31 August 2019

Review - Brightfall by Jaime Lee Moyer

Jaime Lee Moyer
Jo Fletcher Books, 5 September 2019
HB, 308pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance reading copy of Brightfall to consider for review.

Reimaginings of classic themes, subjects and even stories are definitely a Thing right now, especially new treatments of the fantastical - just think of all the Alices out there - and the story of Robin Hood is very suitable for such treatment: the subject stirs the imagination, but the source material is relatively slim, giving plenty of scope for reinvention, addition and reworking.

In keeping with that, Jaime Lee Moyer approaches her subject from a refreshingly different angle. This isn't just more adventures for the Merry men. Instead she sets the story twelve years after the 'end' of the outlaw band and focusses on Maid Marian, rather than making her, as in many versions, simply a hanger on. Indeed, Brightfall is narrated by Marian, but an older Marian who has spent years caring for her children after being abandoned by Robin.

Now the surviving outlaws are being struck down by a curse, and Marian - in this retelling, a witch who is in tune with the ancient magics of Sherwood and who has regular dealings with the Fae - leaves the safety of her cottage to investigate. Falling in with a Fae Lord who she refers to as 'Bert' (real names have power, you see!) and, inevitably, with Robin, she travels though the forest looking up old friends and making new enemies.

I enjoyed the presentation of a Merry England where most people are not religious fanatics, with the Church by and large a friend; where life is an effort, with time needing to be spent on craft and trade; and especially one that is recognisably rooted in real places and geography. I think the story gains a lot from this (it would have been possible to leave it all frustratingly vague, or even, of course, to set the whole thing in some made-up fantasy land). It's also fun to see things from Marian's point of view (and she points out that those ballads, mostly written by Alan à Dale, were selective with the truth and did tend to big up Robin a lot).

The plot is essentially a chase with a mystery - who is causing the deaths and why? - at its heart and Marian is very capable, fighting off magical attacks, treating injuries and wounds and sparring verbally with her ex (when he will reply: Robin is often in a sulk). I must admit, though, I did find it frustrating at times that Marian, the viewpoint character, was so very competent and her motives and actions so very clear (protect her children, who are also threatened by the curse) while in contrast, Robin, comes and goes, is tormented, wracked by guilt and religion - but we are not privy to his thoughts and he is very selective in what he tells Marian. In other words the life in this story still seems to be with Robin (even if he's very unlikeable) despite the pains taken to give Marian a voice and agency.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is that while Robin is still Robin of Locksley (and often referred to as such) we have no backstory for Marian herself Beyond references to her part with Robin and his band). I think that in giving her the opportunity to tell her own story, there could have been more story to tell, rather than one in which she is effectively still subject to Robin's whims and notions.

I don't mean to sound too critical here - this is a cracking story once it gets moving. Marian brings a lot to it in terms of knowledge, courage and sheer grit, and the book ends in a tense and moving action sequence. There is also romance. But I felt I could have got into it more quickly if there had been more (from Marian) about Marian and less about Robin.

On the other hand perhaps that's a subtle reflection of the effect on a woman's life of falling in with a dashing and unstable rogue... which he certainly is.

Great fun, with a convincing atmosphere of medieval England and a nicely grafted on magical realm (complete with the impact on that realm of human encroachment and interference). I think there may be more stories to be told exploring the life of Marian of Sherwood and I look forward to reading them.

For more about Brightfall, including links to buy the book, see the publisher's webpage here.

29 August 2019

Review - Blood Song by Johana Gustawsson

Blood Song (Roy and Castells 3)
Johana Gustawsson (trans David Warriner)
Orenda Books, 19 July 2019 (e) September 2019 (PB)
PB, e, 272pp

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance reading copy of this book to consider for review.

Johana Gustawsson's crime fighting pair, profiler Emily Roy and crime writer Alexis Castells, return together with Roy's protege Aliénor and the usual gang - Commissioner Bergström, Detective Olofsson, Castells' overbearing mother Mado. It's always a joy to meet them: Gustawsson has created a truly convincing cast of regular characters, convincing in their ramified relations - and not least, for their quirks and failings.

The events which bring everyone back to Falkenberg this time are though both happy and very sad. Alexis is preparing for her wedding - cue Mado issuing advice and generally taking charge - when Aliénor's family, who we have seen little of so far, is subject to a horrific attack. Emily - and then Alexis - offer to help with the investigation while supporting their friend. (I though Gustawsson's portrayal of Aliénor's, who has autism, reaction and feelings here was both sensitive and heartbreaking).

The investigation leads us into the world of fertility clinics and corrupt practices that take advantage of desperate would-be parents, while - as in the earlier books in this series - there are chapters set in the past, this time starting in 1930s Civil War Spain. That historical narrative is very grim, very hard reading, describing the brutality and murder inflicted by the victorious Fascists not only on Republican combatants and prisoners but on their families, for generation on generation.

Another strand of the story begins in 1990 with a woman who, at her grandson's baptism, unexpectedly faints and whose life goes to pieces after.

Of course these threads in the novel are all linked and it's Alexis's, Emily's and - heartbreakingly - Aliénor's task to work out how. As always, Gustawsson's description of how these different (and in their different ways, rather strange) women work together to solve the case. The portrayal is given heightened texture by being shown from different perspectives - there is Olofsson's rather sneering, dismissive attitude to both Emily and to Aliénor (who he privately things of as "Google") as well as Aliénor's own perspective, for example.

It's a book that is, despite the horrors described (not only the Spanish episodes but the present-day murder) quite, quite enthralling and compulsive. I'm so glad that this series continues, and I hope to see many more cases for Roy, Castells - and Lindbergh.

I'd like to add a personal note here. My father was in the RAF before and during the Second World War and was stationed for some time in Gibraltar doing photographic reconnaisance. I remember him telling me how gunfire would be heard during the night from the border - which was apparently the Fascist forces executing prisoners. It was believed they did this in order to intimidate the Gibralter residents and the British forces stationed there.  I never quite knew what to make of this, but after what I have read here - and Gustawsson provides a historical note to back up what she describes - I am rather inclined to believe this.

It's a sobering book all round but an excellently told story.

No pasarán!

For more about the book, including links to buy it, see the publisher's website here.

24 August 2019

Review - The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man by Dave Hutchinson

The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man
Dave Hutchinson
Solaris, 3 September 2019
PB, 336pp

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

This is a slightly deceptive book (which to me is a Good Thing: see below for why) as despite the pulpy title (and image) Hutchinson delivers what seems at first to be quite a restrained story. Alex Dolan is a washed up journalist, cast overboard as media transforms and traditional titles founder, who is rescued from debt by billionaire Stanislaw Clayton ('Stan').

Clayton is pouring money into a new high energy physics project, the Sioux Crossing Supercollider ('SCS') designed to investigate and manipulate gravity - but things aren't going well and he wants to generate some positive publicity for the enterprise. So Alex is invited to stay in Sioux City, a slice of small-town America apparently preserved from ruin and decay by Clayton's billions. No, not apparently.  It has been preserved - or where necessary, rebuilt. The locals are in equal measure resentful to an all-powerful outsider and desperate for Clayton to continue his support, giving Dolan some difficulties in coming up with an interesting angle on the SCS.

It's a delight to read about Alex's encounters with Sioux City and its residents (both locals and the staff of the SCS), his very slowly growing misgivings that everything seems too perfect, and the undercurrent of weirdness that pervades Sioux City (from the basement full of guns in his rental house to yellowing newspaper stories describing strange past events). Hutchinson gives us an even paced, shrewd, and cooly perceptive vision of the place and its people, allowing it to unroll gradually, with the details of everyday life - getting lost on an unmarked road, dealing with a gonzo physicist who frequents seedy bars (OK, maybe that's not 'everyday') or playing chess with a neighbour - given weight and significance (as are the comparisons between pretty, lucky Sioux Crossing and the less well kept, indeed downright shabby, towns that surround it).

I found all this a joy. For the reader demanding instant action, little may seem to be going on but for me, it is all happening, even as Alex struggles to get a grip on the book Clayton wants written and small obstacles begin to appear in his way. Hutchinson has I think a real knack for getting under the skin of life, making the ordinary significant and drawing his readers in through detail and cool observations rather than lectures and infodumps.

But yes, there is a point where everything changes and this becomes a rather different sort of a book.  It's hard to say a lot about this for fear of spoilers. The weirdness begins to show more and more, and Alex becomes the focus for someone with a grudge. His discomfort with this is in no small part due to his having a connection with British intelligence, which makes cooperating with the Local Police Department to get to the bottom of the crimes rather difficult (and given how friendly the locals are, itself racks him with guilt and indecision). Strange things begin to happen, which both acknowledges and denied by those around him, the basic weirdness of Sioux City itself providing a disorienting background to what is now going on.

The closing part of the book is then definitely fully science-fictional and builds skilfully on the earlier narrative, with mysteries explained (apart - I think - from one - why a certain person was driving a certain car just before the story turned?).This end part is satisfying in itself, if startling, but I was a little sad that so many strands from the earlier, gentler part were left unresolved: the enigmatic Clayton, the book Alex was writing, his relationship with Wendy, the prickly, hostile Prof. Delahaye who takes against Alex. I could easily have read a book twice the length which went into these things in more detail.

All in all this is an absorbing book, great fun to read with an intriguing mystery at its heart.

17 August 2019

Review - To be Taught, If Fortunate: A Novella

Review - To be Taught, If Fortunate: A Novella
Becky Chambers (read by Patricia Rodriguez)
Hodder & Stoughton, 8 August 2019
Audiobook, 4 hours 47 mins (also available as hardback, e-book)

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of the To be Taught, If Fortunate audiobook via titleShare, (a new service which pitches itself as a kind of audio NetGalley. I've only, so far, experienced this book via the service but the listening experience was good and the service intuitive).

To Be Taught... is short (literally, a novella) and suited to the audio format where I find too much length can be off-putting. The recording is also excellent, Patricia Rodriguez providing a nuanced, well paced and expressive reading which suits this story very well.

As a story, the book came over as a punchy, clean version of a classic SF format: the voyage of discovery (in the spirit of "To Boldy Go...") Astronaut Ariadne O'Neill and her handful of crewmates aboard the Lucky 6 have been launched on a lightyears and decades long voyage to investigate nearby, potentially life-bearing planets (remember space is HUGE, people!) Because of the distances and times involved, much of the journey is spent in 'torpor' - suspended animation during which temporary genetic manipulations ('somaforming') are applied to fit the crew for the environment of the target planet - be that high gravity, lack of light or high radiation. We slowly understand that the recording we are hearing is Ariadne's message back earth some way into the voyage, making the format particularly apposite. Ariadne's message explains the background and nature of the voyage - in the 22nd century, with space exploration long moribund, it has been revived by mass crowdfunding which effectively sponsors a space agency. We hear about Ariadne's early life, her emotional parting from her family - torpor and time dilation will mean that on return they will be dead or very old - and her hopes and fears for the expedition.

The story then proceeds through visits to a number of every different planets. Chambers' handling of this material is a joy. We get, I think, some of the sheer unvarnished delight in the wonder of the universe, in the possibilities of scientific exploration and understanding as the crew observe different forms of life and collect all the data they can. This isn't a book of space empires or conflict, it's an older and even dare I say it, purer form of science fiction than that.

Which isn't to say that all goes well. The planets visited are not equally welcoming, with incidents that challenge the astronauts' ideals of 'do no harm' and even place them in some jeopardy (as well as testing how long a group of people can survive in a large tin can). Through all this, Chambers' tone is calm, reflective and philosophical, not just narrating events but - though Ariadne - reflecting on them as well and relating them with a real passion for science and sense of idealism. If you didn't know what you were listening to - if you missed the opening, say - you could easily believe this was the memoir of a real scientist. The story takes the time to explain things - tidal locking, chirality - which not all readers/ listeners may understand but above all to show why those ideas are important.

And, having educated us to the world, the universe, of Ariadne and her crew, and shown why what they are doing matters, Chambers calmly leads the crew - and us - to a moment of choice. A moment when driving through rural Oxfordshire, I found myself shouting 'Yes!' in answer to a certain question. It's a mark of this book's construction and impact that this wasn't, primarily, a matter of what I wanted in the story but an emotional reaction to the case Ariadne was making, to the values portrayed here and the context of her - and her crewmates' - dilemma. (Sorry to be obscure about that but I don't want to be too spoiler.

To sum up, an excellent story with lots of wonder. A SF classic in the making, I think.

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

6 August 2019

Blogtour Review - #Sanctuary by VV James

Cover by Patrick Knowles
VV James
Gallancz, 8 August 2019
HB, e, audio 448pp

I'm grateful to Gallancz for an advance free copy of Sanctuary for review as part of the blogtour.

You should be aware that I've included a significant spoiler which I think is necessary in order to give a content warning  for the book. That is below the tour graphic at the bottom of this review: if you want to avoid the spoiler don't scroll down past that picture.

I first heard about this book at a Gollancz presentation a few months back at which James spoke. There were a few copies available then but I didn't manage to get one (competition was FIERCE!) so was very glad to be asked to take part in the tour because I REALLY wanted to read this.

James' new novel is set in a different world from her previous trilogy (Gilded Cage/ Tarnished City/ Bright Ruin) and in the US rather than the UK, but like that, it explores the theme of magic - visible, acknowledged, magic - in the real world; what the consequences might be, and how the magical and non-magical communities might see each other.

In Sanctuary, which takes place in contemporary New England, witches are accepted, even valued by some, and expressing prejudice against them can amount to a hate crime, but their activities are heavily circumscribed by law...  and that prejudice is never far beneath the surface. James skilfully uses the real history of persecution in the 17th century as a springboard for present day cultural attitudes in the town of Sanctuary and in the wider US (adding modern colour by including news broadcasts and even tweets from the current President). She also deftly indicates how tolerance could have come about, and some of the complexities that accompany it.

We are though in small town America and magic or no magic, the local culture is dominated by the school football field.  Tensions rise when Daniel Whitman, star player of the Spartans, dies in mysterious circumstances at a party. An outsider detective - not only a woman, but she's Black - is sent in to investigate, and to begin with, local police chief Tad Bolt pressures her ('This is how it's gonna be...') to shut things down quietly. The death was clearly an accident: nothing to see here: smooth things over and get out of town.

However, Bolt soon changes his tune, claiming that witchcraft was involved. It's clearly convenient to have an outsider take the heat of the subsequent enquiry, whatever the outcome so Det. Maggie Knight is  plunged into the dark world of modern teens, complete with High School cliques, a "sex tape", lashings of misognyny - and a bunch of secrets.

Accusations fly, and they are directed especially at Harper Fenn, daughter of the town's only witch, Sarah. This is particularly unfair because, as everybody in the twin knows, Harper shows no magical ability (a great sadness to her mother).  Knight has her work cut out to discover what really happened against a background of rising hysteria stoked not only by Bolt but also by one of the other characters here. (James' writing is very strong, and I guarantee by the time you've finished this book you will really dislike that person - even if you sympathised with them at first). The growing atmosphere of threat, of blame, of fear and hate, is very powerfully rendered and plausible. It's accompanied by references to other sorts of prejudice - for example racial, as when towards the end when a Black character is told by a cop to hand over his phone: ('Pierre does what every black parent, heartbreakingly, teaches their kids to do the minute they see lawmen reach for their guns. He complies instantly.')

I would like to note how well, how convincingly, James portrays this situation. In particular she shows Sarah's disbelief at the way her world is falling apart. For much of the book Sarah thinks she can resolve things by being reasonable, trying to persuade even the most hateful among the townsfolk to calm down and be fair. She even, haplessly, plays into their hands by performing (harmless) magic in public which is then used to undermine her. It is of course a feature of historical persecutions that victims have often only understood too late how far things have gone, how their friends and neighbours have turned against them and what the stakes really are.

It's a thoroughly compelling story with bags of tension. I felt there is actually a really interesting philosophical issue here. From the perspective of the early 21st century (is it still "early"?) prejudice against, and persecution of, witches, was self-evidently wrong since the modern secular worldview takes for granted that there are no witches - so accusations of harm must be mistaken at best, or invented at worst. That approach sidesteps questions of "innocence" since by definition anyone accused in historical witch persecutions must have been "innocent" - even if, at the extreme, they really thought they were a witch.

From that point of view James's aligning anti-witch prejudice with other forms of hate crime (against people of colour, for example) makes sense because both are irrational and patently based simply on prejudice. In our world, there may be people who call themselves witches, but society regards this as a harmless if eccentric practice - a kind of spiritual LARPing - and anyone who doesn't, who accuses them of actually doing harm, would I think be seen as acting from prejudice.

But this is a book where witchcraft is A Thing. In Sanctuary, witches are real and could undeniably cause supernatural harm (even if that would be illegal and most of them would never do such a thing). Against that background, I wondered whether the Salem echoes - and the implicit comparison with prejudice against marginalised groups - were really on point.

In the end, I'm not sure it matters - at the heart of this book is a disturbing campaign waged against a convenient victim, supported by prejudiced law enforcement, a sensationist Press happy to peddle half-truths and outright lies (regardless of the effect on a police enquiry) and a town willingly driven to a frenzy against a hitherto accepted and welcomed neighbour. If that doesn't have spot on contemporary resonances I don't know what does.

The book is also notable for the presence of same gender relationships and for a non-binary Indigenous person who Knight brings in for support on witchy issues (entailing an interesting subplot about different forms of witchcraft, including appropriation of Native ones - James makes clear that in this book she isn't drawing on any real practices or systems of belief, which I think is an important point to make here).

So - I'd strongly recommend this, whether you've read and enjoyed James' previous work or are simply interested in a slightly different take on UF, small town US tensions or modern magic.

The book is out this Thursday (8th August) and the tour runes from Monday 5th to Sunday 11th with lots of excellent reviews scheduled. For more info about Sanctuary, see the Gallancz website here. You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive books; in various formats online  from Blackwell's, Waterstones, Foyles, WH Smith and Amazon or as an e-book from Apple, Kobo or ebooks.com

Reminder: CW below the graphic includes a spoiler


Content warning: The events behind the story include a rape which has taken place before the main events of the book, but it is partly described and portrayed in the course of the story.

The scene is not, in my view, gratuitous and is integral to the plot.

4 August 2019

Review - The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns (Dominion of the Fallen, 2)
Aliette de Bodard
Gollancz, 2017
PB, audio, 351pp

I bought my paperback copy of this book from my local bookshop and received the audio version through my Audible subscription.

As I said in my review of The House of Shattered Wings, I've been catching up with de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen trilogy in preparation for the third part, The House of Sundering Flames, which is just out (published 25 July). This book is the second part of the trilogy, so there are spoilers here for House of Shattered Wings and if you haven't read that, you might want to look away now.

I have listened to both on audio and I have to say they have been excellent in that medium; the characters have strong voices for the narrator to breathe life into and much of the story is in reported speech giving the narration immediacy and pace. Helpfully, the narrator of the Wings audiobook was the same as that of Thorns, so there was continuity of the voices in my head (and in my car).

So then. To the story. We are back in the Paris of the Fallen - angels cast down from Heaven who wield powerful magic and band together in "Houses" for their own protection, not to say glory and power.  Decades before, a magical war ruined Paris (and the wider world) leaving the Houses diminished, though still strong. The House of Binding Thorns picks up pretty much where The House of Shattered Wings left off, with Madeleine - Essence addict and former alchemist of House Silverspires - back unwillingly in House Hawthorn, under the sway of the dangerous Fallen, Asmodeus. Madeleine's life over the previous 20 years was devoted to her fear of Asmodeus, who murdered her friends and nearly killed her when he took power in Hawthorn, so as this book opens she really is at a nadir.

But life can be surprising, and Madeleine is about to be given a chance to improve her situation - if she'll undertake a dangerous mission for Asmodeus.

Like its predecessor, The House of Binding Thorns focusses on one house - here, Hawthorn - and the threats to it, but for me it had much more of a feeling of movement and freedom than Wings did. While The House of Binding Thorns seemed to take place mostly within the mouldering corridors of Silverspires, apart from an excursion to the dragon kingdom under the Seine and a couple of visits to other Houses, in Thorns we have a much more extended story. There is a longer visit to the Dragon Kingdom, exploring its politics, history, and plight, and there are other events across Paris, in particular in the home of two new characters, the Houseless Fallen Berith and her human lover Françoise. Their relation to Hawthorn and the Dragon Kingdom isn't clear at the start and I don't want to spoil the story, but they are well-drawn, distinct characters who bring a great deal to this story, representing the perspective of those who are not "House bound".

They are also friends of Phillipe, the young Annamite man we met in the last book, who is still seeking a way to resurrect Isabelle, who died in the earlier book. Despite Berith being Houseless, Phillipe does not wholly trust her - she is Fallen, after all, and he has reason to fear Fallen and to hate them for what they've done to him and his people. Trust and distrust feature strongly in this book: trust between rulers and ruled, even where there is hatred and fear in the relationship, trust based on understanding and alignment of motives, on power, and trust - or the lack of - within and between cultural groups (the dragon Kingdom, the Houses).

Despite his distrust, Phillipe is, it turns out, Houseless in a similar sort of way to Berith. She has rejected the House that might have sheltered her. Phillipe, as we know, rejected the Dragon Kingdom. Both must find a way to exist in a dangerous Paris with little help from others. The story develops this parallel to show how the Kingdom wields power in the same kinds of ways as the Houses, providing no real alternative to the Fallen and their magic.

And de Bodard continues to explore, using her Paris and her dragon kingdom, aspects of colonial history (such as the British opium trade) that are often passed quickly over and certainly, are rarely made the foundation of fantasy fiction. Again, the wider scope of this second novel and perhaps its faster pace gives much more room to do that. It is in many ways simply a "bigger" story. Rather than a central mystery, there are half a dozen subplots where characters get themselves caught up in the thorny branches and drawn into the main growth. There are unlikely alliances born of despair, and some unexpected betrayals too.

The star of this book is, though, Asmodeus. He appeared in The House of Shattered Wings as a convenient antagonist but here he is at the centre. Asmodeus - a bully and a sadist - is far from likeable, but he is still a bewitching character who simply comes over as more complex, more enthralling than Selene, the Head of House Silverspires on whole the first book was centred. Maybe the Devil really does have all the best tunes, or, Miltonically, evil is more interesting than good but I really felt this book crackle whenever Asmodeus appeared. Perhaps de Bodard let herself go a bit more with Asmodeus? Whatever, she has produced a compelling and even beguiling portrait of this damned angel, a figure who comes alive on the page (or in the audio) and commands every scene where he appears.

I think I actually enjoyed this book more than Shattered Wings, it's a stinking read in itself and carries the trilogy forward brilliantly, setting the stage, I hope, for a terrific ending in the third book.

1 August 2019

Review - The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child

Design by Ellen Rockell
The Undoing of Arlo Knott
Heather Child
Orbit, 1 August 2019
PB, e, 336pp

I'm grateful to Orbit and to Nazia in particular for a free advance copy of The Undoing of Arlo Knott to consider for review.

Following up the success of last year's Everything About You, which explored SF ideas about a future of virtual and augmented reality, Child returns with a more fantasy driven story, focussed on a central idea and its consequences: what if you could turn back time, undoing moments and unpicking mistakes?

Arlo Knott is introduced in childhood, a happy child whose life is about to change forever. After a shocking trauma, he discovers that he has a talent for going back and changing things - not, though, that event.

Child paints a convincing and sympathetic portrait of the boy, and then the the teenager and young man, Arlo. It's an impressive achievement, especially given that Arlo isn't a very likeable character. As he freely admits himself, he is self-centred, oblivious to the needs of others, and self-pitying. One of the clearest aspects of this novel is how, later admitting those failings, Arlo continues to embody them, if in subtler ways. The child and the teenager crave attention and approval (something that has roots both in that previously mentioned event, and in earlier loss - Arlo's father having vanished to the US in quest of an acting career) but the man... ah, the man graduates from using his talent to turn over casinos and scratchcard vendors for easy wins to stage magic, using it to underpin a mind-reading act. He swears there's no trickery even while admitting he's literally turning back time. And it's clearly not about money - it's a quest for adulation, and when the clapping ends, he dumps the stage act.

And so it goes, as Arlo manipulates his way through a succession of careers, and through relationships too. He earlier noted that he never used his "gift" as you might imagine a teenage boy would - though he seems to come pretty close - but when he fancies a girl it proves very useful to be able to backtrack on conversational deadness and reflect her own views and preferences back to her.

For much of the book, then, Arlo is something of a rat and it's only the growing entanglements of family, his girlfriend and the succession of - I'm not sure what word to use - victims, perhaps? - he leaves in his wake that (eventualy) gives him pause for thought. When it does happen, though, the trap that Child sets for Arlo is so clever and so wicked that, as I've said, one actually does sympathises.

This is a breathtaking book, notable not only for a high concept but also for the down to Earth and plausible interaction of Arlo with that and for the effect on his personality and development. We also get a very human take on relationships, family - including ageing, the father eventually coming back from the US for support with his dementia, spending his time, in a metaphor for the book as a whole, devising and building a labyrinthine board game which seems to have Arlo at hits heart. Arlo's stormy relationship with his sister also plays a large part, Child revealing her view of events fairly late in the book and transforming one's understanding of it when she does.

It's a great read, the various sections dealing with Arlo's different careers (self-aggrandising even when allegedly altruistic) keeping the main themes in sight while ringing the changes, so that the book never settles down into samey, soft-centredness but instead keeps surprising and changing the reader. I hesitate to use clichés like "unputdownable' but this is a book that is very easy to keep reading and reading.

And when it runs into its nail biting close... well, as my poor dogs, eating for their evening walk, found out earlier this evening, yes, I think it might even justify that phrase.

All in all a triumphant successor to Child't first book.