30 August 2018

Review - Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

Illustration by Richard Anderson,
design by Lisa Marie Pompilio
Bloody Rose (The Band, 2)
Nicholas Eames
Orbit, 29 August 2018
PB, 510pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of Bloody Rose.

I can still remember the first time I played Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D, 3rd edition). There were only two of us - me with half a dozen player characters and my friend, who was DM. The party makes its way down a set of stone steps into a room with a pile of straw in the middle. Several giant beetles are wandering around the straw. What do we do? I wondered. They seem like harmless creatures, and they aren't evil... a prompt from my DM friend: You attack them of course!

And therein lies the contradiction - and the wonderful moral heart - of Bloody Rose.  The book is set in a world of mercenaries, wilderness, and monsters. Picking up from its predecessor, Kings of The Wyld, it features a society where the superstars are "bands", groups of mercenaries who go form city to city fighting "monsters" for glory (and gold). Deliberately, this setup is drawn as similar to that of touring rockstars in the 80s. The bad behaviour. The drink and drugs. The sex. The bands have extravagant names and larger than life members, and they tour in "argosies", enormous wagons fitted out with every modern convenience. Eames has a great deal of fun making these comparisons and including real names and echoes of actual rock heroes, at least in the supporting cast (for example, the purple veiled Prince of Ut; and look at the some of the namecheck in the final battle). I don't think Fable, the band on home the story focuses, is based on anyone specific although the components are all there - from the dodgy manager to the sexy dealers who hang around to the smashing of instruments.

But also, of course, there is slaughter and death on the tour. In Kings of the Wyld we saw less of this -  Saga where an older band who'd got together and who'd grown up fighting for their lives in the wilds. They saw the killing of captive monsters in stadiums as pretty abhorrent and the story didn't focus too hard on it, soon breaking out to more traditional fantasy terrain with a terrifying, monstrous Horde in the field.

In Bloody Rose, Eames spends much more time on this morally dubious issue - basically the same as I had with those AD&D dung beetles all those years ago - and also explores the consequences. Who are the monsters really? What happens when you try on a different nature and find yourself changing to fit? This is a point he comes at again and again from different directions - from the shapeshifter Brun to Tam, who wants to be a bard, to Rose herself.

Rose - Bloody Rose. The most kick-ass hero I've come across in a long, long time. The driving force behind Fable, Rose featured in Kings too though that book was more about the quest of her father and his old bandmates to rescue her. Here she's centre stage, and we see the consequences of that "rescue" - both for her and for the wider world of Grandual. Very much taking aim at the "woman as motivation for the quest" trope in fantasy, Eames makes sure we see Rose as a thoroughly active character in her own right, viewing her through the eyes  newbie teenager Tam Hashford who, against her father's wishes, joins away to join the mercs, her head fall of glory and fame.

The book is very much an account of Tam's growth and maturing shows how her childhood dreams fall away. Setting out to follow her Wyld Heart, she joins Rose's band and is plunged into a terrifying series of areas fights, battles, quests - as well as the emotional pressure cooker of touring. Together Tam and Rose are the two pillars which support this story, though there is a wide cast of additional characters including some from Kings (I can reveal without being too spoilery that Arcandius Moog makes an appearance too).

The book has violence, comedy, warfare, comradeship, violence, heroism, loss, violence and, at its heart, a real, beating moral heart. We don't just see amorphous evil (though there is some of that), the antagonists here have real motives, whether revenge, survival or simple fear. ("You didn't get to be the villain of one story unless you were the hero of another.") It also doesn't spare us the aftereffects of combat, and there are plenty of alternative viewpoints to the death-or-glory swagger of the mercs (which is itself, we soon release, often an assumed pose). Eames' world is also determinedly, transparently diverse (Tam is gay; Rose leads her band of mercy; in the old stories that are cited "at the conclusion... the knight and her dragon would fly off together into the sunset).

Eames' writing also crackles. ("Some people know how to kill a conversation. Cora, on the other hand, could make it wish it had never been born") ("...another broken thing with an aching song to sing"). It's the kind of book whose pages simply fly by until, like those teenage D&D sessions, you look up and it's well past midnight and you're in a torchlit cave surrounded by orcs and you don't want to leave...

In short - while Kings of the Wyld was a terrific book, Bloody Rose is even better. It is simply a masterpiece - exciting, complex, true, sad (in a couple of places, very, VERY sad) - both a deeply traditional fantasy and at the same time, something that knocks all those dusty tropes over and gives them a good kicking (with steel toed boots).

You know what to do next!

28 August 2018

Blogtour review - Morte Point by Robert Parker

Morte Point (Ben Bracken, 2)
Robert Parker
Endeavour Quill, 23 July 2018
PB, e 265pp

I'm grateful to for an advance copy of Morte Point for review and for being part of the blog tour. (I'm especially grateful to Robert for his kind message in my copy).

Morte Point is a thriller, with near relentless action. This is not a genre I read frequently, so I won't try to compare it to others or to analyse how it measures up to them. I will say that, for this reader, it was a compulsive, absorbing and - yes, I know this is often sneered at - page-turnery read. Parker sticks, I think, to the bare bones: a man on the run, a woman, a deadly secret, treachery in high places and a great deal of violence.

If you're going to say "but that isn't very plausible" well nor is a crime story featuring a cerebral detective and sidekick solving the murder by insight rather than by crunching data, and yet here we are.  A sonnet isn't a very natural way to speak, either, yet the discipline of following a structure inspires creativity. The template followed here isn't so far from, say, The Thirty Nine Steps, with a returnee man of action (Ben Bracken, from Parker's A Wanted Man) arriving in Britain only to be confronted by murder and intrigue, taking off pursued by the bad guys, and having both to work out what's going on and to stay alive. The point is how this is then made compelling to read.

Much of the compulsion of Morte Point comes, for example, from the little decisions that Bracken makes, the steps he takes to hide the pursuit, stay ahead and - bluntly - not die. I'm no expert but Parker makes, for me, a credible account of how that might just work - perhaps with a bit of licence here and there. What are the essentials a man on the run needs, and where does he find them? Which way should be run? What are the risks that need to be taken, and which are the ones to avoid? This is all interesting because we can easily imagine being in Bracken's position, even we can't quite grasp the details of the wider conspiracy he's tangled up with.

Parker also plays with our sympathies a bit: Bracken is introduced as a bit of a vigilante but in a way that makes one warm to him, but Parker then has him do things that rather alienate the reader, even if they follow from the logic of the story and even if what he's up against is bigger and much nastier. That creates a bit of a moral dilemma (well, what would you do?) which gives the story some bite.

Bracken's interior point of view - most of the story - is interesting. Parker makes him a shrewd observer, but not a smooth person: his voice comes over as a bit self-absorbed, even a teeny bit pompous - not a natural team member, which injects tension at times when he's forced to work with others. As you might expect, it's the sections of the story where Bracken is on his own, making his way, that are most compulsive, as though dealing with others takes his energy down a level. Again I think that reminds me of Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps - Buchan's book, not Hitchcock's film, although in plot terms the denouement here is perhaps closer in atmosphere to the film than the original book, in that it brings things to a real climax.

That climax sets us up for Bracken's next adventure, I hope, in a sudden turn that I really hadn't seen coming, leaving things pretty much hanging. It'll be interesting to see what Parker does next!

You can buy Morte Point from Amazon here.

For more information from Robert Parker, see his website https://robertparkerauthor.com/, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robparkerauthor or on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/robertparkerauthor. Endeavour Quill is at www.endeavourmedia.co.uk and on Twitter and Facebook at www.twitter.com/EndeavourQuill and www.facebook.com/EndeavourMedia1 respectively.

23 August 2018

Blog Blast Review - Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Design by Rory Kee
Foundryside (The Founders Trilogy, 1)
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books, 23 August 2018
Trade PB, 503pp

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for a copy of Foundryside to read and review and an opportunity to tale part in the Blog Blast. Since reading Robert Jackson Bennett's Divine Cities trilogy I'd been waiting eagerly to see what he would write next - and Foundryside didn't disappoint. It is a chewy, absorbing story of rebellion and identity set in a grim manufacturing city where a form of "magic" has been industrialised.

It's clearly an otherworld fantasy, but I wouldn't try to pigeonhole it further than that. Especially, don't let anyone try and tell you that just because the book focusses on industry and the commercialisation of this world's form of "magic" it must be "steampunk". There is very little steam here, and indeed referring to scriving as "magic" isn't quite right, although it definitely isn't science either.

Imagine, rather, you could somehow hack into the code that runs the world, and alter the nature of things - or what they believe about their nature - with strings of written commands.  That's the basis for the economy of Tevanne, where powerful merchant houses employ legions of scrivers to design the products which they then stamp out and sell. These may be carriage wheels which are tricked into thinking themselves running downhill so they turn endlessly, structures which are commanded to act as if they are  ten or a hundred times stronger than they "really" are or weapons of incredible, unnatural power. There are limits to scriving, based on how far or for how long you can push reality, and on how those commands ("sigils") can be combined and modified to express more complicated ideas.

The culture behind all this is a bit tech (with an emphasis on coding), a bit esoteric (much of the language of the sigils is lost so there's a kind of Indiana Jones element to seeking out and reconstructing it) and a lot capitalist, with huge profits to be made (and even a reference to the "move fast and break things" arrogance of the tech business). For all that, life in the enclaves of the four Houses is good for the best workers with plenty of food, clean water and low crime.

Outside - in Foundryside and the other districts of Taverre - it's almost a hell on earth. There is no government, no law, and precious little to live off. People do the best they can amongst filth and squalor, living in in overcrowded, decaying slums. This is where we meet Sancia Grado, escaped slave and possessor of strange talents, who's surviving as a thief. She's engaged on a job, and the description of this sets the tone for much of the book which from one perspective is a series of audacious heists.

Grado is the central character of this book and indeed carries almost all the narrative, with others - such as irritable scriver genius Orso or law and order crusader Captain Gregor Dandolo of the Waterwatch - very much acting as foils to her, at least until late in the book when Bennett gives them more depth. Sancia is though a magnificent creation, well able to bear that focus: maimed by her history, in many ways afflicted by a "talent" that she is, nonetheless, able to turn to some advantage, and fiercely, fiercely devoted to survival.

When she is drawn into the wider plot, concerning existential threats to the city and indeed the world itself, Sancia very sensibly asks why she should risk everything when she's been dealt such a shitty hand in life. Hasn't she suffered enough? Isn't she actually owed? The cruel surgery that gave her her talent - and which is related to that threat - pales, she argues, beside the evil of slavery which is something that was and is accepted by all its beneficiaries, including Dandle who present as being od so moral.

That question is at the heart of the book, also arising in connection with Clef, another character I loved and who Sancia comes to know well. The revelation of his true nature came as a real shock, but did explain the bond that formed between the two. (The scenes between Sancia and Clef are one of the best things in the book - both funny and increasingly sad, the relationship between the two depicted sensitively and with a lot of emotional truth).

Foundryside has deep resonances with our world, from colonialism and the exploitation of slaves to the impact on workers of unrestricted capitalism and the treatment of women (women scrivers are being eased out of the profession; other women are treated as counters in the dynastic games of Taverre). Bennett integrates these well with the fantasy plot, maintaining a real sense of mystery as to what is really going - at certain points it seems straightforward but then he turns things on a sixpence and all seems up in the air again.

I think there is a bit of homage to Sir Terry Pratchett: most obviously, the industrialising society somewhat resembles Pratchett's "technology" novels, and  Gregor has a bit of Carrot, a bit of Vimes about him (he's trying to introduce the rule of law in a chaotic city-state). More subtly, there is that moral heart I mentioned above, which in various different ways (negative as well as positive, the pursuit of power as well as the desire for freedom and survival) motivates nearly everyone in this book.

It's a riveting book, an example of what fantasy can be, and like the best fantasy, poses hard questions about us and our own society.

Strongly recommended.

(Content warning: Foundryside contains a couple of scenes with brief implied references to/ threats of rape).

20 August 2018

Blogtour - Restoration by Angela Slatter

Restoration (Verity Fassbinder, 3)
Angela Slatter
Jo Fletcher Books, 13 July 2018
Trade PB, 387pp

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher books for a copy of Resoration to read and review, and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

This, the third book featuring Verity Fassbinder, kind-of police person to the Weyrd (monsters and legendary creatures) in preset day Brisbane, is,  I think, something of a culmination of the arc that began in Vigil and continued with Corpsefire.  The events of the earlier books have led to this, with Fassbinder resigning her role working for the Weyrd Council and taking up instead with the self-proclaimed Guardian of the Southern Gate to the Underworld (who is just as pleasant as the name sounds).

This wasn't done willing, basically Verity gave up her position in order to safeguard her family (her partner David, daughter Maisie and mother Olivia - who till recently she had thought dead). A condition of the deal was that Verity has no contact with the family. A second is that she has no contact with the Weyrd. A third is that she has a new minder, Joyce - the fox woman who absolutely, 100% hates Verity's guts.

So, basically, just a pice of cake for Ms Fassbinder, right?

Well, perhaps. Or perhaps not. As the chase begins - an complicated quest for a Grail and a Tyrant, complicated further by a series of women' deaths apparently from spontaneous combustion - Verity feels allegiances shifting and old certainties crumbling. Ligeia, Queen of the Sirens and a Goddess, is in decline. Verity's friends the Norns are afflicted by new and troubling powers. And Verity herself discovers more than she's comfortable with about her family's origins and their role as Jager, as hunters. (But what is Verity if not a Hunter?) Soon she has several Quests on at once, begins to doubt who she can trust and desperately needs allies - so it's not a good time for a backfiring rite, plus her resignation, to have alienated her from most of the Weyrd...

But if we've learned one thing about Verity Fassbinder, it's that she Never. Gives. Up. I absolutely adored the way Verity comes back, again and again, not only fighting against physical attacks (of which there are plenty) but also delving into things she's continually warned against, and going where she has no business to be - all to protect those she loves (or just feels responsible for) whatever the cost to herself. She is no respecter of persons (whether Weyrd or Normal) and tends to say just what she thinks, as she thinks it, and perhaps to regret that a moment later.

Did I see signs of her being a bit more diplomatic once or twice here?

No, not really, I'm glad to say.

The book is pretty much action all the way - whether physical or verbal - and you just know that when Verity gets herself dressed up for a special occasion - "Black tailored dress, black leather boots with enough heel to give my legs a nice line... charcoal mid-length coat, unobtrusive handbag, brushed hair pulled into a bun..." - that outfit isn't going to stay smart for long.

It is, though, action with purpose, even a morality. Verity doesn't lay about her gratuitously (at one point she's even at pains to save the life of an old enemy) but she is often called on to stand up for herself and her friends. And she does that. (You'd think word would go round, actually, and her enemies would be a bit more, well, careful? The book would be less fun though). There are some nasty schemes going on in this book, one of them almost a metaphor for men who drain the life from women (no, it's not vampirism, I'd say it was actually worse than that) and another which would boggle the mind of a theologian but which does make a curious sense in the end. They have to be stopped, and Verity is the woman to do it - or die trying.

If you've read and enjoyed the previous books you will love this one, I can promise. It's easily the most intense of the three, there is just what you'd expect to see here but the writing is if anything slightly daughter than in the previous books and it nicely wraps up the story so far (you'll want to go back and reread the others in the light of certain revelations).

Restoration also (he says, hopefully) leaves enough hints and loose ends that I can see the possibility of more.

Please, please may there be more!

And finally - that cover! I guess if you're going to write about fallen angels consumed by flames (not a spoiler - read the intro on the very first page) then you may as well flaunt them on the cover.

Not attention grabbing AT ALL, oh no...

15 August 2018

Review - Resin by Ane Riel

Ane Riel (Translated by Charlotte Barslund)
Doubleday, 9 August
Trade paperback, 313pp

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

This is a hard book to review. At times, it was a hard book to read. There are some grim scenes, with a central character mistreating their family and also its animals. There are murders. There is a sort of self-reinforcing, almost cultish, thing going on and at times I wanted to scream at one character or another to just get out, or at least, step back, and notice what is happening to them.

But of course they don't, because they're caught in the moral stickiness, the resinous, clammy trap that is set.

That makes for painful reading. The greater difficulty, though, for both reading and reviewing is coming to terms not with what happens here but why. The title - and a recurring image in the book - Resin, goes to the heart of that. Here is a man who is obsessed with preserving what he has, with not letting go -  just as the lump of amber he cherishes preserves an ant, caught millions of years ago in the sticky resin from a pine tree. That fixation oozes through the book, bubbling up again and again, and the tragic consequences are set out here in shocking detail - the more shocking for a certain affectless style which (you soon realise) is normalising this stuff, making it seem like everyday life.

It's only towards the end, when we see events through the eyes of someone who has not been involved, that the full state of affairs becomes clear.

And yet, in the end, the why still remains, I think, a living mystery. I didn't ever really understand Jens, or his making - or I don't yet: again, this book is sticky, it lingers and there's a bit of my mind now that is still pondering him just as, in the book, one character takes away what has happened and will, it seems, be spending a lifetime coming to terms with it. Or not, based on a horrifying sentence that comes just as you think things are calming down.

This is the story of a family living on a remote island off the Danish coast. We see three generations of the Horder family (aptly named, at least in English, though I don't know whether in Danish the name has implications of one who piles up and keeps junk). There is grandfather Silas and grandmother Else, father Jens, mother Maria and children Liv and Carl. Riel takes her time in building up the oddness of this family, the train of accidents and losses that befall them - and the developing condition of Jens. There is all manner of weirdness here: a scavenging lifestyle, deaths due to both accident and murder, a bleak and inward looking family. It's as if The Borrowers went evil: Jens teaches his young daughter that the nearby village is there to be raided, not only for useful items but simply for stuff which he will then "keep safe".

The book is written from a number of viewpoints: a narrator, who sometimes follows a particular character for a chapter, giving a close insight into their thoughts, and sometimes gives a more general perspective, but also letters and other writings by Maria, Jens' wife and Liv's mother. And Liv's voice, telling her own story.

We see Else - controlling, attention-seeking and hypochondriac as Jens, relatively young, falls for Maria, who's been employed to care for Else. For a while, things teeter on the edge of normality - before catastrophe strikes.

We later see Maria, stricken by illness and overeating, gradually withdraw from the world.

And we see Jens withdraw into himself.

And we see the effect on Liv.

The writing is sharp and has a knack of nailing both the literal and the metaphorical at the same time ("Lars suffered from gout and struggled to walk, and his wife never went anywhere but crazy...", "My eyes had grown so used to darkness that in time I saw best at night"). The detail is painted in patiently, those different perspectives I mentioned before giving a kind of discordant and jarring view of the world: Liv's viewpoint, especially, is well done, a convincing portrayal of a child mostly saying and doing childish things but occasionally plunging into much darker, much more adult moments. This is truly unsettling and is another aspect of the book that will haunt me.

It's one of those stories that has you reluctant to turn the next page, fearing what you might read. The discord begins right at the start - that first sentence "The white room was completely dark when my dad killed my granny" - with almost immediately after, a lament that there wasn't a "proper White Christmas" that year. All is out of joint, the times and skew, something is rotten here.

And slowly, painstakingly, Riel explores and exposes that rottenness in compelling, slick writing that sticks in your head.

Like resin...

13 August 2018

Review - Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Cover by Robert Frank Hunter 
Early Riser
Jasper Fforde
Hodder & Stoughton, 2 August 2018
HB, 407pp

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

Skinny Pete went to sleep, underfed and bony
Skinny Pete went to sleep, and died a death so lonely.

The enemy aren't the Villains, nomads, scavengers, insomniacs, Ice-Hermits, Megafauna, nightwalker, hiburnal rodents or flesh eating cold slime - it's the Winter.

This is a standalone volume from Jasper Fforde, not part of the ongoing Thursday Next series or a continuation of Shades of Grey, a potential series that seems to have been blighted by a quite different book with a similar name. However, in tone I'd say it is more similar to Grey than to Next, taking place in a fictional version of our world which is, while fantastical in some ways, not magical.

The world of Early Riser might best be described as an alternate timeline, a planet and landscape identical in many ways to our own, with a lot of technology, cultural references ("Fawlty Dormiorium with Sybil, Basil and Polly and so forth - 'don't mention the Ottoman' ") and history in common, but where - rather than a trend to warming - global cooling ("snowball Earth") is happening, with the winters bitter and a glacier advancing across "the Albion peninsula" (the separation from the mainland never having quite happened, although a belt of marshland following what to us is the Channel shows where a warmer era led to higher sea levels).

The sheer wintriness of this book (apart from being very agreeable to read during the 2018 summer heatwave) motivates the plot in many ways. In this reality, humans hibernate and always have, clustering in "hibernatoria" - multistorey, circular buildings with floor upon floor of sleeping cells, all heated by cosy nuclear piles in the basement ("Hotpots"). Hibernating is a serious business, governed by law and custom. One needs to put on enough fat in the Autumn to last through till Spring, and anyone not attaining their healthy "Winter weight" is looked at askance. Forde loving describes the whole culture around hibernation, making it, in the end, quite a cosy idea. The hibernatorium is more than a sleeping cave, it is a home, a community, with dining room and (as a fine illustration here shows) many other facilities. And a Porter guards the entrance, staying awake through the Winter to protect their charges.

Of course, it's not all cosy. Only the lucky (and rich) are entitled to supplies Morphenox, a drug that prevents dreams and so saves on energy (and fat depletion) allowing a greater chance of survival. But Morphenox has a potential side effect... a small number of those who take it lose their minds in sleep, waking as "nightwalkers", effectively zombies. Yet the risk is considered worth it, not only for individuals who are less likely to starve over Winter but for the good of the species - survival is vital because, in such a hostile climate, population is under threat, so there is mandated childbearing and a great deal of care is taken of orphans in "the Pool". Anything that reduces attrition is welcomed and HiberTech, the company that makes Morphenox, is a power in the land.

The land itself is Wales, the story taking place in early winter in mid Wales when Charlie, a newly appointed novice Winter Consul - an order who stay awake through the cold months, guarding the population against Villains, Wintervolk (monsters) and disasters (like meltdowns in the Hotpots -  ventures from Cardiff to the interior to deliver a "nightwalker" to HiberTech. A simple job for a newbie, and he's accompanies by a vertebral Consul, so what can go wrong?

A great deal, of course. What with hostile colleagues in Sector 12, the formidable duo of Arcadia, head of security at HiberTech and Toccata, the top Consul in Sector 12, missing nightwalkers, a massive bet hanging on whether or not the Gronk is real, hippies on a quest for real dreams, and a terrorist movement seeking a return to Real Sleep - and more - there is plenty going on. Indeed the book is so rich, with such a cast of characters that it can be overwhelming at times, or at least it would be if those characters, and the setting wren't so perfectly realised.

There are also some hilarious strands, such as the Villains, ("Villains generally lives on the edge of the ice-fields and often raided nearby towns for pantry and domestic servants") who prove, of course, to be English and upper class, the banter between Jonesy and Charlie in which they spin a wholly fiction, longstanding love affair out of thin air despite having only just met (and never actually bundled each other) or barely fictional names such as that of " 'sleep extreme' guru Gaer Brills". There are also some very sharp observations ("She was making up nostalgia", "right-wing hardliners loved a good panic").

Behind all this, though, there is a well constructed and devious thriller plot. As Winter falls, a secret is in play, its preservation essential to the way of life of Charlie, his colleagues and the wider population - and its revelation key to preventing  rather nasty fate for many. In a headlong, catastrophe-stern series of encounters, not all of them waking, Charlie will be tested to the limit and find out who he can really trust. Because she of those around him are basically two-faced and have their own agendas...

It's not a short book, but the pages fly by, with fascinating new details of that intricate, well-delineated world coming in all the time, even as the sinister events of Winter unwind and Charlie fears for his life. By the end, I was sorry that the story had to stop but there is a wonderful coda in the form of some posters and other material including, of course, advice from the Ministry of Sleep.

In all an excellent addition to Fforde's imaginary worlds, even if it does remain standalone (but i hope it won't).

10 August 2018

Review - King of Assassins by RJ Barker

King of Assassins (The Wounded Kingdom, 3)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 9 August 2018
PB, 508pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of King of Assassins.

So it's over. Barker's trilogy chronicling the life of Girton Club-Foot, assassin, sorcerer, friend, enemy, Heartblade to King Rufra ap Vythr - and murderer - finishes in triumph. I don't mean that the book is about triumph - it isn't, that would be client to the nature of the series which is about small wins, loyalty, friendship and suffering. Girton doesn't end loaded with honours, titles and lands - rather he foresees a blade coming in the dark (in other words, his life is much as it ever was).

No, I mean the story is a triumph. We've followed Girton through highs and lows, hoped for him, feared for him and, frankly, loved him. One moment in Blood of Assassins, when he does something deeply dishonourable (but totally understandable) gave rise to the hashtag #OhGirton, a phrase I've increasingly muttered to myself as I read these books. I don't think I can recall a protagonist over whom I have worried as I have with Girton. Through the books he has carried a terrible secret: that he can practice magic, a thing abhorred and forbidden in this world. If this came out, Girton would die a horrible death. The secret has driven a wedge between him and his King, Rufra, and has nearly been  revealed several times. Yes the real worry is not Girton being "found out" so much as him overreaching, acting out of pride or fear and being unable to step back again. That he will lose himself. That we will lose him.

And now, as we reach the endgame, we fear for Girton as never before. Rufra is taking his Court to the capital, Ceadoc, where the High King is dead and the nobles of the Tired Lands will conspire and politic to elect a replacement. Ceadoc proves a truly awful place, riven by treachery and deeply corrupt. The trials will pose many dangers and temptations and will test Girton to his limits, and beyond - will they reveal what he is, and separate him from Rufra forever?

All the familiar elements are here: the Sons of Arnst with their fanatic leader Danfoth, sinister priest Neander, the Landsmen whose duty is to hunt down and kill sorcerers. And there are new perils too, new and troubling magic right at the heart of the Kingdom.

Barker weaves a compelling and heartstopping tale around all this, giving us mystery inside mystery - not only new puzzles (assassinations, the curious state of Ceadoc itself, the enigmatic Gamelon, Steward of Ceadoc) but the culmination of things going back decades - including the story of Merala herself, Girton's Master, and the explanation of certain events in Age of Assassins and Blood of Assassins.  (I will, I think, have to go back and reread those books in the right of what I know now). It's all very neatly done, but that's not why I declare this book a triumph. No, the reason for that is the subject matter and how Barker handles it.

There are big issues around the Tired Lands - why magic use is so destructive, what became of the Gods and whether they can ever return, how the Age of Balance came to an end, to name only three. As a magic-user Rufra is at the heart of some of this, sensing the "souring" of the Land, walking (almost, perhaps) with the Gods. In a more conventional fantasy Girton would be declared the Chosen One and the quest would be for answers to all this. Or perhaps Rufra's task would be to guard the Land from some unspeakably evil invader. Or both Certainly, Rufra's bid for the High Kingship would carry a cosmic significance - not just potentially allow his modest reforms in Maniyadoc to spread more widely.

Barker's brilliance is that he doesn't make these books about the fate of worlds. There is good and evil here, yes, and they clash, but it's about how people express that. It's about relationships - Girton and Merala (I have to confess there were moments in this book with those two where I seemed to get something in my eye...), Girton and Rufra, Girton and Aydor. The struggle is for these people to be better people, to be what they should to each other, to confess to what they mean to each other. The magic and the assassining and the battles with Landsmen are less the ends, than the means - forums where these relationships are tried, tested - and broken.

The potential tragedies here are not the land falling to some ancient evil, but the prospect of personal loss, of a dear one being lost (as happens to a friend of Girton's early in the book), relationships wasted or broken. Because Barker makes us care for these people - or perhaps, shows us  that we should care for them - this all matters to the reader far more than the fates of empires and kingdoms, would far more than abstract evil does.

Because when evil stalks Ceadoc, people we have come to love suffer and die. And boy how they suffer - some parts of this book make very hard reading, with some cruel deaths.

The greatest fear we have, though, is the fear - the knowledge? - that Girton will go too far, and it will be impossible for things to ever be the same again. So far in these books he has, just, managed to draw back, but with the deadly game in a new and most deadly phrase, how long can that last?

Oh, Girton.

In short, an excellent end to a groundbreaking  and glittering trilogy. A real treat, you need to get a copy of this, put everything on hold for a couple of days, and sit down and enjoy it.

Indeed my only frustration was how much more I'd like to have been told - about Festival, about the Age of Balance, about Girton and Merala - but most of all, about Xus, Girton's Mount. Barker's writing is at its best when it comes to the relationship between the two, and I could happily have read whole chapters about this subject. Perhaps, as he hints in the Afterword, he might be persuaded to write some of that...

8 August 2018

Review - Haven by Adam Roberts

Cover by Sam Gretton
Haven (Tales of The Aftermath, 2)
Adam Roberts
Solaris, 9 August 2018
PB, 320pp

I'm grateful to the publishers for an advance copy of Haven via NetGalley.

Set in a shared post-apocalyptic world created by Dave Hutchinson and by Roberts, Haven is the followup to Hutchinson's Shelter (my review). It features a boy called Davy Forktongue - Shelter featured an Adam, so possibly there are author games going on here...

Davy (the character) is very much the crux of Haven. Decades after the Sisters - annihilating asteroids - impacted the Earth and destroyed civilisation, Davy lives with his mother and sisters farming on Shillingford Hill, above the swollen Thames south of Oxford.  In a rather nasty, dog-eat-dog world Davy is a threat to nobody, minding his own business and especially the farm's five cows. but suddenly, it seems everyone is after him - the militaristic authorities from Guz, the former naval base on the South coast which featured in Shelter; the footsoldiers of Father John, from the North, of whom we heard less; and the mysterious, women-only society based at High Wycombe, of which we heard almost nothing.

What do they all want? Can it be related to Davy's epilepsy? Will he survive to find out? As Davy is fought over by the factions, Haven escalates into a fast-paced thriller full of action and conflict. Some of this can be pretty grim - as in Hutchinson's Shelter, it's hard to find anyone here to like (beyond Davy himself).  The Sisters seemingly destroyed not only civilisation, but civilisation - the complex of values and empathy that prevents us all murdering each other. If you found Shelter - which featured an outbreak of such murders - bleak I think you'll feel the same way about Haven. Indeed, the parochial and random warfare that featured in Shelter is surpassed by a more ordered and deadly conflict in Haven (and I wish I could say that this conflict achieves something but I fear that it really doesn't).

Nevertheless there is a lot to like in Haven. Roberts tells a tight, well constructed story bringing together two quite different strands - the adventures of Davy, basically trying to get home (there and back again, perhaps...?) and a parallel series of trials listed on the rather stoic boatman, Hat, of whom I would like to have heard more. Nothing in either thread stray, nothing is lost, the most minor points proving relevant before the end.

Roberts' writing is excellent throughout, in particular his descriptions of the deep winter - puddles which "were saucers and half-moons of pure silver locked hard into the ground", "sharp blades of frost stiffened grass that broke under his feet like twigs", "Another wilderness of sedge, yellow as cream, brittle and sharp-edged as upended icicles". He can dip into a kind of Thick Of It mode (" 'Hark,' said Abigail, putting a hand to her ear, 'what is that I hear, ululating from afar? Is it the call for swear language? I do believe it fucking is! None other than the fucking shit-shouting call for sweary language!' ") He can evoke things almost poetically, beyond the literal meaning of the words ("Someone had sheathed a blade in his shoulder and by Christ it hurt. A paralallip rhythm. A paralallip. Rhythm of paralallip.") It's hard to convey by grabbing a few quotes just how much fun this book is to read for the language, the words themselves. 

Of course, in a book by Roberts you also expect puns and allusions and Haven doesn't disappoint. There's a rather intense degree of wordplay ("Because he's the new messiah? The new mess-his-pants-hire? Why?"). At times it rather takes over the characters - for example this exchange between Daniel and Davy. (Read the book to find out who Daniel is).

" 'And if they don't apprehend you on the way - which, incidentally, they will if you just go stumbling down the rive gauche of the river the way you have been - why then they'll pick up up neatly in Goring town itself.'

'Reeve goes?' Davy queried."


" 'Boats are still our forte.'

'That is a lot of boats,' agreed Davy.

Daniel gave him another hard stare."

There is a sense of quick wittedness, of verbal mastery, here to Davy which Daniel seems to recognise. Davy seems to deploy some sophisticated quotes for a thirteen year old who can't read or write and has been brought up in what one might assume is an intellectually, as well as materially, impoverished culture

" 'It is a strange fate," said Davy, "that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing.' Daniel looked at him oddly for a moment..."

Even when not quoting or playing with words, Davy can also show a maturer understanding of things than you might expect. ("I understand the emotional dynamic of my own family than a stranger." "Waste was the worst thing. The unfairness of it. The wealth of the world poured away into the dirt.")

What I think is going on here is that for most of the book, Davy acts as a kind of chorus, the representative of the author (or the reader) in this grim world. That works rather well, not least because, for much of the story, Davy is a rather passive character, done to and not doing, but mainly observing and commenting. He needs a good level of insight and language to make the experience bearable for us.

Similarly, Roberts freely employs (both in the speech of his characters and in the narration) metaphors and turns of phrase that only make sense to us but are unlikely to mean anything to the fourth, fifth or sixth post Sisters generation. One of these ("Senses working overtime") is highlighted at the start of the book - nobody understands the phrase and there are various theories about it - but most are not. So we have "You'll have to join the end of the queue" and 'Close enough... for government work", a "Morse-code under clack" to someone's speech, and so forth.

While this might seem incongruous, it really isn't. Roberts is not trying to develop post-apocalyptic language, something like Russell Hoban in Ridley Walker. he's not trying to represent how these people might really speak. Rather he's using language - even in the mouths of the protagonists - that works for us, the readers. I was reminded of Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings (perhaps one ought to assume a translation, as though Haven were derived from a kind of Red Book of the Southmarch. And indeed there is a lot of Tolkien here -  we do also have "Speak friend and enter", a Gollum like follower, a reference to the Moon as a fruit taken from a silver tree, and much more besides.) By using language this was, the impact of the Sisters on society becomes more apparent, not less. Via the disconnect between a language that assumes the existence of modern technology, modern luxuries and modern conveniences and the strange, wild and deeply dangerous world it is used to describe, we see how far things have really fallen.

A specific example of this might be Hat's (the boatman's) love of smoking, something shared by the customers at an inn and described by Robertson particularly sensuous terms. Roberts makes clear that at this point in history real tobacco is an expensive and hard to come by commodity - I wonder if in reality it would simply not exist at all, but at any rate it is so hard to come by that I suspect most people would be unaware of it and unlikely to enjoy Hat's second hand smoke in the way described. So, no, perhaps not realistic - but as a way to convey how far that world is from ours, this is simply genius. (Unless of course it's another Tolkien thing.)

This is just one of the respects in which Roberts' on the nose observation makes this an absorbing read. Another is the character - I won't name then because spoilers - who achieves incredible things despite being "old" - whatever that means in this world - "People simply stop noticing you. You become a background figure, a three-legged still or an old jug..." And there is the society of the High Wycombe women, marking one path a culture might take alongside others that become intensely patriarchal, very quickly.

So, what do we have? At one level this is a grim, even heartbreaking story of a society gone savage. But it's leavened, or lifted, by that sense of author-in-the-story, of shrewd commentary, by the sense of an authorial wink, that this may be a slightly different story to the one we think we're reading. In other words it's a clever book - which I mean as undiluted praise. And, as I have said, despite the darkness, it is also often a fun book. I would strongly recommend reading (with a bit of a content waring that if you found the darkness of Shelter a bit too much, this does go to similar places).

One closing point. I actually live near Davy! Here, then, is a picture of Shillingford Hill (to the left) from across the Thames (which is among the trees in the middle). You can see what a good place this would be for Davy and his family to farm, albeit in their world the effect of the Sisters has been to cause rain and cold, in contrast to the UK's current mini heatwave... I think the nearer field would have been under icy water, but I can imagine it as one of the places Davy might have crossed a frozen  river.

Shillingford Hill

7 August 2018

#Blogtour Review - The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories by Teresa Solana

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories
Teresa Solana (Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush)
Bitter Lemon Press, 15 August 2018
PB, 208 pp

I'm grateful to Bitter Lemon Press for an advance e-copy of this book and to Anne for the opportunity to take part in the blogtour for the book.

This is a collection of very sharp, often fantastical, and always entertaining stories, many of which place women's viewpoints or positions to the fore. These stories manage to have, at the same time, a cool mastery of the everyday and also - when Solana switches context slightly or brings in some detail previously avoided - their own deliciously skewed viewpoint, a bigger picture that comes into focus.

For example, the titular story, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer, seems a very playful piece - at first.  A serial killer apparently strikes among a tribe of Neanderthal people. Over a period of months, three men are found at the back of the cave with their heads beaten in. The chief appoints one of the tribe to investigate. Solana touches on the conventions and language of the traditional detective narrative, hitting deliberately anachronistic notes (such as references to autopsies, psychological profiles and scientific evidence, or the order "Come on, Mycroft, [the name of the 'detective'] stop being such a Sherlock and get cracking". Underneath, though, there is a more serious mystery - one that affects the balance between the men and women of the tribe. Can it be that the deaths are connected with this? can the secret be preserved?

Another story that turns on the relations between men and women, The Son-in-Law sees an elderly mother become concerned by the way her son-in-law is treating her daughter. Notable for its well thought-out detail, as well as the macabre twist at the end, this story shows how ways will be found runs oppressive social structures and feeble law enforcement to ensure justice.

Still Life No 41 represents another theme in the book - the self-obsessed protagonist, who sees everything very much from their own point of view. Here it's a gallery director, and she's the most self-centred and entitled character I've met in a story for a long time. Running a gallery because of the influence of her daddy, she has to accept blame when things go wrong. We start the story feeling some sympathy - she's lost her job - but as the awful details emerge all this drains away, at least nearly all. Solana is good at showing a piece of terrible behaviour but still keeping the reader sympathising. So for example, in Flesh-Coloured People, a young woman woman has witnessed a shooting. She's being interviewed by the police about this and her inner monologue suggests, again, total self-absorption - from a distancing narrative about the ethnicity of the killers to a coldly calculating plan to select mugshots at random so she can get away to attend a concert. But then... well, Solana shows us something about Eulària and the effect of what she's seen that suddenly puts the rest of the story in a different context.

Flesh-Coloured People is one of a group of stories subtitled Connections, which are loosely described here as "Barcelona Noir".  ("...that delinquent scenario of intrigue on seedy side streets, in warehouses on the city's outskirts or down-at-heel bars...") They are interrelated and form a larger, loose narrative. So for example the next story, The Second Mrs Appleton, is linked to Flesh-Coloured People as well as being a self-contained little tragedy of its own, turning on the relation between a British diplomat and his trophy wife. It's a sad little piece, showing neither partner in a very good light and raising sympathy for all concerned (including the first Mrs Appleton).

Happy Families and I'm a Vampire are two stories that - while not connected - share a common theme: they both explore class in a modern Catalonia that - thanks to that element of the an elements of the supernatural - literally has deep roots in the past. In one case, we have a 900 year old vampire, in the other, a family (tribe? coven?) of ghosts haunting a country mansion who have, some of them, been there for hundreds of years. In both cases, there is a struggle to come to terms with the present day. Both stories are witty and spare, allowing one to fill in the details from popular mythology and focussing on peculiar local features (like German bombing in the Civil War) that matter to the story.

Paradise Gained is another of the Connections stories, and I spotted the connection which ties together Sergi's crime boss Uncle with the earlier stories. Rather than being noir as such, Paradise Gained has a slight atmosphere of Ealing comedy as criminals try to hide a large quantity of cash. Mansion with Sea Views has a more direct connection, and brings up a theme of concealment, of long-hidden crime and of knowing where the bodies are buried which goes back to that idea of a hidden history, of crimes suppressed. Rafael is a darker figure than Sergi, more adapt at concealment, sharper to suspect, a man with secrets.

I Detest Mozart is one of the most standalone stories in this part of the book, its connection with the others being limited to two characters having a nodding acquaintance. But in its theme - the relations between men and women, secrets, the toxic politics of the Franco era poisoning the present, concealed crimes - it is squarely in line with the rest and its portrayal of an elderly widow whose life has, literally, been stolen by these things but who has created her own way of getting by - is both tender and chilling.

Birds of a Feather is also less 'connected' (I think). It's the story of six women serving time (which gave a nice resonance, for this UK reader, because of the long-running sitcom, albeit that was about prisoners' wives). The new arrival, referred to as "posh pussy", is stand-offish as well as apparently wealthy - making her an easy target, you'd think. But appearances can deceive...

Barcelona, Mon Amour and But There Was Another Solution are more closely connected both with each other and with the wider 'connection' theme, and together they represent something of a climax to the sprawling underworld theme of the collection. In Barcelona, Mon Amour a woman who has made her living as a translator for criminal syndicates is called back to Barcelona to undertake one last job, prompting her to reflect on why she ever thought she wanted to moulder in the countryside. It's as much a tribute to the life of the city as it is a perfect vignette of the gangster life. But there was Another Solution gives us almost a different view of the same events. The chief protagonists of the two stories never actually meet, but at the same time they are living around and profiting from the same events in different ways, almost a microcosm of the Connections stories as a whole.

Overall, these are excellent stories giving a very distinct view of life in the 21st century, haunted as it is by the recent and less recent past. I should also mention the translation by Peter Bush. This reads excellently in English, ranging in tone to suit the story from the slightly fatuous in the more comic of the stories to a steely note in the noirish parts.

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