28 June 2019

Review - The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

The House of Shattered Wings (Dominion of the Fallen, 1)
Aliette de Bodard
Gollancz, 2015
PB, 402pp

I bought my (paper) copy of this book from my local independent bookshop. I also listened to it via Audible.

The House of Shattered Wings - for first in de Board's Domain of the Fallen series - was only published four years ago, but is already, I think, one of those SFF books you really should have read, an instant classic.  And I hadn't.

So, to catch up, in advance of the third book being published later this year, I have been listening to Wings as an audiobook while driving to and from the station. That gives me 50 or so minutes a day, enough time for a decent length book over several weeks. I'm therefore specifically reviewing the audiobook, though I must admit, as I came towards the end, I picked up my paper copy and finished it that way, I couldn't wait for my next drive.

The first thing to say about House of Shattered Wings it that it's a triumph of worldbuilding. De Bodard creates a haunting, ruined Paris, gutted in a magical war some decades before, with a 1920s vibe, although I think that chronologically it's set more or less "now". The history of France - Europe - has had grafted into it the presence of "Fallen", literally angels cast out of Heaven in what's alluded to as a Miltonic rebellion. They arrive in Paris (and elsewhere? That's not clear) actually falling - the opening of the first chapter gives a snippet of the background to this - and liable not only to be damaged by that fall but immediately at the mercy of rival "Houses", and of gangs who will gut them for their magical "essence".

Angel magic is all in this Paris. It's both a curse - having ruined and polluted the City - and a source of power to the magicians of the Houses, which are presided over by those Fallen. And it's also a drug, sought after by addicts to whom it provides comfort, warmth, an illusion of safety. That's something needed in this dangerous world, needed for example by Madeleine, alchemist of House Silverspires, where she took refuge twenty years before after House Hawthorn was the scene of slaughter, an event that has traumatised and haunted her ever since. Madeleine is therefore an addict, hooked on the dangerous Essence, flouting the rules of her adopted House.

If the book was only notable for worldbuilding, that would be great, but not make for a satisfying read. But there is much more here. Another brilliant feature of this book is that while nobody here is very likeable, or at least few of the main characters, they are fascinating and complex as characters. While one may feel sympathy for Madeleine, she's not - or wasn't to me - a very pleasant person.  Selene, Head of Silverspires, is grouchy and frequently interrupts people from whom she might otherwise get useful information. Isabelle, a new Fallen who arrives early on, quickly becomes enigmatic and moody. Asmodeus - Head of House Hawthorn - is a vicious bully, only partially disguised by his being charming and mannered. Yet they all compel attention.

Possibly the only exception, in that he is more pleasant, but still complex,is Philippe, a (seemingly) young man from the Far East, trafficked to Paris by the colonial power to serve as cannon fodder in the War. I'll say more about Philippe in a moment, but first I just want to say how much I enjoyed this bunch of grumpy, spiky characters. Through them de Bodard weaves a compelling story without ever allowing it to turn into a mere struggle between Good and Evil. They are all fascinating, flawed creatures, plausible even while annoying (or perhaps because of it). Everyone here is capable of doing - has done - monstrous things. The system of Houses ensnares them all, and they are knowingly complicit in it, all except Philippe who, as an outsider especially sees its rottenness.

Even Philippe, though, perhaps mainly sees the effect on him personally and his country. In a neat encapsulation of colonialism, the Fallen's power has enabled France - presumably Europe at large - to overturn indigenous belief systems (by which I mean, actually existing systems of divinity and divine power) and in particular that of the Jade Emperor, who Philippe previously served. And none of the Fallen who we meet here recognise or rate Philippe's, rather different, grasp of magic because it's "foreign" or "primitive" compared to their own. The power of the Fallen is therefore both the cause of, and in the service of, a colonial attitude. They are strong, but also ignorant.

And in keeping with that, throughout this story Fallen mistrust each other, misjudge the situation, decline to share information, and leap to conclusions (often wrong) about what is going on. There is a threat in play here, a curse whose effects unfold, at first in minor ways then more and more strongly. And there is someone behind that threat. But, as I've said above, it's not a traditional evil, there isn't some Dark Lord here seeking power, there is no band of good magicians getting together to save the day. Motives are characterised by muddle, partial understanding, and personal prejudices.

All of that, perhaps surprisingly, makes for a brilliant story, gripping, convincing, often sad, sometimes wryly funny. One may not like these characters but it's hard not to sympathise with them, to wish that, somehow, they could break the wheel, could escape from the circles they have to keep going round - no less confined for believing they are in control.

So - a blisteringly good story, great fun to listen to though I will admit there were many moments when (as I was alone I the car) I was shouting out for Philippe or Madeleine to share some key bit of info, to be a bit less rigid, for Selene to shut up and listen instead of pontificating. You know they won't do it, and that's what gives the story such a tragic direction, but you wish they would.

Deservedly, then, one of those books you just HAVE to read. On to The House of Binding Thorns for my next listen!

25 June 2019

Review - The Edge by Tim Lebbon

Cover by Julia Lloyd
The Edge (Relics, 3)
Tim Lebbon
Titan Books, 25 June 2019
PB, 333pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of The Edge. This is the third and final part of Lebbon's Relics trilogy. In the first book, Relics, he introduced us to an urban fantasy world where shady dealers trade in the remnants - relics - of long-dead mythological creatures. Unicorn horn is the least of it. Think pixie tongues, dwarf hearts, fairy eyes... But what if they weren't long dead?

What if some were recently alive?

What if some were still alive?

Introducing chancer Vince and his heedless wife Angela, who also appear in sequel The Folded Land, Lebbon showed how the beauty and terror of the creatures known as The Kin lurks behind our own bland world - and how Angela's and Vince's lives are changed forever once they discover this.

Both Relics and The Folded Land are complex, intricate stories following different factions among the Kin, and the humans who would exploit them. Some of the Kin want to hunker down and stay safe, others to rise up. Humans variously want to profit from Kin relics, wonder ate their beauty - or eat them. Often it's hard to tell who wants what, who is on whose side, with plenty of double dealing and guilt.

In The Edge, Lebbon tells a simpler story, rounding everything off. It's a more pared down book than either of its forerunners, bringing us back to the experiences and struggles of a few central characters. There is Mallian the Nephilim, a powerful being who wants the Kin to struggle for power - "Ascent" - and tread down impudent humans. There is Grace, the fairy Malliam sought to control but who turned on him. And there is Angela, Vince and Angela's niece Sammi, who was affected by an attack by Grace which has left her with developing abilities.

Much of the ambiguity of the previous books is gone, and we know where we stand, which gives Lebbon more bandwidth (so to speak) to tell the story these books were, perhaps, always about - the love between Angela and Vince, what they have lost, and what they still have. We saw in Relics, especially, what Vince meant to Angela. Now she has lost him twice - Folded land saw him stranded in Grace's pocket universe, ironically alongside Mallian, whose  dreams he helped destroy. Can she find him again? And if she does, can she keep him, at a time when great sacrifices may be required to face down the threat of Mallian? Living as a fugitive, Angela has also lost the ordinary life she had and, following Grace's attack, her sister. And teenage Sammi feels herself changing, which is also a loss of sorts.

There is a real sense here, as the endgame commences, of unfinished business. Lebbon gives us a new character, Bone, who as a boy was driven from his home town of Longford when the army gassed and flooded it. Bone has secrets, and has spent his life hunting the Kin. Mallian, obviously, has his own plans. Grace finds herself distracted from the Folded Land that she created. And out there is a government agency which has the Kin in its sights.

As I said, this is a simpler story, with less of a feeling of "what's going on?" but that is amply compensated for by a narrative drive, a feeling of coming disaster, of ending and a really fast pace. The story drives onwards, blurring the boundaries between fantasy and thriller as the Kin seem about to come out into the open and challenge the humans - who have taken over their world - to respond.

All through these books I've been struck by Lebbon's ability to depict the horror both of what are often, literally, cruel monsters, horrors from our darkest dreams and the chaos and devastation wrought by humanity on the natural world. That's symbolised here by the town of Longford and its fate, as it was in The Folded Land by the destruction of a forest where a tree-spirit sheltered. Conflict between the two seems wired into the nature of reality, but what will be the result if the Kin fight back seriously?

A satisfying ending to the series overall, an exciting book - and do I see Lebbon leaving himself a way out, perhaps, to further stories?

Strongly recommended.

23 June 2019

Review - Revenants and Maledictions by Peter Bell

Art by Paul Lowe
Revenants and Maledictions
Peter Bell
Sarob Press (Robert Morgan), La Bliniere, 53250, Neuille-Vendin, France
Published 2018
HB, 115pp
ISBN 9782956211525
Dust jacket by Paul Lowe

This review appeared first in the Ghosts and Scholars newsletter.

This is a thrilling and truly creepy collection of stories by Peter Bell. All the elements are there - the setting, slightly distanced in place or time, the coded (it mustn't be too obvious) 'theory' of the haunting, warnings or hints of menace - and the sprung trap. Whether that trap closes on an actual victim, or merely (merely?) leaves the narrator changed, it has to close the circle, leaving the reader thinking "ah!" or else dreading what the last paragraph will bring. All of the stories here deliver that, meeting and building on the best Jamesian standard. And in the course of the volume Bell explores some particular preoccupations - such as with the Hebrides and their folklore, and more widely, those of the celtic fringes in general, which feature in several stories here.

Apotheosis, the first story in the book, is one of these. The unnamed narrator, a distinguished historian now retired, relates an uncanny episode that happened to him many years before on visiting one of those islands. Ingeniously bound up in the neglected paintings of a lost master, the penny drops here for the narrator slightly after the reader may have joined the dots - but is no less effective for that. The Executioner is another Hebridean tale, focussing on the dangerous mountain peaks of the Black Cuillin - their Gaelic names recited in a hypnotic, spell-like litany - and the perils of climbing them unprepared. As in the best stories, it unsettles while leaving a lingering doubt as to what really happened. Similarly, while not 'Celtic' - venturing instead to the north of Iceland - Many Shades of Red also uses a remote and sublime setting, with its own dark mythology, to bring a sinister mystery from the past into the present.

In The Virgin Mary Well, we visit the Isle of Man (this book has an excellent geographic reach) - a setting I haven't encountered much in Jamesian fiction (I think I can recall one story by Robert Aickman?) and therefore with a sense of the unfamiliar that adds to the air of menace. An ancient well has been rediscovered, but there's an ambivalence about it from the locals because of a link with the Fair Folk. Despite this, Norman and his twelve year old daughter Alice, visiting from the mainland, decide to take a look...

The Island returns to the Hebrides, with an account of a traveller who wants to set foot on every Scottish Island. Sometimes, though, it's hard to find a way to land on an island, almost as though someone thinks it might be a bad idea... Perfectly realised, this story left a real sense of lingering unease both abut the reason for the abandonment of the island, and about what might have become - or might still become of - our brave narrator.

Sithean - my favourite story in this book - has a similar setting, with a mystery surrounding a holiday cottage to which a young couple have come for a week of climbing and walking.  (Seriously, shouldn't there be some kind of regulatory authority to make sure that cottages inherited form distant relatives are properly checked out for hauntings, fairy infestations and feelings of dread before they are let to unsuspecting tourists?) You just know something bad is going to happen. Just not how bad.

Wild Wales has again, of course, a 'Celtic' setting which this time hosts a classic ghost story when a somewhat fussy National Trust bureaucrat bites off much more than he can chew while on business in a remote district. Despite the story, in some respects, repeating a fairly familiar outline, Bell makes it distinctive by a startling juxtaposition of cultures. He also (and I know this seems unlikely) brings out the political and cultural background of the 1940s in a way that makes the supernatural seem almost a reaction to the pressures and stresses falling on stately homes and the landed gentry (I thought of Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger which pulls off a similar trick).

I'm going to place Blackberry Time firmly in the Celtic group here. Set on the Wirral, it takes place in a region that remained British longer than much of the rest of England and - even if the deity referred to on 'Thorphinstry Hill' has been Norseified - Bell suggests an older, much older origin for the evil he describes here. An eerily effective look back at the time - not that long ago - when two young children could go off blackberrying in the country unaccompanied by adults, this story has a sharp edge of horror.

The Robing of the Bride, while again set on Skye and based on the menace of ancient mythology, struck me as slightly different to the other stories in the book, almost more Lovecraftian than Jamesian in being focussed on the evil wrought by true believers as much as by the entities they worship. A story with a truly unsettling premise, this is, I think, really one to keep the reader awake at night.

The House departs from the theme of the Celtic fringes to narrate a wicked occurrence in the staid suburbs of North Oxford. These are streets I'm very familiar with (my son's school was on one of them) and I was amused to see three academics, bunking off from a conference, wander into trouble so close to their cloistered world.

In all, the stories in this collection meet the highest standards and deliver genuine chills. I'd strongly recommend them.

Finally, I always feel that cover artists get too little recognition. Paul Lowe's dust jacket for this book - illustrating Apotheosis - is especially effective at conveying the weird atmosphere of these stories and is a thing of beauty in itself.

20 June 2019

Review - The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with her Mind

Cover by Steve Panton
The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with her Mind
Jackson Ford
Orbit, 20 June 2019
PB, 444pp

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

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with her Mind is Jackson Ford's debut novel, it's published today, and you should read it.

Teagan Frost is having a bad day at work. A VERY bad day. It begins when a routine job goes wrong, endangering her and a colleague, gets worse when her boss gives her a carpeting for how she got out of that situation, and positively implodes when she's framed for murder and has to go on the run as the city of Los Angeles burns around her.

Oh, due to being on the run, she has to miss a date with a nice, single man at THE up and coming restaurant in LA.

And she hasn't slept in 48 hours.

Welcome to the world of The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with her Mind. Teagan is The Girl, and she can, indeed, move - stuff - mentally, a talent referred to as psychokinesis (Boss Paul won't let her call it PK for reasons explained herein). That talent's employed in the service of a secretive branch of Government, Teagan's cooperation the price she pays for not being taken away to a secret lab and vivisected to find out how she works. It doesn't make her very happy, but it's a living, and as long as she's living, she can dream and plan about opening her own restaurant.

I just LOVED this book. It's a non-stop, hectic chase around the seedy side of LA (presented with no glitz and glamour: somewhat reminiscent of Joseph Wambaugh's LA based police procedurals) as Teagan and her colleagues seek to establish her innocence while a mysterious opponent plays them from street to street, mall to mall and scuzzy diner to scuzzy diner. And that fire just keeps getting closer.

Written largely from Teagan's point of view and giving us a lively, if rather pissed-off, protagonist who's perhaps just a little too persuaded that she's right and that everyone around her is stupid, the book is nothing if not engaging. For a story with such a gaping, fanatical premise - PK is real, people, and can be genetically engineered - the writing makes it very believable. Getting the register and attitude of a bored, annoyed and overtired employee in a dead end job just right, Ford evokes roughly the same psychological/ bureaucratic space as Charles Stross's Laundry books, except that Teagan's not a diffident English male geek but a forthright LA woman with views on everything, especially food. And rap music. And her colleagues. And did I mention food?

It is, really, simply fun and a joy to read - though it does go to some very dark places. Teagan's Nemesis, whose point of view also features, is a truly grim and mixed-up person, especially dangerous for being convinced of being right (and, indeed, having some degree of justice to back that up) and does some truly grim and mixed-up things. And, as I've said, the book doesn't spare us the seamier side of the city, presenting the paradox of a vast area where the homeless live in tents amidst the wealth of one of the world's richest cities. There are also gangs, corruption and a particularly nasty black-ops soldier who really has it in for Teagan.

When you see what Teagan has to go before she can have a meal, a sleep and a beer, you won't be surprised how cross she gets - but you might be surprised by the results...

In all, a great read and, yes, I can see this becoming a popular and I hope long-running series. I wouldn't want to work with Teagan Frost but I do want to read more about her, please Mr Ford and please, O Orbit.

For more about the book, see the Orbit website here.

18 June 2019

Review - Joe Country by Mick Herron

Joe Country (Jackson Lamb, 6)
Mick Herron
John Murray, 20 June 2019
HB, 334

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a free advance copy of Joe Country.

I'm torn between introducing this book by describing the series and where it has got to, and launching off in the style of the book itself.

Something like "You know where Joe Country is. It's where you get to if you carry on down Spook Street, out beyond the lights and the pizza restaurants..."

Better not, -a poor pastiche of someone else's style is a sorry recommendation for a book, and the style is one of the delicious things about these books. But to get that urge out of my system,  I'll quote a, non-spoilery, bit, just to give a taster (obligatory disclaimer: this is from an advanced copy, final text may not match)

"It was cold on the street - not long now, and this weather would have its way with her bones. She'd creak on waking, slow to a crawl on frosty pavements. There were so many things age could do to you; so few you could do in return. In the end, she supposed, you just stayed on your feet as long as you were able, then took the rest lying down."

This is Catherine Standish, the closest that Jackson Lamb - the seedy, shady walking health emergency who presides over Slough House, where MI5's dimmest and worst are hidden away lest their failures reflect on the Service as a whole - has to a deputy. Catherine is a recovering alcoholic, who's taken to leaving her Tube train a stop early on her way home so she can buy a bottle from the wine warehouse. She manages the office, gets Lamb to sign things, and worries a lot. (Principally about the fact that Lamb killed her former boss).

And so it goes for all of Jackson's coterie - JK Coe, who's found he has killer instinct; Shirley Dander, who has "anger issues"; Louisa Guy - was it drugs with Louisa?; River, who engineered some mess-up at King's Cross Station; Roddy Ho (don't ask).

And new entrant Lech Wicinski, introduced last year in novella The Drop, who had some very nasty images on his laptop (his Service laptop, moreover). These are the stories of the left behinds, the no-more-hopers, told in Herron's thick, noir-tinged argot which at once distinguishes his books from other popular espionage series (at which he's not above poking a little fun, as with a reference to "the spy who walked round in the cold" or the strapline to this one "less MI5, more 9 to 5"). In this jargon, Slough House really comes to life, or perhaps to near death, a patched, flaking office building of doubtful future where the heating booms and creaks but gives little heat, the carpets are thin and the bloodstains poorly concealed. And, in Lamb's office, the smoking ban isn't so much flouted as continually trolled.

But there's much more to this series, and to Joe Country in particular, than an exercise in noir. The story here is very up to the moment ("...the Cold War didn't really end. It just hid behind closed doors, like Trump in a tantrum") taking in as it does the shady security  backwash of Brexit and also the shifty (I said SHIFTY) behaviour of apparently respectable public figures who Herron comes within a whisker of identifying (except, of course, for the fact that everyone in this book is fictional and any resemblance to real people a coincidence - the disclaimer say so quite clearly).

It's all tangled up with a call for help from an ex colleague's wife, to whom Louisa feels a debt of honour because she was, after all, sleeping with the colleague. Before his death. Responding to that call takes the team, one by one, off into the depths of Joe Country which is of course a cold and careless place where the rule is that any stranger is a hostile.

As always, Herron's writing is superb. That world-weary tone still conveys, I think, that these are colleagues who have strong feelings for each other. they may be strong feelings of resentment, yes, but who, in the end, have they got left - stripped of career, respect and, in many cases, of friends and family? At the start of the book, Lech makes a pilgrimage back to where his grandparents, Polish refugees who served this country in the War, lived. Little remains and he has become, it seems, almost an internal refugee himself, disgraced, fearful and alone. Will the Slough House team accept even him?

At the same time we see political machinations and the steps ruthless men will take to defend their own reputations. The issues in Joe Country are all very personal, about loyalty and trust and, perhaps, a little redemption. Which isn't to say that the stakes, and the dangers, aren't high.

An excellent thriller, culminating in near a hundred pages of knuckle-biting, sustained action, taking the team well outside their discomfort zone (you can't really call Slough House a "comfort zone", but perhaps there are worse things out there). And not all return to it.

It's a close-run thing, but I'd almost go so far as to say that this is my favourite of the Jackson Lamb novels. So, it's STRONGLY recommended.

15 June 2019

Review - The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

Cover design by Julia Lloyd
The Girl in Red
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 18 June 2019
PB, 363pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of The Girl in Red.

The Girl in Red is another of Christina Henry's twisted takes on fairytales and childhood stories, following her treatment of Alice, Peter Pan (in Lost Boy) and The Mermaid. Like the latter, it's more rooted in the actual world than in story, though rather than a magic-tinged world it is a disturbed, post-apocalyptic version. The disease known as The Cough has raged, slaughtering millions and leaving terrified, scattered communities and families to their own resources - and the mercies of their neighbours.

Against this backdrop, Red, a woman in her early twenties has to take a journey from her middle American home into the woods to find (of course) her grandmother's house. But while these may not be innocent woods peopled by honest woodcutters, nor is she naive and trusting. In some ways Red seems to have been preparing for this journey all her life. She has her pack ready, laden with just the things she'll need. She has watched enough horror films to know the rules ("don't split up") and she believes that if she does things just so - she may, just may, survive.

It was fun reading such a conscious, knowing take on a familiar story. Yes, Red wears a scarlet hoodie and she worries about "wolves" - which stand for the whole gamut of dangers, from actual animals to ticks, infected water, hunger, and damage to her prosthetic leg. But she also recognises that the greatest risk isn't from nature, or from the catastrophe that has destroyed civilisation, but from the behaviour of people - specifically, of men - variously portrayed here as lawless neighbours given licence by the times to act out their darkest desires, crazed militias which kill any man they find and take the women children away and rogue fragments of the Army.

There are good reasons why Red carries an axe...

There is lots of trauma here, and Henry is very good on the psychological reaction of a young woman alone to all of it - her practicality on the one hand, her coping (or not) with what she has to do on the other. Told in jumps between a "before' and an "after" the story makes clear that there have been losses, but only gradually reveals exactly what and how. It's a compelling, action-filled and fast moving story, to be read in a single sitting because there's no easy place to pause and rest. Like Red, we have to keep moving on.

It is I think very much a story of growing up. While Red is an adult she has attended a local college rather than the more prestigious school she could have gone to. This is put down to her mother's somewhat smothering attitude, her doubt about whether Red will cope away from home, but there seems to be a sense in which it has still kept Red - fiercely independent though she is - a bit helpless. It's not that she can't do stuff, it's just that people won't listen. Everything would be fine if everyone else would just listen to her. Never having lived alone she hasn't had a chance to learn that sobering lesson of adulthood - sometimes it just isn't "all right".

Sometimes it's nobody's fault.

And you have to keep on going.

I found this a fascinating, character-centred book. Other stuff is happening - The Cough, and an even greater threat that perhaps sat a little uneasily with the rest of the story - and we do learn a bit about all that, but it remains secondary, which feels right. This isn't a heroic story of humankind saving itself. Rather the drama here is localised, close-up and personal. And Red is a splendid character, annoying at times but well able to carry this enthralling and terrible story. I also loved the Shakespearean allusions!

I would strongly recommend this book, and I have a little bit of hope that there may be a sequel, as the story does close on what we might guess - from the original tale - is a point far from the end. No sign at all of anyone living happily ever after...

For more information about the book, visit the Titan website here. To buy it, try your local bookshop - or from Hive Books who support some local shops. It's also available for preorder from Blackwell's, Waterstones and Amazon.

13 June 2019

Review - Velocity Weapon by Megan E O'Keefe

Velocity Weapon
Megan E O'Keefe
Orbit, 13 June 2019
PB, 505pp

"The last thing Sanda remembers is her gunship exploding..."

I'm grateful to the ever awesome Nazia at Orbit for a free advance copy of Velocity Weapon.

Debut author O'Keefe's novel is a proper serving of space opera - a genre I don't read regularly, but when I do, it has to be just right. And this is. We have a space war, political machinations, galaxy spanning civilisation, futuristic technologies, a doomsday weapon, and a nagging feeling that someone we can't see is pulling the strings. All smoothly written, with pace and verve - and more to come.

When Sergeant Sanda Greeve wakes in a survival pod after the disastrous battle of Dralee, any joy at her survival is soon tempered as she's told it has been hundreds of years since Dralee. Both her homeworld and Iscariot, planet of her enemies, have been destroyed by Iscarion's new planet-busting weapon, along with her family, and she's now stranded on an enemy ship. The Light of Berossus, the only human left alive in the system.  The Light - or Bero, as he prefers to be known - is himself a character in the person of a brooding AI who welcomes Sanda (as well he might after so many years alone). But as she explores the ship and begins to discover what went on there, she has to question what he knows - and what he did...

Between chapters detailing Sanda's discoveries in the year 3771, the book follows her brother, Biran, in 3541 - the time of the battle itself. Biran has just passed out as a Keeper, one of the ruling class of his planet. Keepers are implanted with chips containing the plans for the Casimir Gates that link humanity's colonies in disparate start systems, and they also direct affairs on those colonies. Believing Sanda to be marooned in her survival pod, Biran is about to risk a great deal for her.

There is also a third strand - a heist organised by a group of criminals led by Jules, on another, unidentified, colony world. This might risk breaking the flow of the other two narratives, but O'Keefe's writing and plotting easily makes Jules' adventures absorbing in themselves, not least as she uses them to feed us additional information about the doings of the Keepers. In a neat contrast to Biran's high-mindedness, Jules seems pretty much amoral - she just wants to get a break, and claw her way up from the bad side of town. But the existence of that bad side and the way that people like her are treated does rather undermine the glittering vision of future society that Biran holds. How this will play out in future volumes remains to be seen but I think the idealism of Keeper society may actually mask some dark secrets.

The story itself was a joy to read. O'Keefe's writing is, as I said above, always compelling and the story itself moves along at a rattling pace with many surprises, reversals and twists (even as the seeds are planted for a much bigger story than a squabble in a remote system). The book may not be groundbreaking, but in giving Sanda a leg damaged in battle O'Keefe places a character with a disability centre stage (and gives the book overtones of Treasure Island) and she also has the original of her spacefaring civilisation be Ecuador, not the US, Russia or China, making it a little different. Spending time with Gunnery Sergeant Sanda Greeve is fun - she is a protagonist with a lot of whoomph, rather overshadowing comms specialist Tomas and indeed, little brother Biran.

I would strongly recommend this book - and am looking forward to its sequels.

For an extract from Velocity Weapon, see the Orbit website here.

9 June 2019

Review - My Name is Monster by Katie Hale

My Name is Monster
Katie Hale
Canongate, 6 June 2019
HB, 320pp

I'm grateful to Canongate for a free advance e-copy of My Name is Monster via NetGalley.

In a ruined world, two hurt women try to find a way to live. The first is called - calls herself - "Monster". We never learn what other names she may have had. Monster was a scientist, working at the seed bank on the Arctic island of Svalbard. After a time of war and plague and the Last Fall, she makes her way south by boat, and reaches the coast of Scotland, which is where the book begins.

Monster starts to walk, avoiding towns - where the Sickness may still lurk - to find her home. Facing starvation, thirst, and packs of feral dogs, Monster visits her home, which seems to make little impression, and then eventually settles in a farmhouse near a city into which she forays for food and other necessities.

We gradually learn a great deal about Monster from her recollections - of her life as a child, her exasperated mother, her isolation at school and her job in repairing and rebuilding things. Monster thinks she doesn't care about other people and many of her memories of resting them - the girl who wanted to kiss her at school, the young woman who, Monster realised too late, had taken her on a date. There is also her reaction to her colleague on Svalbard, and the fact that, when her parents were dying of the Sickness, she ceased contact with them. But Monster isn't self-sufficient, happy at pushing everyone away. There is a history too all these relationships, which we only see hinted at, and we see especially that Monster was developing as a person in relation to other people  - a development that has been stopped now that she is alone, and is very conscious of being alone - she wonders long she can endure like that. Three months, she recalls having been told - underscoring that while there has been a slide to war and disease this isn't a far future post-apocalyptic story, rather the axe has only just fallen: those feral dogs would have been someone's pets or working animals a year or two ago.

Hale's storytelling here is very gentle, very allusive, very powerful. We don't find out exactly why Monster is like she is. She makes it clear that she is in some sense odd (or that she has been made to feel that she is odd) but it seems like an oddness that only exists in relation to other people. Now everyone else is gone, there are only questions of survival, practical matters about food and infections and whether water is safe to drink. The rest is set aside.

But then things change and we meet - Monster meets - another woman, a girl perhaps at that point, finding her starving and feral. She passes on to her the name Monster, deciding instead to become "Mother". She pronounces herself the young girl's creator, and starts to try to civilize her, driving out all the "wildness". And, yes, with all this stress on who is the monster and who is the creator, there are hints of Frankenstein (as well as in the journey from the Arctic, of course).

It's the relationship between Monster and Mother - Monster and Monster - that is at the heart of this book, of course, and it's one which Hale takes her time over, exploring Monster/ Mother's viewpoint first, then switching to the younger Monster. It's a testament to how convincing, how thorough, this depiction is that when we move on to that second part, a real sense of Mother's personality, of her wants and needs, her presence, hangs over the text. It's not always a comforting or welcome presence - Hale makes it clear that, despite being the only two people left in the world (or at least, in their locality) these women are not always good for one another: while Mother's earlier life is often dim, we can see something of the same pattern emerge here as existed between her and her own mother. But it's a pattern that the other Monster won't be drawn into easily. She has her own secrets, memories from before her "creation", and has been through a different trauma in the dying days of the human race. Accepting, at first, what she is told, she inevitably begins to question.

That eventually leads to an action on Monster's part - I'm not going to say exactly what because of spoilers - which supremely strains her relationship with Mother. By the time this happens, both characters have become so real that the rift between them - while anticipated - is as anxiety-inducing and involving as when your best friends fall out. You have to find out what happened/ what's going to happen. Which leads me to one of this book's great joys - it is wonderfully, entrancingly readable, compulsive, a book whose pages simply fly by. At times things come up - coincidences, items of knowledge - that might perhaps seem unlikely - but Hale tells her story with such verve and life that these hardly detract at all.

I really enjoyed this book, and I would happily have read it if it had been twice as long. One of the high points of my reading so far this year and I'd strongly recommend.

7 June 2019

Review - The Space Between Time by Charlie Laidlaw

The Space Between Time
Charlie Laidlaw
Accent Press, 20 June 2019
PB, 436pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Charlie Laidlaw's new novel The Space Between Time. I'm very grateful to the publisher for a free  advance copy of the book and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the tour.

The Space Between Time is a vivid and poignant coming-of-age story set in Edinburgh and the nearby seaside town of North Berwick, with a similar milieu to parts of Laidlaw's previous book, The Things We Learn When We're Dead (which I reviewed here).

Unlike Things We Learn, which was firmly science fictional, Space Between Time remains - I was going to say "Earthbound", but perhaps "realist" might be more accurate, because this book does have its mind in the heavens. Emma Maria Rossini is recounting her lifestory, which is dominated by two men: her father Paul and her grandfather Alberto. The former is an A-list Hollywood actor, the latter a professor of theoretical physics who's proposed a world-shaking theory concerning dark matter, dark energy and higher dimensions. Laidlaw uses Emma's relationship with her grandfather and her understanding of his theory to counterpoint the story, heading each chapter with a mathematical expression. Alberto's theory acts as a kind of extended metaphor, describing a world where what may be most important is what's missing, what's invisible. For Emma, this is her father, whose arrivals and departures from the family's middle class Edinburgh flat (and later, plush North Berwick mansion) rather resembles an erratic planetary body.

Emma admits towards the end of the story that she's an unreliable narrator. Not only does she reserve the right to edit her life for interest or to make it more fun, but she is, for much of this book, retelling events that took place when she was much younger. We can't therefore be sure whether what she's describing - her reactions, feelings and understanding - is what she experienced at the time, or whether it's informed by later, more adult knowledge. And in particular, by the way things turned out - this is a story of loss and grief, if unspoken grief, and of coming to terms with a world that, resolutely, isn't fair. That's illustrated by the young Emma's perceptions of her parents' marriage, or her relationship with her mother, Cat, who is beautiful but, increasingly, troubled by her husband's absences.

To get the most from this book you will have to be patient with the story moving backwards and forwards a lot. Emma's approach (as written by Laidlaw) is more thematic than sequential, moving from one related thought to another, sometimes nesting them several deep and explaining the various bits of her life to which they're relevant. I don't mean that to sound offputting - it's done very cleverly, so much so that often I didn't realise what a tour we'd been on till the narrative landed back in the moment. It does, though, make the book difficult to précis and I'm going to exercise a reviewer's privilege and not try to do that any more than i already have.

I have to say I loved this book. Emma herself is well realised, with a command of the moment and a vein of dark humour that remains with (almost) however bad things get, in fact so much so that - I came to realise - it was carefully masking just how serious some situations were, so that when a crisis hits it often seems unheralded - although the signs are always there. Again there is the question here of a conscious rewriting, an editing, of Emma's story by her later self. The divide means that in this book, time isn't (really) real and different events coexist.

The book also has a real dash of humour - for example in Emma's relationship with Knox the cat, who she imagines to be a Presbyterian animal, sternly disapproving of the antics of her and her student flatmates, or in her observations of institutions or, even amidst the tension, or her parents' self-absorption.

There is a real sense here of the countryside and coastline around North Berwick, the sea which Emma feels she is a part of and a deft touch for the social geography of Edinburgh (I used to live there, I recognise the distinctions Laidlaw draws, even down to the differences between one side or another of the same street).

Above all, though, this is a story with a real sense of heart and compassion. It's a story about things said and especially, unsaid and about how it can be too late to set things right - but also, how that concept of linear time carrying the past away is wrong and it is never too late. We can't alter the past but we can, perhaps, edit how it affects the present.

The blogtour goes on - it's all in the present, you can revisit the previous posts if you wish! - see the poster below for details.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, or from Hive which supports local bookshops, from Blackwell's, Waterstones or from Amazon. And other places besides.

4 June 2019

Review - Gather the Fortunes by Bryan Camp

Cover by Julia Lloyd
Gather the Fortunes (Crescent City, 2)
Bryan Camp
Titan, 21 May 2019
PB, 599pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free copy of Gather the Fortunes for review.

This is the second book in Camp's Crescent City series of urban fantasy set in a post Katrina New Orleans. Several years have padded since the events of The City of Lost Fortunes, and while the scars of the hurricane - and the subsequent neglect - have perhaps healed a bit, they haven't faded. In these books, there is a palpable sense of injustice, with racial, gender and economic inequalities bleeding into a palpable sense of supernatural evil. Escapist fantasy they certainly aren't.

Gather the Fortunes isn't a straight followup, it largely doesn't feature the main protagonist of Lost Fortunes, Jude Dubuisson, a card sharp and street hustler who rose in that book to become the Trickster God of New Orleans. In what I'm sure is a wise decision, the new book instead follows another character, Renaissance Raines ("Renai") who featured in the earlier book ("briefly", according to the press notice that came with the book - I'll return to that in a moment).

The reason I think this is a good approach, and one that could usefully be followed more often, is that a second book about the same character so often becomes a recapitulation of the earlier story. Jude grew and changed in that book: fun though he is, it's better to leave him to the world he's joined and discover more about somebody else. And Renai is a fascinating character. Having died and been resurrected in The City of Lost Fortunes, she's now become a psychopomp - an intermediary guiding the souls of the dead on their journey to... wherever.  The challenges posed by her new life feature strongly - living in our world, but not part of it, alive and human but tending not to be noticed by other people unless she interacts VERY DIRECTLY (maybe a metaphor for being female?) and most of all, having to avoid her family - because to them, she is dead.

There are also less tangible issues: lack of memory of certain events, a growing unease at the part she's playing in the whole supernatural ecology, above all, perhaps, the unending cycle of abuse, discrimination and cruelty to which she has a ringside seat. That's symbolised by her latest assignment - which goes drastically wrong - the collection of a young Black man, who is to be killed in a drive-by shooting. Reno's - and her wise talking partner, Sal - lives (if I can use the word?) will be turned upside down by the consequences of this, having to embark on a desperate chase around New Orleans - and its many analogues in various heavens and hells - to discover what has gone wrong, before the time known as the Hallows comes and all the gates between the worlds are openend...

Moving the story on to another character allows Camp to develop his strange, syncretistic fantasy world, overlaying religions, superstitions and belief systems and motivating plot by the similarities and differences between them - so that Egyptian deities morph into Voodoo gods which echo Central European folktales - all intercut with myths, and articles of faith from the Internet age. The geography of world Renai navigates with her departed souls is shaped by all this, impacted by human beliefs and so inevitably etched also by long standing wrongs, oppressions and disparities. Because those, too, arise from human beliefs. It's far from being a simplistic world where the dead are judged for the good and evil they did. There are continuing factions and interests and many of the gods have contrasting - indeed violently clashing - aspects. This is of course where an avowed Trickster like Jude was very much at home, grifting his way from scene to scene. Renai has, it soon becomes clear, much more moral freight to her and so the rights and wrongs of what's going on are held up to more scrutiny. And I don't actually think she was as slight a figure in The City of Lost Fortunes as that press notice suggests - indeed, judging by what we see here I wonder if Renaissance Raines might be the central figure of this sequence of books?

It may contradict what I've said above (I am vast, I contain multitudes...) but I'd welcome more of Ms Raines in a further Crescent City book. Unlike Jude, she doesn't seem likely to settle down for long in the role allotted to her by the Thrones, and I wonder if we'll see more of a War in Heaven in future?

A satisfying, dense and fun sequel to The City of Lost Fortunes which left me wanting more.

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

To buy it, try your local bookshop, including via Hive, or Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.

1 June 2019

Blogtour review - A Modern Family by Helga Flatland

What you'll see in the shops...
A Modern Family
Helga Flatland (trans. from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger)
Orenda, 13 June 2019
PB, 236pp

Today is DAY ONE of the blogtour for Helga Flatland's new study of families and family life in the 21st century, A Modern Family. I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

The proof copy of A Modern Family which I was sent  had a very different cover (see my photo below) from the final book (right). The image of a felled tree, lying in front of a Scandinavian-style house, all in cool tones of grey and green, is a big contrast to the Kodachrome tinged wedding photo - with the heads of the happy couple cropped out - which you'll see in bookshops and, I hope, on your shelves.

That isn't unusual, but for me it rather neatly illustrates something about this book. A Modern Family is a complex book, presenting many different facets, and both versions accurately capture an aspect of it. If I'd been asked to design the cover, I might have suggested a labyrinth made of mirrors - difficult to realise, I know, and I don't think that Orenda will be taking me on anytime soon as their designer. But it is my conception of this book: multiply reflective, misleading at times, presenting myriad images. I fear I won't be able to do justice to it in this review so the TL;DR summary is - if you enjoy sophisticated, vivid, portrayals of modern, grown-up life, then buy this and read it.

...and my reading copy.
The story itself is deceptively simple. It concerns two generations of a family: parents Sverre and Torrill and children (eldest to youngest) Liv, Ellen and Håkon. There are two years between Liv and Ellen, eight years between her and Håkon. Liv's kids Agnar and Hedda also feature, as does her husband Olaf, and Ellen's partner Simen.

As A Modern Family opens, all are gathering in Italy for a family holiday at which Sverre's seventieth birthday will be marked. However, he stuns the three children by announcing that he and Torrill have decided to divorce. The book then follows the family back to Norway and focusses on the reactions of Liv, Ellen and Håkon and their relationships with each other, another key theme being Ellen's desperation to have a child.

Put baldly like that, it doesn't sound as though a great deal happens here, and from one point of view, that's certainly true. But looked at another way, there is a great deal going on. Flatland's dissection of these lives is merciless and thorough - while short, it's not a book you can race through. I found I had to keep stopping both to think about what was going on, and also, at times, for a break from the merciless, and clever, exposure of a certain sort of family.

Merciless, because while one may at the end understand these characters, they are hard to like (except perhaps Agnar).

Clever, because Flatland gives us not just one unreliable narrator, but three.

The earlier sections of the book are told alternately from Liv's and Ellen's perspectives, the final section from Håkon's. They overlap to a significant extent, but aren't identical - so even accounts of the same conversations differ, the stresses reflecting both the concerns of the three at the time and their prejudices and histories. That tells us a lot, but indirectly, about Sverre and Torrill and their marriage. It is clear, for example, that each child sees himself or herself as the poor relation, the loser in a kind of emotional game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, as having either received less of their parents' attention or regard or having had greater demands placed on them.

For example, Liv believes her mother to be a controlling person, and that this has affected her most because she is the eldest. Whether this is actually true, or she is projecting, or looking for an alibi for, her own very obviously controlling behaviour with son Agnar, isn't clear. Similarly, Ellen sees her parents and siblings very much through the lens of her desire for a child, constantly going back to the effect of her own birth on her mother and on her younger sibling, Håkon (that eight year gap - was it her "fault"?).

But in neither case is it as simple as I have suggested, there are layers and layers to this book and each of the relationships adds nuance and caveats to the facts that you, the reader, think have ben established. It is a book that will keep you wondering, and feeling, to the very last sentence (have some bookmarks handy so that you can go back and forward comparing passages!) and not every mystery is solved. In particular, apart from a couple of well-rehearsed reported speeches (but, remember, the reporters here are all biased) we never see Sverre and Torrill's marriage from the inside, only as it is refracted through the lives of their kids. We are never told exactly how or why they decided to divorce.

Trying to infer what happened to those two is a bit like trying to plot the course of an unseen particle through its interactions with others. So we see the hurt that each of Liv, Ellen and Håkon display following their parents' announcement - but how far it is pique that their comfortable assumptions and routines have been overturned, and how far a genuine concern for their parents, seems questionable. (One reaction, that the decision means the whole basis of their family life has been a lie, seems especially questionable - and to raise fascinating questions as well!)

Among all this there are some fascinating character sketches. Liv, whose life seems built on control, carefully allowing herself fifteen cigarettes for the duration of the Italian holiday. Håkon, proclaiming  a very 1960s "free love" philosophy, who seems never quite to have grown up. Ellen, whose desire for a child, while heartfelt, always seems quite abstract, as though it's a box she has to tick before she will consider herself a full adult.

It's a family that seems quite inwardly focussed: none of the changes and chances explored here really affects anyone's material comfort - they all have nice middle-class job - the sort where you can skive for a day at home to cover an emotional upset without worrying about being sacked, or where an efficient PA will make sure that a meeting you forgot to prepare for will run smoothly. Houses and flats are bought and sold as required (while exorbitant mortgages are noted, they can clearly be paid). The state of the outside world doesn't impinge much (Trump and Brexit are mentioned in passing, but more to illustrate points in that endless game of three-dimensional chess between the three than as real things that might matter) and nor does anyone beyond the family.

Ultimately, I felt, this little group was willingly trapped in its own private world and would carry on and on trying and failing to understand and map it, with little of the outside perspective that would be needed for this to succeed. In that respect, perhaps it does describe a truly modern family - there is no sense here of location in any wider community (friends, work colleagues) on whom one might depend for advice or support. It's a vivid, if chilling, portrayal.

A Modern Family was a book I could really engage with - a fascinating and complex, if bleak, read.

For more information about A Modern Family, see the Orenda website here. You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive or from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.

The blogtour continues with some real treats lined up - see the poster below for further stops where new perspectives and fresh insights await!