29 November 2018

Review - How Long 'til Black Future Month by NK Jemisin

Cover design by Lauren Panepinto
How Long 'til Black Future Month?
NK Jemisin
Orbit, 29 November
PB, 400pp

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

In her introduction to How Long 'til Black Future Month? (the title coming from an essay not included here, but drawing attention to the lack of representation of people of colour in SF, the self-styled "literature of the future") Jemisin explains that she never saw herself as a short story author, but was persuaded to learn.

Well, I'm glad she did, because this passionate and accomplished collection really showcases her fiction and makes for a diverse (in every sense), readable and deeply thought provoking book. It also - as an extensive collection, published over nearly 20 years - serves a timely reminder that Jamison didn't just burst on the scene with the recognition of her Broken Earth trilogy.

For me, I found stories here that almost ignited something I'd forgotten. In my early I came across SF stories in the school library that had a thing about them... a kind of eeriness, a sense of strangeness and disconnectedness which made me, as a reader, start almost form nothing in trying to understand and relate to them. I can't remember the titles or authors of most of them and I'd almost forgotten that sensation, until reading stories like The Evaluator, told through scraps of social media and documenting humanity's first contact with a deeply alien world, or Cloud Dragon Skies - a gorgeous little story, looking at a future Earth respected, not violated by its inhabitants. (Trouble comes, of course, from outsiders - the descendants of those who departed for an artificial habitat in the skies, and who won't let alone). Or there's Stone Hunger, which gradually reveals a young woman's talent to manipulate the Earth itself, Jemisin's writing almost fizzing as she makes the central concept so, so real.

There are 22 stories in this collection overall, and the range is breathtaking.

The first story, The Ones Who Stay and Fight, is an explicit response to Ursula K Le Guin's Those Who Walk Away from Omegas. A persuasive and plausible narrator attempts to convince a sceptical reader (listener?) that the city of Um-Helat really is a good place. Despite their slightly eager-to-please tone (the reason for which eventually becomes clear) they make out a good case ("This is not Omegas, a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child") up to the moment where a rather dark secret is revealed. It seems there are those who must fight for Um-Helat, to keep it a good place. Do we think that makes it less than good?

In The City Born Great a nameless, homeless boy sings the glories of New York City, becoming its protector, midwife, avatar. Jemisin's language here is positively incandescent as - while recognising the dark sores and suffering of the place - she glories in possibilities, in birth and rebirth, wielding fantasy language like a hammer to beat meaning out of a glowing lump of words. It's an exhilarating read.

Red Dirt Witch is, apparently, a more traditional fairy tale, recasting European myths of fairies and Fair Folk into the bloody reality of the US South in the 50s and making them the White Folk, still exercising power over the red, brown and black people but about to be outwitted by - well, I won't say who.

L'alchemista is a delightful story, blurring the boundaries of cookery and magic. Franca is a cool and self possessed protagonist who weighs up the strange situation that she finds herself in. Not fazed at all, she knows just what to do. The story is notable for its sensual descriptions of food and cooking, creating quite a different imaginary experience from the normal run of science fiction (or indeed fiction, at all).

The Effluent Engine takes us to an alt reality New Orleans, still afflicted by slavery but doing commerce with a free Haiti whose self-liberated inhabitants are determined to stay that way and have developed some radical technologies to that end. It reminded me a bit of Graham Greene's The Confidential Agent - the sense of sense of a hostile city (or worse, a city indifferent to the life or death struggle being waged), the invisible yet omnipresent enemy. It's different though in that the loneness of the narrator isn't... quite that. And also it's a bit steampunk-y. That can be a difficult genre, tending as it sometimes does to see an Imperial past through a haze of nostalgia, but Jemisin isn't falling for that one. Entertaining and fun, it could well have run to novel length (as could many of the stories here - the Introduction makes the point that some of them were trying out worlds she might have expended to novels).

The Trojan Girl is hard to describe, a story of becoming, of transcending. It's a very beautiful story about the power of dreams (real dreams, not waking aspirations) and I think Jamisin hits on a real insight here about their importance. But to understand that, you have to read it!

Valedictorian introduces Zinhle, a talented young woman going through all the normal traumas of High School with the added horrors of a kind of Hunger Games setup. Here, grades may make the difference between life and death. But why do the adults, the teachers, collude in such a system - and how should one respond? A deeply moral and philosophical story this is also I thing a metaphor for a society that more and more eats its young - particular it's young who happen to be of colour - and asks why we tolerate that. What would an outsider, from a different sort of society, make of it?

The Storyteller's Replacement is one of those stories that just gets weirder and weirder as you think about it. The meat is a tale of kings, princesses and dragons - a traditional fairytale on the surface but with some very nasty twists which highlight the assumptions and prejudices that often lurk unacknowledged. But then it has a framing device - which is where the title comes from - that just made me think there was something else going on here, something even more sinister than the story proper. Just delightful. With this story Jamison simply shows how it should be done. One of my favourites here.

The Brides of Heaven is an SF story about a group of women who have colonised a far world, after an unimaginably long journey in suspended animation. But the future of their colony is threatened and one of their number may just have made things much, much worse. Or has she?

Walking Awake is a masterpiece in miniature, a story of enslavement and masters and the fight for liberty.

The Elevator Dancer is short and really strange. It only gradually becomes clear why a woman's dancing, alone, in a lift is a dangerous act of rebellion.

Cuisine des Mémoires is another story that makes food magical - or a channel of magic. It's notable for a deeply annoying protagonist who insists on taking  peel behind the scenes. You do not let daylight in upon magic!

On the Banks of the River Lex is set in a post Apocalyptic New York (realised in loving detail). Although humanity has gone, our hopes and fears still, somehow, persist, and new life flourishes. It is a truly optimistic story, looking to what might be saved and carried forward to the future.

The Narcomancer takes us into deep fantasy territory. Set in a place which reminded me of ancient Egypt, it follows a priest/ magician sent to deal with a village under assault by bandits and to bring peace. Focussing on love and duty, it's the kind of story that in other hands might be padded out to novel length but here is just a perfect short story: my favourite in the book.

Henosis - an  account of an author travelling to a literary awards ceremony - is clever and chilling, perhaps a metaphor for the writer being consumed by over eager fans. You can read the chapters in time order if you want but I'd stick with the way Jamison presents them (but you might wonder why they're chopped up like this...)

If Henosis comments on the way that authors are used up, Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows might be taken as an examination of the reality - or otherwise - of online life. Isolated after a future quantum event, a number of individuals are trapped in their own recurring timelines, able to communicate with each only through blogs, emails and Internet chat as they each live their day over and over.

In The You Train, a woman finds escape from her frustrating life among the shadowy, abandoned trains of the New York Subway. Non-Zero Probabilities, also set in New York, looks at what happens when randomness itself goes wrong.

And the final story in the collection, Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters, tells the true story - perhaps - of the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane, juxtaposing the awesome power of Nature with the evils of humanity. Took finds some strange allies when a mysterious creature stalks him through the floodwaters. It's a story with a fittingly hopeful end.

I don't think it's possible to sum up this collection and it would be trite to try. It's full of treasures: dip in and I'm sure you'll find something to enchant, spark wonder or make you think (or indeed, all three).

28 November 2018

Review - The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman

The Mortal Word (Invisible Library, 5)
Genevieve Cogman
Pan, 29 November 2018
PB, e 418pp

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

Who would kill for a book...?

Cogman's Invisible Library books have quickly become one of my favourite fantasy series, and she has covered so much, and created such a vivid world, that I'm slightly surprised to see that this is only the fifth of them.

The Mortal Word takes us to a Belle Epoque-ish Paris, complete with grand hotels, risque theatre, anarchists - and plenty of danger. A vital conference is being held, which could shape the future of the worlds - but someone wants it to fail, and is prepared to kill, if that's what it takes.

Questions abound. Irene Winters and her associates, Vale, the Great Detective and Kai, prince of Dragons, are summoned to investigate. But due to the dainty diplomacy in train they will also have to work with a representative of the Fae. With so many agendas and rivalries, can the team stay together long enough to outwit the unseen enemy - and is the Library itself as blameless as Irene would like to think?

What are the Fae up to?

What are the Dragons up to?

What is the Library up to?

This book is really fun. I'm noticing a tendency for Cogman to use her many-worlds device to accomplish something a bit more like time travel, taking Irene off to the Prohibition ere in the last book, and now to a romantic, gilded version of Paris where Marius and his revolutionary students cold be gathering round the corner and the Phantom of the Opera lurking in the building opposite. It's deeply atmospheric and enjoyable, but there is more here - a devious, fiendish plot and, for Irene, some real moral dilemmas.

Just what is she prepared to do to advance the aims of the library? As a trained thief, quite a lot - we know that already. But if the library asks too much, what can she do?

The whole situation is enmeshed with Dragon and Fae politics, which Irene needs to understand if she's to save the day, and Cogman only unpicks this slowly, creating a real sense of mystery as well as some heartstopping confrontations and combat. (These generally seem to come as Irene is about to get to sit down and eat - by the end of the book I was just desperate for her to get a square meal inside her).

As well as peril, there's romance too, as Irene tries to advance things with Kai - not easy when they are surrounded by sharp eyed diplomats from all factions - and I won't say how that turns out, you'll have to read the book! And that, really, is all I should say. READ THE BOOK. It is a wonderful confection of delights, a book that will have you sitting up into the small hours, holding your breath at times, guffawing at others and maybe shedding a few tears.

As I said, wonderful fun. Five books in, this series shows no sign of flagging - and I can't wait to see what's coming in the next one.

Previous reviews:

The Masked City
The Burning Page
The Lost Plot

26 November 2018

What's coming up next? Some books to look out for in 2019.

Before I started book blogging I always wondered where people find out about all those upcoming books. I thought I'd found a pretty slick way myself - I would go through my old Amazon reviews and check for new books by the same authors. It wasn't a bad way, but was rather time consuming and did tend to be self-reinforcing.

How do I do it now? I do get emails from publicists telling me what's coming up, but I also look at catalogues - which are mostly online - and this weekend I've been catalogue diving as many publisher catalogues for Spring/ first half of 2019 are out now.

I have though also added in new books by authors I particularly follow, as well as tips from other bloggers, or authors' or publishers' Twitter. And browsing online booksellers is still fruitful! Finally, I've already got a number of books lined up on NetGalley and I've added those in too, where I didn't know about them otherwise.

Some caveats: They're not all there yet, and this mainly covers the bigger publishers so it's far from a definitive list. In particular I haven't yet explored the riches of publishers like Orenda Books, Salt Publishing and Fox Spirit Books from whom I expect many gems. Also, I'm working mainly from UK catalogues, but the power of Twitter means that stuff also gets into the lists that might be published elsewhere first - so some of these might not land in the UK when I think.

Of course, any mistakes here are mine only: if I've got anything wrong I'm happy to correct.

I have linked at the bottom to the catalogues I consulted.

January (7)

Josiah Bancroft: The Hod King (Orbit). Fantasy. Third part of his Books of Babel - deeply, Baroquely weird fantasy about a self-contained world in a vast tower.

Steph Broadribb: Deep Dirty Truth (Orenda). Crime/ thriller. I'm on the blogtour for this, looking forward to more adventures with indefatigable bounty hunter Lori Anderson.

Gareth Harrahan: The Gutter Prayer (Orbit). Fantasy which I've seen compared with China Mieville in its inventively detailed city setting.

Will Dean: Red Snow (Tuva Moodyson 2) (Oneworld - Point Blank). Crime. Also on the blogtour for this. More of Tuva Moodyson, who Dean introduced this year in Dark Pines. The blurb: Two bodies. One suicide. One cold-blooded murder. Are they connected? And who’s really pulling the strings in the small Swedish town of Gavrik?

Jane O'Reilly: Deep Blue (Piatkus). SF. Space opera - sequel to last year's Blue Shift featuring space adventurer Jinnifer Blue.

Alastair Reynolds: Shadow Captain (Gollancz). SF. More space piracy, following up on Revenger last year. (copy from NetGalley).

Diane Setterfield: Once Upon a River (Transworld). Crime? Horror? One of my NetGalleys. I'm hoping for something really creepy to match The Thirteenth tale and Bellman and Black.

February (8)

Pierce Brown: Dark Age (Hodder). SF. Next instalment in the Red Rising series, so a TOTAL must-read.

SA Chakrabortty: The Kingdom of Copper. Second in her Daevabad sequence and not to be missed.

Jane Harper: The Lost Man (Little, Brown). Crime. A third book from Harper in her Australia-set crime series and one I'm really, really pleased to have a blogtour copy of.

Ann Leckie: The Raven Tower (Orbit). SF. I don't know much about this, but a new Lecie is bound to be good.

Rebecca Levene: The Sun's Domain. Fantasy. Third part of her Hollow Gods fantasy sequence - I've been waiting for this for a long time, very excited to read it finally!

Jenn Lyons: The Ruin of Kings. Fantasy.

SJ Morden: No Way (Gollancz). SF. Sequel to One Way, a story about survival on Mars which (to me) was all the things The Martian wasn't but should have been. So I'm eager to read more.

Ed. Jared Shurin & Mahvesh Murad: The Outcast Hours. (Rebellion). SF.

March (6)

Nina Allan: The Dollmaker (Riverrun, 4/4). Fantasy. One of my must-reads for 2019. I was just blown away by The Race and The Rift so am really, really keen to see what Allan does next. (And if Riverrun is reading this, PLEASE approve me for it on NetGalley!)

Zen Cho: The True Queen (Macmillan). Fantasy. Another Sorcerer to the Crown book! Yessss!

Craig Russell: The Devil Aspect (Constable). Crime? Horror? Described as "a standalone psychological tale of horror and suspense..."

Ali Smith: Spring (Penguin). Modern fiction. My son is keenly waiting for the third part in Smith's quartet, and that's got me interested...

Ed. Nisi Shawl New Suns. (Rebellion). SF. "Original Speculative Fiction by People of Colour showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange."

Tade Thompson: Rosewater Insurrection (Orbit). SF. Another followup - I loved Rosewater and am desperate to see where Thompson takes his future of an Africa with aliens and mind-readers.

April (8)

Lauren Beukes: Motherland (Mulholland). SF. Really loved her previous books and it's exciting to see this coming but I'm not sure it has a UK release date yet? "This is America, but not like you know it. Years after the decimation of the male population by a super-virus, the country has refashioned itself with new laws, new customs, and new methods of shame and punishment. Now, hiding a living and healthy male is one of the gravest offenses, rivaled only by the murder of a man. Cole is a mother on the run, guilty of both crimes, and desperate to find a safe life for her adolescent boy Miles."

Melissa Caruso: The Unbound Empire (Orbit). Fantasy. Final part of her Swords and Fire trilogy which has been truly epic. Kenny awaiting this!

John Connolly: A Book of Bones (Hodder). Crime/ horror. Of course I want to read the latest Charlie Parker.

Dominic Dulley: Morhelion (The Long Game Book II) (Jo Fletcher). SF. Sequel to The Shattered Moon. "An alien exile. A lethal secret. The hunt is on... When a dying agent of the emperor’s shadowy Seventh Secretariat tells Orry Kent there’s a traitor at the highest levels of the Ascendancy, she has little choice but to take on the mission. Which is why she finds herself stranded among the floating bubble habitats of Morhelion, where pollution- spewing smokers ply their trade in the beautiful but toxic atmosphere."

CA Fletcher: A Boy and his Dog at the End of the World (Orbit). SF. A boy living amidst the end of things sets out to find his missing dog, taken from him by a thief. "A fiercely compelling tale of survival, courage and hope." I suspect this one will have me in tears...

Ragnar Jónasson: The Island (Michael Joseph). Crime. "Told backwards The Island is the second thrilling book in Ragnar Jónasson's Hidden Iceland trilogy. This time investigator Hermannsdóttir is at the peak of her career and is sent to discover what happened when a group of friends visited the island of Elliðaey, but one failed to return."

Emma Newman: Atlas Alone (Gollancz). SF. This series by Newman has to be one of the stand out SF sequences of recent years. "Six months after she left Earth, Dee is struggling to manage her rage toward the people who ordered the nuclear strike that destroyed the world. She's trying to find those responsible, and to understand why the ship is keeping everyone divided into small groups, but she's not getting very far alone..."

Ashely Poston: The Princess and the Fangirl (Quirk). Following on from Geekerella, Poston locates another fairytale in the world of fandom, geekery and modern romance. Excellent. I can't wait! (And I don't know how to classify this - YA? Romance? Modern fairytale? Who knows...)

Scarlett Thomas: Galloglass (Canongate, 4/4). Third in the Worldquake sequence of children's fantasy, in which Thomas is having some serious fun (if that's a thing?) with genre, books and realities. Not to be missed.

May (6)

Ben Aaronovitch: The October Man (Gollancz). Crime/ Fantasy Another in his Rivers of London series, a novella taking the story to... Germany! Unmissable.

James Brogden: The Plague Stones (Titan). I've really enjoyed Brogden's recent horror stories set in the English midlands and this looks compelling.

Damian Dibben: Tomorrow (Michael Joseph). "A wise old dog travels through the centuries in search of the master who granted him immortality." How can ANYONE resist that?

Fonda Lee: Jade War (Orbit). Fantasy. Lee's Jade City was such an imaginative, genre-bending and mixed up weirdness of a fantasy novel that I have to have more. Soon.

Elizabeth Macneal: The Doll Factory (Pan MacMillan -  Picador) Historical. "An intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession".

Syd Moore: Strange Tombs (Essex Witch Museum Mysteries, 4) (Oneworld - Point Blank) "In Essex a writing course is thrown into chaos when the course administrator is found dead early on All Saints Day. Why would anyone, dead or alive, want to kill mild-mannered Graham?"

I just love Moore's stories combining the supernatural (and the eponymous Museum itself - which holds its own secrets) with crime and, of course, feature the indomitable Rosie Strange.

June (7)

RJ Barker: The Bone Ships (Orbit). Fantasy. A new series, after the triumph of the Wounded Kingdom trilogy - good to see that RJ has been keeping busy!

Chris Brookmyre: Fallen Angel (Little, Brown). Crime. A new standalone from an author I never miss.

Andrew Caldecott: Lost Acre (Rotherweird Book III) (Jo Fletcher). Fantasy, set in the strangest city in England. Except that it isn't. Delightful, weird and compellingly readable books. "Wynter is here... and if he isn’t stopped, this could be the end of Rotherweird – for good."

Aliette de Bodard: The House of the Sundering Flames (Gollancz). Third part of her Dominion of the Fallen saga. I'm dreadfully guilty that I haven't read the first two books, I have to catch up so I can get onto this next year!

Mick Herron: a so-far untitled Slough House novel (John Murray). Crime/ espionage/ thriller.

SK Vaughn: Across the Void (Sphere). SF. A story of survival and abandonment in space...

Rest of the year

I'm also aware that Christina Henry has books coming out in 2019 and 2020 from Titan (Red, and The Ghost Tree) so I'll be looking out for those and there's Sing Your Sadness Deep by Laura Munro which I saw highly recommended on Twitter (Undertow, September). Erin Morgenstern (author of The Night Circus) has The Starless Sea out in November (Harvill Secker) and I hope to see the sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson at some point.


Here are some links to the catalogues where I gathered these titles. You need to be aware that the different imprints you see on your books may belong to the same publisher - but they aren't always placed in a catalogue with all the others!

Quercus (covers Quercus itself, Jo Fletcher Books, Riverrun and Maclehose)

Little, Brown (covers Little, Brown and also Abacus, Virago, Fleet, Corsair, Dialogue, Sphere, Piatkus, Constable, Robinson, Orbit and Atom).

Oneworld (Oneworld, Point Blank, Rock the Boat)

Orion (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, Orion, Gollancz, Trapeze) (interactive catalogue, not document)

Hodder & Stoughton (page gives links to separate interactive catalogues for John Murray and, Hodder & Stoughton)

Penguin (page gives links to separate catalogues for many different Penguin imprints, including but not limited to Cornerstone, Michael Joseph, Penguin, Random House, Transworld and Vintage).

23 November 2018

Blogtour review - The Lingering by SJI Holliday

Cover by kid-ethic.com
The Lingering
SJI Holliday
Orenda, 15 November 2018
PB, e 252pp

Today, I'm joining the blogtour for SJI (Susi) Holliday's new gothic creeper, The Lingering. I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne the tour organiser for an advance copy of the book to review for the blogtour.

This book really resonated with me, and I'm delighted to welcome Susi and Orenda Books to the Balloon!

The book

Married couple Jack and Ali Gardiner move to a self-sufficient commune in the English Fens, desperate for fresh start. The local village is known for the witches who once resided there and Rosalind House, where the commune has been established, is a former psychiatric home, with a disturbing history...

My review

A few miles from where I live there is a former Victorian asylum, long one of the main institutions in Berkshire but converted four or five years ago for housing. It stands on the the edge of a village, surrounded by fields and now turned into flats, with houses in the grounds. Several years ago my wife and I went to take a look with our daughter, then in her mid teens. This was really for something to do more than any serious intent to buy.

If you follow this blog or my Twitter keenly (you don't follow this blog or my Twitter keenly) you may already know that Daughter has autism and profound learning disabilities. She doesn't speak; we are not really sure how much language she understands but she certainly wouldn't have understood from us what that place had been. It seemed nice enough, with lots of greenery outside and some nice modern design in the flats yet she took against it and wouldn't step inside for a moment.

I don't want to get all spooky here but I think there is such a thing as the power of place. That building must, I imagine, a hundred of so years ago, have had a number of residents just like my daughter her and I think she sensed something of that.

There is such a thing as the power of place, whether it be the knowledge of what's happened there, awareness of the sorts of people associated with a place, or something less tangible, something impressed on the place itself. It is something that SJI Holliday draws on heavily in The Lingering, which is set in such a former asylum, albeit one now housing a New Age community, "Our Family".

The forbidding, slightly Gothic pile.

The empty wards and abandoned equipment.

Creaking floorboards and gurgling pipes.

It all makes for a troubling atmosphere, even as we read extracts from Smeaton's (the leader of the group's) "Book of Light" asserting the power of positivity.

There is, though, more to the Gothic than the physical lumber of our dark imaginations. Without credible characters you just have so many draughty rooms and bumps in the night. And it's with her characters that Holliday makes this book so hellishly creepy. Ali and Jack are coming to Rosalind House, seemingly for sanctuary and a new start far from their past lives. But, of course, they can't help but bring those lives along for the ride. Why has Smeaton welcomed them so enthusiastically? And why is Angela so fascinated by them - why is she spying on them?

The really scary, Gothicness of this book is the tangle between the secret lives of Rosalind House's  residents. Their secrets, lies and intentions. There's an almost visceral sense of something wrong (what?), of pressure building, of something about to give way (but again, what?) And while we may be forming suspicions, it's impossible to tell who is innocent, who is guilty, who is manipulating, coercing, controlling in this self-enclosed, inwardly focused community.

Above, where it might all lead, as events spiral beyond anyone's control - even the master manipulator's.

With all this in play, the actual hints of the supernatural, and the reasons for it, are almost superfluous. I'm not sure any ghost could match the depths of evil of an actual, living, human being but the genius of this book is to keep open the channel between the two, as it were, blurring realities, reversing causes and effects and then - in a truly audacious twist - turning the whole thing upside down.

It's a nailbiting story, a nailbiting ghost story, and I think Holliday is going to keep many readers up  into troubled early hours with this book.

The Author

SJI Holliday
SJI (Susi) Holliday is a pharmaceutical statistician by day and a crime and horror fan by night. Her short stories have been published in many places and she was shortlisted for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham prize with her story ‘Home from Home’, which was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in spring 2017. She is the bestselling author of the creepy and claustrophobic Banktoun trilogy (Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly) featuring the much-loved Sergeant Davie Gray, and has dabbled in festive crime with the critically acclaimed The Deaths of December. Her latest psychological thriller is modern gothic with more than a hint of the supernatural, which she loved writing due to her fascination and fear of ghosts. She is proud to be one of The Slice Girls and has been described by David Mark as 'Dark as a smoker's lung.' She divides her time between Edinburgh and London and you will find her at crime-fiction events in the UK and abroad.

You can buy The Lingering from your local independent bookshop via Hive Books, from Waterstones, Blackwell's or Amazon (UK) or (US) and of course from many other places too.

(Finally - and I know I am a shallow person - but isn't that cover amazing? It makes me feel dizzy just looking at it...)

18 November 2018

Review - Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

Cover design by Sarah Anne Langton
Unholy Land
Lavie Tidhar
Tachyon Publications, November 2018
PB, 255pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via Netgalley. (I have also bought a signed copy - Forbidden Planet in London has them in!)

This is a bewildering and brilliant alternate history. Tidhar imagines a Jewish homeland that might have been, a tract of land actually offered (really offered, I mean, in real history) by the United Kingdom in high Imperial mode in Central Africa and considered, however briefly, as an alternative to Palestine. (The views of the previous inhabitants weren't, of course, canvassed).

What might our world be like, if that offer had been accepted? How would things stand in Africa? How would they stand in Palestine? What else would be different?

A man, Lior Tirosh, a writer, flies back to Palestina (that might-have-been state) from Berlin. He's a writer of pulpy detective novels, son of a famous general, returning to visit his ill father. Tirosh remembers, sometimes, a son Isaac; sometimes he doesn't. In his conversations with his agent he refers to a possible book casting an alternate universe Adolf Hitler as a seedy private detective.

Hang on... I read that book... it was A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar.

Tirosh has also written a book called Osama.

As has Tidhar.

There are layers and layers to this book. A writer returns to his homeland. A people find, or are given, a homeland. Another people loses theirs. Many are saved, or lost, and the world pivots. In the world Tirosh inhabits, for example, things turned out sufficiently differently that in a refugee camp, the "Red Swastika" is an equivalent symbol to the Red Cross, Crescent, or Star of David. Tidier isn't afraid to take his idea to shocking conclusions any more than he was in A Man Lies Dreaming. Yet even in this different world, echoes remain, with the same tragedy of people displaced, with echoes of genocide, camps, an armed struggle, and the same security response, as in our present day.

It's a deeply unsettling book, asking questions, perhaps, both about individual responsibility and about the shape of history. Through them all, Tirosh ambles, a bit lost, seeming to forget, at times, who he actually is. Affected perhaps by all the possibilities Tidhar has granted, he remembers who he might have been, as it were. That is both engaging - Tirosh is very human and hapless, not, for most  of the book, a fictional protagonist and also frustrating: he doesn't provide any answers (this isn't a book of answers).

The story also follows two others. There is Bloom, a security official in Palestina, and Nur, who seems to work for another agency from outside. It's not clear to begin with whether they are working together or at cross purposes, but they both seem to have an interest in the blundering Tirosh who himself increasingly assumes the persona of a gumshoe, setting out to ask questions and find the truth. But while he may have written about private eyes, he doesn't seem well fitted to actually be one. Is this real life, one may ask, or is it just a fantasy? Either way, bullets kill and walls divide. There is a kind of dead heart at the centre of this story with real consequences for those who might - or might not - have been saved if history had taken a different course.

It's a deeply troubling, deeply thought provoking read, no less for the lush evocation of the Jewish State in Africa: the colours and light of that continent, as well as the imagination Tidhar uses to weave his imaginary country. You might almost swear he'd been there.

I don't want to say exactly what happens in the end because there are twists that should only emerge slowly. It's the kind of book you may want to go back and reread, looking out for little hints once you really understand them. It's also a book that refuses to be sidetracked by action or plot, however tempting that may be: the final third could, for example, have been a great deal longer with much that is sketched out given in detail, but that would I think be to obscure the central idea behind too much running around and shooting. Instead Tidhar gives the bigger picture and leaves much of the detail to the reader's imagination - a risky judgement but one that really pays off since it lets this book be much, much odder that you might expect.

It's probably a bit trite to say that given the facts of actual Jewish history in the 20th century, alternatives, might-have-beens, other turns and possibilities, will always fascinate. As Tidhar explains in his Historical Afterword, speculative fiction was anyway part of the events leading to what would become Israel, long before that awful historical weight became a factor. But it's impossible to read this book without it provoking that sense of how different things might have been, and the good and bad that might have followed from that.

But perhaps that is true of all history, and isn't it really the basis of any fiction?

As you may guess, this book has left my head buzzing.

I'd strongly recommend you read it, and set yours buzzing too.

Other reviews of Lavie's books:

Central Station
A Man Lies Dreaming

13 November 2018

Review - Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand
Tasha Suri
Orbit, 15 November 2018
PB, 432pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of this very impressive book.

In this, her debut novel, Tasha Suri draws a convincing world, a vast Empire sustained by chanting mystics who have bound the gods themselves with their prayers. A land of spirits - daivas - and dreamier. A land of cruelty and absolute power. It's peopled with real, convincing characters who are caught up in chains of privilege, prejudice and birth. And it's a world where there is real peril, both physical and spiritual - what if the price of saving the world is engaging in heresy, in blasphemy, becoming what you hate? Here, vows and contracts are made into real, tangible forces which constrain actions and compel obedience - and have consequences.

Mehr is a privileged young woman, daughter to the Governor, given everything she needs - except for freedom, except for a mother. Loved by her father but kept safe in the palace, hated by her stepmother Maryam, she is one of the despised and hated Amrithi, persecuted by the Empire her father serves and safe only so long as her secret is hidden.

But with jealous Maryam watching it's only a matter of time before Mehr's stubborn  attachment to the forbidden rites of her mother's people will lead her into trouble...

This fantasy novel was like a breath of fresh air (well, hot desert air). It's a world away from fur clad barbarians, dark lords and chainmail, instead cleverly showing the dilemma of a conquered nation, an outcast race. In that sense I was reminded somewhat of Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant, in another, I saw the same dilemma of an apparently privileged person, a ruler of sorts, as in Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan - which is apposite because Mehr, like Tenar, finds herself with a role in a dreadful temple, trafficking with old powers and in great danger.

The book has a complex heart, with Mehr genuinely torn; between the man she's been made to marry but is coming to love, the clan she has never known, never been part of, the woman who could have been her mother, and her missing friend, Lalitha. Oh, and fear for what the ruthless powers of the Empire - including the priest Maha - may do to her family if she doesn't submit. Mehr is in a truly terrible bind, with no-one to turn to but her husband Amun - who is himself enslaved to the Maha and unable to help her.

It's a truly exciting book, taking one from the depths of despair to a sense of hope as Mehr tries to salvage something - anything - form the wreck of her privileged, soft life; whether the safety of her father and sister, a little bit of friendship in the grim temple, or the joy of performing the ancient rites of her people under the very noses of their enemies. But all this seems vain, and hope drains away - the Dreamfire is coming and it may consume Mehr as it has others.

This an assured debut, a riveting and thought provoking book written from a woman's perspective, that of Mehr, a truly memorable hero who may feel despair but who will never give up. While she is, in various ways, controlled by men around her (because they have power, because they have tricked her, or because of the laws and customs of the society) there's never any doubt who is at the centre of  the story. Mehr's father may have great power but is absolutely under the thumb of the Emperor. The Maha has great spiritual and magical resources but is dead inside. Against them is a gallery of glittering and complex women characters - whether allies or enemies of Mehr's - who really drive this story along. But I'd also mention Amun, who shows a distinctive strength is respecting Mehr's autonomy despite the vows that bind him.

I'm delighted to see from the interview included at the end that there will be more from Suri about this world. There's clearly a lot still to explore and I want to read about it all soon!

You can buy Empire of Sand from your local independent bookshop here via Hive, or from Waterstones, Blackwell's or Amazon.

10 November 2018

Review - Treason of Hawks by Lila Bowen

Cover design by Lauren Panepinto
Treason of Hawks (The Shadow, 4)
Lila Bowen (Delilah S Dawson)
Orbit, 18 October 2018
PB, 371pp

I bought my copy of this book from Waterstones in Oxford.

With Treason of Hawks, Bowen brings to a close a truly remarkable sequence of books. Starting with Wake of Vultures and continuing with Conspiracy of Ravens and Malice of Crows (links to my reviews of the earlier books), she has documented the story of, first, the girl Nettie Lonesome, an orphan living in virtual slavery on a ranch presided over by the drunken man she calls Pap and then of the man Rhett Walker, who is also The Shadow, avenger of wrongs and at times, a great bird. As the series has progressed we've seen Rhett grow and develop, take on new challenges and, most of all, fight - both to overcome the monsters that threaten him and his friends, and to own and transcend his own past

Most of all, he has struggled with his relationship with Sam, finally finding love and a sort of happiness - which was thrown into terrible jeopardy in Malice of Crows.

Set in the lawless wastes of Durango Territory, a sort-of version of the Wild West that would seem familiar if it wasn't crawling with vampires, Lobos, Chupacabras and even carnivorous rabbits, the books have taken Rhett on a bewildering tour of ranger outposts, rail camps, cursed towns and abandoned missions. It's a breathtaking world that Bowen creates (ably assisted by Tim Paul's glorious map), one full of wonders (some never explored in the books), terrors and riddles.

Treason of Hawks continues right where Malice of Crows left off with Sam bleeding to death and Rhett in despair. And that note of darkness continues with what is really nonstop action, Rhett seemingly at the mercy of a mysterious and implacable enemy, desperate to defend the little family that he has build up. In many ways I think this is the darkest of the books, Rhett having to confront not only the unexpected weakness of the Shadow to protect and guide him, and malice and strength of his opponent, but also his own nature.

Rhett has, though all his adventures, been fixated on the idea of manliness. He worries about what he, as a man, should do and tends to scorn women and girls (at one point in this book he more or less claims not to know about the daily things that need to be done to make the ranch work - mainly women's work). Here, that attitude is challenged, as is the alarmingly high casualty rate among those who follow him. Monsters they may be, invulnerable to most dangers, but immortal they;re not - and Rhett begins to lose people.

The result is that - not for the first time - he has to question everything: who he is, what he has been, his heritage as a Native person, his ability to defend those he loves. As everything seems to be going wrong, what can he hold onto?

I have loved this series and adored Rhett as a character, and it is painful to see what Bowen puts him though here. Authors truly are monsters! But what happens also feels right. Durango is a brutal crucible for a man - or for anyone - to be formed in, rife with injustice, with persecution of both the Native population and the monsters, with Rhett's beloved Durango Rangers far from being the angels of justice that he imagined. (In fact coming to terms with this fact is one of his biggest challenges). In the course of these books we've seen slavery, murder and torture and there is no tidy resolution to that  - the forces behind it are too big, too strong, for resistance.

But much can be done and the book does focus on the power of love, friendship and kindness even in the face of such evils. It is in the end a quietly triumphant story, despite the losses and tears.

I'd strongly recommend this series, if you haven't read them, and if you have I'm happy to be able to report that Bowen tales the series out on a real high.

The whole thing is a fabulous achievement and I'm so glad to have read these books.

Lila Bowen kindly answered some questions when the first two books were published in 2016. You can read the interview here.

8 November 2018

Review - Middle England by Jonathan Coe

Middle England (Rotters' Club, 3)
Jonathan Coe
Penguin, 8 November 2018
HB, 421pp

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

Middle England is a return to characters Coe introduced in The Rotters' Club (which followed their lives as teenagers in 70s Birmingham) and returned to in The Closed Circle (focussing on the years of Blairite pomp at the beginning of the century). Opening in 2010 with the run-up to the General Election and continuing to Autumn 2018 (i.e. now!) this is very much Coe's Brexit novel, suitably titled as an enquiry into England's (not Britain's) character and ghosts - literally, a "condition of England novel".

That makes the book very contemporary (except where, I imagine due to publishing deadlines, it's not able to take in the latest developments in the unfolding story - such as the criminal investigation into the Leave campaign which would have fitted very well with the final third of the book). Thankfully, it's not a moment-by-monent account and the accent is very much on the response and behaviour of Coe's usual wide cast of characters, muddling along with their lives as they always have.

Revisiting the world of those earlier books also means a return to what are for me some beloved characters, people I really feel I've got to know. Central here is Benjamin Trotter, with his love of music, and his sister Lois, still - forty years on - haunted by her experience of one of the Birmingham pub bombings. We also meet Lois's daughter Sophie, and Doug, the radical journalist who married a wealthy heiress and has a daughter, Coriander, who despises him. And many more. Coe has a very good technique for handling his characters - we dip in and out of lives, sometimes skipping months or a year, sometimes following a particular incident or series of events (Sophie's cruise to the Baltic, delivering lectures on the history of art to a boatload of pensioners; Doug's meetings with Nigel, the baffling Assistant Deputy Director of Government Communications under the Cameron government). It's a bit like throwing a handful of leaves into the stream to help picture the flow - in their encounters with students, friends, enemies, family and workmates we get a cross section of, well, Middle England.

There's Colin, Benjamin and Lois's father. At the start of the book, their mum Sheila has just dies and it's clear that Colin will never recover from that. But as the years pass, he does;t just mourn, he broods, over how the country has changed - whether it's immigration ('I don't think I heard a word of English spoken on the way here'), loss of industry or "political correctness" (a common complaint of characters here, at least those of a Brexitish turn of mind).

There's Helen, Sophie's mother-in-law, who astounds and shocks Sophie by harking back to Enoch Powell (but of course Sophie doesn't challenge this: a long and awkward pause on the car journey ensures).

There's Charlie, a long-lost friend of Benjamin's, who's trying to make a living as a children's entertainer while supporting his girlfriend Yasmin and her daughter Aneeqa.

Through the comings and goings, crossed paths and life events, Coe weaves a picture of a deeply uneasy country taking a long look at itself and deciding it doesn't like what it sees. There is a degree of rage, perhaps the realisation of loss of privilege and the frustration is pushed this way and that, finally to be vented on  23 June 2016. There is also - through the subplot with Nigel - the story of vain and stupid politicians who didn't realise, or chose not to see, what they were unleashing. There is nostalgia (a golf club that seems fixed in the 50s) and - Coe has a gift for portraying this - the little nuances of English racism played out in (mainly) everyday moments, almost gone before they're spotted and rarely or never the occasion of any rebuke.

Wrapping round the book are the words of a folk song, credited to Shirley Collins, a haunting ballad telling of lost good times and diminished circumstances ("Adieu to old England, adieu/ And adieu to some hundreds of pounds/ If the world had been ended when I had been young/ My sorrows I'd never have known") . Combined with Benjamin's taste for the elegiac in music and some wistful passages towards the end looking back to his and Lois's childhood ("Beacon Hill. The landscape of his own childhood. Tobogganing in the winter...") and of course the part of the country - the east Midlands - where much of the story is set, there is an almost Housman-like sense of nostalgia and of a lost world.  Coe punctures this by having Benjamin point to this as, in a sense, nostalgia for a world that never was but he also cannily uses it to show the very real sense of loss and bewilderment felt by so many at their place in the modern world (Colin, literally lost when he visits the side of the old Longbridge car works). More ominously, Coe shows how that sense of loss - not in itself a malign thing - is worked upon and manipulated by those with an agenda.

Throughout this the theme of different Englands emerges, of a lack of comprehension and shared experience. ("Just as Doug had told him, 'People are getting angry, really angry' even if they could not have explained why, or with whom.") Whether causing a malicious complaint against an academic for their treatment of a student, a violent, racist assault in a small English village or the breakup of a marriage, Coe seems to be saying that we just can't live with each other any longer - an ironic reversal of something he has a French celebrity author say towards the start of this book: 'The French are an intolerant, judgemental people. Not like the British, I think". Perhaps that reputation for tolerance - whether deserved or not - is another aspect of the lost "old England" to which we have sadly bid Adieu.

So this is in many ways a mournful novel, even if often funny. Coe isn't, I think, pointing out anything that hasn't been said or debated in the aftermath of the 2016 Referendum, but he does the subject the courtesy of a scrutiny from all angles (even if it's clear where his sympathies lie). He does suggest that, in the end, some of the divisions may be healed. I think though that if there is to be a fourth book in the Rotters sequence, bringing things to a real reconciliation, it will have to be another few decades in the making - and I'm unlikely to see it written.

Strongly recommended, even if uncomfortable reading at times.

6 November 2018

Review - The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

The Grey Bastards
Jonathan French
Orbit, 21 June 2018
PB, 420pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of The Grey Bastards.

Live on the Saddle, Die on the Hog

Back in the Summer, the ever generous Nazia recruited me into the Grey Bastards through the ingenious ruse of sending me commissioning papers. (Blogger tip: be VERY CAREFUL when opening any package from Nazia. I wouldn't put it past her to use runes if you upset her.)

I've been worried ever since that Jackal, Fetch and the rest of the Hoof would turn up to ensure I delivered my pledged service - the more so as time drew on. There have been so many great books this year, and they all take time to read properly and digest, so I have deferred my attendance rather, but not wanting to end up at the wrong end of a tulwar or even a stockbow, I am relieved to say that I have now completed my review of The Grey Bastards.

This is a tale of half-orcs, battle and sex. (I'm going to have trouble cross-posting this to Amazon, I can tell already). The titular Bastards are a band ("hoof") of half-orcs, one of a number pledged to defend from the Orcs the land of Ul wundulas, the ruined country knows as the Lot Lands because it's parcelled out among the various hoofs. The land may be home to some, but it's primary important to because the defence of Ul wundulas is the defence of Hispartha, the fertile northern kingdom which the Orcs ultimately covet.

I am summoned!
I loved French's description of the Bastards, their organisation and their world. Roving their Lot on mighty fighting hogs, they are well able to ride down stray Orcs or even small raiding parties - but all dread a new incursion, as happened thirty years before leaving Ul wundulas ruined. Against that day, the leader of the Gray Bastards, the disease raddled Claymaster, seeks a wizard to bolster the Hoof, whose glory days are long gone.

Also featuring elves and halflings, the territory here might seem pretty familiar but French makes it convincing and new, not least through the idiosyncratic language he creates: humans are "frails", Orcs, "thicks", the Elves of Dog Fall, "Tines" and so on. Soon the scrubby, barren land that Jackal and his Hoof shed blood for becomes so, so real, as does the grim reality of the life there.

Because it is grim. Jackals's story begins as one of rivalries within the Hoof - the young bloods are restless under the failing rule of the Claymaster and a lot of time is spent on plots and alliances to replace him. This may seem like a squabble over a very small prize - wouldn't you just want to get out of Ul wundulas? - but an answer to that does emerges, if slowly, and it has to do with loyalty to the Hoof and a curious, perverse love of the land itself. To see that we will have to ride many miles, as French skilfully expands his story to take in the history of the Hoof, wider plots for power and the truly awful reality of what Hispartha's rulers have done in the past. And the seeds are clearly sown for Jackal's role to broaden still further.

It makes for an exciting, engaging story, never far from action and peril which I'd recommend to lovers of fantasy. And this is also very much "history from below". The rulers are definitely the humans of Hispartha, often presented as aristocratic, privileged and hierarchical, dominating the land from their Castile and treating the half-Orcs (and other outcast inhabitants of Ul Wundulas with disdain.

I do have one caveat, though, or perhaps a content warning. The concept of rape is very much ingrained into the background of this world. Not in the events we see - but the very existence of the Bastards, or most of them, derives from the rape of human women by Orcs (the Hoof defends, and recruits from, an orphanage where many of the resulting kids end up). The idea also comes up as a prominent subplot involving the creature known as the Sludge Man and it's used metaphorically too, in the sense of how Ul wundulas has been treated by the Orcs (thereby saving the blushes of dainty Hispartha beyond).

I should stress none of this happens in action that we see in the story, it's more of an underlying reality in the construction of the world.

This is, I know, something that has divided fantasy readers and authors (and bloggers!) and it's not a debate I'm going to rehearse now - but it is a facet of this book that the reader, or some readers, may wish to take into account.

So - am I glad I accepted that commissions and rode with the Bastards? On the whole, yes. Not every facet of their world attracts but there is a power and a flow to this writing that makes me look forward to French's next instalment (obviously this is a series!)

4 November 2018

Review - By the Pricking of her Thumb by Adam Roberts

Design by www.blacksheep-uk.com
By the Pricking of her Thumb
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 4 September 2018
HB, 260pp

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

This review first appeared on the Shiny New Books blog here.

NB there is a potential mild spoiler below - I will flag it up when it gets close.

Roberts seems to have been very busy lately so I'm glad he managed to include a return to the world of The Real-Town Murders, one of my favourite books of 2017. R!-Town is a futuristic version of Reading (the town on the Thames, not the bookish activity) though the futuristicness is less embodied in what the town's like, but in the fact that almost no-one is around and about: all those who can spend their time hooked up to The Shine, an immersive virtual reality where lives are conducted while bodies gently decay, or at best, are exercised automatically by AI driven exoskeletons.

R!-Town is home to Alma, a down-at-heel PI, and to her partner Marguerite. Housebound by illness, Marguerite operates as part Watson, reporting Alma's cases, and part Mycroft, making links and connections that Alma can't. The connection between the two women is well, and gently, done - the strength of their love for one another conveyed in what they don't say, what they don't - can't - do. Marguerite's illness is a designer smart malady which strikes every 4 hours and 4 minutes with a mutated threat, requiring Alma's presence to diagnose and treat whatever new instance of it has arisen. It has to be Alma, that's coded into the virus, inducing a great degree of urgency to the life of an investigator - Alma simply has to be home when the time comes round or Marguerite will just die.

Of course this predicament doesn't come cheap. Alma is deep in debt, and when she is offered an impossible case by one of the four richest people in the world, she doesn't have many options... though the "crime" (one of the four has allegedly been murdered, but nobody knows who) is baffling and the authorities unhelpful.

Like its predecessor, this is in many ways (despite the desperate situation) a joyous book. Roberts is a good writer - make that a very good writer indeed - and his prose simply sparkles. It's a wonder to read, regardless of subject, plot or context. I think I'd happily read him if he were to draft the telephone directory or washing machine instructions. He really, really observes. Just look at this:

"A concrete wall disclosed a kind of derangement of detail: unsmooth greyness stippled with an astonishing variety of pointillist dots of slightly darker and slightly paler grey. It called to her not only to see, but to touch, so she ran a finger along the wall's five o'clock shadow"


"The surrounding trees had swapped their green livery for scarlet, like soldiers putting on dress uniform for a royal parade."

Roberts also brings too bear a vast range of references, whether from memory or knowing where the words are buried - I was pleased with myself for spotting some of them (Ron and Reg Kry, two recognisable criminal henchmen, " 'Search, search, search,' agreed Marguerite, 'searchability, that's the beauty of - me' " is a riff on a British Gas advert from the, 1970s or 80s) but I'm sure I will have missed many more.

The central reference here, which isn't concealed, is, though, the homage that the book pays to the films of Stanley Kubrick and in particular, to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is explicit, for instance in that Alma is soon approached by "Stan", a self-confessed Kubrick fan (so perhaps a double reference there) who first urges her to "follow the money" (of course!) and then introduces her to a private in_shine 2001 sim which he uses to illustrate theories both about the film itself and about the crime she's investigating. It's also implicit, in ways which I won't disclose because they would be spoilers, other than to say that a key theme of 2001 turns out relevant to By the Pricking of her Thumb as well.

But this isn't just a clever book filled with knowing mentions (even if Roberts makes the title of the very first chapter a nod to one of his one earlier books). It's got some really hefty ideas behind it, from the nature of money and the consequences of "monetising" the Shine (that's what the wealthy "fab four" are about as part of their quest for "absolute wealth") to the limit of State power in the face of wealth to the transformational impact on society of all that virtual action.

Mild spoiler alert - skip the next paragraph if you care about these things

By the Pricking of Her Thumb  is also, in a couple of places, almost unbearably, rawly, moving and true. There is a point here where the story is bobbing along nicely, building to the conclusion - and then stops in its tracks where something truly awful happens. But rather than being something that annoys or detracts, this is a moment that enhances and deepens the story. Roberts makes the response very real, very raw and quite, quite true. I always expect a lot from his books, but here he far surpasses even what I'd expect.

End of mild spoiler alert

By the Pricking of Her Thumb is a sequel, something Roberts famously doesn't do. He has justified writing it by saying that a sequel is, for him, itself a first and therefore justifiable. I'm pleased that this argument is recursive so ought to permit more in this series (and could be extended to allow further series if required, who knows) so I'd like to think there can be more stories of R!-Town to come (the hidden internal war within the Government apparatus that we saw in the previous book continues here, we're told, though it doesn't feature centrally, so perhaps a burger book may be required to resolve that?)

3 November 2018

Review - Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson

Europe at Dawn (Fractured Europe, 4)
Dave Hutchinson
Solaris, 1 November 2018
PB, e 320pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Europe at Dawn.

This fourth, and final, book in Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence is well up to the standard of the previous parts. Again, we're in a near future world where the population has been ravaged by the Xian Flu, Europe is divided (and dividing) into increasingly many fragments and life is complicated by the existence of the Community, an extra dimensional pocket universe where it always 1950s England. ("A place where tricky concepts like ethnic diversity and political correctness and sexual equality had never taken root, and gay rights were a misty fantasy... it was an awful place, and that was why so many of the English wanted to move there.")

We are also in the world of Les Coureurs des Bois, an international networks of smugglers who refuse to accept the fragmentation, and work to ensure that "packages" can still be delivered across borders. That gives the book, especially the first half, an agreeable atmosphere of "tradecraft" as Situations, drop-offs, dust-offs, "jumps" and so on run past, at first seemingly unconnected but gradually joining up. We meet Alice, a young Scottish diplomat in Tallinn whose life ("Her crappy job, her dickhead employers, her bully of a husband") is about to be destroyed ("She had been constructed out of chaos by people who did not care about her"), Ben, a refugee trapped on a nameless island in the Mediterranean, and Meg, an English Colonel commanding Heathrow Airport (which, in the last book, was somehow moved into the heart of the Community). Hutchinson is very good at showing the reality of these lives in quite brief portraits - Alice's abusive husband and her daily frustrations ("she could feel her life with him slowly crushing her to death"),  Ben's desire, simply, to go North away from the chaos, Meg's confrontations with an American flight marshall who thinks he should be running things and an emissary from the Community who has old-fashioned ideas ("They didn't like hearing women swear. Well, fuck that.")

Indeed, he's so good at it that this book contains at least half a dozen separate stories, each of would easily furnish enough material for a full story. I could read a whole book about Alice or Meg. But we only see glimpses of Alice's life, and only a couple of episodes in Meg's: I'd love to have been able to read more about them, but the focus stays - as the separate strands come together - on the grand story Hutchinson's been weaving ever since Europe in Autumn. This book is fully part of that, ducking and weaving around the timeline and events already established (it must have been murder to keep all the events and characters in the rights places) and adding new depth and different perspectives to what we already know. That does mean you'll get more out of it if you have a fairly fresh recollection of the previous books, although there are enough hints that it also makes sense on its own.

Kind of... By the end of the book, Rudi himself - I did mention that Rudi's back, didn't I? No? Well, RUDI'S BACK! YAY! - is pretty bewildered by some of the revelations, and aghast at what the future may hold. But that's the nature of Fractured Europe, I think - there is no neat resolution, we don't get all the answers, and there is an unsettling sense that no-one is really in control. (Of course no-one is in control, ever, anywhere, but that's such a worrying idea that we spin conspiracy theories and postulate sinister masterminds: it's easier to believe a genius is running the show, even an evil one,  than accept the directionless, emergent chaos that is the alternative. Hutchinson refuses to comfort us by affirming that conspiracy rules OK, while not denying that there are conspiracies afoot).

Did I sound excited to meet Rudi again? of course I am. I just love Rudi. He's so capable, so resigned, so... upright. Surveying what's been done to Alice, "Rudi felt his heart break". Unlike others here, all he really wants to do is to run his little restaurant, not be swindled by the meat suppliers, and to keep the "cohorts of individual creeps, ghouls, crooks and gentleman adventurers" at bay. That sounds a tall order, in a continent where, seemingly, everyone wants to be a spy: I think that - despite the focus on spyycraft, the jargon - one of the targets of this book is the general obsession with espionage, with the glamour of it (at one point Alice meets a man she describes to herself as a "Poundshop Harry Lime" and reflects that she herself is therefore a "Poundshop James Bond").

Another focus is, clearly, the Little Englander mentality thats sees the preserved never-was of the Community as some kind of salvation, rather than a horrendous parody (make your own connection to current politics) and - in a wider sense - the current world trend towards extremes. Rudi is the perfect foil to this, a dignified, modest man with steel inside him, an inhabitant and product of deep Mitteleuropa. He is the counterpoint to the chaos and even, to a degree, the conspiracies. We can believe in Rudi and I salute Hutchinson for giving us that. More, his books take Europe seriously, as a place, not just colour: Hutchinson displays a familiarity with the places, the journeys, the ways of living. There's a cosmopolitanism here, a rooted cosmopolitanism, a sense we have to transcend the irritable scratchiness of nationality and resit the demagogues. It's a delight in countries and places and differences which is its own riposte to the narrowness of the Community and those who think like it.

This is, in short, a delightful book and also a serious book. I'm so glad that we have it to round off the Fractured Europe sequence. The whole thing is a considerable achievement, and while everything has to come to an end, I am also sad that this is the last book in Fractured Europe.

1 November 2018

Review - Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Moon
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 25 October 2018
HB, 447pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of Red Moon.

Red Moon is a story of epic proportions, told through quite a narrow perspective. It's a story of the future, and necessarily science fiction, but also a story of people and politics, of the future of Earth and some of the great nations upon it. And also, of course, a story of the Moon.

Our guide into this story is Fred Fredericks, an engineer visiting the Moon to set up an entangled quantum communications device for a Chinese client. (In 2047, China is dominant in lunar exploration and settlement).

Visiting the Moon on the same ship is Ta Shu, a Chinese poet and online travel broadcaster. (Some the sections of the book are Ta Shu's broadcasts, either actual or projected, describing his impressions of what he sees and thinks).

Fredericks, through no fault of his own, becomes involved in political trouble, which links him up with Chan Qi, daughter of a powerful figure in the Chinese Government. The two set off on a series of adventures across the Moon and then Earth, a travelogue in itself (if being recorded) during which they rely on the support of many friends and allies and are hunted by multiple Chinese security agencies which frequently seem to be as hostile to each other as they are to the fugitives. (' "I wish I knew what was going on." "It's China" she said. "Give up on that." ')

Oh, and Qi is pregnant...

During this time Qi and Fred become close, although not - quite - romantically close (which is refreshing). I enjoyed Robinson's portrayal of Fred, his feelings and thought processes possibly placing hi on the autistic spectrum - a classification which Robinson firmly, and explicitly, resists - leaving us with a wonderful, complicated and un-pigeoonholable character who is nevertheless clearly not "neurotypical". He's discussed at one point by Qi and a couple of Chinese lunar prospectors, their speech rendered into English by a cheap pair of translation glasses:

"So this guy cannot act?

That is right. That is what shyness is. He thinks he has to be real. So he has stuck to me. But there is no harm in him..."

(Robinson returns to this idea of "acting" later, when Ta Shu's friend Zhou points out that "We all present a persona to other people. Some have a wide range... A real cast of characters". Perhaps Fred is the only unvarnished, truthful person here?)

I enjoyed the depth of Robinson's rumination on China, its history, future and politics. Obviously placing the story twenty years in the future, and foregrounding China while making clear that the only other global power, the US, has big problems of its own, distances Robinson's take from being about China as it is now - and distances this book from any criticism that it is hostile to China. That may be as much a pragmatic marketing tactic as it is an artistic choice. But on the other hand it's also clear that little in Chinese politics has changed from now to then. I can't say whether or not a Western author can fairly discuss or represent China, or whether it's even wise to try, but Robinson at least approaches China as a reality, as a civilisation, as something to be analysed and understood in its own terms (and those terms go deep into the history of China - it's not just about the 19th and 20th centuries and the Revolution) not according to Western concepts. So for example we get a discussion by Chinese officials on the Moon of aggressive US behaviour which likens it to that of a toddler. "Three years old, three hundred years old- same thing, right? When you're talking about China, five thousand years old? Fifteen times older than this kid?"

Equally I sensed, perhaps, Robinson's frustration in places, as when he has Ta Shu say that "We think in pairs and quadrants, and in threes and nines, and every concept has its opposite embedded in it... So we can say... China is simple, China is complicated. China is rich, China is poor. China is proud, China is forever traumatised by its century of humiliation... all the combinations come to this... China is confusing." Much of this analysis indeed comes from Ta Shu and his debates with old friends he encounters on the Moon - some of them now powerful and rich friends. (The low gravity on the Moon is, we're given to understand, congenial to those of advancing years who are suffering from problems with their joints). There is philosophy and even poetry, as a counterpoint to the more hectic chase involving Qi and Fred. That is inevitably a journey of discovery for him, both of China, and of how to live alongside a young woman but it's also an intensely practical business and the book frequently spends long periods following a particular aspect of the journey - for example, a scramble down the precipitous slopes of a mountain in Hong Kong. (The two actually shuttle several times between the Moon and Earth, each time on the basis that this will make them safer - although it never seems to work very well).

If I had one criticism it would be that the degree of focus here is quite uneven. For example, while certain parts of the chase are shown in great detail, others aren't covered at all: at one point Fred disappears into some kind of captivity, is lost sight of for a while, and then simply discovered again by another of the security factions; we're never given much of an account from his perspective of where he was or how he was treated although episode must have been as important from his perspective as some of the events described in loving detail.

That isn't me pleading for less detail, by the way, but for more! I suspect that things have been left out here to prevent the book getting too long - well, i'd read it if it were twice as long! I find Fred in particular a fascinating character and I'd be interested in more of his reflections on what goes on.

But the background to the book is one of political intrigue and turmoil as the leaders of China meet to decide on a new President. This is what drives events, and this is why Qi, in particular, is being hunted. So perhaps it's right that Fred is kept in his place as very much a pawn in the game, and giving him more space could upset the balance. That's especially so when the political dimension - the issues being struggled over - is important but can't be given too much of an airing without turning the book into a manifesto. Instead the focus needs to be on Qi and her aspirations (although she too has missing episodes: her presence of the Moon, already in trouble, is presented as already given when she and Fred initially meet up).

To summarise, this is an action packed and thoughtful take on the future, a great read, with some of the most beautiful writing I've ever seen about the Moon as the Moon (the concept of rocks being not weather-beaten but sun-beaten by "billions of years of photon rain", a description of the Moonscape as "...something like the colour of a red sunset on earth, but darker and more intense, a subtly shifting array of dim blackish reds, all coated by a dusty copper sheen. the previously pastel patches of rare earths were now shifted to purples and forest greens and rusty browns..."). It's also not afraid to pause for some truly mind-boggling scenes which aren't strictly germane to the plot, as when a couple of the Americans join in an impromptu 3D ballet in a lunar cavern threaded by wires and nets. (Overall, I felt the American characters - having been firmly established - were used less than I'd have thought. Perhaps they will play a greater part in subsequent books, and downplaying them is obviously appropriate in a book that attempts - as far as a Western author can - to break out of a Western-centric view of things.)

Anyway, the portrayal of the Moon here has a feel of truth, and in terms of lunar colonisation I won't be in the least surprised if in the 2040s, China has a presence something like this up there (if I live to see that).

Whether Robinson's suggestions about the politics of the time are equally accurate... well, who really knows?

Definitely recommended.

You might also be interested in Kate's take on the book over at For Winter Nights.