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.