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Head of Zeus, 12 November 2020
Available as: HB, 390pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley & bought HB
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It was about time I caught up with the Six Stories world. These books feature podcastist Scott King's take on a recent mystery, presented not from all angles, as he admits, that would be impossible, but through - yes - six episodes, six stories, six perspectives.
In Deity, the focus is on recently deceased musician Zach Crystal. You have heard of Crystal, who burst into celebrity in the 90s and then grew increasingly weird and reclusive. You'll have heard the rumours, of visits to his remote Scottish compounds, Crystal Forest, but young fans. Of cover-ups and non-disclosure agreements. Of hush money and deaths in the forest. Of the fire that took Crystal's life.
Well now, Scott King is going to sift fact from fiction, and truth from rumour. To give a rounded picture, letting those involved with Crystal speak for themselves - the fans and the critics, the former colleagues, those who came up against Crystal's formidable PR machine, and those who know him early in his career.
Between these accounts we get Scott's own contextualisation, and also a transcript of a late TV appearance by Crystal, a sort of apotheosis of his strange and tragic life. It isn't just the #MeToo accusation that make his life notorious - Crystal Forest is located in a region of the Grampian mountains haunted by dark folktales, takes that seem to have taken root in Crystal's life, music and imagination. The two threads are entwined in what happens here: but are those stories of things stalking the forests a cause of his paranoia Or are they the result of it? Or a distraction from the scandalous rumours that engulfed him in the end?
Wesolowski weaves together all these threads expertly. It's a deliberately obscure, complex story. We have many examples before us now of celebrities - musicians, actors, DJs, impresarios - who abused their power and access. We have many examples of how even apparently selfless humanitarian work can be a cover, or even a means of gaining access to the vulnerable, so the outline of Crystal's life will seem familiar, spark connections. But at the same time, Wesolowski is at pains to show how there are always other versions of the truth, other perspectives, available and to leave open a shifting gamut of realities to explain what happens here. There is still altruism in the world. Crystal has his passionate defenders. Some of his accusers may not bear much scrutiny themselves, and the early lives of Zach and his sister, Naomi, who started out singing together are such that they also arouse genuine pity.
It is an absorbing and at times, genuinely scary story, told in hints and suggestions, rags and patches, less a linear narrative than a piece of truth crystallising slowly out of a murky solution. Each time I though I had the answer another narrative would pull the rug out form under my theory, before Wesolowksi spiralled back to a similar, but different, perspective which would then itself be laid low. I genuinely did not know where this was going and - whether you see it as a crime novel, a story of the supernatural or a chronicle of human frailty - the ending will I think come as a real shock.
I the course of the story, Wesolowski revisits themes and contributors form earlier Six Stories, adding to the complexity and inner reality of his invented world, and also hints at consequences for King from the choices he makes in the course of this book, perhaps setting up future books to complicate and develop that reality further. While sometimes dark in subject matter, I felt the book - by taking to fiction - was able to illuminate some recent high profile scandals and in doing so it creates a totally readable, indeed often compelling, narrative which I'd wholeheartedly recommend.
For more information about the book, see the Orenda Books website here - or any of the stops on the blogtour (see poster below).
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'The whole affair was about power, manipulation, ownership'.
Agnes lives in mid-Victorian Bath with her mother and young nephew, Cedric. Times are hard and she struggles to make ends meet, earning a precarious living by cutting silhouettes. But that craft is increasingly being crowded out by the new craze for photography. Perhaps Agnes will be forced to accept help from her brother-in-law, Simon Carfax?
I loved the characters of this book. The self-reliant but dreamy Agnes. The reserved Simon - doing all he can to help, but yet..., the two sisters, Pearl ("the White Sylph") and older Myrtle, who make their living from seances and consultations. Pearl and Myrtle seem to have secrets - who are they and what are they about?
And I loved the setting. This isn't the elegant city of Jane Austen, rather a Bath that's had fifty years of coal smoke bled into it, and fifty years of decay for the fancy buildings. It's a town of soot, railways, rot and mould, seen in the depths of a gloomy English winter. Agnes' house is shabby and unkempt: Pearl and Myrtle's lodgings damp and draughty. The reader senses just how tenuous the lives of these women are in a patriarchal society. The point is brought home when, through ghastly coincidence, Agnes has to report a strange death to the police and her home and business become of interest to the unpleasant (and suspicious) Sergeant Redmayne.
But that's only the beginning. It seems there's a killer loose in Bath, a killer who seems to be threatening Agnes and her family. Unable to trust the police, Agnes turns to Pearl, the young medium, for the help she needs. As the two investigate - observed closely by the jealous and resentful Myrtle - we gradually learn more about the tragedy in Agnes' own family, and the mysterious (and missing) naval officer, Montague, who seems to be at the heart of it all.
In Purcell's latest Gothic romp, the supernatural - if that's what it is - isn't confined to a remote dwelling but is intertwined with the bustling life and grimy streets of a provincial town - just as the fashionable Spritualism in which Agnes seeks answers is located in comfortable parlours and fashionable salons. Contrasts are everything here - between the past and the present; science (represented by the medicine and rational outlook of Dr Carfax) and the supernatural; men and women. It's a churning, teeming world that Agnes, infirm after a recent bout of pneumonia, has to negotiate. Her sister Charlotte, Cedric's mother, may have been dead twelve years, but her shadow still looms over Agnes's haunted life.
The Shape of Darkness is the perfect Gothic novel, a book that combines an elusive but growing sense of dread with an uneasy atmosphere of confinement - despite the proximity of the sprawling streets and parks of Bath, it mostly takes place in shut-up rooms, windows blocked. And more, there is a palpable sense of limitedness, of confinement by, and obedience to, rules of society, of choices made and sealed years before. And it's confinement with - or very near to - a monster, whose form, motives and methods are as shifting as all that fog. In asking Pearl for her help, Agnes is leaning on someone who is still a very young girl and who is also ill (nearly everybody in this book is ill!)
Purcell is the absolute master of this sort of thing, playing detective story-like tricks with red herrings, subplots and dead ends, until the reader is - well I was! - totally muddled, wound up with tension and fearful for everyone in the book. Then, the hammer falls...
If you enjoyed this author's previous books, you'll love The Shape of Darkness. If you didn't, that must mean you haven't read them yet, so you have a treat in store and The Shape of Darkness would be a good place to begin.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Shape of Darkness to consider for review.
For more information about The Shape of Darkness, see the publisher's website here.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Library of the Dead to consider for review.
This book has already received a lot of attention and praise, so came bearing some expectations - but, reader, I have to say that for me, it surpassed them.
I should declare an interest. I spent eight happy years at university in Edinburgh last century, so I'm always a sucker for a book that takes me in and out the wynds of the Old Town. I slogged up and down the tenement stairs of the Southside in the '87 and '92 elections, and used to cycle out to the west to visit friends, so it was all familiar... up to a factor of being set in a near-future, economically (and environmentally?) devastated nation bedecked with camps full of homeless - where if you don't use the greeting "God save the King!" you may be assessed as a malcontent.
Oh, and a world with actual, accepted, and working magic.
A little bit different from my experience, then, but this is a world that T L Huchu makes so vividly real that by the end I was more than half convinced that Ropa, his main character, had been somewhere just round the corner all my time in Edinburgh. It's not just the attention to detail, the sketched background where we don't know everything but we can see the picture, or the plausible inhabitants of this city. No, it's something very subtle in the positioning of this world. There has been a fall of some kind. It's referred to once or twice as the "catastrophe" but we're not told exactly what it was. Clearly the country has been impoverished, and many are suffering, but we're not talking about scavengers living of the corpse of civilisation. Nor about a future world doing very well, but with magic. Things are on a knife edge, plenty of business being done, industry moving, but with many left out. It's all the more credible for the threads of continuity between our world and this one, with recognisable traces of our more cosy lives and characters who remember, for example, when healthcare was free.
Against this background, Ropa, who is 15 or 16 and who dropped out of school so she could earn money to take care of her family (grandmother, sister), acts as a go-between for the recently deceased, carrying their messages to living families. There's money to be made, but also risks in moving round the city after dark and a palpable sense that one wrong step could lead to all three losing their slender security, living in a caravan in "His Majesty's Slum". The contrast between that sense of vulnerability, and the warmth of Ropa's relationship with her gran and sister Izwe (where is everybody else?) is another compelling feature of the book, as is the contrast between Ropa's and her gran's Zimbabwe-inflected magic and the slightly dour atmosphere of Edinburgh itself. (Towards the start of the book, Ropa settles a historic haunting - strictly outside the terms of her licence as a ghsottalker, but a girl's gotta eat - and the unfortunate restless spirit insists that a proper, Presbyterian Minister attend to give him rest, definitely not a florid Episcopalian priest).
All is, kind of, in balance until Ropa is approached for help (pro bono work, but what can you do?) by the ghost of a young mother whose son has gone missing. She can't be at peace until he's found. Investigating this leads Ropa into a darker world than we have seen yet, and this is where Huchu's positioning of the near future as unpleasant, but not hellish, really pays off, because the things that Ropa discovers puts a rather different spin on that. What follows is a breakneck adventure with all manner of perils and unsuspected enemies: but also, with friends and allies and, also unsuspected, sources of knowledge and power. Ropa is discovering things about her city that she previously knew nothing of.
Maybe some of this is revealed to her rather easily, and maybe - when you get to the end - you'll think that the ultimate root of the evil that is loose was a bit obvious. But equally, maybe you'll think (as I did) that Ropa's self-assured expedition into the shadows and her combination of moral and physical courage are ultimately much more important, and deserve much more attention. She is driven into some very tight places, and makes some bad mistakes, but never gives up and never loses sight of what is, after all, a mission of mercy.
And the telling of that story is glorious.
I would strongly, STRONGLY recommend this one. It's urban fantasy with all the joy and wonder boosted and a series - I hope it will be a series - that I sense is really going somewhere.
For more information about The Library of the Dead, see the publisher's website here.
'Every book is a secret that only readers know'
I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance e-copy of The Archive of the Forgotten to consider for review.
In this sequel to The Library of the Unwritten, all is not well in Hell's Library (maybe it's a tautology to say that, this is Hell, after all!)
At the end of the previous book (spoilers) Claire, the Librarian of the Unwritten Wing, which stores all unwritten books, was ejected from her post and instead took over in the Arcane Wing (cursed artifacts). There was bad feeling against Claire because of her past behaviour and in particular, the strictness with which she'd treated escaped characters.
That backstory was possibly more significant and important than I'd realised - perhaps overshadowed in The Library of the Unwritten which was after all largely focussed on the attempted seizure of the Unwritten Wing by an ambitious demon - with the result that, at the start of the current book, things seemed to me to be unexpectedly fraught. Claire hasn't spoken for months to Brevity, muse and her former apprentice, who is now Librarian. Fallen angel Rami and escaped character Hero - whose hate-hate relationship is one of the delights of this story - maintain a sort of détente but this story is freighted with things not said, painful silences and - not misunderstandings, so much as deliberate attempts not to have to understand ('Claire was very skilled at finding the most efficient ways to hurt herself'). It's not helped by the arrival of muse Probity, Brev's oldest friend, who loathes Claire with a passion. (The depth of this is something that I never completely understood in the book, even granted Claire's previous behaviour).
It's a much more character-driven, intimate piece than the previous book. That basically featured a war (with mass casualties) and ranged widely, Claire & Co visiting Earth and having protracted adventures here. In contrast, the action in The Archive of the Forgotten most takes place in there two Wings of the Library (Rami and Hero do make an excursion to the previously unknown Archive of the Unsaid, which exists in an Ancient Greece sort of plane. It's an enjoyable episode and gives us more information about how the different planes or "Realms" fit together, deriving, as they do, form quite different cosmologies, but very much an out-and-back trip and isolated from the main action). Development of the plot rests on (mainly) Claire and Brevity gradually evolving and exploring their differences and their understanding of this world's metaphysics. This process is driven by the arrival of a mysterious pool of ink, deriving in some way from the fire that destroyed so many books in The Archive of the Forgotten.
The ink is both a threat and, for some, an opportunity. It is vitally important to understand it. That sends Rami and Hero off on their quest. It also leads Claire to brood over the cryptic log entries left by previous Librarians, and to some frankly hair-raising experiments (nobody here has much enthusiasm for risk assessment). And eventually, it raises existential questions about the Library and its Wings, the nature of the books, and the place of Claire and the others in everything.
I enjoyed this book, but it's one sequel where you do need to have read the previous book first, not only for the establishing information (as I've said, that is perhaps farther backgrounded) but to appreciate the characters, and especially Rami and Hero who have already experienced a lot of growth and change and will see a lot more in this book. In fact I think their parts of the story - both their rather quixotic expedition and events afterwards - were my favourites, leading to something I'd not expected at all. I think that relationship may see further change in future books and perhaps be at the heart of unravelling the continuing central mystery here.
So, great fun, with all the pithy observations ('Not even death stops the world from expecting a woman to take care of things') and humour of the Library, as well as some very sharp writing ('Claire was not-crying, not-panicking, not-self-loathing', 'The world became oblivion and black teeth'). I am already impatient for the next volume!
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Purgatory Mount via NetGalley.
The eagles are coming!
The eagles are here!
Adam Roberts is one author I'll always, always take time to read and I'd been sp looking forward to Purgatory Mount. I thought I knew what it was going to be about, and it was that... but also it wasn't, it turned out to be something much bigger and very different and thoroughly ramified. It does, though, rather defy a neat review. I could just say, buy this, and stop at that but I really want to persuade you, so let's try that.
Opening as a city-sized interstellar exploration ship, the Forward, arrives from Earth at a distant planet, V538 Aurigae - gamma, we seem to be in hard SF territory with a description of the long voyage, the peculiar emptiness of space in the interstellar "Local Bubble", the ice-encrusted ship itself (the ice provides both a shield and fuel), the crew - who are able to alter their perception to live faster or slower, surviving the generations long (for their livestock) voyage - and the mysterious alien artefact that has drawn Earthly attention. No, not an obelisk - an immense spire so high that it soars beyond the planet's atmosphere (indeed, beyond the original, deeper atmosphere long eroded by the local star).
What is the spire made of?
What is it for?
Where did the makers go?
Just as we might think we know what's coming - Roberts will describe the crew's exploration and tease out these mysteries - he knocks the reader sideways by adopting a different genre, the near future thriller, and location, the USA a few years from now. That country is on the edge of civil war ('The problem is - there are plenty of people real keen to shoot their guns and run around in combat gear'). Ottoline (Otty to her friends, who call themselves the Famous Five in a reference which I suspect isn't to be found in the cultural life of the typical American teenager, now or near future) is fleeing from the adults. From government law enforcement. From the gun-toting militias. From a mysterious third faction.
The description of the rending fabric of a modern state is terribly compelling and oh so convincing, particularly in that there isn't an overnight collapse. Otty sees a bureaucracy staggering, still trying to function, but losing its coherence and purpose. Even at the level of the combat, the increasingly dislocated refugees, the writing is terrific (in both senses) and remembering the turmoil on 6 January, I couldn't help compare this vision of a USA that has begun eating itself to that coverage on CNN of the swamping of the Capitol by an army of grotesques.
That conjunction, which couldn't have been foreseen, makes this book seem prescient in detail, seem predictive, to an extent that may distract the reader from what I think is more fundamental, and intended, a sort of moral prescience which becomes clearer towards the end. But still, the idea of incipient civil war, of rage and destruction spraying in all directions, the urgency with which Roberts captures the violence, the unholy beauty he finds - look at the description of a coach being blown up ('Boom, boom, shake the room. Crush, crush, flip the bus') - all of this makes the book absolutely, grabbingly, compulsive.
Roberts pulls out all the cultural stops in characterising this process, from the explosion 'like a colossal door being slammed shut somewhere in Hell' (yes, we know what that would be) to the queue jumping mob ('wearing Old Glory jackets and red MAGA caps') who try to barge onto the bus to the sharp eyed lawyers and journalists who prowl through the ruins trying to make a turn from the chaos. It's a purgatorial landscape for a sixteen year old to find herself traversing and there are no more answers as to why all this is going on than there are to why Otty is being targeted. We see a limited explanation from one character, that it's all about the money (in New Model Army, Roberts posited an almost cheerful, open-source approach to urban warfare, with some idealism driving it, here the mood is a great deal darker, more despairing).
I started reading this near-future section thinking, what's this - when do we get back to the Forward? - then found myself more and more drawn by the hectic story, the scrapes, the sheer guile and courage of a young woman whose life has been upended. We don't know, for most of the story, why Otty is on the run. She's far too canny to reveal that, to us or her interrogators. But her pursuers are clearly bad, tainted in some sense by an association with the chaos and destruction raining down and slowly, surely, they push Otty to a desperate place and to an act with unforeseeable consequences.
We do return to the Forward again, eventually, for a final act in which the connection between the two timelines is made clear. Otty's experiences turn out to be foundational to the existence of the Forward and its crew, but also to the position of others on board - to the creatures known as "Pygs" who worship the Crew as gods. And they drive the actions of both in a moral sense, Roberts invoking the concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory - sidestepping the hard physics question of how that incredible, planet-topping spire was built and how it stands up for the more interesting question of what it means and what that means for those who have travelled so far to see it.
That feels like a place I could stop - Purgatory Mount an utterly compelling book, fiercely intelligent and unconventional SF rife with ideas yet completely approachable and fun to read - but I think I also have to point out a couple of further things. First, Roberts' writing is glorious, subtlely varying to fit its subject - for example look at the down to earth, dryly humorous, opening section, even amidst all that science-y exposition, or the beauty he often evokes ('the sky was starting to blush strawberry and yellow-orange, with bars of luminous cream-coloured horizontal shine layered over the top of it'). It can also be mischievous, or mischievously inventive, as with the word 'sidegoogling' which occurs a few times (I NEED that word!) or references to the Forward's 'hal', its AI. And how about 'her heart was beating in her chest like Animal from the Muppets playing the drums'?
Which reference brings me to the second thing I wanted to mention here (and then I'm done, I promise). This book is drenched with Lord of the Rings references and comparisons. Most broadly, there's the whole device of telling us, as Roberts does in several places, that names or cultural references used to describe the ship or its crew have been translated into terms we can relate to from something utterly strange that we wouldn't get. (In fact the most blatant example of this didn't, as the author tells us in an afterword, survive copyright issues - he wanted to give the five members of the Crew the names of the five wizards from The Lord of the Rings and indeed Pan, the one we meet most, 'a figure gifted with magic (in the Clarkean sense of the word) and given responsibility over beats, birds and plants...' would make a fine Radagast). There is also lots of detail, such as tree trunks which 'shuddered and moaned like Ents' at the force of an explosion, way bread, or all those references to eagles - The eagles are coming! The eagles are here! - but also 'Somebody would come to rescue her and she would fly away on the back of a Johannine eagle'. The latter bridges the gap between Tolkienish references and the Christian ones behind Purgatory Mount, with its themes of offence, of sin, redemption and atonement.
In short, this book is a glittering achievement, Adam Roberts in full splendour giving us a novel of ideas, of fun, of beauty. Go and get it.
For more about Purgatory Mount, see the publisher's website here.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Slough House via NetGalley and also to Dave for sending me a spare ARC which he received.
Herron's Slough House series always sparkles, but this one was an especial joy to read. All the usual reprobates are here - River, still coming to terms with the death of his grandfather, hoping for clues of some sort from the contents of the OB's study. Roddy Ho, the most self-regarding and empathetically challenged IT whiz you ever met. Lech, with his self-scarred face. Catherine, sneaking drink home from off-licences and corner shops and then pouting it down the drain. Louisa. Shirley the Dancing Queen.
And Jackson Lamb himself, who seems to smoke so much you'd imagine it would be easier simply to pump it in from a tank.
The thing about this lot is they're supposed to be the Secret Service's 'Slow Horses' - the losers and also-rans who are still on the payroll to keep them quiet, but who can't, we are told, be trusted with anything important. As we've seen, though, in truth most are parked in Slough House because of who they've offended or what they are (especially, what they are - often, unmouldable into a conventional team, uncorporate, pig-headed or simply embarrassing) or simply because they have messed up and embarrassed the Service - not because they are incompetent or lazy. It's never stated in so many words but when they are called to action they can be formidable, and naturally they save the day.
This time though, things are a little different. Slough House, that standing joke, has apparently become so much of a laughing stock that it's been removed from the Service's records. And some of its ex-members are beginning to die off. That's the second thing that delighted me about this book - a bit more of the continuity in that we see what happened to some of those who dropped out earlier. (Spoiler: not all of it's good).
The third thing I loved was the delicate relationship that Herron's world has to ours, to recent events, especially You Know What, as he calls it - so I won't say it out loud. But You Know What. In his world, it has devastated Britain's alliances, robbed us of cash and influence and emboldened opportunistic populists. A useless, old Etonian PM has risen to power and he's being pressed hard by a "yellow vest" movement, determined to roll back progress and trying to get their hooks into the Service to advance that aim. Wholly unlike our own reality, of course, though you may feel that some of Herron's sharper darts strike home rather well, all the same.
The fourth thing (I should stop counting) I loved was the delicate tribute that seemed to be being paid at times to John Le Carré* and especially to his final novel, Agent Running in the Field. That book complimented Herron by borrowing the Slough House idea but also contained its own excoriating critique of You Know What. Here Herron repays the compliment both subtly - there are a couple of clever references to circuses; Regents Park, the Service's HQ, has 'database Queens' to match le Carré's 'register Queens' and archivist Molly, who oversees them, is a dead ringer for Le Carré's Connie - and through that central motif of exploring why we fight and whether the means adopted might render assumptions of patriotism, moral superiority and rectitude arguably moot. Certainly Diana, First Desk at Regent's Park, has got herself and her Service into some ambiguous places, even if prompted by the (real life) use by the Russian state of chemical weapons in the UK.
Jackson Lamb is of course your go-to man for walking on the dirty side of the street (not least because if he walks one side of a street, it WILL be the dirty side, even if it wasn't before). We cheer on this chain-smoking, foul mouthed, offensive candidate for a COPD ward because he has an authenticity and a morality that contrasts with all the smoother types here, even if he is just as, or even more, arrogant than them. And Jackson has collected his team of oddballs and no-hopers for a purpose, they're not just going to stand by and let things go bad or what wold have been the purpose of their, various, downfalls and exile?
If all the foregoing hasn't convinced you to read this book, I fear nothing may, but I can add more! This is a well, even deviously, plotted story, with a number of central mysteries that keeps the reader hooked right to the end. The wider roster of characters allows Herron to highlight both tenderness (River and one of the ex-colleagues) and amusing (Shirley and Lech) aspects of their relationships - a strength of course of an ongoing series, or at least it is if, as here, the characters are developed consistently and well. It is terrifically sharp, with many asides that are right on the nose. And of course it is very well written, as you'd expect.
For more information about Slough House see the publisher's website here.