31 July 2018

Review - Bright Ruin by Vic James

Bright Ruin (Dark Gifts, 3)
Vic James
Pan (Macmillan), 26 July 2018
PB, 484pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a review copy of Bright Ruin (and a pretty postcard signed by Vic herself).

I sometimes get sent books for review that are later episodes in a series I haven't been reading. Generally I don't review these, for two reasons. First, who would I be reviewing for? Generally if readers are following a series they will know to read the next. People probably won't want to read the third book in a trilogy first, so I assume they will be less interested in a review of a later book than of the first.

Secondly, if I haven't read the earlier books, how will I know what to say? How to avoid spoilers for the earlier books and ignorant comments about plot points that came up in the earlier books ("Character X seems very two dimensional and engaged with those around her" when actually X suffered a terrible trauma in Book 1 and is slowly healing).

I still hold to these reasons, but am ignoring them for Bright Ruin. Not because of that postcard (or not solely because of it...) but because the synopsis of this book, and the snippets of reviews for the  earlier books, just looked so promising.

A shattered country

A world-changing magic

Magically gifted aristocrats rule Britain, and the people must serve them. But rebellion now strikes at the heart of the old order. Abi has escaped public execution, thanks to an unexpected ally. Her brother Luke is on the run with Silyen Jardine, the most mysterious aristocrat of all. And as political and magical conflicts escalate, each must decide how far they’ll go for their beliefs.

Dragons clash in the skies, as two powerful women duel for the soul of Britain. A symbol of government will blaze as it dies, and doors between worlds will open – and close forever. But the battle within human hearts will be the fiercest of all.

I'll try to avoid spoilers and ignorance (but beg forgiveness in advance if I malign a much-loved character). I hope I have something useful to say for, at least, those who haven't been following the trilogy, that might encourage them to go and read from the start (which is the right thing to do here - this isn't anything like a standalone and the story follows pretty seamlessly on from the previous book, Tarnished City).

So. Bright Ruin is set in a recognisably modern and contemporary UK. There have clearly been a few different twists to history and some names and details of buildings and locations are different, but most of what you'd expect to see is there, from tech to fashion. The big difference is that power is very much in the hands of a privileged self-serving clique who bend everything to their own advantage... sorry, I should have said, a privileged self-serving clique who use magic and bend everything to their own advantage.

Magic here is referred to as "Skill" (a nice look back to 80s slang, perhaps!) and those who have it (the so-called "Equals") boy do they think a lot of themselves. They're all Skilful this and Skilful that and Skill-filled the other, using it for power over others or simply for fun.

Oh, and they have slaves.

In this world, citizens who don't have Skill are obliged to work as slaves. I think (and this is something that, obviously, would have been explained earlier) there are limited terms for this but, still, slavery. Bad for everyone: awful for the slaves, corrupting for the masters and, even, undermining of the economy (it's pointed out here that "commoner" businesses have failed because they couldn't compete against free labour). There is a rebellion brewing against this system, but it's up against not only an authoritarian government but one backed by Skill. Much of this book is about people - both Equal and commoner - caught up in this rebellion, and that story is, very, organically one with events in the first two books which are referred back to and underlie differences in attitudes explored here.

All of that is never explained in detail, but the gist of it is clear: the trajectory of the rebellion, led by Equals, was wrong and it needs to be driven by those oppressed by the system, not by those who benefit from it, however well-meaning. The events that unfold here only back up that message (though it would be spoilers to say exactly how).

This is the part of the story concerning (mainly) Equal Midsummer Zelston (I love James' flair for names!) and commoner Abi Hadley. The viewpoint moves between characters both on the side of the rebellion and in the government, so we see the moves and counter moves in what has become a fairly desperate struggle. I enjoyed the way James gives each characters their own motivation - there are "villains" here with whom one might sympathise, to a degree, rebels with whom one might not agree, and plenty of in-between figures whose sympathies are dubious.

Prominent among this last group is Silken.  An Equal, he has high connections on the government side but who mainly seems to be interested in Skill for its own sake (and in Luke, Abi's brother). James writes well about how Skill is used, the sheer thrill and exhilaration of the thing (this is one of the reasons one might almost sympathise with Bouda Matravers, security chief in the government but who is discovering what she can do with her Skill and who thrills as she draws up water from the rivers and wells below London, almost becoming one with the city through its hidden veins). This theme bleeds into the second main thread of the story, largely featuring Silyen and Luke, which is an exploration of the origin and history of Skill. While that is, in the end, pertinent to the fate of the rebellion for much of the story it seemed like a side issue, interesting through the subject was. I think (I hope) that James might be setting up potential sequels here, involving some characters who feature relatively briefly.

Overall this was a well-written, suspenseful and engaging fantasy with credible characters and a well-developed setting. I'd strongly recommend the trilogy as a whole, if you haven't read the earlier books, and if you have but have any doubts about the conclusion, I'd say - READ THIS.

For more information about Vic James and her books, see the Pan website here.

29 July 2018

Review - The War in the Dark by Nick Setchfield

Cover by Natasha MacKenzie
The War in the Dark
Nick Setchfield
Titan Books, 17 July 2018
PB, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of The War in the Dark for review.

1963, and SIS assassin Christopher Winter is on the brink. He's caught between postwar austerity (bombed out building from the War still feature) and a 60s that has yet to begin swinging. He's a murderer, working in the service of law and freedom. It's a tangibly sooty, smoky world of depressing brownish cafes and Bakelite, set against the alluring prospect of technological white heat and progress.

But now, Winter's about to step into a war with the invisible powers, the rulers and principalities of this age, a war fought with runes and rituals and arcane knowledge that seem centuries away from satellites, nuclear weapons and computers.

It all begins with a routine job, the offing of a priest who's been selling secrets to the Russians. Winter's never killed a priest before, but why not? Things don't, though, go according to plan and soon there;s a trail of blood across London and Winter's encountering the Almost men. Convinced that he's been betrayed, he puts together what clues he can and head for Vienna...

This blend of the occult and espionage moves at a brisk pace. While it's clear there is a bigger picture, and the hints that Setchfield drops will eventually build to reveal what it is, the focus is mainly on Winter's immediate plight, hunted by all sides - the Russians, his own Service and shadowier enemies as well. There's no need, I think, to worry too yard about the trail that he's following as it leads him from one confrontation to the next - rather, one might worry about where he's going and what he will do when he gets there. Because Christopher Winter does have skin in this game, even if he doen't realise it. In fact, in a sense he is the skin in the game.

In counterpoint to Winter we also see the progress of a mysterious figure, Hart. Between them, he and Winter hold the fate of nations, of universes. But, enmeshed as they are in the rivalry between a decaying Empire and a rising Soviet Union, will they be able to do their duty - and what will that cost?

I enjoyed this mixture of treachery, blood and magic. Setchfield explores a crossover I've seen dealt with in various ways - from the World War Two sage of Ian Tregillis's Bitter Seeds trilogy to Tim Powers' Le Carre-esque Declare to Charles Stross's Laundry books, but The War in the Dark carves out its own distinctive space infused with a sense of paranoia and doubt that seems to foreshadow the domestic political chicanery of the 70s rather than the Great Game played against Russia (another way, perhaps, in which Winter is on the edge of a change).

It is an absorbing book, one which kept me guessing till the end and one which palpably creates a wider world to which I hope Setchfield can return, with or without Christopher Winter.

26 July 2018

Review - Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

Cover by Will Staehle and
Lisa Marie Pompilio
Dreadful Company (Greta Helsing, 2)
Vivian Shaw
Orbit, 26 July 2018
PB, 399pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Dreadful Company.

The Palais Garnier.

The Catacombs.

An underground lake...

A follow-up to last year's Strange Practice, which introduced Greta Helsing, physician to London's population of monsters, Dreadful Company sees her off to Paris to present a paper at a medical conference - and to catch a little culture at the Opera.

But Paris, too, has its share of monsters - and one of them sees Helsing as the perfect way to settle a score with her friend, vampire Edmund Ruthven. For Greta, it won't be a quiet trip...

If you enjoyed Strange Practice you'll certainly go for this sequel. Shaw has a smart, acerbic style, well suited to Greta's level-headed, patient-first approach to life (and undeath). Greta does this work because it needs doing. She's not trying to save the world or to rid it of evil, simply to relieve suffering. It's not her fault that the masters sometimes have other ideas, but despite that, she still keeps her well developed moral sense, for example intervening here to help a young vampire who has been carelessly "turned" by a coven and left with no advice or guidance about her new life.

Shaw is also good at evoking the strange world and society of the monsters, together with the bureaucracy of Hell which, for reasons not yet given, is especially dedicated to preserving reality (we don't see much of the angels). With whip-sharp dialogue, coolly observed characters (I loved Grisaille, the guilt-ridden old vampire, and the "remedial psychopomps" Crepusculus Dammerung and Gervase Brightside) and no end of clever allusions, focussing, but not limited to, classic horror literature (I spotted Les Mis as well as Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera and MR James) the author seems to be having great fun here and it can't help but rub off on the reader.

The story has, perhaps, slightly lower stakes than Strange Practice and is more focussed than that book on vampires in particular with fewer other monsters (though I adored the well monsters - I will never read MR James's The Treasure of Abbot Thomas in quite the same way again). This means we find out plenty more about the vampires, and their several ways of living among us, which Shaw has worked out very carefully, as well as seeing the relationship between Ruthven, Varney and Helsing develop (I have to say that while enjoying the book overall I found Ruthven's almost proprietoral attitude to Helsing a bit creepy - overall, I prefer Varney...)

We do though get a chance to see Greta coping with an extremely dangerous situation on her own, using those same medical and "people" (if I can use that word of the undead!) skills, perhaps a bit in contrast to the violence of Strange Practice (though this book does also have plenty of violence).  Overall i loved revisiting Greta'a world.

The book is, again, furnished with a wonderfully evocative woodcut design by Will Staehle and
Lisa Marie Pompilio. I hope they'll be back for Grave Importance, the third book in the series, due next year, which I'm already looking forward to.

For more about Dreadful Company, see the publisher's website here.

24 July 2018

Review - The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The Changeling
Victor LaValle
Canongate Books, 5 July 2018
PB, 448pp

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

Like LaValle's last book, The Ballad of Black Tom (my review here) The Changeling brings the fantastical and magical to New York, but whereas Ballad was very much a riposte to the racial (indeed racist) subtext of HP Lovecraft's cosmic horror,  Changeling is more of a riff on a classic trope of fairy stories, the baby stolen away (and replaced) by the Other. In locating this in the modern US and having it happen to people of colour one can't but reflect on a history of racism, but LaValle's focus is more on what has happened - or not happened - and on its effect on a family: where the earlier book addressed matters of race head on, this one is perhaps more focussed on gender, looking at the impact of a new baby on a family, the roles of mothers and fathers, the precariousness of womens' place in this world - and, ultimately, the steps they may go to for security.

That said, with the main protagonists being people of colour, race issues are never far away. There is its effect on Apollo's career as a dealer in rare books - often refused access to house sales. There is a scene where Emma and her sister wander into a park where some (White) mothers are with their children. Who are these Black women? Nannies perhaps? And so on. A litany of little differences, leading up to the moment when two cops find Apollo, late at night, in the determinedly White neighbourhood of Little Norway.

Lavalle takes his time establishing what is going on, describing in detail the background of Apollo and Emma, especially how Apollo's mother Lillian fled Uganda, came to New York and met Brian - who subsequently fades from the picture, so that she brings up her son alone. A sense of mystery about this chimes with the theme of the book, of vanishings and parenthood. Similarly, Emma  and her sister are orphans and the details aren't clear until later in the book. I like the fact that Lavalle doesn't rush - these stories are interesting in themselves, especially how Apollo builds up his rare books business. This lead up - and the subsequent very tender, story of Emma and Apollo's courtship, marriage and of her pregnancy - really grounds the book in the world of New York, and in a sense of realism: there is nothing 'weird' going on or at least nothing weirder than the early 21st century generally has to offer (which is perhaps not quite the same thing).

All this is, though, only the build up to a shocking, shattering event. It would absolutely be a spoiler to say what this is, beyond the fact that it concerns that central family, and that they'll never be the same again. LaValle really plays with your (the reader's) sympathies here (a good thing!) and the book left me questioning  everything I thought I'd understood so far . It then places the reader, with one of the main characters, in some pretty unsavoury company as they (the character) try to come to terms with what's happened. The book raises questions about trust, truth and commitment. It's desperate, heartwrenching stuff which moves the story on at pace much more than in the first part and creates a compelling situation. I did wonder whether - after that patient, early work - Lavalle hadn't, still, skipped something here. Basically a storm blows up in the family: but while we are given some early hints of trouble, a great deal of the development seems to be covered when the story skips several months, resuming with things about to reach a crisis. At the risk of making for a very long story, I'd like to have seen more filled in here.

That's only a small reservation, because once the crisis hits, it really hits and the fallout from what is a truly devastating event tales a long time to settle.

We watch, in shock, as things go on, meeting those unsavoury characters and caring about the path our protagonist seems to taking. Things seem to lurch from bad to worse, until Lavalle pivots the book and makes it into something rather different from what one assumed, showing everyone's actions in a very different light. I apologise if that seems cryptic, but I don't want to spoil the story.

A book about women and men, parenthood, trust, and secrets, The Changeling provides a great deal to think about. Inspired by fairytales it may be, but this is a gritty, contemporary fantasy-romance which grips in every page.

16 July 2018

Review - The Con Artist by Fred Van Lente

The Con Artist
Fred Van Lente (Illustrated by Tom Fowler)
Quirk, 10 July 2018
PB, 287pp

Source: Advance copy from publisher (thank you Jamie!)

I enjoyed Van Lente's previous book, Ten Dead Comedians, a reworking of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None so I was pleased to see this coming out. Set among the crammed exhibition halls and frenzied parties of San Diego Comic Con and featuring ten illustrations by Tom Fowler, this book follows the unravelling of Mike Mason's life over four days - and features some sharp asides about the comics business and fandom in general.

Mike is an intriguing if (initially) less than likeable central character. Conventions are his life. Since his marriage collapsed and he dropped out of illustrating comics himself, he's lived a wandering life, travelling from con to con (he confesses at one point that, as there are some times of year no cons take place, he does sometimes have to resort to his parents' home... to his care). Mike makes his living undertaking commissions from fans - there are some pretty, um, interesting poses that they will pay to have superheroes drawn in - but not, we gradually learn, actually illustrating any comics.

When Mike runs into an old enemy, Danny Lieber, the man for whom Mike's wife left him, but also "the most hated man in the industry" (though we meet others who might equally deserve the title) he can't resist taking a swing at him. But things turn sour when Danny is murdered - with Mike now the No 1 Suspect, his life is plagued by two wise-talking cops. Can he track down the true killer, work out what's going on and finish those commissions?

Featuring many well known - and some lesser known - Comic Con attractions, from a five hour long awards dinner to geek burlesque, this book gives a rather different insight into events from that which you may be used to, whether or not you're a Comic Con attendee. In particular Mike's speech about bad treatment of comics creators hits, I think, very close to home. But we also get the brash and the over the top, from cosplay to live action roleplay to hotels and convention centres festooned with storeys-high depictions of characters.

Despite the trapping this is, though, at bottom a murder mystery - and a rather effective one at that. The clues are there to be seen (some of them literally, in Fowler's drawings - look at them closely) but I must admit, I didn't spot the killer until late on and even then, I had to wait for the denouement to understand everything.

Whether as a celebration of geek life or a murder mystery, this is an excellent read and I hope that Van Lente returns to the form soon.

13 July 2018

Blogtour - Dancing on the Grave Q&A

Dancing on the Grave by Zoë Sharp

And now for something a little different - today we're joining the blogtour for the fantastic Dancing on the Grave by Zoë Sharp.

Well known for her series featuring Charlotte (Charlie) Fox, Zoë has also written standalone fiction before and has now returned to this with Dancing on the Grave:

A sniper with a mission… a young cop with nothing to lose… a CSI with everything to prove… a teenage girl with a terrifying obsession…

In one of the most beautiful corners of England, something very ugly is about to take place.

There’s a killer on the loose in the Lake District hills, and the calm of an English summer is shattered.  For newly qualified Crime Scene Investigator, Grace McColl,  it’s both the start of a nightmare and the chance to prove herself after a mistake that cost a life.

For Detective Constable Nick Weston, recently transferred from London, it’s an opportunity to recover his nerve after a disastrous undercover operation left him for dead.

And for a lonely, loveless girl, Edith, it’s the beginning of a twisted fantasy—one she never dreamed might come true.

Zoë has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the new book, writing and stuff in general. So, over to Zoë.

BBB: Your new book, Dancing on the Grave, is a standalone – coming after a long series of books featuring Charlie Fox. Is it easier or more difficult writing a standalone? (Is it “Yay! Freedom!” or “Where do I even start?”)

ZS: It was both those reactions, really. Writing standalones in third person and being able to use multiple viewpoints does give you a great sense of freedom. By using close-third, it was fascinating to be able to get right inside the heads of the characters rather than just Charlie Fox, which with the exception of a couple of the short stories, I’ve always written in first person, so I’m always telling the story from Charlie’s point of view and hers alone. With Dancing on the Grave, I limited it mostly to four POVs – the CSI, Grace McColl; the young detective, DC Nick Weston; and the other main players in this drama, Patrick Bardwell and Edith Airey.

This allowed me to really look at the motivations of the people involved – especially those you would consider to be the antagonists – and understand why they were carrying out such apparently monstrous acts. Crime fiction for me is more about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’. After all, with this book you’re following the actions of the sniper almost from the start. This is not a whodunit where you have to work out his identity (although that comes into the story to a certain extent) but what his reasons are. And especially what drives Edith, the disturbed teenager who throws in her lot with the sniper.

Plus, it’s good occasionally to take a break from a long-running series – I’m just starting Charlie Fox book thirteen now – so you can return to it revitalised and refreshed. I have quite a few story ideas that simply wouldn’t work for Charlie. This gives me the opportunity to write them.

BBB: The book is set in the English Lake District, a traditionally peaceful area. What made you want to set a story of murder in such a place?

ZS: Here I’d have to quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches: “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” In this case, my sniper is using a very large-calibre rifle with a very long range. Using the open countryside of the Lake District in Cumbria – recently declared a Unesco World Heritage Site – makes that threat more claustrophobic, somehow, than being in a city. The juxtaposition of having sudden death visited out of nowhere in the midst of such tranquillity is, I think, that much more shocking.

BBB: The story was inspired by a series of shootings that took place in Washington DC in 2002 – we’re, sadly, accustomed to hearing about such events in the US, but what was involved in transposing this to the UK?

ZS: I did take as my original inspiration the Washington Sniper attacks in 2002, particularly the aspect of an older sniper and a younger, more impressionable spotter. It was that complex relationship I wanted to explore more fully as I wrote about Bardwell and Edith. These are both deeply damaged people – damage not entirely of their own making in Bardwell’s case.

Sadly, we too have experienced spree shootings in the UK – at Hungerford, Dunblane, and the Cumbria shootings committed in 2010. But when Derrick Bird went on the rampage in the west of the county, shooting twelve people dead and injuring a further eleven before also killing himself, I felt the need to put this project aside for a while. It didn’t matter that I’d already written the story, already set it in Cumbria, way before those events. Bringing the book out immediately afterwards, with a plot based around a gunman on the loose, seemed too exploitative, and publishers at the time shied away from it.

Since Dunblane, gun control has been very strict in the UK. Bird used a double-barrelled 12-gauge shotgun, which is more widely available as a sporting gun here, and a .22 calibre bolt-action rifle, also legal for pest control. Nobody can legally own automatic or semiautomatic assault weapons, or handguns. In Dancing on the Grave, Edith has a small-bore .22 Gaucher rifle, which she uses for rabbits and grey squirrels. (Cumbria is one of the few areas where there are still native red squirrels and great pains are taken to ensure the non-native greys do not encroach on their territory.) Her father, a volunteer policeman, is a gun nut who, in theory, handed in the majority of his weapons collection after the ban came into effect. In practice, however, that’s another story…

The police in the UK are not routinely armed. In Cumbria some of the motorway patrols are also ARVs (Armed Response Vehicles) but the weapons are kept in a locked box inside the vehicle and special authorisation has to be given before they can be deployed. (Or that’s how it worked at the time I did my research and, consequently, when the events of the story take place.) This was never going to end in the kind of armed stand-off you might expect in a US-set novel.

BBB: You’ve also said that the story is about fame in today's society. Without being too spoilery, do you think there is anything uniquely modern about notoriety through crime (I think of 18th century broadsides and celebrity criminals making speeches in the scaffold)?

ZS: There has grown up in recent years what is, for me, a dreadful culture of people wanting to be famous simply for being famous, without any talent or skill involved. This has been largely brought about, I think, through the explosion of reality TV shows. Apparently, kids leave school declaring their ambition to be “a celebrity” without tacking on that desire to any particular profession. For Edith, a dysfunctional dreamer who feels utterly suffocated by her mundane upbringing and her dull parents, the opportunity to do something – anything – to break her out of that world is one she grasps with an enthusiasm bordering on mania. I quote Henry Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” to which I add a common, if misquoted, postscript “and go to their graves with the song still in them.” It seemed to sum up Edith’s greatest fear – and therefore her greatest motivating factor – to the letter.

BBB: In a lighter vein, I've always thought it must be fun, though very difficult, writing about a crime-scene investigator. All that science! All that detail! Is it fun? And how do you manage the detail?

ZS: It is fun, and it’s also a hell of a lot of hard work. As with any research, you take in a huge amount of information and then leave about ninety percent of it out. I try to remember that I am not writing a How To manual. But I like technical detail – it’s why I enjoy house renovation so much. It appeals to both my creative side in the designing and planning, and my practical, problem-solving side in the actual construction. If somebody pulls a gun in one of my books, I want to know what kind of gun, and why they chose it – that tells me a lot about the character.

For the crime scene side of things, I’d already done quite a bit of work for my previous standalone, The Blood Whisperer, where the main character, Kelly Jacks, is a former CSI turned crime-scene cleaner. For this book, however, I spent some time talking to CSIs from Cumbria, as well as other experts in the field, and I did a lot of reading of forensic science textbooks of the type that are used to train real CSIs.

When it came to the weapons, I used to competition-shoot with rifle, so I have a pretty good working knowledge of the theory of sniping, but using a .50 calibre weapon – as Bardwell does in Dancing on the Grave – meant I had to learn a lot more about the complexities of shooting at the kind of distances where even the curvature of the earth has to be taken into account. It’s all fascinating stuff, but I tried not to let it overwhelm the story at any point.

BBB: Can we expect any more from McColl and Weston?

ZS: I see Dancing On The Grave as another in my non-series series, if that makes sense? The first of these was my last standalone, The Blood Whisperer, and is linked to this book by having strong female main protagonists, who for one reason or another, are unable or unwilling to go to the police when things start to go bad.

And as with Kelly Jack in The Blood Whisperer, I’m not ruling out another book involving Grace and Nick. I do have more storylines fermenting for those two, but equally I have other characters and stories I’d like to pursue first. I just need to speed up my process, but I’m working on it, honest!

BBB: Now some more general questions… stop me if any of this gets too personal! What's your writing day/routine like? And where do you write best?

ZS: Erm, I don’t really have a writing routine, which is probably a bad thing, right? I like to make notes on paper before I sit down with my laptop. (I call this using my neck-top computer – I’m saving up for an iBrain.) It always helps having something to prompt me. I find I can jot down the main points I want to cover in a scene or conversation between characters, then I can expand on that more fluidly when it comes time to put fingers to keyboard.

When I’m in full-on book mode, I set myself a monthly word target – around 30,000 words. It works out at only a thousand words a day, which may not sound too many, but that’s if you can find time to write every day. As it is, I keep a running total, so my daily target goes up and down according to how productive I’ve managed to be so far that month. If I don’t do this, it’s too easy for a day off to become a weekend off, to become a week without getting anything written, and then I’ve lost momentum altogether and have to spend more time reading what’s come before to get me back up to speed than time spent writing.

Generally speaking, I can write more or less anywhere. Certainly I can make notes anywhere to write up later. When I worked as a photographer I used to write regularly in the car on the way to shoots. I was usually the passenger, I hasten to add, rather than the driver! If I’m at home, I like to plug in an ergonomic keyboard and a big flatscreen to my laptop to give me more thinking space. It means I can have several screens open with research information as well as my writing document.

BBB: Do you work it all out in detail first or just launch in – and do you know how things are going to turn out, or end up surprising yourself?

Zoë Sharp
ZS: I do like to know where the story is going before I start, so I plan in advance. Not necessarily the nitty-gritty of the plot, but certainly the main dramatic events. What I don’t tend to plan are the responses of the characters to those events, so that they react in a more organic way when I reach that point in the story. My outlines tend to have E&OE at the end of them, which you used to get on quotations from tradespeople. (Errors & Omissions Excepted.) Things often change and mutate quite a bit as you go.

Perhaps more important to me than an outline is a summary. As I write, I keep a note of each chapter – the gist of conversations, the main plot points covered, injuries any of the characters are carrying, which day it is, and whether this chapter carries on immediately from the events of the last chapter, or if there’s a time jump or flashback scene. That way, when I’ve finished the book and come to edits, I can make any alterations to the storyline on my summary rather than having to wade through several hundred pages of typescript.

And yes, although I know where I’m going, sometimes things happen on the page that I wasn’t expecting or even that I didn’t see coming at all. Numerous times, a minor character rewrites a cameo into a starring role when I’m not paying attention. It’s a fallacy that writers control the worlds we write about – sometimes I think we’re just channelling them with no control whatsoever.

I think of writing a thriller as making a fast bike journey at night. You’re rushing along darkened roads, clinging on for grim death. You know roughly where you’re going but you’re not entirely sure of the route, or what hazards lie ahead. You can see in detail only the stretch of tarmac directly in front in the beam of your lights. And, throughout, you’re aware you might crash and burn at any moment. It’s a constant mix of fear and adrenaline. Remind me again – why do I do this…?

BBB: Zoë - thanks for that, and best wishes with publication of Dancing on the Grave: may it find many readers!

Zoë Sharp is the author of twelve books (so far) in the crime thriller series featuring ex-Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox, as well as a joint novella with espionage thriller author John Lawton, numerous short stories, and two (again, so far) standalone novels, of which Dancing on the Grave is the latest. She spent some years living in the Lake District, where she helped self-build her own house. She now divides her time between writing, improvising self-defence techniques, house renovation, and international pet-sitting.

Find out more on www.ZoeSharp.com.

Dancing On The Grave
Zoë Sharp
£9.99 mmpb ISBN: 9781909344402 ebook ISBN: 9781909344396

10 July 2018

Review - Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi

Cover design by Sue Michniewicz
Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz, 28 June 2018
PB, 322pp
Source: Advance copy from the publisher (thank you!)

'The windmill you are tilting at is very high and ancient and English: Privilege...'

Well. (or should I say, Wells...?)

This is a strange one. It's a mashup of classic espionage (1930s, British Empire vs Soviet Union, a molehunt and traitors among the gilded products of elite English education) with horror (through some higher dimensional maths, the afterlife has been discovered so Spooks can literally be... spooks), overtones of steampunk (Queen Victoria rules from beyond the grave in her Summer Court) there are spirit crowns and the "coppery weave of spirit armour" and a dash of paradoxical mathematics (how can one rely on a system that must, logically, contain contradictions?)

It must, I think, take a good dose of self-belief to make such a thing work, as this does, combined with the ability to spin a great story. This account of Rachel White's thankless service for a thankless Service - she's an outsider, as a mere woman, also suspect as a married woman, shouldn't she have given up her job? - is certainly a great story. (I think all the best spy books need an outsider, someone who's prepared to judge, make a stir, in the secret world).

And Rajaniemi is assured in the way he makes the fantasy stuff - the ghosts, Summerland itself, the crowns and mediums and so on - a key part of the story, not just something tacked on. This is an alternate world. There is "Oxford Court" Tube line. Ectotanks win wars. Lenin has become "The Presence" - a steely hive mind. There may still be a Civil War in Spain, but its stakes are different, higher than in our universe. The science is different too, with a forgotten dead-end of 19th century science raised to the status of truth*. One of the fun things about the book is how much reality Rajaniemi allows to bleed in, whether it's the Prime Minister, modelled on HG Wells (see if you can spot the references to his books), the (real and alleged) spies and traitors who surround Rachel or indeed the mathematics and logic.

That makes the story seem more of a game than it is, this is a genuinely compelling narrative, focussing as it does on the frustrated life of Rachel White, the obscure, flailing motivations of Peter Bloom and on the wider, corrosive effect of the Empire's control of the spirit world. Bluntly, there is no more death, those assured of a "Ticket" can find their way to Summerland, where a little society has been build up (from bricks made of dead souls...) there to live out their deaths for eternity, even able to contact the living by "etheric telephone". It's to Rajaniemi's credit that he makes this whole edifice seem not only plausible but inevitable - as are the downsides. With no more life and death, what matters anymore? Only the most desperate loss is real now, such as a pregnancy that ended early or a soul literally consumed by one of those aetheric tanks. And with death, at large.defeated, what grief, what guilt, might be loaded on those affected by those rare true deaths?

So - whether as a story of tradecraft, spooks (of both kinds), mysterious files and of treachery, as one of horror and meddling with things We Were Not Meant To Know or as a sad and moving human tale dwelling on the aftereffects of loss, this would be a great book. As a blend of all three, it's unputdownable. The writing is sharp ("The raindrops tasted like fear") with the whole concept allowing for the emotional core of the story to be made literal ("the soul-fragments he carried from the War spilled out and made cold spots in the bedroom...", "the best of what the British Empire had to offer, spun from aether and made solid by collective belief." ) and Rajaniemi isn't above sly references to the classics of spy fiction (so, to a character shivering in the yard: 'Why don't you come in from the cold and tell us all about it?'  Altogether a triumph, and I'd strongly recommend it.

For more about the book see the publisher's website here.


*Aether atoms. The idea is that space is filled with an invisible fluid, the aether, which is the stuff that supports light waves (as the air supports sounds waves). The idea of aether fell out of favour, not so much disproved as shown by Einstein to be unnecessary. In this world things took a different turn, and an idea that was seriously considered before Einstein - that atoms can then be imagined as more or less complicated, endlessly spinning aether vortices - essentially knots - plays an important part in its physics.

8 July 2018

Review - Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Cover by crushed.co.uk
Spinning Silver
Naomi Novik
Macmillan, 12 July 2018
HB, 466pp
Source: advance copy from publisher (thank you!)

This was the first time I'd read a book by Novik. Her Temeraire series and Uprooted have received lots of praise so I was pleased to have an opportunity to review this new standalone story.

Set in the snowy Eastern European forests long ago, Spinning Silver is the story of three young women. Miryem is the daughter of the village moneylender - who, sadly, lacks the instinct for his occupation. Wanda has no mother, and a father who mistreats her and her young brothers. Irina, whose mother has also died, is a member of the nobility, but just as much under her father's control as Irina: he plots to marry her off for political advantage.

Faced with starvation, Miryem takes a hand in her father's business. If he doesn't have the steel, the coldness, for the work, she does. But that coldness attracts attention, and when the King of Winter, the Staryk, demands a favour of Miryem, he sets in motion a chain of events that changes the lives of all three. Their stories then cross and interweave, each affecting the other in what are at the start, three parallel tales. I might almost say three parallel fairy tales, there are so many traditional elements here; of course the idea of spinning silver into gold, but also the witch's house in the woods, the castle of ice, the motherless child, and so on.

Yet for all the magical atmosphere Novik keeps things firmly anchored in practicality. Things like food, money, warmth matter here - as does the catastrophe that can befall a young woman when men  man scheme to use her.

Politics and position at Court also matter - the need to anchor a fractious kingdom, provide an heir and keep the nobles in their place. And to raise taxes at a time when winter is growing in power and destroying the crops the people depend on...

Novik fills the book with well observed descriptions of things that are often left out in fantasy - profit and loss, trade and goods, as Miryem attempts to rescue the family business. The difference a little extra food of fuel can make,  as Wanda shivers with her brothers in their cottage. The need to rebuild a city wall breached in battle and the money that makes that happen, how the job is financed and who the loan came from. She takes her time to show the amount of effort involved in making a dress, a mattress cover, a silver ring. The work must always come first.

And when the time comes that the protagonists - not just Miryem, but her parents, not just Wanda, but her brothers - are in danger, it's almost always these little, practical things that save them. In one place Novik takes nearly a page describing a piece of knitting, as part of showing how little positive acts fortify a house against the cold, the unnatural winter that's spreading through the land. Food is prepared and put on the table, logs found for warmth, and people survive. The wolf is kept away for another day, and sometimes that's enough.

Which isn't to say that larger things aren't afoot. There are true monsters here, and they have to be fought, but Novik blurs the lines so that it often seems to be a matter of setting the lesser evil against the greater, than of pure good. And even as the fight becomes fiercer, there are side agendas - such as Irina's father seeking to marry her off to the Tsar, and her own response. The struggle for survival and the politics of a small and unstable kingdom are never far apart. This is a complicated book, where good intentions aren't enough and can lead to real harm.

There are some particularly poignant themes here. There is the prejudice shown against Miryem and her family in their village for being Jewish, also embodied in the separate "quarter" - complete with guards at the gates - for the Jews in town: in both cases there is the ever present threat of violence, the of needing to escape, in the background even of prosperous and successful lives (let alone Miryem's scatty and impoverished parents). There is the position of an older unmarried woman, having to make a place for herself in a noble house because it's that or starve. There is the plight of the peasants, one bowl of soup or handful of logs away from death (and subject to Draconian punishment for taking an animal or a fallen tree from the forest).

It's am immersive and enchanting book - and that's even before adding in the mysterious, mercurial Staryk King, a proud and aloof character with a convoluted and difficult sense of honour that only very slowly unwinds so that we can understand what he's really doing. Think of a Mr Darcy, perhaps, - but with the power to bring winter in the height of summer.

Novak is good at worldbuilding and gives a real sense that this story is just part of a wider landscape - for example that witch's house has an awful lot going on that is never really explored (even while she makes clear that she's inverting the trope of the wicked house in the woods: this house is a welcoming place). There are, we sense, other stories here which could be told.

My only criticism would be a slight lack of distinction I felt, especially at the start, between Miryem, Irina and Wanda: while their circumstances are very different they do come across as very similar to  in voice, something underlined by having each narrate sections of the book as "I" - there are also sections narrated by other characters, but fewer of them. (You may, though, think this actually emphasises how - for all the differences in status between the three - the fact that they are women in a patriarchal society puts them all very much in the same boat and demands that they each act with every last ounce of resource, ingenuity and courage.)

But that's a minor quibble, overall I enjoyed Spinning Silver a great deal. It's one to savour, with so much detail, so much suggested, that it begs to be read slowly and carefully. Novik dismantles the traditional fairy story, twists the parts round ninety degrees, and puts it back together again, adding a deep historical resonance and a telling mesh of race, gender and class issues and creating a study of power and marginalisation that is still truly and magically a fairy story.

Strongly recommended.

For more information about the book see the publisher's page here.

6 July 2018

Review - Adrift by Rob Boffard

Cover design by Charlotte Stroomer
Rob Boffard
Orbit, 7 June 2018
PB, 371pp
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

While meticulous in its space opera setting - the remote space station, the wormhole "gate", fusion reactors and inertial dampers - this is at hear a very old fashioned survival story, which reminded me of books by authors like Alastair Maclean. Following a surprise attack which destroys Sigma Station, newbie tour guide Hannah, who's on her very first shift, finds herself alone in a beat-up shuttle, the sole crew apart from drunken pilot Volkova and in charge of a vocal and ill assorted group of passengers.

Classic disaster movie material they are - the restaurant critic running from a broken relationship, the honeymoon couple, a high-ranking politician, her husband and sons, a widow who's sold up the business she and her husband built up and gone - literally - to see the stars. None of them are particularly helpful in an emergency, but they all have strong opinions ("I'm gonna sue... I'm here on business, and your company just ignored all safety precautions.") In the face of such an overwhelming crisis, can Hannah hold herself together, overcome self-doubt and inexperience, and survive?

It's a riveting read, barely pausing as one catastrophe flows into the next. The Red Panda was never designed to do much more than paddle round the outside of Sigma Station, allowing tourists to gawp and the might leisure-couplex-cum-mining-colony. But, as it turns out, the ship doesn't even have a minimum of emergency provisions. Low on food, water and medical supplies, beset by internal arguments and menaced by a mysterious attack ship, survival seems a remote possibility.

I enjoyed the way that Boffard animates the story, giving all the passengers and crew distinct characters - there's a real danger with this kind of thing that the reader won't be able to tell who is who, or remember why they should care, but in Adrift you surely will very quickly learn who's who (and what's what).

The political background - which is relevant to the story and setting - is also convincingly portrayed. It's fifteen years since the war between the Colonies and the Frontier (i.e. Earth) ended with a treaty that's only been grudgingly accepted. All the characters look back to that history and the older ones have direct experience - whether fighting, reporting, taking part in the negotiations that ended the conflict or losing someone they loved. I sensed the tension and pain of that in much of the bickering aboard Red Panda, as well as in the heroics that are needed to address the crisis.

In the end it is, perhaps, a very personal story in which the protagonists - especially Hannah (who is, after all, wearing the "red shirt of command") and Jack, the cynical (and, frankly, rather unlikeable) journalist - need to come to terms with who they are and with who they want to be. (That might also be said for another character but I won't mention their name as it would be a spoiler).

This, too, reminded me of survival stories like South by Java Head or River of Death. In the end it's all about character, determination and pushing through.

All in all, a great, entertaining read filled with twists and moments of real dread. Recommended.

For more about the book, see Rob Boffard's website here or the Orbit site here.