30 March 2019

Review - The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

The Dollmaker
Nina Allan
Riverrun, 4 April 2019
HB, 416pp

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

I really enjoyed Allan's last two books, The Rift and The Race, and I was eager to read The Dollmaker. Those books were twisty, substantial ostensible science fiction/ fantasy which invited the reader to wonder if what were - on the surface - fantastical stories should simply be taken as such, or whether the weird turns, contradictions and coincidences were (or also were) indicative of ruptured relationships and individuals' breakdowns. The answer wasn't clear, and that, perhaps, was one of the most satisfying things about them.

The Dollmaker presents, I think, the same choice, but from the other side of the genre fence. This is ostensibly a naturalistic, if increasingly odd, story which also acts as a framing narrative to a series of fantastical short stories (described as modern fairy tales) allegedly written by 'Ewa Chaplin' and translated from the Polish. However, the subjects and provenance of those stories seem to be coupled with the themes of the 'real world' story, something Allan's protagonist Andrew Garvie uneasily begins to realise.

Are we dealing with confirmation bias - the characters in The Dollmaker reporting on one book among many they've read that seems to reflect their own lives?

Or is there more?

To explain further, in this book we meet Andrew Garvie, the dollmaker of the title.

We meet him first as a small boy, later a small man. While we're introduced early to this interest in dolls (he is aged eight) and we might expect that to cause him trouble with a traditionalist father and cruel schoolmates, the fact of Andrew's stature and condition is in contrast something that only emerges slowly - indeed part of the unrolling impact of this book is his seeing himself reflected (and traduced, and distorted) in Chaplin's stories. The world 'dwarf' is often used in these, and this is only one of the ways in which the stories, many of them about people marked out - a girl with autism, a soldier who lost his legs in the Great War and, yes, people like Andrew - echo the 'real life' of The Dollmaker.

Garvie has, we learn, answered a personal ad in a dollmaking magazine:


He is on his (leisurely) way across southern England to meet Winters at her home in Cornwall. The Dollmaker interleaves Garvie's travels and observations with Chaplin's fantastical stories (a young actress with a wealthy and older husband begins a relationship with a disabled ex soldier; a teacher struggles with her feelings when a gill with autism arrive sin her class; in a near future Britain, a theocracy has banned representations of humans and an artist is publicly tried for blasphemy; a country exists where Fae are as real a menace as rats, and treated in a similar way) and with Winters' letters to him. From them (and it's not clear whether he has received them all, or whether some were sent as he travelled) we learn about her early life. She has been twenty years in a hospital after some incident which (at first) she only uneasily alludes to.

It's clear that Garvie has become - what? Infatuated? Obsessed? - by Winters (again reflecting Chapman's stories). He sees himself as setting out to rescue her in some way, even though it's not clear she wants or needs to be rescued. There seems to be more going on here than a shared love of dolls and Allan teases a bit, drawing out the journey and making it a bit of an epic. Garvie presents as a somewhat old-fashioned character, regretting the turmoil of modern Reading (the English town, not the activity) or the state of architecture in post-war Exeter. Something about the reflections on these places, as well as his visits to lesser known towns off the tourist map and the leisurely nature of his journey (he takes days to do a trip you could surely manage by train in a day?) put me in mind of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day.

Garvie seems to be an unreliable narrator. He certainly is in terms of what he tells Bramber, for example not letting on that he's coming to find her but I sensed that a lot of what he tells us is mysterious or incomplete. What about Ursula's sudden disappearance? Or the twins he mentions several times but never explains? So by the point where - in the last quarter of the book - a single telephone call seems to cast doubt on other aspects of the story too, it almost begins to look as if Chaplin's fairy tales are more solid, more certain than real life itself (despite their themes of alternative universes and the way they trespass on reality). Perhaps this is similar to the way that Garvie sees his (assumed) relationship with Winters as totally real - while being quiet cold and unsympathetic to the very real troubles of his friend Clarence's autistic daughter, Jane.

It's a dense novel (in a good way!) which had me flicking backwards and forwards in my Kindle checking for repetitions, echoes, foreshadowings, for loose strands suddenly appearing in a different context and resolutions to things that seemed to stop midway. I think that in a sense the story here is like one of those 2D or 3D representations of a 4D object, the compression producing odd effects and conjunctions which have their own patterns and rhythms.

An excellent book, one I enjoyed a lot and would strongly recommend.

28 March 2019

Review - The Witch's Kind by Louisa Morgan

Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Witch's Kind
Louise Morgan
Orbit, 21 March 2019
PB, 440pp

One of the lovely things about book blogging is being sent books out of the blue, like this, so different from what I might buy myself - but which are just so right for me. It gets me out of my ruts, and I'm so grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a free advance copy of The Witch's Kind.

Opening in June 1947, this is the story of Barrie-Anne Blythe, a young woman living in a remote coastal community in Oregon in the US North West. It's also about her Aunt Charlotte, and Barrie-Anne's adopted daughter, Emma. Barrie-Anne farms a few acres of land that belonged to her husband Will; Charlotte is an artist who makes her living illustrating medical texts but pours her heart into her abstract canvases. And there's Willow, the dog, who is devoted to Barrie-Ann and Emma.

The Witch's Kind moves backwards and forwards in time to tell us a little about Barrie-Ann's earlier life - both her parents died when she was young, and strange, solitary, Charlotte brought her up alone - about her marriage to dashing, unstable, unsafe Will and about the effect on them both of the War, when Will joins the Navy and is sent to the Pacific. But the book is foremost, I think, a study of women's lives, of the expectations projected onto them and of quiet, loving, determined resistance. The conversations between Barrie-Anne and Charlotte, what's said and not said, the gradual exploration of each others' lives and of their family history, are actually very moving as is the support Charlotte gives when mercurial Will bursts onto the scene.

Will is a study in himself, a version of toxic masculinity made more convincing by his being, at times, oh so amenable and charming. He isn't even a complete monster - what we learn about his background is actually deeply sad, but this only makes him even more chilling and creepy and Morgan conveys with almost surgical precisions the emotional effect of this on Barrie-Ann. That is hard to take at times, it is so well portrayed and the subtle demolition Will carries out to his wife's independence and sense of self so devastating that I think a content warning might be appropriate for any woman who has suffered such an experience in her own life.

There is a puzzle to Will and his comings and goings, only one of the wider mysteries in this book. There is the mystery of the Blythe women. There are rumours of strange sights in the sky and the sea. Roswell is being reported, and a couple of Men in Black even turn up. Underlying all is the dislocation of the War and uneasy attempts to reset things - all those men returning and wanting "their" jobs back - and a sense of policing women who may have got out of line, who are "different". Here Barrie-Anne, with her missing husband, and Charlotte, who never had one, may be at particular risk of standing out, even without their family "gift".

The book's title, referring to that, may seem like a rather obvious hint about what goes on here but while there is a strand of magic in the book - and it is important to the plot - I'm not sure about the word "witch". It seems a somewhat over definite term for the mysterious ability passed down among the Blythe women, as well as creating particular expectations for what you might find in the story. But there are no covens here, no wider organised society of women using magic and in fact I don't think the word "witch" occurs anywhere in the story. It's a much more subtle book than that, a book about love and abuse, about defending what is precious, the lengths one might go to to do that, and about male corruption and selfishness.

So there are also redeeming strands - the strong presence of Aunt Charlotte (Aunt Charlotte is really cool!), an act of charity and solidarity with Barrie-Anne's by her neighbours which lifts her at a particularly low point, the quiet affirmation of a country doctor who carries his own sorrow with him - and even the devotion of the dog, Willow. It's these quiet people (dogs are people, didn't you know?) and moments which weigh against the bluster, the whining, the bullying.

I loved this book - it's one I had to read on and on at a gallop, unputdownable in that overused phrase - and I would recommend it highly.

(Also, that cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio is superb...)

25 March 2019

Review - The True Queen by Zen Cho

Cover design by crushed.co.uk
The True Queen
Zen Cho
Macmillan, 21 March 2019
HB, 367pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley. I have also bought a copy - the beautiful signed and numbered limited edition from Goldsboro Books, (which should be a destination for you if you're ever bookshopping in London (it's close to Trafalgar Square)).

The True Queen is the sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown, in which heroine Prunella, a humble young woman who is mixed race, overcomes many obstacles to become the first ever Sorceress Royal, official magician to the Crown of the United Kingdom and head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers. That a woman, and a woman of native ancestry (as the book has it) should rise to such a position in Regency London is a great scandal, and the opposition has not died down when this book opens, with intermittent attacks, insults and barbs aimed at Prunella and her supporters. That book was great fun, in a kind of Becky Sharp-with-magic kind of way and I was really pleased to see Cho return to this world again.

Unlike Sorcerer to the Crown  this is not Prunella's story and understandably, with the duties of the Sorceress Royal to manage, she stays rather in the background - neatly avoiding the risk of such a powerful magicienne sorting everything with one brandish of her staff. The focus instead is on two sisters, Sakti and Muna, who have arrived from the island of Janda Baik in the Malacca Strait to seek help in having a curse lifted.

The viewpoint is thus definitely not that of white Englishpeople and indeed there is a certain inherent distrust of the English, who are felt to have their greedy eyes on Janda Baik. It has been politic for Sakti and Muna to come to London for help with the curse, but there is actually a great deal more going on than they or anyone else realise (though by the end, I suspected that the famous witch Mak Genggang, the sisters' guardian, and ruler and protectress of Janda Baik who was also in Sorcerer to the Crown, might know a bit more than she lets on).

The book soon spirals, then, into a complex imbroglio involving fairies, a stolen amulet (the 'Virtu'), a dragon aunt, a family with mountains of debt who wish to marry a daughter off to bring in some money, and much more. I thought I detected traces of Wodehouse, but as I said, I can also see Thackary as well as Austen and the whole genre of Regency romances. It's a wonderful mixture, great fun and often very funny - that lost 'Virtu' giving scope for a great deal of mild innuendo sparking off 18th century novels such as Pamela. ("Do you mean to tell me that the Duke gambled away the Queen's Virtu?") There's even a character here called Clarissa...

The seemingly light tone does though accompany important themes. Muna, the more sensible of the sisters, is trying to solve a very serious puzzle: the mystery of who she is and where she belongs, and also to find Sakti, who has gone missing.  As if that wasn't enough, there are other issues addressed here: the place of young women in society, colonialism ('"another favour!" said the polong. "You are like the Dutch asking for land"'), mysogyny (to get away from her family and practice magic, one character deploys a simulacrum, an enchanted thing made from cloth and stuffing, to take her place - her suitor does not actually realise it's not her), diverse sexuality (if that term isn't anachronistic - consider: young man and a male dragon in a relationship that also permits marriage to a woman who may be in a relationship with another woman), religious differences and the duties of rulers to those they govern. And that's really only the start.

Muna herself is a redoubtable heroine, suffering from fear and uncertainty, lacking a memory of who she is but still unfazed by a foreign and hostile society (at best she's treated as an exotic accessory to be shown off at parties) but still formidable whether dealing with patronising Englishpeople, sly spirits or indeed, dragons. She may be in turmoil, but she knows what she wants to achieve and is determined to get on with it. And if that gets her in some awful scrapes - as happens a few times here - she doesn't waste time in self recrimination but pushes on and finds a way out, generally turning things to her own advantage. Even though she herself has no magic, she finds ways to command it (including ingenious use of a pantun, a form of poetry used in Janda Baik, to shape a spell) and she takes no nonsense from anyone. As I said, shades of Becky Sharp here.

It was good to see a fantasy novel in which all the main characters are women: the two sisters, Prunella herself, her best friend Henrietta, the Fairy Queen, Aunt Georgiana, Mak Genggang and several more. The males are by and large secondary in this story, if still able to meddle and cause trouble ("Relations are a terrible burden to a girl with magical ability").

It's an artfully told story, with lots of zest and a fast moving plot. If I had one small criticism it would be that in places things move a little too fast - fairly hefty bits of plot (long journeys, the retrieval of a key object) happen off stage, as it were, courtesy of a helpful bit of magic or a useful support character. But that's hardly unique to this book, and doesn't really diminish the action we do see (of which there'e plenty) or what the characters, Muna especially, achieve through their determination, guile and courage.

I'm now looking forward to a further instalment, confident that Cho will shake things up again in a third book!

23 March 2019

Review - Captivated by Jeffery Deaver

Captivated (a Colter Shaw short story)
Jeffery Deaver
HarperCollins, 5 March 2019

I'm grateful to HarperCollins for a free copy of this e-book via NetGalley.

Captivated introduces Colter Shaw, Deaver's new protagonist who will soon feature in his own novel, The Never Game. It's a short story - I read in about 30 minutes.

Shaw makes his living from reward money, travelling up and down the US in a Winnebago - going wherever the rewards are. Seemingly a solitary, self-sufficient man (we learn a bit about his childhood in a remote rural compound with his mother and his increasingly paranoid father) he's clearly a competent operator, always calculating the odds before he gets into anything.

In this story, it's a missing person case. Car dealer Ron Matthews' artist wife, Evelyn, has vanished and he offers a ten thousand dollar reward to Shaw to find her. But what's really going on here? Has Evelyn been kidnapped? Is she having an affair? is she trying to get away from an abusive husband?

Shaw runs the odds, takes notes, and begins his enquiry. I liked the way Deaver makes what happens plausible; the investigation, Shaw's misgivings and his determination not to do anything that might put Evie in danger, above all the way that he (eventually) roots the solution to the whole thing in little details that I hadn't noticed first time round. It is a mystery in the best sense, even if the length of the story - and the nature of events - doesn't allow much scope for character development. That can come in later books.

For bow it's clear that Shaw is resourceful, honourable, and has support he can call upon when he needs it. he may be a loner but he doesn't seem to be one of those fictional investigators who runs off into danger without - as I said, weighing the odds.

It augurs well for the forthcoming novel where I hope we'll learn more about Colter Shaw.

21 March 2019

#Blogtour review - The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl

The Courier
Kjell Ola Dahl (trans Don Bartlett)
Orenda Books, 21 March 2019
PB, 314pp, e-book

This is my stop on the blogtour for Kjell Ola Dahl's new standalone thriller, The Courier. I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part and providing a free ARC of the book.

Set in three time periods - 1942, 1967 and 2015 - this is a complex novel, starting out as, ostensibly, a thrilling, if dark, war story but turning into something far darker and more interesting.

In 1942, in Oslo, occupied by the Nazis, Ester is doubly hunted: as a Jew, and as a courier for the Resistance. Barely escaping arrest, she flees to Sweden, continuing to work against the Occupation, and meeting the enigmatic, haunted Gerhard Falkum.

In 1967, a woman, Turid, who lost her mother in the war, is studying law. A man from the past, who died when she was still a child, turns up in Oslo, and events take a threatening turn for Ester.

In 2015, Turid discovers a brooch on sale which belonged to her mother. She sets out to retrieve it and to learn its story.

I enjoyed this book A LOT. It soon become clear that it was more than just a thriller. The sections in 1942 and 1967 (2015 is more of a coda, albeit crucial to understanding the book) are freighted with menace, with mysterious figures in dark, snowy streets, with the threat of arrest, betrayal and worse. The world of the Resistance is portrayed as small, claustrophobic, almost existing in synergy with the Norwegian police and Gestapo. (At one stage they're puzzling over the same murder). There are no descriptions of daring sabotage, it's office work, dull errands and freezing safe houses.

The story reminds us of what's easily forgotten - alongside war, political crime, and genocide, age old human entanglements, resentments and emotions continue, and it's these latter that seem to be the focus of the story and that raise it from being a matter of spying, propaganda and near misses to a tale of heart, blood, and revenge. The tense relationships between, for example, Ester and Gerhard in 1942, or her and Sverre in 1967, are strongly drawn and for me recalled some black and white movie where Burton and Taylor are about to begin screaming at each other (and then fall into each others' arms).

And yet... this book actually has layer upon layer. Deeper still, perhaps at the heart (or does it go further?) in this book is Ester's hatred of what's been done to her parents, to her people, to her. As though 1942 Oslo was a forge pressing out a new Ester, the woman we see in 1967 seems different, harder, marked by experience. We learn a little bit of what that experience was, of the things she's apparently done. It's enough to understand that for all this difference, the girl who got ready for a night out in 1942 Stockholm is linked to the woman of 1967 by at least thing - a desire for revenge.

All in all, this is a twisty little story where enemies are not always visible, conversations are marked by what is not said, and innocent childhood seems far, far away. One thing is clear - after 1942, nothing will be the same again for any of these characters.

I said above that I enjoyed reading this book, I should add to that that I'm not sure "enjoyed" is the right word for a rather dark story. It seems almost wrong to "enjoy" some of what goes on here. But it is a fine work. The characters are strongly drawn and everybody is sympathetic - to a point. At times, events are clouded by mystery, an effect enhanced by the different timelines although Kjell Ola Dahl keeps things on the right side of the line between "puzzling" and "baffling", and the relentless drive of the narrative - it is truly nailbiting at times, always thrilling - means the jumps are pretty easy to read through. The pacing is superb, building up to simultaneous climaxes in different periods which have a real sense of jeopardy (even though the structure means we know - or can guess - how things turned out).

As ever, Don Bartlett's translation gives us excellent, lucid English with just a hint of foreignness to remind the reader that this story does come from somewhere else, as it were, something I always think adds a little tingle.

I'd recommend The Courier to fans of spot fiction, historical or crime, and especially to those who like a mashup of all three.

You can buy The Courier from your local bookshop, including via Hive, from Waterstones, Blackwell's, or Amazon.

The blogtour continues - see the poster below for forthcoming posts and for any past ones you might have missed.

20 March 2019

Ruin's Wake by Patrick Edwards - Blogtour

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Ruin's Wake by Patrick Edwards, published by Titan Books on 12th March. It's a poignant science fiction novel that explores powerful themes of love, revenge and identity - including the search to find salvation in the face of insurmountable odds.

In this post, Patrick generously answers some impertinent questions from the Balloon. So - let's find out a bit more about the author, the book and how they fit together...

The Q&A

Blue Book Balloon: What inspired you to write in the first place (particular books, something that happened...) and how did you get started writing?

Patrick: First, like most writers of any flavour I’m a big reader. I’ll chew on anything – novels of course but also histories, geography articles, astrophysics manuals. My first love was fiction and the deepest part of it was reserved for science fiction. I started writing a schlocky space opera when I was 14 at boarding school – I never finished it but it brought me a lot of joy, knowing I could carve out my own worlds.

Second was my favourite writer, Iain Banks, passing away. As precocious as it sounds I couldn’t get the books I loved from the source anymore so I thought I might as well have a crack at it myself.

And what did you expect from it? How does the reality compare with that?

Writing is the hardest, most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever done. There are so many pitfalls and setbacks, long silences and many, many rejections. But it means something and it fulfils me like no work has before, so it’s always worth it.

Which writer(s) do you admire most?

Past: of course Iain Banks (both with and without the M); Frank Herbert for his obsession with geography; Terry Pratchett for his incredible scope that rivals the classics (though academia will fight this to the death).

Present: Nick Harkaway for his roguish disregard for the strictures of genre; David Mitchell for his sumptuous, moving style; Adrian Tchaikovsky for sheer breadth of vision; Tade Thompson for, frankly, changing the game.

What's your writing day/ routine like? And where do you write best?

When I have the luxury of a full day’s writing, I’ll start work after a late morning cup of tea and often don’t look up for hours. When nothing’s coming (especially when I’m creating new material) I don’t force it: I love video games and there are so many good shows to stream, so I’ll decompress with them for a bit and then go back refreshed. This approach might seem a bit halting but it helps avoid long dry periods.

Otherwise, it’s down to my study after dinner on a work night to get in an hour or two. It might not seem like much, but with a plan and some stamina you can really rack up  the word count.

I'm always interested to ask authors if the protagonists came first, or emerged from the story.  You've a group in the book who seem very much like people you might meet in real life (if you moved in the right circles). Did they change much as you wrote? Did they take over the story? Or are they as you first imagined them?

For me the first book was a lot about convincing myself I could write a whole book, so the characters grew in the telling. Cale started out living on a space station, then for a brief time had fur (Banks’ Chelgrians are to blame); I was talking a lot with other writers and being challenged by my mentors to think big, so I threw lots of ideas into the mix and eventually, around draft two or three, I found the heart of who Cale is.

Kelbee, on the other hand, came almost fully-formed and barely changed from draft to draft. I think the freedom of shedding everything (gender, background, etc.) made it easier for me to get into her head and live her life.

Sulara started out as an experiment, a framing device between acts. When my agent handed her notes in, MORE OF HER was written in bold and underlined. She was most unexpected.

Ardal Syn is the foul-mouthed, machine-enhanced rogue everyone needs in their life. Even when things got serious he was always enormous fun to write.

Did you work it all out in detail first or just launch in – and did you know how things were going to turn out, or end up surprising yourself?

I wish I’d planned it more – since this book I’ve got much hotter on synopses. I wrote my way into Ruin’s Wake – it was more like Cale chipping away at one of his rocks than I’d like to admit! I had a basic plan, but really it was a case of drafting and reviewing, drafting and reviewing. I’m not sure I’d recommend that approach just because of the amount of material that ended up in the bin but, like I said, the first time is about convincing yourself you can get to the end.

I’m interested in how authors make their settings real - some can do that with visits to places and research, with Ruin's Wake presumably that was less of an option! What was your approach to this?

North Korea had been floating around on the edge of my awareness for years; once I fixated on the idea of an adult, realistic dystopia I knew I had a real world example right there. Even with the amount of research I did (which was a horror and a fascination) I knew I couldn’t write with objectivity about a place I’d never visited so I used framing details instead – the idolatry, the iconography, the oppression of the individual by the state. I tried to ask the question – what if everywhere was like this?

There was memory too – the parade scene (barring the mechs) was lifted wholesale from a military march in New Delhi when I was about 9.

Did any writing (or other media) particularly inspire Ruin's Wake?

Iain Banks again – he never shied away from sex and death when it mattered; I also like to think Ardal Syn could be a Culture agent! Frank Herbert was the one who showed me the importance of place in science fiction – rather than lots of worlds shown piecemeal he opted for one with culture, history and climate intertwined.

Also, a lot of this book was written listening to Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack.

Given your answer to my first question... o you have a book locked away that you wrote when you were younger? If so, is there any chance of it seeing the light? Or will it get the Terry Pratchett steamroller treatment? (I suppose that's a roundabout way of asking—are you on the side of those who always want to know more about the writing process, or do you think a line needs to be drawn?)

I wrote the start of a terrible novel when I lived in Paris as a student; it was moody and grey and awful. I don’t know where that old laptop is but when I find it, it’s getting the business end of a drill.
I’m with Sir Terry: novels are the result of a long polishing process. I don’t see what’s to be gained meaningfully – by anyone – from half-baked product.

Where do you stand on genre (every time I look there seem to be more of them) - useful in writing or more of a marketing label?

I’m not a fan of tribalism, political or artistic. I can see the benefits of a community but I think that once it starts to impose hard borders it encourages repetition and imitation rather than creation. The writers I most admire don’t give a toss about genre – why can’t a book about virtual reality be literary? Why does magic have to belong to wizards? Let genre be a way of organizing book shops and let’s get on with writing what we enjoy.

Finally... you’ve stumbled into a devious plot while researching a new novel, as a result of which you’re trapped in a lonely forest tower. A rescue party is on its way but will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food and water, and you can have one book with you. Which would it be?

Probably Lord of the Rings, because there’s always something new to discover and one day I’ll figure out what the deal is with Tom Bombadil.

That, and the SAS Survival Guide. They have a very good chapter on spike traps, because you never know…

Thank you, Patrick, for answering all those questions (readers should know I said that there were any he didn't want to reply to, I'd happily withdraw them - but he answered them all). Best wishes with Ruin's Wake - may it find many many readers!

The Author

Patrick Edwards lives in Bristol and has never grown out of his fascination with science and the future. In 2014, he decided to give writing a go and graduated from the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA with distinction. His first novel, Ruin's Wake, was inspired by the works of Iain M Banks and modern-day North Korea.

The Book

Ruin's Wake
Titan Books, 12 March 2019
PB, 416pp and e-book

Available from your local bookshop, including via Hive, from Waterstones, Blackwell's or Amazon

The blog tour continues - see below for posts so far and to come!

18 March 2019

Review - New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Colour (ed by Nisi Shawl)

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Colour
Edited by Nisi Shawl
Solaris, 18 March 2019
PB, 385pp, e-book

I'm grateful to Solaris for an advance e-copy of New Suns via NetGalley.

What the Publisher says:

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange. Between this book’s covers burn tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their indefinable overlappings. These are authors aware of our many possible pasts and futures, authors freed of stereotypes and clichés, ready to dazzle you with their daring genius.

Unexpected brilliance shines forth from every page.

(For more, see the publisher's website here).

My take:

New Suns contains seventeen stories by writers of colour, raging across many genres - including science fiction, fantasy, horror, retold fairy stories, alternate history, religion, crime and romance - indeed often more than one, almost all with a speculative tinge but with no intention to pursue an overall theme. I have seen some reviews that lament that, but while I love a themed anthology as much as anyone, it really isn't necessary (in my view) for at least three reasons.

First, reading these stories, there is, I think, a commonality which pretty much amounts to a theme. In their different ways, many of these stories explore the position of marginalised people or the effects of power, colonialism or inequality. Even where these themes are not in the foreground they are often visible as part of the furniture of the story. That's not surprising, given that the writers are explicitly identified as people of colour, but the fact that it's not, itself, an overtly imposed theme allows for a more subtle exploration of these issues than if there were an overall theme - and it also means the writers aren't being expected to act as spokespeople just because of who they are.

Secondly - and more simply - general anthologies, with no theme, are a thing and a perfectly fine thing at that. And many of them have in the past been largely male and white, as well, so even the idea of an implicit theme arising from the choice of the authors is not exactly new.

Finally - and I think this is the most important point - these stories are generally of a very high standard and eminently readable. They're fun! A collection of great stories is a Good Thing and, obviously, how far the editor ranges to assemble one is the real test of any anthology. And here Nisi Shawl has done an excellent job.

So - on to the stories. What's in the book? The stories included are

The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex - Tobias Buckell
Deer Dancer - Kathleen Alcalá
The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations - Minsoo Kang
Come Home to Atropos - Steven Barnes
The Fine Print - Chinelo Onwualu
Unkind of Mercy - Alex Jennings
Burn The Ships - Alberto Yañez
The Freedom of the Shifting Sea - Jaymee Goh
Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire - E Lily Yu
Blood and Bells - Karin Lowachee
Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister - Silvia Moreno-Garcia
The Shadow We Cast Through Time - Indrapramit Das
The Robots of Eden - Anil Menon
Dumb House  -Andrea Hairston
One Easy Trick - Hiromi Goto
Harvest - Rebecca Roanhorse
Kelsey and the Burdened Death - Darcie Little Badger)

There is also a Foreword by LeVar Burton and an Afterword by Nisi Shawl, which both set the context for the collection.

The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex (Tobias Buckle) imagines Earth - by implication, but specifically the US and New York City, as the location for the story - at the receiving end of tourist culture, having to defer to the foibles of "Galactics" with their strange food and smells and their desire for "authentic" Earth culture ("Over half of the US economy was tourism, the rest service jobs"). It's a focussed story, making one point but making it well.

Deer Dancer (Kathleen Alcalá) has a sense of mystery about it. In a post-apocalyptic society which is seeking to rebuild, Tater (named after the root vegetable) loves "imagining what it was like Before, when the sun was scarce". She has some affinity for animals, and enters a dream state which takes the story to strange places. One of those stories where perhaps nothing happens, perhaps everything, the dream here seem freighted with meaning and to point a way forward for the precarious community living on the Edges.

The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations (Minsoo Kang) is framed as a discussion of history, in a setting that (to me) seemed to echo distant Chinese history, written almost as if it were the notes of a seminar or a lecture, of the futility of war ("the copses of ambitious leaders, obedient soldiers, and powerless civilians lay in numbers like grains of sand upon a blood-soaked shore") and the utility of finding ways to avoid it, even at the cost of disobedience. It also points up the power of those invisible to history ("very little can be affirmed about her identity due... to the... lack of information about women...") In its celebration of the outwitting of a powerful and arrogant but dull minded leader I felt a rather cogent point was being made about the present day.

Come Home to Atropos (Steven Barnes) is almost, I'd say, not a story at all. A script for an advertising campaign it features a caribbean (I think) island being marketed to rise, white, elderly - and wealthy - people. But this is no paradise. There has seemingly been a hurricane, but little help has been offered. So is the idea to attract foreign money by marketing the place as a paradise? if so, it doesn't perhaps quite hit the right note... but if it's aiming at other needs, other desires, of its clientele - as it seems, in a rather barded way, it is - then maybe business can be done. A deliciously sharp story. I worked out fairly early what was going on, but that only made a succession of revelations more and more delicious.

The Fine Print (Chinelo Onwualu) is a variation on the idea of how bitter it can be to be granted wishes. The technology has been updated, with a Catalogue, call centres and cubicles offices, but the tension between human will and the ineffable remains, as do the dangers of backing mysogyny with great external power - whether that's colonial power or magical.

Unkind of Mercy (Alex Jennings) was one of my favourite stories here.  Jennings cleverly introduces us to a comedian, Johnny, who's moved to LA hoping to make it big but it soon becomes clear that the story is, rather about the woman (Alaina-Rose, not introduced till well into the story) who's narrating everything and who, through the shifting tone of her monologue, is perfectly characterised ("...and I mean, he's not wrong, but he's not right either.") It is, I suppose, more of a horror story than anything else - but one of those where rather than seeing something terrible we're led up to it by that oh-so-ordinary narration. Quite chilling, and more so the more you turn it over in your mind.

When I was at my secondary school, I took part in a school production of the play The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Portraying the conquest of the Inca Empire by Spanish invaders, a scene that has stuck in my mind is of the death (the murder) of Atahualpa, the Inca leader and of the quiet faith of his people that he will rise again to scatter the invaders. of course he does not. Burn The Ships (Alberto Yañez) is a complex, horrific story set in a reality that recalls that: technologically advanced intruders have subjugated a Native population in an astonishingly short time and are committing genocide and seeking to destroy what remains of the traditional religion and culture. But this isn't exactly 15th or 16th century South America, nor, I think, quite earth. Modern technology is referred to but its users seems have fled something - there's almost an implication of alternate realities or gates between universes. The theme is, though, firmly the lengths one might go to to defend one's people, one's culture with women turning forbidden magics and rites  while their menfolk sit on their hands - and haughty gods who care little for their people. A lot of food for thought here.

The Freedom of the Shifting Sea (Jaymee Goh) was another favourite of mine. Almost or actually a romance, it kind of turns the mermaid legend inside out - in both story and gender terms - as well making the half woman, half-seaworm encountered on, I think, an Indonesian island ("Mayang could remember a time before British imperialism") a Muslim and family that becomes entwined with her part local, part Western. Featuring a real punch-the-air moment when a rather nasty characters gets a deserved fate, it is a clever, funny story.

Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire (E Lily Yu) revisits a familiar story that never goes out of style and might have a rather obvious reference ("Once there was a vain and foolish emperor, who made up for his foolishness by a kind of low cunning...") However, nothing here is too obvious and the three versions of the story that interweave make this retelling a rather subtle thing. Who is the greater villain - emperor, or tailor?

Blood and Bells (Karin Lowachee), set in an unspecified city given over the gang conflict between "The Nine Nations" is a variant on Romeo and Juliet, a kind of ultra-tuned West Side Story featuring mixed loyalties, death, and loss. Tzak's mother died as he was born; now his father Taiyo tries to keep him safe from opposing factions and to ward off attempts by his mother's people to take him back. This is a convincing portrayal of a young man shouldering immense burdens in an impossible world, a claustrophobic world that seems set on destroying everything he holds dear. It has a real sense of menace, of tension.

How to describe Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister (Silvia Moreno-Garcia)? Frankly, I can't. It just is itself, or something: anything you say just misses the point. What it is, is a gem of a story asking the question (I think) "what is a monster?"

The Shadow We Cast Through Time (Indrapramit Das) is, at first sight, a very classic science fiction story about settling other worlds, about the interaction with what was there before. But it turns into more of a reflection on how we alter everything we interact with; there's a sense that the "demons" described on the New World that Das takes us to are more a product of the colonists than a "pristine" feature of an "empty" world. We can't get away form ourselves, we take ourselves wherever we go, and thus there is almost a kind of ecology between the strange "clay spires" described here and the humans. A haunting, entrancing story, part SF, part, in the end, horror.

Dumb House (Andrea Hairston) felt like an exploration for what could become a longer study of a an economically post-apocalyptic society - something like The Space Merchants - where consumption is mandated and hold-out communities - as that of Cinnamon Jones, tucked away in the remote countryside - persecuted. Here we meet two sinister-comic "salesmen" who may in reality be spies but who do seem to find a way to get under Jones' skin... also featuring a ghost-dog and a witch-dog, traditional culture is here enlisted on the side of the resistance. I'd happily read a longer, more detailed account of this struggle.

One Easy Trick (Hiromi Goto) is a clever, circular story focussing on another aspect of oppression, body size and body image. Marine is hunted online by adverts trying to tell her of "Ways to Lose Your Belly Fat!". But she doesn't want to. or Does she? Getting right into that area of ambivalence where a sense of self can be lost, where one can lose track of whether one is reacting to societal pressures or really doing what one wants, which is speculative fiction at its best, externalising a metaphor in a most astonishing way which nevertheless convinces. Another of my favourites.

Harvest (Rebecca Roanhorse). A strange harvest, in this story, seems intended to settle historical injustices - but to unsettle the reader, eventually creating an atmosphere where it's hard to know what to trust, what is real and what isn't, whose wrongs are being revenged. Never, as the story, says, fall in love with a  deer woman...

Kelsey and the Burdened Death (Darcie Little Badger) is a clever little story that could be an episode in an urban fantasy series. In an alternate world where the final breaths not only of humans but of animals are prone to linger and can cause trouble, Kelsey's business is to usher them over to - wherever they belong. Confronted with a particularly trouble "burdened" breath she shows considerable courage and resource in dealing with it and I could see a series of such adventures - except that this story is as much about her reconciliation with her past, something she can only approach by risking the loose of what is most dear to her. A genuinely sad, touching story, one of may favourites, which definitely ended the collection on a high.

It's a strong collection. Short stories are tricky things to write, often coming over as extended treatments of a single point or, having little space to develop characters, having to rely on stock figures. There's little of either fault here with most of these protagonists believable in their circumstances, even where these are horrifying of mystifying circumstances. There's a lot to think about and a lot which is seen from a very distinct point of view. I'd strongly recommend both for all these virtues and also as a gateway into these authors' wider bodies of work.

Buying the book

You can buy the book directly from the publisher here (ePub or mobi) or from your local bookshop, including via Hive here, or from Waterstones, Blackwell's or Amazon.

14 March 2019

Review - The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson

Cover design by Charlotte Stroomer
The Rosewater Insurrection (The Wormwood Trilogy, 2)
Tade Thompson
Orbit, 14 March 2019
PB, 374pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Rosewater Insurrection.

After the successful and groundbreaking Rosewater, published in 2018, Thompson returns with that "difficult middle book" in his trilogy, The Rosewater Insurrection. It is 2067, and the Mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques, is centre stage, manoeuvring for the city's independence from Nigeria. But the alien presence that is the foundation of Rosewater's prosperity (indeed the foundation of Rosewater full stop) seems to be ailing - at just the wrong time for Jacques' plans.

The result is a book that seems rather more conventional than Rosewater, taking forward the two themes of the independence struggle and the alien presence with a lot more detail given about the alien's origin and purpose. I won't go into specifics about that as it would be spoilery, but I will say that this is a much easier book to understand than Rosewater and the alien is less, well, inscrutable. And while, as in Rosewater, there are some flashbacks in this book, they are more clearly signalled as the backstory of particular characters (Jacques himself, Eric who is, with Kaaro, one of only two survivors of those who could enter the xenosphere, the web of fungus-mediated alien consciousness, Anthony who is - well, spoilers).

The Rosewater Insurrection also seems faster-paced, Thompson trading some of the mystery and alien weirdness of the previous book for a slicker, thriller-y story as Jacques mobilises his forces for battle, struggling against internal dissension, possible treachery and the unexpected failing of the alien. The last is something of immediate concern to Kaaro and the remaining elements of Section 45, the secret Government agency set up to study and exploit the alien - a group whose position in Rosewater is now ambiguous.

Once this situation begins to develop, the story becomes fluid, compelling and full of jeopardy, Thompson moving his protagonists around the chaotic city in a situation which has echoes with recent examples of urban collapse in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. At times it becomes distinctly grim - the stakes are high, and some of the players set loose, on both sides, are far from noble. Indeed there's not exactly any noble cause here: Jacques seems mainly to want power, the Nigerian Government is ready to unleash mayhem to stop him, and the alien wants - well, the alien wants what aliens want. Meantime, Thompson asks "what slouches towards Rosewater?"

The characters we most synthesise with - Kaaro, Aminat, Lora - are a little outside this setup, seeking survival or the protection of loved ones. And then there's a Alyssa, a mysterious woman whose survival seems key to the whole situation and who rapidly becomes a sought-after pawn... It's a satisfying knotty, morally murky situation with plenty of peril, characters at crossed purposes and real sense that everything might go wrong.

To answer my implied question above, I think Thompson handles the "middle book" challenge here with aplomb. The Rosewater Insurrection isn't just "more Rosewater" (though it does deliver a wider and a deeper perspective on that remarkable city), rather it does slightly different things with the situation established in the first book, engaging the reader again with that world (while moving things on, without too much of a fuss, for whatever denouement awaits in Book 3). And, while you'd be daft not to read the first book too, this second one is self-contained enough that you could start here if you wanted.

Thompson also has a way with his characters, building identity convincingly. Anthony, an avatar of the alien "footholder", is endlessly recreated by the alien each time the previous instance dies or is damaged. Based on the original Anthony, a white Briton scooped up in London, he continually tinkers with his skin colour, attempting to match those around him but never succeeding. Jacques himself has had an unexpectedly traumatic past. Kaaro's freedom of action is limited by his refusal, as everything falls apart, to abandon his dog. Taken together we're presented with an ensemble of believable characters and some moments of real sadness and loss.

This is a strong sequel to Rosewater which, without losing anything of what made that book special, is perhaps more accessible as well as broadening the scope of Thompson's imagined future. I'd strongly recommend.

For more about the book, see the publisher's website here. You can buy The Rosewater insurrection from Hive books here, from Waterstone's, Blackwell's or Amazon.

13 March 2019

Review - Treading the Uneven Road by LM Brown

Treading the Uneven Road: Stories
LM Brown
Fomite Press, 15 March 2019
PB, e-book 206pp

I'm grateful to the author for a free advance e-copy of this book for review.

The Book

The stories in this linked collection are set in a small village in the Northwest of Ireland in the early 1980’s and 90’s. The residents feel forgotten by the world, as a by-pass around the village has rid them of their once busy traffic. The collection is not only about the characters' need for salvation but it is about a society that is unraveling: the world inside and outside the village is changing. 

Pamela Painter, author of Getting To Know The Weather, and The Long and Short of it, writes: Set in Ireland, the wonderful stories in TREADING THE UNEVEN ROAD are connected with bands of steel and heart. Their unforgettable characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, acting on impulses that are sometimes misguided, occasionally dangerous but often beautiful. A great read.

The Author

LM Brown is the author of the novel Debris, released last April. She has a master's in creative writing and her stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines. She grew up in Sligo, Ireland, but now resides in Massachusetts with her husband, three daughters, a dog and a bearded dragon.

What I thought

I really enjoyed this linked collection of stories. The (unnamed) village, on the road from Dublin to Sligo ("at one time the road would have been busy with traffic... but that was before the bypass brought quietness to the area and a lull to the shops"), is conjured vividly with its focal points, Faith's bakery, the Dun Maeve pub, the statue of Our Lady in its niche opposite the bridge and its employers - the quarry, Lavin's Construction. At one point a "Station Road" is mentioned, but there's no indication of any trains, and it's a three hour drive or bus ride to get anywhere.  The village does not sound an easy place to live - we hear of industrial accidents, of the urge to get out to Dublin, to London or further afield (getting away, together with the ways it can go wrong, is a recurrent theme) and of the pressure of living one's life under the gaze of family, friends and strangers.

Within this setting, Brown deploys well-observed and recurring characters whose stories we see from separate perspectives and at different times (not necessarily, as someone once said, in the right order) - a device which makes themes and events increasingly familiar. In some respects it's like a serial drama, with familiar faces welcomed back to tell about their lives )and storytelling is very much part of it with stories within the stories too).

The first story, "The Lady on the Bridge", focusses on Bernadette, a woman who suspects her husband Marcus of adultery. As she goes about her day she imagines what may be happening ("the names she gave the woman she thought her husband was seeing depended on her mood") and finds that the only person she can speak to is his drinking friend, Mike. She begins to make illicit telephone calls to him on Saturday mornings and the story gradually sketches the origin, perhaps, of Bernadette's general sense of worry (at the start of the story she's concerned the river may flood) and dis-ease in her fear that "I might end up like my mother" and in a buried longing to escape the small town.

"The Sacred Heart" is about two brothers, Dick and Enda, and is also framed by the desire to get away, something Dick tries at the age of three - an event which seems to set the shape of his life and his relationship with his bother, who foils that attempt. An intense study of the two boys and their mother (the father fades from the scene) it's a poignant tale of ambitions thwarted, things said and unsaid (yet understood: perhaps that's worse) which reminded me of a Thomas Hardy story.

In "The Taste of Salt" a young man sits over the body of his childhood friend. The closeness between Lou and Sam, the intensely observed behaviour of friends, relatives and strangers, above all, perhaps, what's not said ("For most things he did, there was an element of shame, though he would not have understood it as such") the felt, but pent in, grief, all make this a confined, claustrophobic story.

In "The Shape of Longing" we really see how Brown is weaving a bigger picture. It's the story of (or maybe, a story of) Bernadette's (from "The Lady on the Bridge") mother, Ann Lavin. Of how she left her husband and daughter - but that's the conclusion, not the story itself, which concerns her brother Ryan and also touches on the events described in "The Sacred Heart". Set much earlier than "The Lady on the Bridge" and reaching back to describe events earlier still, I think here Brown is showing consequences and causes, or at least correlations, reaching backwards and forwards, uniting this small town but also creating divisions - even if  just in the minds of her characters, as in the way that Ann cuts herself off from her family.

Ann Lavin is clearly not a comfortable person, not with herself, not with her family. ("If I'd made my mother look at me, I might have wanted more.") While she tells us a bit about her earlier life it isn't an explanation of her, any more than she can explain herself. This is a closely imagined, impressionistic view of a woman in a small community, in a web of friends, neighbours, all of them, she imagines, judging her. I wasn't sure, after reading this story if I understood Ann, or for that matter, Bernadette, and better - but perhaps I understood Ann-and-Bernadette.

"The Wrong Man" is a story of two young women, Este and Moire and perhaps parallels and contrasts with the two boys in "The Taste of Salt". Coming from different social strata, they become firm friends and after leaving school, head to London. However, all does not go well, although exactly why is complex - I wasn't sure if it was, in the end, something that happened in London, something whose seeds were planted long before, or indeed if it was to with Este and Moire at all. This is a beautifully observed story of assumptions, of trying to cling on to things that are gone, of lives spooling by like reels of film, as Brown follows what happened, what went wrong, for decades, before, tentatively, hinting at the possibility of a second chance.

"Blackbirds" picks up the story of bereaved, guilty Lou from "The Taste of Salt" as he confronts a hated figure from his past and finds that revenge isn't as simple - or as satisfying - as he thought. "The Man on Sea Road" takes the same story further, introducing another character, also bereaved, with a different involvement in the situation.

"White Trout" rounds off the collection by telling us more about Dick and Enda, and also about Faith, the owner of the cafe, who plays a key role in several of the stories giving a little hope, bringing people together, acting as a memory and a conscience. her now life hasn't been easy and her business is now suffering from loss of trade due to the by-pass but she's a redoubtable figure who clearly makes a difference in the community.

You have to take the stories together, as there are themes that only emerge once you have read several and I needed to go back and reread some of them to pick up the references and the contrasts. Rooted in the 80s and 90s perhaps, the stories thread forward and back across many decades - the earlier parts of "The Wrong Man" had a very 60s or 70s feeling to me - to give a vivid picture of a community constantly changing while retaining some central character.

While many of the stories are sad this is a strong collection which I'd wholeheartedly recommend.

You can buy the book from Amazon (UK here, US here).

12 March 2019

Review - The Near Witch by VE Schwab

Cover by Julia Lloyd
The Near Witch
VE Schwab
Titan Books, 12 March 2019
Available as HB (355pp) or e-book
Format read: HB
Source: Free copy from publisher (thank you!)

I was really excited and felt very privileged to be sent a copy of this, VE Schwab's first published book, which - as can be the fate of early books - had fallen out of print in the US (it was never published in the UK). It's wonderful that Titan have put it out again, in a handsome edition with some beautiful illustrations on the cover and title pages well as a new introduction by Schwab herself and an additional, related short story...

It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark...

So begins this story of yearning, prejudice, revenge and of love.

If the wind calls at night, you must not listen. The wind is lonely, and always looking for company.

If you ever visit York, do take in the Castle Museum, housed in the old prison. It has its share of the gruesome - you can visit the condemned cell where Dick Turpin spent his last night of life - but more interesting to me is that the wings have been adapted to house displays of everyday Yorkshire life though the ages. Among these is the interior of a moorland cottage form the 18th or 19th century. One family living in a single room, surrounded by the harrowing wind. It could be very cosy - or, if you are at all nervous, it could almost be a living nightmare.

In The Near Witch we see both sides of moorland living. The village of Near is - ironically - near nothing at all, surrounded by wild moors across which the wind plays, almost seeming to talk to the villagers inside the boundary. (And such a clear boundary, almost like that between different worlds). We learn little of the world in which Near is set - I think there is a wider world, but, in a way that reminded me of Meryvn Peake's Gormenghast and Titus Groan, that world isn't present, important or of much interest to anyone.

Instead we have the village - more a scattering of houses and fields than a heavily built up settlement - and the moor, where it's dangerous to go, though nobody seems sure why. Beset by old legends of a Near Witch, of the dangerous wind and by the expanses of the moor, the arrival of a stranger is a big event, a threatening event, announced in dream and visions rather than in the clear light of day. And he's greeted with suspicion as, at the same time, children begin to go missing, vanishing from their beds at night...

I simply loved this book. It reads as Wuthering Heights' younger, weirder sister, with much of the same atmosphere - the moorland otherworldliness, the sense of wild forces at play, forces nobody understand or can control, not Lexi, the hero, not the two Witch Sisters, not Otto, Lexi's Uncle, the fatuous Guardian of the village - but an extra layer of the dark, of the perverse.

Despite searches, the missing children can't be found and it soon seems more important to blame someone than to rescue them. As the teasing winds get stronger and something from the village's past seems to be stirring, a mob mentality, a desire to hurt and blame, begins to whisper through Near.

So there's a mystery at the centre of the story - in fact, two mysteries. Who's taking the children, and who's the stranger?

There's an atmosphere of claustrophobia, of finger-pointing, of fear and recrimination

There's also Lexi, into whom Schwab breathes a spirit of absolute reality. A young woman mourning her dead father, Lexi fiercely protects her sister, Wren, and tries to keep at bay the influence of Uncle Otto. But it's hard when her mother has become hollow and Otto insists on Lexi knowing her place and keeping to it. Lexi's family are hunters and trackers but Otto thinks she should tend the bread ovens and deliver loaves instead - and not carry a knife, wear boots - or interfere with mens' business, like the hunt for the missing kids.

As a Schwab hero, of course, Lexi has absolutely no time for this, setting the stage for a conflict with Otto and his gang. They have muscle, but Lexi isn't without her own resources, whether friendships, knowledge or simple determination. In a way - and I know this is being fanciful and using hindsight - I could see a bit of Lila Bard from A Darker Shade of Magic peeping out of Lexi.

And there's Cole, about whom I shall say nothing at all because you need to discover this elusive, haunted young man for yourself. (The story that's included, The Ash Born Boy, does tell more about him but you should definitely read that afterwards: it is itself a marvel of a story, turning complex emotional truth into unleashed power, but if you read it first you'll just know too much about him).

It all makes for a powerful, even heady story, romantic in all ways at once, imbued with the spirit of moonlight on the purple moor. A haunting story, about a haunted place but one which manages at the same time to keep itself rooted in humanity, in love and in family rather than going totally gothic.

A fine first novel, and I hope that if I'd read it in 2011 I'd have guessed the author was bound for great things.

11 March 2019

#Blogtour review - Welcome to the Heady Heights by David F Ross

Cover design by kid-ethic.com
Welcome to the Heady Heights
David F Ross
Orenda, 21 March 2019
PB, e 264pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for David F Ross's new book, Welcome to the Heady Heights. I'm grateful to Anne Cater and to Orenda for inviting me onto the tour and providing a free copy of the book for review.

I was especially looking forward to this book, having immensely enjoyed Ross's previous Disco Days trilogy, featuring the lives of a group of young men (and later, as older men) growing up in the 70s in the West of Scotland. Now, he returns to that decade, with something of the same vibe, but the story's largely set in Glasgow and his protagonists are older, the chief among them, Archie Blunt, being in his 50s.

That means looking at the decade through the other end of the telescope, as it were, which is fascinating. In Disco Days there was the joy of discovery, of new things: new music, new life experiences - such a lot to learn. There were some alarming moments but one sensed that youthful optimism must win through - as, by the end of the third book, The Man Who Loved Islands, it kind of had, after many twists and turns.

Heady Heights is darker, more cynical. Archie's lost his wife and lost his job on the buses, his dad is succumbing to dementia, he's a middle aged man defying the demographics just by still being alive in the East End of Glasgow - and that city is being torn apart, razed, as solid tenements are replaced by flimsy tower blocks or new urban highways. Even Glasgow Corporation is giving way to the new Regional Council.

David F Ross
And behind that is a darker theme still as rumours spread about beloved popular entertainers. Rumours nobody takes seriously.(Who'd have thought it?) And homeless young men are going missing. Disappearances nobody takes seriously (who'd have thought it?) except for one young WPC, Barbara Sherman, who's already out of place in an Ashes To Ashes retro style nick with degrading initiation rituals and ingrained sexism.

So there is plenty of the dark side of the 70s here - but Ross also conveys a jauntiness, a zest for life, through his characters which does I think carry over from his earlier books. Yes, there are almost suicidal quantities of drink, of heart-attack inducing food, run-ins with Glasgow gangsters. Archie's got a lot to despair over - indeed more and more as the book goes on - but he's determined throughout, constantly spotting angles, respecting of no-one, scamming and scheming and when opportunity knocks as he accidentally rescues a beloved TV star from a jealous husband, he's ready with a scheme to take a new band to the top. Yes, outwardly Archie's confident almost to the point of arrogance.

Inwardly - well, a man doesn't talk about these things, does he?  And that "almost" is redeemed. Almost. There are plenty here - Establishment figures, wealthy men, entitled men - who abuse their position and who are truly, deeply arrogant. A well known, white haired DJ. A star of light entertainment. A mercurial and self-interested Glasgow ex Labour MP who's set up his own party. Figures living in a world of mahogany and privilege. What will happen when the two worlds collide?

It's a fun, compulsively readable, rollercoaster of a book with a real bite to it and some genuinely sad moments. The extensive use of Glasgow vernacular adds to the atmosphere (and no, this English reader didn't have any problem following it) but really, Archie, Geordie and their pals are just infectiously compelling characters you want to keep reading and reading about. It would have been nice to read more about Barbara Sherman and journalist Gail Proctor - perhaps in another book, Mr Ross? - but with this one I really, really felt it was a shame when the book had to end.

You can buy or preorder Welcome to the Heady Heights variously from your local bookshop, including online via Hive Books, or from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon - and doubtless elsewhere too.

And you should.

9 March 2019

Review - The Devil Aspect by Craig Russell

The Devil Aspect
Craig Russell
Constable, 7 March 2019
HB, 496pp

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

Czechoslovakia in the mid 1930s, and psychiatrist Dr Victor Kosárek is travelling to take up a new appointment at the Hrad Orlu asylum - where the most dangerous of the criminal insane, the "Devil's Six", each with a nickname (The Clown, The Vegetarian, The Glass Collector and so on) are confined in a medieval castle among the central European forest.  Meanwhile, Kapitán Lukáš Smolák of the Prague City Police patiently, methodically hunts down a serial killer - Leather Apron - who murders and butchers women in Prague.  Against a background of rising political tensions, as the Nazis in Germany stir up trouble among German Czechs and it becomes important to watch what you say and who you say it to, the young doctor struggles to understand the Six, treating them to a revolutionary new "therapy" - bringing them close to death with sedatives in search of their "Devil Aspect", the dark part of their psyche that holds clues to their evil behaviour.

I found this book impressive in many ways. From the opening scene, Russell plays with our expectations, exploiting the reader's familiarity with, or even just knowledge of, horror tropes. Take that opening scene. A doctor named Viktor. A "patient" in restraints. The isolated castle. It's hard not to see this as a reference to Frankenstein, just as, later in the book, the fear and hatred of the villagers for the castle and its inhabitants brings to mind Dracula. There's even a reference at one point to a mob of villagers hunting down what they think is a monster.

But the book also makes other connections - the comparison between that "Devil Aspect" in all of us, and the rising tide of evil and hour soon to swamp Europe, hardly needs to be pointed out. It's felt by Jewish Judith Blochová and expressed in nightmares of her and her family being led out into the forests to be killed. It's there in the attitudes of Nazi-sympathising staff at the asylum, whose proposals for the imprisoned criminals are easy enough to guess. And it's there when Kosárek and his friend Filip Starosta run into trouble one night with a group of Czech Germans.

The whole atmosphere - drawing deeply on Slavic mythology and European history, as well as an impressive deployment of Jungian psychology - is one of subtle menace, even before we are given graphic details the murders in Prague and told (via Kosárek's interviews) of the crimes of the asylum's residents, and before comparisons are made with jack the Ripper. I did begin to find that succession of crimes a little much. With six prisoners in the castle, all of whom have committed multiple murders, it's quite a lot to hear even if, thankfully, we generally get the setup rather than all the details. The Prague murders are fewer but we're told more about the killings and mutilations. On the whole I preferred the parts of the book that deal with the subtler threats - the suspicious villagers, the dancing bars with their political and ethnic tensions, even the distressed man who Kosárek encounters at the station after his friend fails to appear at the start of the book.

I also enjoyed the slyer aspects of the book such as Smolák's deputy who, while perfectly competent, is clearly waiting for him to fail, and in the meantime, trying to scatter a little doubt and suspicion around, or Judita's history, with her thwarted ambition to study medicine. If the book has any message it is, I think, to watch out for seemingly inconsequential things - dreams, coincidences, mistakes - and to join the dots.

So - on the whole a satisfyingly creepy horror/ psychological thriller, especially in the opening part, establishing that stressy atmosphere, and in the final third where the hunt for the killer really gets moving. Overall I think that in the middle part, more could have been made of the political aspects, and there could have been a bit less gore. But well worth reading if you like your horror a little different.

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

7 March 2019

#Blogtour review - Murder on the Rocks by J S Strange

Murder on the Rocks (Jordan Jenner Mysteries Book 1)
J S Strange
Panther Publishing, 1 March 2019
e-book, 416 pages

Today we're joining the blogtour for Murder on the Rocks, the first in a series featuring private investigator Jordan Jenner who lives and works in Cardiff and has a semi-regular gig assisting the Cardiff police.. The book is described as "cosy crime" which to my mind generally conjures up leafy English villages, vicars on bicycles and fetes - so it was refreshing to read one which very definitely broke that mould.

Indeed, Strange evokes his Cardiff setting - with excursions into the hinterland - very well, characterising the various districts which range from the run down to much posher, gated areas. He
sets the story at Christmas with the rest of the world apparently caught in a whirl of fun while Jenner alternately pursues his case and broods. The interleaving - and contrast - of investigation and festivities creates a distinct contrast, emphasising just how alone Jenner is. His mother has recently died, he has pushed away his father and brother and lives alone with his cat, Oscar, in a scruffy flat over a dilapidated shop. Indeed, one might detect a thread of noir in Jenner which you'd think would be at odds with any idea of "cosiness" - but actually, it's a blend that worked rather well for me.

J S Strange
When it comes to the actual crime, things are a bit less tricksy although I think the killing and its background must have been a brave choice - an aspiring novelist had been poisoned at a writers' group. Solving the crime requires Jenner to unpick the rivalries, love affairs and deceptions among the group, many of whom seem to be fundamentally unlikeable people. I have to say that all the authors I've met have been splendid people who would never poison a rival, so I can only congratulate Strange on his imagination here. The multiple layers, red herrings and motives here make for a satisfying plot, which Jenner uneasily discovers ensures his own family, with a  dramatic denouement that had me clicking through the pages compulsively.

The story doesn't explain how the Cardiff police come to be employing a PI - that is all set up before the story opens - and I felt that there were one or two liberties taken with police procedure, but Strange isn't aiming at gritty realism (despite that dash or noir) and the story still works well; by and large these things just serve the purpose of giving Jenner support when he needs it but allowing him to work the case. Because Jenner is the star of this book, Strange taking plenty of space to explore his loneness, his life as a gay man (and the book isn't featuring him as a token character here, Strange backs that up with a number of other gay characters too) and his - at times - plain awkwardness. You sense Jenner wouldn't actually be an easy person to live with, although - despite what he himself asserts - he clearly does have loyal, loving friends.

A very promising start to a series, which I hope does well for both Strange and newborn publisher Panther.

You can buy Murder on the Rocks as an e-book from Amazon.

2 March 2019

Review - The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Jacket design by Lauren Panepinto
The Raven Tower
Ann Leckie
Orbit, 28 February 2019
HB, 411pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of The Raven Tower.


My First Law of Book Blogging is that the best books, the ones that really wow me, that keep me awake till the small hours and have me tired on my train the next day, are the hardest to review. There are lots reasons for this, sometimes different ones for different books. Sometimes the book is so good I'm just speechless. Sometimes the book simply is the best expression of itself. There's probably a way to express this mathematically but for me it comes down to, what can I say about this that doesn't actually take away from the unique, wonderful edifice the author has made?

That is certainly true of The Raven Tower, but as if if things weren't already tricky enough, Ann Leckie also does things in the book.

She does things to her protagonists.

She does things to her setting.

She does things to the reader.

And frankly, she does things to the genre. To be too clear about these things would reduce the impact of the book in ways that the term "spoiler" doesn't even begin to capture. So I have to be very circumspect now, and so this is a hard review to write, but I have to try because I do want you to read this book.

The first thing to say is, I think, that The Raven Tower is not at all what it seems.

The package may appear familiar. There is a land - Iraden - with a ruler ("the Raven's Lease") bound to die for his god. The heir, Mawat, hurries home to take his father's place. There are enemy armies in the South, beyond the Silent Forest, and strangers in the capital about who knows what business. Iraden's gods (the Raven, the Silent) have turned elusive. We even have a map, showing a vaguely Mediterranean-like geography, with the capital city of Iraden, Vastia, sited on the channel where the Shoulder Sea connects with the Northern Ocean.

Almost as the story begins, however, Leckie begins to do her things.

Who, exactly is, narrating? Not Mawat or his lieutenant, Eolo. Rather, the narrator seems to be addressing them (specifically, Eolo.) "I first saw you" the book begins "when you rode out of the forest". The story continues to be told to "you", despite the fact that "you" are often the subject of it. It's as if the narrator is, at some later time, recounting what he saw and inferred of Eolo's reactions, thoughts and history. Not entirely omniscient, but privy to a great deal of information, this narrator is also aware of other characters, other events - but what they choose to tell is selective.

So - and I think it's safe to be plain about this - Leckie is doing is adopting a very unusual viewpoint. In places it's not quite first person (when the narrator tells their own history) in others it's not quite second person, and indeed when they are telling Eolo about the doings of some other individual, it becomes not quite third person either. That sounds very tricksy and clever but it really isn't, I think it reads very naturally but it does give the whole book an air of distance, a very particular tone. This narrator has a clear and reasoned style, and the way Leckie tells the story enables many issues to be addressed - reasoned over, debated - which would often be ignored in fantasy.

For example, a central theme here - unsurprisingly, given the importance of those elusive gods - is how gods can do what they do, what their limits are, and what dangers they face. A god may "speak something true", altering the universe, but had better be careful that he, she or they can back up their statement or they risk draining their power and ceasing to be. And that takes us to the nature of language, what can be said and what can't. All things absolutely germane to the story being told here, which may begin with a blast on the horn of epic fantasy, as it were, the Kingdom in peril and all that - promising politics, backstabbing and treason - but gradually transitions to something much more complicated, less a horn solo than a fugue exploring variations on the nature of reality, the long term - and I really mean, long term - history of the land, the development of trade and above all, the interconnectedness of things.

Here we see the development of life, the arrival of humankind, the gradual evolution of interdependence between peoples, nations and gods and the drive for power. Leckie is actually using an enormous canvas, and the story she's telling is far from straightforward. Indeed, exactly what story she is telling is one of those things I don't want to say too much about. I will just say that while that horn of epic fantasy never falls completely silent, by the end of the book it's as though it has fallen into the hands of quite different musicians and when I realised what had happened I gasped at what Leckie had actually done.

(Sorry if that sounds convoluted but I am trying to give an impression of this book without telling you any secrets).

The Raven Tower is a breathtaking achievement, really, a really distinctive book that simply demands to be read. Marat and Eolo are colourful, engaging characters and Leckie realises them well, rooting their backgrounds in the reality of the world she's created (Mawat a born leader but headstrong, worrying the nobles that he might take after his domineering father; Eolo with his own secrets). That world benefits from the "deep time" perspective we're privy to - it's a fantasy world with fossils. A place where shallow tropical seas have converted to limestone hills. Where the nutritional needs of humans are investigated by gods in scientific terms alongside demands for blood sacrifice. This feels like a real world where things work, for the most part, as you'd expect, and where they can be understood. It's a world where things develop, rather than being stuck for thousands of years in a sort-of Iron Age.

Reading this book felt at times as though Leckie was reconstructing fantasy itself while she span her story, as though she was reconstructing it by spinning her story. I thought that was brilliant though I'd expect some will be uneasy with what she's doing - change can be difficult. It's also great fun and in places - especially the dry dialogues between The Myriad and The Strength and patience of the Hill - (two of the other gods encountered here) actually rather funny and even touching, as a friendship builds over literally millions of years.

I really can't recommend this strongly enough. You just have to read it.