ocean: they have "lips like salted dogs" and experience "the piercing, ammoniac stench of a sharkmonger's stall at midsummer".

It's a very vivid, stark novel, the sights, sounds and - especially - smells being rendered viscerally. You can taste the salt, smell the decaying blubber, the fraying flesh of the zombies, feel their despair as they sink into the dark dreams that keep them under control.

But Wrack wakes from these dreams, and the first part of the story is then about how he finds himself again, striking up an improbable friendship with a woman, Mouana. There are limits to this friendship ("no point in holding hands like lovers; we're both far too rotted in the funbits to care about that") - but what they do both have an appetite for, is fighting.

So the story proceeds with Wrack's and Mouana's revolt against the powers that zombified them. It's a long road and it takes a great number of twists and turns, bringing in both Wrack's past (he may have been one of the rebels - the Pipers - who oppose Lipos-Tholos's government. Or he may be an innocent bystander) and Mouana's (spoilers!) All around are the hints of an older, higher technology – like the zombifying process – which present-day societies are clumsily trying to use.

All this leads, after many adventures, betrayals and revelations, to another world entirely, a jungle world - Grand Amazon itself, where the zombies are eaten dead by bugs and fragments of an even older civilization - the hulk of a burned out starship, a city of lizard people - loom and are then forgotten.

Only at the end of this quest, in High Sarawak, will the pair find what they need.

This book is in three parts - The Sea Hates a Coward, Fisheries and Justice and Grand Amazon - which have previously been published separately (do bear this in mind if you've read, or especially bought, them separately). I hadn't read those books so I don't know if Crowley has reworked the material at all to bring the stories together but they do read very much as a single narrative, with puzzles and mysteries from the earlier parts (such as what happened to Wrack to get him on Tavuto) explained in good time. It's an intense read, very sensual as I noted above, but also very distinctive in style, both evoking great adventure stories by writers like Rider-Haggard, Conan Doyle and, of course, in the Ocean sections, Melville and also adding a distinct sense of darkness, of unease.

All that, and this is a "zombie uprising" story told from the perspective of the zombies themselves... and it makes them sympathetic (and at times funny). It is also, though, a ruthless book, with innocent blood poured out in torrents and, for a long time, seemingly no moral centre. But do hang in there.

I don't know whether I should call this SF, fantasy, adventure, or a combination of these, or something entirely different. For me it read as very new, very different and I'd strongly recommend it.

For more info about the book, and links to buy, see here.

9 August 2017

Review - Age of Assassins by RJ Barker

Age of Assassins (The Wounded Kingdom 1)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 3 August 2017
PB, 393pp

This is a dream of what was

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

Age of Assassins, as the title suggests, is thoroughgoing fantasy. I don't normally go for cloaks, blades and so forth, so I did approach the book sceptically, but the sheer verve of the writing, the portrayal of the characters and the depth of the worldbuilding won me over - as did the taut, suspenseful plot.

Girton Club-Foot is an apprentice assassin. He can effortlessly deploy all the Iterations needed to kill (The Quicksteps, The Precise Steps, The Maiden’s Blush and so on) as well as using tricks such as The Whisper That Goes Straight to the Ear and being able to pick a lock even when balancing in a stream or ordure. He's also pretty nifty with a longsword/ stabsword combination, despite his disability.

This is all courtesy of his Master, Merela Karn, who rescued him – bought him – from a slave auction as a boy and has raised him since, providing the only home he's ever had, albeit a shifting, dangerous one, and teaching him her deadly craft. (Merela maintains there's an element of justice in the choice of their victims, but still...) The relationship between them is well done, respect mingled with (unspoken) love and an undercurrent of adolescent rebellion. I wanted to know more about them, but Barker keeps things teasingly vague and despite glimpses of backstory – how the two met, his first kill – the heart of this book is the present, as the two killers seek to infiltrate Castle Maniyadoc for their latest commission.

The world they live in is grim.

In the Tired Lands the line between villager and bandit is often drawn by the hunger of children.

The Lands suffer a blight ("souring"), apparently caused by magicians in the past: consequently, magic is persecuted and spellcasters, once captured, are literally bled dry to redeem the “soured” ground as are criminals, the old and anyone else who displeases the feudal rulers.

It's one of these rulers that Merela and Girton end up commissioned to protect, going undercover in Castle Maniyadoc to discover who is threatening Prince Aydor (this takes Girton into the heart of a group of trainee knights, a setting where he has to conceal his fighting prowess and cope with bullying and teenage rivalry). The problem is, almost everyone would be happy to see the spoiled, brattish Prince dead. Motives abound, not only personal but political, and the whole thing is complicated by the arrival of the travelling Festival which provides a cover for a multitude of killers. Oh, and a series of deaths starts which may or may not be linked to whoever is threatening Aydor.

So essentially this is a mystery story, albeit one involving some thrilling combat, the interference of dead gods, betrayals, devious politics and - in the end - a most unlikely enemy. To cap it all, Girton falls head over heels in love - his first time, distracting him from his mission. And there are secrets Merela knows about Girton that will shake his world – just as she has history which will astonish him. Will this split them apart just when they need more than ever to be able to trust one another?

Set against the background of a decaying empire (from the empty yards around the castle to the yellow, soured earth itself) and pulling no punches about the grinding oppression and misery of the feudal order, this novel skilfully avoids cliches and creates some truly great characters, friendships - and enmities.

And it's only the first confession of the murderer, Girton Club-Foot. I'm already looking forward to more.

This is a dream of what was

31 July 2017

Blogtour review - The Other Twin by Lucy V Hay

The Other Twin
Lucy V Hay
Orenda Books, 1 August 2017
PB, 260pp

I'm grateful to the publisher and to Anne Cater for a copy of the book to review and invitation to take part in the blogtour for this exceptional book.

Set in contemporary Brighton, the story opens when Poppy wakes, hungover, to a stream of messages from her distraught mother:

"I awake, ravenous, in the early evening. Winter darkness forms at the window.  Head banging, I sit up. I'm in a tangle of sheets on the floor; I've rolled off my grubby futon. As I reach for my phone, a sharp pain shoots down my neck and through my shoulders. Getting too old for this shit. 

I wear just a vest and knickers. I'm lying on a selection of condom wrappers, crisp packets, empty pizza boxes and junk food cartons..."

A strong opening, even before Poppy is plunged into the tragedy that calls her home to Brighton. A place she left four (nearly five) years ago, cutting off relationships, friendships, family and life. Going back, she has become an outsider, knowing nothing about the lives she left behind. Friends have become enemies, lovers cold, family... well her family seemed to be hurting even before the disaster.

Lucy V Hay
Before and After. Poppy delays hearing the news, knowing that her life will forever be split into these two parts. But the moment has to come, and what comes after has to come, and most of all, the question has to come.


Set over the next few weeks as Poppy abandons her life in London (which seems anyway like a makeshift thing - she'd lost her job, her flat was lousy, she seems mainly to be trying to fill a hole left when she fled Brighton four, nearly five, years ago) the story follows her attempt to understand the why and the what.

Why did her sister kill herself?

What drove her to it?

The answers lie in that networks of friends, family and enemies. A network she doesn't understand anymore. She doesn't know her sister was gay; doesn't know she kept a blog; doesn't know who the mysterious "Jenny" is who seemed to be her sister's closest friend.

The upset and overturning of Poppy's previous life is symbolised by her tempestuous relations with Matthew, her ex lover, who she abandoned four, nearly five years ago. He seems to despise her now, but they do meet up and they do have sex... but for Poppy it's different, she's not in control any more. These passages were some of the most unsettling in what was for me a very dark book, centring on identity, control and manipulation.

That theme arises especially in the cryptic chapters describing characters who are never named - a man, a woman, a boy - but who seem to be under the sway of a practiced manipulator, one who pulls strings and pushes buttons so get what they want. The degree of tension - the idea that someone may be marked for death - reminded me at times of Brighton Rock, with the town again a hunting ground and a sinister game being played out.

It isn't exactly like that - but there are definite resonances of Greene's book, not least in the sinister domestic side of this story and in the way that the city itself almost becomes a character in the story - a sense of rackety amusements and unabashed pleasure seeking but perhaps with a darker side. It is perhaps a slightly changed city these days, a more open city and all the better for that. But as this story shows, secrets still abound and they can fester and cause harm.

A distinctively different modern psychological thriller, and a cracking read.

30 July 2017

Sunday Special No 4 - Change and decay...

Warning: I'm not a historian, a linguist or a proper archaeologist and anyone who is may be irritated by my ramblings below. You have been warned.

I am interested in how changes happen, how the world goes from one thing to another and at what point you can suddenly say "Ah, the X era has ended and the Y era has begun!"

Except that I think often, you can't say that.

As both my dedicated readers will know, I spent a week recently helping on an archaeological dig. The site in question - Roman Dorchester on Thames - is especially interesting because it seems to have been in use relatively late in the Roman period, and soon after.

I find this transition fascinating. In the decades before 410CE you have most of Britain as part of the Roman Empire, as part of a wider political unit with long distance trade, cultural diversity (there was!) and industry (large scale pottery manufacture, mining and agriculture). Some decades after, what became England is divided in the nascent Anglo Saxon kingdoms and all of the above has gone.

In between we have the Groans of the Britains pleading for intervention to help repel the fearsome invading Picts and Scots. (On this occasion, Britain didn't choose to leave the Empire, rather the Empire could no longer afford to support it).

Dating things in that period is difficult as much of the cultural evidence - things like pottery and coins - used for this becomes rare. Despite this, the older label for the period - Dark Ages - is very unfair, there are beautiful artefacts from the period and people certainly didn't just sit around in the mud all day. Nor does the 1066 And All That version that all the Romano Britains were replaced by Angles, Saxons and Jutes seem to be completely accurate, rather it seems that much of the population stayed where they were, just getting new rulers and, in time, a new language (there's evidence that English picked up bits of structure from Welsh, presumably as people learned the speech of their rulers).

So probably, little suddenly changed for the people living in Roman Dorchester on Thames. Perhaps, year on year, there were fewer orders for pottery. Coinage became rarer. There were troubling stories of raiding parties and wars. There certainly Germanic Feoderati around, perhaps employed by the local magnates to keep the peace and replace the troops who had vanishing over the past few decades.. But the harvest had to be got in and the fields ploughed. Then perhaps one day a traveller appeared and announced that the territory was now ruled by a new King. And a century or so later, one of those English Kings was baptised in the town.

My point is that nobody at the time noticed anything big changing overnight.

My wife is a vicar in a group of rural parishes in Oxfordshire. We have been in a couple of parish groups, each composed of a cluster of churches. Often these churches are the last public building in the village, kept going by the dedicated effort of a small group of parishioners, with small congregations except at Christmas, Easter and Harvest. Such is the rural church in the early 21st century - I'm not complaining about it - but you can see in those churches that they were once busy places with choir stalls, bellringers, Sunday Schools, newsletters, Banns (announcements of weddings) being read out. Often, now, there simply aren't enough people to keep all this going. Like Roman Britain, things have shifted, but not overnight.

In 2016, the two leading English speaking countries, the UK and the USA, took political decisions that nobody expected. For me, the decision by the UK to leave the EU has strange echoes of 410CE and the the new US President (whose name I'm not even going to mention) has strange echoes of one of those reviled Roman Emperors who Edward Gibbon excoriates and blames for the corruption and eventual fall of the Empire.

I gather that, again, the idea of a simple fall isn't actually right, we tend to like discussing things as though you can make clear distinctions between periods of time and I wonder if in 2117 or 2500 or even 4000, historians will pinpoint 2016 as when that global Anglo-Saxon/ English civilization which (presumably) got going in the years following 410 stopped being a world force? (Way past time, you might think, given much of our dubious record).

You don't notice things like that until later, everyone carries on doing what they always did, but still... I do think there's something in the air.

29 July 2017

Review - The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne

The Upstairs Room
Kate Murray-Browne
Picador, 27 June 2017
HB, 369pp

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

It was there from the beginning...

The Upstairs Room successfully marries the grammar of classic horror with a very modern story of restless, slightly over privileged adults toying ("struggle" would be putting it a bit strongly, I think) with the dilemmas of work, sex, childrearing and - the great topic of the day - house prices, in an up-and-coming part of London.

There's no view of the wider world, of diversity, Brexit or (barring a pervasive background of student debt) poverty. Rather the world is focussed down upon one particular house, the house Richard and Eleanor, with their two young children, have taken on. The reader is aware from the start of this dichotomy, of the real challenges that the characters face in their world.

Because the house Litchfield Road is a dispiriting place. Murray-Brown has a knack for unsettling with the ordinary, piling up the details of a house sticky from being over-lived in, full of someone else's dubious furniture. Like putting on someone else's unwashed clothes, there's a sense of unease, a sense the house isn't empty. And that's before strange things even start to happen.

Murray-Browne is clear from the start - though her characters don't know - that some of these things aren't mysterious at all. Living in the basement is lodger Zoe (a wonderfully realised character, slightly obsessive, drifting through life, not really wanting to be entangled with another boyfriend (except when she does) but missing the the sex the last one brought) and one subplot of this novel focuses on the way that Zoe invades Eleanor and Richard's space, and the way he invades hers. There are some really creepy moments as he prowls her rooms while she's out. As a result, things are left out of place, and noticed. Does this explain all of the mystery, all of the unease? Murray-Browne isn't clear, but I'd say probably not.

Is Richard obsessed with Zoe? Perhaps. Does that drive the plot? Not really. Like many themes it's there, but we never, perhaps, glimpse the edges or quite fathom the depths. The same is true of the girl Emily, the previous occupant of the upstairs room itself, about whom we learn a little, slowly, but never everything. (I'll come back to Emily in a moment).

Indeed, much of what we are told in this story - in agreeable digressions ranging back over the earlier lives, especially the love lives, of the central characters - isn't directly about the present day story at all. What it does do, though, is establish the odd trio - as well as Zoe's shifty maybe-boyfriend, Adam ("She liked sex and she liked being in his flat more than in her own and she liked the way he touched her hair. She just wouldn't particularly want to go on a long train journey with him") - as curiously, well, stuck people. They are all trying to be something, with varying degrees of success (of success in realising themselves, that is - Richard and Eleanor are quite successful in worldly terms, though still crushed by the burden of buying and doing up a 4 bedroom central London house). In a sense all are people who have drifted into their current lives, relationships, jobs, and making little progress in setting their own direction (Richard's ineffectual MA studies counterpoint the narrative). It creates a claustrophobic atmosphere: the stickiness of the house could represent a metaphorical stickiness, as if everybody here is stuck down by flypaper in an elaborate trap. There is no initiative. Moving into a dilapidated house, Richard and Eleanor - especially him - meant to clear it out and renovate, but, despite endless planning, almost nothing happens. Even the squalid old furniture is retained. Maybe that green wallpaper really is arsenicated, is really acting like flypaper?

Richard's MA founders, Zoe plays at being a writer but regrets walking out of her office job to work in an art shop, Eleanor suffers debilitating headaches and nausea in the house and feels as though she isn't quite there, and the children begin to act oddly. Is something sapping the will, undermining the inhabitants of the house - or is this just the logic of their lives?

The book is nicely written and contains some sharp observations on middle-class life ("Rob keep wanting to do things like go to the theatre and they did a couple of times, but it really fucked up your evening") ("You make money teaching people how to make money as an artist?") as well as ranging over an impressive gallery of characters besides the main three (or four) - my favourite was Laura, Zoe's self consciously Bohemian friend (and there is some history between her and Zoe that's never quite brought into focus but I'm sure is key to understanding Zoe) but Richard's ghastly parents are also fun, in a perverse way.

It is, in the end, an entertaining, knotty story, albeit one that perhaps takes a little while to get under way: for me the pace of reading picked up around a third of the way through and then the pages flew by. The exact boundary between the ordinary and the supernatural is never mapped out, attempts to address it resulting in failure, with only partial explanations offered, focussed on the unfortunate girl Emily. This was one aspect I felt was a little lacking. When Emily appears - and like other features of the book, her history is tantalisingly vague - I was expecting to hear she'd been diagnosed with autism (my daughter has autism, and I recognised this straight away) and that she and her family were receiving some support. When this didn't happen I wasn't sure whether to take this as a deliberate feature, a sign that they were exceptionally disconnected from the modern world - stuck, perhaps, like Richard, Eleanor and Zoe - or whether this was simply a slip in the otherwise excellent writing and research.

I don't want to dwell too much on that one point, this is a fine, unsettling piece of modern horror which engages us with its - not always sympathetic - characters and makes them genuinely interesting. I think Murray-Brown's eye for character, and ear for dialogue, are exceptional and I look forward to reading more by her soon.

27 July 2017

Review - Raid by K S Merbeth

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
K S Merbeth
Orbit, 27 July
PB, 350pp

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

Merbeth returns to the world of Bite with another  story set in the Wastes. Years after the bombs fell, this part of the US (and, we infer, the world) is a barren, scorched landscape where nothing will grow. The survivors are either “townies”, huddling together in desperate attempts at defence, or “raiders”, stealing from the townies.

The worst of the raiders are "sharks", who see townies and raiders alike as nothing more than meat. (Yes, this book contains cannibalism).

In this world, a bottle of clean water or a tin of food is wealth, as is a knife, a good gun or a stash of ammunition. Clementine is good at getting all of these: a bounty-hunter, driven by the pursuit of revenge against the raiders who burned her town and killed her parents, she works for desperate townies, taking out the worst of the raiders - for a fee. And she's very good at what she does.

The story follows straight on from the events described in Bite, but it's not really a sequel and features a very different protagonist from Kid, Dolly Tank and Wolf. Focussed on Clementine, it's more single-minded, getting under her skin and exploring the effect on her of a hard life and showing what that life has made her.

In this story, Clementine takes on a commission to hunt down the worst, most feared raider king, the famous Jedediah Johnson himself, about whom many tales are told. Acting on inside info, she finds a way into his base. But has she bitten off more than she can chew? Can she get out again - and if she does, is there anyone who would dare pay out on him, and can she find them before Johnson’s vengeful crew track her down?

And - most puzzling question of all - who wants Jedediah taken down?

A bloodstained roadtrip through the Wastes beckons, featuring some memorable violence, gut-wrenching betrayals and one of the most nihilistic settings I’ve ever come across. It’s basically a Western but with everything dead or waiting to die. Great reading if you aren’t worried about there being hope, and Clementine is a spiky, scary protagonist who can – just – make the reader sympathise with her, despite the things she does.

It’s best, I think, not to dwell on the logistics of Merbeth’s world – with (presumably) a finite amount of food, water and ammo left from Before, life here (and death) really is a zero-sum game, what’s left of humanity basically a pack of rats fighting over dwindling stocks. “You’re all dead” the reader may wish to shout at the characters when the action slows “what’s the point?”

But the action doesn't slow often, and the sheer pace and zing of the storytelling carries you through on the rare occasions when it does. A breathtaking read, best done in one go. (Just take a careful look the next time you eat a nicely cooked bit of meat...)

26 July 2017

Review - Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
Strange Practice (Greta Helsing No 1)
Vivian Shaw
Orbit, 27 July 2017
PB, 353pp
Cover and design by Will Staehle

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

For me, this was one of those knock out, near perfect books that - in any genre - comes along all too rarely. This time it's urban fantasy, but urban fantasy as seldom seen: smart, grounded, fresh and funny. As if to underline the difference, the cover itself is strange and beautiful. It's woodcut-y, stylised, with a touch of the macabre medieval - but modern detail in the background, as if one of those broadsides from the days of the Great Plague had come back to haunt us. (Once you've read this book you'll beleiev it might).

Excellent, unearthly work from Will Staehle who I last spotted illustrating this.

Strange Practice introduces us to Dr Greta Helsing, doctor to the monsters of London. Whether she's preparing surgery on a mummy whose bones are showing 2,000 years of wear (the proper spells will be used, naturally), treating a baby ghoul for an ear infection or, indeed, helping the leader of the ghoul tribe with his depression, Greta is there, dedicated to her patients, doing the job she loves, carrying on her father's work. She is a doctor, and monsters are, as she explains at one stage to a troubled vampire, people.

Ah. Vampires. Van Helsing and vampires. That must be the, er, meat of the story? Stakes, garlic and deserted churchyards? Because in this book we have not only vampires but, indeed, vampyres as well. (The difference is the diet).

Actually, no. Greta's relationship with Ruthven (he prefers you drop the "Lord") and (Sir Francis) Varney is civilized, professional and respectful. Her relationship with old friend of the family and former demon Fastitocalon is tender. These are, as I said, people and Shaw is excellent at portraying a whole society, by necessity a shadowy and secretive one (the threat of pitchforks and flaming torches is never far away) but complete in itself, a vital part of London and with its own pulse, its own hierarchy, its own personalities. You sense all that just as you sense modern London too.

Greta is unusual in being a normal human who inhabits this world, but she's not the only one. We also meet Cranswell, researcher at the British Museum (useful) who with Greta, Ruthven, Varney and Fass, is going to take on something rather nasty and rather unusual in this book. And Greta has a couple of assistants who help out with her practice - one of them a witch.

Because the balance between monstrous and mundane London has been upset by a series of killings of both humans and monsters. The threat is coming closer and closer to home. As with the monsters, and with Greta, Shaw sketches a frighteningly plausible brood of troublemakers, determined to upset the harmony of a diverse London, and whom our new friends must confront.

And behind them is something even worse.

The resulting story is just right - it has tension where it's needed, a dash of humour, it doesn't take itself too seriously and it takes an honest look at the difficulties such a varied group of beings would encounter (in particular there's a real touch of sadness about Varney, who is pretty hard on himself and sees nothing good in his life). And it's a well-plotted, satisfying mystery too.

Along the way, Shaw nods to some classic vampire (and vampyre) literature - Dracula, obviously, but also the writings of Polidori and others, taking characters from earlier books which then become backstory (you can do this with Victorian classics if your protagonists are near immortal bloodsuckers!) That helps to round out her characters and give a sense of reality outside this book.

So, a rollicking adventure with real substance, rooted enough in the traditions of the genre to have real weight, while also firmly located in the modern world. Combine this with sharp writing and great characters and - since this is described as the first Greta Helsing novel - you have what promises to be a great series.

Oh - and there's a real surprise towards the end, when a most unexpected character turns up who will, I suspect, be back...

23 July 2017

Sunday Special No 3: We dig, dig dig...

I've had a week off from my normal job at the Circumlocution Office, leaving the colleagues to wrap things in red tape and generate memos in triplicate.

Instead, I've been digging up Roman Dorcester on Thames  - my third year there. I've never studied archaeology, though it's something that has almost interested me. (When I was at school I volunteered to help out in a resistivity survey of Vale Royal Abbey - the technique was in its infancy then, rather than the sophisticated stuff you see on Time Team we had to record the readings in a notebook and then type then into an Oric-1 compute to generate an image.)

What I've been doing at Dorchester is volunteering to help with a long running project to understand better the development of this Roman town, and especially its transition into the later medieval town. Dorchester was once a very important place - it had its own Abbey, its own saint, and the Saxon King Cynegils was baptised there. The Roman town lay on the road between Alcester and Silchester (and as a coin dating to around 72AD was found last week under the road, we now know the road was built after that).

The volunteers on the project include local residents like me, people doing various extra mural archaeology course including at Oxford, more conventional students and others - we're a very eclectic lot. I just wanted to get involved and I've found it great fun doing something totally different from my normal life, being outside and getting some exercise (my FitBit got very excited) and - best of all - not being in charge. (Encouragingly, my knees didn't ache as much this year as the past two so all the exercise dogwalking seems to be paying off).

I always seem to have good luck with the rain on these weeks, and apart from one iffy morning there was no time lost this year (and that was because of overnight rain which made the clayey site rather treacherous - we were all set to cleaning finds while things dried out). But on Saturday the skies opened and it rained all day, so the timing was very, very good. (The site is covered over and filled in again to protect it till next year: I am glad I didn't have that job to do).

Yes, David, I hear you ask. That's all very well, but what did you FIND? The answer is - this year - not that much, plenty of pottery and bone and a few Roman nails. The interest was mainly focussed on resolving which bits of coloured earth overlay which other bits, as part of establishing a detailed sequence for the site and (eventually) working out what was going on. So I was doing things like taking away a brown deposit which overlay an orange deposit and then helping to record the result. This is where my lack of training kicks in - there were supervisors who understood the techniques in play (such as when to decide that the context had changed) and I just did as I was told.

That isn't to say nothing out of the ordinary turned up - there were several Roman brooches found, for example, as well as some lovely bits of pottery, one quite early and with a maker's stamp.

As well as digging, we also had some lectures/ talks ranging from the practical (archaeological photography, processing of finds) to the theoretical (how the modern view of the Roman countryside and its occupants is coloured by centuries of modern prejudice against peasants, for example - that one was VERY thought provoking, given by a research student working on the subject and I'll be interested to see what comes of the whole idea).

So, a week of sun (mainly), moving earth, plentiful teabreaks (VERY important) and moments of excitement).

I took some pictures and here are my highlights.

The site overall. The heap of soil at the back came out of here and everything removed had to be wheelbarrowed to the top!

In the middle is the pit in which I spent most of the week. The brown blob in the centre is where I was digging for the last two days. The north-south road runs across the far side (north is left, as is modern Dorchester).

I found this on Thursday just before the end of the day and had to leave it overnight. I got very excited - might it be a complete pot with something interesting inside?

Well, might it?

Er, no. Just a broken rim.

I found that broken rim towards the top of this photo, which shows the orange underlying the brown fill (you just see the change in the section across the middle)

Moving on and turning round 180 degrees: I didn't dig this bit, it's the very bottom of the site, where after several years, natural gravel has been reached. Note all the labels which tag the different contexts - supervisor stuff...

Coda: this was the site two days later, on Sunday 23rd. Ready for the spoil to go back in, protecting everything till Spring. (Note Portaloos, tool shed and site office in the background).

21 July 2017

Blogtour review - Corpselight by Angela Slatter

Corpselight (Verity Fassbinder book 2)
Angela Slatter
Jo Fletcher Books, 13th July 2017
PB, 379pp

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

Verity Fassbinder, introduced in Vigil, is part Weyrd (on her father;'s side - her mother was a Normal). So she can duck in and out of both Brisbane's, er, special and its mundane populations, as comfortable dealing with one of the Norns (they do a mean latte) as with a police officer. This is useful since she's employed to keep order in the Weyrd community and prevent their existence becoming too widely known.

Verity is a noteworthy character, a woman who willing to keep a godslaying knife that's the property of the Boatman (he who carries dead souls to oblivion) and to face off with a rogue angel. But she still has a home life to manage: there are complications in this book because she's now heavily pregnant and begins to give birth at a key moment. Slatter successfully combines the details of parenting a new born baby with Verity's monster-hunting career, creating some humour on the way (the detail of Verity's breast pump!) but also prompting her to reexamine her own difficult relationship with her parents. (I say "difficult" - in fact V's mother disappeared and her father was subsequently discovered to be a butcher, serving up children as meat to the more traditional of the Weyrd). Naturally, when Verity wonders, she acts... and we learn rather more about her family background than we previously knew

Which is just as well.  Amidst Verity's focus on her own newly enlarged family, as well as her search for the person or being who's drowning random strangers on dry land and engulfing a nice lawyer's house in mud, that past suddenly poses very urgent questions. And it isn't just about her. Verity learns new things about her closest associates too. It's spectacularly badly timing, just when she needs to concentrate on other things, but life's like that in Verity's world.

I really enjoyed this second book in the series, possible slightly more than the first (which WAS great mind you!) The setting and characters are now firmly established, and Slatter has scope to go a bit deeper and confront V with some real challenges - challenges that can't just be settled with a knife, however epic a knife it may be. We see her under pressure, and we see her having to think on her feet.

Most of all, though, we see her cool, shrewd, never short of a pithy remark or thought ('Mummy spit for the win", 'Afternoon tea was being served - because what is a council of war without the beverage of the Empire?', 'Your heart is in a Hello Kitty box?') and we see her refuse to lower her standards or compromise. That moral core is something very special in Verity's world, I think, and it helps define her character and make her almost like the hero in a noirish thriller: walking those mean streets although she is not herself mean. (Though Slatter gives Verity stable relationships rather than the raddled life of the over-committed detective - she's a rounded character not a cliche.)

It's a most enjoyable and slightly unusual UF, with lots of scope for more (Verity on a Quest) as well as more to learn about her background and associates. A good followup to Vigil.

For more about the book, see here.

You can buy it at your local bookshop or here, here or here.

17 July 2017

Review - All Good Things by Emma Newman

Image from http://diversionbooks.com/
All Good Things (The Split Worlds, 5)
Emma Newman
Diversion Books, 6 June 2017
PB, 357pp

I bought this book from my local independent bookshop.

This is the 5th and final part of Emma Newman's Split Worlds sequence (quintology?)

Across the previous four, she has spun an extraordinary number of stories and deployed many characters (a list might have been helpful by this stage!) Tying everything together would be a formidable challenge for any author. Doing so - as Newman does in All Good Things - while still keeping the story fresh and maintaining a sense of narrative drive must have been even harder. Yet All Good Things succeeds triumphantly. The book moves closes in on its climax like an ocean liner chasing down the Blue Riband, Newman wringing every last drop of emotion - triumph, despair, rage, fear, acceptance - from both characters and reader. While it's tightly plotted throughout, new elements continue to appear. This series has not has tired itself out, the writing continues to dazzle and the description of Exilium (Newman's fairyland) is seriously haunting and beautiful.

The book goes to some very dark places indeed - including long sections narrated from Will's point of view. We readers have now long known - and Cathy learned at the end of the previous book - that he's a liar, a murder and a rapist, having used magic to obtain her compliance wish his wishes. He continually makes excuses, but it's hard to sympathise with him (and nor should we). Yet this story demands that we stay with him, that, to a degree, we understand him. It's very uncomfortable in places yet makes the book very raw (at the same time we are also seeing Cathy's point of view, with her outrage, shock and PTSD. Rest assures she directs some choice swearing at Will...) 

That isn't the only dark aspect. There are several deaths here, including those of well established characters. I felt that in a couple of instances these were handled a bit briefly and at arm's length, but possibly it reflects a desire not to dwell too much on suffering: the fact of what happened remains in the story and perhaps we don't need detail (in both cases the context of the deaths added to the shock - sorry if that sounds a bit convoluted: spoilers).

The redemption, though, is that, for the first time in the series, Cathy is fully aware of what's been done to her and of the realities behind the Fae, the Arbiters and the Elemental Court. And therefore for the first time she is able to fully match herself against her enemies (both persons and things) by practicing magic herself: relentless angry sweary sorceresses FTW! So in All Good Things we get the confrontations and conflict that we've been waiting for - and perhaps a sense of release that very distantly echoes Cathy's sense of liberation. It's been a long time coming but the wait was worthwhile.

Some thoughts on the series as a whole may be in order. I think these books are not only a terrific example of storytelling but, with its completion, we can now see that the books are also very important in the present moment of SFF storytelling. Newman has taken an old fantasy idea - the possibility of a fairyland and of dealings with those who live in it - and upended things, creating a mythology of sorts, and one that doesn't retread tired ideas about princesses, princesses and magic. Instead her theme is power: individual power, power structures and our relationships and responses to them. The books explore a number of possible reactions to the codified privilege embodied in the Spilt Worlds - acquiescence, quiet dissent, collaboration (get to the top and then we'll sort things out - Will's self justifying refrain right to the very end), more or less polite agitation and, in this book, an additional option, burning the whole place down. (But what then?) 

It's clear that, by this point, nobody's hands are totally clean (though some are dirtier than others), nobody has a certain answer, and nobody really knows what's going on. To a degree everyone here is a victim, but that doesn't make them all innocent.

That's not only true of the Fae and the puppets of Society - it applies too to the resource barons of the Elemental Court where Sam faces the same dilemmas as Cathy, to the Arbiter Max and his Gargoyle and to the Sorcerors as well. (Let me just taken a few moments to appreciate how Newman also twists the trope of the bluff, no nonsense industrialist - that would be Lord Iron - in contrast to the foppish toffs (the Fae touched).

What's the answer? Not an easy one, I'm afraid. Newman shows courage I think in even raising these issues - this definitely isn't escapist fantasy - and it would be wrong to expect her to announce an entire political platform as well. Truth, friends and courage feature: as Cathy goes into her future at the end of the book it's clear that more challenges are ahead and that she will need all those. A "Happily ever after" is far from certain, although taking command of one's own life is a beginning.

In short: I loved this book, and the whole sequence. The writing starts good and gets better and better and the books deserve a wide audience. I'm grateful to Emma for writing them - I hope they find and delight many, many readers for a long time to come.

You can buy the book here or here

13 July 2017

Review - The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
The Delirium Brief
Charles Stross
Orbit, 13 July 2017
HB, 435pp

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

What can I say? Strauss's Laundry series gets better and better with each volume.

The Laundry is the section of the British Civil Service that deals with funny business - monsters, magic and unspeakable beings from beyond the stars. The books are, if you like, techno thrillers - if your tech is necromancy, and the thrills come from abstract maths.

In the latest book, we see the aftermath of the attack on Leeds by an elven host in The Nightmare Stacks. And if that was a spoiler then stop now and go and read the earlier books - you shouldn't be here. If you read any further your eyeballs will catch fire, unless you've applied the correct wards, OK?

Now, assuming you haven't been blasted into another universe which has too many corners, I'll continue.

This is the eighth volume in the series (with a few novellas and short stories besides) and what strikes me is how the storytelling has evolved, in two ways.

First, the theming of the books. Beginning as brilliantly written pastiches of different espionage authors, the series then moved onto books each featuring a well known fantasy creature. It has now dropped the pastiche/ monster of the day thing - fittingly, since the Laundry is exposed to its enemies as never before and confronting a new level of threat. It's time to come out in the open.

Secondly, the books have also shed what was very characteristic wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels plotting, where every paragraph seemed to hint at a secret, for something a little more straightforward. There are still of course plot twists, and indeed deeply shocking reverses and hidden agendas, but it's a little more "what you see is what you get" with the psychic space thus cleared allowing a greater focus on character (Mo and Bob are one of the great couples of modern fantasy: genuinely real, fleshed out people, albeit with bizarre problems) and on how those characters shape up in view of the coming threat.

The trademark cynical humour is still there, but accompanied now perhaps by a new, sober mood. In my view, it's this ability and willingness to shift tone that keeps this series fresh despite its now considerable length.

This book also brings together for the first time most of the character ensemble which has been forming over the last few volumes - so we meet againAlex and Mhari, the blooddrinking ex-bankers, maniac pixie dream girl Cassie who is dread leader of the aforementioned elven Host, as well as Persephone Hazard (Hooray!) and her sidekick Johnny. There are also several other figures from Bob Howard's past who I won't name (spoilers: but also, something may be listening).

Best of all, we see Mo again and we're back inside Bob's nightmare-haunted mind. Darkness is gathering, and business he thought dead and buried - or at least safely thrust into a cursed dimension - comes back for revenge. Exposed to Government displeasure and a hostile Press storm (there is a very funny passage in which Bob Does Media, specifically Newsnight) the Laundry has for the first time to account for itself. Having had dealings with the eldritch bodies that hold HMG accountable, I smiled to see our favourite necromancers, for the first time, come up against little things like democratic accountability and the need for things to be seen to be done.

It's all, of course, in service of a deeply threatening move by a sinister cult, and they should have seen it coming, but the sheer speed of events puts our heroes on the back foot very quickly. Stross gets some digs in here at the outsourcing process: underfund something, make the service bad, then invite in the boys and girls with the spreadsheets to cream off the work, making a fortune in the process.

If only that were the worst threat here.

By the end of this book we've seen Bob - and Mo - and all the rest pushed to the edge, in several ways, personal as well as professional, and - again on both fronts - there is a real sense of peril which isn't tidied away neatly on the last page. This is certainly the darkest Laundry book yet - despite the vein of humour that does run through it - and in its writing, I'd say, easily the most assured.

And the timing couldn't be better. The books shows a trusted Government organisation seriously challenged by flaky and dangerous outsiders. The organisation we depended on to keep us safe is vulnerable to subversion from above, by the arrogant, the greedy, the stupid. Does that remind you of anything? And more, at a stroke, the Laundryverse becomes a grimmer place - through this series, despite the grim warnings of unspeakable horror, we have perhaps come to see the Laundry as if not a certain shield, a pretty good one. Now... well, read the book and see for yourself.

In passing, I smiled that - despite what I said above - there is a little bit of classic spy fiction resonance here, in that parts of it reminded me of George Smiley & Co running their clandestine operation against the mole-infested Circus from a grubby hotel.

Stross has said that he'll never do Le Carre in this series, and yet...

You can read a sample of the book here.

11 July 2017

Review - The Rift by Nina Allan

Image from titanbooks.com
The Rift
Nina Allan
Titan Books, 11 July 2017
PB, 418pp

I'm so grateful to Titan for an advance copy of this book, which was one of my most anticipated of 2017 after Allan's stunning The Race last year.

The books have some similarities. Like The Race, The Rift is complex in form - the story is told both through viewpoint narratives and through interpolated artefacts: letters, lists, newspaper articles, school essays, bits of stories, diaries. These aren't all written by the main characters, so for example we get a section from the diary of a specialist metallurgist who's consulted about an item of jewellery, giving a shrewd sidelight on one of the main characters.

Like The Race, this book centres on a disappearance: Julie, elder sister of Selena, goes missing from the North Cheshire village of Lymm in the mid 90s. Nearly 20 years later, she turns up again and the heart of the book is the section describing what happens then as Serena attempts to make sense of what happened.

It's a shifting, teasing story. There are issues of identity. Is it really Julie? She tells a fantastic story about what happened to her, but it's a very partial story. Apparently Julie stepped in a blink from the banks of Hatchmere, a lake in Delamere Forest some way from Lymm, to an alien planet, Tristane. But almost immediately this clarity begins to wash out. Julie poses two mysteries: the craziness of her story but also the fact that the account given hardly covers a few weeks of the time she was missing.

A lot has been missed out, one feels, is being hidden, even as Allan relishes the opportunity to sketch the geography, history and society of Tristane.  Indeed there's enough material there for whole volumes of a more conventional )and conventionally narrated) SF saga - the strange, mind eating parasites, the abandonment of travel to nearby planets, the thousands of years of history, the suspicion of a coverup - but I think making it into that would be waste: instead Allan presents this material in fragmentary form, scattered through the book, and it seems more real than any spacefaring epic I've read.

At the same time, the loss of Julie brings to a head a crisis in her family, making visible faultlines already there. Allan's writing is never more beautiful than picking apart the impact on father, mother, daughter - the guilt, the wondering what really happened, the dislocated lives, the need both to go on living and to not give up hope. In the course of this Allan explores - again almost in passing but never superficially, never without respect - the other lives touched, such as the teacher who befriended Julie, was hounded by the press and whose story ends up turned into a novel, extracts of which are quoted. There's a weird foreshadowing of this in a character introduced early on who seems to be going to play a significant part in the book but, after a tragedy, is barely heard of again. And yet, there are hints about him, echoes of him and his life in other parts of the book, other characters and other scenes. Somehow it is, I think, all part of a whole - something also glimpsed in the resonances between different parts of the story (such as Julie's using the word "temple" for Coventry Cathedral, inviting a comparison with her description of those in the Tristanian city of Firby.

Alongside Julie's and Selena's parents, there is also a focus on another tragic couple, Cally and Noah, with whom she seems to belong in Tristane (but is the Julie of Tristane the same person as the Julie of Earth? Is one dreaming the other and, if so, which is which?) Again, little is said explicitly about their situation though Allan is marvellous at implying things via a few words via behaviour such as Noah's endless nighttime expeditions.

It's an entrancing, audacious book. Somehow the games with language and setting reminded me of another book - M John Harrison's Viriconium. It's less in the subject matter or setting but more the way that Allan seems to create, almost, a body of myth in this book - a deposit of stories around a central theme but not all consonant, sometime contradicting one another but, by their separateness, actually supporting one another. (I note in passing that Harrison uses many placenames from the North West of England in those stories, Lymm included, and locates parts of at least one in Manchester).

It's also book that can't really be captured in a few words. The Rift put me in mind of a Kaleidoscope, perhaps, or of washing going round in a machine: all the colours and shapes are there but one can't quite see how they relate to each other. It works, though. I think, at a different level from a logical, unfolding story, those pieces assemble themselves, somehow. If you've ever tried to imagine a 4D object, you may see what I mean. You literally can't imagine the whole, but you can model it, capture it your mind at some other level. In the same way, this story comes together such that even the most improbable seeming details fit and make a mind of sense. In the same way, Selena's acceptance and rejection of Julie, and the response of Julie's mother Margery, and some of the other discoveries in this books, do click into place.

I see this as very much a 21st century equivalent to those stories of children being carried off by the fairies and returning years after, unable to explain where they've been, unable to be in the society they left, unable to go back. At the same time it's also very preoccupied with modern problems, with relations between parents and children/ teenagers, with shifts in loyalties and "growing up", with lonely people making their own worlds for themselves - or trying to.

Finally, is this book perhaps to some degree a comment on or response to Boneland, the recently published third part of Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen trilogy? Both concern the aftermath of losing a sister, both look to the stars for explanation, both focus on the Cheshire meres and seem to speak of sacrifice, sacred landscape and mystery.

A magnificent achievement, and a book to go back to again and again, I think.

10 July 2017

Review - Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente

Ten Dead Comedians
Fred Van Lente
Quirk Books, 11 July 2017
HB, 288pp

I'm grateful to Quirk Books for an advance copy of this.

Ten Dead Comedians is an ingenious and entertaining take on Agatha Christie's well-known mystery And Then There Were None (successfully dramatised on BBC TV at Christmas 2015). (This was the story that was originally published under a different title, unquotable today although closer to Van Lente's).

Basically, ten guests are invited to a remote island by a mysterious patron. They come because they are led to expect some benefit: they stay because escape is impossible - and one by one, they die. We know all that beforehand, and if we've read Christie, we may also think we know why this is happening and what the outcome will be.

The questions are, who is doing the killing and why, and can any of the guests survive? As that is unravelled we learn more about each guest and their history and why someone may wish them dead.

Van Lente has perhaps put himself at a disadvantage because so much is known or may be inferred from Christie's work, but of course he has also given himself the option of either confirming her structure or undermining it. And he claims another advantage by making his collection of mostly unappealing guests comedians. A problem with this template for a book is that you have ten main protagonists. For the reader to "get" the book they need to be well realised, and quickly. The comedy angle gives an immediate way in because by including or describing their various acts, Van Lente can sketch his characters very efficiently and effectively. In other words the presence of the comedy material - in very different forms - isn't just a fun bonus to this book, it's an integral part of the narrative (as well as being very funny).

More, by using the comedy to set up tensions between the protagonists Van Lente makes his Murder Island almost a microcosm of society - from the cultured, entitled comic cynically playing a redneck bigot to the New Age "Orange Baby Man" who has found release from a lifetime of bullying to the radical podcaster to the taboo-breaking young woman comedian who's smuggled a friend onto the island. It's a more diverse group (in every way) than Christie's original (although she wasn't completely blind to class and gender tensions either).

That's all very well, but a book like this could still fall flat if it didn't have a sense of mystery - and if Van Lente wasn't adroit enough at both embodying and undermining Christie's plot. I'm glad to say he does well on both scores and, while much of the enjoyment in this book is in the character development and interaction, there is a genuine sense of menace and a genuine mystery about why the murders are happening and who is responsible. You'll have to look closely to get any clues (though they are there).

So - a smart, rather unusual, book that manages to be both funny and bleak but never less than absorbing. Ideal for a summer holiday.

Though not, perhaps, one on an exclusive Caribbean island.

9 July 2017

Sunday Special No 2 - Back to School!

Going back to school

I'm trying to post stuff on Sundays that isn't book reviews. In a couple of weeks I'm going to be back digging here so I hope to report on that - but first, over the past few months I've occasionally muttered on Twitter about essay deadlines. I thought I'd explain what that's about. I have, sort of, been back to school.

I graduated in the early 1990s with a physics degree (actually two, I did some research afterwards). I haven't studied anything in particular since then, spending 20-odd years in an office job. I work for a UK public sector organisation you will have heard of and, if you live here, probably dealt with. I won't say who they are as we're discouraged from doing so on social media.

Obviously, books WILL be involved...
It's a challenging, varied job, which has taken me at different times to Brussels and Paris, to Parliament and to a range of interesting businesses. I know how lucky I am in that, but a lot of what I've learned about the job has been by doing it, with relatively little done formally barring the normal kinds of thing like three days on "Creatively Adapting to Change" or how to give and receive feedback.

All tremendous fun, but there have been many times when I felt as if I was winging it. So when I found an opportunity to do some actual education in it (sponsored by work) it seemed too good to miss.

The course I'm doing is provided by LSE and focusses on public policy. I signed up last summer and we started just before Christmas, working around the university's regular terms (meaning: weekends, and a term’s length of lectures being compressed into a week). That first module was a gentle introduction, focussing on Brexit and health service reform.


As I said, I hadn't studied anything since 1994... that was a wonderful age where being at university gave you access to a text-based Internet that no-one else knew about, lab reports were handwritten and a laptop was something you'd only find in the shady part of town which I didn't visit. And it was mainly maths.

So having been set an essay to hand in after Christmas... and having reading to do that wasn't fiction over Christmas for the January module, was something of a culture shock. I hadn't written an essay for even longer - not a big part of physics, especially then - not since O-level days (and yes, that does date me). And these are a bit different, things like “Front-line bureaucrats are the barrier to successful implementation. Discuss”.

Since then we’ve done political basics, including what influences voting (such as that fathers of daughters tend to vote more left than those who only have sons) and forming coalitions and empirical methods (evaluation of policy, regressions, how to establish causality). Most recently we had three intensive days on “what works” covering education policy, regional disparities and how public services deliver (or don’t) which is where the street-level bureaucrats come in: they’re the subject of that essay, which I finished a few days ago.

So I've been a bit distracted. I've had to read stuff that isn't for review! I've missed book launches and signings! Did I mention there were exams? I swore I'd never sit another exam...

I would though strongly recommend this whole idea of learning things. It's not just that a lot of it is stuff I wish I'd known years ago, but the whole process has been stimulating

However, as I've said, it is all quite intensive and if you find me neglecting the blog a bit over the next year, that's probably because I've got another deadline coming up. And if I need to think something through I may well put it up here to get my ideas straight, and invite views...