Orenda Books, 9 December 2021
I'm grateful to Inspired Quill and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for an advance e-copy of The Wildest Hunt and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.
Amelia, a struggling young artist, thinks she's struck lucky when a mysterious, wealthy client offers her £15,000 just for one painting. Enough money to sort Amelia and her boyfriend Joe's debts, maybe even replace their wreck of a car.
The only catch is - Jean wants the painting of remote Glenveagh Castle in Donegal to be done over Christmas. Tempted by the prospect of spending the alone time at Jean's remote cottage, and imagining a romantic, cosy time together, Amelia and Joe instead find themselves isolated in the worst winter anyone can remember with no power - and something has noticed them...
There's a time-honoured link between Christmas and the supernatural (as I write this, I'm preparing for a trip to see A Christmas Carol tomorrow) and it's one Zebedee draws on in The Wildest Hunt, blending the season of cold and darkness with powerful, mythic themes: not only the ancient entities that haunt the Glenveagh estate, but also a lost child, the propitiatory sacrifice of an innocent, and a greed for power and control. All of these play out in both of the couples about whom the story revolves - Amelia and Joe, and Jean and her husband Robert.
Amelia isn't exactly a stranger to the uncanny - she's had disturbing experiences before, and at the start of the book, we see another one. It's not something she actually wants to explore. However, she may not get to choose - the powers rising here are cunning and Amelia's weakness may be Joe, something of a reformed bad boy with whom she's very happy but who may be just a bit too enchanted by the atavistic threats awaiting here. The tension thrums as the story unfolds, Amelia perturbed by the reactions of her partner and unsure how far she can trust him.
There's a similar tension in the relationship between Jean and Robert, although for them, things have already been soured by Jean's suspicions about events forty years ago at Glenveagh. Zebedee's portrayal of the marriage here is stark - two people who seem to at best dislike, at worst hate each other, but who remain tied together as much by bitterness and suspicion as by circumstance. The darkness of Glenveagh will be eager to exploit this rift, posting the question, what does Robert really want?
I loved the way that Zebedee uses the relationships between these four people to sound the depths of the ancient darkness that confronts them. They face a struggle at two levels - understanding the supernatural forces that threaten, and keeping a hold on their humanity, their love, to resist those forces. With almost no other characters featuring for more than couple of pages, it's an intense, emotional read, the coldness without only endurable because of odd moments of inner warmth, alongside the short respites from that coldest of winters which Zebedee allows her characters.
A truly chilling read in every sense!) strongly recommended for the fireside on an iron-hard night, a book with both complex and intriguing characters and real sense of place - as well as an absorbing and knotty plot. But if you stay up late to finish it, don't blame me if you think you hear hoofbeats snd something snuffling outside...
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Untold Story via NetGalley.
So, after eight volumes, The Invisible Library sequence reaches an end. Or a pause. While I would gladly read a new instalment in this series every year until the last syllable of recorded time (I think I may have fallen just a teeny bit for Irene, Librarian, Thief, Spy, and Assassin) an author will understandably want to explore new characters and themes. All good things come to an end.
In the case of The Untold Story, though, they come to a good end. The books have always been balanced between Irene's derring-do retrieving (stealing) books for the Library - which, in traditional style, we see more of as this instalment opens - and wider Libraryverse politics, which dominated more as the series grew longer. Cogman cheekily makes this shift the hinge of The Untold Story: haven't you noticed, various characters mutter darkly, that the Librarians have been more and more involved with treaties and talks, and doing less actual book stealing? Why might that be?
This sets the scene for what was always bound to happen - an adventure that doesn't deal with an external situation but instead delves into the ancient secrets of the Library itself, its origin and purpose and what the guiding hand is that keeps it on course. In a moment of crisis, there is dissent among the Librarians. Irene's mentor, Copelia, is dangerously ill and others - whom Irene likes much less - are giving the orders. Who is she to trust? In a real sense we see Irene growing up here, forced to make her own decisions not just about how to fulfil a duty assigned to her but about her values and her loyalty and how far she is prepared to go for them.
The book focuses, more than any adventure to date, on Irene's own past and her connections to Alberich, the greatest traitor in the history of the Library. Its tone is, I think, subtly different to the previous stories - less of a heist, less of a trail of chaos through the worlds (though, be assured, there is plenty of action) and more introspective, more tricksy, perhaps. The landscape is shifting, ancient truths coming under question, and the Library's justification for its existence is somewhat wanting.
Against this background, of course Cogman gives us lashings of what we've come to expect: here is Vale, the Great Detective, ingenious, methodical and deeply moral; here is Kai, dragon prince and Irene's lover, impulsive, and struggling as ever with the tension between personal life and family duty; and here is Catherine, Lord Silver's Fae niece, with her own mysteries (actually perhaps I thought she might have done a little bit more here, but she's still very young). And of course Silver, that archetypal seducer and all round cad, plays his part too, to my great satisfaction.
All in all, this book rounds off the series so far with great flair and it will delight everyone who has been following the series. If you haven't, this isn't the place to start, you need to go back to The Invisible Library and read them in order, but doing that will be a treat, not a chose. Maybe*, like me; you'll read the first book on the Eurostar to Brussels and get glitter all over your business suit and not care? Or maybe you'll read it at home after your family have decided your cryptic hints about what present you want?
Either way, the important thing is to read it, and to read the other six books, and then to read The Untold Story.
For more information about The Untold Story, see the publisher's website here.
*Possibly not, as trips to Brussels are probably less likely now because of Your Know what and also the other You Know What? And for all I know the publishers have managed to make the covers less glitter shed-y? I hope not though.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of A Marvellous Light to consider for review and to Black Crow PR for inviting me to take part in the tour.
A rather magnificent queer romance with magic, A Marvellous Light takes us into an alternate Edwardian age where aristocrats weave spells at house parties, suffragettes chafe against the constraints of society, and dark forces seek powerful artefacts...
Sir Robin Blyth has recently inherited his father's baronetcy on the death of his parents. He's actually inherited little else, the family fortunes having been squandered in social climbing, and to make ends meet, he has taken a job in the Civil Service.
Unfortunately, this turns out far from the sinecure Robin might have hoped for. The Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints is, it seems, the British Empire's own liaison with the world of magic and Robin's been placed there to replace the luckless Reggie Gatling, missing in suspicious circumstances. Before he knows what's hit him, he's under attack from faceless men - and strangely attracted by Edwin Courcey, his counterpart in the hidden world.
Courcey is a prickly, cold and reticent man, one who's been taught to bury his feelings deep, but something in him sparks at Edwin.
These two awkward and shy men soon find that to survive they need to depend on each other. Edwin is all the help Robin will get with the magical forces now pursuing him, and Robin holds the only clues Edwin will get about what happened to his friend Reggie. So the two bicker along, introducing each other to their respective worlds as they race against time to understand a creeping curse.
I loved Edwin and Robin. Their reticence and defensiveness at first make this seem like Pride and Prejudice squared, but Marske soon shows how much of it proceeds from their being gay in a world that would persecute them for what they are. Yes, defensive instincts are all to the fore but it's because any moment of weakness - any confession of what they really feel - could be catastrophic. What follows is a measured and careful dance, interrupted by volcanic bursts of emotion - not just romantic passion, but fear, jealousy, despair. Edwin's awful family doesn't help: almost all better magicians than him, they're inclined to treat him with bored tolerance at best, scornful bullying more often.
You may, of course, guess how things will end up - I hope it's not too spoilery to say that there are, eventually, some very steamy scenes indeed. But that doesn't mean everything's done and settled. These are complicated men, thrown into an imbroglio of secrets, betrayal and lust for power. Much, much more is at stake than their personal happiness. If they make mistakes as they negotiate that tension, they risk death, ruin or, perhaps worst of all, being made to forget what they have found in one another. the stakes are certainly high.
Secrets are laid bare on many levels in A Marvellous Light. Most obviously, there's the process of "unbushelling", the revelation to a non-magical person of the hidden powers and abilities that exist in the world (the name coming form the Biblical reference to hiding one's light - the marvellous light of the title, perhaps - under a bushel, a container for grain). There's Robin and Edwin's sexuality, hidden from society and, at least initially, from each other. There's the revelation to each of them what the other is, or might be. And, more prosaically, there's the exposure of a fiendish plot that could endanger all magicians. And this is only the first in a series of books - who knows what secrets await?
This mannered and passionate book comes as something of a breath of fresh air in fantasy and introduces a pair of fascinating and deep characters who will I hope appear again soon in what is sure to be a successful and fun series.
For more information about A Marvellous Light, see the publisher's website here or the stops on the blogtour listed on the poster!
|Cover design |
by Lisa Marie Pomilio
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Jade Legacy to consider for review.
I seem to be reading a lot of books this Autumn that end, or at least pause, series. I'm not sure which Jade Legacy does - it certainly rounds off The Green Bone Saga in a satisfying way (that is with conflict, reconciliation, drama, heartbreak and loss) but in doing that it brings onto the stage a whole new generation of the Kaul family. And it's a book that covers such a long period - twenty years or so - in which so much happens that it's conspicouosly more than "just" a conclusion to the series. This book left me asking so many questions about what might come next!
Taking the three books together - the others are Jade City and Jade War - I'm impressed by the sheer scale of Fonda Lee's storytelling. Through all those books, her fantasy world has just hummed with life. Their focus is on the island of Kekon, a place inspired by South East Asian cultures and set in a wider world with enough echoes overall of our own to seem achingly familiar. That familiarity means that the key fantasy idea - of "bioenergetic" jade which imbues its wearers with almost superhero level powers, if they can learn to control them - just seems, well, everyday, and the politics and culture and codes and jealousies that arise from this idea appear as natural consequences of it.
What particularly comes across in Jade Legacy though is that this world isn't static, it's not just a background for the protagonists, it is evolving, technologically, politically and culturally.
In technology, we start to see changes as camcorders and videogames appear; as Green Bones who get in a spot of bother on nighttime Janloon streets no longer need a phone box to report back to base, but can use a cellphone; as computers and then flat screen TVs are mentioned.
In politics, the dominant power in this world, the Republic of Espenia, has been in a state of "Slow War" with a rival nation but is now stepping back form that (while leaving a good few small but hot wars to be fought by private contractors).
And in culture, the Kekonese-Espenian community is finally winning a degree of acceptance for its traditions, such as the use of jade for healing. One of the things these books, and especially Jade Legacy, do so well is to explore the cultural challenges faced by this minority community - placed as they are between the cultural milieu of Kekon with its Green Bones clans such as the Kauls' No Peak, and that of the self-proclaimedly "modern" Espenia which still has its criminal gangs or "Crews", many of them rather highly connected, and its religious fanatics devoted to Truthtelling. The rich layering of detail allows many aspects of this to be explored, from the family whose daughter, ensconced in a powerful Government job, chillily disrespects the Kauls' envoy, to the Kekonese-Espenian gang boss who earns opprobrium from his own community and from the Espenians.
Technology, politics, and culture. But there is much more here. The heart of Jade Legacy is, I think family, and love. New characters come onto the scene - such as Niko, son of murdered clan leader Lan, adopted son of the current leader Hilo, Lan's brother - and old ones mature and develop - it was wonderful to see Shae again and to find some of her wounds healing, even as she suffered new ones. But they all have to face the same choices, none more so perhaps than Hilo. Hilo and his wife Wen saw their relationship severely tested in Jade War, and much of this book circles around whether they can rebuild it: the emotional hurt and physical wounds went very deep.
There is so much here about finding the right way forward - whether by embracing tradition with a twist (as does Jaya with her force of Little Knives) or by challenging or doubting it (as Shae had done before the Saga even began, as Anden did in Jade City and Jade War, and as others do here). So many themes and currents. What about those (like the indigenous inhabitants of Kekon) who cannot wield jade? Clan members so born are referred to as 'stone-eyes' and considered unlucky, but will they continue to accept that status? Others chafe at the arrogance and dominance of Clan resting on the laurels of their role in freeing Kekon during the Many Nations War. New ways of thinking, new ways of living (Anden finally finds love with another man), new demands for inclusion and recognition.
And all through the story, like a chorus, unlucky Bero, who we saw in both the previous books, a clanless man trying to carve himself a niche from the outside. Through chance or effort, he's caused grave hurt to No Peak but done himself little good in the process. Yet here he is, still trying and in so doing, casting a light on the assumptions which uphold Clan power (as well as giving an in to lots of new mischief!)
What else can I say about Jade Legacy? There is just so much to praise, I could go on and on. Loved characters with real human dilemmas, fears, weaknesses and, many of them, willingness to do terrible things. Nobody here here is exactly a hero. It would be easy to see many of them as a pack of cutthroats, even others in Kekon point that out. This world can be - generally is - patriarchal, hierarchical and kind of corrupt. At the same time, the struggles we see here have their own moral context and more, a deeply human appeal - Hilo and Wen seeking to repair their marriage, Shae trying to reconcile her role in the clan with a love that may do the family harm, Niko's need for his own identity, Ru's need to find a new way to be a member of his family.
None of it is easily achieved. There are so many frictions between these characters, and others, often accentuated for the reader because Fonda Lee's writing makes it impossible to dismiss anyone's perspective or to hope for a simple, single correct answer. And all this is being worked out as No Peak struggles for its existence against the larger, even more ruthless Mountain clan so that actions are constrained, resources limited and options often poor.
In all, this is a glorious read, a zinging, exciting, absorbing book stuffed with drama and sadness, love, fear and tragedy. It wrung my heart again and again, but also had me punching the air, laughing and crying for joy. Whether it is the end for the Kauls and their enemies, or a pause, it is a terrific end, or pause, cementing this series as a magnificent achievement in 21st century fantasy.
For more information about Jade Legacy, see the publisher's website here.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Bone Shard Emperor via Netgalley to consider for review, and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.
The Bone Shard Emperor picks things up almost where The Bone Shard Daughter left them and, yes, I really think that before reading this, you should read the earlier book, if you haven't already. Some series you can pick up the middle, but not this one, and the reason goes to the heart of why it's so compelling. Quite apart from simply understanding the plot detail - something I don't think is that important - you need the context to really appreciate the characters here.
Lin, for example, is now Emperor, having killed her corrupt and abusive father, but she's struggling. She really wants to be a better Emperor than her father. In the previous book we saw what he made her and how he treated her, and that is central to her struggles to be herself but also to understand him (which itself risks her becoming more like him). In The Bone Shard Emperor we will see that tension play out, and the danger that Lin courts. Apart from the forces that shaped her as a person, she's inherited a volatile political situation. Her rule isn't absolute: the islands making up the Empire have their own Governors, who consult their own interests first. There is rebellion in the air, and in a series of catastrophes, islands have begin sinking for unknown reasons.
Similarly, notorious smuggler and folk hero Jovis is now Lin's Captain of the Imperial Guard, but his loyalties are conflicted. Stewart's writing here is deft and her characterisation subtle: Jovis is far from loyal to Lin, retaining affiliations both with the Ioph Carn crime syndicate and with the Shardless Few rebels. It would be easy to hate Jovis for what seems like betrayal (it IS betrayal) but if you travelled with him through the earlier book you will understand what he was trying to achieve and the hopes and fears which he still has, and will sympathise with, if not perhaps forgive, him.
Again, the enigmatic exile Nisong, who spent most of the first book enslaved and befuddled by 'mind fog' has now woken and is visiting a terrible revenge on the Empire. In many ways a hateful character, Nisong has suffered greatly, and using her, Stewart shows how abuse and betrayal can feed on itself - just watch her justifying what she is doing, blaming the innocent who she destroys for the deaths of her friends in the bloody rampage. Again, Stewart's characterisation is chilling and convincing.
The other main characters here, island governor Phalue and her wife Ranami, perhaps need less backstory - their loyalties were more conflicted in the earlier book and things are simpler in this one: Phalue is trying, in a similar way to Lin, to be better, to raise up her people, and she confronts many of the same problems as Lin in establishing her authority, introducing radical change and dealing with the horrors left by Lin's father, the wild 'constructs' which previously controlled and administered the Empire. Lin and Phalue contrast nicely, Lin having forsworn the bone magic that drives the constructs, thereby leaving herself vulnerable, Phalue resorting enthusiastically to her sword and armour in a most un Governor-like way and rather relishing her hands-on exercise of power.
This book was full of characters I wished would join up, get on, and work together. Lin and Phalue could complement each other so well. Phalue would make a much better Captain than spy/smuggler Jovis. Jovis and Lin, in turn, clearly fancy the pants off one another, but they are held apart by all sorts of formalities and conventions as well as what they don't know about each other. It's frustrating, but Stewart has written a story that captures the nuances and contradictions of these characters extremely well, so that although there are all sorts of catastrophes, rebellions and magical weirdnesses breaking out, it's the central relationships that really drive the plot, adding a sense of peril and risk - as though everyone was on a high wire and might fall of any time - that keeps the reader turning the pages.
A potent blend of politics, magic, warfare and romance, The Bone Shard Emperor fully lives up to the promise of The Bone Shard Daughter, giving us plenty of action and mystery and, best of all, more of the strange creatures Mephi and Thrana, whose nature is now a little clearer. There's also a new character, Ragan, a mysterious warrior-monk who confounds stereotypes (you'll have to wait, no spoilers) and makes Jovis VERY jealous when he gets close to Lin (great fun to observe).
In short, if you've read The Bone Shard Daughter you'll love this sequel, if you haven't read that book I hope I've inspired you to go and do so - before moving on to The Bone Shard Emperor next.
For more information about The Bone Shard Emperor, see the publisher's website here and also the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below.
|Design by Duncan Spilling|
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Midnight Lock to consider for review.
I enjoy Deaver's novels so much, and especially his Lincoln Rhyme thrillers. It's something to do with the strong setting and the collegiality of Rhyme and his group of friends/ helpers, but it doesn't hurt that, as Deaver described at a recent online session to launch The Midnight Lock, the author knows he's competing for attention with social media, games, video and countless other channels and he sets out to write books that grab the attention.
And how. In this latest visit to Rhyme's New York townhouse forensics lab - we've been away for a couple of years following the doings of new Deaver protagonist Colter Shaw on the West Coast - there is, as always, plenty of action, but this time, behind it all, a distinct air of menace. Rhyme has learned he's being targeted by old adversary The Watchmaker; he's also fluffed a case, and a crime boss who's free as a result wants revenge for Rhyme's involvement (some people have no gratitude); 'Verum', an online purveyor of fake news and rabble-stirring conspiracy theory, highlights Rhyme's failure as the outworking of a vast conspiracy; and, perhaps most concerning of all, the Mayor and the City authorities have turned against Rhyme, forbidding any police officer to work with, or even speak to him (tricky as Rhyme's wife Amelia is a cop).
It's all getting very dark, and amidst this, in a first person narrative, we hear the mysterious stalker known as 'The Locksmith' lay plans and carry them out. This figure, who will be Rhyme's main opponent in The Midnight Lock, is a master of burglary, entering women's apartments at night and disarranging things just enough to alarm. In some truly tense scenes, we see the break-ins and observe the Locksmith move around as if at home, toying with thoughts of going further still, selecting knives, musing on even worse crimes. Deaver gives us the dry, technical background to all the lockpicking, with serves both to show the depth of the Locksmith's skill and knowledge and also to undermine any faith I had in the ability of locks to protect.
Bolts, bolts are the thing, and don't trust electronics either.
As usual in these books, it's very much a game of cat and mouse - or several games, in fact; Rhyme can't of course let the fact that he's still looking into the case come out, and there are other forces at work too, with their own agendas, their own truths. The malleability of truth here is something of a theme, the story covering not only Verum's bizarre ravings but also the activities of a sleazy tabloid which monetises lies for the sake of sales, and a dubious streaming service one of whose content moderators seems rather casual to say the least.
Against this background, Rhyme's absolute faith in the truth as revealed by evidence (by which he means, scientific evidence, not testimony) is a rather helpful touchstone and pointed up something I should perhaps have spotted sooner, that Deaver is pitching Rhyme as a modern day Sherlock Holmes. Certainly the milieux of the two men are similar, solving crimes from their homes at the heart of the world-cities of their age, London and New York, but the focus in The Midnight Lock on samples of material from shoes to enable identification of movements put me in mind of Dr Joseph Bell, whose deductions Conan Doyle reflected in Holmes. More prosaically, I think, Rhyme has some of Holmes' crabbiness, his disdain for "unnecessary" information, even commonplace knowledge if it isn't related to crime or forensics (which gives a bit of comic relief here, akin to the judge who'd never heard of the Beatles). And the same sense of ennui when not actively engaged on a case.
I wouldn't take this parallel too far - Rhyme has married! - but the presence of The Watchmaker as a Nemesis does create another similarity. In this book, the first question to be determined is, of course, whether The Locksmith and The Watchmaker might be the same person, a possibility that adds to the sense of danger in the air, a sense that only builds as the unknown stalker becomes aware of Rhyme's interest and builds it into his plans...
As always with Deaver's books, The Midnight Lock is terrific, page-turning fun and I was pleased to re-acquaint myself with Rhymes after the break (although also glad to hear on that Zoom event that Shaw will also be back again).
For more information about The Midnight Lock, see the publisher's website here.
|Cover by Neil Williams|
This review first appeared in issue 41 of Ghosts and Scholars, a newsletter about the ghost stories of MR James (and ghost stories more widely).
I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Terror Tales of the Home Counties to consider for review.
I was pleased to see this volume in the expanding Terror Tales series, focussing as it does on a part of England often neglected, seen simply in relation to London, the Home Counties being regarded as London's dormitories filled with safe, chocolate-box villages populated by vicars on bicycles and stockbrokers polishing their cars on a Sunday morning. Given this reputation, horror authors may perhaps feel prefer to set stories in sinister London itself, or in more outlying, less cosy regions. It may be true that a bit more work is needed to establish a credible sense of horror in the Home Counties, but this volume shows that it can be done, and done with aplomb, even in the space of a short story. (We should perhaps recall Sherlock Holmes's view: 'It is my belief, Watson... that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside' (The Adventure of the Copper Beeches).
So we find here a varied lineup of authors generating some really pleasing terrors in those leafy villages; as with the rest of the Terror Tales series this book features stories by both established and newer authors, and the tales themselves alternate with more factual pieces giving legends or nuggets of history that sometimes relate directly to the stories, sometimes less so, but which all add to the atmosphere. Again like the others in this series, Terror Tales of the Home Counties mixes stories that logically belong here because they reflect some aspect of the chosen region and those which could equally have been set elsewhere. There are, I think, rather more of the former than usual - even more than in previous anthologies, a story that doesn't overtly draw on a location in the Home Counties may, I think, still be inspired by a place or its atmosphere or reflect an author's formation or experience.
That's true of all the anotholgies in this series but I found myself considering that for this volume there is another factor. The Home Counties as a region has an association with wealth and power and entitlement, characteristics that often set up protagonists for a fall (or give them the power to inflict horror on others) and so for example in Monkey's by Reggie Oliver, we see how a group of Etonian schoolboys, having a nice time on the river, encounter something dark. A ghost story located in Eton might be seen as parking tanks on MR James's own lawns and indeed there is a rather Jamesian feeling here - to stretch the metaphor a bit, I'd say Oliver parks his tank very neatly. There is a perfect balance between the everyday and the incursion of the strange.
There's a Twitter account I follow which tweets images from pulp literature and occasionally shares book covers featuring "Women with great hair fleeing gothic houses" and the opening of Love Leaves Last by Mick Sims really put me in mind of those images as May just does that, fleeing in terror that someone - or something - will follow. As soon becomes clear though this isn't a straightforwardly gothic mystery, though it is a story of family secrets, a curse, and - something I always love - a warning foolishly ignored. Slightly comic, very scary and refreshing different. Again, though, we may wonder about the wealth and power of titled families and what lurks in their histories. Another story exploring this theme is The Topsy-Turvey Ones by Tom Johnstone, which manages to weave together a modern film-maker, a family curse, the Commonwealth radicals of the English Civil War and even the detention in 1999 of Genral Pinochet in Surrey.
The Old, Cold Clay by Gail-Nina Anderson could perhaps be set in any one of a swathe of country towns or villages popular with tourists. It opens as Viv attempts to occupy a coach party, negotiating the delicate line between sometimes blunt historical truth and the kind of picturesque story that goes down better with visitors. But reality is about to take a hand. The darkness in this one was well counterpointed by the closeness, even cosiness of the community depicted.
Between by Sam Dawson successfully exploits the contrast between a modern, semi-urbanised region and traces of older and darker things, implicitly judging a pair of modern trendies taking on a rural cottage against the steadfast character of their grandparents' generation. It's a genuinely thoughtful story, posing questions about how one deals with the strange and hinting that even in our modern century the much-abused landscape and natural world may take a hand in human affairs. I'd perhaps describe is as Lovecraftian rather than Jamesian.
My Somnabulist Heart by Andrew Hook is a lovely study in ambiguity and tells a lot of story in a short space. We don't, for example, ever learn exactly how Ian, relocating to the country from London, earned his money, but we soon gather from what we piece together of his character that it probably wasn't done very ethically - but also that he's, perhaps fatally, disengaged from life and consequences, comparing reality - which he feels has no overall arc or direction - with fiction. Perhaps it's this that lays him open to something that is either form his imagination, or its very opposite - reality getting even? Either way, a deliciously thought-provoking and ambiguous ending.
Where are they Now? by Tina Roth teeters on the brink of the Home Counties, exploiting the fact that the margins of London often blend seamlessly into their surroundings. Drawing on the dark past of Mortlake and rumours of Dr John Dee, this story - told in the rambling, often distracted narration of an elderly actor - weaves together past and present, the mundane and the strange, to give a real sense of gathering trouble.
As the husband of a vicar, I was slightly disappointed that there are few stories in this book featuring clergy as protagonists. Surely they should be a staple of this sort of horror? However The Doom by Paul Finch himself bucks that trend with a lucid, sting-in-the-tail horror that hangs on the discovery in a remote church of a medieval Doom - a wall painting showing lost souls being tormented in Hell. Drawn into a theological debate with a nosy visitor, he's clearly out of his depth and we sense trouble but when it comes it is from an unexpected direction.
Summer Holiday by John Llewellyn Probert is not a supernatural story, indeed more of a comic, albeit darkly comic, caper and more amusing than scary. It put me in mind of Kind Hearts and Coronets, so I guess there is another sort of Home Counties link there (albeit Ealing is more London) and elsewhere in the collection Bray Studios (where the Hammer films were made) get a mention too.
Chesham by Helen Grant was, for me, the outstanding story in this volume. Kay, returning to the family home to clear things out after the death of her parents, is one of three children. She's drawn the short straw because she hasn't been able to visit much of late, but in going through old photos and clearing cupboards and drawers she discovers a rather sinister vein of family history. Written with a growing sense of menace - the young woman alone in the silent family home - this one will, I promise, stay with you long after you've finished it.
The book ends with three stories that remind us that "Home Counties" is not always the same as "wealthy and privileged". The protagonist of Taking Tusk Mountain by Allen Ashley lives in Luton, and has been through some bad stuff in his life, but is now getting straight. There's a tension between keeping out of his dodgy mate Brandon's schemes, and getting enough money to move his girlfriend Mel and her son Leo out of the scuzzy area where they live. What follows is something of a supernatural tug of war, a very different story from the others in this collection as a half-baked caper goes completely wrong. A fun and enjoyable story.
Moses by David J Howe similarly stays in the edgelands, this time on the fringes of London, where a grisly monstes stalks two young boys planning a night camping. This one really did build tension.
Finally, The Old Man in Apartment Ninety by Jason Gould mixes horror with post-apocalyptic. It is set in Stevenage, rather movingly seen, after a catastrophe that seems to have destroyed civilisation, as having been something of a Utopia. Where is the horror in that, you might think? Well, it is there, I promise this one will also stay with you.
An enjoyable collection, with many stories that chill and a balance that, overall, does the Home Counties justice, I think, displacing that stuffy image and giving a glimpse of the darkness underneath.
For more information about the book, see the publisher's website.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Under the Whispering Door.
Price was dead, to begin with...
TJ Klune casts light and wisdom on the mysteries of life and death in this engaging new novel.
Wallace Price would not be anyone's idea of a sympathetic boss. Seen early on in Under the Whispering Door firing an unfortunate employee whose life problems are affecting her work, he is driven, unempathetic and demanding. So it's hardly surprising when, after his sudden death, only a handout of people attend Wallace's funeral. Wallace himself IS surprised by that: but more at having actually, you know, died. Basically he's having trouble accepting this whole "deceased" thing and so a Reaper has to be despatched to escort him to - well, we'll come to that.
Yes, there are overtones of everybody's favourite spooky Dickens novel here. Like Scrooge, Wallace wasn't always a work-obsessed misanthropist: like Scrooge he knew love, but it turned sour on him. But there are also differences. Wallace isn't quite the caricature that Scrooge is. And while Scrooge was offered visions of what may come - including the prospect of going to the grave unmourned and unsung - and time to amend his life, no such luxury is accorded Wallace. His time's up, and he's out.
The biggest difference, though, lies I think, in the dynamics of what happens after Wallace's death. In many respects, his life only begins then. Accompanied by reaper Mei (pronounced "May") whose first gig this is, Wallace is led to a teashop, run by Hugo, also inhabited - haunted? - by Hugo's dead grandfather Nelson and dead dog Apollo. The teashop - Charon's Crossing - isn't some weird borderland thing, it's an actual, genuine teashop serving a range of infusions to the customers as well as home made scones and other baked goods.
(I need to stop here to smile for a moment over what are clearly difference between the associations of "teashop" in the US and the UK. From the reaction Klune puts into Wallace's head, Over There it has clear overtones of aching hipsterdom, while this side of the Atlantic one thinks of crumbs, chintz and copper ornaments, also probably steamed up windows and rain).
Actually Charon's Crossing DOES have some weird borderline characteristics. It hosts The Door through which Wallace and his fellow deceased will eventually travel (to where? we never learn). It also holds those who need to spend time reconciling themselves with the fact of death, or with the way they spent their lives. And it provides a locus for all kinds of half-and-half entities to mingle with the living - such as those who rejected the idea of death entirely and lost themselves under the winnowing forces of the mundane world.
Yes, there is some spooky stuff here, but it doesn't dominate and, honestly, it was a breath fo fresh air to read a novel with such a definite, unambiguous fantasy setting but which doesn't all turn on some threat to the nature of reality, or an evil plot by beings from Beyond to conquer the universe. Instead, we get tea and chat and honest, often painful, character development. I know that won't perhaps be everybody's cup of tea (pun intended) but it is done so very well here and really grabbed my attention and sympathy. At Charon's Crossing, the focus is on being, not doing. And - to let a bit of a spoiler slip - the being is especially focused on Wallace (who, is, of course, dead) and Hugo (very much alive), with a thread of romance between these very different men. And of course some definite obstacles in the way.
Quite how Klune orchestrates and explores this theme, I won't say any more about - first because it would be spoilery and secondly, because it would only clumsily sum up what's set out much better in the book, and why do that? But it does involve human loss, a vengeful ghost, a podcasting medium and a besmitten public health inspector, creating a darkly comic plot that surrounds the central romantic one, so there is a lot here to hold the attention.
What you need to do then, is, to put the kettle on; warm the teapot; cut yourself a slice of cake; settle down, and read Under the Whispering Door. You won't regret it...
For more information about Under the Whispering Door, see the publisher's website here.
I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance review copy of Psychopaths Anonymous, and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.
Will Carver is, I think, one of the most distinct novelists that I've encountered recently. His books form a meticulous catalogue of the vices and failings of contemporary humanity, which sounds depressing and tedious, but they are the very OPPOSITE of that. These compelling, readable books are a sort of ethical noir, going to dark places to show us ourselves. His characters may be appalling people doing terrible things, but they're still people one can relate to - albeit this may be a troubling (self) judgement on the reader.
Psychopaths Anonymous follows in this tradition and I think it may actually be his best yet.
Maeve is a psychopath. She makes no bones about the fact - the book, which is written in her voice, presents the fact calmly, without debate.
Maeve is also, I think, as depicted here, an alcoholic, something she is less ready to accept, and possibly a sex addict besides (there's lots of sex in the book).
Maeve is part fascinated, part appalled by the Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-step process. Much of the book focusses on her visits to a succession of AA groups and her careening off the various stages of the process. Carver pays this whole phenomenon the compliment of a deep, skewering analysis that systematically deconstructs its dependence on religion, highlighting the uneasy contradiction of acknowledging an omnipotent and vengeful deity while seeking strength within oneself to overcome addiction.
Before I go on, I should perhaps declare an interest here as the husband of a Church of England priest. Having done that, I would point out the conception against which Maeve is so strongly rebelling - the controlling, angry and manipulative God - is not by any means a universal conception of religion. I'd go so far as to say that it is a heretical and abusive presentation of my faith and something that any decent human being ought to reject. It is, however, sadly, a common one, humanity being so prone to project and deify its own faults, and Carver's righteous anger at, and rejection, of this monstrosity comes through sincerely and clearly in Maeve's uncompromising refusal of it. Maeve is actually a wonderfully drawn and vivid personality all round, though her attendance at so many AA groups, whose basis she hates, is to begin with something of mystery. (It does become clear).
She's not a wreck of a person, she holds down a responsible job (in marketing) and is very self-aware both about her drinking and her sex. And, as the story spirals on its way, also about her putative psychopathy - an aspect of her personality that she doesn't wish to "cure" but to learn to live with. To this end, she establishes her own self-help group, "Psychopaths Anonymous" (though they're careful not to use that name too widely). The commentary that this book provides on different means of exploring, and living with, one's self is truly illuminating and to my mind showcases (ironically, given the subject matter) Carver's empathy for and understanding of his characters.
But there's more! Maeve is on something of a journey here - readers of Good Samaritans, Carver's first novel with Orenda, may well recognise her and know where it is going to end as a new man comes into her life. Seth seems to provide some relationship ballast (even as the sex becomes more intense) although the presence in Maeve's life of an enduring boyfriend only makes that life more complicated. An ongoing theme here is just how far Maeve is really on top of things - do bear in mind that she is the one narrating the story, and she isn't exactly a sober citizen - and the presence of a man in her life raises the stakes in that respect, Carver perhaps hinting that she isn't as in control as she thinks.
Not a book for the squeamish, as you might expect, Psychopaths Anonymous nevertheless feels like a story with a firm moral centre. It's a vividly told story, one that will have you paging back and forth to check details (there are a few secrets that readers of the other novels in the Carververse may also decode...) While fairly short, it takes on gigantic themes and nails them brilliantly. I was just bowled over.
For more information about Psychopaths Anonymous, see the Orenda Books website here - as well as the entries on the tour poster below! You can buy Psychopaths Anonymous from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Far From the Light of Heaven to consider for review, and to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the blogtour (in fact, to close it off).
I'm having to be very careful writing this review, perhaps more careful that I would normally be since I am not just worried about upsetting people with spoilers but also about not creating a misleading impression for the book. I suspect that's a concern that Thompson himself shares because in the Afterword he explains that he doesn't consider it a space opera (albeit it takes place, mostly, in remote space aboard spaceships). I'd concur with that.
I'd also add that neither is it really a "locked room" detective story. One might jump to that conclusion, as a crime is committed, on an isolated ship, with a limited roster of suspects and a detective - of sorts - is dispatched to resolve it. However, Thompson robustly - almost gleefully - refuses to go through with the dance moves you'd expect for a locked room mystery. Yes, Fin is an isolated, washed-up investigator who has been suspended form duty, lives in a domestic tip and now has One Last Chance at redemption. Yes, he does insist on procedure, against the protestations of Shell, Captain of the ship Ragtime. Yes, there are inferences and red herrings. But - slight spoiler perhaps - Fin doesn't reason his way to the heart of a fiendishly complex mystery and announce it in a dramatic conclusion.
Rather, as we move into the endgame of the story, we're given an account of what actually happened. By this time it's fairly clear that the immediate heart of the matter is more about survival in space and the dangers therein - albeit the motivation behind the crime creates a potent threat to that survival. But also that Thompson is using Fin more as a chorus or commentary to cast light on the deeper story (behind the survival theme) than him being the focus of the story itself.
I have, rather ploddingly, spelled this out because I have seen online reviews of the book which I think came away slightly disappointed, or perhaps perplexed, because they were trying to fit this book into a different template. I could make the point more bluntly by citing one very well known classic SF novel which nobody would ever try to approach in that way, but doing so would probably cross the line into being spoilery so there I will leave it.
Having got all that out of the way, what do we have in this book? I found three elements of the story particularly notable.
First, as a survival story, Far From the Light of Heaven is absolutely top class. Shell, the human captain woken from ten years of sleep when something goes wrong aboard Ragtime, is an excellently drawn character. She's strong and prepared but trying oh so hard to keep her doubts and fears in check, alternately helped and hindered by the necessary routines of life in space - necessary to remaining alive, that is. It's her first mission. She trained for years in the knowledge that she would only be aboard the ship as a backup, in case something came up which the AI systems can't handle. Her family background and motivations - including a missing space hero father - are described, and we then see her forced to step up, having to make myriad crucial decisions not only to discover what has gone wrong but to try and preserve several hundred lives aboard the ship. The technical stuff here is first rate - kind of like The Martian but with higher stakes and greater danger - as is the humanity of our Captain, notable in a story which also involves significant portrayals of AI. I also enjoyed Shell's relationship with Fin: both professional and rivalrous, as they have slightly different interests, backgrounds and goals.
A second strand was the background of the voyage, one of merciless plutocrats directing space exploration from afar (we briefly meet the richest man in the Galaxy). It is an interesting thought experiment how these Earth-grown tyrants relate to their distant empires, and how the inhabitants of the planets, colonies and stations feel about that. At one point in this story there's something like a popular show of protest against the behaviour of the trillionaires - something that Thompson leaves to us to decide whether or not it will come to anything, or indeed, is justified in the particular circumstances.
The third element that grabbed me in this story was the one I'd ideally have liked more of - the background and personalities on the space station Lagos, which Ragtime visits some time before the fatal events. Lagos's identity, and its crew/ inhabitants, explicitly recognises that the spreading presence of humanity in distant space is not just about White Americans, but that other cultures have also travelled to the stars. That sets up some promising potential conflicts, and Thompson introduces us to a range of characters, a couple of whom do travel to the Ragtime and intervene (kind of) in the central plot. However I felt that we could have heard far more about Lagos, and I got a definite sense that Thompson could have done that, albeit it would have been a longer book. In the event I wondered if Far from the Light of Heaven might best be seen as establishing a setting within which further adventures can take place? I would welcome that, although I think there's always a risk when work is being done here establishing that setting, work will only really pay off properly if more books do follow.
Which is, kind of, why I'd refer back to what I said earlier - approach this book with the right mindset. I think it is a fascinating introduction to a remarkable universe, and I'd like to read more about that. More, over and above my own selfish motivations here I think this kind of risk-taking deserves to be applauded, both by the author and by the publisher, and it deserves to succeed.
For more information about Far From the Light of Heaven, see the Orbit website - as well, of course, as the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below.
|Cover design |
by Micaela Alcaino
I'm grateful to the publisher for a free copy of The Midnight Bargain to consider for review.
Much fantasy - following, I suppose, the template of forerunners such as The Lord of the Rings - concerns itself primarily with the role of magic, gods, mythology and so on in perilous, world-shaking adventures. But of course it doesn't have to be like that. Given a fantasy world one can use its conventions to tell stories about everything - crime for example, or art, or industry.
Or, as here, romance.
The Midnight Bargain is Beatrice Clayborn's story. Beatrice is heiress to a moderately successful merchant who, after a number of bad deals, urgently needs some capital and wants to get it by arranging an advantageous marriage. For this purpose the family has come to the fashionable town of Bendleton to take part in the Bargaining Season, a yearly spectacle of balls and presentations. Beatrice fears the Season will see her paired off with some ugly but rich old man and forbidden from the magical research and learning that she secretly loves.
The plight of women in this society is truly desperate: on top of mores and customs reminiscent of the Regency period, they are forbidden to practice sorcerous arts that are open to young men and which in turn guarantee success, power and respect in wider society. To seal her fate, once married, Beatrice will be required, as her mother is, to wear a collar, the key held by her husband, that dampens her magical abilities.
What's she to do? Everything depends on a successful Season - Beatrice's father has mortgaged the family to the hilt, and cannot afford Beatrice to leave Bendleton without a husband. As wisps of scandal begin to circulate around Bendleton, suitors appraise her, and she encounters the mysterious - and wealthy - Ysbeta, Beatrice struggles to navigate the currents of polite society, continue to develop her magic, and keep secrets from her family (especially, from her annoying younger sister).
I really enjoyed this story of magic-with-manners. There's enough here of Jane Austen to hint at the strengths and conventions of a stultifying, patriarchal society, Polk then building on the implications of that when that society understands and practices magic. Yet the action is kept very personal, following Beatrice's progress through parties, card games and horse-rides by day - and dangerous, candle-lit rites in the attic at night (hence the title). Polk's worldbuilding makes this all seem utterly credible, and the author creates a gallery of characters who just convince, who just belong in this setting and act exactly as you know they would.
Great fun, with scathing insights into patriarchy (and plenty of rebellion against said patriarchy going on, much of it very subtle).
I would recommend.
|Design by Andy Allen. |
Against a blue/ back ground,
alternating holly leaves
(in neon green) and skulls
(neon blue) surround