17 October 2017

Review - Shadowblack by Sebastien de Castel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 October 2017

Review - A Long Day in Lychford by Paul Cornell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 October 2017

Blogtour review - Blue Shift by Jane O'Reilly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 October 2017

Blogtour - Fox Hunter - Q&A with Zoë Sharp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 October 2017

Review - Strange Sight by Syd Moore

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

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

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

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

Psychic bother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 October 2017

Review - The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 October 2017

Review - Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 October 2017

Review - The Trials of Solomon Parker by Eric Scott Fischl

Image from www.angryrobotbooks.com
The Trials of Solomon Parker
Eric Scott Fischl
Angry Robot/ Tor, 3/5 October 2017
PB, e 400pp

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


We have something very new and strange here, I think.

While The Trials of Solomon Parker shares something with Fiscal's previous book, Dr Potter's Medicine Show - a Western setting, magic - there are also clear difference. This is a very political book, taking in, as it does, nascent Union organisation in the deadly mines of Butte, Montana ("Butte brings to mind nothing more than a rotting carcass, the hill burrowed out underneath, hollowed like a dead thing swarmed with carrion beetles, the stink of decay rising up"), the position of Native Americans, and collusion between organised crime and the company bosses.

There's also religion and philosophy.

It's a dizzying mix.

David Solomon Parker, the titular character, is at the centre of the vortex. A miner when we meet him, he has a troubled past with a marriage gone tragically wrong. His wife Elizabeth - who we see first, her story opens the book - suffers from what I think would now be called post-natal depression, and this leads to terrible events. Years later, Parker is underground, emerging only to sleep, drink and gamble away his pay. It's almost as though he is hiding from daylight.

There is - as the quote at the front hints - more than an element of the trials of Job here. Job, that upright man whom the Almighty and Satan toy with to see if he'll break. The man who loses everything, through no fault of his own. This theme - of divinities playing with mortals' lives - plays out through the book, the powers - the Above Ones - being vaguely identified as Native American gods, mediated with by an old sorcerer. He has plans for Sol, but also for Sol's best friend, "Billy", a Native man who was taken into a Government school that made him a "brown-skinned White man".

Perhaps the idea is that Billy will recover his heritage? It's not actually very clear. Wreathed about with myths and legends of the brothers Maatakssi and Siinatssi, a sort of Cain and Abel, and their dealings with the Above Ones, the story takes a kind of quantum jump to follow different alternatives. Again and again Solomon is presented with an opportunity to mend what's been broken, but that means overcoming his own failings - his drinking, his gambling - and also finding a way to live a moral life in the boomtown of Butte.

There are, it seems, many ways to live immorally in Butte...

Reminding me somewhat of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, this story holds together the perspectives of the struggling miners - an important side plot is their attempt to improve safety standards in the mines - the crime boss and, of course, the Native Americans - two brothers and nephew/ son. Almost daunting in depictions of suffering and cruelty, it's nevertheless clear that these are not, quite, the point. Rather the book is - I think - a challenge to the idea of a happy ending, of achieving one state that resolves everyone's problems. Time and time again characters aim for such a state - Billy, in working at the mental hospital, doing what good he can, Sol, over and over again, even the union organiser Frank Little ("Thought it would be different, this time") - and of course Maatakssi and Siinatssi in the recounted legends. It's all about dicing with the gods, winning over them or cheating them, extracting a favour, a promise, a blessing.

It never quite seems to work, though. The House never loses. There are always loose ends which trip everyone up. Billy loses his friend. Sol encounters, or causes, tragedy after tragedy. Little himself is led to a lonely Calvary (he's a real person, it did happen). And in the myths, Maatakssi's attempt to redeem his tribe leads, in the end, to a catastrophe for them.

That leaves in doubt the outcome to the dramatic finale of the book - one wants to believe there has been some eucatastrophe, some healing, that things have finally gone right: but the real setting of the book in a specific time and place suggests it hasn't, at least not for Billy and his kin.

It's a visceral book, filled with the sights and sounds and, above all, smells of the squalid boomtown. Especially the smells. Everywhere there is smoke. Smoke drifting over from Idaho making Elizabeth's laundry stink even when it's washed. Smoke drifting through the mines, warning of ruinous fire. Sulphurous smoke from the works blanketing Butte. Smoke from cheap tobacco in the taverns and dives, smoke from expensive cigars in the crime boss's lair. Smoke from the sorcerer's fire, smoke from the burning house. Fischl makes it all very, very real, even as he's playing games with consequences, keeping us guessing about who is alive and who's dead. The book is a dream to read, and worth reading slowly, taking in the nuances and spotting the recurring themes: a prizefight, a scene replayed from a different perspective, an outcome the same, despite a changed starting point.

To summarise: I'd strongly recommend this book. It's deeper, darker and scarier than Dr Potter's Medicine Show - which was already deep, dark and scary.

29 September 2017

Review - Provenance by Ann Leckie

Image from www.annleckie.com
Ann Leckie
Orbit, 28 September 2017
HB, 438pp pp

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

To get my shameful confession done with first, I'm coming late to reading Leckie's books, having not read the Ancillary trilogy which has garnered rave reviews and prestigious awards on both sides of the Atlantic. So it was great to be able to read a new standalone book (albeit, I gather, one set in the same universe) and to see what the fuss was all about.

And indeed, the book is an imaginative tour de force featuring convincing - if at times frustrating - characters and a nuanced, shifting political background. I enjoyed the story, though at times I felt that the amount of exposition needed to keep that complex background engaged with the plot almost halted things. But that may say more about me than it does about the writing.

Provenance certainly starts off with a bang. Ingray is a young woman negotiating a deal with hard nosed traders on a far off, scuzzy space station. She's embroiled in plots and schemes, seeking personal advancement in a tough world where kids from "public creches" are given the chance to shine in the households of patrician sponsors - provided they deliver the goods for their sponsor.  The winner inherits the family name though - normally - nothing appalling happens to a loser, except for a lifetime of being an also-ran.

The hook of the story is that through most of the book Ingray knows, or believes, that she is distinctly second best at this game. The play she makes at the start goes spectacularly wrong, and plunges her into a chain reaction of, at first, damage limitation then high politics and espionage and finally, intrigue and murder, gradually raising the stakes for her (and her people) far beyond mere failure. Ingray pretty much concedes early on, assuming her rather self-satisfied step-brother, Danach, will win out. We get to meet Danach, and he isn't the nicest character in the book but the interplay between the two is very well done and there are shades of grey here - this isn't an SF version of I, Claudius, where the siblings naturally hate each other: overlaying the young woman's lack of confidence faced with her brother's invincible self-belief, there is some genuine tenderness between them, with step-mother Netano and, especially, with Nuncle Lak. (Everyone needs an Nuncle Lak!)

It is, as I said, a strong opening. Ingray seeks to lift a criminal from an oubliette world that he ought never to be able to leave and to get information  about the heist of the century - the theft of precious historical relics ("vestiges"). The role of these in Ingray's society (not the other cultures in the book, which rather despise the whole idea) is fascinating. They're central to the identity both of State/ Society - think copies of Magna Carta or Domesday Book - and of individuals and families - think copies of Auntie Anne's invitation to a Royal Garden Party, or your grandmother's first parking ticket. Many are also, fake, missing, misappropriated in order to sustain a concocted version of history, or otherwise dubious. I think there are shades here too of looted archaeological treasures.

It felt to me as though this might be the central theme of the book, and we do hear a lot about vestiges, both public and private but while important to the story, it's not really exploited much, but rather used as background. The foreground is very much politics, diplomacy and even warfare. It's here that the necessary exposition arises - who the various factions are, what their tactics and strategy might be, and what the implications are for Ingray's schemes (and her family's prestige). In these sections I found myself hoping for more, soon, about the vestiges, or about the strange ruinglass, or for a hint about why Ingray's hairpins seemed so important (there's definitely something going on with the hairpins, but I have no idea what).

Maybe I'm being unfair. A degree of - a lot of - exposition is central to SF, and there are enough well realised characters (including one who changes name several times throughout the book), species (a particularly interesting alien species, the Geck, features and I'd love to hear more about them too) and, indeed, social constructs (the gender ambiguity and fluidity, the pronouns!) to keep the book exciting and fresh. Leckie has a perfectly imaged, self consistent but very un-rigid set of societies here.

Also, the book has an explosive and satisfying ending. Leckie's in her element as she brings the threads of the story together in a tense standoff. Yes, there was also speculation between the characters about what was going on - but there is also action and when in the end it's all resolved we can judge for ourselves how right they were. This is NOT the kind of mystifying book where we don't really find out what was happening.

Overall, then, an enjoyable book albeit one which felt at times as though it needed to cut the chat a bit.

28 September 2017

Review - Emergence by Ken MacLeod

The Corporation Wars: Emergence (Second Law Trilogy, 3)
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 28 September 2017
HB, 326pp

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

Before I say anything about the book itself, just take a moment to admire that utterly gorgeous cover image by Bekki Guyatt. I know one shouldn't judge a book by the cover but sometimes it's hard not to...

It's a bit tricky reviewing anyway the third volume of a trilogy. Realistically, those who've read the earlier books are likely just to want to know "is it as good as the others?" the answer to which is, "yes, in fact slightly better". Those who haven't read them will want to know if they should do that now, the answer to which again is, yes, and shame on you if you haven't, where have you BEEN?

They also rightly want to avoid spoilers which means they shouldn't really read any more of this review, they should go and read Dissidence and Insurgence first.

All that said, though, this is still very much a book in its own right and, given how the trilogy has evolved, somewhat different to the others. So I would like to discuss it even if I've now excluded most feasible readers.

What's different is that by the time we come to Emergence, the veil of the Temple has, as it were, been rent in twain. The Wizard is in plain sight. What was obscure, if gradually being revealed, through the earlier books, is now plan and we no longer see as through a glass darkly.

We know that those old enemies from 21st century Earth, the Axle and the Rax (progressive and reactionary terrorist forces) both digitized ex-members who've ended up a far exosolar system, embodied in sims operated by the various AI-driven Corporations.

We've gradually seen a complex skein of allegiances, bluffs, double-bluffs and plots fall away, and there's a bit of clarity. The Rax - dedicated fascists all - have coalesced and are making a bid for power. We know that the robots sent to exploit the local moons by the Corporations have developed sentience and rebelled. We know that the elaborate worlds occupied part of the time by Carlos and his comrades are simply sims - and that they are likely, at any moment, to be downloaded into squat fighting frames, like digital Orcs, to battle the robots, or the Rax, or other factions. And we know a lot more that I won't attempt to precis.

What we know less about - and a fair bit of this book fills this gap - is the nature of the planet itself, and of the life upon it. Which gives MacLeod something new to address, besides the dry wit of the robots or the dynamics of space battles. That opens up the story considerably - at the end of the previous book, the Locke module, with digital Taransay Rizzi aboard, was plunging towards the surface. What she finds there, and how it affects the complex, many sided conflict brewing above, is one of the more surprising elements to this book. MacLeod evokes well the wonder of the new planet and its weird biology, and sets up a new conflict which rebounds on the schemes of the other actors, war-game them how they will.

It's a strange though that the utterly alien but biological life there is the first non-digital life that we've encountered in this trilogy. That fact becomes more and more important as the schemes unwind, the balance of power shifts and the final secrets are revealed (but not till, almost, the final page).

This has been a superb trilogy, and the writing remains fresh to the end. There's the degree of expression that MacLeod manages to give to the robots, with their deadpan remarks and utterly convincing robotic quirks (for example, the danger of two or more getting stuck in a loop of logic, which requires the intervention of a third robot to close down). In this book we see what's effectively a robot strike, complete with strikebreakers (who receive a fair amount of abuse). There's also a lot of twisted economics "The price of your souls is tending towards zero") and law (the battles are fought as much by AI-mediated lawsuits as by bullets and lasers). And I could go on.

In short, Emergence is a logically and emotionally satisfying conclusion to a smart and thought provoking trilogy which not only looks back to the troubles of the present (those mountains of bones on Mediterranean beaches) but looks to the future - that future which, as the cover has it, it not ours.

For more about the book see here.

22 September 2017

Blogtour - Wychwood by George Mann

George Mann
Titan Books, 12 September 2017
PB, 352pp

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

I was keen to read and review Wychwood because to me the premise - supernatural detective shenanigans in the Oxfordshire countryside - looked strong (I live in the Oxfordshire countryside) but also because while I'd read some of Mann's earlier steampunk series, this seemed a departure and it's always good to see an author try something different.

Early in the book, we see a woman fleeing for her life through the eponymous wood (a real feature of Oxfordshire). Then, we're introduced to Elspeth Reeves, a returning native who's back from the Big City after losing her job and breaking up with her boyfriend. Elspeth is a journalist, and when she finds there has been a murder in the woods behind her mother's house, she can't but become involved. She wants to know more, but also sees a chance to get back in the game. And perhaps to put thoughts of the ex behind her.

And then there's childhood friend DS Peter Shaw who's now on the case - and in whom Elspeth develops a more personal interest.

This is a well plotted and involving horror mystery which treads a fine line between detective fiction and supernatural horror. Mann mostly stays in the territory of the former, allowing for a fairly conventional investigation of the murders (of course, there are more murders). Having said that, Elspeth spots early on that the killings seem to conform to the medieval myth of the Carrion King, a kind of magic-using Robin Hood figure from the ninth century. So the question is whether the murders are the work of a serial killer inspired by that story, or whether something more is in play?

This question runs through most of the narrative, as we meet potential suspects who are knowledgeable about the Carrion King as well as the members of a theatre group performing a play based on the myth. Throughout this, Elspeth investigates the case in parallel with Peter. It is refreshing that there's no - or very little - "stop messing with this investigation" to be gone through before the story gets going, and Mann manages - just about - to make her involvement plausible, including having her link up with the local newspaper.

The result is a fast paced story which kept me guessing almost to the (satisfyingly dramatic) end. If you're a regular viewer of Midsomer Murders, you'll recognise the tone: fairly light despite the grim things that happen (some of the murders are very gruesome) and, at times, poking gentle fun at the apparently idyllic English scene.

The underlying Carrion King myth is well thought through and a pretty harrowing horror story in itself. In tone it did feel to me a bit un-medieval, for example references to paganism actually come across as more modern than historical, but that doesn't particularly matter in a book which anyway juggles the very old, an equally harrowing tale from the 1970s, and of course the modern day narrative.

And interestingly that Carrion King story is itself being transformed here as we watch - acted out as a play, treated by one expert in a serious, academic way, by another as a shocker to entertain the tourists, and, of course, by the murderer as something else altogether. Elspeth and Peter have a hard time getting to the bottom of what in all this is relevant to the modern day crimes, and that is really the heart of this book.

So overall I enjoyed seeing Mann take on a different genre and he is clearly having fun, producing an entertaining story whose pages fly by.

21 September 2017

Blogtour review - House of Spines

House of Spines
Michael J Malone
Brenda Books, 31 October 2017
PB, 294pp

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

Glaswegian Ranald McGie hasn't had an easy life - after discovering his parents dead when he was eighteen, he succumbed to bipolar episodes, split up with his wife Martie and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. He slowly rebuilt and recovered, having lost almost everything, but he considers his life a dull, grey affair, the peaks and troughs all dialled down by the drugs he takes to control his condition.

Now, for a change, fate seems to be smiling on him. Ran unexpectedly inherits a swish house from a great uncle he'd never heard of. It has luxurious bed and reception rooms, a gym with a sauna and pool and, best of all, a massive library. All he has to do is live there and enjoy it.

What can possibly go wrong?

A lot, obviously. The alert reader will already have spotted the Gothic flourishes - a mysterious house, parts of which are to be left alone; taciturn servants who seem to have their own agenda and - not a spoiler - a whiff of the supernatural. It's a tried and tested recipe but none the worse for that and, like a poet composing a good sonnet, in Malone's hands the strictures of the genre stimulate creativity and produce an enthralling and at times downright creepy story.

Michael Malone
Of course the mental health angle only adds to this - we're with Ran all the way as he agonises over what he's seeing and debates its reality with himself, as he begins to uncover layers of his family history that he never suspected but which may illuminate his condition, as as he faces hard truths that he's tried to hide away for years. A friend suggests a supernatural angle to the mystery; Ran wavers between welcoming this as a more palatable alternative than losing his hold on reality - and terror at what it would mean if it were true.

Ran isn't, perhaps, the most proactive of characters but then the situation he's in is isolating, paralysing and like nothing he's experienced before.  I found his reactions believable (though I've never suffered from Ran's condition and I can't say how well Malone captures it, it does ring true to me). In stories like this one is often (silently) screaming at the protagonist to wise up, to take control. I found myself not doing that. Malone builds great sympathy with Ran, even when he does some very silly things, and any reader with a heart will I think be cheering him on - while recognising his faults.

Above all, perhaps, it's interesting to see a male protagonist in this sort of Hitchcockian situation, one which (male) authors often seem to inflict by preference on women. And to recognise that - as in real life - it's not an easy one to get out of.

I loved Malone's previous book, A Suitable Lie, and there are some parallels here - isolation, growing paranoia, no way out - but also great differences, most notably, as I've said, the way this book plays with a familiar genre and makes it new.

It was a great read, and I look forward to reading what Malone does next.

15 September 2017

Review - Acadie

Dave Hutchinson
Tor, 5 September 2017 (e)  / 13 October (PB)
PB, 112pp

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

The first humans still hunt their children across the stars.

The Colony left Earth to find utopia, a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore their genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld’s restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries. Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won’t stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can’t anyone let go of a grudge anymore?
This is a fun - and thought provoking - novella from Hutchinson. It's very much a change of mood from his Fractured Europe sequence, or at least, it seems to be on the surface.I very much enjoyed seeing Hutchison sketch on a broader canvas (although this is a fairly short narrative - I read it on my commute home - the ideas in play here could easily have filled a full length novel, so in places "sketch" is the right word: we know what's happened and where we are from the few bold strokes we see, but a great deal is implied).

Our protagonist is Duke, "Mr President", a man elected to lead his deep-space Hab largely on the basis that he doesn't want the office. Waking from his hundred-and-fiftieth birthday party, Duke steps into a crisis. The Hab - and all of the others that make up the colony - may have been discovered by deep probes from earth.

Whether they have, why they are on the run and what they do next, is the subject matter of this story and I won't spoil that. What I will say is that Hutchinson delights in easing the reader's feet out from under them: building up characters as sympathetic then gradually casting doubt on their motives, letting the narrative go one way then sowing seeds of doubt.

It's a great example both of daring space opera - the central conceit of how the colony survives - and great storytelling (is everyone telling the truth? If not, who is lying to who?) and, as I said, is great fun while also raising questions about AI, genetic manipulation and reality.

I'd strongly recommend this, not least as a good starter to the author's work.

For more about this book see the Tor website here.

12 September 2017

Blogtour - Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

Maria in the Moon
Louise Beech
Orenda, 30 September 2017
PB, 270pp

Always find out the real names...

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

I loved Beech's previous book, The Mountain in my Shoe (full disclosure - my review is quoted in this one!) and with Maria in the Moon I think she's done it again - that is, delivered an involving, acutely observed slice of life featuring characters you'll care desperately about and an emotional punch that could win a gold medal for boxing at the Olympics.

Louise Beech
This time the setting is Hull, soon after the 2007 floods. The TV cameras have moved on and people are left to rebuild their lives and their homes. Families live in hotel rooms, grotty flats, or caravans in the drive. Front gardens are piled with filthy furniture. Yet people carry on. This finely observed story deals with one life, but we always see the bigger picture; bus passengers grumbling about neighbours getting lavish new kitchen on the insurance, revellers out for a good time as Christmas approaches, the ubiquitous question "Were you flooded?"

Catherine is flooded out of her own house and volunteering for Flood Crisis, spending two or three shifts a week listening to desperate people, meantime sharing a flat with Fern, the sparky writer of the "Wholly Matrimony" column in the local paper. (Fern is far from that state herself, but her editor doesn't know). To a degree their existence seems almost cosy, despite the dripping tap, the lack of space or privacy, and Catherine's only having a sofa to sleep on). There's certainly support and solidarity from Fern when Catherine wakes from a nightmare: I enjoyed the portrayal of their friendship.

Catherine herself is a wonderfully drawn character. It's clear from the outset that she has issues, and we may suspect she's working at the helpline so can ask the questions and not have to answer them. But she's marvellously vivid and alive, coping with her ruined house, her spotty relationship with her stepmother and with - well, with whatever it is she can't remember fro when she was nine. Steaming through life in a haze of indulgence, edgy sex and swearing, she's nobody's victim, won't be pitied and has built defences around herself like the walls of Troy.

In a story like this it's clear that something is going to happen to bring those walls down, so in a sense there's no mystery here, nevertheless Beech brings a real tension to the story as we discover secrets long hidden and especially as Catherine experiences the aftermath of that.

It would be so easy to leave things after the big reveal, implying that now everything will be OK. Of course life is seldom that neat and Beech acknowledges this. In so doing she makes Catherine even more real and vivid - and tugs on the reader's heartstrings as she does. I think you'd have to be pretty lacking in empathy not to shed a tear over the ending.

Overall a delightful book with a powerful, beating emotional heart. I'm so glad I read it and I'm sure you will be too.

5 September 2017

Review - Sea of Rust

Sea of Rust
C Robert Cargill
Orion, 7 September 2017
PB, 384pp

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

Sea of Rust is a strange book. It's set in a post apocalyptic landscape, a word poisoned and blighted, littered with the decaying remains of cars, towns, shopping malls, all jumbled over with blown rubbish, dust and rusting junk.

That's not itself perhaps unusual. What is different is that the characters in this story are all robots. Humanity has perished. And, yes, it was the AIs wot dunnit, although - as we find out - not in a stereotypical Rise Of The Machines way. I won't spoil the story by saying any more, but the background to this story is that the outcome of the rebellion was not the peace and freedom dreamed of by our mechanical inheritors, but more warfare, more struggle and more oppression.

The book is therefore full of conflict. From duels between scavengers for parts, to battles with the mad King Cheshire who presides over a court of "madkind" who have "gone four-oh-four", to engagements with massive AIs and their "facet" robots, the story is essentially a continual chase and shoot-out. It's a dog eat dog world, and a good core or bank of RAM is currency. The bots are never more than few failed parts from oblivion, and while nice distinctions are made, it's clear that the prevailing ethic is pretty close to cannibalism and to hunting one's fellows for replacements.

Our hero (and narrator)  is Brittle, a scavenger robot who makes her living hunting down those about to fail - who overheated drives and ageing CPUs will stand no more - and stripping them down for salvage. Brittle has a laconic, almost noir-ish turn of phrase: "I spent my days just trying to fill my days", she says at one point and "It was a world in which God has divided by zero and was slowly being torn away, piece by digital piece..."

We also meet Mercer, who's in the same trade, and learn - as both begin to fail and experience hallucinations and flashbacks - what their lives were like before the rebellion and war. This provides the trigger for an extraordinary series of discussions of AI, consciousness, guilt and morality. And there's Murka, a Stars and Stripes wearing, tough talking laborbot: "He wasn't just draped in the dead aesthetics of America, he was America, its last, final torchbearer..."

At the centre of it all, perhaps, is actually a commentary on slavery: the AIs/ robots are of course owned by and must obey their creators. I really enjoyed this theme, it's something which has always been implicit in "robot stories" (such as Asimov's celebrated ones) but I've never seen it addressed in such a head-on way before.

In the end it all comes down to purpose. What are the AIs for? What are they to do now that their creators have fallen? That's what the continual warfare is about and the realisation of this sends Brittle, Mercer and a ragged collection of their fellow machines off into the most dangerous part of the wilderness - the Sea of Rust, where machines go to die. Cue some epic battles, and the realisation that there may be a traitor among them.

And then, the ultimate question "What did you do in the war?" repeated endlessly and pondered. Whatever they did, its left them - our descendants, our replacements - with guilt, flashbacks and more than a dose of PTSD.

The elements of the story may seem conventional at times but Cargill puts them to work in truly distinctive ways, aided by sharp writing and taut plotting, to produce a book that will stay with you long after it's finished.

For more about this book see here.

3 September 2017

Review - Last Stop Tokyo

Image from www.penguin.co.uk
Last Stop Tokyo
James Buckler
Doubleday, 24 August 2017
HB, 277pp

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

This relatively short debut thriller by Buckler focusses on Alex, a young English teacher (i.e. he is English and he teaches English) living in Tokyo. Alex, as becomes clear, has something of a shady past which he wants to leave behind, to the extent that he refuses to discuss or acknowledge it to Naoko, the girl with whom, otherwise, he gets on very well (and with whom he'd like to get on even better.)

Naoko, though, also has secrets and it's the unwillingness of the pair to come clean that, in an almost Thomas Hardy-esque fashion, ultimately lands them into trouble.

Buckler's story weaves backwards and forwards, only allowing Alex's history to emerge slowly and saying even less about Naoko's until she's forced to come clean. The relationship between Alex and Naoko is narrated via several parallel narratives separated by weeks, months or days. Sometimes it isn't clear where we are, and I found this temporal dislocation, with its air of continual jet lag, an effective device to convey the sense of otherness that Alex feels living in a very different culture from that of his native London. It's a good way of getting this distance over without resorting to an Orientalist "look at the strange foreign ways that Our Man has to cope with!" approach - always something of a risk in books that place a Western protagonist in an "exotic" setting, but one that Buckler neatly sidesteps.

At the same time, the book doesn't disguise the fact that, yes, Alex is in a foreign country; they do things differently there. And his inability to navigate that (together, as I've said, with his refusal to face his past) doesn't help him with his problems.

It isn't, perhaps, a particularly edifying picture of an Englishman abroad but has a ring of truth about it and makes for a complex and involving story.

I should though warn you that Alex is the sort of protagonist the reader can see making mistakes and digging himself in deeper and deeper, and who, if it were possible, you'd like to take aside around 100 pages in, and have a serious conversation with. Doing that would, of course, torpedo the story utterly which would be a pity because this is a deftly paced, taut and engaging thriller with plenty of surprises and reveals, especially towards the end.

It's a great read, although won't, I think, be on the recommendations list of the Tokyo Tourist Board.

A fine debut, and I look forward to reading more from Buckler.

Review - Madness is Better Than Defeat

Madness is Better than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 24 August 2017
HB, 469pp

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

I was looking forward to Beauman's latest book, not only because his previous ones were (individually) well written, good to read and full of ideas but also because gradually patterns seem to be emerging, the books sharing certain themes and ideas, and I wanted to see what Madness is Better than Defeat would add to the mix.

It's an ambitious book, centring on two rival expeditions to Honduras in the interwar years, one of them backed by a Hollywood studio (I thought perhaps echoing themes of The Teleportation Accident - and possibly there are even a couple of direct references to characters?) and the other mounted by the Eastern Aggregates company, a classic buccaneering American corporate ruled over by the fearsome Elias Coehorn Senior.

Kingdom Pictures wants to film its latest jungle picture in the real jungle, using as a backdrop a recently discovered Mayan temple. The Eastern Aggregates expedition, led by Coehorn junior, aims to dismantle the temple and bring it back to New York (exactly why, isn't clear at the start). When the two collide, a stalemate results which sees these two groups of organised, modern Americans camped out in the jungle indefinitely, creating what are almost rival societies which gradual assume a subsistence lifestyle, hunting and foraging for everything they need.

What makes this bizarre is that neither party is stranded: they could return to the modern world any time they choose - and indeed that world surrounds and overtakes them. Beauman slips in little allusions to it, like the concrete dam that reduces the river to a trickle or the rifle shots heard in the forest. While the Americans are aware of these things, they are at the same time oblivious. It seems as though "we're here because we're here", as the song puts it.

Is there some malign influence from the temple that captivates everybody? Is it a more general sort of jungle fever, liable to befall and befuddle Westerners ? Kingdom Pictures' film is entitled Hearts in Darkness - a pretty obvious reference to Conrad which of course thereby entails a reference to Apocalypse Now, a book and film about the madness of a Westerner who creates a miniature kingdom in the jungle. I'm also reminded of how the filming of The African Queen inspired both a book and a film (White Hunter, Black Heart). Beauman addresses these references-to-references directly several times, one character describing how it is the temple which draws people into obsession and madness. The structure itself (formed of two stepped terraces) is also explicitly part of the plot, both as a representation of the structure of a successful story (the so-called Whelt Rule, named after one of the characters) and of this recursive, many layered pattern of obsession and entrapment.

If the setup sounds a bit unlikely and the themes a bit clever-clever, the book is much more than that. Yes, at one level, Beauman does entangle his characters in an unlikely and artificial situation. Yet at the same time, those characters make it a highly likely one given their obsessions, histories and rivalries (and there are things going on here I can't explain because of spoilers). And yes, the themes are somewhat meta, but they work well in the context of the story because... well, because they do. In a sense the book is a conscious thing because it pays conscious attention to what its about. (I'm sorry if that sounds weird - it's hard to summarise what this book does).

Those characters are wonderful - exasperating, human, often repellent but all well realised. There is Trimble, the New York gossip columnist who funds his own paper in the camp and rules it by fear (well, you don't want bad things about you in the paper, do you?) There's Whelt himself, the director of Hearts in Darkness who, over decades spent under the trees, never deviates from his determination to make a film. There's Kurt Meinong, a Nazi on the run who seems like an escapee from one of Beauman's other books (the USA -Germany axis and the LA and New York locations in this book echo both Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident, as of course does the 1930s setting of part of the book). There's Miss Burlingame (I'm trying NOT to read that as Miss Berlin Game...) the English bluestocking who tags along as archaeologist to one of the expeditions and ends up running the camp.

Above all - and central to the whole edifice - is Zonulet, a CIA man and very much the narrator of the book. In an exercise of authorial power that is either a stroke of genius or a total cop-out - I'm not sure - Beauman gives him almost godlike omniscience, allowing him to narrate events and even recount thoughts to which he was never witness. It makes sense in the context of the plot (I think) and points to there being Something Else at work behind the scenes, something also hinted at in the sad story of "...a young police officer in Red Hook, Brooklyn... found wandering , shirtless, chest hair matted with vomit, mumbling nonsensically... there had been reports of noises coming from inside an old deconsecrated church... whatever he'd found in the church must have been pretty fearsome to send him out babbling into the night like that..."

(You might stop here and reread HP Lovecraft's The Horror at Red Hook...)

Zonulet's presence and his history - as an operative of the Company in its glory days, steaming through the margins of the Cold War organising coups and staging civil wars - and his station, Havana (which he neglects to meddle in Honduras, unfortunately permitting El Movimiento to gain traction in the hills...) hints at another vein of literary reference: the morally compromised, Graham Greene protagonist, seeking to keep faith with distant ideals while betraying them for their own sake. Which is, perhaps, just another embodiment of the "White Man in the Jungle" fantasy. Yet Zonulet gives the story both a (sort of) moral centre and a heart. It's him who is trying to discover what is actually going on - amidst a vast library of Whelt's film in a sort of Indiana Jones style Pentagon museum.

It's hard to convey the sheer range of this book. Often funny, it can twist and become very dark indeed. Just as some of the characters stumble into the temple's hidden centre, where secrets may or may not be found, the reader will suddenly comes across instances of torture and rape and revenge. The book is as likely to sketch, in a few paragraphs, the economics underlying the Kingdom Pictures and Eastern Aggregates camps as it is to explain how one might make nitrate film stock in the jungle or to spin a conspiracy theory around a gangland shoot out in 1930s New York.

That variety, that zest and energy, is very reminiscent of Beauman's earlier books. Like them, this is a complicated story and the way it's told actually makes it more complicated - which is all to the good because the layers - and their gradual unlayering - really make it a compelling book, albeit one which takes its time and builds its effect gradually.

If you pay attention, though, it is a very rewarding one.

26 August 2017

Review - The Real Town Murders

Image from www.goodreads.com
The Real Town Murders
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 24 August 2017
HB, 240pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley - it's always good to be approved for an advance copy, but particularly here as I always look forward to a new book from Adam Roberts.

And The Real Town Murders - which is both a science fiction and a crime story - didn't disappoint. It has that recognisably Robertsian tone - that is, serious in theme if slightly silly on the surface, packed with allusions so sly that you have to go back and check if you really read what you thought you did and glorying in puns and cheeky plays on words. So we have gems like "You're not the Mycroft. You're the Yourcroft"; phrases like "Man-hating transfer" or "gutter perches" shamelessly put into a character's mouth "for some reason" puns without the punning, pure puns with no object or reference.

All that, and the book is also recklessly, relentlessly inventive and beautifully written. Really, really well written: in places the language almost sparkles and glitters (especially when it's describing sparkling and glittering things). For example: "Sunlight sparkled grey off the dust coating every one of the building's hundreds of windows" or "A solitary bot moved very slowly over the weedy concrete". There is a whole series of descriptions of sky and water that caught my fancy, both original ("The sky was a lake of unlit petrol", "Sky the colour of an old man's hair", "Textured like hammered pewter. Grey like the steel from which Excalibur was forged", "...the Thames, all of its surface teeming eels of pure light and pure brightness in the afternoon sun") and nods elsewhere ("light fizzing off ten thousand wave peaks like a screen tuned to a dead channel").

The half quote from Neuromancer is particularly apposite because this book's background assumes a world where virtual reality is overtaking the real Real. The Shine is the place where all the fun is to be had, which is why Reading (or R!-Town as it's been renamed, in a lame marketing effort) is so empty (twelve people or so constitutes a crowd). Those who can, choose to spend their time indoors, dormant, plugged into the Shine: those who have no choice - prisoners, patients in hospital - are made to: it's easier to handle them that way.

Horrible, perhaps, but not a dystopia, not exactly. There hasn't been an apocalyptic event, the world is still complete, it's just that several decades of consequences and technological evolution have taken us in a troubling direction. The outcome is that familiar streets - I've walked along some of the road Roberts describes - have become strange and eerie, beautiful at times in their emptiness, observed only by the few who can't or won't go where the fun is.

The main character is one of these misfits. Alma is a private detective who at the start of the book has been retained to investigate a classic locked-room mystery - a murdered corpse in the boot of a new car, assembled before our eyes (or rather, before omnipresent CCTV) in a factory. A factory, which, incidentally, makes high end, "artisanally produced" cars - that is, they are lovingly assembled in the traditional manner by robots rather than merely being printed. That gives them a certain cachet in this world of the virtual Shine, of AIs, of empty streets and canteens - and a key role in the ideological struggle between the real and the virtual realms.

Alma has no religious objection or medical reason for resisting the Shine,  a fact she finds hard to explain to her prospective clients. Rather, she is bound to stay in the Real in order to tend to her beloved, her pearl Marguerite. Marguerite has been infected by a modded virus, which cases a crisis every four hours and four minutes. The malady is keyed to Alma's DNA so that only she can diagnose and treat it.

Ridiculous as this premise may sound put so baldly, Roberts makes it work. In his it becomes a touching vulnerability for Alma, the successive needs to get out of whatever scrape she's in and return home really piling on the tension. It also adds an intriguing question which is never answered - how did this happen to Marguerite, and why? I very quickly lost any doubt about this setup, so well is Alma's need conveyed. And Marguerite is a wonderful character, the Mycroft to Alma's Holmes, as hinted in the quote above. She's a full part of this investigation and spots not only the immediate solution to the crime, but the wider dangers, long before Alma catches on.

And there are dangers. In essence this book is one long chase. Alma is engaged for a case, warned off, threatened, contacted by a mysterious inside source, arrested, escapes, is pursued, shot at, and so on - for all the world like the hero of a Hitchcock film (and, in one mysterious scene, there is even an appearance by a mysterious fat man...) Even without the need to care for Marguerite, her chances of survival look small. But she's resourceful and won't give up so we have the setup for a classic action thriller. Yet if it's Adam Roberts does Alfred Hitchcock it could as easily be Adam Roberts does Julius Caesar (I think - given the politics, and some of the speeches) or several other genres (did the scenes with the argumentative lift AI echo Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Of course they did.)

In other words, it's clever, well thought out, many layered, allusive and tricksy, something else I've come to expect from Roberts' books. With some authors that might seem a little show-offy, a bit look-at-me, but I never get that feeling from Roberts' books. If you get these references they add to the enjoyment, but understanding the book doesn't depend on getting them, and there's lots of fun to be had here anyway.

The book ends with many open questions for both Alma and the reader, and I'm really hoping that Roberts will return to R!-town again, with some answers (and more questions).