28 February 2018

Review - The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson

The Darkness
Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Victoria Cribb)
Michael Joseph, 22 March 2018
HB, 312pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Darkness.

I enjoyed Jónasson's Dark Iceland sequence, set in the far north of the island. With The Darkness and its forthcoming companion books, he's moved things to the more populated area around the capital, Reykjavik and introduced a new protagonist, DI Hulda Hermannsdottir. Hermannsdottir is reaching the end of her career in the police, a career during which, we're told, she's investigated a number of high profile cases and become highly regarded member of the team: but that isn't how she sees things, rather she feels passed over and excluded by the clubby maleness of the team. And indeed, throughout this story she's pretty much alone - and the title of her book reflects her experiences.

Quite simply, the book seems to record everything going wrong for Hulda as she faces losing the job that's the only thing left which gives her some identity. The book documents, in flashbacks, some of the events that brought her to that position, but makes no judgements: it's left to the reader to join the dots and I don't want to say more for fear of spoilers. What I will say is that Hulda begins to make mistakes and goes out on a dangerous limb. At first this seems mysterious, but as the story rattles along - it's a quick book to read, organised in short chapters, the tensions building and building - we begin to see where she is coming from and to appreciate both why she makes those mistakes and also what the stakes may be.

Faced with imminent retirement, Hulda sets out to investigate a cold case, the death of a Russian asylum seeker. Nobody else seems to care about Elena and by paying some attention to her life, Hulda almost seems to commemorating her, bringing her back to life and memory, in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy. This work of memory, of un-forgetting, is at the heart of what the book is trying to say, I think. It almost overtakes the point of "solving" a "case" and becomes a moral crusade, touching something deep in Hulda.

Which brings us to this series as a whole. We're told that in successor volumes (The Island and The Mist) we will see Hulda's earlier life. The book hints at a couple of major cases she has been involved with and I don't know whether they will be covered in those books but I hope that they do shed more light on Hulda and on the events of this book - because I want to know more as I'm sure you will once you've read it!

Finally, a word about the translation - the English of this book reads very well and clearly, while retaining just enough of a sense of foreignness to match the unfamiliar landscape - the black lave fields! the white highlands.

Overall a VERY strong start to this new series.

27 February 2018

Review - Starlings by Jo Walton

Cover by Elizabeth Story
Jo Walton
Tachyon, 1 March 2018
PB, 272pp

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

I knew of Walton from her longer fiction but hadn't known that she wrote short stories or poetry (the title of this collection comes from a poem, the starlings being a metaphor for light received by the earth from a distant stellar nursery). So it was a delight to read this collection - even if the author, rather modestly, distances most of the contents from actually being "short stories". She maintains instead that many of them are exercises, attempts to capture what she calls mode, or simply written before she knew how to do short stories: "For ages I felt a fraud, because my short stories were either extended jokes, poems with the line breaks taken out, experiments with form or the first chapters of novels".

I'm less sure - whatever you call these pieces, there is some very good reading here. Starlings is a nicely varied collection showing a great range from fantasy to SF to fairy tales to things I can't really classify. They are vastly entertaining, often thought provoking and invariably worth paying attention to. While one or two of the pieces are very short or are definitely, as Walton says, jokes, most are longer and stand up well by themselves.

The first story in the book, Three Twilight Tales, is a good example, joyously adopting the form of the fairy tale. "Once upon a time", it begins, as it spins its three interrelated narratives featuring a pair lovers, a man made of moonshine, an inn (complete with a mantelpiece decorated with all kinds of interesting bric-a-brac about which I want to know more), the Lord's daughter, a blacksmith's apprentice, a pedlar, a king and a white hart. The atmosphere is magical, the people are real. Just perfect.

Jane Austen to Cassandra imagines a (massively) misdirected correspondence... Walton writes her letters with such conviction you'll believe, even so, that it might, might, might just be possible - and in so doing makes some sharp comments about history, war and fate.

Unreliable Witness features just that - an old woman in a nursing home whose memory is going but who nevertheless feels the loss of her old life ("I taught you to read myself and now you're taking my books away"). Such a person may imagine all sorts of things, but does that mean they can't encounter the extraordinary?

On the Wall is another fairytale. Walton explains that this was potentially the first chapter of a novel, retelling a classic story from an unusual point of view, but she realised that she need write no more, the rest simply unfolds. And she's so clearly right. It's a gorgeous story, with faint tones of menace, shadows of the future we know will come to pass (like Jane Austen to Cassandra, and several of the other stories). Walton is though being harsh on herself by saying it's not a short story, because it is, and a perfect one.

The Panda Coin is almost  a mini SF epic. Set aboard a (perfectly realised) space station, it follows the path of a rather special coin from hand to hand, giving a glimpse of all levels of the little society portrayed. So many paths cross here and so many stories are hinted or left untold. Deftly done, with just the right amount said (and unsaid).

Remember the Allosaur is one of the jokes. What if an allosaur wanted an acting career? What could he (Cedric) do, and not do? It's acting, right so shouldn't he be able to act any part? As with other bizarre concepts in this collection, Walton writes with such conviction that, joking aside, you abandon scepticism and just think, well, what if...?

Sleeper is another excellent mini-epic. Set in a future gone drearily wrong, it both diagnoses a problem ("The Soviet Union crumbled away in 1989, let its end of the Overton Window go, and the world slid rightwards") and proposes a solution - one which raises some mind bending questions about personality, truth, memory and the future. Subtle, sophisticated and thought provoking.

Relentlessly Mundane is I think given the publication date some years ago an early entry in what is becoming a popular subgenera, which one might call post fantasy stress disorder: the return from a realm of fantasy adventure and peril to the mundane, and the effect this has. Just what would that do to you and what might it make you want to do? Here, after mourning their loss, a group of friends vow to put their experience to good use.

Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction is, with Sleeper and Relentlessly Mundane, another story that proposes something is wrong with the world. Here, though, we see it gradually going wrong. Told through adverts, newspaper cuttings and snippets of story - with that continual promise that SF can take you away from this - we see temptation and the coming of evil. We tell ourselves that we would resist this kind of evil but would we? Could we? It's scarily current and deeply troubling.

Joyful and Triumphant: St. Zenobius and the Aliens is a piece that Walton wrote for Christmas 2011. Its actually a fairly theological "what if" that plays little games and is also rather funny.

Turnover is a lovely SF story set on a generation ship. I loved the way it portrayed the ship with a vibrant cultural life, not just a bunch of redshirts and a team from Engineering. The designers of this community had appreciated what would be needed to keep a vessel alive and it isn't just air, water and food. But things will change when the ship reaches its destination: who wants to leave a metropolitan life for one of isolated farmsteading? Like Luke Skywalker, Fedra Orville wants to be at the centre of things. At the heart of this story is an ethical, cultural debate quite unlike anything I'd read before. Again, well-realised and thought provoking.

At the Bottom of the Garden is a short piece that made me deeply sad. But it is I think devastatingly well observed.

Out of It (for Susanna) is another retelling of an ages old story but I can't say which one because the gradual realisation is one of the joys of the story. Again, it completes something else while being complete in itself.

What a Piece of Work anticipates, I think, by several years much of the current debate about the powers - and dangers - of Big Data, as well as putting a spin on the old Asmovian idea of the Laws or Robotics. We never did get around to plumbing them into Google's servers, did we?

Parable Lost is an odd little piece: an "extended joke", Walton calls it, but as with some of the other pieces, to try to explain would give away the punchline, so I won't.

What Would Sam Spade Do? imagines a world where Jesus has been cloned. Just what would that be like? What if one of them set up as a hardboiled PI in a seamy district... partly a (well done) exercise in style, partly a genuinely intriguing piece of detective fiction, this is perhaps one the weirdest stories in the book - which is saying something!

Tradition is another weird story, one touching on themes of prejudice and tradition. Just why do we do things the same way as we were shown by our parents? And why did they do them And what's the point, really? Here the mystery is solved and it all comes to make sense but, the story seems to suggest, that didn't have to be the case.

What Joseph Felt is another very Christmasy story. I read this book in January, just missing the festivities but thesis such a well realised exploration of Joseph's role in all that that I may just show it to my wife, who's a vicar, when she's pulling together that difficult Christmas Day sermon in eleven moths' time...

The Need to Stay the Same pokes gentle fun at the pressure of creators to continually move on and explore new horizons - by posing an example that seems absurd yet comes very close to home.

A Burden Shared is a rather sad story, based on the premise of being able to assume another's pain. What difference would this burden make to a life? It's well thought out idea with some very human emotions behind it.

Three Shouts on a Hill is a play script, at one level a preposterous story beginning with Old Irish myths but then gradually roping in aspects of history, the modern world, other countries' myths and stories and finally becoming self aware and circular. By the time that happened it has rather grown on me. Great fun.

I feel less able to comment on Walton's poems (now who's the fraud, O Reviewer?) Like the stories they show great range, covering fantasy (Dragon's Song), neon midWest revenge (Not in this Town), Classical mythology (Hades and Persephone) and history (The Death of Petrarch) and Norse myths (Advice to Loki - that advice in a thoroughly modern vein: "You're worth it, and he's such a selfish prick. Go do new things, burn brighter than before...", Ask to Embla)

"Three Bears Norse" is a wonderful reworking of "Goldilocks" in the style of a saga ("An old home, a bear home, remote from human haunts/ Wall-girt and weather-warded, where ones wise in woodcraft
Lick into new life, a baby, a bear cub...")

"Machiavelli and Prospero", based, apparently, on a real letter, is like the Austen/ Cassandra correspondence an imagined communication between two people we may well suspect would have much to say to one another. "Cardenio" is a poem that Walton admits "doesn't actually mean anything" but it still says it in a  very impressive way! In "Sleepless in New Orleans" the tone is very much set by the opening lines "The moon has set/ and the fucking Pleiades/ and I have to be on a train at seven o'clock/ this morning/ but here I am/ writing poetry under the covers/ as if I am twelve"

Finally, "The Godzilla Sonnets" is a zany collection of pieces imagining Godzilla as seen through the writing of Shakespeare (Just read it. It'll make sense, really it will).

Overall this is a nice collection. While some of the pieces probably aren't short stories as such they illustrate the range of what Walton can do and almost everything here contains an arresting thought, a well turned phrase or a perceptive, different view on something. Recommended, and not just for Walton completists!

25 February 2018

Review - London Rules by Mick Herron

London Rules (Slow Horses, 5)
Mick Herron
John Murray, 1 February 2018
HB, 352pp

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

London Rules. What might those be? Something like George Smiley's Moscow Rules, perhaps - principles honed over many years, helping a spy to survive in hostile territory?

Well, kind of. We soon learn that "Rule one was to cover your arse..." which kind of makes sense and probably encapsulates whatever you might want to say in any longer set of espionage commandments. But when the bad guys begin to play the game, we're warned that if "they want to play London Rules, they should have known to write their wills first".

Rule One is particularly apt for Jackson Lamb's little team of Slow Horses, those would-be spies who have messed up somehow and whose careers have taken a turn into the shabby dead-end corridors of Slough House. The drug addict with anger management issues. The alcoholic. The hacker with just too much ego. And Lamb himself... we found out more here about what sent this magnificent monster to Slough House. (Lamb is a wonderful creation, the fast food eating, unhealthy, hard-drinking,  chain-smoking cop dialled up to a hundred and eleven). The Horses are only there on sufferance. Nobody will look after them. They have to do it all for themselves. And also, they have to do it for all of us. Because it seems that when the gates of Hell open, the smooth operators of "Regent's Park" - home in these stories to MI5's best and brightest - can do nothing to swing them shut again.

A terrorist campaign is playing out, with mounting carnage - 14 dead, in one incident - and nobody knows who is behind it, or why. At the same time (the book is set post the EU Referendum), populist politicians have emerged from under their stones ("recent years had seen a recalibration of political lunacy") including one prominent Brexiteer with a wife who's a notorious tabloid columnist. Thank goodness this is fiction.

As the PM's favourite modernising Muslim campaigns for one of the new Mayorships in the North, the mounting violence might be the perfect opening for Dennis Gimball to make his name.

And then there's an attempt on the life of Slough House's very own, Roderick Ho, hacker extraordinaire, the Rodster, the Rodman (in his own estimation). We're permitted inside Ho's head (ugh) and might just wish his would-be killers well - except that doesn't sit well with Rule One, does it? So the Slow Horses gallop into action ("if you think our little gang of Jason Stillborns'll pass up the chance to mount their own private op, you're forgotten what testosterone smells like...")

What follows is a tautly plotted, often tense, always funny drama that delights in imagery and wordplay and animates its characters with some very shrewd insights. These very from the sly

"Louisa was telling Shirley her idea for a TV show, which would open with a view of Tom Hiddleston walking down a long, long, corridor, shot from behind. River waited. 'Then what?' he asked at last. But the women had misted over, and didn't hear him...",

"It was difficult arguing a point when you had no reliable information or accurate knowledge. Unless you were online, obviously."

to the poetic

"The day was packing its bags and tidying up... during the winter the day tires early, and is out of the door by five: coat on, heading west, see you tomorrow".

There's a nice line in what you might call espionage mythology - Herron notes that "there's nothing Spook Street enjoys more than a legend, unless it's a myth" - with references and nods to some of the classics including of course Le Carre's: like the secret in Le Carre's Smiley trilogy, the answer here lies in an old, old file and Lamb has to track down an old, old archivist to nail it who in, I think a nod to the "Registry Queens" of the Circus is now a "Queen of the Database". But the book builds its own mythology too, mentioning that "Lamb had done his time behind the Wall, and could still read the writing on it" and referring a number of times to the OB, the Old Bastard, grandfather to River, one of the Slow Horses and a man so lost in his legend that he's just that, just lost. The OB was at the centre of the previous book, Spook Street, and it's good to see him still waiting in the wings.

Herron also displays a nicely jaundiced view of the referendum's aftermath ("a frenzy of backstabbing, treachery and double-dealing on a scale not seen since the Spice Girls' reunion"). One of its unforeseen consequences, notes the PM in this book, "was that it had elevated to positions of undue prominence any number of nasty little toerags. Ah well. The people had spoken." and (another Rule) "...when campaigning, lie your head off - the referendum's other great legacy..."

Overall this is a great, compelling read. It's a book that kept me up till 1 in the morning till I had finished it. I devoutly pray that the UK's safety isn't in the hands of anyone like the Slow Horses... or do I?

23 February 2018

Review - Shadowsong by S Jae-Jones

Shadowsong (Wintersong 2)
S Jae-Jones
Titan Books, 30 January 2018
PB, 390pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for an advance copy of Shadowsong.

I'd been keenly awaiting this sequel to Jae-Jones's Wintersong published last year, a book which got me through a very wet business trip to Manchester (sorry to be so cliched about Manchester).

My first thoughts on having read the book were though that Shadowsong is really quite different - which isn't a bad thing, but one that has taken me some time to process. In Wintersong, Liesl, a young woman living in a vaguely drawn central Europe, falls in love with the Goblin King. The story is about the tension between this dark love and her human side, and also about the implications - for Liesl and for the world - of her fully committing either way. Framed by Christina Rossetti's poem Goblin Market, it is a story which is I think deeply Romantic, (in the sense of Romantic music or poetry, not of being about love and romance although obviously it is that too: aaargh words!)

The effect on others close to Liesl matters too, particularly her family, but the wider world is irrelevant, indeed the story could really be taking place in a fantasy landscape. It is a journey into Liesl, into the ground, into the deep Goblin realm, a country of illusion, earth and wildness which has so may secrets secrets - there are references to the Old Law, which binds what can happen there and which Liesl will flout at her peril. And to a degree, she brings this wildness back with her to the human world - but until almost the closing scene that world means just her remote village and the Inn that her mother keeps.

It is a seductive, bittersweet and enticing story.

While picking up on many of the same themes as it follows Liesl's life some months later, Shadowsong is... well, it's hard to explain. If I said that while Wintersong is Romantic, Shadowsong is Gothic, would that make sense? If Wintersong was Liesl's journey down into herself, in Shadowsong she goes forth, into the world. While Wintersong was driven by the uncanny, Shadowsong is - and I want to avoid spoilers - more shaped by human machinations.

At the end of Wintersong, Liesl's brother Josef had been taken on as a pupil of Master Antonius and was making his career in music, playing in the great capitals. But we soon see in Shadowsong that all is not well with Josef, and when Liesl learns what has happened she wants - needs - to help him. So she leaves the isolated village and steps into the real world.

There the consequences of what she's been become - the Goblin Queen, no less - still follow, and the supernatural is certainly at her footsteps, but we also have, as I said, a human dimension and we're in a world of mysterious castles, masked balls and pell-mell journeys in blacked out coaches. It is, to repeat, very Gothic in mood and to reinforce that, the supernatural elements are more menacing, less natural. The Wild Hunt rides, and death will surely follow.

Amidst all this danger and magic, we're able to trust no-one. There are factions here, and how they relate to one another is obscure until almost the end, as are the stakes involved in the game. Liesl is on unfamiliar ground, she doesn't know what the rules are, and her ally and lover, der Erlkonig, is part of what menaces her.

This is a very dark story indeed. When I describe it as Gothic rather than Romantic I don't mean it's all about locked attic rooms and suits of armour: Liesl's struggle in this book is still very much with herself. Despite having companions on her quest she is in many ways more alone, more isolated, in this book than she was in the previous one - even if she is out in the wider world. Her vulnerabilities are exposed and the roots of her relationship with Der Erlkonig, with Josef, with her sister, subject to a withering frost of emotion - self-doubt, guilt, deception and fear. As the author notes  at the beginning there are some vary dark themes here (and do read that note before you read the book).

All in all, while Wintersong was the book for me on that rainy night in Manchester, Shadowing is darker and might perhaps be better read on a sunny afternoon - but it's no less captivating, no less enthralling, no less magical than the previous book.

Taken together the two are a significant accomplishment.

16 February 2018

Blogtour review - Blue Night by Simone Buchholz

Blue Night (Chastity Riley, 1)
Simone Buchholz (trans by Rachel Ward)
Orenda Books, 28 February 2018
PB, 182pp

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance copy of Blue Night and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Blue Night is the first in a series featuring Hamburg public prosecutor Chastity Riley. Her (to me) unlikely name and some of the flashback detail hints at a foreign (non German) background and the flashbacks at a tragedy in her early life but we have yet to hear details of those. Watch this space.

In the meantime, we have Chastity's recent history: sidelined by her office for exposing a senior prosecutor as corrupt, she's been assigned to witness protection but seemingly in a very vague role that keeps her at arm's length from the rest of the department.

That seems to suit Chastity down to the ground, giving her maximum freedom to indulge her loner tendencies, manifested especially by chain-smoking, heavy drinking and gazing moodily at Hamburg's admittedly awful (at least, according to this book) weather. That may sound rather off-putting but in Buchholz's hands it's actually rather appealing. Chastity's little world - bounded by her flat, the Blue Night bar run by her friend Klatsche, and the cafe/ restaurant belonging to Rocco and Carla - is fully detailed (when off duty, she has a tendency to end up working behind the bar if someone has to rush away on an urgent errand) and peopled (add to the above her ex boss Calabretta and retired colleague Faller - about whom, for different reasons, the group of friends are worried). One senses that these are real people, with real histories: this is heightened by occasional chapters starting from 1982 which and feature thoughts of the principal characters as they move towards the present-day story. It's a very effective device, like overhearing the internal monologue of characters waiting to step out onto a stage. (And it also includes figures who aren't identified till well into the story, so hinting at the role they will play).

Simone Buchholz
Into this somewhat Bohemian world comes Joe, victim of a gang attack whom Chastity is charged with guarding. She begins work on him, coaxing out his story and joining the dots between it and the wider world of crime in Hamburg. But if she learns too much, will this place her - and her friends, especially some who have past connection in the underworld - at risk?

The crime background to this book isn't, in the end, particularly complicated nor is it the most interesting part of the book. Wisely, in my view, especially given this is a relatively short book, Buchholz spends most of her time on Chastity's relationships with her circle of friends and with Joe. The result works very well, whether seen as a study of character, a slice of noir (I should write Noir, this book has it in (Sam) spades) or as mainly laying foundations for what I hope will be a future series.

The language is a joy. Take the opening words
Under a dark sky the engine gives one last cough, clears its throat like an old man, then floods.
I get out, sit on the rusty-gold bonnet, and raise my face to the heavy, cold air.
First things first: I'm going to smoke this damn fog dry.
I can't stop staring at the damn moon.
I smoke another three to eight cigarettes, and someone knocks on the door, two long, three short.
This must reflect, I think, an especially fruitful collaboration between Buchholz and translator Rachel Ward, I don't, of course, know how the original German reads (it would be beyond my ancient "o"-level ability anyway) but the English is simply addictive. I also loved the chapter titles, gloriously elaborate confections such as "Candles all round, please", "I'd like to go somewhere, right now, where I can smoke" or "Because it's Sunday" which tend to reflect Chastity's state of mind more than the progress of the story, as well as giving the merest hint of how she senses the atmosphere in colour, reads a crime scene for the touch of a murderer, knows when something's about to go down. It isn't painted as a sixth sense or a mystical ability but does come across as Chastity being very much in her element in those mean streets as the late drinkers head home and the litter blows down the Reeperbahn.

Simply an excellent slice of atmospheric crime. Give me more, soon!

13 February 2018

Blood of Assassins by RJ Barker

Blood of Assassins (Wounded Kingdom, 2)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 15 February 2018
PB, 436pp

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

In this sequel to Age of Assassins, published last year, Barker takes us back to Maniyadoc and the Long Tides, the Wounded Kingdom where outbreaks of magic leave patches of land "soured", yellow and unproductive - and where the sorcerers who produce them are despised, hunted and tortured.

Girton Club-Foot and his Master, Merala, left the Kingdom years before after Girton's friend Rufra seized the throne. Declared outcast by the Assassins, they have a price on their heads and have been surviving as mercenaries. Stuff happens in life - but this stuff has left Girton filled with guilt and even hate. We only gradually find out what he's done, or refrained from doing, and why it matters so much.

Things haven't all gone well for Rufra either. Fighting a war against two other pretenders - Tomas and Aydor - he has been trying at the same time to build a better Kingdom, one more equal, less cruel while suffering personal tragedy and missing his friend. And Maniyadoc is still beset by the baleful Landsmen who persecute sorcerers - Rufra needs their support. More, he sees their cruelty as a regrettable necessity.

The Kingdom is also riven by priests of the various Dead Gods, self-proclaimed prophets, and all manner of chancers and aggrieved grudge-bearers.

Into this poisonous ferment Girton brings his own darkness. He is, as readers of Age of Assassins will remember, a sorcerer himself, or at least, magic is trying to work through him, though he suppresses it as best he can (a cause of bitterness between him and his Master). Set to track down a spy and expose a murderer, Girton finds himself at the centre of events again and forced to make some very, very hard choices. "Oh Girton" I found myself thinking more than once "you've done it now..."

If that shows I'm getting dangerously close to Girton, so be it. A flawed, often frustrating hero he's nonetheless likeable. In Age of Assassins we saw him come of age... to a degree.  Here he's perhaps more like a grown up child who hasn't broken away from his mother - and yes, the bond between him and Merala is close to that between parent and child, although I don't think they are. One feels his frustration, rage and love even as he does some ghastly things, and one fears for his future. We meet another assassin here whose Master is buried in a ditch. Is that the path Girton's set to follow?

The book does focus on various ways in which paths are set or can be chosen, the moment when a man or woman's fate is sealed, when something happens - willed or no - that shuts down the choices. It also dangles the possibility of redemption, of turning away from a bad path and finding a better one. Perhaps. But can we trust those who say they are doing this? Is it even possible when the land is drenched in bloodshed, war and loss?

If that sounds very dark, well, Blood of Assassins often is dark, be warned. It's not, though, a dark read. I mean that even where the subject matter becomes grim, the book continues to draw the reader in through the inventiveness of the writing, the substance of the characters, the delightful reality of the setting, all of which make it a joy to read. Barker has a knack of making everything so convincing, whether it's the vengeful hedgings, chaotic spirits glimpsed in dreams (Blue Watta, Coil the Yellower and so on), the combat, (Girton uses a whole - I assume invented - technical language to describe his assassin moves, making them sound almost like dance), the sense of powers brooding just behind reality (Girton's struggle to suppress his magic, the looming storm of Yearsbirth, the sense that if the gods really are dead they may not stay that way).

And if that weren't enough, Barker's book is almost uncannily timely. I don't want to spoil the plot, but an element that does come out is the presence of a sexual predator who has been tolerated because he's useful. Everyone, it turns out, knew about this person: even in a world where men and women are found equally in the shieldwall, serve equally as bodyguards, as cavalry, priests... or assassins... this phenomenon persists. Like the blood sacrifice by the Landsmen, it's accepted, worked round, lived with, even in a Kingdom that Rufra says he wants to make better.

In keeping with that, victories here are hard gained and at a great cost to winner and loser. Crimes take place, and Girton is far from innocent himself: there are things he can't even tell his best friend, if he doesn't want to end up in a blood gibbet. It all makes for an introspective, guilt-ridden hero - and for truly marvellous fantasy reading.

If there's any justice in the world, Barker's series is destined to be a classic of fantasy. I'm impatient for the third book, King of Assassins, to see how it all turns out - and meet Girton and Merala again, no doubt a few years older, perhaps a bit wiser, certainly no less prone to get into trouble.

10 February 2018

Review - The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

The Toymakers
Robert Dinsdale
Del Rey, 8 February 2018
HB, 480pp

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

It is 1917, and while war wages across Europe, in the heart of London, there is a place of hope and enchantment.

The Emporium sells toys that capture the imagination of children and adults alike: patchwork dogs that seem alive, toy boxes that are bigger on the inside, soldiers that can fight battles of their own. Into this family business comes young Cathy Wray, running away from a shameful past. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own.

But Cathy is about to discover that the Emporium has secrets of its own…

This book will always remind me of winter. It's not just that so much of it is set in the wintry time between First Frost and the budding of the snowdrop, the magical time when the doors of the Emporium - Papa Jack's Emporium, the most magical toyshop in all London - are open.

Nor is it because I read it on a weekend break in snowy Reykjavik.

No, it's more that Dinsdale has somehow captured the essence of winter in the frozen lives, the frozen hearts - for much of the novel - of his characters. So much so, that as the book continues one aches for the spring, the thaw, the warm sun.

It doesn't begin like that of course.

The story proper opens with a young woman, Cathy, who has fallen pregnant. In the judgemental atmosphere of 1906, she must be made to suffer, and she is to give the child up ("They brought her down to Dovercourt to sell her child"). Running away to London she heads for - where else? The Emporium, where she takes a job as a shop assistant.

Dinsdale is at its best conjuring - I use the word advisedly! - the atmosphere of the Emporium in all its pomp. Of course, a bustling, thronged toyshop in the Christmas season lends itself to being portrayed as a hive of wonders, so perhaps he's going with the grain, but even so, we get a glimpse of something almost magical in the glimpse of the brightly lit shop, hidden away at the end of Iron Duke Mews, so much so that it's easy to believe stepping inside takes you a little way out of this world.

Yet this glimpse - seen in the prologue, and again in the opening of the novel proper - has to sustain us, and Dinsdale's protagonists, through a long, hard winter, one that we suspect they may not all survive. Life is precarious, and the Emporium, despite appearances, is not a haven from the outside world. Cathy has run away and has, in her pregnancy, a secret that could destroy her hard-won security. Kaspar and Emil, the two Godson boys who work with Papa Jack, are rivals in all sorts of ways. Jack is himself a refugee from hard times in the East - his life history explored in one particularly moving sequence where he dramatises what happened to him through a magical, immersive wind-up toy.

And looming over all there is, of course, the backward shadow of the future - looming war which will consume the shop hands and the comfortable life of the Emporium, bring division and pain, and break hearts.

It is, then, in many respects a very dark story that Dinsdale tells. Like Jack, he portrays his themes through the medium of toys - mainly, the evolving lives of the wooden, clockworks soldiers made by Emil, with perhaps a hint of Papa Jack's magic, models which learn, and teach, lessons about freedom, restraint and endurance. But there's also the windup patchwork dog, Sirius who, in the manner of dogs, is fiercely loyal yet may bring you to tears.

It is, then, a magical story in so many ways - in theme but also in form. Like the Emporium itself, Dinsdale presents something that is bigger on the inside (I wondered whether the echo of Doctor Who was conscious, and I'm still not sure, but it is very appropriate). Like one of Papa Jack's miraculous paper models, it unfolds to show love, persistence, rivalry, despair and how the passing of the years dilutes and refines these. Far from a Peter Pan or a Wind in the Willows, fine books which nonetheless present an idealised summer preserved for ever, The Toymakers focusses on the winter, and as the seasons turn things do change. Children do grow up and some of them can turn out very bad. But at the core of the book is Papa Jack's belief in the power of a memory of childhood (emphatically not its indefinite prolongation, nor taking refuge in it) which can be redemptive in even the darkest moments.

Often a hard book to read, but nevertheless uplifting, even joyous at times and imbued with a deep optimism.

A gorgeous book. You want to read this, you really do.

Read more at https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1113668/the-toymakers/#2DrdFpFdwpImQY04.99

9 February 2018

Blogtour review - Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Force of Nature (Aaron Falk 2)
Jane Harper
Little, Brown 1 February 2018
HB, 376pp

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

Aaron Falk is back!

Falk, introduced in Harper's debut The Dry last year, is a Federal Agent in Australia, assigned to investigate financial crime. In The Dry he was visiting his hometown for a funeral and became embroiled in a series of events entangled with his own past, taking him to areas of criminality a long way from his normal work

In Force of Nature, Falk is on safer ground and he has more distance, although the story still prompts him to reflect on his damaged relationship with his father. He is working one of his own cases (with his partner Carmen), investigating a money laundering racket at the centre of which is an apparently respectable family business.

Get the contracts...

Falk's and Carmen's bosses are desperate that they provide the documentation necessary to take down the money laundering gang. But there is a problem. They have recruited an informant in the firm - but now Alice has gone missing. Five women - Bree, Beth, Jill, Lauren and Alice - went into the woods on a corporate team building weekend - but only four came out.

It is imperative that you get the contracts...

OK, but just how do you do that when your contact has gone missing in the forest? The pressure is on, and Falk and Carmen head out into the bush to join the search team and attempt to understand what happened during the 4 day hike. Did the group simply suffer misfortune, or was Alice exposed by her bosses? Or did something else happen?

While The Dry was set amidst the scorching heat and baking drought of an Australian summer, Force of Nature takes place in the winter. When the five women go astray their  enemies are not thirst and fire but cold, wet and hunger.

And each other.

As things go from bad to worse, tensions between the women rise. They all have secrets, and some of them have good reason to want out of the group. Harper tells the story in alternating chapters first following Aaron and Carmen and then jumping back to the women in the forest, leading up to catastrophe. This is a formidable device for building tension, drip feeding enough information that we are aware, just in time, of the significance of something the detectives discover or of the wider impact of an apparently minor quarrel or argument among the five.

Among the alarming facts that comes out is that the woods were previously the domain of a killer, at least one of whose victims was never found. And he had a son and apprentice. So when the missing women stumble upon a sinister cabin in the woods, we wonder where things are going...

The characterisation of the women is particularly good, especially the sisters Beth and Bree, who carry different loads of guilt which affect their behaviour on the calamitous hike. Alice herself remains an enigma: even when she's with the others she seems only part there - we eventually learn the reason for this, as secrets are revealed and scores settled.

Overall, a suspenseful, intelligent psychological crime novel with no girls, no trains but a heck of a lot of tension. As good as or better than The Dry although clearly a more conventional crime thriller with Falk less personally involved in the case. It will keep you guessing till the very end.

8 February 2018

Review - Moonshine by Jasmine Gower

Cover by John Coulthart
Jasmine Gower
Angry Robot, 6 February 2018
PB, 400pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy via NetGalley

This is a strange, mixed-up yet nevertheless joyful book. Set in a world going through something like 1920s-era US Prohibition, it strongly evokes the spirit of the Jazz Age: our heroine, Daisy Dell, is "the very picture of a Modern Girl - slender of frame; her short, tight curls coifed with a shiny pomade; heeled dance shoes dressing either foot; and her dark skin complemented by the contrast of daisy yellow, so vibrant as though it was part of her identity. This she supposed it was."

Daisy is making her way in Soot City, capital of Ashland, a nation recently resettled after centuries of volcanic eruptions - think Iceland, but with a gentler climate. The portrayal of Ashland, its social and political tensions, the hints at a wider world - many of the citizens have fled there to escape from vaguely described trouble elsewhere ("Mr Blaine's family fled to Ashland presumably to escape the fascist regime in Berngi"), most of all the morality campaign aimed at suppressing magic - for, reader, this is very much a fantasy world - are all done very well. And as we might expect, Dell pretty soon falls in with gangsters, dealers in the illegal substance mana ("the blue stuff") essential for magicians. From then on it gets a bit Bugsy Malone with shootouts, political shenaniganns, a ruthless hitwoman and romantic entanglements.

The plot is pretty linear and restricted - we're not dealing here with world changing conspiracies, Dark Lords or the fate of the Universe. Some may dislike that: for my part I found it rather refreshing, allowing time and space for Gower to develop her characters - she gives Dell, and her boss, Swarz, plenty of backstory (Daisy's eventually reveals a rather horrifying secret that counterbalances the less pleasant aspects of the speakeasy gang - no-one in this book has clean hands) and a nicely complicated relationship. It was a slight disappointment that the plot is pretty transparent, with the antagonist and their motivations identified to the reader (not to Dell) early on. To set against that, there is, as I have said, a satisfying atmosphere of moral murkiness to the book. The same phrase - "a girl's got to eat" - is used of both Dell and her Nemesis. Motivations here are mundane, about making rent or keeping food on the table or just having  good time at the end of the week, not about fulfilling ancient prophecies or crusading against evil.

The book is also nicely observed. Early on, Swarz challenges Dell's motivations, wondering if she shouldn't spend a bit less money on partying and move into a better flat. Dell is having none of it and basically tells him to mind his own business. Gower also has a nice line in hard-boiled one-liners ("She had to admire his nonchalance in approaching someone... younger... drinking alone like she was contemplating revenge", "Daisy held forth the letter, putting on a smile she was too weary for"). The book is unashamedly progressive and pro-diversity, with, for example, a character who presents sometimes as male and sometimes as female ("Well, sure, when I am a man. I'm not now") and with the treatment of both the native ogres and the magicians a proxy for the results of ethnic and social privilege ("Magic, alongside ogre technology... had probably built half the city.")

Overall this was a great read. the world building is second to none, the characters plausible, and if there's a bit less plot then I might ideally have liked, that also has its attractions and Gower never, never lets the pace of events slacken with several viscerally realised set-piece battles before the end.

A great debut, and I hope that Gower writes more about this intriguing world soon and especially about Daisy Dell. (Also, just take a moment to appreciate that gorgeous, glamorous cover!)

5 February 2018

Review - Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin

Spare and Found Parts
Sarah Maria Griffin
Titan Books, 6 February 2018
PB, 416pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of Spare and Found Parts.

In an unnamed country, in Black Water City, Penelope - Nell - lives with her father, a maker of artificial limbs and body parts, which are much in demand in a future scourged by epidemics as a result of which many of the citizens are missing them.

In this post-apocalyptic future, all must "contribute" to society. The time for Nell's Contribution is fast approaching and she doesn't know what she will do. A skilled apprentice to her father, she hasn't settled on what to make - and time is running out. This sense of coming life, of young people wondering what their place in society will be, how the world will value them, where they fit in, what their tribe is, is palpable this book with plans being made, futures considered and accepted, bargained over, rejected, is palpable. With no social media, not even landline phones for anguished, hour long calls, it all happens out in the open. Secrets come to light.

And as Nell spends her days combing the detritus of what was evidently Dublin, her mechanical heart - designed by her father - ticking faster or slower to mark her level of excitement or fear, we also gradually learn more about what happened a hundred years ago, and why computers have been driven from the country (while not completely clear, this doesn't seem to be true elsewhere in the world: some of those youthful plans are dreams of leaving the island and connected with that banned culture: this seems a self-imposed internal exile).

We learn that there were there were electromagnetic pulses. That there was a destructive virus that seems not only to have consumed humans but to have eaten walls, ceilings, floors. It's not clear whether this is being blamed on the actions of the machines, or was done to, in some fashion, control or destroy them, but either way, they are treated as responsible.

So Nell's wakening desire to construct a sentient, mechanical man is a dangerous obsession. As the storm grows and lightning flashes, we are clearly somewhere in Frankenstein territory with the story a heady mixture of coming-of-age tale, warning, and ethical fable about the duty we owe to our creations.

It's a very driven story, seen largely through Nell's eyes (there are a few sections that step aside to other viewpoints for a few pages) and it's also very linear, content to follow her story, say what she does and let her shape events. The other characters are all very much in support - even Nell's friend Ruby, and the odd (somewhat creepy) boy Oliver - and this isn't a book about political machinations in Black Water City, the future of its society or indeed wider events. That may sound as though it might be claustrophobic but the reverse is true, in taking the time to explore Nell's life, her relationship with her father, the mystery surrounding her past - and her fears over her future - the book has more than enough to deal with and the singled-mindedness of its focus gives it clarity and, as I said, drive.

One of the stranger books I've read recently, I greatly enjoyed Spare and Found Parts and its rich, slightly gothic, slightly steampunk ambience. It's a wonderful, lyrical read, about the joy of making - the cover brings together Ruby's needlework and Nell's growing obsession with computers - of exploring, of life. The most wonderful moment for me was perhaps where Nell, blundering into a secret cell of computer geeks, discovers the joys of music... something Griffin pays tribute to elsewhere in the book - if you remember your binary and your ASCII you may be able to decode her message.

An impressive debut from Sarah Maria Griffin.

1 February 2018

Blogtour Review - The Feed by Nick Clark Windo

The Feed
Nick Clark Windo
Headline, 25 January 2018
HB, 352pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Nick Clark Windo's excellent new novel, The Feed. I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book. (In fact a signed, numbered advance copy).

In a scene towards the beginning of this book (which is set, I think, several hundred years into the future), a young couple, Tom and Kate, try to have a meal in a restaurant without using The Feed, a futuristic, immersive, form of social media that allows one to directly experience others' emotions. They are "going slow": augmented by The Feed, the mind can absorb and process enormous amounts of data in vanishingly short times so it's a novelty to experience reality without it.

Kate can't, in the end, resist visiting her "Pool" to "gulp" The Feed and see how her millions of followers have voted in the poll she is running ("What would you be prepared to give up...?") This angers Tom who is concerned that people are becoming addicted. Clark Windo's depiction of Kate's experience is brilliant and unsettling, sort of like having the whole of Twitter poured over your head at once.

Kate and Tom's situation will be familiar situation for many, I think: I certainly recognised myself Tweeting away in a restaurant. Those little reward spikes from social media can be so compulsive... but at least when we "go slow", we still experience the world in vivid colour, full sound and as information-rich. In Tom and Kate's world, there are no written words anymore, only barcodes. No speech or communication, other than through The Feed. When they drop out they are in a drab, quiet place with all the virtual layers stripped away. Nobody bothers with the physical world, it's like the back of the set in a theatre. So Tom's suspicions seem to be justified.

His point is then borne out in spades when in a time of conflict and attack by mysterious outside forces ("The Others") The Feed collapses. Humanity is left prostrate - having come to depend on it for the simplest of tasks, they lack all basic knowledge - and hundreds of millions die of starvation. There isn't even a minimal level of understanding  to be gleaned from books: nobody bar a few Resisters can read anymore as The Feed handled information so much more directly.

I found this vision oddly refreshing. There is a danger in post-apocalyptic fiction - which this clearly is - that the story almost glories in the Survivors, in their competence at scavenging what they need from the ruins, in their cleverness at building generators or growing food, in their victories over other groups (necessary because if they were defeated the story would end). It only takes a few missteps by an author for this to get rather troubling.

Nick Clark Windo avoids this danger because his setup, by design, makes the survivors into weak, incompetent things. They don't know how to scavenge. They are helpless, defenceless, having to learn it all from scratch and from bits of passed-down lore. Even the names of towns seem to have been lost, with only one given, and that only drawn from the past: we never know exactly where the story is taking place. All this makes the story much less a survivalist wet dream and much more a human experience, foregrounding the relationships, especially that between Tom and Kate.

Not that there isn't jeopardy. Aside form daily, practical dangers, the intrusion that destroyed civilization - The Others - is still active, or thought to be so. Paranoia coils about everything and everyone. Might The Others be among us, posing as friends, as sisters, brothers or children? The lengths the survivors go to in their fear of this are pretty shocking. It's a frazzled, stuttering life they lead, threatened from moment to moment - and it doesn't help that the tantalising technology which has been snatched away offered the possibility of endless life, of backups stored from moment to moment, so that all those who died may be archived away, if only the machines still worked. A bitter thought to set against the day-to-day struggle for existence.

There are obvious comparisons to be drawn between this story and EM Forster's The Machine Stops. Forster foresees the dominance of social media, the attractions of a mediated life. His story ends, though, at the moment that his cloistered humans are forced to leave their sheltered pods to live in the real world. It will not go well for them, one thinks, and in a sense Nick Clark Windo's story is a sequel, showing just how bad things can get.

He does, in the end, offer a degree of hope at least for Tom and Kate. That's probably necessary in a book that follows them in such a hard struggle, but even so, the hope they find is a bitter one, after loss.

This book is compulsive, if at times disturbing, focussing on two characters who have been hardened by six years living amid the ruins of modern society. They fight hard to preserve their family, against appalling odds and their relationship is tender and well drawn.

I really enjoyed it, I think you will too.