12 April 2021

#Review - Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Jacket art by Tommy Arnold
Design by Jamie Stafford-Hill
Harrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, 2)
Tamsyn Muir
tor.com, 4 August 2020
Available as: HB, 507pp, e, audio
Source: online audio subscription (read by Moira Quirk)
ISBN (HB) 9781250313225

Harrow the Ninth is essentially Gideon the Ninth but dialled up several notches more (how is that possible?) with even more moving parts and a LOT more bones. It must have been exhausting to write.

Having survived the spooky, far future "And Then There Were None" of Canaan House, and finally achieved Lyctorhood, Harrowhark Nonegesimus finds herself in a remote space station, the refuge of the Emperor and his Saints, accompanied by some of said Saints, a motley lot. They are supposed to be training for the ultimate showdown with a Resurrection Beast and its Heralds, and there is much discussion of tactics - but Harrow is more concerned that  somebody is (or somebodies are) trying to kill her. Again.

The story plays out over several months leading up to... well an event that I won't name for spoiler reasons although it is well foreshadowed. Muir plays evil games with her timeline, popping back and forward months, weeks, hours, always anchoring things on that event, but only coming to describe it very late in the book.

She also includes side-trips back to Canaan House, where an alternate version of the events in Gideon the Ninth seems to be playing out, a darker version (really!) with a slightly different cast of characters. That's related to events in Harrow's present(s), of course, but it also gives an opportunity to reacquaint oneself with the rich cast of characters from the earlier book. We also meet the rest of the Lyctors (that motley crowd) in the "now". They really are a beguiling, infuriating, varied lot, having survived ten thousand years as servants of their Emperor and acquired ten thousand years' of grudges and regrets. 

It's clear that there is a great deal going on here - plots and politics, personal agendas, romance and long-nurtured rivalries. It all goes back to the roots of the Emperor's necromancy but also casts light on more recent events - some of those flashbacks are to Gideon's and Harrow's early lives and we learn a great deal about them. I didn't follow everything that happened - perhaps the decision to listen to the book, rather than reading it, and over several weeks, made this harder, although it brought compensations: the vivacity with which the narrator, Moira Quirk, reads the story, creating dozens of different personas for the various characters and actually morphing from one to another when certain things take place. (Without spoiling things, I will say that precisely who some of these voices are at particular points is important, and sometimes unexpected).

Overall, a treat for fans of necromancy (and who isn't?) though this is not a book to read - or listen to - unless you have read the first part of the trilogy. Not only will you be at sea but you'll miss various riffs on the first book and some things which are absolutely revelatory here will lose their power if you read them out of order.

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

10 April 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Lucy Holland
Macmillan, 1 April 2021
Available as: HB, 416pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(HB): 9781529039030

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Sistersong and to Jamie and Stephen for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Sistersong is a generously imagined and well told story rooted in the sub-Roman period, when Britain was no longer defended by the Empire but "England" had not yet formed. It's a story of family, love, revenge and treachery but above all I think a story of becoming what one is - and the costs doing that can accrue. 

This period of this book is sometime described as the "dark ages" -  a term originally used because of the lack of contemporary written records, but which is now used less because on hearing it many imagine a time of barbarism and decay, which (as this book shows) it was not. It's also sometimes seen the "age of Arthur", a British leader defending his people against the invading Saxons. Again, though, the historical records are scant. But this is a setting that gives an author a great deal of room and Holland takes full advantage, placing this story in a definable place - the kingdom of Dumnonia, in what is now South West England - and associating it with real people (her King, Cador, his successor Contantine, and their Saxon opponents). To these she adds a conflict between the old religion of Celtic paganism and the new Christianity represented by the priest Gildas - also a real person, who wrote one of the few contemporary histories of Britain. (I loved the way that Gildas's actual habit of denouncing pretty much everybody in his writings carries through to acrimonious relationships with nearly everyone else here.) 

The main focus of Sistersong is though not on the historical characters but on the fictional Riva, Keyne and Sinne. Cador's three children are vividly portrayed and only too plausible. The story is told from their viewpoints, Holland switching between them - shifts which sometimes preserve the flow of events, sometimes deliberately jar them, but which always illuminate, showing an event from two or even three perspectives as well as giving the reader a fuller picture than any of the characters here

Of the three, Riva and Sinne are the "twa sisters" of the traditional murder ballad which, as as Holland has explained, was the inspiration for the book: Keyne is the one the ballad left out, for reasons which become clear. It's the relationships between them which really drive the story, each wanting something different. 

One seeks love and adventure. 

Another, injured and (as she sees it) disfigured in a fire as a child, retreats into books and her magical talent for healing, but deep inside, may yearn for other things. 

The third would lead, but is in a society where that seems unlikely, and fears that society seems likely to impose.

The ups and downs of their relationships both affect and illuminate the wider political events - war, invasion, religious conflict and the loss of magic - which will determine the future of Dumnonia and, later, of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which will become England. 

I loved the way that in this book, Holland foregrounds the struggles of the three relatable (if at times frustrating) young people who are doing their "growing ups" just as the tides of history lap the walls of their hill-fort.  Both sides of the story are urgent, and nobody really understands what is going. We, as privileged 21st century readers, may imagine we do - but we don't. It may be tempting to assume that because we know how things turned out eventually, we understand everything. But no. This is such an unknown period, and Holland so cleverly brings in different factors (I don't want to do spoilers!) that nothing is certain except, perhaps, change and loss. Personal loss as childhood familiarity gives way to new battle lines: wider loss as the old ways are challenged. But not without a fight!

I just loved this book, which portrays a complex historical situation without giving way to the tendency to paint heroes and villains (if there were a villain in this book, it might be Gildas who perhaps appears at times as a slightly monomaniacal person - though once the full truth about him is made known, the reader may slightly revise this point of view). There are nods to what people will recall of the Arthurian stories (especially with one character) but this isn't an attempt to "retell" those - Holland instead creates a world here with echoes in history and in other sources, but which is fully her own.

Overall, a compelling story filled with magic, romance,  and adventure and with some contemporary resonances.

For more information about Sistersong, see the blogtour stops on the poster below - or the publisher's website here. You can buy the book from your local shop (in England you'll be able to go in person next week!) or online from Bookshop, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

8 April 2021

#Review - The Cottingley Cuckoo by AJ Elwood

The Cottingley Cuckoo
AJ Elwood (Alison Littlewood)
Titan Books, 14 April 2021
Available as: PB, 368pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN (PB): 9781789096859

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance e-copy of The Cottingley Cuckoo via NetGalley to consider for review.

'I want to see my mum, just once, for a little while, I want to tell her that this can't be me; I'm not ready'

I've previously loved Elwood's horror novels, written as Alison Littlewood, and was intrigued to see this one, which moves onto slightly different ground

Rose is a young woman who has dropped out of university, at first to care for her dying mother but then to make a home with Paul (who her mother disapproved of). Now, although she seems to have dropped any idea of resuming her degree and has instead found work at the Sunnyside Care Home she still dreams of "getting out", living perhaps in 'a house in a forest, a turret reaching up amid the branches, a circular room lined with shelves where I'll keep my mother's books'. That's what Paul says he loves about her - that she "believes". But Rose is becoming increasingly obsessed with, her belief engaged by, one of her clients - the intimidating Mrs Favell, a woman who seems almost like a tourist at Sunnyside - and with the story, told in a batch of letters, which Favell lets her read.

That story takes us back to the 1920s, and to the nearby town of Cottingley where a couple of young girls (Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright) claimed to have photographed fairies - claims, and photographs, which were taken seriously in an age before Photoshop, including by the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a noted Spritualist and believer in the supernatural. Mrs Favell's letters (how did she get them?) tell of another family in Cottingley, the Fentons, one subject to a bizarre chain of misfortunes and inexplicable events, in which Lawrence Fenton tries without success to interest Sir Arthur. 

Gradually, Rose begins to suspect Charlotte Favell of being the Charlotte of the letters, impossible as it seems. And as Rose discovers herself unexpectedly pregnant, apparently cementing her future with Paul, she begins to see her life through the lens of the letters which Favell teasingly doles out, one at a time. Rose comes to believe that she is living through similar, fairy-haunted episodes to those described one hundred years before.

I have to say, I found this book just incredibly good, so powerful and so true. Elwood has captured, in the same story, two apparently very different narratives, deriving from very different times and manners. Rose is a wonderful, though sad, depiction of a young woman who just seems to have got lost. She's hardly over the grief of her mother's death - not over it, in fact - when Paul moves in on her. (I don't think we're meant to dislike Paul, really, but I found it hard to not regard him as a real snare for Rose.) Then Rose has the misfortune to cross paths with Mrs Favell, a clever, mysterious woman who certainly has secrets and perhaps, answers. There is, at the very least, a powerful sense of enchantment, perhaps a kind of Mesmerism, between the two.

And then - pregnancy, birth, the extreme stress of learning to live with a young child. 

O Rose. 

I so felt for Rose, struggling to come to terms with all this, with the doubts about everything - herself, her child. Newborns are hard work. So much about Rose, to me, seemed to be flashing warnings that she needed help, and it's here that Elwood really gets going, producing a glorious, emotionally rending and deeply ambiguous story that leaves you not knowing if Rose's suspicions about her son Alexander - she fears he is a changeling - are symptoms of her mental state, or insights generated by it, or perhaps both. 

All the themes that follow - life and death, the strange existence of a being that owes its whole basis to your care and nourishment, the grief of a mother whose daughter has gone from her and a daughter whose mother is dead - wrap around this. Rose's pregnancy is the time she needs, wants her mother most. The descriptions of scans, of the birth and its aftermath so cleverly and affectingly combine a matter-of -act, objective depiction of what happened with the gulf of unsatisfied feelings that lies beneath ('I realise they're waiting for me to do it - to be a mother')

You can read the story as one of obsession and delusion, or as one of violation and cruelty. It's full of opposites clinging to one another: the perception, hanging over from the Victorians, of fairies as dainty little beings of beauty and light, contrasting with folkloric amoral, cruel creatures. The desire to possess what one loves, distorting and eventually maiming or killing it. And much more. The narrative becomes tricksy, Rose perhaps a not completely reliable narrator, not even to herself - does she really not know what become of the fairytale books from among her mother's collection? ('Did they vanish into the air? ... Was the memory even true...?') Later Rose will have more serious doubts as gaps open up in her reality, prompting her to recall those whose brief stays in Fairyland lasted years in our time. 

This book is... oh, it's so sad, so human. Rose and Paul are, in a real sense, talking past one another. Of the two, Rose is I think the deeper, the more thoughtful, but she is suffering for it. Perhaps they might have been able to resolve that, but the baby comes along and shifts the dynamic. Rose suspects Paul of having messed with her pills to bring this about, a mystery that's never returned to but a sign either of basic mistrust on her part or of unforgivable duplicity on his - not a firm basis for a relationship either way. 

So this book is in a sense an unravelling, a disenchantment, at the same time as it explores all the ways that, and the extent to which, we wish to be enchanted, to believe, or perhaps, to find and possess someone who does themselves believe - with all that harm that will follow from that possession.

It is not a horror story. 

It is a horror story. 

It's just amazing.

For more information about The Cottingley Cuckoo, see the publisher's website here.

6 April 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Rites of Spring by Anders de la Motte

Rites of Spring (Seasons Quartet, 4)
Anders de la Motte (Translated by Marlaine Delargy)
Zaffre, 1 April 2021
Available as: PB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy 
ISBN: 9781785769481

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Rites of Spring to consider for review, and to Tracy for inviting me to take part in the blogtour for this book.

Firmly in the category of folk horror, but cutting over into crime, Rites of Spring works hard to distance itself from the idea of a clean, bracing Arctic Scandinavia, all icy mountains and pine forests, presenting instead a damp landscape where abandoned dwellings moulder, where children reenact ancient rituals in mossy, overgrown stone circles and where every community has outsiders who are shunned as feckless beggars.

One such family is at the centre of Rites of Spring. In 1986, sixteen year old Elita Svart, daughter of local ne'er-do-well Lasse Svart, is found murdered on Walpurgis Night, 30 April, the night when witches ride, when the Green Man is burned in effigy - and when he mounts his horse and roams the forest. 

Moreover, Elita's found lying on a sacrificial slab in a stone circle, her face covered with a cloth and in her best dress. Subsequently, a letter comes to light suggesting she intended her death, and her stepbrother is accused of the crime - after lengthy and intensive police questioning.

Jump forward to 2019, and Elita's been airbrushed out of Tornaby's history, guilt assigned, the rest of the family nowhere to be seen. The four young kids who were with Elita that night have gone on to make their own lives, with different degrees of success. One of them, David, is a chef who's opening a prestigious new restaurant nearby. He has returned to Tornaby with his new wife, Thea Lind, who's taking up a post as the local GP.

Thea is the heart and soul of this book, herself a mystery that is almost more interesting than the distant crime with which she becomes fascinated. Why does Thea hide her identity? Why is she so threatened when David's nerves means she has to step forward and take a TV interview for him? Who is the "Margaux" for whom Elita provides a commentary on what is happening?

The first third or so of Rites of Spring moves slowly and carefully while it establishes its setting, characters and atmosphere. We hear from Elita in her own voice (in 1986), from Thea addressing Margaux (in 2019) and there is also a third person narration from 1886 following a couple of characters who we'll meet head on later. This means that the story - in the sense of who is who and why they matter - is elusive to begin with. Some readers may prefer a more direct approach, but I found that this way of doing things was almost eerily effective in establishing the basic weirdness of the situation, before Thea really got to work shaking the tree, as it were.

And it is weird. The village itself is an inward- looking and suspicious place. It's a long way from anywhere, and change isn't welcome (the presence of mineral prospectors is especially resented). Within the community, there is a respectable core - the teacher, the bank manager, the doctor, the Count, whose father used to own most of the land around - surrounded by their retainers - such as the estate workers - and a resented underclass, whom the Svarts were part of: their kids jeered at at school, their activities tolerated just as long as they're useful (such as brewing moonshine), their tenancy of a ramshackle farmhouse dubious.

To Thea, who's travelled the world, working for Medicines San Frontiers, who's seen horrific injuries, been bombed in Syria and lost friends, it seems terribly narrow and secretive. She feels that her husband ha suffered because of it, and wants to get to the truth for his sake.

Or does she?

Thea herself, we will discover, has secrets to keep - secrets that will make her vulnerable when she becomes focussed on digging up the truth about Elita, a truth that someone clearly wants to keep hidden. But secrets that also make her sympathetic to the girl who became the "Spring sacrifice" - perhaps explaining her reckless commitment to explaining what really happened in 1986. Several times in this book, Thea did something, or pressed on when warned to stop, in ways that had all kinds of red lights flashing for me. There's a certain point past which everything seems bound to end badly, with loss and grief for everyone, and when Thea's quest takes her past that point you begin to feel as though she almost welcomes that, as though she's been heading for self-destruction right from the start.

Like Elina, perhaps... 

Altogether, a nailbiting and absorbing book, one that I had to pause several times, simply to let the tension go, but which in the end I just had to finish at a gallop, reading the final third more or less in one sitting. 

You can find out more about Rites of Spring from the tour entries listed on the poster below. You can buy the book from your high street shop, if they're doing click and collect, or online from Bookshop dot org, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

4 April 2021

#Review - Hyde by Craig Russell

Craig Russell
Constable, 29 April 2021
Available as: HB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-ccopy
ISBN: 9781472128393

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

In Victorian Edinburgh, Detective Superintendant Edward Hyde is uneasy. In one case of frightful murder, leading to a hanging, he worries that the police have got the wrong man. In another, he finds himself conveniently close to the victim, but can't remember how he came to be there. And there are nagging requests from Special Branch in London to investigate a rising nationalist politician.

And Hyde's sessions with Dr Porteous, who he relies on to cure the memory loss and associated troubling dreams, are not helping at all...

Russell's speculative detective novel, loosely framed around Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (there is a prologue in which Hyde tells Stevenson his story as inspiration to the latter) is a heady blend of many elements. 

There is the brooding, unrestful Hyde, half convinced that he is a monster - people tend to draw away from him, as though sensing something troubling about him. Hyde is I think suffering (alongside the epilepsy that Porteous diagnoses) from PTSD, after serving in the army in the East. Russell makes a point not only of the awful things that Hyde has witnessed and indeed taken part in, but also of the taint, the fundamental badness, of the campaign that Hyde took part in, devoted to theft and looting ('cruelties performed under a sun-blazed sky in the name of Empire'). Fragemented personalities recur ('he had been a different man, back then).

This links in turn to political turmoil, as Scots radicals seek to free themselves from what they see as English domination and from being associated with that same infection of Empire. This is an interesting connection to make, the focus on colonialism and its relation to English and Scottish history and society being a truly hot topic in today's politics and one capable of provoking strong emotions (see the UK Government's defensiveness over challenges to the interpretation of colonial-era figures and artifacts).

Underlying this is a third layer - a preoccupation both with the Celtic supernatural, as both occultists and mountebanks move in various secret circles overlapping both with nationalist politics and with the apparently staid Establishment. That preoccupation bleeds into national myth-making about the origins of the Scots and their real destiny. And alongside all this, Russell also reflects the place of gay men in society, and the constraints under which women exist. We meet Elspeth Lockwood, heiress to one of Edinburgh's great department stores, a woman who very much wants to go her own way, and I really liked Dr Cally Burr, who performs many of the autopsies for Hyde; as a female doctor, she's treated with a great deal of suspicion and is short of work (we see her being helped out by the famous Dr Joseph Bell, mentor to Arthur Conan-Doyle who is mentioned but does not appear in the story). Burr is smart and resourceful, practical where Hyde seems likely to wilt under the various stresses that he suffers, and certainly the kind of person you want beside you in a creepy Gothic house at night.

Because this book is Gothic, whatever else it may be. There is an isolated mansion of bad reputation, whispers of supernatural beasts, devils and ancient gods and of secret sects and guilds behind the bland face of respectable Edinburgh ('fine Presbyterians of good birth and standing leading double lives') as well as secret tunnels beneath it, at least some of which are certainly real. There's a danger, I thinks in overdoing the Gothic, but for my money, Russell gets it just about right: enough, combined with the theme of madness and loss of identity and control, to darken the atmosphere (alongside the various horrific murders) but not enough that solid, systematic police work becomes self-evidently pointless. Truly, Edward Hyde lives in more than one world at one, but he is sufficiently rooted in the "real" one, enough of a respected, credible figure that he makes progress, gets things done (aided by Burr's shrewd insights).

The book is also grounded in the medical science of the time (even if it looks primitive to us) and it is convincingly, pleasingly Victorian without were seeming a pastiche. Russell has fun with erudite bits of language and Hyde will certainly broaden your vocabulary, adding words such as muliebrity, supervenient, brumous and peccancy. I did see a couple of the plot twists coming (such as the identity of the Hanged Man) but there were also some jaw-dropping surprises and, above all, Hyde is a book that hooks the reader and builds to a tremendous climax.

An interesting counterpoint to Russell's The Devil Aspect which also dwelt on issues of good and evil, divided personality and the relation between individual responsibility and political crime. 

Definitely recommended.

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


2 April 2021

#Review - Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley

Hot Stew
Fiona Mozley
John Murray, 18 March 2021
Available as: HB, 320pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529327205

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

One of the many striking effects of the year we've all just lived through has been the emptying out of busy city centres. Nowhere, I imagine (I haven't been able to go there to see) can this have been more startling than in Soho, the part of London most firmly associated in the popular imagination with bustling nightlife: with clubs, restaurants and bars, the gay scene, the film and music business, the sex trade.

Mozley's novel gives us a glimpse of this district, in all its contradictions, still active and vibrant yet threatened by gentrification, by the spread of bland investment properties and above all by a meta-ness that trades on the sleazy image while holding its nose and standing one pace back. Yet in pointing to these threats, Hot Stew isn't a sentimental book by any means. One of the central characters, sex worker Precious, reflects of the district that 'There are people here who would sell their own mothers, or eat you alive. If society fell apart... this is the last place she would want to be.'

No more sentimental is Agatha, whose viewpoint we follow for a fair chunk of the novel. Agatha has inherited a property empire built by her father based on violence and other forms of lawlessness. He went "legit", up to a point, and now she is trying to go more legit, tidying away the sex workers and immigrants from her properties - "blank slating" them as she describes it - so that after modernisation or replacement, new tenants can be moved in. Agatha is an absolutely appalling example of somebody who sees life in transactional terms, as she shows over and again, treating her relationship with a dog, even a horse, a young employee in just just the same way, taking what she wants, turning her regard off and on as it suits here, paying no attention to the others' nature or needs. 

Yet Mozley does show us how this attitude may at least partly be rooted in Agatha's insecurity and fear of losing what she has. She has studied history ('The fragility of law and order is never far from Agatha's thoughts') and she keeps a yacht ('named Versailles') ready on the river in case things go bad quickly. She remembers how badly, as the daughter of a Russian immigrant, she was treated by the posh girls at the school her mother slaved to put her through.

There is a contrast between Agatha and the sex workers whose future is (as much as anything is) at the heart of Hot Stew. Precious and campaigns against the redevelopment of her home ands workplace, one of Agatha's assets, becoming a real thorn in Agatha's flesh, and that of the police and city authorities. Mozley paints Precious's working setup as something of an ideal, a relatively safe space where she has control and agency, acknowledging that other women find themselves in much worse, more exploitative circumstances, even in captivity. This is a controversial issue and Hot Stew, while pointing to the risks of well-meaning interventions, doesn't draw conclusions but instead highlights the complexity of real life.

The book also explores other denizens of Soho: Robert, a retired hard man, sits drinking with insecure young actor Lorenzo in the afternoon in a bar that is also under threat of modernisation. Roster is Agatha's fixer and enforcer, a tool from the old days that she can't, quite do without. (He's also her dog walker - Robert, remembering him from another life, sees him as a ghost walking a dog)  There is a young corporate lawyer, Bastian, whose relationship with his alpha girlfriend is under pressure. An ambitious police officer on the make. And, most strikingly of all, a group of homeless people whose existence roaming the streets and dossing in a cellar makes them a kind of chorus in this book: it's they who, literally, feel the tremors as a massive engineering project takes place under Soho, as oligarchs burrow down and down under their houses to create lavish suites where who knows what may go on, as construction trucks and delivery vans shake the streets.

Indeed, the homeless group gives this story an almost timeless sense, blending the present with the post, with more than a hint of fantasy. Is their leader, the "archbishop" really some ancient figure who remembers when Soho was fields and woods? Or is he just another man trying to cling on? We are given differing stories. Where do the couple referred to as "Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee" (they do a really bad magic act in the pubs and bars) really come from - what lives have they lived before and who are they connected to? One of them will, in this story, almost step out of their world to experience something quite different, causing consternation for those left behind.

Mozley weaves together all these elements and many more, creating a real sense of bustle and sprawling activity, of intersecting lives, most of them tinged by regret: Lorenzo at getting typecast based on his brown(ish) skin, Agatha beset by the half-siblings whose inheritance she enjoys, another young woman hovering on the edge of homelessness, only able to find a place to stay that's not-quite-above-board. Of all these figures, Precious perhaps regrets least. She's the one for whom Soho is both most permanent  (she has a decent flat, a steady income) and most temporary (eviction is threatened, but even without that she's here for a purpose, and will move on when it's done). But she is also one of the more vulnerable.  

Hot Stew creates a powerful sense of movement, with the characters who are going somewhere and others who are just going, who can't rest or settle. It jumps backwards and forwards to show what these people are to each other and what they have been, creating little "aha" moments when the reader spots events or people through new eyes, underlining the degree to which all perspectives are partial. It's a very human book: even with her flaws, there is sympathy for Agatha.  Another character, Rebecca, who came across to me as rather unpleasant, is really stupid rather than bad ('Rebecca was emphatically apolitical, which meant she liked things the way they were.') Robert regrets his violent past and refuses to be drawn back into it. Lorenzo breaks with Robert on learning a dark secret about him, but hates himself for doing that.

The book is full of beautiful writing and characterisation. We are told that 'There's something about the night in this city that is brighter than the day'. Rebecca is 'a highly measured person. Bastian is frequently astonished by her levels of self-control'. Precious 'puts on a voice that is sweet and pliable, a voice she reserves for men'. While Agatha's senses 'only decipher the present', a dog uses its nose to 'deal with history'. After a betrayal says that she '"was an idiot for trusting [her]. But whatever. Damage done. lesson learned. I've moved on." Precious has not moved on.' The writing simply flows, making even most mundane episodes a joy to read, stuffed with insights and unexpected perspectives. Covering several months in its characters' lives, it isn't forced and doesn't round everything off neatly. Whatever the challenges and changes, the comings and goings, Soho will continue and its people will adapt.

I would really, really recommend Hot Stew

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

31 March 2021

#Review - Advanced Triggernometry by Stark Holborn

Cover by Philip Harris

Advanced Triggernometry (Triggernomentry #2)
Stark Holborn
Rattleback Books, 8 April 2021
Available as: e-book
Source: e-book kindly supplied by the author

"The cash we stole dragged at our heels, bloody and guilty, but we didn't let it go. That's the problem with gold..."

A year ago, with Triggernometry, Holborn introduced a version of the Old West where practitioners of mathematics are outlawed - literally. In that book her outcast "mathmos", "mad" Malago Browne and her sidekick, Pierre Fermat, used their skills in advanced calculus and complex analysis to get an edge in every gunfight - not to mention the keen edges of their steel protractors, rulers and setsquares - and pulled off an audacious robbery. The Big One. The heist to end all heists. 

So as Advanced Triggernometry begins, we find Browne living as "Mrs Grey", apparently at peace, across the Border - as the way is, or was, in the Old West. 

She's teaching maths in a school, until one day three strangers arrive.

She should have stayed there...

Advanced Triggernometry is another riff on a classic Western theme - this time, the town defenceless against bandits. The three strangers want help. It's time for Browne to saddle up, ride out, and, accompanied by Dog, get the gang together agains.

It's all great fun, working on three levels (at least). First, on the surface, there are the classic locations, characters and situations: the mining camp, the saloon bar fight, the corrupt lawman, the climactic shootout. Then, we have the joy of seeing Holborn recast everything in a mathematical framework, having the fights won by a keen eye, a quick brain and a well deployed instrument. This carries through to the chapter names and headings and the background and character of the protagonists (who must surely be drawn from a Valhalla of the science - Holborn manages to have figures together who were born hundred or even thousands of years apart: even Archimedes makes an appearance).

Finally, there's a serious note in the way society has gone here. A little bit Fahrenheit 451, a little bit The Handmaid's Tale, but wholly its own thing, the depiction of a nation where the Capitol has manipulated prejudice and greed to turn people away from learning and enlightenment is... not that far from reality, in some respects. And its fitting that the response, as depicted here, is to seek solidarity and mutual protection from the bullies.

The writing is sharp and authentic for the genre ('Noches was named for its trade: night pursuits, fuelled by liquor and as many bad decisions as could be crammed into ten hours of darkness', 'People began to emerge from the houses, their eyes guarded, words of welcome locked behind their teeth') but at the same time full of great mathematical in-jokes ('Évariste Galois. Careful of him. He's young, but he's a trouble-maker. Obsessed with radicals.') and in places Holborn both manages to hit a reference or work in a quote and to make her writing deeply moving.

To summarise, whole short, Advanced Triggernometry entertains throughout. It's a fun read, and raises some serious issues. I'd recommend.  

You can pre-order Advanced Triggernometry from Amazon for Kindle here

Stark Holborn's website is here.

29 March 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Bound by Vanda Symon

Bound (Sam Shephard, 4)
Vanda Symon
Orenda Books, 4 March 2021
Available as: PB, 265pp
Source: Free advance copy from Orenda Books
ISBN (PB): 9781913193522

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance copy of Bound to consider for review and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour.

Four books into this series, Symon's irrepressible detective, Sam Shephard, has yet another nasty murder to unpick as well as a series of personal and professional dilemmas. Her father is dying of cancer and she's wondering where to take her relationship with Paul (now one of the team - breaking Sam's unwritten rule about the thing you don't do with the "crew"). And DI Johns - aka The Boos - is as much of a sexist pain in the backside as ever.

I felt Sam was a bit more subdued in this one. Maybe it's the subject matter - her dad's illness is hitting her hard - or maybe it's that she is learning her limits (I do hope not!) but she doesn't get into quite so much trouble with Johns here. Even though, after being instrumental in solving the murder, she takes another look and begins unpicking the case again, potentially exonerating two known gangsters who are believed to have killed a police officer...

The book opens with the wife of a prominent Dunedin businessman gagged and tied to a chair in her own sitting room, gazing at his bloodstained body and waiting for her son to come home and release her. ('You vomit, you die'). It falls to Shephard and her team to unpick John Henderson's life and business, identify some dodgy connections and zoom in on those who might want him dead. The investigation allows Symon to sketch a whole web of shady Internet pharma dealing, which dovetails with drug dealing and organised crime. Sam even gets a trip away to Auckland (portrayed here very much as a place you don't want to go) to chase down some leads (literally).

The picture is complicated by the fact that the two prime suspects - who have gone to ground - are suspected of being involved in the earlier killing of a police officer, and the injury to Sam's friend Smithy that has left him morose and hurting. He's definitely not a neutral party here, so when allegations are made of a police fit-up, Sam's in rather an awkward position.

I really enjoyed Bound. Its opening is deceptive, appearing very much a conventional police procedural with a relatively straightforward case and with Sam rather on the periphery of events, sent to do the boring little jobs that nobody else wants while the big boys duo the real work (grrr, I really hate DO Johns!) But Symon twists things, and the book suddenly seems to be going to quite unexpected places (although if you go back, the clues are there). 

That's true not only of the case but of Sam's private life and her future with Paul. (I'm not sure I completely welcomed developments there: don't think I really approve of him and I think Sam deserves better). There's a nice little dance around her relations with her family where either said family are being unreasonable expecting her to spend more time with dying dad while she has a big case on, or Sam is, rather deliberately, choosing not to seek approval to step back from the case which she reasonably could do. Or maybe both. At any rate it may be easier for her to throw herself heart and soul into avenging one (deliberate and avoidable) killing than to have to face up to the slow and lingering (but unavoidable) death of her father. 

Whatever, Sam doesn't have it easy here - as is usual in these stories, her author really puts her through the wringer. (One day perhaps I'll read a Sam Shephard story where she is happy and relaxed and then I'll know that Symon has been kidnapped and is trying to get a message out via her books).

Recommended, where you've read this series before or not (but if you haven't, you should).

For more information about Bound, see the Orenda website here. You can also purchase the book there either as paperback or e, or you can get it form your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

The blog tour also continues - don't miss any of the great stops, which you can see on the poster below.

27 March 2021

#BlogTour #Review - The Fall of Koli by M R Carey

Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio

The Fall of Koli (Rampart Trilogy, 3)
M R Carey
Orbit, 23 March 2021
Available as: PB, 530pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN (PB): 9780356513508  

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of The Fall of Koli and to Tracy for inviting to take part in the blog tour.

The Fall of Koli is the final part of the Rampart Trilogy and - as Koli, narrating the start of the first book, told us it would - brings things full circle, with the return of an older and wiser man to Mythen Rood. We finally learn more about certain recurrent themes - the demon Stannabanna, and Dandrake who fought him; The Sword of Albion, which Koli, Ursula, Cup and Monono were searching for, and the Unfinished War (well named). It's also made clear how the story came to be narrated, by Koli (in all of the first book), by Koli and Spinner (in the second book) and here, by both, plus a third person - who turns out to have had a hand in certain earlier events which are now visible form a new perspective. 

It's a satisfying and well rounded conclusion with a tense and dramatic ending, but I do advise you to read the previous two books first (and to stop reading my review now because it'll both confuse you and spoil the story!)

The Fall of Koli picks up exactly where The Trials of Koli ended, with the company desperately trying to get aboard the mega ship, The Sword of Albion, with their precious "diagnostic", rescued from the ruins of Ursula's drudge. They succeed, but this only brings them into a very strange world indeed. There are three people on the giant ship - Paul, Lorraine and their son, Stanley. There is something odd about Paul and Lorraine, Carey's portrayal deftly painting their strangeness which only morphs and becomes more complex as Koli (mainly) strips away layers of deceit. Who they are, what they were and what their purpose is prove to be deeply tangled matters and the more Koli understands, the more danger he and his friends prove to be in. 

While this part of the story proceeds, Carey cuts away from time to time to follow Spinner, back in Mythen Rood. Spinner's story in The Trials of Koli was for me one of the best  parts of that book, giving. whole new perspective on events in The Book of Koli and also presenting in Spinner a fascinating, clever and resourceful woman who is pushed into a difficult corner but determined to survive and to protect her family and village. That continues here, with Spinner becoming something very close to the leader of Mythen Rood. That requires joining in the deceptions the Ramparts pull on everybody else and Spinner recognises the moral ambiguity of that. She's determined to end the system, but has to play a complex game of politics to retain her position and address the growing threat of the Peacemaker, who lays claim to all and any "tech" in "Ingland". Basically, Spinner is forced to go to war, and it's a desperate conflict. 

It's difficult for me to convey just how engaging, convincing and entertaining The Fall of Koli (and the trilogy of a whole) is. The reader has, of course, an advantage over Koli and his friends (except perhaps for Ursula) in recognising many places, events and things and even more so now that Koli has landed in something closer to our world. So there's that sense of recognising something and then seeing how Koli will cope, what it will mean to him and how he will make sense of it. But there are also many moments when Koli's world is baffling and it's his experience an intuition that guide us through it and help us make sense of things. That process is, as I've said, supplemented in this book by another, third point of view - in fact, by a fourth, kind of, as Koli finds a new and different resource to guide him but one that may put him in desperate peril.

Even in this third book, Carey is exploring new themes and elaborating existing ones. When the reasons for the Unfinished War become clear, you may want to think about them in relation to where we are in this country now. Ursula's repugnance for an independent Monono is explained at last, and the presence of humanity alongside that hostile Nature ("Everything that lives hates us...") is revisited but from the perspective of what balance we might be able to find with it. It's an ideas-rich book with the vastly different perspectives of the main characters - the trans girl Cup, educated doctor Ursula, virtual Monono who is in some ways the oldest of the group, and Koli himself - constantly sparking off one another and suggesting new and unexpected truths and conclusions. 

That goes on to the - rather unexpected - end, with the final passage a musing on identity and reality from a character you might not expect. It's a neat pairing with the opening words of the trilogy, and satisfying place to conclude.

I would strongly recommend The Fall of Koli, and this trilogy as a whole. Reading the books has been a real treat one of my highlights of 2020 and 2021.

You can find out more about The Fall of Koli at the other stops on the blogtour (see the poster below) or from the publisher's website here. And you can buy it from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

26 March 2021

#Blogtour #Review - The Unbroken by CL Clark

The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost: Book One)
C L Clark
Orbit, 25 March 2021
Available as: PB, 528pp, e, audio
Source: ARC provided by the publisher
ISBN (PB): 9780356516233

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance review copy of The Unbroken and to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the blogtour for this book.

Well. What can I say about this one?

I really love it when an author turns a genre inside out. That's so much more fun. And C L Clark's The Unbroken does just that, using military fantasy (and this is great military fantasy!) to critique Empire through an unwavering lens of post-colonialism. 

And it's glorious to read.

The book starts as it continues, with ACTION. Lieutenant Touraine, of the Balladarian Colonial Brigade, is coming home to Qazāl for the first time in twenty years. But it's not a happy homecoming. Seized as a child when Balladairian Empire invaded and defeated her homeland, she's been raised to serve in their army, albeit in the despised Brigade. The "Sands" get rags for uniforms, old weapons and they aren't even issued firearms until battle looms. Nevertheless, it's given Touraine a home, a family of sorts, and a purpose. The Sands may be the lowest of the low, cannon fodder, outsiders, but they're useful cannon fodder, and as long as she was fighting against other downtrodden, outcast peoples, Touraine could endure that.

Now, though, she will have to think about where her loyalties really lie - caught between the soi-disant "civilised" Balladarians, who hate and look down on her and her comrades, seeing them as savages, and the Qazāli locals, who... hate and look down on her and comrades, seeing them as traitors.

The situation in Qazāl is tense, with rebellion brewing, and on the ship together with Touraine and her mates is Princess Luca, heir to the Empire. Luca has come to make a name for herself, so that her uncle will have to give up the throne on which he's sitting as "Regent". Disabled and scholarly, Luca is very different from Touraine but perhaps they both feel they have something to prove: for Luca, Qazāl is at best an arena, a place to show off what she can achieve.

The lives of the two women are entwined in this bustling, visceral and truly epic fantasy.

The Unbroken has, as I said, a strong start, but there's plenty of drama action right through. It's a milieu that suits Touraine, less so Luca, and they're not destined to have either a steady or an easy time. There are plots, both from the rebels and among the Balladarian elite; Touraine begins to think she sees echoes of her own past in the faces around her; Luca has designs on ancient magic which she believes will help establish her claim to the Empire and always, always there is tension, there is the rotten stink of oppression and appropriation, there is the stewing wrongness that is empire. Ballardaire (its culture is portrayed as vaguely French) is a cruel master to its conquered peoples, and the Qazāli, heirs to a shattered but proud culture, really suffer.

It would be understandable if this led to a story with a very unnuanced, clearcut morality. But Clark doesn't generally draw such bright lines. There are a couple of characters who are painted as out-and-out villains (Touraine's Nemesis Captain Rogan, for example, or the Comte de Beau-Sang whose favourite recreation is removing fingers from servants he wishes to punish). But they are rather the exception. In contrast, Clark creates, for example, in Luca a splendidly complex personality. 

Luca is a woman of contradictions. For her Qazāl is a tool, a means to an end, and at times she seems indifferent to what happens to it so long as it serves her purpose. But she is aware enough to see the reality and to recognise that compromise may be needed. it is, though, the compromise of the traditional reformer, as frustrated at the extremist faction among the rebels as she is Beau-Sang and his ilk, and it is compromise with a. purpose - the elevation of Luca. The fact that purpose is more about her own role in the world and less about the idea of "Empire" doesn't really distinguish her from her exploitative compatriots - it's only their methods that differ.

Luca seems capable of being moved to compassion and she tries to improve conditions, opening channels to the rebels (it all ends in tears). She might even, she hints, be willing to give up the colony - if she can get her throne. This obsession leads her into ever darker and more baroque schemes, schemes in which Touraine, already confused and rootless, becomes completely enmeshed. 

Touraine, also, is in morally grey territory. What loyalty, really, does she owe a nation whose language she has forgotten? What loyalty does she owe and empire that enslaved here? Bewildered, and feeling the strongest attachment to he comrades in the Brigade (which is what military training is designed to achieve) Touraine wavers, unsure what to do for the best. 

And then a personal element arises between the two women - in a culture that is totally comfortable with same-sex and bisexuality - despite the differences in rank (in case it wasn't clear above, Touraine, as a conscript, is something close to a slave). Clark layers a whole complex of desire and guilt and constraint between over the already ferociously difficult politics and personal loyalties.

There are just SO MANY CONTRADICTIONS in this book. Or do I mean COMPLICATIONS? Luca is reticent to take things too far, spotting, correctly, how little say (none) Touraine has in what might happen. It is VERY will-they, won't-they at times - then something else will happen that blows everything up, the pieces falling where they will, the two women drawn together and repelled from each other at the same time. Touraine, an experienced and capable officer but in many ways vulnerable, is torn in different directions by competing loyalties, by desire, by her family's past.  Luca is just - well, on one level she thinks a lot of herself, at another she's a little girl missing her parents (they both died in a plague).

It's the kind of book where you want to whisper, no shout, advice at the characters. Both women make some terrible mistakes, which, in the way of things, others generally suffer for. It's an unforgiving situation, with other figures - the rebels, ramrod straight General Cantic, the colonial gentry, various shady factions of priests and fanatics - watching from the shadows, always ready to pounce.

It is, basically, a glorious, many layered and chewy book where nobody is really right, or not for long, the next death is always close and the stakes get higher and higher. It has one of the most nail-biting climaxes I've seen in any genre for a long time. And, while "Book One" suggests sequels, there is also a rare sense of completion and accomplishment to the end of The Unbroken, rather than an abrupt stop where the story was sliced off for the another book.

This is definitely one not to miss. 

You can buy The Unbroken from your local bookshop (if they're doing click and collect), or online from Bookshop, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

For more information about The Unbroken, see the Orbit website here. Or browse the stops on the blogtour - see below for details.


23 March 2021

#Review - What Abigail Did That Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

What Abigail Did That Summer
Ben Aaronovitch
Gollancz, 18 March 2021
Available as: HB, 208pp, e, audio
Source: e-copy and HB
ISBN(HB): 9781473224346

Fitting into the Rivers of London chronology in parallel with Foxglove Summer, which took Peter Grant out of London to support Herefordshire Police with a supernatural case (or "weird b******s" as it's described by his mundane colleagues), What Abigail Did That Summer tells us what was happening on Hampstead Heath and particularly, what part his young cousin, Abigail Kamara, played in it.

Abigail, you may recall, wants to learn magic (this book explains why she she is so keen - I can see trouble down the line there) and is therefore studying Latin. She has featured before in both the Rivers books and comics, which have stressed her affinity for the talking foxes who live on the Heath. Here we learn more about them (mainly, what a puzzle they - I can see trouble down the line there, too). 

It's summer, Abigail is out of school and a bit bored, with time on her hands. She's also observant (partly through Peter's influence, perhaps, although I suspect mainly not), extremely bright and, of course, aware of the magical world. If anyone is going to spot the magical background to the disappearances (and reappearances) of kids on the Heath, it's going to be her. And of course she's going to want to investigate...

What follows is, I'd say, one of the lighter of the Rivers books. Like them, we learn a lot about a particular part of the city - this time, the Heath - and its relation to the Rivers. Like them, the protagonist   is thoroughly at home on her own turf (or as Abigail calls it, her "ends" - the book is peppered with London youth slang - 'Simon's mum is Fed-adjacent in some way' which is helpfully footnoted where needed). Both Peter and Abigail are Londoners born and bred, in turn with the sounds and smells of the city and aware at once when something is a bit... off. ('You don't grow up small, mouthy and mixed race in North London without picking up a few tricks'). Whether you call that magic or not, it always gives them a head start in getting to the bottom of things. In tune with that, Aaronovitch is always at his best when describing the physical or the social geography of London: how the house prices one side of a street are higher than this on the other, the particular whiteness of a given social setting, where a river was paved over to make streets, the history of the bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath. Not only describing, but building his story on it.

So when Abigail stumbles into a perfect 1970s dinner party out of time (yes, an Abigail's party, what else?) the setting is perfect not only down to contemporary events - the 3 day week, the miners, Vietnam - but to the minutiae of social strata that the past layers on the present. (Or is it the other way round?) Just as he is with the interaction between lower class, mixed race Abigail and strikingly wealthy (for a supposedly mid ranking civil servant, she's a Grade 7 for goodness sake) Simon's mum, mentioned earlier. (I don't think she would be able to afford that house, there's something that is, as Abigail might say, definitely dodge there).

All of this is really me trying to say that the world Aaronovitch creates here is so rich, so well done, that you're almost at risk of getting distracted form the plot, so please do pay attention, because - while I'm obviously not going to say a great deal about what happens: spoilers! - it is a clever and twisted thing that has Abigail running in circles and having to bargain, bribe and promise here way through London's demi-monde (as it's called here: a magical substrate to the city, not a society of artists and courtesans). I think some of those deals and exchanges she makes may, also, be storing up trouble ahead...

In all, another EXCELLENT contribution to this series and a book I basically consumed at one sitting - because why stop when the writing's as good as 'I use a fountain pen because it's like writing on money' or 'an ornamental knocker that looks like it should have the face of a dead banker but doesn't'? Or when Aaronovitch is riffing off Douglas Adams ('it's radiating happiness in exactly the way a clown doesn't') or doing bitter humour ('Nobody ever accused me of being good at happy')?

No, there's no sense in stopping for a moment, or delaying reading this. I should aapologise to the book I was meant to be reading when What Abigail Did That Summer came along, mugged me for my attention, and loudly monopolised my reading time. But, do you know - I'm not sorry AT ALL.

For more information about What Abigail Did That Summer see the publisher's website here.

20 March 2021

#Review - Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley

Cover by Dominic Forbes

Skyward Inn
Aliya Whiteley
Solaris, 16 March 2021
Available as: HB, 311pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy provided by publisher
ISBN (HB): 9781781088821

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Skyward Inn via NetGalley, to consider for review.

Skyward Inn is proper mind-bending science fiction. I read a lot of SF which, while thrilling and fun, is basically... domesticated. People in space ships doing things. Apocalypses. Complex tactical books involving politics conspiracies and manoeuvring. Often, all of these at the same time. And they can be really great. But sometimes I miss a sense of deep weirdness, of unknowableness - a sense that Skyward Inn delivers in spades. The book won't be for everyone, but really did it for me.

In a near future, suffering (in a background way) from climate change, a gateway (the 'kissing gate') has opened in space, allowing travel to an alien world, Qita - an opportunity eagerly taken up by 'the coalition', a suppurate or alliance of states (it's never clear which - though in this future English has become a little regarded, minority language) with dream of conquest. Part of England, the 'Western Protectorate'; has seceded, either in principled opposition to this or possibly just to preserve a self-sufficient, bucolic way of life. Again, it's never clear.

Within the Protectorate, Jem and Isley run the Skyward Inn, serving Qitan 'brew' to the locals. Both are veterans of the war: Jem, a local woman who ran away to space and Isley, a Quitan. Jem is estranged from her son Fosse, who lives nearby with Jem's brother, Dom, a leader in the community.

It's a very simple setup, on the surface, but Whitely uses it to explore so much - ideas about family, about the structure of society, what it means to be human and our responsibilities to each other and to the world. I need to be careful what I say here because the book is one of those which achieves its effect slowly and incrementally. Things seem a bit odd from the start, when Fosse, slipping away to an abandoned farm to do what teenage boys do in private, encounters strangers who Arte, well, strange, but do him the great service of paying him attention, something he's not used to.

At the same time, another stranger, a visitor from Qita, appears at the Inn, needing help. There are suggestions here of prejudice and even violence: their existence must be kept secret. The arrival does, though, trigger Jem's memories of her time in Qita. They're strange, almost hallucinogenic, episodes involving her travels ostensibly involving nothing more than posting bland propaganda leaflets wherever she goes. We're primed for a significant encounter, or a misstep, perhaps the breaking of some cultural taboo, but what Jem was doing eventually turns out to be both more and less significant the that. Less, because there are no incidents, no misunderstandings, no politics or warfare. More, because, as becomes clear to another, later traveller to Qita, what Jem did was, actually, all-important.

In this book, intentions and unintended consequences bounce off one another. As the citizens of the Protectorate struggle to maintain their principled, isolated lifestyle, they're threatened from various directions: shortages of food, materials and medicines, an ominously spreading, mysterious disease which causes some areas to be quarantined, and those strangers that Fosse runs into. At the personal level things are tense between Fosse, Dom and Jem. A lot of family history is being buried as people hold to positions and talk past one another. And that stranger, Won, at the Inn also creates tensions and misunderstandings.

Just how strange all this gets, I can't say. I will say that's it's a growing, creeping weirdness. The alienness of the Qitans in this book is both less than we have been primed to accept by the run of SF - they don't excite horror by their appearance - and more, as we are eventually shown. In exploring both aspects Whiteley creates a truly compelling story, one where I simply didn't know what was going to happen (or, indeed, exactly what had happened!)

There is some gorgeous writing here, whether capturing the turbulence of adolescence ('He never thought he'd miss going to school, but being kept at home for a few days made Fosse aware that school offered a quiet, resilient shape to his day...'), the frustration of a woman torn between standing by her past decisions or attempting to remake her future or the gentleness and thoroughness of Dom checking a dog for injuries (yes, this book contains dogs!) 

In short, reading Skyward Inn was a truly unsettling experience, but an immersive, wonder-filled one. It is a remarkable book.

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

17 March 2021

#BlogTour #Review - All the Murmuring Bones by AG Slatter

All the Murmuring Bones
AG (Angela) Slatter
Titan Books, 8 April 2021
Available as: PB, 368pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN (PB): 9781789094343

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of All the Murmuring Bones via NetGalley to consider for review, and for inviting e to take part in the book's blogtour.

'Stories are history, whether they're true or not'.

All the Murmuring Bones is the story of Miren O'Malley. The last surviving member of an ancient, and formerly rich and powerful, family, she has to discover and confront the sources of that wealth - the bargains and crimes that supported it, and the failures that have led to its erosion - if she is to survive and prosper.

The history of Miren's family is not known directly. Rather it's encoded in their ancient and rambling house - Hob's Hollow - and in a handwritten book of fairy tales - of the dark and dangerous, rather than twee, sort ('Other families have stories of curses, cold lads and white ladies, but we have old gods, merfolk and monsters'). Many of these are given at appropriate points in the book, Miren calling them up for support in dark moments or interrogating them to try and understand what is going on. She's hampered in that by not knowing her own immediate history either (except that her parents are dead, and that she has been brought up by her grandmother Aoife and grandfather Óisín) so this book is also a story of discovery for her. 

As the story opens, and after a scene setting introduction, we see Miren and Aoife coping with the aftermath of Malachi's death and the likely final collapse of the family fortunes when death duties have to be paid to Bethany Lawrence, the Queen of Thieves, whose word is now law in the nearby town of Breakwater. It's clear at this point that All the Murmuring Bones isn't taking place, quite, in our world. The geography is vague and this is a society not of nations but of scattered communities, little towns and villages and isolated demesnes like Hob's Hollow. The atmosphere is pre industrial, perhaps mid 18th century in development. It resembles, in other words, in social terms the typical fairy story and as in a fairy story, magic and monsters are also accepted and expected (watch out for corpsewights on the marshes) though it seems efforts are afoot on the part of the Church to suppress both. The O'Malley family's relationship with the Church is therefore strained: their power and wealth came from some sort of bargain with the powers of the sea, and in the years of their pomp they scorned the 'god-hounds' as they scorned any other authority.

Miren has been brought up to inherit the O'Malley trade of shipping, and Óisín has taught her all he can, even though the family fortunes are waning and they have only two vessels remaining. Following Óisín's death, however, Miren faces a future where - at the mercy of Aoife's plotting - she is very much subject to other powers, with debts called in on all sides. These include debts which the family has neglected to pay to the sea powers, and debts in money to creepy Cousin Aidan. With hints in the book of a formerly matriarchal family now ruled by its men, Miren seems to be powerless, friendless and unprotected in a very cold world. 

It's difficult to convey just how rich Slatter's worldbuilding is in this book. The reality of Miren's plight is heightened by the fantastical background, featuring a sinister midnight assassins' market, a dazzling town theatre and a troupe of travelling actors. Everywhere are references to events, stories, places and people (such as Bethany Lawrence) which do not feature in the main narrative but which are equally, well developed, well rounded features of this world about whom stories could be told. Miren herself is a rich and complex character, who spends much of her time trying to understand - to understand others, including her grandmother and deceased parents, and her cousin, to understand the wider world and her family's precarious situation, and to understand herself. 

Fleeing what seems an intolerable situation, heading for a mysterious house called "Blackwater" based on a reference in an old letter which Óisín had kept hidden, Merin fears both danger pursuing her and an unknown countryside ahead. That countryside contains both everyday and supernatural risks, both of which she approaches with the cool head and courage of a fairytale hero. The story is, though, brutally realistic about the risks she will face, Slatter pitching the tone in just the right place between the out and out fantastic and the mundane - and giving Merin very human reactions (for instance, when has to decide to take a life) rather than too much fairytale self-assurance.

I won't say precisely exactly what awaits Merin when she reaches Blackwater, another house that both echoes and contradicts Hob's Hollow, or what she was seeking there. Either would be too spoilery. But the climax of the book does recapitulate - indeed take to a new level - the themes of the earlier part: the intrusion of patriarchy, the basic reality of magic at different levels and the need to take account of it while retaining one's integrity, the importance of family (whether that's birth or found family).

This is an extraordinary, engaging story from Angela Slatter. At times it feels like a peep behind the curtain in a world of magic and fantasy, at others a deeply empathetic coming of age story for a young woman who may begin with some illusions but soon has to put them aside. Really, it's both those things, and so much more. I love to see a fantasy like this which isn't about the fate of the world, the rise and fall of emperors and armies, but which focusses on believable people who - even in a fantastic world - suffer from the same dilemmas, temptations and frailties as anyone else. 

I would, as you may have guessed, strongly recommend All the Murmuring Bones as the answer to your dark gothic twisted fairytale needs (and don't we all have those right now?)

For more information about the book, look at all the reviews scheduled on the tour poster! or pop over to the Titan website here.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, if they're open for click and collect, or online from bookshop.org or Hive books, from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

15 March 2021

#Review - Witherward by Hannah Mathewson

Cover by Julia Lloyd

Hannah Mathewson
Titan Books, 16 February 2021
Available as: PB, 528pp, e
Source: advance e-copy
ISBN (PB): 9781789094435

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

I found Witherward an exciting and absorbing but at time frustrating read.

Introducing Ilsa Ravenswood, orphan and magician's assistant who is scraping a living on the street of Victorian London, the book gives the barest glimpse of her life - though what we see is fascinating - before whisking her away to a parallel London (the "Witherward" of the title), divided between warring magical factions, each with their own talent, for example, the ability to control others' minds, or to see the future.

The clan to which it turn out Ilsa belongs, the Changelings, are able to transform themselves into any animal they wish - useful for fighting or escaping... or a stage magic act: she's already, before joining the Wiherward, learned what she can do as part of her act with Bill, the much decayed stage magician with whom she performs. Ilsa rapidly polishes her abilities, though, once she's introduced to the "Zoo", the seat of the ruling family in Camden (which occupies the location where in our world London Zoo sits).

This was, though, where the book nearly got stuck for me. The short, early section following Ilsa and her friend Martha in "our" London was gleeful, busy and full of fun. (And scary!) Ilsa's escape to the Witherward is fraught with danger and mystery. But on her arrival, the pace slows. A key plot point is that Ilsa's brother Gedeon, the so-called Prince of Camden, has disappeared, leaving the Ravenswoods leaderless and under suspicion from the other factions. But this also means that (due to his absence) there's no unifying figure to greet Ilsa, no sense of what purpose Ilsa might pursue. She spends a lot of time learning about the strange world she's in, and then begins to investigate Gedeon's absence, but before things can really get moving again, a great deal of conversation is needed. Ilsa needs to get ahead around not only the Witherward itself, but the many figures in her own clan (both relatives and hangers-on) and the history of everything. 

This feels, at times, like a big contrast to the action-y content of the opening pages. It comes alive at times when Ilsa plays truant, for example sneaking out to join in a street party but I did wish there were more of these episodes. The Witherward is though, I have to say, a fascinating, well worked out and complex world. And the conundrum of Gedeon's whereabouts is a challenging and many-layered one, akin in many ways to a crime or spy story. So this book always maintains interest and it's also great seeing Ilsa's background and personality unfold. 

Ilsa has grown up under the thumb of a singularly unpleasant guardian (most details here are held back but there's clearly been abuse) which has marked her in many ways, and she finds it hard to come to terms with a family she never knew about and which left her to suffer alone. Trust is slow to build, understandably, and Ilsa very much wants to do things her way but there is so much she doesn't know - and it seems likely that "her way" may get Ilsa into trouble every quickly.

Ilsa does, through this middle part of the book, keep her wits about her and she does focus on tracking down Gedeon. As she discovers more and more answers (and deeper layers of questions!) she begins to appreciate how complex and dangerous life in the Witherward is, and who in her extended family may have their own agendas. That leads to a furious (and glorious!) climax to the book, another change of pace which made me so glad that I read to the end.

Leaving a number of plot strands open, Witherward is clearly setting up the possibility of sequels in this intricately imaged alternate London and I will be here for them when they appear. Ilsa is a formidable protagonist and she's obviously got lots more to see and do.

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

13 March 2021

#Review - The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters
Emma Stonex
Pan Macmillan, 4 March 2021
Available as: HB, 368pp, e, audio
Source: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781529047318 

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

I know I'm not unique to have imagined, and wished for, the opportunity to live in a lighthouse. Alone, surrounded by the sea, in a cosy world of my own, with no-one to disturb me (and lots of books) - who wouldn't want that? 

Well, as this book suggests, that vision is rather based in privilege. Nice maybe (in the imagination) to spend those days alone, in a cosy, warm space, well fed, able perhaps to come an go. I'm, obviously, imagining a rather cosied-up lighthouse with all the comforts. It wouldn't be so pleasant if the accommodation is basic, the food tinned, with an essential but basically boring and repetitive job to do and, worst of all, if one is required to spend eight weeks in the tower (and longer if the weather's bad when changeover day comes).

Emma Stonex has I think captured the essence of that life for the lighthouse keepers she describes here. Three men - of course all the keepers would have been men - who disappear one night just after Christmas in 1972, leaving no clue as to what happened (or, if you prefer, too many clues, enough to make the whole thing a mystery). 

Arthur, the Principal Keeper. 

Bill, the reliable Assistant. 

Vince, the new boy, and with a troubled life behind him

Looking back on events twenty years later, Helen, Jenny and Michelle remember their lives with Arthur, Bill and Vince. A novelist, Dan Sharp, (who is present only as the women's audience: he is a shadowy figure seen only in the reactions of others) wants to investigate the whole mystery, interviewing the women and leading them to reflect on their lives before and after the disappearance. What secrets may emerge?

That's a very bald synopsis and frankly I struggle to sum up the themes of this complex, enchanting book. There is just so much here. The Lamplighters is one of those books that forms an irreducible image of itself, and I worry that my clumsy efforts to analyse, to discuss it may only give a wrong impression. That would be a shame because I want to persuade you to read this book. It comes at just the right time - so much of it is about separation, about bearing the apartness, the distance from one's family, from the wider world. Some chapters give the womens' accounts of this, of their loneliness in their little cottages within sight - when it's lit - of the Maiden light. Others give the mens' perspective. Both suffer, I think, in different ways: the women managing children and keeping up a facade of normal life, only to have their worlds overturned when their men come home. The men, enjoying a certain sense of camaraderie but also hobbled by a male reticence to open up. And all the time, watching each other, in case the strain becomes too much for one of the companions with whom they're trapped.

It's a pressure cooker atmosphere for both, and as the story unfolds we learn about all kinds of misunderstandings, suspected infidelities, desires and secrets. Everyone here has suffered losses, is running from, or denying, something: acts they've carried out, things that have been done to them, misfortunes that have affected them. The periodic separations endured by these families prevent these things from being digested, accepted and understood, feeding instead an atmosphere pf psychic claustrophobia, a darkness in which the strange can seem dangerously plausible. 

Stonex creates from this an, at times uncanny atmosphere where for whole scenes it's impossible to be sure whether what's being described is something we can assume really happened, is being dreamed or imagined or is an insidious mixture of all three. It is, I suspect, the sort of unreality to which isolation, stress, lack of sleep and monotony can easily give rise - perhaps one many of us have approached (in a lesser way) during the days of lockdown and covid. ('The effects of being quarantined are serious. It isn't a normal state for a person').  There is then something of the horror story in The Lamplighters, but delicately done and arising from the complex twists and secrets of the human mind.

But there is much more to this book than that. We also see the contrasting roles of men and women, the assumptions about how they will live and what they want. The three women, especially, are well drawn and deeply interesting: Helen, inheriting the status of her Principal Keeper husband ('she was Mrs PK, it was her obligation') but ill at ease with it. Jenny, who seems to live to nurture a grievance - but is there something darker behind that? And Michelle, rather different from the other two, not only younger but  a free spirit in the early 70s and the girlfriend, not the wife, of Vince. Michelle is determined to prevent Vince's memory being blackened but (the only one of the three now in another relationship) seems to be trapped with a controlling, suburban husband ('he didn't like her reading. Said it put fancy ideas in her head') from whom she has to hide her interest in the Maiden rock mystery. 

Against the women the men can seem, at times, like rather pallid creatures whose chief occupation on the lighthouse is the consumption of deeply unappealing food and prodigious quantities of tobacco (I mean it - the amount of smoking that goes on in this book, it's a wonder to me that anyone survives a week and I was rather grimly amused when in one desperate episode they run out). They mark their friendship by swearing a lot and seem to avoid each other as far as they can. But they, too, have their subtleties and their dark secrets.

As in any closed, dedicated community, lighthouse keeping has, it emerges, something of an ethos, common to the keepers themselves and their wives and girlfriends. It's partly a sense of duty, partly an idea of being alone together. 'I've had my light safe here' muses Arthur 'shining through the dark and I'll keep it shining'. He doesn't mean, or not only, the lighthouse lamp. There is an almost mystic sense of connection symbolised by that lamp, connection across years and across miles - and not always in a comfortable sense, we are told several times how unbearable to the women it is when they can see the beam of the lamp across miles of sea, knowing their men are at the other end, unable to communicate with them across that gulf.  There is also obsession here, actually scary levels of obsession, and of guilt.

This is the kind of book that hooks you at first with its juicy mystery - but once you get twenty or thirty pages in, you find other things to enjoy: the hauntedness of the lighthouse and the sea, the dance between the six main characters, the teasing revelations of their earlier lives and the different ways in which the women have, or have not, come to terms with their interrupted relationships. 

There is an answer here, in the end, to what happened, or a possible answer, but by the time we reach it, the mystery has almost dissolved into the wider story, and I found myself caring much more about Helen, Jenny and Michelle and about where they would go next and whether they would ever heal. 

A truly affecting book, with some beautiful writing ('melancholy sanded a nook in his heart', 'Big swell, bright day, grease the fog-jib and oil the lenses') and a booking I'd strongly urge you to read. 

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