24 February 2016

Review: Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts by A K Benedict

Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts
A K Benedict
Orion, 25 February 2016
HB, 272 pp

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

Even if the book hadn't totally won me over within a few pages, i'd love it for the final words: "he can't get away. Death has no sequel."  I hope that unlike Death, this DOES have a sequel, because Jonathan Dark is an intriguing and complex character and I'd like to learn more about him - and about some of the others.

Blending a skilfully realised detective plot with a background of ghosts and hauntings, Benedict gives new life (pun intended) to the "weird London" genre. Dark is a burned out detective, eaten away by his wife's infidelity, sleeping on the office floor, and throwing himself into work - tracking down a stalker and potential serial killer - to drown the pain. But he's not a stereotypical gritty copper: he has startling secrets and an intriguing family background.

The other character who I fell for is Marie, who has a cool job - she's a professional mudlarker (imagine being paid to grub around the London tideline, scooping up the detritus of 2000 years) and a stubborn sense of herself: blind, she had surgery to gain sight but then decided to remain blindfolded anyway rather than lose the London, the world, that she had. There's a wonderfully described scene where Maria takes Jonathan round Spitalfields Market with his eyes covered, experiencing a new world of smell, sound and heightened awareness. (Indeed, this sense of place - not just of London in general but of specific locations - is one of the book's great strengths. Everyone and everything is tagged, precisely nailed down, whether it's the girl who "has been serving burgers to clubber and lattes to lovers all night"; the empty taxis that won't stop (because they have ghost passengers); the crane that looks like a "waiting gibbet" of the London skyline "turning into a Seventies kitchen" - the Cheese-grater, the Gherkin; or the observation that "there is always an Apple in a coffee shop -it's one of the rules").

There's also Marie's dog, Billy. No-one could fail to love Billy, surely?

Unfortunately, Marie is suffering the attentions of a particularly unpleasant stalker. In the background is a shadowy, murderous cabal which looks after its own, complicating the investigation - as does the presence of ghosts, who have their own very definite ideas of justice.

And even the ghosts are vulnerable, to a most unpleasant thing called the Whisperer which feeds on them in the night. But when ghosts aren't enough to nourish it, might it turn on the living instead?

I felt that Benedict was taking something of a risk in combining the police procedural with the supernatural in the way she does. It's not that this is the first time it's been done - authors like Ben Aaronovitch, Sarah Pinborough and Paul Cornell have worked with the same combination - but in this book the two aspects feel, I don't know, so pure in themselves, such good examples of those genres that a crime mad reader or an urban fantasy fan might pick this up, scan a couple of pages, and assume it's straight genre (reading different pages of course).

Will they then feel cheated when they realise what's actually going on? I don't think so. The combination works. The crime parts never become too Silent Witness: the fantasy never goes completely over the top. Even the ghosts are very grounded - some of them have jobs, travel on the Tube or buy and sell in a parallel version of that same Smithfield market.

So - I think this is a brilliant mash-up, genuinely original and entertaining on every page. That's not to say the book is perfect. I wasn't wholly convinced by the behaviour of Tanya, for example, and there are one or two liberties taken with the Underground (I don't think there are any convenient emergency handles to open the doors of a halted train). But those are really slight things, far outweighed by the brilliant writing, the characters and the skill with which the central concept is explored.

15 February 2016

Review - 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough

13 Minutes
Sarah Pinborough
Gollancz, 18 February 2016
HB, 416pp

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

Sarah Pinborough is well known as a horror writer. With recent books she has blended her horror with YA (The Death House), detection (Murder/ Mayhem and The Dog-Faced Gods) and even fairy stories. Now she turns more squarely to teenage life even than in The Death House.

You might think a story of a young woman who was drowned, died for 13 minutes but then returned to life would be a tale of darkness and haunting, and of course this is - but not in the kind of supernatural way you might expect. Pinborough continues to surprise, though, and you shouldn't take anything on trust: the group of teenagers affected by the events in this book may be ordinary but that doesn't mean everyone is happy, secure or - perhaps most of all - safe.

Tasha Howland is a successful girl, popular at school, leader of the cooler-than-cool clique known as the Barbies. So how did she end up, the middle of one night, in an ice cold river, clinically dead? 13 Minutes follows Tasha's attempts to rebuild her life and to make sense of what happened to her. The story's told from multiple viewpoints: mainly Tasha's onetime BFF Becca but we also see a lot of Tasha herself, of the detective assigned to the case, and of Becca's boyfriend. There are texts, transcripts of sessions with a counsellor, newspaper cuttings and excerpts from Tasha's diary. And it all comes together, oh so cleverly, oh so slowly. Pinborough has written a very clever book, on several levels.

First, she gets under the skin of the sixth formers - Tasha, her cohorts Jenny and Hayley, Becca and her uncool friend Hannah. The book revolves around them and to a great extent they form a little world of their own, looking out, everything seen through their motivations - rivalries, anxieties, popularity and unpopularity. There is history between them, but we only discover it gradually. The author was, I understand, a teacher and I'd guess a very good one - the observation and understanding here is razor sharp.

Secondly, she... oh I don't know if I should even say. No spoilers, but this book is tricksy. There are lots of narrators here, OK? Are they all telling themselves the truth all of the time? Are there things that are known but hidden, not referred to, lurking under the surface? Are there things, under the surface, that even the confident, sassy teenagers don't know about?

And then, the book is so skilfully plotted. It seems to be one thing and then something happens - you'll know it when you reach it, you might even see it coming a little way ahead and congratulate yourself, but watch out, it's the consequences that matter more than the event itself.

From that moment the rather careful choreography of the group of girls - not friends, but pushed into shifting alliances by the event that befall Becca - changes pace, as though a performance of Swan Lake suddenly turned into The Rite of Spring - and secrets emerge like little dancing devils. It becomes more and more clear that something is badly wrong, but Pinborough keeps a final understanding from the reader till almost the last page, when the book closes with frenzied action.

It is, I would say (as one who'd a long long way from teenage) a realistic, not moralistic, portrayal of teenage life. There's a bit of sex, there are drugs, but it's not a book about those things or their Dire Consequences: they aren't markers for Out of Control Youth or Moral Decay, just stuff the characters are coping with. If such things bother you, be aware.

Most of all though, it's a great read. Pinborough continues to delight her readers, refusing to be confined to simple genre categories and increasing her range all the time.

Goodness knows what she'll do next.

11 February 2016

Review: Morning Star by Pierce Brown

Morning Star
Pierce Brown
Hodder, 11 February 2016
HB, 544pp

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

Morning Star is the third volume in the trilogy that began with Red Rising and continues in Golden Son. It goes without saying that you should read those first. You SHOULD READ THEM. If you haven't, go away and do it, fastlike. And don't read any more of this review because there WILL be spoilers for the other books.

If you have read them you might want to re-read: much of the action in Morning Star depends on who betrayed who, in Red Rising and Golden Son; who is in uneasy alliance with who, and which characters hate each others' guts.

So. In Red Rising, Darrow of Lykos, a Red slave worker on a future Mars, joins the Resistance, the Sons of Ares after his wife Eo is executed, is Carved into a high-caste Gold, and fights at the Institute against the cream of Gold youth. In Golden Son he becomes lancer for a noble house and struggles to rise so that he can destroy the Society form within. That books comes with a real shock, which despite my warning above, I won't mention, but readers of the two books will be desperate to get their hands on this one to find out what happens next.

When the action in Morning Star opens, then, Darrow's world has been turned upside down, not for the first time, and he must - again, not for the first time - fight for his life, his honour, and the Rising that he so desires. For the first time, he is free of his role in Gold society - but at what cost? The events of Golden Son left him, his family and those he loves exposed: he has lost the fleets and followers he had began to amass: he doesn't lead the Rising and indeed finds himself jostling with his old friend Sevro. It seems that, as in Golden Son, he has more choices but that these can only bring him pain.

Yet Darrow seems to be growing up. He gradually admits that his motives for joining the rebellion are less pure than they might be, and that by fighting in Eo's name might have been hiding from the truth. An old enemy tellingly accuses him of having desired the power and world of the Golds as far back as the Institute.

Darrow may know himself better, but the central dilemmas of revolutionaries everywhere remains Overthrow the system and replace it with what? How to keep the support of those who benefit from the old regime while freeing the oppressed? When it emerges that the Sons of Ares has support from well placed members of the Society - who by no means want to see it thrown down and replaced by "demokracy" - it seems well nigh impossible to resolve the problem, even though Darrow is willing to make chilling sacrifices to do so.

This is a page turning, rip roaring book. Brown drives the story along at a terrific pace, whether he's describing epic space battles, close quarters combat - or Darrow's (and the other characters') emotional and moral turmoil. This is also an author who (as readers will remember) delights in wrongfooting you at every turn. There are jaw dropping PLOT TWISTS here, revelations and surprises which had me gasping. I hope nobody will spoil these: while I'm not normally too fussed about such things this book is definitely the exception and if spoliers do spread, trust me, you want to avoid them.

What else? Well, the writing is as good as ever. Just look at this: "I'm a bloodydamn Helldiver with an army of giant, mildly psychotic women behind me and a fleet of state-of-the-art warships crewed by pissed-off pirates, engineers, techs and former slaves." Or "It is one of the greatest victories in modern history, but victories are less romantic when you're cleaning your friends off the floor". And I could go on.

What it's not, perhaps, is diamond hard SF - if you're the kind of reader who gets fussed about the intricacies of anti grav, objects to the idea of an economy based on helium-3 or worries about the niceties of orbital motion, it may not be for you. But if you are that kind of reader and you also like a good story well told, on a majestic scale, with compelling characters and great prose, then you may, just possibly, enjoy it all the same.

7 February 2016

Review: Down Station by Simon Morden

Down Station
Simon Morden
Gollancz, 18 Feb 2016
PB/e, 352pp

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

Anybody who uses the London Underground will, I think be intrigued by the premise of this book: that late one night a group of workers, threatened by a catastrophe, find a way out of the tunnels into a wholly new world.

The cleaners and maintenance crew - chief among them Mary, a young woman with a spotty past, Dalip, a young Sikh engineer and Stanislav - might be forgiven for seeing it differently. Yes, they have been saved from near certain death. But they've also been wrenched from their lives, from their families and the familiar and plunged into an unforgiving place. No running water, no electricity, no convenient shops. The emotional undercurrent of the book is driven by the tension: the freedom to be what and who you want - Mary slowly realises that she no longer has to answer to probation officers, employers or social workers - contrasted with the need to clothes and feed oneself, to protect others and - in a land with no authority, no law and no help - to protect others. Just how far is one entitled to go in doing that?

The book has, then, a very engaging and serious moral strand as well as the sheer sense of adventure that comes form exploring - and surviving in - a new land. As you would imagine, not all is well here: there are others in Down, as the place is called (a slight miss-step, that name, I felt, since it's only Mary's group who reach it from Down Station).

There are revelations about what the group are capable of - some rather wonderful discoveries about what they can become as well as some rather horrifying ones about what they are, or have been ("There are two kinds of men. Corruptible bastards and incorruptible bastards.") Morden has a knack for a telling phrase or description and at times, the book has a good line in graveyard humour as well as from Mary ("The East End had many dangers. Massive fuck-off dragons weren't one of them") who is also reliably sweary and defiant ("She'd settle this like a true Londoner, with fists and feet and nails and teeth").

It's not, as you'll have gathered, a book for those who are prissy about language, nor - and I don't think this is a spoiler - is it for the squeamish: there is a fair bit of death and dismemberment here. It is though I think in the end a balanced, nuanced, story with no absolute heroes and villains, but plenty of muddled, baffled people trying to do the right thing, to make their own history (Dalip to stay true to the ideals of his faith and the example of grandfather, Mary to overcome her past) but in circumstances not of their own making.

I enjoyed the book a lot. I think I'd have liked a tiny bit more if the opening section - in London - had been more substantial: the author showed such a good eye there for his characters and their setting that it would have been great to see more of London form his perspective before the plunge into the fantasy world. But that's really just my prejudice.

I will be interested to see Morden write more about Down. I hope he does.

3 February 2016

Review: Graft by Matt Hill

Matt Hill
Angry Robot, 2 Feb 2016
PB/e, 448pp

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

This novel is set in a near future, decaying Manchester which is both familiar and strange. While I wouldn't use the term "post apocalyptic" there is more than a hint of Mad Max here. (Or perhaps: this is what you might get if JG Ballard and Philip K Dick rewrote The Island of Doctor Moreau).

Clearly, something has gone very wrong: the economy is on its uppers, public services are non-existent and the only authority seems to be a vaguely mentioned "council". Nothing works, the city is run by gangsters ("Has he heard the rumour, they ask, that a gang of orphans living in the old city tunnels have turned bandit?") and those who can survive just have to graft to keep going - whether that means dodgy work for a scary self-styled Reverent who lives in a refugee camp in an old football stadium, working in the oldest profession or thieving.

The South, it is implied, is pretty much under water (for the Northerners described here that leads to lots of humorous asides: "You can do one back to your floods") but perhaps not subject to the same degree of gang rule, separatism and lawlessness as the North (though even there enough cohesion remains for Sellafield to remain guarded by its nuclear police and for "state" drones to wreak havoc from the sky on wrongdoers/ unfortunate bystanders. And the rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool is as strong as ever).

We never learn exactly what caused all this (global warming? disease?) although one flashback account seems to describe the moment when things went from bad to much worse. Rather the book is about the consequences for a small group of survivors - Roy, a hitman and enforcer; Sol, who makes a living pinching cars and breaking them up for part; Mel, Sol's ex, who runs a brothel - but most of all, a woman known only as Y.

Y exemplifies the fate of many subject to trafficking between this decaying Manchester and an even worse - and even stranger - place, where she is subject to barbaric experiments alongside many "brothers" and "sisters". While only one of many imprisoned in "The Mansion" she seems particularly important: again, we never learn why - just as we don't really find out what the point is of what is done there. At first sight it's just done for profit, but the sophistication of the setup seems to suggest there may be more going on?

Hill is particularly good when evoking the strange parallel world surrounding The Mansion or the grimy, dying North West - whether a shattered Manchester ("Ahead, the sky's shod in black-blue bruise"; "Everywhere she looked she found blackened spires: chimneys, pipes, cable, gantries") , a decaying Knutsford services or the wreck of a car ("a Ford, possibly") whose fate - driven beyond ruin yet still somehow carrying on - seems to stand for an entire country (world? but MSF is operating in Manchester so perhaps this fate has only overtaken the UK) teetering on the brink of Hell but never quite tipping over. At the same time he has great delicacy of touch, and alongside the action filled plot - all fights, killings, explosions and car chases - there is a real tenderness to the story of Sol, Mel and Y.

Sol has done bad things, unforgivable things. He knows how far he has fallen and can't face it. He still has a connection with Mel and seeks her help - or is he seeking her forgiveness? If so that's doubly ironic as he will be bringing down real danger on her and what she's built. But then Sol is not a good man, even if he's an interesting hero.

It is though Y who is really the centre of this book: robbed of her name, voice and memories, she needs to discover a place in this new world - apart from the fate - never spelled out clearly but certainly not nice - willed for her by her makers. She'll use anyone to achieve this but, in the end, she has to do it for herself, face the Manor Lord, whatever - whoever - he is.

A searing book, but an excellent, cracking read.