26 December 2016

Review - Rather be the Devil

Image from www.ianrankin.net
Rather be the Devil
Ian rankin
Orion, 3 November 2016
HB, 310pp

Source: bought from Goldsboro Books.

This is, I think, the 21st outing for John Rebus. I've been reading these since Black and Blue in 1997 (I found Rebus when a short story appeared in my university alumnus mag - how's that for convoluted book discovery?)

One of the things I enjoy is that Rankin is never afraid to keep the mood fresh by shifting Rebus around. He's been a muscly ex-Army action man, albeit beset by traumatic memories. he's been a divorced cop missing his kid and resenting he ex-wife's new partner. He's gone through books constantly living musical references. He's, increasingly, been the maverick on the CID team, marginalised and distrusted. And for a time, the books were less about him than the ensemble as Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox came on the scene. Indeed for a time it seemed as though they might take over - I'd have welcomed a series of books about Clarke, in particular.

Now, though, in another shift, Rebus seems to be centre stage again despite now being definitively out of the police (he was back in for a couple of years but has finally retired). So he's a spare part, a loose cannon, still investigating crime but with no official standing. That means, at time, Rankin needs to stretch things a bit in order to allow him to play a part - I suspect the access he gets here is pretty implausible, really. But the story is saved from being unbelievable by, of all things, a (real) change in the structure and organisation of the Scottish police. It seems that the separate forces have been combined, with everything now coming under the control of the Strathclyde (Glasgow) force, who parachute their own in to investigate anything interesting. So Clarke is just as much out in the cold as Rebus: and Fox, who's been promoted to the shiny new "crime campus" but assigned back to Edinburgh to keep an eye on things is, again, resented as an outsider.

So it's three misfits who team up for this book. And that seems wholly right and proper for a Rebus case. It hardly matters what the case is: once the slightly awkward setup in the first third of the book is done with, we can sit back and enjoy the banter and the friction between these perfectly realised characters.

There's more, of course: a romance for Rebus (I hope and pray it will last), renewed friction between old school villain Cafferty and Darryl Christie, a long- forgotten murder in the Caley Hotel that Rebus can't let go of, and a health scare. To a degree the book - especially that first part - has an elegaic quality, a sense that the past is being put to bed, whether it's Rebus's buccaneering days, the culture and organisation of the Edinburgh police or the crime syndicates of yore. (And with that shadow on the lung, it could be Rubus himself...)

But that doesn't prevent action, and just because things have their roots in the past, who's to say they can't - to mix metaphors - erupt in the present? I found the final two thirds of this book, and especially the climax, as exciting as any of the Rebus novels and indeed perhaps more so than the last few. Rebus may get out of breath climbing a few flights of stairs, and he may have to cadge his way into the CID suite, but he's as as sharp and sly as ever.

And these books are as sharp and sly and entertaining as ever.

Strongly recommended.

Upcoming for 2017 - part 2: April - July

This is Part 2 of my "coming next year" post. For Part 1, see here.


The End of the Day | Claire North | Orbit |  6 April

"Charlie meets everyone - but only once.

You might meet him in a hospital, in a war zone, or at the scene of a traffic accident.

Then again, you might meet him at the North Pole-he gets everywhere, our Charlie.

Would you shake him by the hand, take the gift he offers, or would you pay no attention to the words he says?

Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. He never knows which."

I'm INCREDIBLY lucky to have an advance copy of this book (thank you, Orbit!) and it is SUPERB. It's rather different from North's recent books - she's written several each focussing on an individual with a strange gift (or curse0 and the consequences of that, often leading to a thrillery plot. They have been great, but here she focusses much more squarely on the human angle: an ordinary man - Charlie - with a strange job - Harbinger of Death - and just what that does to him.

It's less conventional than the earlier books, but oh so compelling...

The Man Who Loved Islands | David F Ross | Orenda Books | 20 April

"In the early 80s, Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller were inseparable; childhood friends and fledgling business associates. Now, both are depressed and lonely, and they haven’t spoken to each other in more than ten years. A bizarre opportunity to honour the memory of someone close to both of them presents itself, if only they can forgive … and forget. With the help of the deluded Max Mojo and the faithful Hamish May, can they pull off the impossible, and reunite the legendary Ayrshire band, The Miraculous Vespas, for a one-off Music Festival – The Big Bang – on a remote, uninhabited Scottish island? Absurdly funny, deeply moving and utterly human, The Man Who Loves Islands is an unforgettable finale to the Disco Days trilogy – a modern classic pumped full of music and middle-aged madness, written from the heart and pen of one of Scotland’s finest new voices."

This is the final part of the Disco Days trilogy (after The Last days of Disco and The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespers- a funny and moving but also realistic account of growing up on the West Coast of Scotland in the 70s and 80s. I LOVE these books and I'm looking forward to this (though not to saying good bye to Ross's fantastic characters).

City of Miracles | Robert Jackson Bennett |  Jo Fletcher Books | 20 April 

"Shara Komayd, once Prime Minister of Saypur, has been assassinated. News travels fast and far, even to a remote logging town somewhere northwest of Bulikov, where the silent, shaven-headed Dreyling worker 'Bjorn' picks up the newspaper and walks out. He is shocked and grieved and furious; he's been waiting thirteen years for Shara, his closest friend, to reach out to him - to tell him to come home. He's always believed she was running a long operation, that there would be a role for him at the right time. Now he has no one else in his life, and nothing to live for - except to find the people who did this.

Sigrud wasn't there for the death of his daughter Signe, and he wasn't there when Shara was murdered. Now Bjorn is dead and Sigrud is back. And he will find answers, for Shara, and for himself. He's made a promise."

I have just loved this series - Bennett's writing has been so assured, so beautiful his characters so well drawn and his upsetting of fantasy tropes so meticulous.

Part of me never wants it to end: part of me wants to see how things turn out.

Sure to be one of my contenders for book of the year.
Image from www.amazon.com

Want You Gone | Chris Brookmyre | Little, Brown | April

"What if all your secrets were put online?

Sam Morpeth is growing up way too fast, left to fend for a younger sister with learning difficulties when their mother goes to prison and watching her dreams of university evaporate. But Sam learns what it is to be truly powerless when a stranger begins to blackmail her online, drawing her into a trap she may not escape alive.

Who would you turn to?

Meanwhile, reporter Jack Parlabane has finally got his career back on track, but his success has left him indebted to a volatile source on the wrong side of the law. Now that debt is being called in, and it could cost him everything.

What would you be capable of?

Thrown together by a common enemy, Sam and Jack are about to discover they have more in common than they realise – and might be each other’s only hope."

I came late to Brookmyre's Jack Parlabane series but I'm finding them compulsive, simply the best of crime writing so I'm delighted that another is coming along after last year's superlative Black Widow.

Scarlett Thomas | Dragon's Green | Canongate | April

I also have this from NetGalley and will be reviewing. Thomas's adult books have a wonderful knack of weaving together the weird with the everyday and are peopled by characters who can be both monstrous and amazing yet seem like someone you might meet on your morning commute. So I really want to see what she does in this, the first of a series of

"Some people think opening a book is a simple thing. It’s not. Most people don’t realise that you can get truly lost in a book. You can. Especially you. Effie Truelove’s grandfather Griffin has always refused to teach her magic, even though he admits that it exists. After a mysterious incident leaves him close to death, Effie finds that she is to inherit his library of rare books. But when the books fall into the hands of shady scholar Leonard Levar, Effie is propelled into the most dangerous adventure of her life. With the help of her friends – rugby-mad Wolf, nerdy Maximilian, helpful Lexy and strange Raven – Effie must find a way to get the books back. She and her friends must discover their true powers, and Effie must travel alone to the Otherworld where she will find the true meaning of the strange old book called Dragon’s Green..."

Aliette de Bodard | The House of Binding Thorns | Gollancz | April

I'll admit I haven't yet caught up on de Bodard's House of Shattered Wings (I don't read enough) and here's the sequel!

However Wings earned high praise and I'm sure Thorns won't disappoint. And there's my incentive to get myself caught up...


Justina Robson | The Switch | Gollancz | 18 May

After her epic Quantum Gravity sequence, I'm desperate to see what Robson does next. Here's a hint, from http://justinarobson.co.uk/the-switch/

“Harmony is the perfect society; a design showcase in which humans are being made in the image of god.

I didn’t say whose god. Certainly not mine.

As one of a select minority slated for eradication I’m giving it all a score in the low zeroes.

That being the case when someone offers you a too-good-to-be-true deal for a way out, you’re gonna take it. In the circumstances you’d be a fool not to. Another word for freedom is ‘nothing left to lose’, right?


Turns out you can still lose your body, and then you can lose your mind.”

Block 46 | Johana Gustawsson (trans by Maxim Jakobowski) | Orenda Books | May 

"Falkenberg, Sweden. The mutilated body of talented young jewellery designer, Linnea Blix, is found in a snow-swept marina. Hampstead Heath, London. The body of a young boy is discovered with similar wounds to Linnea’s. Buchenwald Concentration Camp, 1944. In the midst of the hell of the Holocaust, Erich Hebner will do anything to see himself as a human again. Are the two murders the work of a serial killer, and how are they connected to shocking events at Buchenwald?

Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, joins up with Linnea’s friend, French truecrime writer Alexis Castells, to investigate the puzzling case. They travel between Sweden and London, and then deep into the past, as a startling and terrifying connection comes to light. Plumbing the darkness and the horrific evidence of the nature of evil, Block 46 is a multi-layered, sweeping and evocative thriller that heralds a stunning new voice in French noir."

Faithless | Kjell Ola Dahl (trans by Don Bartlett) | Orenda Books | May 

"Oslo detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich are back... and this time, it’s personal...

When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her... and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder.

As he begins to look deeper into the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda finds another body, and things take a more sinister turn. With a cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway casting a shadow, and an unsettling number of coincidences clouding the plot, Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers – and the killer – before he strikes again.

Dark, brooding and utterly chilling, Faithless is a breath-taking and atmospheric page-turner that marks the return of an internationally renowned and award-winning series, from one of the fathers of Nordic Noir."

The Boy on the Bridge | MR Carey | Orbit | May

"Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy.

The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world.

To where the monsters lived.

In The Boy on the Bridge, M. R. Carey returns to the world of his phenomenal word-of-mouth bestseller, The Girl With All the Gifts, for the very first time."

Did you love The Girl with all the Gifts? I certainly did and it's so exciting that Carey will be exploring more in that world.


Stained Light | Naomi Foyle | Jo Fletcher Books | 1 June

The fourth book in the Gaia Chronicles.

"Astra Ordott tried - and failed - to deny her destiny.

To cleanse her conscience and save those she loves, she made the ultimate sacrifice, giving up her freedom to hand herself over to the Is-Land authorities. But that was ten years ago, and the conflicts that have branded her a psychotic traitor are just getting hotter. All around her, long-simmering conflicts are beginning to boil over again, Non-Land and Is-Land are further from reunification than ever and the wider world is facing devastating threats both old and new.

Outside Astra's fortified Gaian homeland, an infertility crisis is threatening the survival of the human race, while global civilisation's reckless pursuit of rare earth mining is infuriating the ancient spirits of the planet.

Astra may have found her voice as a messenger of cosmic harmony - but is anyone listening? And if she cannot persuade humanity to respect the elemental laws of the universe, will she at least see her life-long personal enemies, Dr Samrod Blesserson and Ahn Orson, face justice on Earth?"

Laura Lam | Shattered Minds | Macmillan | 15 June

"A gripping near-future thriller from the author of False Hearts. Carina is a troubled rebel with a cause, who'll fight her own dangerous urges as well as a corrupt mega-corporation. Sudice Inc. plans to use the latest virtual-reality tech to hack our very minds - and only Carina, who's been on the inside of their illegal operation, can stop them . . . but only if she can unlock her own buried memories with a piece of code. Carina will need the help of a small band of hackers, especially Dax. And if Carina can keep her humanity, maybe she and Dax will have a future too. Laura Lam's Shattered Minds stars a female 'Dexter' with a drug problem and a conscience, in a terrifying near-future where technology rules our lives and haunts our dreams."

Down Among the Sticks and Bones | Seanan McGuire Tor.com | 13 June 
Image from http://www.tor.com/

Follow-up to Every Heart a Doorway, a lovely novella about a group of misfit children coping not only with growing up but also recovering from magical/ fantasy adventures.

Now, read on...

"Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first..."

Exquisite |  Sarah Stovell | Orenda Books | June 

A debut psychological thriller set in the Lake District.

Tammy Cohen | They All Fall Down | Transworld | June

"The psychological thriller of the year from the author of WHEN SHE WAS BAD - a killer is picking off patients in a psychiatric unit - who is next? With the incredible twists of BEHIND CLOSED DOORS and chilling suspense of THE WIDOW


Alice is in a high-risk psychiatric unit. Fellow patients are disappearing.
She knows they’re not suicides, though.
They're being picked off one by one.

Alice could need your help. Because she’s next."

The Intuitionist | Colton Whitehead | Fleet | June

"Verticality, architectural and social, is at the heart of Colson Whitehead's first novel that takes place in an unnamed high-rise city that combines twenty-first-century engineering feats with nineteenth-century pork-barrel politics. Elevators are the technological expression of the vertical ideal, and Lila Mae Watson, the city's first black female elevator inspector, is its embattled token of upward mobility. When Number Eleven of the newly completed Fanny Briggs Memorial Building goes into deadly free-fall just hours after Lila Mae has signed off on it, using the controversial 'Intuitionist' method of ascertaining elevator safety, both Intuitionists and Empiricists recognize the set-up, but may be willing to let Lila Mae take the fall in an election year.

As Lila Mae strives to exonerate herself in this urgent adventure full of government spies, underworld hit men, and seductive double agents, behind the action, always, is the Idea. Lila Mae's quest is mysteriously entwined with existence of heretofore lost writings by James Fulton, father of Intuitionism, a giant of vertical thought. If she is able to find and reveal his plan for the perfect, next-generation elevator, the city as it now exists may instantly become obsolescent."


The Rift | Nina Allen | Titan Books UK | 11 July

Nina Allen's The Race was such a beautiful, original book about compound reality, human nature, family, dog racing, destiny... and more. I am so excited to see she has another out next year:

"Selena and Julie are sisters. As children they were close, but as they grow older, a rift develops between them. There are greater rifts, however. Julie goes missing aged seventeen. It will be twenty years before Selena sees her again. When Julie reappears, she tells Selena an incredible story about how she has spent time on another planet. Does Selena dismiss her sister as the victim of delusions, or believe her, and risk her own sanity?"

The Delirium Brief | Charles Stross | Orbit | 13 July

"Bob Howard's career in the Laundry, the secret British government agency dedicated to protecting the world from the supernatural, has involved brilliant hacking, ancient magic, and combat with creatures of pure evil. It has also involved a wearying amount of paperwork and office politics, and his expense reports are still a mess.

Now, following the invasion of Yorkshire by the Host of Air and Darkness, the Laundry's existence has become public, and Bob is being trotted out on TV to answer pointed questions about elven asylum seekers. What neither Bob nor his managers have foreseen is that their organization has earned the attention of a horror far more terrifying than any demon: a government looking for public services to privatize. There are things in the Laundry's assets that big business would simply love to get its hands on...

Inch by inch, Bob Howard and his managers are forced to consider the truly unthinkable: a coup against the British government itself."

And for the rest of the year...

The Witch at Wayside Cross | Lisa Tuttle | Jo Fletcher Books | 10 August 

Follow up to The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, Tuttle's alt-Victorian superntural detection novel from 2016, which was a rattling good read.

Iron Gold | Pierce Brown | Hodder | 24 August

The start of a new trilogy from Red Rising author Pierce Brown - can he follow up the most punchy, emotional and space opera-y trilogy of the decade so far? I'm so excited about this...

The Crow Garden | Alison Littlewood | Jo Fletcher Books | 20 October

Looking forward to more superior scares from Littlewood - and just in time for Halloween...

24 December 2016

Upcoming for 2017 - part 1: January - March

I have tried to look back at 2016 books for favourites, but the exercise sent me screaming for the Christmas cake and chocolate mints. So many different books. So many great authors and supportive, committed publoishers. And the COVERS! All those lovely COVERS! All that SFcrimeFantasyThrilleryLitFicShortstoryness! The WORDS!

I gave up. I couldn't do it. Instead, I've been delving through publisher catalogues, online booksellers, tweets, author sites and drawing up a list of stuff I know is coming to put together some recommendations for the first(ish) half of 2017.

Like many, I found much that happened in 2016 not exactly to my taste. I wrote a bit about that here and here. But - something to set against the rest - in book terms it was a very good year. And looking forward (I'm about the future not the past!) 2017 looks set to be even better for books.  I hope it will be in other ways as well - but in any case, there's consolation in books and here are some to think about.

Usual caveats apply: dates may change, things may not appear at all and, most obviously, other great books certainly WILL be there too.

Any errors below mine, not the publishers': cover images and descriptions taken from publisher or author websites.

NB I mostly read print books so where the ebook and pbook dates are different I've generally gone for print. But some of these books may be available earlier in e if that's your thing.


Phil Rickman | All of a Winter's Night | Corvus | 5 January

I'm married to a vicar, I love reading fantasy and horror, how could I not be drawn to these stories of Merrily Watkins, redoutable diocesan deliverance consultant for the Hereford Diocese (please, NOT 'exorcist'. NEVER 'exorcist'.)

Written to preserve a spark of doubt about the nature of the evils Merrily confronts, which as as much social as supernatural, these are cracking stories with - by now - a much loved regular cast and read as much as commentary on modern country life as traditional horror. A new instalment is always a treat in store.

Steph Broadribb | Deep Down Dead | Orenda Books | 5 January

Steph has built up an enthusiastic following as @crimethrillgirl and this, her debut novel, is compelling - just pick it up and read the first paragraph and I defy you to be able to put it down again. Review coming in January as part of the Orenda blog tour.

"Lori Anderson is as tough as they come, managing to keep her career as a fearless Florida bounty hunter separate from her role as single mother to nine-year-old Dakota, who suffers from leukaemia. But when the hospital bills start to rack up, she has no choice but to take her daughter along on a job that will make her a fast buck. And that’s when things start to go wrong."

M R Hall | A Life to Kill | Mantle | 12 January

Another series I snap up as soon as they're out, the Coroner Jenny Cooper series features a brilliant, kick-ass character and wonderfully realised, tense stories. Like Rickman's books these document something of the state of the nation, here represented by Cooper's desire to unearth the truth, however inconvenient that may be for the powerful...

Adam Nevill | Under a Watchful Eye | Macmillan | 12 January

"Seb Logan is being watched. He just doesn't know by whom. When the sudden appearance of a dark figure shatters his idyllic coastal life, he soon realizes that the murky past he thought he'd left behind has far from forgotten him. What's more unsettling is the strange atmosphere that engulfs him at every sighting, plunging his mind into a terrifying paranoia. To be a victim without knowing the tormentor. To be despised without knowing the offence caused. To be seen by what nobody else can see. These are the thoughts which plague his every waking moment. Imprisoned by despair, Seb fears his stalker is not working alone, but rather is involved in a wider conspiracy that threatens everything he has worked for. For there are doors in this world that open into unknown places. Places used by the worst kind of people to achieve their own ends. And once his investigation leads him to stray across the line and into mortal danger, he risks becoming another fatality in a long line of victims..."

I adore Nevill's horror, which crosses the line from the merely supernatural to confront everyday danger, whether driven by festering male violence, climate change or a will to cling to the past. He's a master at making the small, squalid details of life - stained plastic bags, sticky dust, an over vivid 70s carpet - downright scary. So I'm looking forward to this (and I've got a NetGalley!).

Defender | GX Todd | Headline | 12 January

"What if the voice in your head didn’t belong to you?

What if it had a purpose of its own? And if it asked you to kill.

Would you?"

This first book from Todd looks like a winner. I have an advance copy and will be reviewing soon!

Rupture | Ragnar Jónasson | Orenda Books | 15 January

"1955. Two young couples move to the uninhabited, isolated fjord of Hedinsfjörður. Their stay ends abruptly when one of the women meets her death in mysterious circumstances. The case is never solved.

Fifty years later an old photograph comes to light, and it becomes clear that the couples may not have been alone on the fjord after all… In nearby Siglufjörður, young policeman Ari Thór tries to piece together what really happened that fateful night, in a town where no one wants to know, where secrets are a way of life. He’s assisted by Ísrún, a news reporter in Reykjavik, who is investigating an increasingly chilling case of her own. Things take a sinister turn when a child goes missing in broad daylight. With a stalker on the loose, and the town of Siglufjörður in quarantine, the past might just come back to haunt them."

It's back to the start for Thór as we see earlier events in the life of the Snowblind and Nightblind hero.

Sarah Pinborough | Behind Her Eyes | HarperCollins | 26 January

Pinborough continues to tread the boundary between the creepy thriller and the thrillery supernatural. This book reads almost as a spiritual sequel to The Dead House and 13 Minutes and showcases her ability to create believable - yet monstrous - characters.

And, wow, that ending... I STRONGLY recommend this book. Book a few days off, hole up with your duvet and READ IT.

I was lucky enough to be sent a proof copy - review to follow soon!

And... yes... THAT ending...

And did I mention THE ENDING?

Charles Stross | Empire Games | Tor UK | 26 January

I loved Stross's multi-timeline Merchant Princes sequence (originally published as 6 books, reworked as 3) and this follows on - Merchant Princes: The Next Generation as you might put it.

It's 2020 in the four alternate timelines we saw in the earlier books. Not much happening in Timeline 4 - subject to 2000 years of nuclear winter - or Timeline 1 - the Gruinmarkt, nuked by the US in 2003. But lots happening in a world close to ours, and in that of the New American Commonwealth, where the Clan took refuge.

In the first, the Department for Homeland Security is putting together a plan to pursue the Clan. In the latter, Miriam has risen to a high position in the revolutionary government.

The players are ready. The board is laid out. The Empire Games begin...

I have a NetGalley: review to follow soon.


Eric Scott Fischl | Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show | Angry Robot | 7 February

"Dr. Alexander Potter, disgraced Civil War surgeon, now huckster and seller of snake-oil, travels the wet roads of the Pacific Northwest with a disheartened company of strongmen, illusionists, fortunetellers, and musical whores. Under the quiet command of the mysterious, merciless, and murderous Lyman Rhoades, they entertain the masses while hawking the Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic, a vital elixir touted to cure all ills both physical and spiritual… although, for a few unfortunate customers, the Sagwa offers something much, much worse.

For drunken dentist Josiah McDaniel, the Sagwa has taken everything from him; in the hired company of two accidental outlaws, the bickering brothers Solomon Parker and Agamemnon Rideout, he looks to revenge himself on the Elixir’s creator: Dr. Morrison Hedwith, businessman, body-thief, and secret alchemist, a man who is running out of time."

I have this from NetGalley - review to follow soon.

UBO | Steve Rasnic Tem | Solaris | 9 February 2017

"Daniel is trapped in Ubo. He has no idea how long he has been imprisoned there by the roaches.

Every resident has a similar memory of the journey to Ubo: a dream of dry, chitinous wings crossing the moon, the gigantic insects dropping swiftly over the houses of the neighborhood, passing through walls and windows as if by magic, or science.  The creatures, like a deck of baroquely ornamented cards, fanning themselves from one hidden world into the next.

And now each day they force Daniel to play a different figure from humanity’s violent history, from a frenzied Jack the Ripper to a stumbling and confused Stalin to a self-proclaimed god executing survivors atop the ruins of the world. The scenarios mutate day after day in this camp somewhere beyond the rules of time. As skies burn and prisoners go mad, identities dissolve as the experiments evolve, and no one can foretell their mysterious end."

After Deadfall Hotel and Blood Kin, I have to read this. And it so happens I have an e-copy from Solaris, so will be reviewing soon.

Mick Herron | Spook Street (Jackson Lamb No 4) |  John Murray | 9 February

"Twenty years retired, David Cartwright can still spot when the stoats are on his trail.

Radioactive secrets and unfinished business go with the territory on Spook Street: he's always known there would be an accounting. And he's not as defenceless as they might think.

Jackson Lamb worked with Cartwright back in the day. He knows better than most that this is no vulnerable old man. 'Nasty old spook with blood on his hands' would be a more accurate description.

'The old bastard' has raised his grandson with a head full of guts and glory. But far from joining the myths and legends of Spook Street, River Cartwright is consigned to Lamb's team of pen-pushing no-hopers at Slough House.

So it's Lamb they call to identify the body when Cartwright's panic button raises the alarm at Service HQ.

And Lamb who will do whatever he thinks necessary, to protect an agent in peril..."

A Conjuring of Light | VE Schwab | Titan Books | 21 February

Much anticipated conclusion to the ADSOM trilogy.

China Mieville | The Last Days of New Paris | Picador | 23 February

OK, a new China Mieville? Put me down for this, that's all. Every book of his seems different from the last: you can't categorise him, or predict what he'll do next, except that it's be superb.


Black Night Falling | Rod Reynolds | Faber | 2 March

"There’s a fine line between justice and revenge... Having left Texarkana for the safety of the West Coast, reporter Charlie Yates finds himself drawn back to the South, to Hot Springs, Arkansas, as an old acquaintance asks for his help. This time it’s less of a story Charlie’s chasing, more of a desperate attempt to do the right thing before it’s too late. Rod Reynolds’s exceptional second novel picks up just a few months on from The Dark Inside, and once again displays the feel for place, period and atmosphere which marked out his acclaimed debut."

Deadly Game | Matt Johnson | Orenda Books | 15 March 2017 

"Reeling from the attempts on his life and that of his family, Police Inspector Robert Finlay returns to work to discover that any hope of a peaceful existence has been dashed. Assigned to investigate the Eastern European sex-slave industry just as a key witness is murdered. Finlay, along with his new partner Nina Brasov, finds himself facing a ruthless criminal gang, determined to keep control of the traffic of people into the UK. On the home front, Finlay’s efforts to protect his wife and child may have been in vain, as an MI5 protection officer uncovers a covert secret service operation that threatens them all… Picking up where the bestselling Wicked Game left off, Deadly Game sees Matt Johnson’s damaged hero fighting on two fronts. Aided by new allies, he must not only protect his family but save a colleague from an unseen enemy … and a shocking fate."

An ex Metropolitan Police officer, Johnson knows the world he writes about - and what it can do to those within it. His debut, Wicked Game, was an explosive, death-strewn thriller based on some very traumatic experiences. I'm keen to see what else Johnson can draw on for his protagonists.

Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods | Tania del Rio, Will Staehle | Quirk | 13 March

This looks great fun.

Warren the 13th is the lone bellhop, valet, waiter, groundskeeper, and errand boy of his family’s ancient hotel. It’s a strange, shadowy mansion full of crooked corridors and mysterious riddles.

In his first adventure, Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye, Warren had to decipher clues and find the treasure before his sinister Aunt Annaconda could beat him to it?

This sequel begins soon after the first book’s conclusion.

"Twelve-year-old Warren has learned that his beloved hotel can walk, and now it’s ferrying guests around the countryside, transporting tourists to strange and foreign destinations. But when an unexpected detour brings everyone into the dark and sinister Malwoods, Warren finds himself separated from his hotel and his friends—and racing after them on foot through a forest teeming with witches, snakes, talking trees, and mind-boggling riddles. Once again, you can expect stunning illustrations and gorgeous design from Will Staehle on every page—along with plenty of nonstop action and adventure!"

Where She Went | B E Jones | Constable | March

"She reports on murder cases – but now she finds herself the victim of one

TV journalist Melanie Black wakes up one morning in bed next to a man she doesn’t recognise. He ignores her, and when his wife walks in with a cup of tea to her horror, Melanie comes to realise that no one can see her or hear her – because she is dead.

Has she woken up next to her murderer? guest in a house she can't leave?

Why is she invisible?

As she begins to piece together the last days of her life it becomes clear she has to make a choice: bring her killer to justice, or punish the man who murdered her."

The sequel to Luna: New Moon which - to me - was Dune as Dune ought to have been. I appreciate that is near heresy in SFF but I repeat: this is BETTER THAN DUNE and I'm keenly awaiting it.

"Corta Helio, one of the five family corporations that rule the Moon, has fallen. Its riches are divided up among its many enemies, its survivors scattered. Eighteen months have passed.

The remaining Helio children, Lucasinho and Luna, are under the protection of the powerful Asamoahs, while Robson, still reeling from witnessing his parent’s violent deaths, is now a ward – virtually a hostage – of Mackenzie Metals. And the last appointed heir, Lucas, has vanished from the surface of the moon.

Only Lady Sun, dowager of Taiyang, suspects that Lucas Corta is not dead, and – more to the point – that he is still a major player in the game. After all, Lucas always was a schemer, and even in death, he would go to any lengths to take back everything and build a new Corta Helio, more powerful than before. But Corta Helio needs allies, and to find them, the fleeing son undertakes an audacious, impossible journey – to Earth.

In an unstable lunar environment, the shifting loyalties and political machinations of each family reach the zenith of their most fertile plots as outright war between the families erupts."

Part 2, covering April - June, to follow in a few days...

21 December 2016

Review - The White City

Image from www.simonmorden.com
The White City
Simon Morden
Gollancz, 27 October 2016
PB, 321pp

Source: bought from my local bookshop

This is the sequel to Down Station, published earlier this year which I reviewed here. Before I go on to review The White City I'd just like to say how totally gorgeous the design of both books is - I can't see a designer credited but I think that www.blacksheep-uk.com have done an amazing job with these.

The book follows swiftly on from the end of Down Station. The motley group of London Underground workers who fled a burning city through a mysterious portal have escaped sadistic geomancer Bell and taken off with a chest of treasure - maps of Down, the country, or world, they ended up in.

They have also taken off with the treacherous Crows, which is already becoming a problem, but they need him to guide them to the White City which seems to be the only place in Down they might find out what's going on. The team - led by Dalip, the young Sikh engineer, and Mary, who has developed the ability to transform into a bird - are still in danger from the start.

I found this book a sheer joy to read. At one level it's an adventure quest from start to finish, filled with practical challenges (how to sail a boat, where to find food, how to deal with pirates). At another though it presents moral challenges: should you steal a boat? When is it right to side with pirates? Above all, perhaps, can you (should you) kill? - or, more bluntly, when may you - kill? Many of these dilemmas and questions are seen from the viewpoint of Dalip in the light both of his Sikh beliefs and his family's experiences. What would his grandfather, who fought in the War, have been willing to do? Should Dalit be willing to do the same?

At other times the viewpoint is Mary's - as a streetwise London kid her approach is initially more cynical and it's influenced by her different circumstances in Down. So we get, in effect, a commentary and debate on what is right even in a portal fantasy parallel world. That is something which I hadn't realised I'd been missing: so often the implicit attitude seems to be, oooh, a world full of goodies where I can let rip and do whatever I get away with!

Not that the book is preachy or moralistic - this is a hard world, where the geomancers enslave new arrivals. And as we see in this sequel, there may be worse things out there even than them. As Morden gives us a bit more information about the origin of Down and how it all works, we also see that the geomancers are part of the pattern, not as free as they think, with others pulling their strings.

It's deftly plotted, my only slight reservation being that in places the details of the previous book are assumed. You really don't want to start with this one, go and read Down Station first (and ideally read them one after another if you can).

Finally: Dalip thinks he's worked out the pattern of Down with the "portals" and intersecting "lines" Perhaps he has, but... that reminds me of something. Down Street is a closed LU station. So is White City, sort of (it's moved a few times). So if the next book turns out to be called Mark Lane, British Museum or Aldwych... well.

18 December 2016

Review: The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman

Image from http://www.grcogman.com/
The Burning Page (Invisible Library 3)
Genevieve Cogman
Pan, 15 December 2016
PB, 358

Source: bought from Waterstones in Cambridge

She had to save the Library. 

Save the books. 

Save herself...

The Burning Page is the third outing for Irene Winters, and these books just keep getting better and better. 

Irene is a Librarian - she is therefore not only a trained assassin and spy but familiar with the mysterious, extradimensional Library whose mission is to collect books from all the alternative worlds in order to keep chaos itself at bay. Posted to an alternate Victorian London where Fae plot and scheme and a Great Detective, Peregrine Vale, practises from 221b Baker Street, Irene is supported by her apprentice, Kai, who just happens to be a dragon. 

As if all this wasn't complicated enough, Irene seems to have attracted the special attention of Alberich, enemy and traitor to the Library. Alberich claims to have the power to destroy the Library. But he wants to make Irene an offer first...

That's a flavour of the book. It's clever writing revolving around a clever, confident heroine who takes no nonsense from anyone. And it's an action-filled, fun romp from start to finish. Irene's prime responsibility is acquiring - if necessary stealing - those necessary books, and here she repeatedly demonstrates a cool head, devising plans on the fly to infiltrate the magically protected library of a parallel St Petersburg or to escape from a secret-police dominated parallel Prussia. That's pretty much as in the previous books.

What's different is Irene having to cope with a spiralling crisis as certainties she relies on - about the Library, as well as herself - begin to unravel. This where, I think, Cogman manages to both to challenge Irene and to deepen her as a character. It would be easy to have Irene fall to pieces and spend half the book on introspection before she rallied at the end. Rather than that, Cogman has a clever way of Irene articulating her problems - to herself and, in part to others - and reasoning through them so that can see how close to the edge she is but also how she is adapting and trying to keep a step or two ahead of Alberich.

Along the way Irene has some new problems to deal with in the shape of Library internal politics - as Bradamant appears again, always a worrying sign - and work with both Kai and Vale, both of whom she rather fancies, proves complicated. But she's never stumped.

Cogman's writing is, as always, a joy, whether it's Alberich duelling verbally with Irene during a dance:

"The Palace is guarded... I don't just mean by casual guards, either. I mean by alert guards... guards ready to shoot and kill and have the necromancers ask questions later"

or Irene herself coolly reviewing her options in a den of werewolves or skilfully managing those pesky men who WILL keep assuming they know best (despite NOT being qualified Librarians). 

I really enjoyed this book, which surpasses the high standard set by its forerunners. I hope that Cogman writes more, though I sense there may be a natural pause after this (if I'm wrong about that I'll be delighted).

12 December 2016

Review - The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill

Image from profilebooks.com
The Travelling Bag
Susan Hill
Profile, 29 September 2016
HB, 183pp
Source: bought from my local independent bookshop

From the foggy streets of Victorian London to the eerie perfection of 1950s suburbia, the everyday is invaded by the evil otherworldly in this unforgettable collection of new ghost stories from the author of The Woman in Black... 

I look forward to Hill's ghost stories, the more so because you can never be quite sure when or if they will appear. So it was great to see this in the bookshop and I snapped it up. Then, blogging being what it is, I didn't manage to read it until last week when we were staying in a B&B for the night while Son did a university interview. That slight sense of dislocation - being in a strange place at a strange time - makes one more receptive to ghost stories, I find, as does reading them while travelling. And there is much here to thrill and chill.

There are four stories in the book. My favourite was the last one, The Front Room. A married couple living in an anonymous town hear an inspiring sermon in church and decide to invite the husband's widowed stepmother to stay - despite the almost palpable loathing she seems to have for them. It's a grand, generous act but, of course, no good deed ever goes unrewarded and horror soon follows.

Hill excels here in creating a palpable sense not just of menace and evil but of almost tangible (tasteable?) hatred - bearing comparison to her best known ghost story, The Woman in Black. This is buttressed by the sheer physicality of the writing - the bad smell which accompanies the haunting, the use of lights and shadows.

Truly a story that will stay with me.

Boy Twenty-One is a strange story, more unsettling than scary, almost an exercise in "spot the ghost" (if, indeed, as the events are narrated, there was a ghost - I'm not sure). A young boy with a tragic background finds sanctuary at boarding school where he meets and becomes close friends with another who is also grieving. Events play out, though it's left studiedly vague exactly how we get to the point where the story's framing narrative begins - one senses something lurking just out of sight, some event or perspective that's being withheld - but by who, and why?

Alice Baker is set in a modern office, albeit one located in a decaying building. Again Hill uses all the senses to convey what's going on, and creates a subtle menace and rising tension. Again she leaves the reader with a question: just what really happened? There's less sense perhaps of malevolence than in The Front Room, but - and maybe this is worse - instead is a miasma of despair, of hopelessness - worse because one can't ascribe it to evil or see a purpose in it.

All of these stories worked for me, though in very different ways. The remaining story, The Travelling Bag itself as it were, I found much less effective. I'm not sure why. The trappings are all there - a London gentleman's club in its pomp, dark evenings, bright fires, two members sitting with the brandy and telling stories - of something that happened in that very club!

But somehow the story itself didn't quite do it for me. It all goes back to a rivalry between what seem two rather unlikeable doctors. Bad things are done and revenges are taken. However somehow - despite the solemnity with which the narrator (a paranormal detective) frames his story, taking an evening to ponder and recall it - it all seems a little flat. There are no real shocks or surprises and the supposedly horrifying finale just... wasn't. Worth reading, if only for the atmosphere, but don't make the error of judging this collection by the title story - the others are so much better.

So a fine collection on the whole, the three better stories easily justifying this book.

For more information about The Travelling Bag see here.

10 December 2016

Review: Tokyo Nights by Jim Douglas

Image from http://www.fledglingpress.co.uk/
Tokyo Nights
Jim Douglas (Jim Hickey and Douglas Forrester)
Fledgling Press, 21 November 2016
PB, 342pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this book.

Charlie Davis, a modern-day heretic, ditches his past and rushes into a picaresque journey through the glistening nights of Tokyo and the desolate wilds of northern Hokkaido. But the past is not so ready to ditch him; wistful private investigator Colin McCann, hired to look into the death of a wealthy businessman’s daughter, has a few hard questions for Charlie and won’t give up until he’s got answers. And he’s not the only one on Charlie’s trail.

Enter a world of empty orchestras, night butterflies, polite assassins, decadent TV celebrities and a pit-bull called Marvin. Tokyo Nights is a quest and an investigation into what we have become, a dark parable, a wake-up call to the dead 21st century obsessed with compromise, safety and longevity, and a novel that celebrates the excitement and energy of a culture like no other. 

I found this book brilliant in places, infuriating in others and intriguing overall. There's definitely a touch of genius to it.

My immediate impression is that it's trying to be, and in many ways succeeding at being, 'noir'. ('Tokyo Noir' has a ring to it). It is also though trying to explore and convey the restless excitement of modern Japanese culture (to Western eyes), and to to touch on spiritual themes.  I think that the 'noir' comes off better than the other two aspects: perhaps all three is simply too ambitious for one book. But better to be ambitious than aim low.

The book is mostly told through the eyes of McCann, the investigator, not through those of Davis. So the narrative is coloured by his - McCann's - quest to discover what happened to Natasha Philips, who dies apparently of a drug overdose shortly before the book opens. David is in the frame for that and - in flashbacks - we see McCann establish the background and follow him to Japan, taking a cover job as teacher at the same school of English. It's here we get some pretty full on accounts of Tokyo nightlife written very much as carnal and sensual excess. McCann's attempts to keep up with Davis in drinking - to try and corner him and force a confession, or at least a story - take him into a neon lit and incomprehensible demimonde.

I said above that this is Japan seen through Western eyes and it's hard to separate the glamour of a foreign culture from the Bacchanalian excess described. Perhaps a Japanese account of a Friday night in, say, Manchester or Paris would actually seem quite similar. Whatever, the description is vividly done and - to bring me back to the noirishness - there are overtones of real menace and of course  things soon take a darker turn, with Davis and McCann stumbling into secrets they'd rather not know.

I enjoyed these parts of the book - the fights, the chases through backstreets at two in the morning - rather more than those scenes of heavy drinking, of eying up the girls in the bars. But perhaps that's because I'm more a plot than a description kind of person - I know a good book needs both!

I was less sure about the focus on Davis as almost a spiritual figure, hinted at in the blurb above where he is described as a 'modern-day heretic'. I never quite got what orthodoxy it is he's supposed to be challenging: he presents in the book mostly as a bit of a hippy with a sideline in Tarot, a far from unique type. A couple of times we're told that he's a threatening, even dominant figure - McCann  and Harold, Natasha's dad, seems to think so - but I didn't see this (though he can certainly handle himself in a fight). The central figure of the book, then, is left frustratingly vague: there isn't much from his point of view and he doesn't quite seem to play the role he's set up for.

That aside, this is an enjoyable slice of - what? - crime/ thriller/ noir against a truly enthralling background (though it might have been nice to explore more of Japan than the bars and nightclubs on the one hand and the remote countryside of Hokkaido on the other). After what happens here I don't think McCann will be going back to explore anytime soon, which is a pity, but I hope there are future outings for this thoughtful private investigator (and his dog Marvin) despite the untimely death of one of his co-creators.

A truly original book and one that gripped me.

6 December 2016

Review: The Liberation by Ian Tregillis

Image from www.orbitbooks.net
The Liberation
Ian Tregillis
Orbit, 8 December 2017
PB, 433pp

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

The Liberation brings Tregillis's Alchemy Wars trilogy to a close. And what a journey it's been.

Set in a parallel 1920s, these books feature cog-driven robots forged from alchemically founded alloys. The 'mechanicals' or 'clackers' (the term 'robot' is never used) are bound to obey their creators in the (Dutch) Sacred Guild of Clockmakers and Alchemists. Using the power of their inhumanly strong and tireless machine servants, the Brasswork Throne long ago overcame France and Britain to found a world empire. A French King in Exile hangs on in Montreal, assailed by the might of New Netherland - where the US is in our world.

In the first two books we crossed the Atlantic from The Hague to New Amsterdam and back, following the mechanical servitor Jax (now named Daniel) who achieved freedom from the geasa of the Guild; the unfortunate French agent Visser, who was captured by the Dutch and subject to barbaric surgery to remove his free will; Berenice, the foul mouthed but quite magnificent French spymaster (codename: Talleyrand!) and Anastasia 'Tuinier' Bell, Berenice's opposite number in the Guild. We've also seen 'rogue' Clackers living in the far North under Mad Queen Mab and the deadly war between the French and the Dutch, leading to the ruin of Montreal.

As this book opens, Bell is recovering from serious injuries back in The Hague. She's on the mend, and has just been freed from her casts, allowing her to seriously contemplate getting closer to 'flirty' Nurse Rebecca.

Then, the sky falls in.

In the last book, Daniel saved the French Kingdom in Exile from destruction by freeing the mechanical armies of their bondage to the Guild. Now, the 'infection' he created - freedom - has arrived on the shores of Europe. What Bell and her colleagues - and the rest of the population of course - face is nothing less than the end of their way of life: not only the fury of the machines as an immediate tangible danger but sudden loss of the slaves they depended on to labour for them - to raise food, haul their carriages, manufacture things, even to drive the pumps that prevent the sea from flooding in. Without the clackers, none of this will happen, so those who evade an immediate gruesome death - there's lots of gore in the book! - face starvation, disease or death by exposure. The clockwork's winding down. The slow realisation of this fact is very well done, with all the stages of denial as the central (human) characters battle to keep hold of things.

The story is, then, at one level a rather clever piece of post-apocalyptic set not in the future but in that parallel world. But behind that there is the drama of the coming of freedom to the machines, and the question of what they will have to do to get it, and how they will use it.

Bell is faced with a practical task, seeking to understand what has gone 'wrong' even while a slow and horrible realisation dawns that the mechanicals she has been using and abusing are conscious creatures with their own feelings and needs. Not that she has any scruples about abusing humans either: the cells of the Guild bear witness to that, as do the labs in which Visser suffers. No, rather the knowledge brings horror precisely because she sees what a potentially ruthless enemy of humankind the Guild have created and set loose. This is all the more powerful because it's clear that at some level, Bell and her colleagues knew this all along. Because beyond the rebel clackers, there is a worse threat, arising directly from evil knowledge the Guild - and Bell in particular - has developed, knowledge that should not exist.

So there's a decided moral strand to the book, focused on Bell who both a magnificent, sardonic character and an utter moral monster with no principles whatsoever apart from safeguarding the Guild's secrets. (That pretty nurse? If she won't come willingly when she learns who Bell really is, Anastasia things, she will just get her arrested and flung in a cell overnight - that'll bring her round).

In this, Anastasia is an absolute match for Berenice who has undertaken her own dubious experiments after imprisoning the free mechanical Lilith. One might say that both women - and more, their societies - reap the consequences of all this, in particular the consequences of the Guild's 250 year control of the mechanicals. But there's much more than that. The book also explores the options available to the rebels - how are they to reason and act now they are bound to nobody? Some flee from this to Mab, who's happy to impose her own geasa. Some run to the wilds. Others engage in terrible slaughter. Others assert their consciences and even try to atone for the killing they have done, in the French-Dutch wars. It's a complex picture and nobody - human or machine - is wholly wrong, perhaps, or wholly right - apart from Daniel.

And that, of course, marks him out as a target, a potential suffering victim.

Quite how this calculus of suffering and freedom will play out is kept in doubt till almost the last moment of the book as familiar characters head to strange places and learn just how deep the threat to humanity - to freedom - really is, and have to consider what they will do to thwart it.

It's a similar theme in some ways to Tregillis's earlier Bitter Seeds trilogy where, confronted with German might in the 1940s, English wizards made dark bargains that rebounded on them later. Here, though, the threat is much more insidious, and the collusion with the dark forces more general. There's more - much more - moral ambiguity and many shades of grey in the characters. Excellent.

As with all the best series, I didn't want this to end. The characters are well realised, the writing vivid and the world so real you can almost smell it (the books reminded me in that sense of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials). But above all there is a real argument going on here about freedom and responsibility, about trust, about the need, sometimes for risk and above all perhaps about accepting the results of one's past choices - or the past choices of the society one is part of.

It's quite intoxicating stuff. I loved that earlier trilogy but I think Alchemy Wars is head and shoulders above them - Tregillis just keeps getting better and better and his writing is a pure joy.

Strongly recommended - read it yourself or if you've got an SF nerd in your life, for them (you'll have to buy them all three if they haven't read the others).

Finally - it's wonderful to see someone thoroughly invert steampunk cliches - these are clockwork creations, there's lots of brass around and even airships but it's not steampunk, there's not a lump of coal or a wisp of steam to be seen. Someone had better come up with a new genre name quickly.

My review of The Mechanical is here and of The Rising, here.

1 December 2016

Blogtour - The Finnish Invasion: The Mine by Antii Tuomainen

The Mine
Antill Toumainen, translated by David Hackston
Orenda Books, 15 November 2016
PB, 255pp

I'm grateful to Orenda for a review copy of the book.

I'm back on the awesome Orenda Books Finnish Invasion blogtour with Antii Tuomainen's The Mine. 

Only the most significant moments in life can be this mundane. Life doesn't come crashing down around us when a champagne bottle is popped open. Life creaks at the seams and the sun and the stars shine in the sky as you sit down on a bus, unsuspecting, and stare through the sleet at the landscape beyond the window, or as you wash the dishes, your back aching. The phone rings, your hear stops. It's at moments like this that a partner, whom you've trusted for years, tells you over supper they are leaving, that they've found slmeone else and will be moving out the next day.

I found it a strange book, deeply atmospheric and imbued with a sense of brooding cold whether in the northern region of Finland where the titular mine is sited or in the more extensive sections that take place in Helsinki. That atmosphere almost amounts, I think, to a moral coldness whether in the personal life of journalist Janne Vuori, in the business dealings of Finn Mining Ltd or in the series of clinically staged murders carried out by a hitman, each more inventive and shocking than the last.

Antii Tuomainen
There's a feeling that anything might happen, that all bets are off - a distinctly noirish sensibility, rather than that of a straight crime novel. And indeed, there is no crime as such, no murder, to motivate the story, not for some time. Rather we have mean (if pretty, snow covered) streets, attempts at a cover-up and - within the pages of the book - a somewhat anguished debate about the environmental ethics of mining.

Janne has received a tipoff that something's up with the Suomalahti nickel mine and sets off, in dead of winter, to investigate. That doesn't go unnoticed and he soon begins to think he's being followed. At the same time, that hitman appears on the scene and people begin to die.

Interlaced with this is the story of Janne's family: his father left when he was only one year old, but Janne's mother doesn't seem to feel particularly bitter about being abandoned and eventually he had to stop thinking about it. Scars remain though and history seems to be repeating itself, with Janne and his wife Pauliina increasingly at odds as he immerses himself in work, neglecting their daughter. The book is as much a study in the disintegration of this marriage as it is a crime novel,or a thriller. Janne isn't, perhaps, a particularly admirable character but he does have a dedication to uncovering the truth and by the end of the story I had warmed to him somewhat.

Tuimainen keeps the pace story up throughout, with Janne and his colleagues threatened in an attempt to get them to drop the case, and with that very disturbing and very professional series of murders taking place, as it were, in the corner of the eye, the killer brooding on life, death and the effect on him of his very violent trade. There is a theme, I think, of consequences: they may be dodged, they may be put off, but they catch up with you in the end - even if it takes 30 years.

Despite a superficially happy ending I couldn't really think that the prospects are bright for anyone at the end of this book. But at least some of them survive...

A chilling (in every sense of the words) and very different take on human motivations, reaping what you sow and trying to make the best of things. Also excellent lucid prose from translator David Hackston.

If you want to hear Antii in conversation with Kati Hiekkapelto, author of The Exiled, and Claire Armitstead you need to catch the recent Guardian books podcast which recently featured them in a fascinating discussion about Nordic Noir (take note - not, in this case, Scandi noir).

29 November 2016

Review: The Corporation Wars - Insurgence

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
The Corporation Wars: Insurgence
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 1 December 2016
HB, 309pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book. (Full disclosure: I also have a signed copy on order...)

Insurgence is the second volume in a science fiction trilogy, with Dissidence published in May and Emergence due next year. It kicks off  pretty much where Emergence finished, in the middle of a space battle between reanimated human-piloted mechanoids and newly self-conscious robots. In fact there isn't really a gap, you might just as well call this a single book in three parts as a trilogy.

It's hundreds of years in the future. Humanity has been shaped by a war between the forces of progress - the Accelaration, aka The Axle - and those of reaction, the Rax. After these insurgents have fought each other to a standstill, the authorities harvested the minds of the Axle combatants from their bodies and sentence them to perpetual death. Now, finally, there's a chance for salvation. Carlos 'the Terrorist' and his Axle comrades have been revived, retrained and re-embodied in fighting mechanical suits to meet the threat of those newly emergent robots.

Unfortunately, some Rax have also been preserved...

This is classic hard SF, set in a distant star system where rival corporations (all of them AIs) are trying to claim habitable territory for humanity. The robot uprising and Rax infiltration complicate matters, as do the cloudy motives of Earth's ultimate authority, the Direction (also an AI). In fact, there are wheels within wheels within wheels here, delicate layers of organisational, personal and ideological motives, directed and constrained by the limits of resources, legal freedom and above all, physics (gotta be careful with that reaction mass!) MacLeod provides a couple of pages of summary to bring the reader up to speed on events of the first book, but after that we're into a murky world where - as Carlos finds - nobody is to be trusted.

It's all done, though, as in the most satisfying thrillers, in a completely convincing way - which is some achievement given that most of our characters live (when not fighting robots) in one of two simulated worlds: either a pleasure planet or a pseudo medieval gameworld complete with dungeons and boggarts. Any distinctions between the different levels of 'reality' are soon lost as the book moves between viewpoints and Carlos, his comrade Taransay, Newton the individualistic Rax agent and Beauregard, a former Military Intelligence man who seized control of one of the sims at the end of the last book will pilot their way through the myriad complexities posed both by physical conflict with the larger body of reawakened Rax cadres and the suspicions, hostilities and misunderstandings sown between them.

We see less of the robots in this volume, which is perhaps a shame, because for me their dry wit is one of the best aspects of these books. MacLeod very cleverly leaves them robot enough to be alien, human enough to be sympathetic in their revolt against what is basically slavery. (Remember, none of the human factions show any pity to the robots, not even the 'progressive' Axle. They may be included in tactical alliances but these alliances - as between the human factions themselves - are simply following Machiavelli's advice, to combine against your strongest enemy then turn on your allies.) As the pretty ancient factions of Rax and Axle play out their slightly absurd, centuries out of date conflict, there is a much more current issue of justice at stake. One of the great things about MacLeod's writing is always this ethical, humanistic dimension to SF. Yes, it's ROBOTS! And LASERS! And BANGS! But also an intricately constructed and deeply politically aware story of the interplay between property, personhood and oppression and this gives the story real bite.

There's also some madcap invention, from a user interface based on painting and drawing, to an Old Man of the Mountains who seems to have developed the ability to, unwittingly, control one of the sims, to an all too plausible conjecture as to how robot consciousness could arise.

I suspect that even as we think we know what's going on, there may be a hidden hand at work somewhere. How much of what's happened might, actually, have been planned - or at least foreseen. And by who? Something reminds me of Asimov's Second Foundation - perhaps appropriately in what is also known as the Second Law Trilogy.

There are certainly a number of other shoutouts to SF classics (a reference to The Songs of Distant Earth, the remark than any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology, and more). This is a book, like the very best SF, in dialogue with the genre's past, with speculation about what robots might and might not be allowed to do, with plans for directing future civilizations. And as in many of those tales the real fun arises when things go wrong and the unforeseen happens. That's certainly where we get to by the end of the book when things are again left very much up in the air. I can't wait for the final part.

(Before I end: I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but I just want to point out what gorgeous little hardbacks these are. Just take a moment to admire the design by Bekki Guyatt.)

28 November 2016

Slipping by Lauren Beukes

Slipping: Stories, Essays and Other Writing
Lauren Beukes
Tachyon, 29 November 2016
PB, 288pp

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

I mostly knew of Beukes as the author of smart, twisted SF or fantasy - though it was clear from The Shining Girls that she was also a committed journalist - and I certainly hadn't read any of her short fiction. So this collection was enlightening in a number of ways.

The book collects 21 short stories, written over a decade or more both before and around Beukes' 4 published novels, and 5 pieces of non-fiction. There is also a glossary which may be useful if you're puzzled by some of the South African language used here.

In one of the non-fiction pieces, 'Adventures in Journalism', Beukes sets out what you might take as the manifesto for this collection: '...my job sent me careening around the city from rough-hewn Bellville (cellular chip technology, kiteboarding) to an exclusive boys' school in leafy Rondebosch (teen sexuality) to the low-income apartheid estate Bonteheuwel (graffiti artists, taxi drivers).' Driven by her desire to learn, to understand and to communicate, she flits around, taking in all the breadth of human life (and death).

Similarly, this book explores the boundaries of the weird, the fantastical, the outrageous, from an obsessed stalker who's invaded her girlfriend's home ('Dear Mariana') to an occupying army carrying out torture on captive aliens ('Unaccounted') to a fraud perpetrated by 419 scammers ('Easy Touch'). In some of these you can see ideas developing that resulted in full length novels - part of the background of 'Zoo City' was those same scammers, and 'Branded' reads like backstory to 'Moxyland'. Others are standalone (or haven't resulted in full length books yet...) or experimental: a collection of microstories written as tweets ('Litmash'),  the story of someone calling random numbers and trying to impose a structure on the results ('Dial Tone'), a tale ('Algebra') told in 26 sections, one for each letter of the alphabet.

Not all the stories have elements of the fantastic or the SFnal: many are naturalistic, at least on the surface: in 'Parking' a parking attendant burns with desire for one of the women who regularly leaves her car in his area. Or is he a threatening stalker? In 'Slipping' a mysterious figure adopts multiple identities online - but why? Perhaps there's a sense that Beukes herself is, here, slipping: all those journalistic assignments, all those different themes - trans-human athletes competing in a kind of reality TV show, a fairytale in which a princess finds happiness somewhere she had never looked, stories of edgy art creators and architecture students who meet ghosts - seem to be her sampling possibilities, trying on ideas, and reporting back.

Sometimes, as I've said, things coalesce in themes or ideas that relate to the novels - both in the fiction and the non-fiction, where there is a discussion of the themes behind The Shining Girls, specifically the man who hates women so much that he wants to snuff out something special that he sees in them.

That idea - the twistedness behind the way things are - is a common motif, many of the stories touching on themes of, especially, race (how could they not) but generally obliquely. There's the determined woman who makes her living selling 'smileys' (cooked sheeps' heads) who has a spot of bother with a veteran of the Struggle. There are references (again in both the fiction and non-fiction) to the different districts, often close beside each other, the vastly different yet intertwined lives. Safe and dangerous places. But it's more I think about atmosphere and influence than straight reporting - a chilling account of a surveillance state run in the name of law and order, or that torture prison for 'aliens' (they're 'not human' so can they be dehumanised?) So many themes, so many ideas - reading this book is like turning a Kaleidoscope round and round.

Some of the influences may be hinted at in the origins of the stories - written for a wide range of publications (an erotic collection here, the Big Issue there, by way of annuals and themed anthologies). But - unless I'm missing something - Beukes hasn't let her vision be unduly trammelled by the such commissions.  There's a unity of vision and tone that builds through the volume, despite (or because of?) the wide ranging nature of the material

An engaging collection, whether or not you're read the novels, and I hope hinting at still more strangeness to come soon from this most compelling writer.

27 November 2016

Review: After Atlas by Emma Newman

Image from http://www.enewman.co.uk/
After Atlas
Emma Newman
Roc, 10 November 2016
PB, 365pp

Source: Copy bought from Forbidden Planet at author signing (see below)

Emma Newman continues to impress me with her smart, slightly twisted takes on SF - in this case, she asks "what about those left behind?"

The earlier book, Planetfall, set in the same universe as After Atlas, focussed on human settlers to a new world some 20 years in. It showed how they had been drawn there by almost religious fervour, and what happened next - with a startling twist. The concept reminded me of classic Star Trek except for the deep, empathetic portrayal of the main character and her weaknesses which gave the book so much heart.

Now, we're back on Earth at the same time (I think) as the Planetfall events. We see the awful place earth has become, which the colonists on Atlas wanted to escape. The remorseless march or corporatism has swallowed governments, which have become "gov-corps". Everyone is surveilled all the time, most people have chips embedded and there seem to be no human rights, only contracts - and some are trapped by those contracts into something not far off slavery.

Carlos is one such. Owned by the Ministry of Justice in the UK, he's been trained and formed ('hot-housed') into the perfect criminal investigator. He will work to 80 or thereabouts to repay the cost of his purchase with any failure, any rebellion punished by extra years on the contract. Yet as we find out later he has an easy time compared to some.

Carlos is brought in to solve a high profile case involving the leader of a religious sect - the Circle - from the US. The Circle consists of the people left behind when Atlas flew - one of whom was Carlos's mother (Newman makes a telling point that there's more blame heaped on the mother who left her child than the many fathers). he used to be a member of the Circle so he's ideally placed to understand what happened in a remote hotel in Devon. (The case also gives him the chance to enjoy real - non printed - food: Carlos's love of good food is an enjoyable diversion against a fairly grim background).

The book then adopts the mode - if not the normal setting - of a police procedural, with forensics, pathology, the search for evidence and a rising sense that something is off, someone isn't playing by the rules. We gradually come to sympathise with Carlos more and more, not least the grief and anger which he is clearly bottling up - assisted by the lessons from his hot-housing. He's an awkward, slightly spiky character and so, so alone.

Then - things change. I can't say too much about this for fear of spoilers but the book moves into a different mode. Something awful happens to Carlos and the stakes are suddenly much higher. Then Newman redoubles the jeopardy yet again, boosting things both to a new level of danger but also changing the sort of book this is in a heartbreaking conclusion. I was left standing in the dark on a cold railway platform so that I could read the last few pages before I drove home - it's that compelling. This is, in short, a compulsive and disturbing read. As well as sheer, relentless story we get to see the lives of those shut out of the glamorous space adventure described in Planetfall. Of course we know how that turned out - they don't, and many are damaged: Carlos's father, driven to grief and despair, for example. That's an angle on space-faring and the Final Frontier that you don't normally see.

It isn't perfect - I wonder if perhaps that first twist might come a bit sooner, as there is relatively little time then to explore the consequences? Things then seem a bit rushed at the end. But it's a testament to the power of the writing that I'm only saying that in hindsight: when you're in this book you just want it to keep coming and coming.

The best thing of all is, though, that there surely MUST be more books to come now in the Planetfall universe? It can't just end like this, can it? Please Emma?

The author reading from After Atlas at Forbidden Planet London
(12 November 2016)