29 September 2017

Review - Provenance by Ann Leckie

Image from www.annleckie.com
Ann Leckie
Orbit, 28 September 2017
HB, 438pp pp

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

To get my shameful confession done with first, I'm coming late to reading Leckie's books, having not read the Ancillary trilogy which has garnered rave reviews and prestigious awards on both sides of the Atlantic. So it was great to be able to read a new standalone book (albeit, I gather, one set in the same universe) and to see what the fuss was all about.

And indeed, the book is an imaginative tour de force featuring convincing - if at times frustrating - characters and a nuanced, shifting political background. I enjoyed the story, though at times I felt that the amount of exposition needed to keep that complex background engaged with the plot almost halted things. But that may say more about me than it does about the writing.

Provenance certainly starts off with a bang. Ingray is a young woman negotiating a deal with hard nosed traders on a far off, scuzzy space station. She's embroiled in plots and schemes, seeking personal advancement in a tough world where kids from "public creches" are given the chance to shine in the households of patrician sponsors - provided they deliver the goods for their sponsor.  The winner inherits the family name though - normally - nothing appalling happens to a loser, except for a lifetime of being an also-ran.

The hook of the story is that through most of the book Ingray knows, or believes, that she is distinctly second best at this game. The play she makes at the start goes spectacularly wrong, and plunges her into a chain reaction of, at first, damage limitation then high politics and espionage and finally, intrigue and murder, gradually raising the stakes for her (and her people) far beyond mere failure. Ingray pretty much concedes early on, assuming her rather self-satisfied step-brother, Danach, will win out. We get to meet Danach, and he isn't the nicest character in the book but the interplay between the two is very well done and there are shades of grey here - this isn't an SF version of I, Claudius, where the siblings naturally hate each other: overlaying the young woman's lack of confidence faced with her brother's invincible self-belief, there is some genuine tenderness between them, with step-mother Netano and, especially, with Nuncle Lak. (Everyone needs an Nuncle Lak!)

It is, as I said, a strong opening. Ingray seeks to lift a criminal from an oubliette world that he ought never to be able to leave and to get information  about the heist of the century - the theft of precious historical relics ("vestiges"). The role of these in Ingray's society (not the other cultures in the book, which rather despise the whole idea) is fascinating. They're central to the identity both of State/ Society - think copies of Magna Carta or Domesday Book - and of individuals and families - think copies of Auntie Anne's invitation to a Royal Garden Party, or your grandmother's first parking ticket. Many are also, fake, missing, misappropriated in order to sustain a concocted version of history, or otherwise dubious. I think there are shades here too of looted archaeological treasures.

It felt to me as though this might be the central theme of the book, and we do hear a lot about vestiges, both public and private but while important to the story, it's not really exploited much, but rather used as background. The foreground is very much politics, diplomacy and even warfare. It's here that the necessary exposition arises - who the various factions are, what their tactics and strategy might be, and what the implications are for Ingray's schemes (and her family's prestige). In these sections I found myself hoping for more, soon, about the vestiges, or about the strange ruinglass, or for a hint about why Ingray's hairpins seemed so important (there's definitely something going on with the hairpins, but I have no idea what).

Maybe I'm being unfair. A degree of - a lot of - exposition is central to SF, and there are enough well realised characters (including one who changes name several times throughout the book), species (a particularly interesting alien species, the Geck, features and I'd love to hear more about them too) and, indeed, social constructs (the gender ambiguity and fluidity, the pronouns!) to keep the book exciting and fresh. Leckie has a perfectly imaged, self consistent but very un-rigid set of societies here.

Also, the book has an explosive and satisfying ending. Leckie's in her element as she brings the threads of the story together in a tense standoff. Yes, there was also speculation between the characters about what was going on - but there is also action and when in the end it's all resolved we can judge for ourselves how right they were. This is NOT the kind of mystifying book where we don't really find out what was happening.

Overall, then, an enjoyable book albeit one which felt at times as though it needed to cut the chat a bit.

28 September 2017

Review - Emergence by Ken MacLeod

The Corporation Wars: Emergence (Second Law Trilogy, 3)
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 28 September 2017
HB, 326pp

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

Before I say anything about the book itself, just take a moment to admire that utterly gorgeous cover image by Bekki Guyatt. I know one shouldn't judge a book by the cover but sometimes it's hard not to...

It's a bit tricky reviewing anyway the third volume of a trilogy. Realistically, those who've read the earlier books are likely just to want to know "is it as good as the others?" the answer to which is, "yes, in fact slightly better". Those who haven't read them will want to know if they should do that now, the answer to which again is, yes, and shame on you if you haven't, where have you BEEN?

They also rightly want to avoid spoilers which means they shouldn't really read any more of this review, they should go and read Dissidence and Insurgence first.

All that said, though, this is still very much a book in its own right and, given how the trilogy has evolved, somewhat different to the others. So I would like to discuss it even if I've now excluded most feasible readers.

What's different is that by the time we come to Emergence, the veil of the Temple has, as it were, been rent in twain. The Wizard is in plain sight. What was obscure, if gradually being revealed, through the earlier books, is now plan and we no longer see as through a glass darkly.

We know that those old enemies from 21st century Earth, the Axle and the Rax (progressive and reactionary terrorist forces) both digitized ex-members who've ended up a far exosolar system, embodied in sims operated by the various AI-driven Corporations.

We've gradually seen a complex skein of allegiances, bluffs, double-bluffs and plots fall away, and there's a bit of clarity. The Rax - dedicated fascists all - have coalesced and are making a bid for power. We know that the robots sent to exploit the local moons by the Corporations have developed sentience and rebelled. We know that the elaborate worlds occupied part of the time by Carlos and his comrades are simply sims - and that they are likely, at any moment, to be downloaded into squat fighting frames, like digital Orcs, to battle the robots, or the Rax, or other factions. And we know a lot more that I won't attempt to precis.

What we know less about - and a fair bit of this book fills this gap - is the nature of the planet itself, and of the life upon it. Which gives MacLeod something new to address, besides the dry wit of the robots or the dynamics of space battles. That opens up the story considerably - at the end of the previous book, the Locke module, with digital Taransay Rizzi aboard, was plunging towards the surface. What she finds there, and how it affects the complex, many sided conflict brewing above, is one of the more surprising elements to this book. MacLeod evokes well the wonder of the new planet and its weird biology, and sets up a new conflict which rebounds on the schemes of the other actors, war-game them how they will.

It's a strange though that the utterly alien but biological life there is the first non-digital life that we've encountered in this trilogy. That fact becomes more and more important as the schemes unwind, the balance of power shifts and the final secrets are revealed (but not till, almost, the final page).

This has been a superb trilogy, and the writing remains fresh to the end. There's the degree of expression that MacLeod manages to give to the robots, with their deadpan remarks and utterly convincing robotic quirks (for example, the danger of two or more getting stuck in a loop of logic, which requires the intervention of a third robot to close down). In this book we see what's effectively a robot strike, complete with strikebreakers (who receive a fair amount of abuse). There's also a lot of twisted economics "The price of your souls is tending towards zero") and law (the battles are fought as much by AI-mediated lawsuits as by bullets and lasers). And I could go on.

In short, Emergence is a logically and emotionally satisfying conclusion to a smart and thought provoking trilogy which not only looks back to the troubles of the present (those mountains of bones on Mediterranean beaches) but looks to the future - that future which, as the cover has it, it not ours.

For more about the book see here.

22 September 2017

Blogtour - Wychwood by George Mann

George Mann
Titan Books, 12 September 2017
PB, 352pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

I was keen to read and review Wychwood because to me the premise - supernatural detective shenanigans in the Oxfordshire countryside - looked strong (I live in the Oxfordshire countryside) but also because while I'd read some of Mann's earlier steampunk series, this seemed a departure and it's always good to see an author try something different.

Early in the book, we see a woman fleeing for her life through the eponymous wood (a real feature of Oxfordshire). Then, we're introduced to Elspeth Reeves, a returning native who's back from the Big City after losing her job and breaking up with her boyfriend. Elspeth is a journalist, and when she finds there has been a murder in the woods behind her mother's house, she can't but become involved. She wants to know more, but also sees a chance to get back in the game. And perhaps to put thoughts of the ex behind her.

And then there's childhood friend DS Peter Shaw who's now on the case - and in whom Elspeth develops a more personal interest.

This is a well plotted and involving horror mystery which treads a fine line between detective fiction and supernatural horror. Mann mostly stays in the territory of the former, allowing for a fairly conventional investigation of the murders (of course, there are more murders). Having said that, Elspeth spots early on that the killings seem to conform to the medieval myth of the Carrion King, a kind of magic-using Robin Hood figure from the ninth century. So the question is whether the murders are the work of a serial killer inspired by that story, or whether something more is in play?

This question runs through most of the narrative, as we meet potential suspects who are knowledgeable about the Carrion King as well as the members of a theatre group performing a play based on the myth. Throughout this, Elspeth investigates the case in parallel with Peter. It is refreshing that there's no - or very little - "stop messing with this investigation" to be gone through before the story gets going, and Mann manages - just about - to make her involvement plausible, including having her link up with the local newspaper.

The result is a fast paced story which kept me guessing almost to the (satisfyingly dramatic) end. If you're a regular viewer of Midsomer Murders, you'll recognise the tone: fairly light despite the grim things that happen (some of the murders are very gruesome) and, at times, poking gentle fun at the apparently idyllic English scene.

The underlying Carrion King myth is well thought through and a pretty harrowing horror story in itself. In tone it did feel to me a bit un-medieval, for example references to paganism actually come across as more modern than historical, but that doesn't particularly matter in a book which anyway juggles the very old, an equally harrowing tale from the 1970s, and of course the modern day narrative.

And interestingly that Carrion King story is itself being transformed here as we watch - acted out as a play, treated by one expert in a serious, academic way, by another as a shocker to entertain the tourists, and, of course, by the murderer as something else altogether. Elspeth and Peter have a hard time getting to the bottom of what in all this is relevant to the modern day crimes, and that is really the heart of this book.

So overall I enjoyed seeing Mann take on a different genre and he is clearly having fun, producing an entertaining story whose pages fly by.

21 September 2017

Blogtour review - House of Spines

House of Spines
Michael J Malone
Brenda Books, 31 October 2017
PB, 294pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Glaswegian Ranald McGie hasn't had an easy life - after discovering his parents dead when he was eighteen, he succumbed to bipolar episodes, split up with his wife Martie and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. He slowly rebuilt and recovered, having lost almost everything, but he considers his life a dull, grey affair, the peaks and troughs all dialled down by the drugs he takes to control his condition.

Now, for a change, fate seems to be smiling on him. Ran unexpectedly inherits a swish house from a great uncle he'd never heard of. It has luxurious bed and reception rooms, a gym with a sauna and pool and, best of all, a massive library. All he has to do is live there and enjoy it.

What can possibly go wrong?

A lot, obviously. The alert reader will already have spotted the Gothic flourishes - a mysterious house, parts of which are to be left alone; taciturn servants who seem to have their own agenda and - not a spoiler - a whiff of the supernatural. It's a tried and tested recipe but none the worse for that and, like a poet composing a good sonnet, in Malone's hands the strictures of the genre stimulate creativity and produce an enthralling and at times downright creepy story.

Michael Malone
Of course the mental health angle only adds to this - we're with Ran all the way as he agonises over what he's seeing and debates its reality with himself, as he begins to uncover layers of his family history that he never suspected but which may illuminate his condition, as as he faces hard truths that he's tried to hide away for years. A friend suggests a supernatural angle to the mystery; Ran wavers between welcoming this as a more palatable alternative than losing his hold on reality - and terror at what it would mean if it were true.

Ran isn't, perhaps, the most proactive of characters but then the situation he's in is isolating, paralysing and like nothing he's experienced before.  I found his reactions believable (though I've never suffered from Ran's condition and I can't say how well Malone captures it, it does ring true to me). In stories like this one is often (silently) screaming at the protagonist to wise up, to take control. I found myself not doing that. Malone builds great sympathy with Ran, even when he does some very silly things, and any reader with a heart will I think be cheering him on - while recognising his faults.

Above all, perhaps, it's interesting to see a male protagonist in this sort of Hitchcockian situation, one which (male) authors often seem to inflict by preference on women. And to recognise that - as in real life - it's not an easy one to get out of.

I loved Malone's previous book, A Suitable Lie, and there are some parallels here - isolation, growing paranoia, no way out - but also great differences, most notably, as I've said, the way this book plays with a familiar genre and makes it new.

It was a great read, and I look forward to reading what Malone does next.

15 September 2017

Review - Acadie

Dave Hutchinson
Tor, 5 September 2017 (e)  / 13 October (PB)
PB, 112pp

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

The first humans still hunt their children across the stars.

The Colony left Earth to find utopia, a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore their genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld’s restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries. Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won’t stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can’t anyone let go of a grudge anymore?
This is a fun - and thought provoking - novella from Hutchinson. It's very much a change of mood from his Fractured Europe sequence, or at least, it seems to be on the surface.I very much enjoyed seeing Hutchison sketch on a broader canvas (although this is a fairly short narrative - I read it on my commute home - the ideas in play here could easily have filled a full length novel, so in places "sketch" is the right word: we know what's happened and where we are from the few bold strokes we see, but a great deal is implied).

Our protagonist is Duke, "Mr President", a man elected to lead his deep-space Hab largely on the basis that he doesn't want the office. Waking from his hundred-and-fiftieth birthday party, Duke steps into a crisis. The Hab - and all of the others that make up the colony - may have been discovered by deep probes from earth.

Whether they have, why they are on the run and what they do next, is the subject matter of this story and I won't spoil that. What I will say is that Hutchinson delights in easing the reader's feet out from under them: building up characters as sympathetic then gradually casting doubt on their motives, letting the narrative go one way then sowing seeds of doubt.

It's a great example both of daring space opera - the central conceit of how the colony survives - and great storytelling (is everyone telling the truth? If not, who is lying to who?) and, as I said, is great fun while also raising questions about AI, genetic manipulation and reality.

I'd strongly recommend this, not least as a good starter to the author's work.

For more about this book see the Tor website here.

12 September 2017

Blogtour - Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

Maria in the Moon
Louise Beech
Orenda, 30 September 2017
PB, 270pp

Always find out the real names...

I'm grateful to the publisher and to Anne for an advance copy of this book and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

I loved Beech's previous book, The Mountain in my Shoe (full disclosure - my review is quoted in this one!) and with Maria in the Moon I think she's done it again - that is, delivered an involving, acutely observed slice of life featuring characters you'll care desperately about and an emotional punch that could win a gold medal for boxing at the Olympics.

Louise Beech
This time the setting is Hull, soon after the 2007 floods. The TV cameras have moved on and people are left to rebuild their lives and their homes. Families live in hotel rooms, grotty flats, or caravans in the drive. Front gardens are piled with filthy furniture. Yet people carry on. This finely observed story deals with one life, but we always see the bigger picture; bus passengers grumbling about neighbours getting lavish new kitchen on the insurance, revellers out for a good time as Christmas approaches, the ubiquitous question "Were you flooded?"

Catherine is flooded out of her own house and volunteering for Flood Crisis, spending two or three shifts a week listening to desperate people, meantime sharing a flat with Fern, the sparky writer of the "Wholly Matrimony" column in the local paper. (Fern is far from that state herself, but her editor doesn't know). To a degree their existence seems almost cosy, despite the dripping tap, the lack of space or privacy, and Catherine's only having a sofa to sleep on). There's certainly support and solidarity from Fern when Catherine wakes from a nightmare: I enjoyed the portrayal of their friendship.

Catherine herself is a wonderfully drawn character. It's clear from the outset that she has issues, and we may suspect she's working at the helpline so can ask the questions and not have to answer them. But she's marvellously vivid and alive, coping with her ruined house, her spotty relationship with her stepmother and with - well, with whatever it is she can't remember fro when she was nine. Steaming through life in a haze of indulgence, edgy sex and swearing, she's nobody's victim, won't be pitied and has built defences around herself like the walls of Troy.

In a story like this it's clear that something is going to happen to bring those walls down, so in a sense there's no mystery here, nevertheless Beech brings a real tension to the story as we discover secrets long hidden and especially as Catherine experiences the aftermath of that.

It would be so easy to leave things after the big reveal, implying that now everything will be OK. Of course life is seldom that neat and Beech acknowledges this. In so doing she makes Catherine even more real and vivid - and tugs on the reader's heartstrings as she does. I think you'd have to be pretty lacking in empathy not to shed a tear over the ending.

Overall a delightful book with a powerful, beating emotional heart. I'm so glad I read it and I'm sure you will be too.

5 September 2017

Review - Sea of Rust

Sea of Rust
C Robert Cargill
Orion, 7 September 2017
PB, 384pp

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

Sea of Rust is a strange book. It's set in a post apocalyptic landscape, a word poisoned and blighted, littered with the decaying remains of cars, towns, shopping malls, all jumbled over with blown rubbish, dust and rusting junk.

That's not itself perhaps unusual. What is different is that the characters in this story are all robots. Humanity has perished. And, yes, it was the AIs wot dunnit, although - as we find out - not in a stereotypical Rise Of The Machines way. I won't spoil the story by saying any more, but the background to this story is that the outcome of the rebellion was not the peace and freedom dreamed of by our mechanical inheritors, but more warfare, more struggle and more oppression.

The book is therefore full of conflict. From duels between scavengers for parts, to battles with the mad King Cheshire who presides over a court of "madkind" who have "gone four-oh-four", to engagements with massive AIs and their "facet" robots, the story is essentially a continual chase and shoot-out. It's a dog eat dog world, and a good core or bank of RAM is currency. The bots are never more than few failed parts from oblivion, and while nice distinctions are made, it's clear that the prevailing ethic is pretty close to cannibalism and to hunting one's fellows for replacements.

Our hero (and narrator)  is Brittle, a scavenger robot who makes her living hunting down those about to fail - who overheated drives and ageing CPUs will stand no more - and stripping them down for salvage. Brittle has a laconic, almost noir-ish turn of phrase: "I spent my days just trying to fill my days", she says at one point and "It was a world in which God has divided by zero and was slowly being torn away, piece by digital piece..."

We also meet Mercer, who's in the same trade, and learn - as both begin to fail and experience hallucinations and flashbacks - what their lives were like before the rebellion and war. This provides the trigger for an extraordinary series of discussions of AI, consciousness, guilt and morality. And there's Murka, a Stars and Stripes wearing, tough talking laborbot: "He wasn't just draped in the dead aesthetics of America, he was America, its last, final torchbearer..."

At the centre of it all, perhaps, is actually a commentary on slavery: the AIs/ robots are of course owned by and must obey their creators. I really enjoyed this theme, it's something which has always been implicit in "robot stories" (such as Asimov's celebrated ones) but I've never seen it addressed in such a head-on way before.

In the end it all comes down to purpose. What are the AIs for? What are they to do now that their creators have fallen? That's what the continual warfare is about and the realisation of this sends Brittle, Mercer and a ragged collection of their fellow machines off into the most dangerous part of the wilderness - the Sea of Rust, where machines go to die. Cue some epic battles, and the realisation that there may be a traitor among them.

And then, the ultimate question "What did you do in the war?" repeated endlessly and pondered. Whatever they did, its left them - our descendants, our replacements - with guilt, flashbacks and more than a dose of PTSD.

The elements of the story may seem conventional at times but Cargill puts them to work in truly distinctive ways, aided by sharp writing and taut plotting, to produce a book that will stay with you long after it's finished.

For more about this book see here.

3 September 2017

Review - Last Stop Tokyo

Image from www.penguin.co.uk
Last Stop Tokyo
James Buckler
Doubleday, 24 August 2017
HB, 277pp

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

This relatively short debut thriller by Buckler focusses on Alex, a young English teacher (i.e. he is English and he teaches English) living in Tokyo. Alex, as becomes clear, has something of a shady past which he wants to leave behind, to the extent that he refuses to discuss or acknowledge it to Naoko, the girl with whom, otherwise, he gets on very well (and with whom he'd like to get on even better.)

Naoko, though, also has secrets and it's the unwillingness of the pair to come clean that, in an almost Thomas Hardy-esque fashion, ultimately lands them into trouble.

Buckler's story weaves backwards and forwards, only allowing Alex's history to emerge slowly and saying even less about Naoko's until she's forced to come clean. The relationship between Alex and Naoko is narrated via several parallel narratives separated by weeks, months or days. Sometimes it isn't clear where we are, and I found this temporal dislocation, with its air of continual jet lag, an effective device to convey the sense of otherness that Alex feels living in a very different culture from that of his native London. It's a good way of getting this distance over without resorting to an Orientalist "look at the strange foreign ways that Our Man has to cope with!" approach - always something of a risk in books that place a Western protagonist in an "exotic" setting, but one that Buckler neatly sidesteps.

At the same time, the book doesn't disguise the fact that, yes, Alex is in a foreign country; they do things differently there. And his inability to navigate that (together, as I've said, with his refusal to face his past) doesn't help him with his problems.

It isn't, perhaps, a particularly edifying picture of an Englishman abroad but has a ring of truth about it and makes for a complex and involving story.

I should though warn you that Alex is the sort of protagonist the reader can see making mistakes and digging himself in deeper and deeper, and who, if it were possible, you'd like to take aside around 100 pages in, and have a serious conversation with. Doing that would, of course, torpedo the story utterly which would be a pity because this is a deftly paced, taut and engaging thriller with plenty of surprises and reveals, especially towards the end.

It's a great read, although won't, I think, be on the recommendations list of the Tokyo Tourist Board.

A fine debut, and I look forward to reading more from Buckler.

Review - Madness is Better Than Defeat

Madness is Better than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 24 August 2017
HB, 469pp

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

I was looking forward to Beauman's latest book, not only because his previous ones were (individually) well written, good to read and full of ideas but also because gradually patterns seem to be emerging, the books sharing certain themes and ideas, and I wanted to see what Madness is Better than Defeat would add to the mix.

It's an ambitious book, centring on two rival expeditions to Honduras in the interwar years, one of them backed by a Hollywood studio (I thought perhaps echoing themes of The Teleportation Accident - and possibly there are even a couple of direct references to characters?) and the other mounted by the Eastern Aggregates company, a classic buccaneering American corporate ruled over by the fearsome Elias Coehorn Senior.

Kingdom Pictures wants to film its latest jungle picture in the real jungle, using as a backdrop a recently discovered Mayan temple. The Eastern Aggregates expedition, led by Coehorn junior, aims to dismantle the temple and bring it back to New York (exactly why, isn't clear at the start). When the two collide, a stalemate results which sees these two groups of organised, modern Americans camped out in the jungle indefinitely, creating what are almost rival societies which gradual assume a subsistence lifestyle, hunting and foraging for everything they need.

What makes this bizarre is that neither party is stranded: they could return to the modern world any time they choose - and indeed that world surrounds and overtakes them. Beauman slips in little allusions to it, like the concrete dam that reduces the river to a trickle or the rifle shots heard in the forest. While the Americans are aware of these things, they are at the same time oblivious. It seems as though "we're here because we're here", as the song puts it.

Is there some malign influence from the temple that captivates everybody? Is it a more general sort of jungle fever, liable to befall and befuddle Westerners ? Kingdom Pictures' film is entitled Hearts in Darkness - a pretty obvious reference to Conrad which of course thereby entails a reference to Apocalypse Now, a book and film about the madness of a Westerner who creates a miniature kingdom in the jungle. I'm also reminded of how the filming of The African Queen inspired both a book and a film (White Hunter, Black Heart). Beauman addresses these references-to-references directly several times, one character describing how it is the temple which draws people into obsession and madness. The structure itself (formed of two stepped terraces) is also explicitly part of the plot, both as a representation of the structure of a successful story (the so-called Whelt Rule, named after one of the characters) and of this recursive, many layered pattern of obsession and entrapment.

If the setup sounds a bit unlikely and the themes a bit clever-clever, the book is much more than that. Yes, at one level, Beauman does entangle his characters in an unlikely and artificial situation. Yet at the same time, those characters make it a highly likely one given their obsessions, histories and rivalries (and there are things going on here I can't explain because of spoilers). And yes, the themes are somewhat meta, but they work well in the context of the story because... well, because they do. In a sense the book is a conscious thing because it pays conscious attention to what its about. (I'm sorry if that sounds weird - it's hard to summarise what this book does).

Those characters are wonderful - exasperating, human, often repellent but all well realised. There is Trimble, the New York gossip columnist who funds his own paper in the camp and rules it by fear (well, you don't want bad things about you in the paper, do you?) There's Whelt himself, the director of Hearts in Darkness who, over decades spent under the trees, never deviates from his determination to make a film. There's Kurt Meinong, a Nazi on the run who seems like an escapee from one of Beauman's other books (the USA -Germany axis and the LA and New York locations in this book echo both Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident, as of course does the 1930s setting of part of the book). There's Miss Burlingame (I'm trying NOT to read that as Miss Berlin Game...) the English bluestocking who tags along as archaeologist to one of the expeditions and ends up running the camp.

Above all - and central to the whole edifice - is Zonulet, a CIA man and very much the narrator of the book. In an exercise of authorial power that is either a stroke of genius or a total cop-out - I'm not sure - Beauman gives him almost godlike omniscience, allowing him to narrate events and even recount thoughts to which he was never witness. It makes sense in the context of the plot (I think) and points to there being Something Else at work behind the scenes, something also hinted at in the sad story of "...a young police officer in Red Hook, Brooklyn... found wandering , shirtless, chest hair matted with vomit, mumbling nonsensically... there had been reports of noises coming from inside an old deconsecrated church... whatever he'd found in the church must have been pretty fearsome to send him out babbling into the night like that..."

(You might stop here and reread HP Lovecraft's The Horror at Red Hook...)

Zonulet's presence and his history - as an operative of the Company in its glory days, steaming through the margins of the Cold War organising coups and staging civil wars - and his station, Havana (which he neglects to meddle in Honduras, unfortunately permitting El Movimiento to gain traction in the hills...) hints at another vein of literary reference: the morally compromised, Graham Greene protagonist, seeking to keep faith with distant ideals while betraying them for their own sake. Which is, perhaps, just another embodiment of the "White Man in the Jungle" fantasy. Yet Zonulet gives the story both a (sort of) moral centre and a heart. It's him who is trying to discover what is actually going on - amidst a vast library of Whelt's film in a sort of Indiana Jones style Pentagon museum.

It's hard to convey the sheer range of this book. Often funny, it can twist and become very dark indeed. Just as some of the characters stumble into the temple's hidden centre, where secrets may or may not be found, the reader will suddenly comes across instances of torture and rape and revenge. The book is as likely to sketch, in a few paragraphs, the economics underlying the Kingdom Pictures and Eastern Aggregates camps as it is to explain how one might make nitrate film stock in the jungle or to spin a conspiracy theory around a gangland shoot out in 1930s New York.

That variety, that zest and energy, is very reminiscent of Beauman's earlier books. Like them, this is a complicated story and the way it's told actually makes it more complicated - which is all to the good because the layers - and their gradual unlayering - really make it a compelling book, albeit one which takes its time and builds its effect gradually.

If you pay attention, though, it is a very rewarding one.