24 February 2017

Review - The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott

The Fatal Tree
Jake Arnott
Sceptre, 23 February 2017
HB, 324pp

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

You need to take care if you visit Romeville, especially if you're a chub. Believe the patter from one of the canting-crew - cove or mort - and you may find you're just a cull. Watch out especially in darkmans. Maybe you're best staying in Daisyville after all...

This book transports the reader to the heart of 18th century London, the town of posture-molls and lully-prigs, a great roistering stink of a place fueled by gin where the flat and flash worlds coexist and everyone has secrets.

It's the story of Elizabeth Lyon, "Edgeworth Bess" and her lover, accomplice, betrayer, Jack Sheppard. Lyon is ruined by her master's daughter and cast off to make her living in the "academies" and "vaulting-schools" of the Hundred of Drury: Sheppard is a bored apprentice who takes to burglary and jailbreaking like a native. Lyon and Sheppard were real people: William Archer, aspiring journalist in Grub Street by day and client of Mother Clap's molly-house by night, was not but stands for a class of gay men condemned by the harsh (injustice) of the time. (Arnott names some of them in a postscript. Gabriel Lawrence. William Griffin. Thomas Wright.) The Triple Tree awaits, and many will dance the Tyburn jig by the end of this tale.

The whole scene is presided over by Jonathan Wild, thief-taker ("prig-napper") and thief-master, whose own fate is bound up with those of Lyon, Sheppard and Archer. He, also, was real: after his fall, Defoe wrote his life story.

Arnott packs an extraordinary amount into a relatively short book. There's the vigour and bite of a London ("Romeville") where everyone is, seemingly, on the make, not only the sharks in Exchange Alley who drive the South Sea Bubble or Wild himself but also a Lord Chancellor who's embezzling from the Treasury and escapes with a fine. The rich may get off with a light sentence but the poor receive no mercy (isn't that always true?) He also shows us the quest, among the coves and the morts, for instant fame, in a world where the scribes of Grub Street (former Grape Street, former Grope-c**t Lane) can tell a tale of jailbreak, ruin and repentence and gather enormous crowds to witness that final journey along what's now Oxford Street to the Tree.

At one point a young girl in jail confesses to Lyons that she wants to be like her, Like Edgeworth Bess: she wants fame and respect. She wants to be a celebrity. Three hundred years ago, there is a new, instant means to earn this, and plenty are up for it - as we realise from the very form of the novel, which is the entwined confessions of Lyon and Archer.

Never less than vivid, this was at times a slow read (I had to keep looking up the flash-talk in Arnott's helpful glossary, and perhaps at times it is a little rich in Lyons' sections of the story) but it really grew on me. Behind the swagger and bravado there is a deeper story here - a story of love and of heartbreak, of people meeting, falling for each other - parted. A sad story. (Isn't that always true?)

Through it all, some truths emerge, I think - about ambition, about corruption, above all about that great Wen, both devourer and playground of the young, London, whose character doesn't change, even if overlain for a time by the hypocrisy of a Wild or a Society for the Reformation of Manners. Bulldoze or bomb the streets, pour the concrete, the place remains a flash-ken and long may it be so.

A unique reading experience, not to be missed.

22 February 2017

Review - Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Kings of the Wyld
Nicholas Eames
Orbit, 23 February 2017
PB, 494pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a review copy of this book.

Guardians of the Galaxy meets Lord of the Rings in this rousing epic fantasy debut in which a retired group of warriors must get the band back together for one last seemingly impossible mission...

"The boys are back in town..." it says on the cover of this book.

And how.

Kings of the Wyld is rollicking, explosive fun from cover to cover. Starting quietly - Clay Cooper, retired adventurer and stalwart of the City Watch in Coverdale, is returns home from work to find an old friend waiting with a proposition - the book quickly accelerates like a great chromium plated monster on the road behind you. There is a Quest - Gabriel's (Cooper's friend's) daughter, who herself went off adventuring, is In Trouble, besieged by a horde of demons no less. There is the rest of his old band to be rounded up: Moog the magician, Matrick the king, Ganelon the warrior. There are foes to be fought or avoided: jealous ex wives and managers, bounty hunters, monsters of every shape and size. There are perils great and small - from robbers in the woods to the terrifying Rot.

And waiting at the end of a perilous road, there is Rose...

This debut novel is written with exuberance and elan. Always assured, Eames strikes the same balance as Pratchett at his best, drawing humour from the conventions and tropes of high fantasy while also clearly loving them - laughing with his characters, never mocking them. The book contrives to be, at the same time, very funny (as when Saga - Cooper's band - stride menacingly up a hill towards a foe - and then someone trips up) and very serious (addressing both the existence of monsters in the world - and this book has monsters everywhere) and mankind's monstrous treatment of them (death in the arena, anyone?) Even the kobolds are, at times, sympathetic.

Now, about that words, "band". The central conceit of this books is that the groups - bands - of mercenary adventurers, out to slay monsters and win treasure, are treated like rockstars. They have rockstar names - the Screaming eagles, the Sisters in Steel, the Wight Nights, Courteney and the Sparks - rockstar followings and travel on their "tours" in enormous wagons filled with illicit comforts.

And Saga were the best, the wildest, the most famous ever.

This is one of those ideas that sounds as though it won't work, as though it ought not to work but Eames exploits it brilliantly, again drawing out humour but also able to use the comparison to convey just how the people in his invented world relate to the "mercs", making it all real by drawing on a whole slew of implicit real-world concepts. It's brilliantly done and very believable, even as he brings in wyverns, two-headed Etins, flying ships, legendary weapons and a tetralogy of gods whose histories turn out to be curiously relevant to our heroes and their quest.

The characters are also vivid and compelling, both the members of Sags itself and the supporting figures - such as the cynical and light fingered "booker" who managed the band and seemed to take most of the money. The stand out is, though, Moog, magician, the one who - most of the time - knows what's going on better than the others (but only just). He's a rather vulnerable figure still mourning the death, years before, of his husband from the Rot and desperately seeking a cure. I want to read more about Moog.

It's a wonderfully immersive book, with our heroes facing thousand mile treks across evil forests, vast hordes of fearsome monsters, ancient evils and numerous reversals of fortune. Never less than gripping, the writing becomes truly compelling as the story comes to its climax. Can a group of ageing adventurers, beset by sore backs and wonky knees, still cut in today's brutal world? Will guile and determination be enough? or will they - as seems likely when, within a few miles of home, they're humiliatingly robbed - wish they'd stayed in retirement?

Just a super read, a really fresh book, one to savour from start to finish.

20 February 2017

Review: A Conjuring of Light

A Conjuring of Light (A Darker Shade of Magic 3)
VE Schwab
Titan Books, 21 February
PB, 666pp

I'm really grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for an advance copy of this book, which is one of my most keenly awaited books of 2017.

The precarious equilibrium among the four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity of magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving a space for another London to rise. 

Kell–once assumed to be the last surviving Antari–begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. Lila Bard, once a commonplace–but never common–thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her dry.

Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery and the Night Spire crew are attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible, as an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown and a fallen hero is desperate to save a decaying world…

I've said this before, but sometimes a book review almost seems beside the point. I wonder if I should simply say BUY THIS BOOK!!! - it is so good. And in any case, when it comes to a book which, like this, ties up a trilogy, those who have read the earlier books will know very well whether they want to read more.

But I do want to say something about ACOL because it's so... it's such a... it... well, the trilogy it's part of has, for me, come to be almost a monument in SFF. It's hard to believe that a few years ago, these books weren't there, now they are, and everything else fits around them (almost as though Kell had been at work here). That deserves some comment and some (spoiler light) analysis, I think.

And if you haven't read A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows (where have you BEEN?) I hope that this will persuadfe you to do so.

So - why do I think this trilogy, and this book, are so great?

First, the characters. They are so real and so true. You may not end up loving everyone (except "bad ideas are my favourite kind" Lila, of course you'll end up loving her because LILA) but you will see them all as so real and the cost of what happens in this book as a real, crushing cost. And they're all so mixed up, so frustratingly human, not heroes - or villains - on a Quest.

Everyone you'd expect and hope to meet is here, and some others. Kell and Rhy, of course, royal princes, magical and non-magical, with their conflicts and history.  Lila too, as dangerous as ever (perhaps more so) and as wonderful as ever (Lila Bard! Yes!) And Alucard Emery with his on-off relationship with Rhy (what exactly did happen before ADSOM?) and... and... and stop, David, there are some others here you could mention that might count as spoilers. What I will say is that everyone we meet - even those who previously seemed unpleasant or even - is, over the course of the book, shown to be a good sight more complex than the judgmental reader ever gave them credit for: all the burdens, the noble motives gone bad, the impossible decisions, the weighing of least evils, is exposed.

Even the fears of parenthood (which are, simply, all consuming) have their place.

Then, the deft way that everything from the earlier books is brought together - even amidst new perils - and resolved... but still with that cost, with pain and blood and regret. It makes me think of the final part of The Lord of the Rings. Poor Frodo suffering what today we'd call PTSD and adolescent me not getting it, heedless that the book was written by a man who must have been suffering just that. Well here there's the same sense of dark. I don't know what Schwab must have imagined herself through to portray this but the empathy in this book simply shines out. Incredible.

And the worlds - we see new aspects here of the three Londons and their surroundings. There's a telling difference between most of the action on the books - taking place in one London or another - and some of the travel here which goes further, the book taking on an almost fairytale feeling with the geography vague - it's not clear whether beyond London itself these worlds are the same as ours and the haze of uncertainty makes very real the conceit of slipping into alternate realities.

And of course we have magic, fighting, ships... an epic scale for this conclusion, picking up right after AGOS left off, with Rhy dying and Kell trapped, and romping through those 666(!) pages.

If the book starts with peril and jeopardy it soon ramps up even further as worlds are at risk - Red London but also our, Grey London. While the nobles who came to London for the tournament fret and bicker, a dreadful threat is arising...

Oh, and the language. Schwab has such a way with language:

"The truth had claws, and they were sunk into his chest..."

For sure they were!

"If she was careful enough, sharp enough, then nothing bad would happen..."

I know that feeling. It doesn't work.

"Dead men can't hold grudges"

Is Schwab out Stevensoning Stevenson?

In short, this is all you could possibly want or expect from the final part of the trilogy, and much, much more besides. An epic read, a truly great book.

For more about the book, see here. To buy the book, go to your local bookshop or buy hereherehere or even here.

18 February 2017

Blogtour: Sealskin by Su Bristow

I'm really glad today to be hosting a guest post by Su Bristow, author of the awesome Sealskin, just out from Orenda Books. It's part of the Sealskin blogtour alongside the redoubtable Last Word Book Review

What happens when magic collides with reality? Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous … and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives – not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?

Su has written about layers of meaning in writing - and in names. so, without more ado, over to her...

Layers of Meaning

The name ‘Sealskin’ seemed to me to be a good fit, for several reasons. On the surface level, it’s a legend about a seal-woman whose skin is taken from her, so that she cannot return to her life as a seal. But the idea of our skin both as the appearance or ‘surface’ that we present to the world, and as our defence against the outside with all its perils, is a powerful way to look at our human dilemmas.

We all feel like outsiders at times, separate from our fellow humans, and yet we are all the same under the skin. To be ‘thin-skinned’ is to be vulnerable, to feel the hurts and bruises more keenly than perhaps we should, and Mairhi as a new human has skin as fine as a baby’s. Gradually, though, her skin gets stronger as she learns to cope with being human, and even, eventually, to dance with it.

Donald, on the other hand, has always had trouble dealing with everyday things like the touch of wool on skin. Over the years I’ve dealt with a great many patients – often children, but not always – who suffer from eczema, and I’ve seen how disabling it can be. At its worst, it can be completely isolating, and of course anxiety about how other people see you tends to make it worse. It’s a bitter irony that over the years, chronic eczema tends to thicken the skin, almost as though it’s trying to grow a better barrier against the things that inflame it. Where Mairhi has lost her skin, Donald needs to find his.

When Donald’s father died, his grief became a wound that never quite healed, and he dealt with it by trying to cut himself off from everyone, and finding solace in the natural world. Fishing, of course, is a torture to him, continually opening the wounds and pouring salt into them. No matter how the other fishermen react, whether with pity or with mockery, it simply adds to his misery, so that the only way, for him, is to go out alone.

And yet, of course, he is desperately lonely. I deliberately left a lot of this implicit in the novel, because Donald himself is inarticulate and avoids thinking about his own problems, and we are always inside his head. But all of this feeds into his response when he sees the selkies. Unlike in the legend, he doesn’t deliberately set out to trap one of them on the shore, but when he realises what has happened, he can’t bear to let her go. And in that moment, both their fates are sealed.

Sorry about the pun! But that’s the thing; ‘seal’ has so many meanings. In consenting to the sealed fate that they’ve found themselves in, and – for Donald – in truly trying to atone for the terrible wrong with which he began it – they both find a new freedom. And they both grow into their new roles, as parents, valued members of the community, and eventually as lovers. Their second child, born of love rather than violence, is called ‘Sorcha’, which means ‘freedom’ in Gaelic.

So for a little time, until what Bridie reveals to Donald means that new choices have to be made, they do have freedom. They are comfortable in their own skins. I won’t talk about what happens next because that would spoil it for people who haven’t yet read Sealskin.

You can buy Sealskin from any good local bookshop or from here, here, here or even here.

17 February 2017

Blogtour: Cursed by Thomas Enger

It's my turn on the Cursed blogtour today - that's NOT a blogtour wracked by catastrophe and evil, indeed the very opposite, it's the tour for the distinctly superior and noirish novel Cursed by Thomas Enger, which follows Oslo journalists Henning Juul and Nora Klemetson.

They divorced following a tragedy, and it's pretty clear they're both, in their different ways, still reeling. Waves of guilty, denial and anger wash around this suspenseful book.

When I read something like this I always wonder just how the author does that? So I was really pleased to be able to invite Thomas on here to talk a little bit about how he writes...

Thomas Enger - My Work Day

"Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work."

The quote belongs to the one and only Stephen King, not yet my BFF, but Mr. King definitely is someone whose thoughts I give a lot of credit and weight, as he certainly ranks up there among the great minds of this craft called writing.

Thomas Enger
I've been writing professionally for the past eight years or so, and one of the things I have learned over the years, is that if I'm ever going to get something down on paper, I can't just hang around and wait for that angel called Inspiration to appear and tell me what to do. I just sit down and write, and when I'm doing my first drafts, I don't pay that close attention to syntax or structure, I just write. Whatever comes to mind, almost. I find it best to at least have something to edit rather than nothing. First drafts are also just a way for me to get to know my characters and my story, which is why spending a lot of time writing as beautifully as I possibly can in a first draft, really is a waste of time, as I would have to change a lot anyway in the second or the third draft.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a little here.

My average work day looks something like this: I get up, have a cup of coffee or seven while reading the morning newspaper. I make sure the kids get to school in one piece, and then the house is quiet enough for me to get to work. Not that I totally rely on peace and calm to be able to work (I can easily work in an airport or on board a plane), it's just better to avoid any outside distractions.

I usually check the online newspapers as well for a little bit, I check my social media feeds, see what's going on in the world, and then I answer or write some e-mails if I need to. Then I clear my head and get to work.

But because writing is a very intense form of work, my brain just shuts down after a while, at least in the creative sense, and that usually happens three or four hours into the day, and then I just have to something else for a little while. For me that usually means going to the grocery store or to go for a run on the treadmill down in the basement. I like to stay in shape, and I also find that running sometimes enables my mind to relax and think without my thinking about thinking. If that makes any sense. Sometimes a solution to a problem just appears out of nowhere when I'm running, so exercise is a win-win situation for me. I get a break away from the computer, I get exercise, AND some work done at the same time.

Then I have lunch and work for a few hours more before the kids come home. Sometimes I even work a few hours after dinner as well. Depends on how much work I've been able to doearlier that day.

What I'm not particularly good at, is to shut out all the e-mails and SoMe things that are popping up constantly. I'm way too curious to just let things be until I'm done working, so my work day is a bit fragmented.

I don't subscribe to the notion that it's a good idea to have a word count every day. I know a lot of authors do that, but I don't really care; I just write. And I like to write a little bit every day, even on weekends and sometimes even when I'm on vacation. It depends on where I am in the process and when my deadline is.

Writing, to me, is almost like an obsession. When I start working on a story or a project, I just want to keep at it until it's finished. But I am a family man also, and I can't just escape into my fictionary world and stay there as long as I want.

One thing I've learned over the years is that the whole "being an author" thing isn't just about the actual, physical act of writing. There are so much more to it than that, and a lot of time goes by just thinking about what I'm going to write, and how I'm going to solve this or that problem.

And because my books have been translated to a lot of countries as well, I am very fortunate to get invitations to book festivals and launches here and there, so quite a bit of time goes into travelling and helping the organisers with the relevant material they need, whether it's blog posts or pictures or synopsises of my novels.

Sometimes even reporters want to talk to me, so in order to promote the things I've written, I say yes to almost all kinds of inquiries. That also includes helping kids with school projects (if they want to write about me or my books).

So it's a challenge to have sufficient time to do what I love the most, which is to write. But I try to do it as often as I can, and to the very best of my ability, even if the angel Inspiration hasn't poked me and told me what to do.

I just get on with it. Which is what I'm going to do now.

Cursed was published by Orenda Books on 15 February and is available at your local bookshop or here, here or even here.

The blogtour continues - don't miss tomorrow's stops at Chillers, Killers and Thrillers and The Quiet Knitter.

10 February 2017

Review: UBO

Image from http://www.solarisbooks.com/
Steve Rasnic Tem
Solaris, 9 February 2017
PB, e 320pp

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

A blend of science fiction and horror, award-winning author Steve Rasnic Tem’s new novel is a chilling story exploring the roots of violence and its effect on a possible future.

To say that this book surprised me is putting it mildly. The two previous books by Steve Rasnic Tem that I had read - Deadfall Hotel and Blood Kin were supernatural, somewhat monstrous but - allowing for some weirdness - very much set in the here and now.

UBO is different. UBO is set in... UBO, whereever that is. It's a decaying building in a decaying city, where strange, malevolent "roaches" - giant insects - imprison and torture humans, forcing them, by some strange mind control, to inhabit the memories of notorious criminals and killers. These parts of the book are dark and very difficult to read. We hear the internal monologues, the self-justification, the arrogance, of a spree killer, of a bloodstained tyrant, a domestic abuser, a serial killer, a medieval warlord - all of them real historical people.

Running through the book, as a thread, are the self-deluding narratives of Holocaust perpetrators.

It's extremely well done, deeply, deeply chilling and at times, really nasty. The reader experiences this at one remove and that is unsettling: the conceit of having actual people kidnapped and forced to relive life after terrible life is even more awful.

And yet, in a sense, that's not the worst. There are the life stories of the prisoners themselves - seen from the viewpoint of Daniel, who gives nicknames to his own particular group: Falstaff, Lenin, Bogart, Gandhi. A common theme, again, is of the failure to control anger, of actual or potential harm to families and friends before the men - they are mostly men - were carried away to UBO. They speculate, as these hard-given up stories emerge, that they have been chosen to match the lives of those they inhabit. They muse on whether they bear guilt for the things they do in those "scenarios". They self-justify their own behaviour: most, though, are curiously incurious about where they are now, why, and what will become of them.

So it goes. The scenarios are sometimes more, sometime less violent. The world of UBO leaks into them at times. And then - everything changes. We've been fed clues, glimpses of something behind the world here, and that is eventually revealed. When it is, it makes a kind of cruel sense of what has gone before - but it is the kind of sense that makes one despair of humankind's ability ever to improve.

This is a magnificent, but such a dark, vision of humanity past, present and future. Firmly in the camp of a kind of realist science fiction - only leap of imagination is really needed here, that ability to jump into others' (past) memories - it is still in atmosphere and setting far distant from the other Rasnic Tem stories I mentioned before: even the monsters in those were more human than some of the actors here.

What a work of imagination this must have been. What an experience for the reader. Disturbing, compelling, it's a book that will remain with you long after you close it and come back from UBO.

Strongly recommended.

8 February 2017

Review: Spook Street by Mick Herron

Spook Street
Mick Herron
John Murray, 9 February 2017
HB, 340pp

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

I hadn't read a full blown spy thriller for a while, and had never read any of the Jackson Lamb series (this is no 4). I know those who've read the previous books will snap this one up and won't need to bother with reviews like this. But for those yet to meet Lamb and his crew of "slow horses" you've a real treat coming (and Spook Street is a perfectly accessible place to get on board).

The "slow horses" are Security Service assets who aren't quite... up to the mark. Maybe a copybook was blotted in a particularly blatant way? Maybe it's anger management issues, gambling or substance misuse? Whatever, there's a place for you in Slough House, a decrepit block in Central London where careers (and heating systems) go to die. Slowly.

The whole rickety edifice (I'm speaking literally and metaphorically) is presided over by Lamb himself, a magnificent monster of a spy, the apotheosis of the raddled, maverick operative: unkempt, unhealthy, rude, foul mouthed, hard drinking, lacking all respect for authority or procedure, he's the embodiment of the Slough House ethos: you sense the Service would have put a bullet in him long ago if they didn't know full well that he'd cause more trouble dead than alive. (Probably by smoking in the hearse, then clawing his way out of the grave again).

A bullet though the head... loose ends and retirement of assets is the central theme of this book. River Cartwright, grandson of renowned spy David Cartwright (who never quite made First Desk) becomes concerned that his grandfather is beginning to wander, and may become a problem for the Service. Cartwright senior is beginning to see stoats all around - not the furry kind, but watchers. And he's not as defenceless as they might think.

So it's no surprise when someone ends up dead. The Service would like to clear up quietly, but someone brought Lamb onto the case and he does nothing quietly.

Told in convincing insider jargon and through pretty much non-stop action, this book takes you to a world of bitter internal struggle, disillusionment and private warfare. Switching between France and London, it follows Lamb's team in their stumbling attempt to tidy things up, presenting some unforgettable characters in the under-paid, under-performing millenials of Slough House (think, Bridget Jones administering a waterboarding) struggling with their 20s disappointment one minute, engaging in life and death combat the next.

It's far from the world weary sophistication of George Smiley, even as the tentacles of the Cold War reach out to shape the future. New enemies and new threats may abound but their seeds were sown long ago.

I loved this book just for the characters and the setting. It would have worked almost as well if there hadn't been a plot or an immediate threat driving things: Herron has a real gift for people, even if, as here, he happily uses the setting to say something about his people (that glugging, sputtering heating system in Slough House, contrasted with the gleaming glass of the Service's HQ, says it all really). Indeed I wasn't completely persuaded by the threat, but that really didn't matter.

(I also smiled at the scene set by Blackfriars Bridge and the passing mention of the nearby banks, publishers and other undesirables. There does Hodder have its offices again...?)

Looking forward to more Jackson Lamb, and more of Shirley, Rod, Louisa & Co - and pleased I can get an instant fix from the preceding books right now!

6 February 2017

Review: Wintersong

Image from http://titanbooks.com/
S Jae-Jones
Titan Books, 7 February 2017
PB, 512pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?
Inspired by Christina Rossetti's poem Goblin Market, this is the story of Liesl, her sister Käthe and brother Josef. It's set in the elegant late 18th or early 19th century - the period, in style at least, to which traditional fairy stories seem to look back (perhaps because that's when they were first compiled and published?) there's a background of middle Europe: forests, the distant capitals of Paris or Vienna, marching armies, the rivalry of master (never, of course, mistress) musicians.

Your love is killing him.

Josef, a talented violinist, has a chance of joining this glamorous life. In contrast to such dreams, Liesl's world is circumscribed, her talents as a composer scorned by their father, a drunken innkeeper. Little surprise perhaps that her thoughts turn to childhood days playing with the imagined Goblin King in the forest...

But it's not Liesl who seems in danger when the strange merchants turn up in the market square of the village one day, selling their ripe and tempting fruits. Rather, Käthe seems likely to be swept off her feet by the stranger who breezes in with them. Can he really be the Goblin King? Indeed, does such a person actually exist?

Set in a time of tension, balanced between old superstition and new rationalism, Enlightenment and full blooded Romanticism, Winter and Spring, this is really Liesl's story. Liesl will sacrifice herself for her brother's ambition, her family's need, her sister's safety - but what will become of her? What about her inner desires, her need for love?

It's a beautifully written book, dark, sensual and cryptic, as Liesl sets out for the Underworld to save her sister - from what exactly? Even as she goes, she's not sure. Once there, she's herself at the mercy of the quicksilver King and his mob of a Court: beguiled by tales of a sacrifice even greater that the one she expected, made to feel a duty that was never hers. There are echoes of ancient myth, of Orpheus and Eurydice or Tammuz and Ishtar, with the rhythm of the story driven by the ebb and flow of the relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King.

Jae-Jones has produced a masterful and beguiling story which manages to be both a tale of Liesl's coming of age and of her uncovering truths about her family and the world around her. Myths and misconceptions are case aside, but will they be replaced with others, more beguiling and addictive? Is it better to live with ugly truths or beautiful lies?

I simply loved this book. You never know where you are with it: it's fantasy but also romance, myth and truth. And deeply musical, every page infused with the composition, creation and impact of music. Like those ripe and luscious fruits, one bite will set the reader on the path through the winter woods, into the underground, the barrow rooms, the subterranean lake - to return, if at all, forever changed.

3 February 2017

Review: Dr Potter's Medicine Show

Image from http://www.angryrobotbooks.com/
Dr Potter's Medicine Show
Eric Scott Fischl
Angry Robot, 2 February 2017
PB, 416 pp

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

How to describe the book? It's almost as if Mary Shelley had set Frankenstein, or Robert Louis Stephenson Doctor Jekyll, in the Old West.

But weirder than that, and funnier too.

The eponymous Doctor Alexander Potter sells patent medicine - "the Chock-a-Saw Sagwa tonic" - from the back of a wagon in 1870s Oregon as part of a travelling show featuring, among other attractions, a Chinese fortune teller, a black Hercules (complete with lionskin), a freak show and a French singer, Mercy (who's forced by her husband Lyman Rhoades to provide other services to the customers after the show). Lyman is the presiding (evil) genius of the show, with Potter only a catspaw: in turn Lyman is ruled by the mysterious Morrison Hedwith, who produces the Tonic - and who's into some really strange stuff beyond that.

In short, Hedwith is an alchemist, almost the last of the alchemists, committed to the Great Work - the creation of the Stone which can give immortality (and transmute lead to gold). The show is part of his plan: as if it's not already evil and twisted enough (and with Lyman in charge, believe me, it is) the show is a vehicle for this singularly evil and twisted man.

Which is where Frankenstein and potentially Jekyll come in as this is - among other things - a story that explores both the dark side of knowledge and the pre-modern science that Shelley invoked in her novel. It's full of desperate men, seeking immortality or at least, seeking to stave off death, who regard everyone else at best as tools or objects, at worst as playthings. Some of these men are purposefully cruel (Lyman, whose treatment of his wife is as spine chilling and loathsome as anything I've read in fiction - be aware that this makes for difficult reading in places) while others simply don't care what damage they cause.

The suffering is redeemed, to a degree, by the presence of a trio who start out almost as a comic subplot - a couple of would be outlaws, D Solomon Parker and his brother Agamemnon Rideout and and the respectable dentist Josiah McDaniel who hires them for revenge. Perpetually whisky sodden and inept, they, with Josiah's sister Elizabeth, are the closest thing this book has to heroes as they track the Show for revenge. Elizabeth, especially, who's trying to save Josiah's comes across as more determined, level headed and brave than anyone else here. She's undoubtedly the true hero of this entertaining if at times dark story, setting out into the wilderness to save her brother even though she barely knows how to saddle her horse.

The determination of the quartet, who squabble and drink their way through the wilderness, lightens the book and recalls those classic Westerns where an ill assorted and distrustful bunch must work together to survive. Pitting them against the malign Rhoades makes for a tense if at times blood soaked plot and a vert entertaining read.

One aspect though, detracted from the story for me - the extent to which its women end up in jeopardy and as motivation for rescue. I don't want to overdo that: after all, Elizabeth sets out to save her brother, but he is in turn on a mission of revenge for what happened to his wife Mary, and there are others as well who end up suffering an unpleasant fates and/ or providing motivation to the men That seems unnecessary, because there's plenty here to motivate and involve the reader and the characters.

Overall though, this is a different and truly weird tale, which maintains tension to the end and features some great personalities, a well realised and unusual setting and an inventive plot.

2 February 2017

Review: Kill the Next One

Kill The Next One
Federico Axat (Trans David Frye)
Text Publishing, 26 January 2017
PB, 414pp

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

This is a very hard review to write without spoilers, in fact, impossible, although I have tried to keep them as mild as I can to protect enjoyment of the book. But there is a twist in this book you really do not want to know about so I recommend stopping reading where I warn below.

(But then please come back after you've read the book and let me know what you think - I'd love to discuss this book with others who've read it).

We begin in media res. Ted McKay is about to shoot himself in the head. He's made meticulous preparations; chosen a time when his wife, Holly, and daughters, Nadine and Cindy are away; stuck a note on his office door to warn Holly - and he's hidden the family photographs.

Ted is suffering from an inoperable brain tumour and sees this as the only way out.

Then he's shown another way.

A stranger, Justin Lynch, turns up, offering a deal. If Ted kills two men, he will in turn be added to a death list maintained by "The Organisation". One of the men, Edward Blaine, is a murderer who's got away with his crime. The other, "Wendell" is a fellow member, who wants to die. Ted will still die, but this way, he gets to inflict a little justice, and his death is murder, not suicide - supposedly some comfort to his family. (Not sure I go along with this - the idea that suicide is a uniquely shameful thing, that is. On the other hand if you can't nerve yourself to do the deed, maybe it's better to have someone do it for you...)

How Lynch knows about Ted's intentions is not explained.

The story really takes off from there this most thrillery premise. We see Ted attempt to carry out his side of the bargain - and then when things inevitably go wrong, to escape from the situation he's got himself into. He finds out, of course, that all is not entirely as Lynch said - and that there are connections between himself and the victims. Trying to track down Lynch, he seems to have stumbled on something both deeper and more complex than he thought, with twists, turns and false information aplenty.

This first part of the story is taut, convincing (if you accept the suicide premise) and adrenaline-soaked, an atmospheric thriller enhanced by hints that something odd was going on - for example, the repeated eruptions into the text of an opossum, always described as evil, disgusting or predatory, which Ted along can seen, or the contradictory versions of certain events. If Ted is suffering from a brain tumour, how much of what he's seeing is real? What effect might that have - or have had - on his (always absent) family?

Then, the story shifts abruptly to something very different, focussing on Ted and his history. The remainder of the book lets this play out, including a look back at Ted's childhood and college years.

It's at this point that I find it hard to discuss the detail os the story further without spoilers. So here is the warning - look away now if you haven't read the book and want it to have its full effect...

Still with me?

Are you sure?


Then you'll know that in the remainder of the story, Ted is seeking to understand his past. He doesn't have a tumour, but has been behaving strangely and his experiences in the first part were not wholly real. Wendell hinted that he might be the victim of a deeper plot: perhaps this is why psychologist Dr Laura Hill is now interrogating him? Why she's delving into his past?

And what has become of Ted's wife and girls?

Who was Wendell - and is he alive, or dead?

Will Ted ever escape the situation he got into, and find happiness with his family?

This part of the story is such a change that it's almost like starting again. Axat has very deftly set up the story as one thing and then it turns into something very different. There is much probing of responsibility, much outing of hidden secrets, with the theme of childhood and the impressions that it makes on us explored repeatedly from different angles (Ted's story and those of some others here are counterpointed with glimpses of Dr Hill's own son and of Ted's daughters).

But those pesky possums keep showing up...

I think your view of this book will be coloured by how prepared you are to accept the shift. For me, it didn't quite work. Despite Axat's compelling narration and Frye's able translation, I felt perhaps there is just too much material to be covered to keep the suspense - highlighted, perhaps, by the way an epilogue is used to explain some of the backstory, material which might have been in the main text but which I can see would have been difficult to integrate. There's also the issue that while much of what we learn in the present day parts of the story is based on Ted's recollections, and he is a very unreliable narrator, when we go into the past there is a more neutral point of view and a suggestion we're getting the unvarnished truth. The two approaches jar slightly.

So while it's often a thrilling and compelling story, and concludes with a blaze of action which injects real excitement, I felt this book did lose its way in the middle somewhat. But you may well disagree - and I'd be interested to know if you do.