28 March 2020

Review - Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Cover art by Tommy Arnold,
design by Jamie Stafford-Hill
Gideon the Ninth (Locked Tomb Trilogy, 1)
Tamsyn Muir
Tor, 10 September 2019
HB, 444pp
Audio narr. Moira Quirk, 16 hours 50min

I read Gideon the Ninth as an audiobook.

Well. This one has me truly gobsmacked. Genuinely new and different, a cross between an Agatha Christie ruder mystery set in a crumbling laboratory (who will die last?), a dark tale of necromancy and the undead (bones! So many bones!) and far future SF it's... like nothing I'd ever read before.

Add a compulsive, mystery-driven narrative, SO MUCH COMBAT, a dash of romance and tragedy - oh, buy it, just buy it!

What's that? You want me to tell you a bit more before you part with your hard earned pounds, dollars or Euros (yes, I can dream of an international audience!).

Oh then. Gideon, of the title, is a young warrior for the Ninth House. The crumbling House, the House where all the kids died (except her and heiress Harrowhark), Keepers of the Locked Tomb, shadow cultists. All Gideon dreams of is getting out of the grave of the Ninth and joining the Cohort to fight the Emperor's enemies.

So it should be her dream assignment to accompany Harrow as Cavalier when the Emperor summons the Houses to provide him with new Lyctors. Each House is to send its best and brightest to compete for the honour... except for the Ninth, which will send Gideon and Harrow.

Oddly, this doesn't thrill her, perhaps in part because Gideon and Harrow HATE one another. And Gideon's reluctant, sulky, teenage scorn carries her through much of this book as she's forced to learn to fight with a dainty rapier instead of her trusty broadsword, to paint her face white as a Death Cultist and to remain SILENT in the creepy corridors and chambers of Canaan House, where the Lyctorships are to be awarded.

This isn't a straightforward contest, rather the Cavaliers and their Adepts are left to find their way through a maze of devilish traps and dangers to discover the dreadful necromantic secrets that constitute Lyctorhold. The tasks are set by the seemingly gentle and rambling priest Teacher who however warns them that they are IN GREAT DANGER.

And then, as they say, the murders begin...

This was a fun book to listen to. Quirk's narration is glorious, she doesn't so much present as inhabit every character, whether Teacher's wavering bonhomie, Harrowhark's aloof poshness or Gideon's ongoing teenage sulk. It's just stunning. If you want something to convince you of the value of audio, this would be a good place to begin.

Beyond that, though, Muir's writing is excellent. Despite the plethora of characters, the heart of this book is the relationship between Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus - two lonely, spiky women with very different places in the world, outlooks and intentions. In many ways it's one long bicker, laced with sarcasm, rancour and distrust. Yet Canaan House is so deadly, the assembled representatives of the House so treacherous and double dealing, that if there is to be any chance of getting out alive, they need to work together - and to find ways to make allies, something that comes naturally to neither.

So much fun, so much combat (the fights here are something else) and it's all going along swimmingly... then Muir somehow takes things up yet another level, bringing this book to the emotional pitch of a tragic opera, a fable or a ballad. The ending just destroyed me. If I was gobsmacked already that had me doublegobsmacked. A cold, dark universe just got colder, darker. I'm desperate for the next part, counting down the days.

For more about the book see the Tor website here.

25 March 2020

#Review - Black River by Will Dean

Black River (Tuva Moodyson, 3)
Will Dean
Point Blank, 12 March 2020
HB, 384pp

I'm grateful to Point Blank for a free advance copy of Black River to consider for review (a SIGNED copy no less, lucky me!)

Tuva Moodyson is back! - metaphorically, in this her third adventure, and literally, in that she's returned in a hurry to Gavrik, the place she disparagingly calls "Toytown", the little town in the northern forest of Sweden.

When last seen, Moodyson was heading South for a new job and a new life, leaving behind both her friends - her old boss Lena, her best friend Tammy - and enemies (too many to list).

Now, four months off the booze, she's back to settle debts. Tammy has gone missing, suspected to have been kidnapped (but nobody in Gavrik seems to care - after all, Tammy's an outsider, not even of Swedish ancestry) and Tuva's going to find her.

In this third adventure, Tuva's sharper, even more determined, even more detached. In the previous books there was a sense that, however strained her relations with the townsfolk, she was part of things with a stake - a tenuous, small stake, but a stake - in being accepted there. Part of the drama, part of the fear, of Dark Pines and Red Snow was seeing her stretch that, risk being shut out, lose her place, her role.

Well, in Black River, Tuva officially doesn't;'t give a fuck. She'll go anywhere, rile anyone, poke and pry and upset and offend and she WILL FIND HER FRIEND. It's heartbreaking to see the indifference many of the townspeople show towards Tammy: yes, they'll buy her Thai food from the van, food she serves late into the Arctic nights we saw in the previous books, but they won't actually lift a finger to help find her. Like other young women who have, it seems, gone missing from Gavrik, she probably brought it on herself.

Again, Tuva's left, with little help (Lena is the exception) to sift for info, ask the awkward questions, face danger when she encounters some deeply weird locals. Sally 'The Breeder' for example is chillingly strange - Dean skilfully conveys something just a bit... off... in her manner which gave me the creeps even apart from her sideline in breeding - and killing - snakes. But she isn't the only one.

And then another girl goes missing.

All this takes place against a background of Midsommar, the endless days, the heat, the clouds of bugs fro the forests - as inhospitable a season in its way as the midwinter cold of the previous books and one that Tuva hates with the passion of a lifelong sufferer. And yes, I have seen that film - and I think Dean cheekily deploys references too, such as the kulning or the flower bedecked poles that are the centrepiece of the festivities. Although that's not quite where we are in terms of genre, this adds a rich layer of meanings on top of the townsfolk's insularity ('They're Swedish!' Tuva is repeatedly told of some food, whether delicacy or everyday staple, to encourage her to try it - a subtle rebuke to her friendship for Tammy who after all is known for selling not-Swedish food) and also on top of Tuva's regret for her busted up family life (which we learn more about) and what she sees as her earlier desertion of Tammy.

It all makes for an almost unbearably heavy emotional brew which robs Tuva of sleep, distracts her from the task at hand and shows her threats and enemies everywhere (but remember, she's faced death twice in the previous books). My heart was in my mouth as I read the closing section of this book - Tuva Moodyson is a protagonist one really comes to care for, to identify with and I wan ted her to come through this sticky, intense time without more scars, more wounds - physical or emotional.

If you've read Dark Pines and Red Snow you will sort of know what to expect but here Dean cranks everything up several notches, this book is more intense, more suspenseful and - under that Midsommar sun - it manages to actually be darker than them.

Just perfect, incredibly good.

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

23 March 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Containment by Vanda Symon

Cover design by kid-ethic
Containment (Sam Shephard, 3)
Vanda Simon
Orenda Books, 5 March 2020
PB, 262pp, e

I'm grateful to Orenda and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for letting me have an advance copy of Containment and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

Welcome to another instalment in the tumultuous private and work life of Samantha (Sam) Shephard, probationary Detective Constable in the Dunedin, New Zealand, police Murder Squad.

The story opens literally with a bang as Sam hurries to intercept looters seeking to profit from after a container ship has run aground. Unfortunately one of them isn't ready to defer before the authority of the Law and she runs into trouble, nursing a headache and other injuries throughout this story.

But that's only the start. A corpse in an advanced state of decay turns up and Sam's grisly, sexist boss DI Johns thinks she's just the right person to witness a most unpleasant recovery and autopsy. And just when she's done the unpleasant part off the job and is getting somewhere with the enquiry, he whisks her away and assigns her drudge work. Sam's also nursing mixed up feelings about boyfriend Paul and has family problems besides so, already stressed, she's not going to take this lying down...

Readers of Symon's previous Sam Shephard stories will be aware that she has a rather... unorthodox... approach to the chain of command, frequently landing herself in trouble, so you can expect fireworks here - though, having said that, she also seems to be learning a little discretion and she's a bit more conscious and calculating here about the liberties she takes with the law. I think that's a good thing in this particular story, it means there is less time taken upon by carpetings from DI Johns and more devoted to unpicking the mystery, which is a pretty knotty one. The murder victim here was known to many, but as the centre of a group of Bohemian students who spend much of their time drugged out, it becomes hard to establish who saw him last and when - the days do merge into one another.

For much of the book it's a frustrating trail that Sam has to follow - even when she's allowed to - and Symon must have had a lot of fun designing the sequence of classes, loose ends and red herrings that has DC Shephard running in circles. It certainly allows Sam to show herself at her dogged and creative professional best - even while she's misreading Paul, falling for a handsome chap who wants her to recover his possessions lost when that container ship grounded, and having famine rows with her brother.

I enjoyed seeing Symon develop and explore Sam's character through all this, even if, like her housemate Maggie, I wanted to take her aside for a serious conversation (several times, in fact). Shephard is a compelling, well-rounded protagonist in these stories, a million miles removed from the stereotypical middle-aged male detective with a booze problem (sorry, Morse) yet still interesting and quirky.

With this third book, Symon has extended the character and varied the format, giving a tense and quick moving mystery that entertains throughout and offers a few hints of trials to come for DC Shephard. Looking forward to Book 4 already...!

For more information about Containment, see the Orenda Books website here.

If reading my review makes you want to read the book - I hope it has - and you are unable in these times to make it to your local highstreet bookshop, I've included some buy links below (totally unaffiliated and unsponsored). That said while ours has closed "for the duration" it is fulfilling and dropping off orders, so do check. (As Karen from Orenda sets out in a blog here, Orenda is supporting bookshops with deliveries at a time when some of the big sellers - including A Big Internet Site - are drawing back).

Containment is available online from Hive books which supports local shops, or from Waterstones, Blackwell's, Foyles or WH Smith.

The tour continues - see the poster for the next stops!

21 March 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Deep Dark Night by Steph Broadribb

Cover design by kid-ethic
Deep Dark Night (Lori Anderson, 4)
Steph Broadribb
Orenda Books, 5 March 2020
PB, e, 290pp

I'm grateful to Orenda and to Anne for letting me have an advance copy of Deep Dark Night and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

I have to confess, there is a soft spot in my cynical blogger heart for Broadribb's books and especially for her hero Lori Anderson and it was an especial please to meet Broadribb a couple of weeks ago when Orenda brought her - and also Simone Buchholz and Vanda Symon - to a launch at the new Victoria Street Waterstones in London. That already seems another era, and looks like being my last bookish evening for sometime.

But while launches and parties may (temporarily, I hope) be no more the books remain, and in this latest instalment - the fourth featuring Lori - Broadribb has shaken things up to give us quite a different sort of mystery-thriller.

If you haven't met Lori yet, she's just about the toughest bounty hunter that you don't want on your trail, fearless, resourceful and determined. Now she's - finally - managed to get the Miami Mob off her back, brokering a peace of sorts (even if she's got sleepless nights from the slaughter she witnessed in so doing). So its natural that she jumps straight out of the frying pan into another high-stakes, high-octane confrontation, this time with Chicago gang boss Cabressa who has a particularly exclusive poker game to which she's been invited.

This is all at the bidding of shifty FBI agent Alex Monroe, who's got Lori into trouble before and now seems to be doubling down. The result is a sweaty, airless confrontation in a locked down penthouse while the city itself is plunged into darkness. Ten players - each with a secret - go into that penthouse. Somebody wants only one to emerge.

While Lori's previous outings have been road trips - if deadly road trips - as she races across the country, chasing the clock to save somebody or rescue herself from betrayal or double-cross, Deep Dark Night is constructed differently. I see DNA here from crime fiction of the Golden Age, with echoes of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None or of classic locked-room mysteries.  A bunch of strangers, all with reasons to distrust each other, forced together and under pressure.

So. Much. Pressure.

Lori's driven to her limits as she must protect herself (and partner JT), deliver the deal with Monroe that'll free her from his control, and work out just what is going on. Early in the book we see her learning to play poker, and while I know nothing about that game it's obvious that her skills in bluff, assessing the odds, and defeating her opponents by sheer will and cheek, will be key.

They's better be - she's had to hand over her weapons at the door...

This is a claustrophobic, race-against-the-clock thrill ride taking place during the course of one single deep, dark, night when there is no backup, no rules - and no mercy.

It is unlike the previous Lori books - but very like, in that central, dauntless hero who just won't lie down.

As I said, if you haven't met Ms Anderson yet, well here she is. Get to know her through this night, and then find out what she's already done in Deep Down Dead, Deep Blue Trouble and Deep Dirty Truth.

For more information about Deep Dark Night, see the Orenda website here.

You can order the book from your local highstreet bookshop - in these challenging times it's especially important to support local bookshops and as Karen form Orenda sets out in a blog here, the company is supporting bookshops with deliveries at a time when some of the big sellers - including A Big Internet Site - are drawing back. Hive books supports local shops. Alternatively you can visit Waterstones, Blackwell's, Foyles or WH Smith.

The tour continues with more delights to come - see the poster for the next stops!

19 March 2020

Review - NVK by Temple Drake

Design by Julia Lloyd
Temple Drake
Titan Books, 17 March 2020
PB, 336pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for an advance copy of NVK.

I loved this book.

Interlacing the lives of a mysterious young Finnish woman, Noemi Vieno Kuusela, and of a Shanghai businessman,  Zhang Guo Xing, NVK blends cultures, genres and the ages.

The book opens in a flashback to a murder which took place hundreds of years before in North Karelia, before jumping into Zhang's life. He's a powerful man, someone with money and influence and friends who's familiar with the nightclubs and bars of Shanghai - Drake gives us vivid descriptions of a hedonistic, money-fuelled scene all taking place under the harsh nighttime neon of a city on the make and on the rise. Zhang's at home there, clearly, and he's keeping his family - a wife and son - at a distance, phoning them infrequently and simply paying the bills.

So when Noemi turns up in a club one night its hardly surprising that they end up having an affair, or possibly something more casual. Yet Zhang seems to see something in her apart from the surface allure - so much so that he sets one of his fixers to find out more about her. Pretty soon he knows all isn't as it seems.

Noemi has reasons, going back to that remote farmhouse in Karelia, to not be known about, remembered, or recognised. So a dance commences between the two, suspicion and caution entwined with appetite and sensuality. From one perspective there's something very wrong here, a great danger - this is, genuinely, a horror story - but there's also a great passion and there are I think no bad intentions (which isn't to say no-one gets hurt). This isn't the story of a scary monster in the dark, indeed the dark here is vital, pulsing with life, with abandon. (Zhang also moonlights in a blues band with a bunch of old friends and Drake's account of their relationship and of a session they give is wonderful, full of joy and sweat and glory).

And so the old story takes off, Drake giving hints of some darkness, something Noemi can't, in the end, get away from, something Zhang would rather not know about, their relationship increasingly knotted by what each known about the other, about themself. It feels high risk, something in a precarious balance, only enduring so long as it's in motion, so long as there are distractions. And increasingly, it's out of anyone's power to rescue, too stabilise.

So - a strikingly modern, horror/ romance, deeply atmospheric, very much rooted in a place and time. I've never been to China, still less Shanghai but this book gives a vivid picture of that city - both its modern affectations and accomplishments and the older, shabbier ways tucked - literally or metaphorically - behind the modern facade. Ways that remember how to deal with a ghost, a monster.

This is a book that made me gobble up page after page, impatient for the next scene, the next insight, the next steps in the increasingly wild dance. It's one I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about NVK, see the Titan Books website here.

17 March 2020

Review - The Twisted Ones by T Kingfisher

Cover design by Natasha MacKenzie
The Twisted Ones
T Kingfisher
Titan Books, 17 March 2020
PB, e, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of this book to consider for review.

'I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lat down flat on the ground like the dead ones.'

This is an insidiously scary horror novel, the more so for the narrator's (a young woman called Melissa, generally called Mouse) consciously flippant tone ('It's okay. I wouldn't believe me either...') and for the sheer, banal everyday events that accompany the nightmares.

In particular, as Mouse proceeds with clearing her dead grandmother's house, she puts on the radio for company and we hear her thoughts on an endless fund-raising drive by the local NPR station, the presenter becoming more and more exhausted as Mouse's experience get more and more scary. At one point she wonders if the presenter didn't actually die years before, preserved in an an endless tape loop. The horrors are beginning to affect Mouse's perception of even ordinary, normal things.

The dead woman was universally disliked, making it a mystery why her second husband, a man known as Cotgrave who was Mouse's stepgrandfather, stuck with her: even to the extent, as becomes clear, of sleeping out in the woods (Mouse's grandma apparently stopping him sleeping). She was also a hoarder, with a collection of baby-sized dolls. So there's lots of scope for creepy moments as Mouse begins to empty out the house, accompanied only by her faithful dog, Bongo, a dim but devoted animal who will play a key part in the story.

The story takes off when Mouse stumbles across Cotgrave's journal, and when she begins to see strange things herself in the woods. The house seems on the brink, balanced by the ordinary, everyday world of coffee shops, the town dump and that NPR fundraiser and a background of weird, carved stones, shapes seen amongst the trees and, eventually, a truly frightening entity.

Obviously, Mouse should just lock the door, get back in her truck with Bongo, and drive out of there before it's too late.

Obviously, she doesn't, something that is inevitable and which Kingfisher handles skilfully - there are always just enough reasons for her to stay: a desire to find out more about Cotgrave, for example, leading on to more personal motives that make it unthinkable to run away. The stakes actually become very high, culminating in an episode of continuous, breath-stopping tension that tests everyone - including Foxy, a neighbour who's stepped in to help - to, and indeed beyond, their limits.

And just when you think that's over.. well, Kingfisher hits you with more. And more.

This is an intriguing supernatural mystery which moves very quickly from an interesting, speculative mode to the falling away of reality in place of something deep and dark to a place of absolute terror, peril and threat.

I loved it.

In her Author's Note, Kingfisher sketches out some of the sources for her book, giving a genuinely fascinating insight into the whys and wherefores - and showing where one might go to find more. If one dared...

I would strongly recommend this book, Kingfisher is a new and distinctive voice and delivers real unease.

For more about The Twisted Ones, see the publisher's website.

14 March 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Mexico Street by Simone Buchholz

Mexico Street (Chastity Riley 3)
Cover design by kid-ethic
Simone Buchholtz (trans Rachel Ward)
Orenda Books, 5 March 2020
PB, e, 227pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a free advance copy of Mexico Street and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

If you've read Buchholz's previous books, Blue Night and Beton Rouge, you'll know to expect the doom, pared down, noirish atmosphere, the short chapters, the sense of desolation as Chastity Riley, Hamburg state prosecutor, narrates her life. The language is so hard, so abstracted that sections read almost as prose poetry and on the surface it is so bleak that it could repel if it weren't for a streak of, I don't know, a... something... in Riley's tone, a self-knowingness, a sardonic interest in the world's follies and failures that keeps her, and therefore us, engaged.

In this third bulletin from Riley's life we find her even more moodily lonely. She seems to be smoking more (how?) drinking more, and to be losing even the limited family she had: no Klatschke, of course - his flat a looming emptiness in Riley's psyche - so we don't see the bar but we hardly vist Rocco and Carla's café either and those cosy, spontaneous evenings where the place goes from public bar to family party without trying seem long gone, the little coterie split and uneasy.

Rather, much of the book's airtime is given over to Riley's and her colleagues' investigation of a young man dragged barely alive from a burning car (in this book, cars are burning everywhere - night by night the fires spread across Germany, then Europe, until news bulletins begin to report them from all around the world). Tracing what happened to him leads her to a secretive group of families living by crime on the fringes of German society, an interrelated web of feuding cousins and macho fathers and brothers (and trampled wives, sisters and daughters). Buchholtz writes movingly of the plight of these women and sympathy for them is one thing that prods Riley out of her ennui.

I always enjoy the Chastity Riley books, not only because they have a uniquely dark vision of life but because Buchholtz shows how this darkness coexists with blissful, unaware, lives often very close (geographically or emotionally - I suppose that's why I missed those evenings Riley used to enjoy the café). Well, that contrast was never so strong as in Mexico Street and alongside Riley's investigation we also see, sketched out, lives on the dark side of that wall and the voices of those who want out. It makes for compulsive, if disturbing, reading, the end in one sense already determined by the opening of the book but also wide open as there are people out there Buchholz has made us care for, care about (despite the bleakness! Despite the darkness!) and we want to know more about them

It's a short book but, my goodness, it packs in a tremendous amount. And Rachel Ward's translation serves the story, serves the mood, so well too.

Recommended without hesitation.

For more about Mexico Street see the Orenda Books website here.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, or online via Hive Books who support high street bookshops, or from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

The tour continues - look at the poster below for the wonderful bloggers lined up for this book!

10 March 2020

#BlogTour #Review - Re-Coil by JT Nicholas

JT Nicholas
Titan Books, 3 March 2020
PB, e, 384pp

I'm grateful to Sarah at Titan Books for an advance copy of Re-Coil and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

A smart, action filled SF adventure which blends zombie thriller, conspiracy theory and dystopia, Re-Coil takes us to the far-ish future (it's not clear just how far) where personalities, memories, souls - whatever you want to call them - can be backed up and then downloaded, after death, to new bodies or "coils". (As in Hamlet: 'When we have shuffled off this mortal coil...')

Nicholas writes intelligently and explores the consequences of this technology for future humanity, dwelling on the practical rather than the ethical or philosophical. So we learn that the solar system is becoming crowded, that coils are in greater and greater demand so those with less than top of the range insurance may have to wait before being 're-coiled' - and may suffer from less than ideal wetware.  Our hero, Carter Langston, is a salvage expert, operating on the edges of safe space, on the edges of legality, to retrieve valuable stuff from drifting ships - and his number I concern is keeping up his payments so that if the worst happens, he will get a decent coil for his next chance at life. (Even the uninsured get something - eventually - but it may be undesirable in various ways, from having manufacturing defects to being the wrong gender).

This setup allows Nicholas to kill off his hero in the first few pages (not a spoiler, it's in the blurb) and then bring him back to, in effect, investigate his own murder. That's the conspiracy bit. The dystopia - well, Langston is pretty blithe about the whole scheme, seeing effective immortality as a prize worth the inconveniences we see here, but I did wonder. The need to keep up those insurance payments, and a system where your soul is effectively owned by a private corporation which can dictate what happens to you after death - well, I did wonder. (As the zombies: wait and see!)

It is a fun read. For much of the story, Langston and his crewmate, Shay, are on the run from whatever killed them at the start of the book, Shay having the added disadvantage of having been re-coiled into a body that is a long way from her ideal (and no, you can't simply ask for another go). Nicholas is very good on what this might feel like - not only the immediate effects such as suddenly having more muscle that one is used to, but deeper issues to do with body image and identity. Langston, who comes over at the start as a fairly unreflective man-of-action type, needs to up his game to support Shay and we learn more about both of them, the characters resolving from action man and nerdy hacker to much more nuanced personalities. (As does the assassin with whom they repeatedly tangle).

The conclusion of the story is an extended combat sequence very different in tone from the rest of the story, the stakes having been raised from immediate survival to a potential threat to the human race at large. Nicholas maintains the tension right to the end - an achievement given that the "re-coil" idea seems to take away a great deal of the jeopardy- giving us a gore-spattered and desperate finale. Very satisfying.

Throughout the book, Langston depends on his AI "agent", Sarah, to assist him with searching for information action, tracking things, and making quick judgements (as well as summarising documents and authenticating transactions). As well as being a plausible extension of your friend Alex or Siri, this allows the author to helpfully pass on facts without any too-obvious infodumps.

Overall I enjoyed this book, which convinces on its own level, in part by respecting aspects fo science which are often ignored: there is no FTL travel here, for example (though nor does Nichols make use of some obvious alternatives: how about transmitting your "back-up" across the aolar system to be inserted into a new coil? That doesn't happen here) and creates believable, engaging characters - who seem destined for further adventures?

You can buy Re-Coil from your local independent bookshop (which Blue Book Balloon recommends, if it works for you) including via Hive Books (who support local bookshops) or online from (among others) Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, or Waterstones. (These are not affiliate links - I receive nothing if you follow them!)

For more about the book, visit the Titan Books website here.

And do check out the other stops on the tour!

8 March 2020

Review - The Good, the Bad, and the Little Bit Stupid by Marina Lewycka

Cover design by gray318
The Good, the Bad, and the Little Bit Stupid
Marina Lewycka
Penguin Fig Tree, 5 March 2020
HB, 261pp

'A love triangle with gangsters? Not a good idea.'

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Good, the Bad, and the Little Bit Stupid via NetGalley.

Unusually, Lewycka opens this book with a couple of pages setting the scene and - apparently - telling us how to approach the characters.There are George and Rosie Pantis. George, aged 79 and retired as a philosophy lecturer to write poetry (no poetry occurs). Rosie, twenty years younger and still working as a teacher to support him. Poseidon (Sid) and Cassiopeia (Cassie), their children. Sid's partner, Jacquie, pregnant and very patient with Rosie's grumbles about George. Brenda, with whom George is now living. The intro swiftly sums up the background - George's defection on that fateful night in June 2016, first to Leave in the Referendum and then to Brenda, the looming threat of financial fraud and the assurance that this isn't a book where good and bad get their just desserts and that there aren't actually any good guys here, just people with mixed up motives and different sides to them.

While useful in orienting us to the characters and where they are, I found this synopsis a little surprising and part of me, throughout the book, was ruminating on it, trying to see whether I agreed or not. Was it meant to be taken seriously? Was it a bit of sly misdirection? I'm still not sure whether that was the intended effect although I have to say it probably made me pay closer attention and That can't be a bad thing.

Indeed, close attention is merited because in discussing Rosie, George, Brenda and the rest, Lewycka is - overtly - dissecting the Brexity turmoil of the past three years in Britain. One can almost assign roles. Brenda is Leave - strident, proudly non PC. Rosie is Remain - disappointed, puzzled and, increasingly, angry. George is perhaps Everyman - tilting Leave at the last minute but for reasons that depart from the official script. And Sid, Jacquie and Cassie are, Sid muses, those who will have to put things back together in the future years and decades.

On this reading, though, Lewycka isn't even-handed but makes it clear she thinks George is a fool. The overt plot in this book focuses on a complicated piece of identity theft which draws him in. It's a far from obvious scam which involves several different factions and has some genuinely funny moments, but despite this it's clear there is something fishy going on. It is hard not to join the dots to interpret George's Leave vote as a the result of another complex scam (aided perhaps by the book's title) so - despite that intro - I think we know where we are in terms of Brexit Britain.

All that said, there is a great deal more to this book, a lot of gentle comedy laced with  misunderstandings (all round), jealousy (between Brenda and Rosie) and incompetence (the scamming crooks who are onto George). And I think Lewycka does well giving voice to the sense of hurt that many of us have ('It's the closeness of the result, it's the feeling of being cheated, it's the sense that the other side it being wilfully stupid and just doesn't understand the issue...')

It has heart, too, as Sid ponders his future relationship with Jacquie and their child. I found this very moving - Sid and Jacquie are well drawn characters, Sid, a maths lecturer, with 'Noether's theorem in his mind' (Emmy Noether deserves wider recognition!), Jacquie who is 'such a sympathetic listener that Rosie prefers talking to her, rather than to Sid...' They would, perhaps, be easy to overlook give all the hullabaloo from the others. And after a lot of setup in the opening three quarters, the book shifts up a few gears and gives us quite a different ending from what we might expect. In doing that, things suddenly move very fast, with the book covering - literally a great deal of ground in relatively few pages. I'd have welcomed more time, and detail, in this section.

There is some great, sly writing hereg: a song sung, with variations, by, among other groups 'Angela and the Muttis' and 'The Blue-Eyed Barnier Boy', the description of a certain politician: 'He's a dangerous demagogue, with his populist posturing and and mendacious mouth grinning open like a frog waiting too catch some innocent fly with his fast flicking tongue.' (Who COULD it be?). 'What is national identity', we are asked rhetorically, 'but victimhood with boots on?' More earthily - here is a kiss: 'Her lips taste of secrecy and forest chestnuts...'

As much a commentary on contemporary Britain - well, England - as Lewycka's previous books, this is a thoroughly good read. Perhaps the intro reflects the impossibility of trying to exist - to live or two write - in our current climate without taking a position while at the same time being told to get over it, move forward, unify, something which seems impossible and has to be cast forward to future generations.

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

5 March 2020

Review - The City We Became by NK Jemisin

The City We Became
NK Jemisin
Orbit, 26 March 2020
HB, 434pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a free advance copy of The City We Became.

One of the recent collections I've enjoyed most was NK Jemisin's How Long 'Til Black Future Month? which includes a story ("The City Born Great") in which New York is, literally, born - in the form of an avatar. The birth is complicated by an enemy, which wants to destroy the newborn city, but all is, in the end well.

Or maybe not.

Jemisin discussed in her introduction the origins of some of her short stories, including that some were written to try out ideas which might be the basis of longer works. So it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise - but was a delight - to see that "The City Born Great" was only the start, that rather more was going on around that difficult birth... and that the story wasn't over yet. Still isn't over, because I think (I hope!) that TCWB will have sequels.

That original episode features, slightly reworked I think, as the prologue to this novel, where the consequences and reality of a city's birth are explored in more depth. It was already clear a city-avatar isn't all powerful, but what can one do and be? Why would anyone wish to harm one? Who would wish to harm one? Answers to these questions come, sort of, but if you're conversant with your SFF, the repeated motif of tentacles and alternate dimensions may give you a hint of something that wasn't spelled out before.

The City We Became is an exciting, fast moving and high stakes story but it's more. I loved, for example, that Jemisin isn't just landing on New York as a random, if obviously appropriate (big, already much storied, impossible to ignore) city. She takes time, and takes care, to give her avatars personality, rooted in their localities.

Yes, avatarS. LocalitIES. Plural. It turns out there is more than one - in fact there is one avatar for each of the city's Boroughs: Brooklyn, The Bronx, Staten Island, Queens and Manhattan itself. And another for New York as a whole (though this, sixth, avatar is missing and in danger). As they suffer attacks from the Enemy, we learn more about each. There is an interplay here between them as people - each with a distinct history, a real place in the world, real attitudes and prejudices - and between the loci of which they are genii. For example, Bronca, avatar of The Bronx, an artist and supervisor of a community arts project, is tough, but untrusting. She's been hurt, looked down on. At first she refuses to cooperate. The other boroughs will, she declares, have to look after themselves, it's what The Bronx has always had to do. And the others also play to the characters of their boroughs whether loftily superior, stand-offish, welcoming or indeed, newly arrived. (I've never been to New York, but the characterisation here is so well done that the book would I think feature as a handy guide before a visit, indeed it conveys what a guidebook never could).

There is care and attention in this book both to the founding myth of New York - that strangers come there to be part of something, to make it - and to the reality that the history of the city is, has to be, built up from layers of colonisation, assimilation and appropriation, going back to the original swindling of the land from the native Lenape (who, nevertheless, survive to appear in this book, if disguised). This complex history is something Jemisin refuses to background: it's part of the tension between the avatars (wait till you meet Aislyn, avatar of get-off-my-lawn Staten Island). It is both their weakness, and their power.  It's part of what makes New York, New York. The unwinding of the story is about the teasing out of those historic relationships, but it's about more than history, it's also about how they build something together.

Of course many novels feature a team of strangers learning to work together. In itself that wouldn't be so special. Jemisin though does so much more with the idea. That unity in diversity, in conflict, is something she locates, I think, as the essence of New York, and coupled with the vulnerability of these avatars it makes the stakes so much higher. While they have powers, the six are located firmly within human society and face the risks that implies: one is subject to coercive control; others, people of colour, are liable at any time to the wrong sort of attention from the police; another is homeless with doubtful immigration status; and so on. Above all they have to learn what they are facing - and the alien threat is itself mutating, changing. Even the advice and support of established cities is not necessarily going to help.

And just as Jemisin is, in telling this story, acknowledging New York warts and all (the dubious origins, the racist police, the gentrification, the power of finance) so at another level she is doing the same with the genre she's working in. At one level this is a Lovecraftian horror story in which nameless evils from unspeakable depths of reality are at work. But wasn't Lovecraft a rogue, a racist and a misognynist? Well, yes. But, just as NY, founded on layers of theft, slavery and oppression can be recovered, turned into something glorious, so we see here HPL's prejudices, fears, certainties transcended. The threat here is embodied in the city's vulnerabilities - white flight neighbourhoods, trendy alt-Right artists trucking in stereotypes, those police - but these things can be faced, can be opposed, in solidarity, and love, and with trust and cooperation. That's a deeper power than just a team of oddballs learning to work together, and it's the glory of this book.

Strongly recommended.

For more about The City We Became, see the publisher's website here.

3 March 2020

Review - Neon by G S Locke

G S Locke
Orion, 20 February 2020
PB, 416pp

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

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night...

This is a unique, deeply atmospheric and unsettling exploration of the dark side of an English city with a great sense of place. It also hangs very precisely on the relationships of its protagonists which remain

The Neon killer craves attention and recognition. His victims are found posed, arranged, surrounded by handmade, unique neon signs taunting the victims, the police, the public. How this was done - amidst the hubbub of a busy city - is just as much a mystery as why and as who. Fear at the killer and anger at the police who can't catch him simmer as the killings progress...

Neon has as its principle characters Jackson, the washed up detective whose failed so far and whose failure culminated in the murder of his wife, Iris, a young woman moving in Birmingham's underworld - and the killer himself. We see the kiuller's life and motivations, the book slowly and steadily unpeeling him, but much of the mystery is retained as it isn't clear till the very end how he fits with Iris and Jackson - although he's clearly fixated on the latter.

All three are delineated well, Locke choosing to come into the story midway - there have already been several murders, Jackson is already off the case, morosely haunting coffee shops and nursing thoughts of self-destruction. This means, despite the sequence of violent and grisly killings, we don't experience the successive discovery of each. That gives the book a sense of pace and avoids repetition as well as distancing the story from glorifying violence against women, a danger I think with the serial-killer genre. This last was something I thought about quite a lot when reading Neon. Do we really need more such stories? In this case, I think Locke brings something new and distinct.

Yes, there are killings of women. Yes, Jackson is, by the time we meet him, motivated by revenge (though also by guilt). But this is balanced by the portrayal of the killer and his motivations as rooted - ultimately - in misogyny. That's a creepy and gradual portrait, done with great skill and all the better for the restraint used. We never actually see any of his murders take place, only the aftermath - unlike Iris who we do see kill several times. She is an efficient and sought-after contract killer, a complicating factor when she and Jackson come into each others' orbit and find they have no choice but to work together.

The relationship that then develops is rich and complex, both Jackson and Iris being wounded, both putting up fronts and playing parts. They depend upon each for reasons that we only partly understand - not because the book is imperfect but because there are so many depths here and not is so painful for both of them to be exploring those depths that it can only happen bit by bit. I'll just say that Iris is much more than just a hit woman, Jackson has much more driving him than revenge.

In fact that relationship is what I'll take away from this book, even more than its portrayal of a moody and threatening Birmingham, just outside the blazing lights of the busy shopping streets,  stations and public buildings.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made...

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

1 March 2020

Review - Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

Chilling Effect
Valerie Valdes
Orbit, 13 February
PB, 437pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Chilling Effect.

Valerie Valdes's debut space opera is a galloping spree of an adventure, featuring a resourceful and ruthless human hero, Captain Eva Innocente, umpteen species of aliens, a space Emperor with a bad case of entitlement and a worse attitude to women, kidnappers, ancient artifacts, bad parenting, and cats. So. Many. Cats.

And sex.

Eva is just trying to make an honest living (at last!), captaining her freighter, La Sirena Negra, and avoiding trouble. Possessor of a shady past (we are given hints but not told the full story) she thinks has got out from that but runs into trouble when her latest assignment - those cats! - goes wrong, and into even more trouble when said Emperor attempts to procure her when she stops for a break at a space station.

Then something really bad happens, and she falls into the power of The Fridge, the biggest gangster syndicate in the galaxy.

I loved the style of this book, with Eva fleeing one tight corner after another. It's a fast paced book with plenty of zapping and lots of bangs, as every assignment she undertakes turns - inevitably - into a firefight. There's a bit of the atmosphere of Douglas Adams, notably in the array of alien species - including one, the quennian, that communicates largely by smell - but most evidently in the sheer zest, the absolute intensity, of the writing: Valdes is clearly having fun.

It's more than that, though. Despite the fractured, episodic quality of the story - with little time wasted on travel between the various planets, Gates and other sites of interest - there is emotional heart here as Eva must negotiate her own past, her relationship with her father and sister,  her dealings with her crew who seem devoted to her (a devotion she hardly shows much sign of deserving) and most of all, her feelings for Vakar, one of the quennians and an alien for who she has more then a bit of a thing going.

Reader: prepare for a lot of "Will they, Won't they?", conflicted feelings, Duty vs Desire and even some Secrets as a backdrop to all the mayhem. The two strands balance perfectly, keeping us in tension through most of the story but giving... release... where it counts. It's a fun read.

Also packed with SF and cultural references (a moisture farmer who wants to fly space ships, the possibility of attacking a space station with a lucky shot into an exhaust, a woman in a fridge, a bit of "well actually" that leads to trouble) that you'll enjoy spotting and with psychic cats*, this is an entertaining and joyful novel which seems certain to be the start of a popular series.

(I would say, you might brush up on your Spanish before reading, Eva tends to lapse into Spanish in moments of stress).

For more about the book and to read an extract, visit the Orbit website here.

*We could actually see more of the cats? Please?

27 February 2020

#NetGalley #Review - By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

By Force Alone
Cover design by David Wardle
Lavie Tidhar
Head of Zeus, 5 March 2020
HB, 505pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of By Force Alone via NetGalley.

'If you expect Enlightenment to occur centuries hence you are sure to be disappointed'


Where can I even start with Tidhar's latest? There is so much to this book, it's hard to know where to begin. I'm tempted just to say you should buy it, and then sign off, but I need to do better than that.

By Force Alone takes as its theme the life of King Arthur, previously invented, narrated, embroidered, reinvented, retold over hundreds of years and also subject to numerous quests for the "real" Arthur, the "real" truth. What we have is, then, another retelling, but a retelling shaped for the times, reflecting our early 21st century, late capitalist, preoccupations...

...as is every retelling of these stories.

Tidhar summarises this process in an Afterword, which also puts the subject in its historical context, sketching what is known of the corresponding actual history of Britain in a period when it had broken from being part of a pan-European polity and had to make its own way in the world. That situation is, as best anyone can tell, the "real" background to Arthur, if there is such a thing - the post Roman period, from which few written records survive but which seems to have been foundational in producing what would later be called England. (One little quibble is the phrase 'The Dark Ages': just no!)

In the course of this book Tidhar actually sketches a very convincing picture of this period, one in which Roman towns, infrastructure (roads, mines, aquaducts) and - though sketchily - political structures still survive, albeit decaying, and in which various local "bosses" survive, claiming various forms of legitimacy but all holding power, in the end, by force alone - a repeated mantra in this book. The former Roman provinces are divided into tenuous "kingdoms", based on geography, tribal allegiance and opportunity - both credible historically and reflecting the nature of the Arthurian tales which abound in petty kings.

As the story proceeds, locations, which initially correspond to real places (Google some and you'll see) become vaguer, introducing legendary and possibly mythical places such as Camelot and Camlann. We are, then, moving from what is known, what can be inferred, into the mists of history. In keeping with that, we repeatedly see the impatience of rulers with mere practical questions such as how to keep the aqueducts working or supply food to the miners toiling in the - still just working - Roman gold-mines, and their immediate interest when it comes to hunting down groups of bandits or challenging each other for the top table. As we move into those mists, the sword's the thing, the trappings of civilisation fall away (though, how Merlin yearns for a decent library!)

Entertainingly, Tidhar sets up a comparison between these rulers and organised crime syndicates: mafia language proliferates with knights being "made" men, the objectives of the bosses being trafficking, protectionism and prostitution, there is mention of the omnium ducibus dux, the bosses of all the bosses, 'the sort of offer you couldn't refuse' refuse, and so on. There is one scene where the mobsters, sitting in the street and eating olives as though on the Aventine, reflect on how things were done in the Old Country, from which their parents and grandparents came.

The message is that this isn't the age of chivalry, Arthur's band of soldiers are not good Christian knights despite the many Sir thises and Sir that's (indeed, Christianity is a shadowy, somewhat marginal faith here). Nobody here is following a cause: Arthur's actions in seeking to unite Britannia (England isn't a thing yet) are all about getting, and enjoying power. 'He cares only that it is his commands that are obeyed, that on his word men live or die'. Merlin's, too, in supporting him - as a Fan, Merlin feeds on power.  And Arthur's prepared to deploy populist rhetoric to achieve that ('They want our land. They want our wealth. They want our women', 'Like the Roman, I seem to see the Tiber foaming with much blood'). He's just like a - well, insert the name of your favourite lying populist demagogue, there are plenty to choose from. There are no principles here. 'It occurs to [Merlin] that this sort of patter will never quite fail. Perhaps in centuries hence this sort of crap would still light up people's hearts.'

And if you recognised one of those quotes, it's because it comes from a 20th century English politician, not from Thomas Mallory or Geoffrey of Monmouth. Tidhar uses such anachronisms ruthlessly [more examples] and quite fittingly, given that the whole setup of knights in armour, castles, squires, chivalry and jousting which we associate with Arthur is itself totally anachronistic, dating from nearly a thousand years after the time of Arthur (if there ever was such a time).

Equally fitting is the exploration here of the place of the Arthur myth in the national psyche - a myth which sits uneasily with the long accepted narrative of a state founded by Angle and Saxon invaders, given that Arthur is cast as one of the natives. (The dirty secrets of England's foundation is a subject ripe for fiction, that narrative of the triumphant incoming Germanic tribes long suited a culture seeking justification for an imperial destiny but doesn't sit so well in post-colonial times).

Tidhar is absolutely the right person, I think, to carry out this exploration. Many of his recent books (for example, A Man Lies Dreaming and Unholy Land) reveal a fascination with pulp literature and its myth-making, whether that is intended or not. In a sense, the whole Arthurian cycle and the way it has developed, with its origin myths, reboots and team-ups - is the ultimate body of pulp literature, made up as it is of tales of heroes performing wildly improbably feats, created to satisfy the demand for brightly coloured exploits and coming to fruition when printing allowed mass distribution. I've no doubt there were worthies in 15th century England denouncing the influence of  this trashy stuff on the young.

In Tidhar's hands the latest rewrite of The Matter of Britain hits all the right notes and as ever with this writer, the breadth of cultural references is impressive and, again, impressively anachronistic. Tidhar evokes Shakespeare (often, but especially through the witches from Macbeth), Trainspotting ('Choose life. Choose a home. Choose a great big fat palace to stuff all your money in...'), Blade Runner ('attack ships on fire off the coast of Smyrna'), Gangs of New York ('Everybody owes and everybody pays, as the poet said' - appropriate, given how he sketches London), TS Eliot, 20th century myths such as the speculation of Erich von Daniken and much, much more.

At the same time, all the familiar figures ands tropes are here: not only Merlin and Arthur, but the Round Table, Sir Pellinore and the Questing Beast (possibly the only two genuinely good and pure characters here), Kay and Hector as Arthur's foster family, the Nine Sisters (though here the 'ladies of the lakes and streams', still dispensers of swords, have become enthusiastic arms traders).  Lancelot and Guinevere are here (though given exciting backstories: both are now kick-ass assassins, but while Guinevere is an ex-highwaywoman with her own girl gang, Lancelot - a Nubian - is a member of a mystic sect form Judea, trained in the ancient art of gongfu and ready to deliver such moves as 'the Monkey's Paw and the King in Yellow and the Turn of the Screw'.

There is the Dolorous Stroke that wounds the King and inflicts sickness on the land. Tidhar puts his own emphasis on things - the Lancelot/ Guinevere thing is passed over in a few pages, the whole Grail Quest gets a completely different twist on it which I'm saying nothing about because it would spoil things

The book also looks forward ('Perhaps... one day all of this land will speak in Anglisc, and they'll re-surface the old Roman roads and ride down them in horseless chariots, like dragons belching smoke...') ('As though swiping through images only she can see') and Tidhar's use of language sometimes shows the same place across time (for example 'The Romans' once-new castle on the Tyne' or the scenes in which Guinevere and her companions, travelling in the North East, seem to encounter coal smoke, the incessant din of industry and the flames of furnaces and forges.

Overall, it is I think a dark take on the Arthurian material. A very dark take. I'm reminded of Michael Hughes' Country, which uses the Homeric narrative of the Trojan War to frame the story of the Troubles in Ireland. Both retellings use a familiar narrative to illuminate the present and both are stories of bloodshed and loss, with many dodgy protagonists. Both end in bloodshed and loss. But while Country manages to achieve some closure, the ending of By Force Alone is a devastating assassination of any cosy, nation-building mythicness that one might look for in the Arthurian cycle. Not only has Tidhar exploded the internal content of the cycle, substituting amorality and power lust for the chilly literary chivalry of the late Middle Ages but he's shown how that cycle will be appropriated by the victors from the losers (' The Angles and the Saxons are here to stay, dear Merlin... They'll tell this story and think it is about themselves it's told...') Another point of reference might be a story that ends with these words, from an earlier retelling: 'For Drake is no longer in his hammock... nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and its is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive...'

Another complicated, thought provoking and many-layered novel from Tidhar whose books are definitely a must-read for me, taking in a dazzling range of themes and perspectives.

For more information about By Force Alone, see the Head of Zeus website here.

25 February 2020

Review - The Light Years by RWW Greene

The Light Years
RWW Greene
Angry Robot, 11 February 2020
PB, 327pp

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

The Light Years is a slightly different take on science fiction. Focussing on two central characters, Hisako Saski and Adem Sadiq, who are contracted by their parents to marry. The twist is that while Adem, a young man in his 20s, is aware of the deal (even if he didn't actually seek it), Hisako isn't even born yet.

What evens things up is special relativity. Adem's family make their living aboard a trader starship, able to travel every close to the speed of light. A few months spent aboard for him is equivalent to ten or twenty years for those left behind. This is the truth of relativity, a branch of physics often conveniently ignored in SF. Here, it's a cornerstone of the plot. For Adem and Hisako, it means that by the time he's returned from his latest trip, she has been born, gone through childhood, adolescence, taken her degree at university, fallen in and out of love, formed a band (and left it) and much more.

And she's learned what her contracted fate is. She must marry Adem - the bargain ensuring life, she would have literally been illegal otherwise under the strict birth control laws of her homeward - and remain married for two years. There are no other obligations, yet understandably, Hisako resents Adem and she resents the choices her parents made on her behalf.

On the whole, Greene explores this situation - for both Adem and Hisako - with tact and empathy, allowing his characters to breathe and to drive what subsequently happens. Portraying Hisako is more difficult, obviously, because the book covers more than 20 years of her life and they are turbulent years, years of development and change. Understandably, not a great deal happens to Adem in the few months of his life before the wedding. It's frustrating that Hisako's life over the corresponding period has to be represented by individual episodes showing her as a young girl, at high school, and then as a somewhat stroppy teenager. These scenes have to do a great deal of work in showing Hisako grow up and I was impressed that Greene manages to do this so well given the am out that couldn't be shown. It would have been perfectly reasonable to give Hisako a whole book and Adem a few pages at the end, really.

Another main theme here is the unequal, far-future society in which Hisako, Adem and their parents live. There are stark disparities between rich and poor, no sign of democracy and many unregistered, indeed illegal, "refugees" who, if they are lucky, end up in shanty towns such as "la Merde", if unlucky, frozen forever in stasis posts or trafficked virtually as slaves. It becomes clear that these "refugees", like everybody else, have fled Earth before it was destroyed in a solar flare, sealed I those pods. The fortunes of humanity depended very much on who arrived first and who arrived where - this, of course, being influenced by their position and wealth n the first place. They result is a society scattered across several planets where a war of all against all is vigorously fought.

Key to the future of the remaining colonies is the most technology of Earth, embodied in the ancient starships, various drifting wrecks and in scattered instances of the dead cultures and societies that created it. The goal of many - including Adem's parents - is to get themselves a piece of that knowledge. That part of the plot didn't, for me, motivate quite so much as the simple, touching plight of the two young people and their need to navigate their complex society.

This is a refreshingly intelligent SF story, with few bangs and zaps (indeed the only real section of combat occurs in an immersive simulation which Hisako plays - learning as she does how much propaganda and hate there is against the inhabitants of "la Merde"). Rather, problems are solved by courage, intelligence and negotiation, the chief obstacles being lack of trust and lack of knowledge.

Its perhaps then not for everyone but I found it an excellent read and once I began, it pretty much didn't leave my hands till I was finished.

For more information about The Light Years, see the publisher's website here.

23 February 2020

Review - False Value by Ben Aaronovitch

My copy. MINE...
False Value (Rivers of London, 8)
Ben Aaronovitch
Gollancz, 20 February 2020
HB, 404pp

I'm really, inordinately pleased that I was able to buy a copy of False Value at Ben Aaronovitch's signing at Blackwell's in the Oxford Westgate - so to mark that, I'm using here not the jacket picture from Gollancz but the picture I took of MY copy afterwards when having a celebratory curry nearby. (No books were harmed during consumption of said curry).

It was a fun evening. Aaronovitch was in conversation with Rebecca F. Kuang, author of The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic (which I also got signed) and they discussed diversity in books, London, how Aaronovitch did his research (he has no time for authors who get detail wrong like confusing Chinese and Korean names: with the Internet, he said, there are no excuses), why there is no attempt to edit Rivers to aid the understanding of US readers, why Foxglove Summer was written as an act of revenge, what might appear in Ben and Rebecca's future books, and the glories of copy editors. You get good value at an Aaronovitch signing.
Ben and Rebecca in full flow
OK - so what about the book, David? (Also, do you actually intend to review the 8th in this massively popular series? What is there to say? The presumption!)

Well, there is quite a bit to say, I think. Not every massively popular series is still going strong by Book 8. Some become formulaic, continuing to please the fans but not really justifying another book... and another, and another.

Not true of Rivers of London, though. False Value finds us in quite a new place and Aaronovitch exploits this to excellent effect. After the events of Lies Sleeping, Peter faces an uncertain future - suspended from the Met and now starting a new job as security at a tech startup based near the Old Street "Silicon Roundabout" (London's go-to quarter for would be dotcom entrepreneurs - this being London, I should perhaps, London's go-to quarter for much-mocked would be dotcom entrepreneurs). Other things are changing too - the Folly is being redeveloped, the Met is suffering brutal budget cuts (taking out not only officers but canteens!) and Beverley, Peter's river goddess girlfriend, is expecting.
...all mine!
Back to that new job. The Serious Cybernetics Corporation (and yes, the book does abound with Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy puns and references) needs a good pair of eyes - and hands - to track down a rat, a rogue who's messing with the systems logs and, perhaps, trying to get where they ought not to be. A rat among the workers known as "mice" (Yes, one of those references). And Peter has the background to help with this. Recruited by ex-Met colleague Tyrel Johnson, he's soon on the case.

This being a Rivers of London novel, though, Peter's never going to be far away from the weird shit. It's fun to see him get to grip with things on his own, with little or no backup (there are of course favours to be called in, rules to be bent) and to learn more in the process about Aaronovitch's alternate London (and indeed, about the actual London). We hear a lot in False Value about how magic is policed in the US, and events in the book link back not only to Lovelace and Babbage and early computing in 19th century London but also to going's on in Silicon Valley. 

(Maybe this is prepping us for future developments?)

This is, I think, a more confident, capable Peter than we've seen before. Despite his setting being quite different, he's on top of things and he's not being run ragged by the Faceless Man or Lesley May. While there is, somewhere, a scary antagonist this book is, compared to some of the previous instalments more a game of chess than a deadly thriller (though it does lead up to a nail biting conclusion) and the pace allows for interludes such as Beverley holding an impromptu river goddess pageant (naturally, bringing together everyone Peter wanted kept apart...) an event that allows Aaronovitch to show just why the two are close (his portrayal of this complex relationship, visibly deepening through the series, is one of the things I like most about these books).

It's in many respects a more straightforward story than many of the earlier books (which is not to say it's simple to follow - there are some fiendish turns to the plot) with no villainous mastermind in sight (or out of sight). The solution to the mystery turns neatly on both information from previous stories and hints dropped here (no spoilers, but watch carefully...) but potentially takes the Rivers series into deeper and darker territory than before: the books are, in a sense, outgrowing London with the threats Peter is now facing not arising from the deep ghost soil of London (Mr Punch, the Faceless Man's cabal of banker would-be sorcerers) but coming from somewhere quite beyond, somewhere deeper.

There is still a lot of humour here - the ridiculous startup culture of the SCC or the the dry wit of Nightingale, who makes several appearances. There is dark humour focussing for example on the downsized Met There is also plain darkness (besides the threat that emerges, we learn more about what happened in the Eckersberg forest). What there isn't, is any sign, hint or trace of this series becoming stale or flagging in any way. Rather this series is ion rude health. There is clearly more to explore in and beyond magical London and I look forward to reading another instalment soon.

15 February 2020

Review - The Catch by Mick Herron

The Catch (Slough House)
Mick Herron
John Murray, 9 January 2020
HB, 105pp

I bought my copy of The Catch.

'They came for him at dawn...'

Even seeking, as I do, to look ahead at what books are coming up, I still sometimes get surprised (and it's always a nice surprise) as I was last weekend when I spotted The Catch in an Oxford bookshop.

While it's set in Herron's Slough House universe - that being the repository for the failed spies and burned out cases of the Security Service - this book and its predecessor, The Drop, are really a little sequence of their own. John Bachelor, the main character here, is certainly washed-up enough to belong at Slough House but he has fallen through even that safety net and in The Drop we saw him only a misstep away from sleeping on the streets. Bachelor was saved form that by taking over the flat of an ex-asset who he's been looking after and who conveniently died, but there's always payback and in The Catch, Bachelor wakes to hear the first of the Service knocking on his front door.

Or rather, on Solomon Dortmund's (RIP) front door.

From that moment we're back in Herron's usual, convoluted, battle of wits. Bachelor knows the Service have him bang too rights - but is there anything about the way they've approached him, about who's approached him, most of all, about what they've asked him to do, that might give him an edge?

It's a clever story, right up to date with current events. The "request" made of Bachelor is for him to track down an ex burglar and blackmailer, someone he should have been monitoring anyway but hasn't - so now he has ground to make up.

I really enjoyed this little slice of Service life. We've seen in the conventional Slough House novels those times when the authorities at Regent's Park need to bring in Jackson Lamb's dregs and sweepings, and we've seen them acquit themselves well, but we shouldn't conclude from that that the Park are always incompetent.

Nor should we conclude that Slough House is where all the sleaze belongs. By the end of this story we'll have encountered plenty of that and, as I said, it's very topical stuff.

Perhaps a degree less noirish than the main Slough House novels, The Catch (The Drop) are deeply atmospheric, following Bachelor from pub to pub across London as he seeks his quarry, showing us a shady world of men who don't have quite enough to do, or enough money to do it with, or frankly, anyone to care what they do.

Things don't look too good for John Bachelor - when I read my next Slough House book I'll be thinking of him out there somewhere and wondering if we'll ever meet him again.

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

12 February 2020

Review - The Library of the Unwritten by AJ Hackwith

The Library of the Unwritten: A Novel from Hell's Library
A J Hackwith
Titan Books, 11 February 2020
PB, 448pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of The Library of the Unwritten to consider for review.

The Unwritten Wing, presided over by its Head Librarian, Claire, is where all the unfinished - and completely unwritten - books are stored.

It's also situated in a corner of Hell...

The Library of the Unwritten features an entertaining - and slightly scary - band of characters: Claire herself (who as a Librarian is of course pretty formidable), her apprentice, Brevity (an ex-Muse), the angel Ramiel ("The Thunder of God"), novice demon Leto and Hero, who has absconded from his book. (We soon learn that Claire is as much jailer as Librarian, responsible for preventing Characters from escaping their books and wandering the world). While in some ways an odd bunch, they're also reassuringly normal - Brevity suffers panic attacks, Hero is a bit of a poser, Claire has a dazzling sense of duty but is driven by something that I can't say any more about because spoilers, Leto is a vulnerable teenager on the cusp between humanity and demonhood, and Ramiel has spent earns repenting a mistake and trying, with little success, to earn forgiveness. Together they squabble, battle and and hunt their way through a succession of the Realms of the afterlife, hunting for a dangerous - and forbidden - book.

This gives Hackwith the opportunity to set up some intriguing - and exciting - encounters. What happens, for example, when an angel or a demon wanders out of its own context and ends up in Valhalla, or an an Ancient Greek underworld? You'd think it could be something off a mishmash - but in fact Hackwith deploys a forensic logic throughout, which, coupled with the strong characterisation here, makes even the most unlikely scenarios plausible.

As the hunt for that most threatening of books proceeds, Claire and her team are forced to confront parts of themselves they would rather not, or which they have managed to forget, and to reflect where their true loyalties and loves lie. Even Hero, who sprang fully formed form his book, proved to have regrets and unfinished business and also something to prove out in the real world. There are some shocking revelations. Our heroes (and Hero) are also pushed to their wits' end to protect the Library, which is also, it seems, in danger.

There has been a mini wave recently of fantasy featuring resourceful librarians and the importance of books, which is not surprising I think as librarians are important people as are books (yes, I do mean people, books, here, ARE people). It also reflects the delightfully fluid, ambiguous nature of books and reading as both reflecting and creating reality. The Library of the Unwritten is a worthy addition to these, bringing to the genre its own distinct strand of ethical and theological commentary which underlies everything the team here get up and means their actions have visible and serious consequences.

It's all great fun and I look forward to seeing how this series evolves in future books.

For more about The Library of the Unwritten, see the publisher's website here.

9 February 2020

Review - The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood

The Unspoken Name
Art by Billelis
AK Larkwood
Tor (Macmillan), 20 February 2020
HB, 462pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Unspoken Name to consider for review.

There's an inevitable comparison (or perhaps reference point) to be made with The Unspoken Name and it seems best to address it right away: The Tombs of Atuan. In the second part of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea sequence (published in 1970) the young wizard Sparrowhawk comes to the eponymous Tombs seeking an ancient ring, for Reasons, and becomes trapped. The Tombs - an underground labyrinth - are holy to mysterious old gods, served by young priestess Tenar (dedicated to the Old Powers as a child) who eventually rescues Sparrowhawk and escapes with him. Or he rescues her, perhaps.

The setup at the start of Unspoken Name is very similar, with Csorwe, the fourteen year-old Chosen Bride of the Unspoken, a dedicated priestess due shortly to be sacrificed to her god in its underground temple. Close to its start, the book has one of the most arresting sentences I've ever seen: 'One month before the day of Csorwe's death, a stranger came to the House of Silence'. The stranger is wizard Balthandor Sethennai, who will be the one to tempt Csorwe into betraying her god.

Or perhaps to save her from it.

So, yes, there are parallels here which I spotted right away.

All that is, though, only in the first few pages. Once Csorwe has made off, the stage is set for the very interesting followup, the part of the story which Le Guin never wrote - What Happens Next. Even when Le Guin returned to Earthsea decades later, we saw only an older Tenar. Here, we get to see a young woman growing up, while living with crushing shame (she ran away from her life's purposes! She betrayed her god!) and wrestling with a sense of debt and obligation to an older man, who, yes, 'rescued' her - but who then controls and use her as his agent while acting with a complete... blankness? A lack of empathy? towards her.

And that is a fascinating, well-told and involving story.

Of course there's more, much more to it than that "What Happened Next". World-shaking events are going on, or might come about, around Csorwe and Sethennai. He seeks not a ring but a legendary reliquary, an object of great power which, in the wrong hands, could allow a god to be embodied - we're led to believe this would be a very bad thing indeed. There is, of course, another party after the Reliquary so we seem to have the makings of a conflict and there are some well-told, Indiana Jone style setpieces taking places in forsaken ruins on dying worlds.

But that's not where the heart of this book is, I think. What Larkwood is interested in - and this becomes increasingly clear - is the relationships between Csorwe and Sethennai but also with Tal (a young man Sethennai has scooped up in much the same way as Csorwe) and with others whose identities I won't give as they would be spoilers. The theme recurs, though, of how Sethennai uses people, how they feel they owe him, how they long for little moments of attention, for his parse and regard - and of how he can discard and turn away from them.

The highs and lows of Csorwe's life are driven by those relationships.

After her 'rescue' Sethennai has her trained in combat, as well as all the other skills required for skulking round ancient tombs and nicking stuff. She's Sethannai's agent, his operative, driven by a desire to please him and show gratitude - which leads her to great suffering, but never seems to make more impression on him than might say his dog learning a new trick.

Csorwe's relationship with Tal is characterised by jealousy on both their parts and by a desire from both to succeed in whatever task Sethannai sets and to bask in their master's favour.  It's notable that Sethennai does nothing to reassure them that, say, he values them both, rather there's something of a dysfunctional family thing going on here made only worse by the various machinations needed first to restore Sethennai to his ancestral throne and then to seek the Reliquary.

Larkwood continually wrongfoots her readers, setting up alliances and enmities that pressure this triangular relationship but which are then blurred and confused and the plot advances. There is a refreshing lack of moral certainty - absolutely no bright lines of good and evil (the closest to the latter being, perhaps, a certain Inquisitor who does some pretty terrible things but who still thinks that she's acting in the best interests of her state).

Look, for example, at Csorwe's position. She was raised by the House of Silence, fed, educated, sheltered and cared for. All she has to do at fourteen is to go to the Unspoken (and, presumably, die although nobody knows exactly how). The House of Silence is something of a death cult, yes, but it's not trying to take over the world - the Unspoken is one of many gods, or fragments of gods, whose main interaction with the world is through the wizards who channel them (some of these seem to be benign characters, other less so). Running away from all this scarred her and it does have its consequences, but the central facts of Csorwe's life are, really, something very close to being her family situation and, as she learns more of the world, her feelings for another young woman which she has as much difficulty understanding and processing as anyone else falling in love for the first time and having to weigh that against duty and position.

In exploring this, interior, side of life The Unspoken Name does something which I'm still not accustomed to seeing very often in fantasy, goes to places where we don't typically spend much time, and that makes for great reading - an exciting story on all levels, underpinned by emotional truth (especially, the need to plot one's own course, overcoming both manipulation and expectations) and featuring flawed, quirky and recognisable characters.

There's also great worldbuilding - I love Larkwood's idea of the Maze, a kind of extradimensional space of rocky valleys, lakes and islands within which are set gates leading into the various different worlds where the story takes place (including some that are dying: it's clear that the Maze in some sense a substrate for everything else as in the dying worlds it begins to show through). The gates are a key feature, attracting trading posts where Maze ships cluster to refuel and take on supplies, news and passengers.

It is great fun to read, very convincing, has wicked vein of humour (I laughed out loud at, especially, some of Tal's tart remarks) and can I have more please?

For more about The Unspoken Name, see the publisher's website here.