24 December 2015

Review: The Rising by Ian Tregillis

The Rising
Ian Tregillis
Orbit, 2015
PB, 443pp

I bought my copy of this book from the Wallingford Bookshop.

The Rising is the second part of a trilogy - always a tricky proposition - but Tregillis has written a book that is, if anything, even better than The Mechanical.

The story picks up exactly where the earlier book left off (warning - spoilers for The Mechanical follow). After destroying the new Grand Forge which would have turned out legions invincible mechanicals, of Jax, the "rogue" Clacker, is on the run from the Dutch "clockmakers" and seeking the fabled Northern land of Queen Mab where his kind can, it is said, live freely in peace and safety.

Berenice, the disgraced French spymistress (who has one of the most inventive lines in swearing that I've come across in fiction for a long time) has herself fallen into the hands of the Horologists, who seem to have plans for her. And Father Visser, the French agent who tried to escape Amsterdam in the previous book, has been captured and "turned".

As the Dutch, wielding their mechanicals, go to war with New France (modern day Canada) the book explores further the big themes of the first part: the possibility of Free Will (for either human or machine), loyalty and responsibility, the vileness of enslaving thinking beings and the corrosive effect that has. Several times Berenice comments that the Dutch have become "soft" through depending on their clockwork men to do everything for them. And her nation, new France, is composed of exiles who abjure this slavery as evil. Yet she spends much of this book seeking a way not to free the enslaved machines but to take control of them - for the greater good, of course.

The central conceit of the story somewhat resembles Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics (http://www.auburn.edu/~vestmon/robotics.html) - the alchemically forged "mechanicals" have built in "hierarchical metageasa" controlling what they may do and what they must do. In particular these prevent them from harming a human... in normal circumstances. But Asimov's stories, for all their rational sympathy with the robots, generally  turned on the technicalities of the Laws and pushed into the background the ethics and reality of slavery. Tregillis, by contrast, dwells on these making this a powerful dissection of control and power. The Clackers are strong and do not experience physical discomfort, tiredness or pain. But they have implanted in them a burning need to obey their programming, a need which only becomes worse if put off. The slave armies which, in the book, assault the New French citadel (in a piece of fantasy battle writing better than any I've read for a long time) are, in effect, whipped on by their geasa to commit acts which most of them recognise to be evil for humans they hate and fear. The plight of the beleaguered French garrison is dire but the plight of the wretched Clackers is simply pitiful.

Not that the book ever becomes preachy. It has vivid characters - both human and nonhuman - with whom it's possible to have great sympathy even though one may disagree with what they are trying to do. It has great drive, culminating with the siege of Marseilles-in-the-West, which reminded me of nothing so much as the assault on Minas Tirith in The Lord of The Rings. And the concept of the mechanical men (and women) with their control codes etched in alchemical symbols is well realised and has a distinct whiff of sulphur: so much so that I felt the whole matter of the mechanicals origin has a backstory which could be explored more fully 9and I hope will be).

Before that, of course, there is the current storyline to resolve. Things are, again, left in the air - and the reader left needing the next book, The Liberation for which we'll have to wait nearly twelve months. They can't go quickly enough for me...

18 December 2015

An Amazon Vine review: Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

Susan Dennard
Tor, January 2016
HB, 416pp

I was sent a copy of this book by Amazon UK to review as part of their Vine programme.

Reading it was something of a leap in the dark for me - this type of epic fantasy, not to say YA(ish) (which is how it seems to be presented - though I'm not 100% sure...) isn't what I usually go for. But I'd heard good things about the book (and series) and thought it worth a try - and I'm glad to say that I found it very entertaining, deftly written and engaging.

We first meet Iseult and Safi, the teenage (?) protagonists as they - literally - commit highway robbery on a remote coast road. They're quickly established as two very capable young women (indeed so much so that Dennard soon has to find ways to incapacitate, separate or otherwise hamper them, or else they'd make mincemeat of their enemies and the book would be done in half the length). Not only are they able and willing to kill (a bit chilling, that) but they have magical abilities - Safi is the Truthwitch of the title and can distinguish between truth and lies, Iseult can see (and manipulate?) people's "threads" - the coloured strands that reveal emotions, bind together lovers or friends and dictate one's way in life.

These aren't the only magical abilities in the book. We meet windwitches, tidewitches, firewitches and even blood- and iron- witches, to list only a few. There's also a supporting cast of emperors (and empresses), kings, princes, fighting monks, sailors and merchants. It's a vivid, jostling world, clearly modelled (there is a map! look at the map!) on medieval Europe, albeit one with REAL witches and REAL magic.

It's also a troubled world where an uneasy peace exists between rival empires. Where the poison of ancient wars taints the land. Where witches are hunted both by those who prize their powers and by those who fear and hate them. Dennard doesn't bother to explain much of this, rather we're plunged right in and have to pick it up as we go along, so the first 50 or 100 pages may be rather bewildering. Indeed I stopped trying to remember some of the detail - like which empire was which - and I was worried for a while, then realised it doesn't really matter. Dennard has you safe and takes you where you need to go, just as the wind-witchery catches up Safi and Iseult many times and sets them down again.

It's a fairly intricate plot involving kidnap, forced marriage and high politics (taking Safi and Iseult into a world they are less familiar with and where they are unable to solve their problems at swordpoint) but a big-hearted one. The two fearless girls are that heart. Amidst the breakneck action their friendship burns brightly and when they are together - and unhampered - it can burn through any obstacle.

There are of course some familiar fantasy tropes: a mysterious shadow in Iseult's dreams, a hint of some coming, prophesied hero or god, a warrior with a sworn duty, the high-born aristocrat and the humble, runaway tribe member striking up a friendship - but these don't distract and much of the action, at least in this book, is character driven and immediate: no doubt the bigger picture will be explored in the sequels. And even here Dennard plays with the ideas and overturns them - so for example that warrior would rather hire out his sword than fulfil his sworn destiny - and I'm sure that even when these elements assume more prominence they'll still be secondary to the joyous team that is Safi and Iseult.

A VERY strong start to a new series.

8 December 2015

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

Number 11, or Tales that Witness Madness
Jonathan Coe
Viking, 2015
HB, 351pp

I bought my copy from Wallingford Bookshop.

Several years ago Jonathan Coe wrote in The Guardian about his book What a Carve Up!, published in 1994. Number 11 is a sequel, of sorts, to WACU but you won't need to have read that to enjoy it. (I haven't). Indeed Coe gives the game away, including an extract from the notebooks of a dead film critic:

"Rachel turned to the 'W' section and soon found What a Whopper.

Lame British comedy, she read, about a bunch of beatniks who travel to Loch Ness to build a model of the monster.

1962. Sequel to What a Carve Up! (1961)? Not really. Two of the same actors.

*Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique, slippery."

Number 11 includes many references to the Winshaw family, five of whom apparently dies a violent death in the earlier book, and indeed there are some actual living, breathing Winshaws, and there is some thematic continuity between the books, both of which (again, judging WACU from reviews and from what Coe himself has written about) are pretty scathing of right wing, free market politics and those who support it. But if it is sequel, it is definitely a sequel which is not really a sequel.

Coe's 2011 essay (part of which is repeated and put into the mouth of a character here) alone would make this clear. While WACU may have been satire, Coe argued that satire let the powerful and privileged off the hook. Like a court jester, perhaps, it enables frustrations and tensions to be discharged with no dangerous effects, ultimately frustrating the urge for change. It's hard to imagine Coe committing satire after that.  The book is certainly scathing in places about 21st century life - about those who seek to put a price on everything (the widow of that dead film critic writes a book called Monetizing Wonder), about the super-rich whose investment homes are killing parts of London, about clickbait journalists, reality TV, the need for food-banks and tax avoidance (to give only a few).

But the scathingness(?) is part of a dialogue that Number 11 seems to hold with itself. There is no escape to a golden past. The film critic was obsessed with tracking down an old black and while short he saw once, as a schoolboy, in the 60s and his widow Laura sees this as a simply a yearning for a safe, lost world, free from multichannel TV, safe from choice. "The whole thing that defined the situation , and the whole beauty of it, as far as he was concerned, was passivity. Other people were making choices for him." So determined is Laura to keep her small son from looking back to a golden childhood that she seems to go out of her way to make his life unpleasant.

The loss of innocence - or the absence of innocence - seems the dominant theme in the book, repeated and reworked in countless ways from the death of David Kelly to the crushing of a faded singer's hopes of a comeback via a celebrities-in-the-jungle show to a friendship between two young women destroyed by a misunderstanding over Snapchat.

Those two women form the core of the book: one of them, Rachel, is seen at the beginning with her brother. She about to suffer a disillusionment even then. Rachel then appears as the force behind the story, writing down what has happened to her in order to make sense of it, before her friend Laura is introduced. With digressions to bring Rachel's friend Alison and her mum Val (the ex-singer) and Rachel's university tutor (Laura) the book moves through a variety of narrators and forms.  There are emails, newspaper articles and a section that seems to be imitating a sub Sherlock Holmes detective story - until either Coe tires of that game or his excellent writing reasserts itself and banishes the pastiche.  All this is unified by the constant recurrence of the number 11 (as a house number, on a a bus, the lowest level of a basement extension, a table number at an awards dinner...)

Without that thread, one might begin to regard this as a series of linked short stories rather than a single novel, albeit a series with many characters in common. Indeed Coe is almost wasteful in the way he drops characters and situations. I'd like to have learned more about some of them: there could be a whole book in Laura's life, perhaps, or that of her husband Roger with his obsessive hunt for that film, The Crystal Garden (let alone the Mad Bird Woman of Beverley or the Chinese immigrant Lu). Perhaps Coe will write some of these books - he does seem to have a habit of picking things up again (as Number 11 itself shows).

However the sheer heterogeneity of the book does make it very hard to come to an overall judgement. I think perhaps the most apposite verdict would be that of Miss Jean Brodie: for those that like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.

For my part I loved it and after a slow start in the first part of the first section, ended up reading it in longer and longer chunks, finally enthralled by the ending (though I'm still not sure what actually happened). Others perhaps will stick to the verdict Coe cites in that essay: "It's become a matter of honour for most reviewers in this country (and many readers) to remind me as often as possible that What a Carve Up! is my best novel...."

Right, I'm off now to read What a Carve Up! and see what the fuss was about.

5 December 2015

Review: The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Widow
Fiona Barton
Bantam Press, 14 January 2016
HB, 313 pp

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

Jean Taylor's life was blissfully ordinary. Nice house, nice husband. Glen was all she;d ever wanted: her Prince Charming. But then everything changed...

The premise of the book is intriguing: it's the story of one of those women glimpsed standing by a scandal-wracked husband. "What's really going through her mind?" you wonder, before flicking over the channel or clicking to another page.  "Why doesn't she just leave him? Did she know?" Or even perhaps "If she's sticking by him maybe it's not actually true. She must know. You would, wouldn't you?"

Fiona Barton seems better placed than most to answer these questions, having worked as a journalist including covering high profile trials and heartrending cases. She carefully doesn't say how far the actual events portrayed here (rather than the details of how things are handled) are based on insider knowledge, though a few elements seem pretty familiar from the past few years.

I'm not sure though that in the end we exactly get an answer.  We examine Jean's - the wife/ widow's - motivation as we learn about her, about her husband and about their life beforehand (it wasn't as perfect as the blurb above suggests).  While at one level (what actually happened) there is, by the end, (apparently) no mystery, at another - motivation and inner life - there remains a deep puzzle about her. Perhaps that's inevitable, and perhaps it also shows how far Barton has created a real character who can't be pinned down with a neat resolution - even if it runs slightly counter to the marketing of the book.

In many respects this ought to be a rather depressing story - as any story centring on the disappearance of a child is likely to be (no spoilers, this is clear from the start) - especially one peopled by mostly unlikable characters (not a criticism: I'm not one of those who wails if I can't easily relate to someone in a book). Barton therefore has a formidable task, particularly I think as a first time novelist, to create something that will draw the reader in. It's a testament to the quality of her writing that she does this: the story has bags of narrative drive and the characters are real and believable even if they aren't, mostly, people you'd want to share a park bench with.

Barton splits her story between several points of view - mainly The Detective, Bob, and The Widow: also quite a bit of The Reporter, Kate (dare we hope that these parts are more personal? It's not really clear though the antics of the press aren't exactly portrayed as heroic) with one or two others. We also see quite a lot, through their eyes, of The Mother though she doesn't get the same direct focus. I think this would be pretty painful and I was rather glad of it, to be honest.

The narrative dodges back and forward in time, starting shortly after the disappearance of young Bella but also following the aftermath of the police investigation some years later. We see how the whole process has affected Glen, the main suspect, Jean, Bob, and Kate. Again that has the effect - a necessary one I think if a book like this is going to appeal widely - of distancing us from the ghastly reality of the main events, because we see everyone later when they have all, to a degree, "put it behind them" (as Glen is fond of saying: easy for him to say).

So the full picture only emerges slowly, as the case against Glen builds over years. One of the cleverest things that Barton does is to make us see the various characters form each other's point of view. With no omniscient narrator the reader is left wondering who (if anyone) they can trust in all this - sadly, I think, the answer is nobody, not even the grieving Mother with her campaign raising money to "Find Bella".

If all this analysis makes the book seem rather cold and calculated, it really isn't. As I said above I found it engaging.  It's a book with heart, a very satisfying read, if a sad one, and, yes, Barton does withhold some mystery to the end - while I didn't find it totally surprising I wouldn't have put money on the outcome.

On the evidence of this book, Barton can really write and I'd look forward to more from her in future.

2 December 2015

Review: The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

The Masked City
Genevieve Cogman
Pan, 3 December 2015
PB, 368 pp

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

This is the sequel to The Invisible Library (Amazon review here: I don't seem to have blogged this one) and is in my view as good or better than the earlier book.

Irene works for a mysterious, extradimensional Library which exists across multiple worlds. Is mission is to collect books and it isn't too fastidious about the means employed. Basically Irene and her colleagues are Library secret agents, equally at home demurely taking tea with the Ambassador and climbing over rooftops committing burglary.

In The Masked City, Irene's little establishment in a Victorian London (but with werewolves! And Fae!) suffers a reverse. With lots of promises form her bosses and the dragons, she's still left pretty much on her own, undertaking a perilous journey to put things right. Failure will mean was between the Fae and the Dragons; failure will mean Irene takes the blame.

Both Dragons and Fae are tricky customers: the former domineering and tyrannical, the latter prone to feeding on humans by drawing them into and an ever more megalomaniacal life narrative. Dragons thrive on Order, Fae on Chaos. The Library seeks to maintain a balance.

What follows is pretty much non stop action featuring an enchanted Venice, a supernatural Train, alternate dimensions, sinister cloaked figures in the mist, an impossibly handsome Dragon and a great deal more. Throughout it all Irene is intrepid, resourceful and independent. Nobody comes to her rescue (well I think it might have happened once) and the fate of that handsome Dragon depends on her. It's a kind of compelling nonsense (not a criticism, I LIKE nonsense) as beguiling as a Fae Lord and impossible to pigeonhole (PhDs could be written on whether this is Fantasy, Urband Fantasy or what. Who cares.)

One of my (slight) criticisms of the previous book was that in places the language could do with a bit more polish. That couldn't be said of Masked City and indeed Cogman has some witty turns of phrase ("Do I itch, and would they scratch?" "She, Vale and Kai were untidy blotches on its expensive elegance. Blotches with coffee, though, which helped.")

Mostly though it is, like Invisible Library, a great, occasionally funny, occasionally scary, romp. And Irene is a terrific hero. More of this please Ms Cogman.

21 November 2015

Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem
Cixin Liu (trans by Ken Liu)
Head of Zeus, 2015
HB, 390pp

I bought my copy of this book from Waterstone's in Oxford

The three body problem, in classical physics, refers to the motion under gravity of three masses. Unlike for two bodies, where the relative position and velocity of the bodies can be found from a formula, for any time, with three bodies one can only determine the result numerically - by simulating the states - in general although it can be calculated exactly in some special cases.  Those numerical solutions aren't so bad: they enable us to get to the Moon and to launch probes to the edge of the Solar system. But they can't prove that - for example - the Solar system is stable, that it won't all fly apart at some stage.

This is the conundrum that underlies Cixin Liu's book. Set sometime in the near future - based on the technology - scientists and other leaders of thought are being enticed into an online game, "The Three Body Problem" apparently set on a word with three Suns. Trisolaris is plagued by frequent "Chaotic eras" during which the planet becomes unliveable, and its future seems bleak with no means to predict how long those periods of chaos will last. The game is unusually gripping and seems to attract like minded people to attack the central Problem.

Against this background, a researcher in nanomaterials, Wang Miao, is approached by the police in Beijing to help with an investigation into a mysterious organisation, the Frontiers of Science, which involves him becoming immersed in the game. One thing leads to another and Wang's investigation leads him cross paths with both to Shi Qiang, a hard bitten and chainsmoking Chinese policeman and Ye Wenjie, a retired astrophysicist whose father was murdered by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Much of this story is in fact Ye's, describing what happened to her next after she was sent to work on a highly classified research base deep in the forest. That turns out to have deep repercussions not only for China but for humanity, and I gather that Cixin Liu explores that further in the rest of this trilogy.

This is a remarkable book, a rattling good SF story which never lets up - whether told from the point of view of Wang, of Ye or even of the Trisolarans themselves - but which is also rooted in the reality of events in 60s and 70s China. These are things we have never I think understood well in the West - vast dislocations in a country we know very poorly (and much of what we do know is the open China that has emerged since those events, so at two removes, as it were) - so there is a real sense in which to me, the strangest things in the book aren't the SF themes but the human and cultural ones. That isn't of course the same perspective as that of the original Chinese readership, which illustrates perhaps the value of translation for books like this.

As unfamiliar as the content were aspects of the form. The book is, as I said, told from a number of perspectives and includes for example official documents and reports as well as statement, narrative and speeches. To a degree the story is a framework for presenting these, with some of the characters having a fairly clear purpose to present a particular outlook or perspective . I haven't read much other Chinese fiction but I recognised that approach (though I'm not going to generalise and assert it is the norm!)

This book has collected lots of praise and prizes - deservedly, in my opinion.

A good Christmas present for the SF fan in your life.

16 November 2015

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Career of Evil
Robert Galbraith
Sphere, 2015
HB, 487pp

I bought this book from Wallingford Bookshop

This is the third in Robert Galbraith's (JK Rowling's) series featuring Cormoran Strike, private detective, who from his seedy flat off Charing Cross Road in London solves the cases the police can't or won't.

This is easily the best so far. The earlier books were set in quite distinct worlds - fashion and publishing - giving an instant milieu but also in my view setting a barrier, and setting the reader a double task of not only getting to grips with the mystery but also of inhabiting those settings.

There is none of that here. The mystery comes straight at Cormoran and his partner Robin when they receive a gruesome package - a severed limb - and it seems directed at them personally. Strike can immediately reel off the names of four people (four men) who might sent it - an East End gangster he'd brought down, and three soldiers he had dealings with while in the Military police. Of course the police go for the gangster, leaving Strike to follow up the others while his business collapses due to the bad publicity.

It's a long and convoluted trail, taking Strike and Robin to Melrose, to Barrow, to Market Harborough and to Corby - a progress which Rowling/ Galbraith makes into a mini "condition of Britain" survey describing the various towns and also their attitudes, from the surveyed streets of Barrow outside the nuclear shipyards to sport-mad Melrose. She is pretty frank in what she reveals about people: Strike's suspects are a mixed up crew who were pretty vile to their families. The story reveals a very nasty to some men (even if #notallmen) with women and children bearing the brunt of it.

Of course that enables Strike to appear as something of a hero at times: but the burden of the book is borne as much or more by Robin who - I think - fully steps out of Strike's shadow for the first time, taking the initiative and getting into some risky situations as a result. This as her relationship with fiance Matthew unravels. Matthew is a deeply unpleasant man and most readers would I think be glad to see the back of him (and to see Robin fall into Strike's arms: or vice versa). Strike's sense of honour won't let that happen although surely, surely, it is where this series is leading?

It isn't a book for the fainthearted: there are nasty descriptions of nasty things and the villain - he really is a villain - is truly horrible: we know this, we are in his head regularly through the book and it isn't nice. (Indeed it's a mark of good the writing is that once we understand what he's done, he stands out even against some pretty odious characters we've already met.) Galbraith/ Rowling adeptly sends red herrings swimming in all directions so despite this insider view I didn't guess who he was until she was ready to reveal it. Yet despite the red herrings the book remains focussed, tightly plotted and convincing.  We also learn a great deal more about Cormoran and Robin's earlier lives, and what made them how they are.

I have a feeling this series is now really getting going, and I can't wait for the next. While I'm also looking forward to the Harry Potter play next year i hope it doesn't delay another adventure for Cormoran and Robin.

8 November 2015

Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House
David Mitchell
Sceptre, 2015
HB, 233pp

I bought this book from Goldsboro Books.

This was the first book by Mitchell I'd read, although I have The Bone Clocks waiting in my TBR and having enjoyed this I'll move it up. The books are linked - I spotted one or two cross references although not having read the earlier one in no way detracted form my experience with this.

Slade House is a series of linked novellas, involving the eponymous address, set between 1979 and 2015. Fittingly for what is really a horror novel, something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October. The book describes a series of such episodes, all set in the same anonymous town (but, OK, I'm sure it is Reading!) as different souls are brought to the crooked Alley and encounter a small metal door.

First, in 1979, we meet a boy and his mother. Mum is a down on her luck musician, looking for work: her son possibly autistic in his directness. Following directions given by a window cleaner, they find the Alley.

Nine years later, a less agreeable character, a police officer, comes looking. He is followed, in 1997, by a party of students from their University's Paranormal Society (Slade Alley's fame is spreading...)

In 2006, a woman comes looking for that group. And in 2015... well, I'll say nothing specific about that (although you can get some clues from a series of tweets from @I_Bombadil sent in September and October this year. They cease on October 31st).

Common to the stories are a brother and a sister who, in various guises, seem to inhabit the house. Their motives are dark, but we only gradually learn, through the book, exactly what they are up. Not, perhaps, gradually enough: there is one scene in one of the later stories where, just in case we missed the point, it's all explained through a third party - do read the stories in order as it would be fatal to encounter this one first!

That quibble aside, the stories are all eerily effective in their own right with the characters and their backgrounds well done: the boy missed his father after his parents split up, the woman who feels herself n the shadow of her high achieving sister,  the near racist, embittered cop. (Maybe a touch of a stereotype there). And of course, Norah and Jonah.

It's a short book - 233 pages - and one which I think most readers will get through in one or two sittings, perfectly suitable for an evening by the fire as October dies.

And it does have a delicious twist...

1 November 2015

Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

Europe at Midnight
Dave Hutchinson
Solaris, 5 November 2015

PB, 302 pp

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

Europe at Midnight is a companion, rather than a direct sequel, to Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn. The earlier book introduced a near-future Europe fragmenting busily into pocket republics, principalities, duchies and Free States - there are over 600 entries in the Eurovision Song Contest and the whole thing takes five or six days. (The horror!)

It also revealed...

[SPOILERS: if you haven't read Autumn already - and you really should have - go away and read it now]

...a hidden country, the Community, existing alongside and just round the corner from our world. The gateways to this place are lost (you could get there by train from Paddington, but the branch line closed and is now overgrown) and we don't know about it, but its residents - descendants of English émigrés from the 19th century - watch us, and do meddle in our business while living in a strange, pallid, 1950s kind of world, all tasteless food and tweed jackets. 

Just how much they meddle is only slowly revealed here, and I'm not sure that even by the end of the book we have plumbed the full depth. The third book should be very interesting.

As this is not a sequel, we don't meet the same characters as in Autumn (although I may have missed a Courreur or two somewhere). Instead there are two new protagonists - the unnamed narrator, who sometimes goes by the nom de guerre Rupert of Hentzau, and Jim, in England. Both work in Intelligence: Rupert in a strange place (The Campus) which resembles a university that has declared Independence, Jim in the (English) Security Service. They are conscientious men, patient men who, starting at opposite ends, gradually try to unravel the tangled relationship between Europe and the Community. At a cost.

Along the way Hutchinson delivers many delights - from the first glimpse of modern society through the eyes of a man who had never seen it before, to the refined calm of a backwater city on the other side of the Community. The book unfolds slowly and grows on you: much of its charm is in the gentle way it builds things up - for example Jim's methodical enquiry into a stabbing establishing his attention to detail and sense of duty, or his cautious friendship with academic-turned-spy Adele Bevan, "the only person in his life who never used a false identity".

Which isn't to say it lacks drama or action. Almost from the start, characters die just as you're getting to know and like them. Several factions are in play and there's little to choose between them in ruthlessness. Indeed, as the story develops and the stakes get higher Hutchinson almost makes the reader sympathise with a degree of ruthlessness, used in the right course. Almost, but not quite. Because despite everything, both "Rupert" (he says his name at one point but we aren't privy to the secret - would we have recognised it?) and Jim are decent people and they are the heart of this book. And they are not, in the end, ruthless men.

Finally, we do get a glimpse of some old friends from Europe in Autumn, and I hope this means that they will feature in the next book. Certainly thing set up for a dramatic conclusion to the sequence.

A wonderful, fun book, a book to be savoured.

31 October 2015

Review - Made to Kill by Adam Christopher

Made to Kill
Vol 1 of the LA Trilogy
Adam Christopher
Titan Books, 3 November 2015

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

This is the first volume of a projected trilogy featuring Raymond Electromatic, PI (ostensibly) and the last robot on Earth. Based in Los Angeles in an alternate 1960s full of shady nightclubs, dangerous dames and mean streets, Raymond is in reality an assassin (how this came about is summarised in the book, but told in more detail in Christopher's earlier ebook novella Brisk Money so if you plan to read this book you might want to try that one first). 

Working with his partner Ada the AI (there are lots of sly tech and SF and cultural references here - at one point Raymond has "a feeling somewhere in the diodes down my left side", at another a woman turns up who "had a tattoo of a dragon curling down her spine") Raymond uses his PI status as a cover for a profitable line in killings. Or so he's told - as his memory tape only lasts a day, he wakes afresh every morning with no recollections. 

So it's no surprise when a beautiful woman walks in wanting someone killed...

Full of noirish references and Cold War chicanery, this is a fast paced and action filled story though the plot doesn't perhaps bear too much examination. And given that Raymond weighs one ton and is built from steel plate, there's little sense of jeopardy, of danger, of Raymond running the risk that he'll be beaten up and left an an alley somewhere. Rather, I'd say the book is best seen as a framework for Raymond's deadpan dialogue ("I laughed. I'd been practicing. It sounded like two rocks going for a joyride in a clothes washer" "If I had an eyebrow I would have raised it, but I didn't, so i just kept on going down") and for the developing relationship between him and Ada. 

We never glimpse Ada. Her hardware is hidden in a computer room from which occasional sounds emerge (the clacking of reed relays sounding like a typewriter) but she only communicates by telephone, calling Raymond to offer advice or trade wisecracks. She is though firmly in control, giving Ray his orders - and it was her idea to go into the assassination business, strictly as a money raising venture (that brisk money again). Yet Raymond has his own ideas about her, hearing her as a femme fatale, feet up on her desk, wreathed in smoke. Can robots dream of electric girls? It seems so - especially in one episode towards the end of the book when we almost expect Ada to appear from behind the curtain. 

I would hope that the other books in this series will follow that relationship as it evolves (it already has, to a degree, from the earlier novella to this (still comparatively short) book as well as revealing more about Raymond and Ada, their mysterious maker, and exactly what they're up to (I don't quite buy the whole PI/ assassin step somehow...)

Entertaining, amoral and subtly different.

28 October 2015

The Traitor by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor
Seth Dickinson
Tor, September 2015
HB, 387pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop.

When The Traitor was recommended to me I was told it was dark and, gosh, is that true. It won't please the "I didn't like the central character" crowd at all. But it is a cracking read nonetheless.

Baru Cormorant, the traitor of the title (something made explicit in the US version which is called The Traitor Baru Cormorant) certainly grows and matures over the course of the story. We meet her first as a young girl on the island of Taranoke, living with her family - her mother, Pinion and her fathers Salm and Solit. Strangers have arrived on the island, merchants from Falcrest with their strange paper money and their tempting goods. "The Masquerade sent its favourite soldiers to conquer Taranoke: sailcloth, dyes, glazed ceramic, sealskin and oils..." The Masquerade is a strange Empire, funded on the overthrow of an apparently decadent aristocracy, alive with missionary zeal: it aims to not just to conquer but to rule and control, imposing a harsh, Puritanical system of morals (one certainly inimical to a family with two fathers) and ultimately controlling racial "bloodlines" as though people were no different to livestock.

Yet it is a strong Empire, and it rules intelligently, finding talent wherever it arises and pressing it into service. As with Baru, who turns out to be gifted, a savant who willingly enters the school of the Charitable Service and trains for the gruelling Civil Service exams. (This may be the first fantasy book I've read where the central character is an accountant!) Even though the Masquerade has murdered one of her fathers in the most horrible way imaginable.

So: Baru is a traitor to her people? Perhaps not. Se declares to herself that she will rise within the Falcresti civil service and bring liberty to Taranoke. So: is she a traitor to Falcrest? Both, seemingly - and she certainly harbours a secret that would bring punishment from her new masters: she loves women, not men. Such "tribadists, once discovered, are dragged to the Cold Cellars for surgery to correct the "defect".

Baru is sent to a distant, Northern province, the puzzling territory of Aurdwynn, newly conquered, divided between its quarrelsome Dukes (and Duchesses), fragmented by geography. Here she must prove herself to the Masquerade. Even as she learns that the name of her homeland has been changed, she must demonstrate both loyalty and ability. But here is a dilemma. Aurdwynn is on the verge of rebellion. Should Baru join the rebels - and should they succeed - she will indeed gain power. But can they succeed? At the heart of this dilemma is the so called "Traitor's Qualm": the lukewarm will only join a rebellion once they are convinced it can succeed, bit to succeed, it needs their support. Can Baru find a way to break the Qualm? And what will be the effect on her calculation of the - highly distracting - Duchess Vultjag, who begins as an enemy but could easily become something else.

And if she establishes herself in a freed Aurdwynn, what happens next? What will become of her family left on Taranoke? There is a strong focus on consequences, and nobody trusts to wishful thinking (or, indeed, trusts very much at all).  The book is written in grain, in coin, in the practicalities of transporting and feeding soldiers. It is not a story about a tiny band defending what is right against the dark forces of an evil empire - the revels do some truly awful things and many of them deliberately while the Falcresti saying, "Order is preferable to disorder" has much force.

Despite the moral ambiguity it's a highly engaging book, full of plots, gambits, strokes and counter-strokes. Baru navigates these deftly, and in Aurdwynn Dickinson has a developed a suitable theatre for politics and treachery both between the different Duchies and between them, Baru and the Falcresti authorities. There are wheels within wheels here: Baru's post is ostensibly that of Imperial Accountant but she is also involved with a shady cabal which she deduces is actually the real power behind the Falcresti throne - and their interests don't always seem to be aligned with those of the Imperial Governor.

Baru is increasingly isolated, turning to drink as she sacrifices more and more to her need for power and suppresses more and more of her true self. The transformation from the happy, bright girl of the early pages to the later Baru is expertly, if grimly, done: in summary this book does not make for light, escapist reading but is nevertheless an excellent read. I'd strongly recommend it.

21 October 2015

Review - Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald
Gollancz, September 2015
PB, 382pp

I saw this book when it first came out and nearly bought it it but just didn't quite, as with so many books - my TBR pile is really a health and safety nightmare, and I'm trying to train myself not to buy so much. Typical that I should overcompensate and I want to thank Kate who pressed this book on me and made sure I'd read it.


What. A. Book.

The blurb basically describes this as "The Godfather on the Moon" and I can see that - and that's a pretty good description for a mainstream audience. For SFF readers, I'd say: No, it's Dune for the 21st century - but done much better.

Dune is a book about conflict and rivalry between wealthy dynasties competing for power and resources on an inhospitable, sparsely populated planet. So is Luna. But while Dune, a book of the 60s, has an epic, Lawrence of Arabia sweep to it - all those battles on the desert sands of Arrakis - Luna equally fits the 2010s. Instead of the grand sweep of history we get a close up story as perceived through gossip sheets and blogs ("Three days to the wedding of the year! What will the boys wear? Here are spreads of Lucashino Corta's latest looks...") Much of the action is underground in confined, or at least limited, spaces - sweaty tunnels and artificial habitats deep beneath the surface, excursions to which are rare and fraught with danger.

Five "Dragons" control trade on the Moon, five families, the Cortas, the Mackenzies, the Vorontsovs, the Suns  and the Asamoahs. The rivalry between the Cortas and the Mackenzies is especially fierce and plays out in this book, seen through the eyes, mainly of Corta siblings and Marina Calzaghe, an emigrant to the Moon. (Another parallel with Dune - that sense of exile from a blue, wet world - in both Marina and in Adriana Corta, matriarch of her dynasty: she's the only first person narrator here, telling the story of how she came to the Moon, what she gave up and what she gained). The Moon is a harsh world, with many ways to kill. There is little law, only contracts negotiated on the fly between "familiars" - holographic AIs that company every character. Nothing is owned, all id on loan from the Lunar Development Corporation with air, water, carbon and data paid for by use. (If you run low on funds your breathing is restricted).

Earth is a distant memory for some, a legend for others. Live long enough on the Moon and your bones change, you can't return. Your body becomes the property of the LDC, to be turned into comps when you die. One character here, recently arrived from Earth, talks of being scared every moment of every day - and that fear pervades this book, even as the characters try different ways to block it: power games in the boardroom, hedonism (designer drugs from the printer, two week binges in bars and nightclubs), sex.

There is though much, much more going on here. It's a powerful, character driven story. We feel for Adriana, for Ariel, her daughter, for Lucashino, her grandson, for Flavia, surrogate mother of three of Adriana's children. McDonald makes them into real people, fascinating people. It's a long book and - from a certain perspective - not a great deal happens much of the time but simply spending time with these characters in enthralling in itself. Yes, there is scheming, there are Machiavellian plots within plots - betrayals, daring coups and simple brutality (I lost count of the number of deaths in the book). But that is almost incidental to the developing relationship between Ariel and Marina, or between Marina and Carlinhos, or the baffled hurt between Wagner and Adriana or - even - the bluff and bluster among the Mackenzies. (Another Dune parallel: the Mackenzies may fill the same niche here as the Harkonnens. They may also have a paralysed, brutal patriarch.  But they are realer, better portrayed, more three dimensional).

This may not be an action filled book but, when it does happen, the action is also real, nail biting and high-stakes - from the opening, a barefoot moonrun through freezing/ boiling vacuum, to the final page.

Like its comparator this is a book full of ideas, portraying a credible world crowded with possibilities.

Above all it leaves you wanting more - and promises to be able to sustain more.

Strongly recommended.

9 October 2015

Review - Lost Girl by Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill
Lost Girl
Pan, 22 October 2015
PB, 448pp

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

"Lost Girl" is the story of a missing child, and a father. As the world goes to hell, he focusses on his search for her. At any cost, whoever dies, whatever pain he has to suffer, he will find her.

Two years ago, Penny disappeared. She was playing in the garden by herself: her father, who should have been watching her, was upstairs, flirting by email. Is that why he is so driven to trace her, get her back? Is it guilt? Is it an attempt to atone, to flee from the empty life that's left after she was taken? Nevill doesn't quite tell us, preferring instead to communicate the simple fact of the father's drivenness, amplified by the fact that we never learn his name: throughout the book he remains, simply, the father.

This singleminded hunt is heightened because of the background to the novel. It is 2051, and runaway global warming has taken hold. The summers become hotter every year, crops are failing even in relatively buffered Britain, forest fires and droughts sweep the globe and India and Pakistan are on the verge of war over the declining rivers. A mass movement of refugees crosses Europe ("more and more coming in every day in great noisy leviathans of motion and colour and tired faces") and the population of the UK stands at 90 million (or 100, or 120... the Emergency Government isn't sure). Nationalists, jihadists and crime syndicates strut their stuff. Disease sweeps the globe (it's like the Four Horsemen have found a new partner,and enabler in climate change). Nobody has time or attention for one missing four year old. Except the father. Has he the right, we wonder, to pursue his own crusade like this? But if he doesn't who, who will?

It turns out that there are few like-minded souls who are happy to cooperate - or perhaps, one might think, use the father for their own ends, threatening sex offenders and imposing a kind of wild justice. It's a murky area and he'll take any help he can get - from the woman he only ever hears on the phone (except once...) and who he calls Scarlett Johansson, from the man who becomes Gene Hackman. They support the father, arm him and supply information - but can they really control what they've created?

Nevill's two most recent books, No One Gets Out Alive and House of Small Shadows have been unequivocal horror, albeit of a special kind: not so much spooks and spirits as the despair to be found in a dusty, abandoned country house or a rundown inner city terrace full of rustling plastic sheets and sticky, unwashed crockery. Here he maintains the emphasis on the seedy - as the world winds down, the father inhabits a string of decaying B&Bs, living off processed soya and Welsh rum.  For normal people the world is going to rack and ruin. Only the super rich, or the criminal gangs, have any normality left. But the supernatural? The horror? Well, you'll have to decide, and you can call this a near future thriller or SF if you want, but for me, the horror (the horror!) is rather more stark because it is a credible portrait of what might actually happen, not a piece of fantasy. Perhaps we need more horror like this to shock us into action.

So while this book is not quite what I'd come to expect from Nevill, it is, I'd say, quite properly a horror story and the writing is superb (perhaps a little info-dumpy in places, maybe a few too many lists) but haunting, eloquent and deeply troubling: "...a never-ending carousel of flame, black smoke, glass-strewn streets, bodies under tarpaulins, riot shields glittering in sunlight, placards, aerial footage of felled buildings in other countries, churning brown water moving too fast through places where people had once lived, trees bent in half, tents and tents and tents stretching into forever..."

And that's before we even get to the nihilistic criminal cult of King Death, which is rooted in the decay of our civilization and seems to want nothing but darkness and chaos, but also to be a symbol of it. While the climate change is human caused, the book seems to say, it is still assailing our civilization from outside - and we can, with concerted effort, repel it, plan, allocate, rebuild, confront it. But the enemy we can't defeat, because it is internal, is the human will to death, the selfishness, stuff-you-I'm-alright which is at its purest form in the crime syndicates and the gated communities of the rich, hoarding, thieving, fencing out, killing - a microcosm of what went wrong to cause the disaster in the first place, carrying on as normal, learning nothing.

This is a chilling vision of the future. And normally one might gain some relief from a horror story when the book closes and the bad things end, on closing this, my thoughts were rather that they might only be starting.

2 October 2015

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho
Macmillan, 2015
HB, 371 pp

I bought my copy from Blackwell's in Oxford.

This is a book that's attracted a lot of interest, and in my opinion, rightly so.

It is the story of two outsiders - the Sorcerer of the title, the self-contained, somewhat shy Zacharias Wythe and the somewhat impetuous Prunella Gentleman, orphan and would-be magician.

With the Napoleonic wars at their height, Britain is not a society to welcome outsiders.

Zacharias is an outsider because he is an ex-slave and African, Prunella because, as a woman, she's not supposed to practice "proper" magic, the domain of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers (basically a nasty social club full of snobs and bigots). The tension between these two and the Society (and... Society) is what gives this book its drive and zest.

Zacharias thinks only of his duty - to a nation and a class that would rather he didn't exist (and the book reveals what that cost him) - and has a job to do: English magic is draining away, and he needs to find out why. Of course his opponents only see this as an excuse to be rid of him, and are prepared to resort to the most horrible means to do so. They do, though, seem to have latched on to a dark secret: what really happened to Zacharias' predecessor, who die in strange circumstances, and his fairt familiar, Leofric? Zacharias doesn't want to talk about is but unless he can find a plausible explanation his time as Sorcerer to the Crown may be ended in a most unpleasant way.

Prunella wants a husband, not because she's particularly romantically inclined, but simply to give her a place, an income so that she can survive in Society, there being few roles for a single woman in the complicated hierarchy of the ton. So despite being a talented magicienne she aims first for an introduction to the right circles - despite the feelings that she starts to develop for Zacharias.

In doing justice to her characters Cho shows a great sensitivity, especially, to language, giving all of them - from a flustered schoolmistress to a young buck about town to a pompous Government flunky - a convincing Regency voice. But she also wraps up the racial and gender aspects with a good dose of post Colonial home truths for a complacent age (the country's magical difficulties are not helped by an inept far eastern imperial adventures) and shows how fantasy, whether or not in an actual historical setting, only benefits from diverse characters and from engaging with identity and history.

I apologise if that last bit makes the book sound preachy. It's really not. Above all it is well written, the characters credible and well portrayed, the story pacey and convincing (and at times very funny, with moments of pseudo Wodehouse absurdity in a proto Drones Club as a young man tries to avoid his fearsome Aunt's orders to give a speech at a girls' school).

And the denouement is genuinely... shocking.  I'll just say that behind the Jane Austen-esque manners, Prunella has real steel in her soul and a streak of ruthlessness that left me gasping.

So, as I said above, I think this book is deserving of the praise and attention it has received. For once, this is a story that lives up to the hype.

Finally, and not least, the UK hardback is simply a beautifully designed object.

29 September 2015

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Witches of Lychford
Paul Cornell
Tor, 2015
PB, 144pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop.

If stories of magic, monsters and the supernatural in a modern setting are supposed to be called "Urban Fantasy", then what are we to make of this, set in an idyllic, sleepy English village? "Rural Fantasy" sounds a bit Cold Comfort Farm - but in this story there might well be something nasty in the woodshed, so I'll assert now that Cornell has launched a new genre with his clever, chilling book.

Lizzie is the new Vicar in Lychford. Recently bereaved and still mourning her husband, she has come back to Lychford where she grew up. Judith, eccentric and quarrelsome, knows a bit about the Other World you can find along certain paths in the woods.  Autumn, once so rational and ordinary, experienced something impossible and now runs a magic shop in the village.

Together, the three women will face an ancient evil - and an unstoppable modern power, the mighty supermarket chain Sovo. If Sovo has its way, it will be the end of village life - and possibly of all life. Because Lychford is a special place, and needs to be preserved.

Blending together conservation, magic, religion, and big business, Cornell has created an extremely readable and rather funny adventure with three engaging protagonists who may not know much about what's happening, but do know what's right. And I have to say, as the husband of a Vicar living in a small village, his observations of clergy life (those Church Council meetings! The fundraising!) are spot on.

Best of all, I understand there are going to be more stories set in this world. So we may hear about Judith's dark past, about Joe and what happened to him and more about where Autumn went, and why.

Highly recommended.

22 September 2015

Planetfall by Emma Newman

Emma Newman
Roc, 5 November 2015
PB, 320 pp

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

I apologise in advance if this review comes over as gushy, but I was quite simply blown away by this book.  I greatly enjoyed Newman's well observed, magic-with-manners Split Worlds series, and I hope there will be more of them, but in my view, with this book, she simply takes her writing to a new level: indeed, several new levels.

Renata Ghali - Ren - is part of a human settler group on a distant planet.  It is 20 odd years since they arrived (the "Planetfall" of the title) and the group has hunkered down and established a colony on this distinctly Earth-like world (the day length and gravity are nearly the same, and once they developed vaccines against the indigenous microbes, the group were even able to breathe the air). They live in domes, recycle pretty much everything (human waste goes into each dome's compost system, other stuff down pipes to be digested and turned back into feedstock for the 3D printers that make almost everything needed) and have built a harmonious and even idyllic little community.

And they watch for the return of their prophet from God's City.

Because the purpose of this one-way trip wasn't primarily scientific curiosity, or colonisation. Back on Earth - where, the book hints, things have got rather nasty, though we never get many details - Lee Suh-Mi received a vision, which revealed both the location of the planet and how to reach it. She gathered a group of pioneers (most of them psychologically screened) and leaving family, friends and careers behind, they travelled to their new world... where Suh-Mi disappeared into the strange, living City.  Now there are two members of the colony on guard over the entrance at all times, waiting to welcome her back. Periodically, the City has dramatic revelations for them, supporting their faith and hope. It is a community of believers.

The dichotomy between the sophisticated science that keeps the colony alive - recycling waste, 3D printing everything needed from food to clothes to buildings, monitoring the health of every member via chips embedded in their heads (which also allow them to communicate with each other in a kind of human Internet) - and this conscious, even ecstatic, vein of religion gives the book an immediate tension, a tension that crackles from every page.

Ren herself brings another sort of tension. The colony's 3D printer engineer, she was Suh-Mi's oldest friend, and mourns her absence. But Ren seems to have secrets, and as we go deeper into the story it's clear that loss has affected her deeply. The whole book is seen from Ren's viewpoint, and it would spoil the story to say much about her secrets: I will only note that Newman does a brilliant job at gradually - oh so gradually - revealing both what her problems are and what caused them. Along the way we learn about Ren's relationships with her parents and her daughter, none of whom she will see again. There are passages here which have an almost haunting intensity, for example Ren remembering sitting beside a hospital bed in which a loved one lay dying.

But this isn't only a story about Ren, although she is the heart and centre of the book. This is also the story of Sung-Soo, a stranger who walks out of the wilderness and sets events in motion. It seems that the colonists weren't as alone as they thought. Sung-Soo has an affinity with Ren, and wants to spend time with her and even help her, but his naive enthusiasm seems calculated to upset her carefully maintained balance and risk exposing those secrets. And it is also a mystery story - the mystery being, what really brought the colonists to their new world, and what is supposed to happen next? They have, it seems, been stuck for decades, moving neither forwards or backwards. There are questions that nobody will ask, answers, perhaps, that no-one wants to hear.

If the colony as a whole is stuck, so is Ren herself. Newman gives us a very human, very fragile yet also steely hero. You can't help but sympathise with Ren, but at times she - or perhaps, her situation, which she won't face - can be irritating. You cheer her on, while wishing she would, actually, move on. That's very much the reaction of Sung-Soo. As an outsider coming he in from the wilderness he put me in mind rather of the Savage in Brave New World, a proxy for the reader showing up the absurdities of the colony. But Ren has her feelings and experiences and instincts, and they are valid, and she insists that they are respected - didn't I say she was steely?

So - in the general and in the particular - there is frustration; the dilemma - I must do this thing, I fear to do it - with its resulting moral trauma is played out to the end.  The resulting emotional see-saw between Ren and Sung-Soo is yet another source - or effect - of the tension at the heart of this story.

Brilliantly written, haunting in places, with a constant narrative drive, this is the best science fiction I've read for a long time. Above all, Ren is a magnificent and magnificently written character who Newman does an excellent job of making real. When I arrived at my Tube station with 20 odd pages of this book left, I simply had to stand there on the platform, let myself be late, for work and finish it.

I think you'd want to do the same.

15 September 2015

Review - The Black Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce

The Black Country
Kerry Hadley-Pryce
Salt, 15 September 2015
PB, 166pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop.

The "Black Country" is an area of the English West Midlands which was central to the birth of the Industrial Revolution - it was so called due to the smoke and dirt from numerous factory chimneys.

In Hadley-Pryce's debut novel, there is a different darkness, less easily cleaned up, and the book is a journey into its heart.  It's like a nest of Russian dolls in reverse - rather than each opening to reveal a new, bright and smaller copy of itself, it is swallowed up by a darker, more horrific spectre.

The story is told in a very distinct style: ostensibly about Maddie and Harry, it's indirect, telling us what they thought, what they said they did, what they would have done. At first folksy, like a neighbour gossiping over the fence, the atmosphere becomes increasingly sinister. Nothing is certain, the story is conjecture, comparing Harry's and Maddie's accounts of the same events, dodging back and forward in time and making links in words and actions (and even smells - the book is laden with smells).  We don't know who is narrating: there's an element of judgement in it, we feel, especially when it comes to Harry, perhaps. Or perhaps not. We will make up our minds. We will learn what Harry's like.

Set in the cold of winter, in the Black Country, the book opens in the midst of a crisis in Harry and Maddie's life (I was going to say marriage, but then realised that i'm not actually sure if they are). This is rooted in an evening spent at the local hotel, celebrating the life of their old University tutor. What seems like a bit of marital discord is soon revealed to come from a much darker place. Neither of the pair is innocent. Sullenly, they bicker and try to shift the blame. What happened was bad, but what's revealed in the intricate dance between them afterwards is worse, much worse. Hadley-Pryce's writing and her handling of her subject are simply masterful here - she plays with our sympathies, holding up the pair in various different guises: the downtrodden, ineffective teacher, the desperate husband, the frustrated wife - while gradually stripping both Harry and Maddie of dignity and revealing their nasty secrets. The dry, judicial tone gradually, oh so gradually, becomes disturbing in itself: who is telling this story? An omniscient narrator? An inquisitor or some sort, we might think but with what agenda?

I found the first half of the story the most effective, the weekend in which Harry and Maddie seem almost trapped in a bubble of their own, going through horrific events but with almost no contact with anyone else. They seem like ghosts in the wintry landscape, locked in their own horror, or perhaps figures in a  painting by Edward Hopper. The events of the second half, while revelatory, begin to involve others - a policemen, a nurse, a schoolgirl - and lose some of the sense of gnawing loneness. On the other hand, those revelations strip Harry and Maddie to the bone.

This was a compelling read, but - and this is means as praise not criticism - it's a nasty book in which people do nasty things (and I'm not sure we see the half of it, there hints at plenty more below the surface). One leaves it feeling a need to wash. There is no redemption here, no escape, no happy ending. As Maddie remarks several times, she is living in Hell and indeed, while resolutely naturalistic with no trace of fantasy or the supernatural, this is in essence a horror story where everyone is the Devil.

Except for Faith, of course. Poor Faith.

Highly recommended, and I'm eager to see what Hadley-Pryce writes next.

Blogtour review! The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto

The Defenceless
Kati Hiekkapelto
(Translated by David Hackston)
30 July (e) 30 September (PB) 2015
Orenda Books, 301pp

I'm grateful to Orenda books for sending me a copy of this book. I found this an intriguing read, one of those rare crime books that gives equal weight to a twisty, credible plot and to well drawn characters who are themselves caught up in a believable moral drama.

Anna Feketa is a detective in Finland at the centre of a complex investigation involving asylum seekers, drug trafficking, gang violence and - at the start - the unexplained death of an old man on a frozen road in the dead of winter. 

These issues, particularly the theme of strangers in a strange land, are apt for her to be looking into because she is herself a foreigner - originally from the Hungarian part of Serbia.  Anna simply has no home country left.  The land she grew up in no longer exists, and while she has built a life for herself as part of the Finnish police she still feels herself a stranger there. This isn't helped by the (at times rather crude) racist language and attitudes of her sidekick, the grizzled cop Esko. He has accepted Anna (this is the second in a series and I think that the first book describes how that happened. The case that the two of them are drawn into now concerns a young Pakistani boy, Sammy, who had fled for his life, become addicted to drugs and ended up sleeping rough in the snow. Of course Esko sees him as a scrounger and criminal who should be sent back where he came from. Anna though feels sympathy for Sammy and tries to

Kati Hiekkapelto
help him, but the situation is tricky: he has become involved in crime and Esko doesn't trust him one bit. 

Anna faces a risk of getting in too deep emotionally - she also wants to help Gabriella, the Hungarian au pair arrested in connection with the death of that old man on the road. At a time when her family are distant and things changing at home, is she looking for something to hold on to - or are her instincts abut the two suspects correct?

At the same time, Esko wants to prove he is still in the game by facing down a dangerous and growing new gang, the Black Cobras, and keeping them out of Finland. His quest could bring more concrete dangers to them all.  Yet the relationship between the mismatched two - clearly lonely - people who are in many ways opposites and unlikely friends is touchingly, even tenderly drawn 

As I write this the headlines are full of the plight of Syrian refugees making their trek across Europe to safety, and I can't but feel that the publication of this book is very timely.

As a portrait of a (literally) cold new world, yet lightened by a degree of kindness and empathy, this would be hard to beat. It is a book with great heart, and I look forward to reading more about Anna Feketa in future.

13 September 2015

The Sand Men by Christopher Fowler

The Sand Men
Christopher Fowler
Solaris, 2015
PB, 320pp

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

It's safe to say The Sand Men book won't end up being recommended by the Dubai Tourist Board. It is a work of fiction with at its heart an (obviously) fantastical plot device which no-one is going to confuse with reality.

No offence there then. But in its more mundane aspects it is implicitly scathing about the treatment of migrant workers, the double standards of a state prepared to look the other way from the antics of expat Westerners (until some line is crossed) and the environmental hubris of building an artificial ski slope in the burning desert. Above all, it paints a deeply depressing picture of life among those well-paid expat engineers, architects and managers and their wives. (The spouses are generally wives: a deeply conservative culture seems to obtain where it's the men who are employed on the construction projects while wives endure an almost Colonial style of life in the walled compound - generally bored out of their minds and skewered by that double standard I mentioned above). So, if you knew you disliked the whole idea of Dubai but weren't quite sure why, this book might sharpen up your views. 

In other words, while this is basically a thriller, Fowler is also engaging with the society he depicts, and a very peculiar one it is.

Lea, Cara and Roy are newcomers to Dubai, innocents stepping off the plane into a new world. For Roy, his position on the luxurious Dream World resort project is the last chance, after he's been out of work for months, of making it as an architect. Dream World is behind schedule and must catch up. or the mysterious Chinese/ Russian backers of the project will not be pleased. For daughter Cara, the move is an unwelcome wrench from her London school and friends - yet possibly an opportunity to grow up, live a bit, and widen her horizons. For Lea, a journalist who supported the family though lean times, it's pretty much a prison sentence - more of less confined to the company compound and constrained, as a wife, by a set of conventions right out of the 50s - the 1850s, that is: Fowler describes the way of life you might get crossing Stepford with a hill station under the Raj ("...as if she had been stationed in some doomed and distant fort owned by the East India Company...")

Most of the story indeed focuses on Lea (after a gruesome introductory scene in which an Indian engineer dies horribly) with a few episodes from Cara's or Roy's point of view. We see Lea's optimism that she might find some local role writing for a magazine fade (investigative journalism is not encouraged, what's wanted are pieces on the joys of water skiing or shopping) to be replaced by a growing paranoia and a quest to discover why there are so many deaths and disappearances among the expats and their families. Meanwhile Cara makes those new friends ("Cara was unsure whether Norah meant good-sick or bad-sick") and Roy works longer and longer shifts, rising in Dream World Group and changing, demanding that Lea fulfil that alien wifely role ("The women around here are throwbacks. it's as if feminism never happened. And I think the men all secretly like it that way...")

The family seems to be fracturing.  Do they even need Lea any longer? Nominally a housewife she doesn't even have much to do at home as there is a frighteningly efficient and apparently compulsory maid to take care of things (the maids are rumoured to be spies for Dream World Group). Just what is her role? What will she do? Lea tries to reach out and make friends, but only seems to get on with those already marked down as trouble-makers. As events in the compound - and at Dream World - begin to go awry, Lea sets out to discover what's behind them. Is it just normal slapdash, devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism, or is there more going on? And in either case, who can she trust?

Replete with references to the Emerald City of Oz ("look behind the curtain") and to Kubla Khan's Xanada and introduced with a quote from JG Ballard (who else?) this is an excellent story, contrasting the gaudy neon excess of the hotels, bars and shopping malls with the timeless darkness of the desert - which was there first, and will be there after:

"...Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/
The lone and level sands stretch far away." (PB Shelley, Ozymandias).

2 September 2015

A Cold Silence by Alison Littlewood

A Cold Silence
Alison Littlewood
Jo Fletcher Books, 3 September 2015
PB, 368pp

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

I think A Cold Silence is best read as a coda to Littlewood's first novel, A Cold Season, which appeared in 2012. If you haven't read the earlier book - which in my view is superb - then go and get it and read it before starting A Cold Silence - and before reading any further in this review because there are, inevitably, spoilers for the earlier book below.

And I will now give you a little space to do that.

If you're still following me - A Cold Season ends with Cass escaping from Darnshaw, driving away from that cold, haunted place with her returned husband Pete and son Ben. She believes she has lost her soul to the sinister Remick, but that she somehow may be able to bargain for it using her unborn child - his child - as some kind of leverage.  Remick will, she believes, come back - a day she fears but also looks to with a strange kind of hope.

A Cold Silence answers the dangerous question, "What happened next?". I say dangerous because, when a book ends in as open a way as Cold Season does, there is a risk that any follow-up will disappoint, that it will not chime with how readers expect it to be. And indeed, Cold Silence is a very different kind of book. I think it may divide readers of the earlier story, but that, taking the two together, we do get a much more rounded view of what happened.

The story opens nearly twenty years on. Cass, Ben, and his sister, Gaila, have lived together as a family most of that time, albeit scarred by earlier events, but the children have now moved out. Ben's father, Pete, is absent again from this book. Cass, so active - at least eventually - in the previous book, has retreated into her home, where the consequences of what she did - of what Remick and his coven did - play out. She draws pictures of bleak moorlands and dark churches and insists that there is bad in Gaila: she is less hopeful, more damaged and more introspective than the Cass of Cold Season - which may, I'm afraid, disappoint some readers.

But that has to be the case, doesn't it? There is unfinished business here. Remick never, it seems, came back. Cass battled on, raised her kids, did her best - but nothing has been resolved and this has poisoned relationships, raising questions about the nature of family loyalty, about love and about motivation. (And as we saw at the end of Cold Season, Cass's motivations weren't exactly pure). Much of the book is, one way or the other, a meditation on these questions - so in that respect, too, this book is very different. There is little of the brooding sense of approaching horror that we get in Cold Season (and in Littlewood's subsequent two novels) - although having said that there are some effective scenes early on where Ben, who is the central character here, recalls how Cass would never visit Darnshaw and notes that, when approaching the valley, it was as if winter lurked close even on a summer's day. (Ben is mourning his friend Jessica - one of the characters who appeared as a child in the earlier book - who has killed herself, and he goes back to Darnshaw for the funeral - breaking an old promise to his mother).

Instead, the book signposts early on where the battleground will be: an online game called Archeron which has become notorious for its occult overtones and apparently Satanic aspects. You can ask things of it, but it will name its prices (Jessica's suicide followed immersion in the game). There is a scene in Gaila's London flat where the city is seen through a window, all ready for the taking: all this can be yours...

Archeron itself is a clever device to surface the presence of ancient, brooding evil - the Devil has modernised, come out of the shadows: CS Lewis's Screwtape would I suppose approve - but I have to admit that modern offices and online interaction can lack atmosphere compared to remote moorlands and standing stones, and much of the weight of this book is therefore carried instead by the shifts and compromises between Ben and the other central characters and the gradual revelation of the dynamics of the Cassidy family. It's much more character led, and in that respect a more subtle book (and this is where a reader of the earlier book will be much better prepared to understand what's going on - another reason to see these books as a whole).

The writing is great, there are surprises and shocks and this book still delivers the chills. Like Cold Season, Littlewood has fun dealing with a menace that's rooted in traditional Christianity but using characters who have a very modern ignorance and misunderstanding of the concepts. And we may be being primed for another sequel (please?)

So - a rather different read from the earlier book - still an enthralling and chilling horror story but more cerebral: food for (rather disturbing) thought.

1 September 2015

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm

The Killing Kind
Chris Holm
Mulholland (Hodder), 27 August 2015
HB, 320pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have a copy of this book through Bookbridgr.

At first sight, this book was surprisingly different from previous books of Holm's I'd read - his Collector series was a noir-tinged fantasy trilogy featuring an operative who stopped up souls as their owners died - think a smoother, wise-cracking version of Terry Pratchett's Death.

The central character of The Killing Kind is Hendricks, who doesn't collect the souls he sends to - wherever they go - but simply bumps off their owners. Hendricks is a very particular sort of hitman, focussing exclusively on other hitmen. Somehow he's got a line on who the organised crime gangs want killed, and, amazingly, it turns out the intended victims will pay a pretty penny to avoid ending up dead.

There are Reasons for Hendricks' taking up this particular line in crime: guilt after surviving when the rest of his US Army unit died, guilt at what they'd done before that, a desire to atone - but to be honest, for me, that didn't really matter, what matters in this book is the relentless action, Hendricks' ingenuity at doing what he does, and above all, the dramatic hunt that ensues when the Mob discover someone is messing with their plans. Of course they buy in another legendary assassin and of course we end up with a full-blooded duel - and of course there is plenty of carnage along the way.  There isn't much more to the plot than that, although there are plenty of twists and turns along the way.

In some respects, perhaps, it's not so different from the Collector books. The main distinction is perhaps less the lack of supernatural stuff than the simpler plot - here we don't have the complicated eschatological battle lines of the earlier trilogy.  

Not a deep character study - they are mostly lightly sketched - but the writing has great pace and, once begun, this book demands to be finished (actually it doesn't so much demand as grab you by lapels and make you read it). There is peril. There is a scary body count scary (so much so that it's entirely feasible no one will survive by the end) with ingenious deaths. There is a world weary, disillusioned hero who has to learn again what he will fight. 

Very satisfying.

31 August 2015

What I Did In My Holidays

Well, it looks like Summer's just about over - Son got his GCSEs the other week, our few days being rained on in Dorset have come to an end and it's a rainy Bank Holiday Monday. I start back at the Circumlocution Office tomorrow (boo!) so I thought I'd look back to sunnier days in July when I took a week off and went digging. 

I'd spotted that, fairly near us, there was an actual archaeological dig going on: at Dorchester-onThames aimed at understanding what happened there at the end of the Roman period. This is a period that interests me, and and they were encouraging local volunteers to join in so I bought myself a trowel and went all Time Team.

I've been interested in archaeology for ages, but done very little. When I was 15 or 16 I did a teeny bit at Norton Priory near where I grew up, but that's about all. And that was 30ish (very ish) years ago. So I was a little apprehensive. Bring waterproofs, they said, sunscreen, stout boots, gloves, a sunhat, a water bottle and - most importantly, of course - the trowel. So I collected all that and turned up at 8.30 on the Sunday morning. There was a very mixed collection of people on the dig - apart from the supervisors and the director and assistant director, the team included know-nothings like me, more skilled amateurs (of varying ages) who were doing extra-mural courses, and archaeology undergrads.

After a safety briefing - where to walk and not walk, avoiding dehydration (it was very hot and dusty), proper use of tools, precautions in the wet when the ramp into the trench would become slippery - we were assigned to different groups and allocated areas. Within an hour I was actually digging.
The picture on the right shows how the site looked while I was there. Our area was the left hand corner at the far end, just in front of the spoil heap. (When the wheelbarrow was full, it had to be run up out of the trench and tipped on top of that heap). North is to the left, as is modern Dorchester. The Roman road from Silchester to Alcester (near Bicester) crosses the far end of the site.

I was allocated an area to clear - the aim was to remove darker, post Roman material overlying a lighter, sandier level which was believed to be the top of the Roman levels. This is my area in progress (after a couple of days) with some of the darker material gone. You can see my finds tray, containing - mostly - bits of animal bone and pottery. Not having dug before, I was amazed by the quantity of this. At the top of the picture is a ditch, which was slowly being excavated by one member of the team a proper archaeology undergrad, who was working in more and more cramped conditions as he dug down - I hadn't appreciated the contortions required by archaeology: as it was it's taken several weeks for my knees to recover (I think they've recovered...) and I was working in fairly simple areas.

As I said above, it was very hot and dusty in the trench, so I was relieved when, mid-morning, the digging stopped for tea. I soon learned that archeaelogy works on tea: there were morning and afternoon breaks and tea was also supplied at lunchtime.

As well as digging, we were given lectures/ talks by the experts running the dig as well as others who came in specifically to talk to us: we heard about the Roman pottery of Oxfordshire, basic archaeological surveying, identifying bones, the sequence of sites in the Thames valley, the history of landscapes and about use of photography in archaeology. It's years since I attended any kind of non work-related lecture and I found all this simply fascinating.

What was also interesting was seeing the struggles that go on to identify the various layers and levels as you dig - with numbers attached to each and debates over whether this layer of greeny sand was the same as that, I was often left looking on in amazement as the supervisors settled an issue. Basically I was waiting to be told what to do: also actually quite nice when I spend the rest of my work life having to decide what the answer is (of course I make it up as I go along but don't tell anyone).

The picture above shows my bit a couple of days on and records a pause during one of those debates - the difference in levels was because the darker, later material had been deeper on the left and once removed it left a ridge which eventually had to be surveyed and mapped. I actually took the picture because I'd found a nail (you can see the white tag where it was) and was quite impressed with myself for that. (I was even more impressed that I'd managed not to prick myself on it: it was sharp end up - be warned!)

This picture shows most of one day's finds (and my bike) just so you can see the amounts of stuff that was there. This is pottery and bone, which was just collected up in trays - metal bits like coins and nails had their location recorded more accurately (hence the white labels).

It was an incredible week which I really enjoyed - meeting new people, learning stuff and being outdoors. While it got sweltering in the trench and was very dusty, we were carefully looked after and there were all those teabreaks.

Then on the last day we had torrential rain and, basically, the work stopped in mid morning. The site was too slippy, there was a danger of trampling things down, and pushing the barrows up the ramp became too risky. I was pretty pleased with myself though because, almost at the last moment, i found my final coin, right in that far corner - it seemed like an excellent and to a great week.
A few days later, and everything was covered over again, as you can see below. I hope, though, to be back next year, if they'll have me.