17 August 2019

Review - To be Taught, If Fortunate: A Novella

Review - To be Taught, If Fortunate: A Novella
Becky Chambers (read by Patricia Rodriguez)
Hodder & Stoughton, 8 August 2019
Audiobook, 4 hours 47 mins (also available as hardback, e-book)

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of the To be Taught, If Fortunate audiobook via titleShare, (a new service which pitches itself as a kind of audio NetGalley. I've only, so far, experienced this book via the service but the listening experience was good and the service intuitive).

To Be Taught... is short (literally, a novella) and suited to the audio format where I find too much length can be off-putting. The recording is also excellent, Patricia Rodriguez providing a nuanced, well paced and expressive reading which suits this story very well.

As a story, the book came over as a punchy, clean version of a classic SF format: the voyage of discovery (in the spirit of "To Boldy Go...") Astronaut Ariadne O'Neill and her handful of crewmates aboard the Lucky 6 have been launched on a lightyears and decades long voyage to investigate nearby, potentially life-bearing planets (remember space is HUGE, people!) Because of the distances and times involved, much of the journey is spent in 'torpor' - suspended animation during which temporary genetic manipulations ('somaforming') are applied to fit the crew for the environment of the target planet - be that high gravity, lack of light or high radiation. We slowly understand that the recording we are hearing is Ariadne's message back earth some way into the voyage, making the format particularly apposite. Ariadne's message explains the background and nature of the voyage - in the 22nd century, with space exploration long moribund, it has been revived by mass crowdfunding which effectively sponsors a space agency. We hear about Ariadne's early life, her emotional parting from her family - torpor and time dilation will mean that on return they will be dead or very old - and her hopes and fears for the expedition.

The story then proceeds through visits to a number of every different planets. Chambers' handling of this material is a joy. We get, I think, some of the sheer unvarnished delight in the wonder of the universe, in the possibilities of scientific exploration and understanding as the crew observe different forms of life and collect all the data they can. This isn't a book of space empires or conflict, it's an older and even dare I say it, purer form of science fiction than that.

Which isn't to say that all goes well. The planets visited are not equally welcoming, with incidents that challenge the astronauts' ideals of 'do no harm' and even place them in some jeopardy (as well as testing how long a group of people can survive in a large tin can). Through all this, Chambers' tone is calm, reflective and philosophical, not just narrating events but - though Ariadne - reflecting on them as well and relating them with a real passion for science and sense of idealism. If you didn't know what you were listening to - if you missed the opening, say - you could easily believe this was the memoir of a real scientist. The story takes the time to explain things - tidal locking, chirality - which not all readers/ listeners may understand but above all to show why those ideas are important.

And, having educated us to the world, the universe, of Ariadne and her crew, and shown why what they are doing matters, Chambers calmly leads the crew - and us - to a moment of choice. A moment when driving through rural Oxfordshire, I found myself shouting 'Yes!' in answer to a certain question. It's a mark of this book's construction and impact that this wasn't, primarily, a matter of what I wanted in the story but an emotional reaction to the case Ariadne was making, to the values portrayed here and the context of her - and her crewmates' - dilemma. (Sorry to be obscure about that but I don't want to be too spoiler.

To sum up, an excellent story with lots of wonder. A SF classic in the making, I think.

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

6 August 2019

Blogtour Review - #Sanctuary by VV James

Cover by Patrick Knowles
VV James
Gallancz, 8 August 2019
HB, e, audio 448pp

I'm grateful to Gallancz for an advance free copy of Sanctuary for review as part of the blogtour.

You should be aware that I've included a significant spoiler which I think is necessary in order to give a content warning  for the book. That is below the tour graphic at the bottom of this review: if you want to avoid the spoiler don't scroll down past that picture.

I first heard about this book at a Gollancz presentation a few months back at which James spoke. There were a few copies available then but I didn't manage to get one (competition was FIERCE!) so was very glad to be asked to take part in the tour because I REALLY wanted to read this.

James' new novel is set in a different world from her previous trilogy (Gilded Cage/ Tarnished City/ Bright Ruin) and in the US rather than the UK, but like that, it explores the theme of magic - visible, acknowledged, magic - in the real world; what the consequences might be, and how the magical and non-magical communities might see each other.

In Sanctuary, which takes place in contemporary New England, witches are accepted, even valued by some, and expressing prejudice against them can amount to a hate crime, but their activities are heavily circumscribed by law...  and that prejudice is never far beneath the surface. James skilfully uses the real history of persecution in the 17th century as a springboard for present day cultural attitudes in the town of Sanctuary and in the wider US (adding modern colour by including news broadcasts and even tweets from the current President). She also deftly indicates how tolerance could have come about, and some of the complexities that accompany it.

We are though in small town America and magic or no magic, the local culture is dominated by the school football field.  Tensions rise when Daniel Whitman, star player of the Spartans, dies in mysterious circumstances at a party. An outsider detective - not only a woman, but she's Black - is sent in to investigate, and to begin with, local police chief Tad Bolt pressures her ('This is how it's gonna be...') to shut things down quietly. The death was clearly an accident: nothing to see here: smooth things over and get out of town.

However, Bolt soon changes his tune, claiming that witchcraft was involved. It's clearly convenient to have an outsider take the heat of the subsequent enquiry, whatever the outcome so Det. Maggie Knight is  plunged into the dark world of modern teens, complete with High School cliques, a "sex tape", lashings of misognyny - and a bunch of secrets.

Accusations fly, and they are directed especially at Harper Fenn, daughter of the town's only witch, Sarah. This is particularly unfair because, as everybody in the twin knows, Harper shows no magical ability (a great sadness to her mother).  Knight has her work cut out to discover what really happened against a background of rising hysteria stoked not only by Bolt but also by one of the other characters here. (James' writing is very strong, and I guarantee by the time you've finished this book you will really dislike that person - even if you sympathised with them at first). The growing atmosphere of threat, of blame, of fear and hate, is very powerfully rendered and plausible. It's accompanied by references to other sorts of prejudice - for example racial, as when towards the end when a Black character is told by a cop to hand over his phone: ('Pierre does what every black parent, heartbreakingly, teaches their kids to do the minute they see lawmen reach for their guns. He complies instantly.')

I would like to note how well, how convincingly, James portrays this situation. In particular she shows Sarah's disbelief at the way her world is falling apart. For much of the book Sarah thinks she can resolve things by being reasonable, trying to persuade even the most hateful among the townsfolk to calm down and be fair. She even, haplessly, plays into their hands by performing (harmless) magic in public which is then used to undermine her. It is of course a feature of historical persecutions that victims have often only understood too late how far things have gone, how their friends and neighbours have turned against them and what the stakes really are.

It's a thoroughly compelling story with bags of tension. I felt there is actually a really interesting philosophical issue here. From the perspective of the early 21st century (is it still "early"?) prejudice against, and persecution of, witches, was self-evidently wrong since the modern secular worldview takes for granted that there are no witches - so accusations of harm must be mistaken at best, or invented at worst. That approach sidesteps questions of "innocence" since by definition anyone accused in historical witch persecutions must have been "innocent" - even if, at the extreme, they really thought they were a witch.

From that point of view James's aligning anti-witch prejudice with other forms of hate crime (against people of colour, for example) makes sense because both are irrational and patently based simply on prejudice. In our world, there may be people who call themselves witches, but society regards this as a harmless if eccentric practice - a kind of spiritual LARPing - and anyone who doesn't, who accuses them of actually doing harm, would I think be seen as acting from prejudice.

But this is a book where witchcraft is A Thing. In Sanctuary, witches are real and could undeniably cause supernatural harm (even if that would be illegal and most of them would never do such a thing). Against that background, I wondered whether the Salem echoes - and the implicit comparison with prejudice against marginalised groups - were really on point.

In the end, I'm not sure it matters - at the heart of this book is a disturbing campaign waged against a convenient victim, supported by prejudiced law enforcement, a sensationist Press happy to peddle half-truths and outright lies (regardless of the effect on a police enquiry) and a town willingly driven to a frenzy against a hitherto accepted and welcomed neighbour. If that doesn't have spot on contemporary resonances I don't know what does.

The book is also notable for the presence of same gender relationships and for a non-binary Indigenous person who Knight brings in for support on witchy issues (entailing an interesting subplot about different forms of witchcraft, including appropriation of Native ones - James makes clear that in this book she isn't drawing on any real practices or systems of belief, which I think is an important point to make here).

So - I'd strongly recommend this, whether you've read and enjoyed James' previous work or are simply interested in a slightly different take on UF, small town US tensions or modern magic.

The book is out this Thursday (8th August) and the tour runes from Monday 5th to Sunday 11th with lots of excellent reviews scheduled. For more info about Sanctuary, see the Gallancz website here. You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive books; in various formats online  from Blackwell's, Waterstones, Foyles, WH Smith and Amazon or as an e-book from Apple, Kobo or ebooks.com

Reminder: CW below the graphic includes a spoiler


Content warning: The events behind the story include a rape which has taken place before the main events of the book, but it is partly described and portrayed in the course of the story.

The scene is not, in my view, gratuitous and is integral to the plot.

4 August 2019

Review - The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns (Dominion of the Fallen, 2)
Aliette de Bodard
Gollancz, 2017
PB, audio, 351pp

I bought my paperback copy of this book from my local bookshop and received the audio version through my Audible subscription.

As I said in my review of The House of Shattered Wings, I've been catching up with de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen trilogy in preparation for the third part, The House of Sundering Flames, which is just out (published 25 July). This book is the second part of the trilogy, so there are spoilers here for House of Shattered Wings and if you haven't read that, you might want to look away now.

I have listened to both on audio and I have to say they have been excellent in that medium; the characters have strong voices for the narrator to breathe life into and much of the story is in reported speech giving the narration immediacy and pace. Helpfully, the narrator of the Wings audiobook was the same as that of Thorns, so there was continuity of the voices in my head (and in my car).

So then. To the story. We are back in the Paris of the Fallen - angels cast down from Heaven who wield powerful magic and band together in "Houses" for their own protection, not to say glory and power.  Decades before, a magical war ruined Paris (and the wider world) leaving the Houses diminished, though still strong. The House of Binding Thorns picks up pretty much where The House of Shattered Wings left off, with Madeleine - Essence addict and former alchemist of House Silverspires - back unwillingly in House Hawthorn, under the sway of the dangerous Fallen, Asmodeus. Madeleine's life over the previous 20 years was devoted to her fear of Asmodeus, who murdered her friends and nearly killed her when he took power in Hawthorn, so as this book opens she really is at a nadir.

But life can be surprising, and Madeleine is about to be given a chance to improve her situation - if she'll undertake a dangerous mission for Asmodeus.

Like its predecessor, The House of Binding Thorns focusses on one house - here, Hawthorn - and the threats to it, but for me it had much more of a feeling of movement and freedom than Wings did. While The House of Binding Thorns seemed to take place mostly within the mouldering corridors of Silverspires, apart from an excursion to the dragon kingdom under the Seine and a couple of visits to other Houses, in Thorns we have a much more extended story. There is a longer visit to the Dragon Kingdom, exploring its politics, history, and plight, and there are other events across Paris, in particular in the home of two new characters, the Houseless Fallen Berith and her human lover Françoise. Their relation to Hawthorn and the Dragon Kingdom isn't clear at the start and I don't want to spoil the story, but they are well-drawn, distinct characters who bring a great deal to this story, representing the perspective of those who are not "House bound".

They are also friends of Phillipe, the young Annamite man we met in the last book, who is still seeking a way to resurrect Isabelle, who died in the earlier book. Despite Berith being Houseless, Phillipe does not wholly trust her - she is Fallen, after all, and he has reason to fear Fallen and to hate them for what they've done to him and his people. Trust and distrust feature strongly in this book: trust between rulers and ruled, even where there is hatred and fear in the relationship, trust based on understanding and alignment of motives, on power, and trust - or the lack of - within and between cultural groups (the dragon Kingdom, the Houses).

Despite his distrust, Phillipe is, it turns out, Houseless in a similar sort of way to Berith. She has rejected the House that might have sheltered her. Phillipe, as we know, rejected the Dragon Kingdom. Both must find a way to exist in a dangerous Paris with little help from others. The story develops this parallel to show how the Kingdom wields power in the same kinds of ways as the Houses, providing no real alternative to the Fallen and their magic.

And de Bodard continues to explore, using her Paris and her dragon kingdom, aspects of colonial history (such as the British opium trade) that are often passed quickly over and certainly, are rarely made the foundation of fantasy fiction. Again, the wider scope of this second novel and perhaps its faster pace gives much more room to do that. It is in many ways simply a "bigger" story. Rather than a central mystery, there are half a dozen subplots where characters get themselves caught up in the thorny branches and drawn into the main growth. There are unlikely alliances born of despair, and some unexpected betrayals too.

The star of this book is, though, Asmodeus. He appeared in The House of Shattered Wings as a convenient antagonist but here he is at the centre. Asmodeus - a bully and a sadist - is far from likeable, but he is still a bewitching character who simply comes over as more complex, more enthralling than Selene, the Head of House Silverspires on whole the first book was centred. Maybe the Devil really does have all the best tunes, or, Miltonically, evil is more interesting than good but I really felt this book crackle whenever Asmodeus appeared. Perhaps de Bodard let herself go a bit more with Asmodeus? Whatever, she has produced a compelling and even beguiling portrait of this damned angel, a figure who comes alive on the page (or in the audio) and commands every scene where he appears.

I think I actually enjoyed this book more than Shattered Wings, it's a stinking read in itself and carries the trilogy forward brilliantly, setting the stage, I hope, for a terrific ending in the third book.

1 August 2019

Review - The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child

Design by Ellen Rockell
The Undoing of Arlo Knott
Heather Child
Orbit, 1 August 2019
PB, e, 336pp

I'm grateful to Orbit and to Nazia in particular for a free advance copy of The Undoing of Arlo Knott to consider for review.

Following up the success of last year's Everything About You, which explored SF ideas about a future of virtual and augmented reality, Child returns with a more fantasy driven story, focussed on a central idea and its consequences: what if you could turn back time, undoing moments and unpicking mistakes?

Arlo Knott is introduced in childhood, a happy child whose life is about to change forever. After a shocking trauma, he discovers that he has a talent for going back and changing things - not, though, that event.

Child paints a convincing and sympathetic portrait of the boy, and then the the teenager and young man, Arlo. It's an impressive achievement, especially given that Arlo isn't a very likeable character. As he freely admits himself, he is self-centred, oblivious to the needs of others, and self-pitying. One of the clearest aspects of this novel is how, later admitting those failings, Arlo continues to embody them, if in subtler ways. The child and the teenager crave attention and approval (something that has roots both in that previously mentioned event, and in earlier loss - Arlo's father having vanished to the US in quest of an acting career) but the man... ah, the man graduates from using his talent to turn over casinos and scratchcard vendors for easy wins to stage magic, using it to underpin a mind-reading act. He swears there's no trickery even while admitting he's literally turning back time. And it's clearly not about money - it's a quest for adulation, and when the clapping ends, he dumps the stage act.

And so it goes, as Arlo manipulates his way through a succession of careers, and through relationships too. He earlier noted that he never used his "gift" as you might imagine a teenage boy would - though he seems to come pretty close - but when he fancies a girl it proves very useful to be able to backtrack on conversational deadness and reflect her own views and preferences back to her.

For much of the book, then, Arlo is something of a rat and it's only the growing entanglements of family, his girlfriend and the succession of - I'm not sure what word to use - victims, perhaps? - he leaves in his wake that (eventualy) gives him pause for thought. When it does happen, though, the trap that Child sets for Arlo is so clever and so wicked that, as I've said, one actually does sympathises.

This is a breathtaking book, notable not only for a high concept but also for the down to Earth and plausible interaction of Arlo with that and for the effect on his personality and development. We also get a very human take on relationships, family - including ageing, the father eventually coming back from the US for support with his dementia, spending his time, in a metaphor for the book as a whole, devising and building a labyrinthine board game which seems to have Arlo at hits heart. Arlo's stormy relationship with his sister also plays a large part, Child revealing her view of events fairly late in the book and transforming one's understanding of it when she does.

It's a great read, the various sections dealing with Arlo's different careers (self-aggrandising even when allegedly altruistic) keeping the main themes in sight while ringing the changes, so that the book never settles down into samey, soft-centredness but instead keeps surprising and changing the reader. I hesitate to use clichés like "unputdownable' but this is a book that is very easy to keep reading and reading.

And when it runs into its nail biting close... well, as my poor dogs, eating for their evening walk, found out earlier this evening, yes, I think it might even justify that phrase.

All in all a triumphant successor to Child't first book.

30 July 2019

Review - Jade War by Fonda Lee

Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio
Jade War (The Green Green Bone Saga: Book 2)
Fonda Lee
Orbit, 25 July 2019
PB, e, 590pp

I'm grateful to Orbit and especially to Nazia for a free advance copy of Jade War, the sequel to super Jade City, to consider for review.

I honestly don't think I'd ever read anything like Jade City, so I was eager for the followup and it didn't disappoint.

We are back on the island of Kekon, dominated by the clans of Green Bones, warriors able to enhance their strength and other abilities with the special jade found only there. A Green Bones can assume vast Strength, walk Lightly, Perceive others at a distance, Channel the jade power to hurt or heal, and use various other skills. In a setting loosely reminiscent of our world and centred on an analogue of Eastern Asia, the Green Bones are crucial to power on Kekon and their clans are key to wider political and cultural tensions. We see the aftermath of the Many Nations War, the struggle between tradition and modernity. And meddling foreigners.

Painting on a wider canvas than Jade War, this time Lee shows us other nations, especially the US- analogue, the Republic of Espenia, which, of course, shares its name with a continent (I was geekily delighted to see that its capital has a name which abbreviates to "AC".)  Espenia is where Anden has gone - Anden who at the end of Jade City, refused to be inducted as a Green Bones, a great insult to the No Peak clan with which he's affiliated. Sent into exile to learn the language of those influential foreigners, he finds solace in a Kekonese immigrant community which is struggling both to maintain its cultural traditions and to resist prejudice and gang violence in the poorer part of town. Lee gives a superb picture of first and second generation immigrants facing a host of issues, raising questions of assimilation and cultural survival as well as what happens when the powers of the old country come knocking.

Anden is a sympathetic and well drawn character, someone who's gone far, but, he soon realises, not far enough, to avoid Green Bones. The book takes time and gives its people plenty of room to develop, running over two or three years so we see Anden both as a wide-eyed newcomer (Port Massy is a metropolis, something he hasn't seen before; it has world famous sights and a multicultural buzz that's new to him) and as a shrewder, more experienced man, who's seen a few things, learned a bit and is in a relationship with Cory, soon of Mr and Mrs Hiasn, his hosts.

Also featuring in the book, back in Janloon, are Hiro, Pillar - leader - of No Peak after the murder or his brother, and Shae, Weather Man to the clan. She had her own issues with No Peak in the earlier book, eventually coming home to take her place (shades of The Godfather, I thought: I just love the way these books pick up beats from both the Corleone saga and from a mass of other literature and films - even while at the same time the characters warn against sensationalised Shotarian martial arts films about the Green Bones). No Peak is still in a war with the Mountain, the other main clan, and over the course of the book we see the conflict shift to and fro, enmeshed with Kekonese politics, national sentiment and a war between Shotar and Ygutan.

Lee realises this world perfectly, telling an episodic story that sometimes skips months or years then settles down to narrate a telling episode, a dangerous encounter for a character something that violently, unexpectedly illuminates the ingrained nature of Green Bones culture (I'm thinking especially of a couple of trips Hiro makes abroad, which dramatically contrast his background and personality with the cultures around him.)

It's a long book, but one I found I could happily immerse myself in, drinking in the detail as well as the overall arc. Just as good, if not better, than Jade City, Jade War delivers a compelling reading experience and a refreshingly different strand of fantasy.

For a sample chapter of Jade War, see the Orbit website here.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive Books, or from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.

29 July 2019

#BlogBlast review - Lord of Secrets by Breanna Teintze @JoFletcherBooks #LordofSecrets @BreannaTeintze

Lord of Secrets (The Empty Gods, 1)
Breanna Teints
Jo Fletcher Books, 25 July 2019
PB, e, 336pp

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for a free advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley and inviting me to take part in the Blog Blast (and Milly - I apologise that I'm a day or two late with this).

I love a book with a grabby, exciting beginning, and Lord of Secrets has that, as rogue young wizard Corcoran Gray, who happens to be invisible at the time, crashes into a remote barn and encounters escaped slave-girl Brix.

Thrown together, the two embark on a series of breakneck adventures, hunted both by the Temples (Brix) and the Magicians' Guild (Gray). Brix is trying to free her sister, who's been sold to the Temples; Gray, to locate and free his grandfather, who has been arrested for necromancy. It's a smart, high-voltage take on magic, Gray being pretty mean at scribing runes and Brix having secrets and abilities of her own. Ion fact, once begun, it's a book that keeps you hooked with the pages simply whizzing by.

I especially enjoyed the fact that the focus is fairly tight, with the primary interested being the consequences for the protagonists and their families. There are wider plots going on involving the fate of the Kingdom and, at one point, a potential undead uprising, but nobody really cares about any of that - they just want their loved ones safe. I found that refreshing.

Of course there is a romance subplot here, and it's good to see it develop and to see the - rather scratchy and awkward - two central characters manoeuvre, but there really isn't a lot of time for them given the constant series of threats, from those pursuing guildies to rapacious innkeepers, starvation on the road and bony zombies. Gray's magical abilities - and the poison that results form scribing runes on the skin - are constantly drawn upon, even as he tries to solve the mystery of his grandfather's whereabouts and of his own origin, which is pretty unclear. Finding one's place in the world is of course a well used theme, but Teintze brings, I think, something genuinely original to it with Gray and the comparison and contrast with Brix's is complex and interesting.

While in one or two places I could see the storyline closely paralleling a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, Teintze avoids cliche (not bags of gold pieces for Corcoran and Brix) and overall I greatly enjoyed this book and wound recommend it, especially if you're not sure whether you want to read fantasy or not.

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

28 July 2019

#Blogtour #Review - Shadows of the Short Days by Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson

Shadows of the Short Days
Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson
Gallancz, 25 July 2019
HB, 528pp, e

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

Shadows of the Short Days is set in an alternate Iceland where instead of geothermal power, magic - seiðmagn - wells up from the ground and is harnessed to industrial and military use. While details are kept vague - everyone knows this stuff, right? - it's clear that the seiðmagn is toxic, mutating wildlife and poisoning the ground. Whether this has always been the case or there has been some recent cataclysm is not stated. The island is occupied, forcibly incorporated into the Kolkar "commonwealth" and one suspects it is that magical energy that they really want - possibly it is a rare commodity? Much of the motivation for the story is struggle against that foreign occupation and the oppression it brings.

This political setup of course reflects, to a degree, Icelandic history and the movement for independence in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fittingly then, the two central characters are both, in their different ways, rebels.

Garún is a "blendigar" - half-human, half-huldufólk, and subject to prejudice and discrimination on that ground. Huldufólk are something like are elves (one feature of this book is that the mythological creatures and things tend to be labelled in un-translated Icelandic - for example we also meet "Marbendill", which are mermen/ maids. While there is a glossary at the end, it was fun to encounter these creatures and concepts, which are very stark and strange, in a foreign language). There is a whole backstory to the huldufólk explaining why they're so reviled, hooking into a wider history of this alternate world. Garún is firmly part of the revolutionary movement, spending her nights grafitti-ing magical sigils across Reykjavík to provoke dissent and unrest. By day she's a struggling artist and a member of a Bohemian underground fuelled by the consumption of magic-infused drugs. (Vilhjálmsson has some powerful scenes documenting this). She also has a rather sad backstory - Garún is overall a very well rounded character with whom I strongly sympathised, her sense of rejection as a blendigar and the prejudice she meets coming through strongly.

Sæmundur, the other main protagonist, is equally well drawn although he's difficult to actually like. Sæmundur - obsessed, driven - is a student and part of the same set as Garún (they were together but split up several months before). He's more focussed - even fixated - on developing his magical abilities and studies at Svartiskóli, effectively a university devoted to "Galdur", a branch of magic concerned with the invocation and manipulation of demons. Sæmundur is at loggerheads with his teachers who regard him as a loose cannon, likely to go his own way and meddle with Things Better Left Unknown (they're basically right about this).

This world that Vilhjálmsson draws is, then, intricate, well thought out, and immersive. We can feel the wrongs being done to the people of Reykjavík (the city is surrounded by a wall, the better to maintain control). We can hear the beat and smell the drug-laden air of the parties Garún attends, taste Sæmundur's rage at being judged by his teachers, see the prejudice directed at the blendigar, huldufólk, Marbendill and other non-humans. It's a very strong background, and makes the story thoroughly credible and absorbing. That said, I did regret that there is almost no material from the viewpoint of the occupiers - a couple of scenes at most - which means their movements, motivations, reactions and plans are almost completely missing. The effect is that the resistance movement of which Garún is part seems simply to be kicking at a monolith. That doesn't make for any lack of drama, though: the scenes that describe the eventual conflict are excitingly written and pacy with real tension and terror for our group of rebels.

And I think terror is the right word - this book is very dark indeed. The opening section, showing Garún and Sæmundur going about their lives, gives a rather deceptive impression, suggesting that the darkness is only an incidental theme while it is, I think, actually rather the central feature in this book. Set around Icelandic Midwinter that's also rather fitting. But in the end this is I think a very bleak book even if it is a magnificently bleak book. It is certainly an enthralling and tasty read, genuinely different from the run of fantasy. You could, perhaps, fit it into the Lovecraftian things-from-beyond-time template, or the dystopian pattern of an oppressive state but that doesn't really work, this is a book that speaks for itself and - especially once that introductory third is past - both excites and appals with its weird, weird appeal.

A definite recommendation, you need to read this.

For more information about the book, see the Gollancz website here.