27 February 2021

#Review - The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

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The Thief on the Winged Horse
Kate Mascarenhas
Head of Zeus, 12 November 2020
Available as: HB, 390pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley & bought HB
ISBN: 9781789543803

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Thief on the Winged House via Netgalley to consider for review. I have also bought a copy of what is a beautifully produced (as well as written) object.

I'm coming to The Thief on the Winged House a little late. I saw it being raved about in the Autumn and what with one thing and another I hadn't got to it, then picked it up just before Christmas - and LOVED it. 

The book is set in an imaginary corner of Oxford, or actually, I think, a real corner, a little island ('eyot') which in our world is undistinguished but here, hosts a little cluster of streets and a workshop that manufactures magical dolls. These can impress upon their owner whatever emotion - fear, love, determination - is bestowed on the doll by its maker. The sting in this is that the ability to instil these emotions was discovered and refined by four sisters - Lucy, Rebecca, Sally and Jemima - in the early 19th century. The four founded Kendricks Workshop, which still flourishes today, staffed by their descendants, but women are now forbidden to be the 'sorcerers' who create the magic. They are, apparently, too emotional, and not strong enough, to handle the work.

The book explores the consequences of this injustice, but it does so much more than that.

First, the central idea is pitch perfect, and is developed and explored beautifully. The idea of magic, emotionally dominating dolls is creepy enough to enchant and entice, and somehow the fact that they only seem to occur within a capitalist framework of marketing and possession only makes them more so. Mascarenhas links this notion to a sense of confinement throughout the book, symbolised by a valuable doll caged in iron railings to prevent theft (we are told) but also by the generations accepting lives on the eyot over any alternative and by the control that Conrad, the current owner of the workshop, exerts over all, especially of course the women but to a lesser extent everyone (and including his brother). Yes, some members of the families have broken away but that seems more like flight, a desperate escape during the night, than an adult and equal parting. Confinement on the eyot only seems accentuated by trips to, say, real Oxford locations such as Wetherspoons on Castle Street from which one will, eventually, have to return - these locations in turn accentuate the depth of the setting and its sense of reality. I live near Oxford and I can really imagine getting off the bus on the Aningdon Road and making my way to the eyot.

The eyot and its workshop are a little world to themselves, with their magic but also their rather archaic society, but the they are portrayed so sharply coexisting with the modern world around. Kids tend to be educated in the Eyot school but wider opportunities are available in the Oxford schools - the resulting struggles and tensions have shaped several of the central characters. Nor is the eyot free of modern world problems: we see domestic violence and alcoholism, for example.

The central characters are strong too. While events kick off with the arrival of a young man, Larkin, claiming to be the long-lost heir to one of the four sisters, at the heart of the story are two women, cousins Persephone and Hedwig. Flashbacks give us more detail about their lives - Persephone's difficult relationship with her alcoholic father, Briar, and Hedwig's upbringing by a single mother (not easy given the eyot's somewhat outdated mores). The two are well realised - Persephone wants to join the workshop as a sorcerer and is baffled and jealous when returning prodigal Larkin wins an apprenticeship while she's jeered at by the men. Hedwig works as housekeeper for Conrad. She's able, within limits, to manipulate him and wield a little power from the shadows. It is though a precarious position and Larkin's arrival makes things even less steady.

And then, a valuable heirloom doll is stolen...

This is, on the face of things, a simple story, with a central mystery - who stole the doll known as the Paid Mourner? Things are confounded somewhat by the eyot's belief in a fairy figure, the Thief of the title, who apparently bestows both good and ill on the residents, but as the story makes clear, the actual existence of this person is problematic and they are as much a tool to be used or an emblem to be appealed to as a real power. That whole aspect is delightfully murky, baffling outsiders in general and especially the police called in to investigate the theft. 

Behind that, though, we need to focus on the characters, on their hopes and dreams, their secrets and their desires. Desires are especially important, upsetting as they do both our protagonists' plans and their self-images - particularly for one couple who share a powerfully charged night in the Randolph Hotel, Oxford's best, Mascarenhas fully rising to the challenge of a sex scene that is not at all embarrassing but tender, erotic and rather moving.

In short, this book fully justifies the praise it's been getting whether you want to approach it as fantasy which it absolutely is (it has MAGIC! There may be FAIRIES!), crime (a baffling and well-plotted mystery), a story of the human heart (those well-rounded and convincing characters; I'd defy anyone not to shed a tear or two at the situations they're in and the truly modern dilemmas they face) or even, I suppose, a contribution to the idea of Oxford as a place of colliding histories, identities and a refuge of odd little worlds and communities. 

Or as all of those. This book is a gem and you should read it (but do so slowly ands reflectively, it's one that really pays you back for giving it some focus and space).

For more information about The Thief on the Winged Horse, see the publisher's website here.

23 February 2021

#Review - Last One at the Party by Bethany Clift

Cover design by Jo Myler

Last One at the Party
Bethany Clift
Hodder, 4 February 2021
Available as: HB, 355pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781529332124

I'm grateful to Hodder for an advance e-copy of Last One at the Party via NetGalley to consider for review. I have also bought a hardback copy from Wallingford Bookshop, my usual enablers in these matters.

There is so much in Last One at the Party. It is a brilliant premise, admittedly not original but executed with verve and empathy, creating such a good, readable book.

Our narrator - we never learn her name - is, literally, the least lone at the party. (She points out that this is her won't, she's always the one left behind collecting the lost coats and cleaning up the house). She's the only person to have survived the End of Days - a sudden, distressing and inevitably fatal virus which sweeps the world before any measures can be found to contain it. Set a few years in the future, there are call-backs to the current covid-19 pandemic but 6DM is in a different league.

We're never told why she survived - this isn't a painstakingly researched pandemic book, nor would it be in character for our hero to understand such matters - she tells us herself that she's not very practical and changing a lightbulb is at the limit of what she can manage. When disaster falls, she struggles to deal with her husband's body, and then sets off into London for a several weeks's booze and drug spree, occupying the best hotel rooms she can access and looting Harrods for fancy bags and scarves.

If you are the sort of reader who lusts after the complexities and details of survival post apocalyse - food stocks, medical supplies, firearms, fuel and so on - you will I think probably leave the book there. That isn't what Last One at the Party is about AT ALL. Our protagonist has an almost wilful lack of survival skills and refuses to acquire them now she needs them. She also refuses to carry out what seems like a basic act of mercy, which left me really not liking her much in this part of the story.

What she does have, though, is self-awareness. As she narrates her story, she recalls her earlier life and the layers of expectations it created for her; her ideal parents, with their romantic outlook on life, her girl friend Ginny, who has mentored and mounted here at work; her self-destructive gay best friend Xav; her husband James. It becomes clear that she was in a mess before the pandemic and I even began to suspect that the helplessness we see at the start of the book was as much a mask as any of the other "selves" that she seems to have developed through life. As the book continued I became more and more fascinated and intrigued by this complex, human and constantly developing character. It's almost as if, to be who she really is, she needs to lose everything and everyone. Then she needs to find a way to live with herself - the one successful response to the pandemic has been the distribution of vast stocks of suicide pills, a continual temptation, and the narrator has also managed to source ample supplies of Tramadol.

It is, at least to begin with, a relatively safe, abundant world that she falls into. There is nobody else around to fight for the large stocks of food left behind - everyone died so quickly that shortages didn't develop - and electricity and water continue to operate for some weeks (the main feature of this apocalypse that felt a bit off, I suspect power would be gone in days - though car satnav would probably work for ages, those satellites aren't going anywhere). In a sense that provides a cushion, allowing the narrator to come to terms with her loss (well, not really come to terms, but to begin to). It's understandable, I think, that she goes a bit off the rails, with no immediate need to be practical.

That does change, but the book never gets to full-on "Survivors" mode with the solution of practical problems the overriding driver. There are some sticky moments, dangers, and crises (the ultimate one leading to a situation of great jeopardy which the narrator is able to meet with determination and skill) but the real drama here always arises from the earlier choices the narrator made, and her sometimes brutally honest assessments of them.  We see her happy and fulfilled as a music journalist before a crisis brings that to an end, then, again, happily working for a shipping journal and globetrotting to write up a port or a tanker (she learns at one point to make a fishing net - so, maybe not as impractical as she claims). We see that end, and her changing as she thinks she must to satisfy others - husband, co-workers, her parents. 

Her life seems to get darker, with the eruption of 6DM coming almost as a deliverance. What would you do if you were suddenly alone to enjoy, intact, all the goodies of life? This book certainly made me ponder what I'd do, where I'd go, if freed from the need to worry about the everyday. Making a new world, a new life, must be about more than stockpiling fuel and rigging solar panels, it has to start within oneself. That's the insight that Clift so brilliantly explores in this book and it is so much more interesting than mere practicalities. In fact, it's a cracker of a book and one I'd strongly recommend. (In the end, the empathy and insight of Clift's writing even won me over to sympathise with her protagonist, despite some misgivings at the start - if you find yourself hating her at one point, give it some time, keep going).

For more information about Last One at the Party, see the publisher's website here.

21 February 2021

#Review - The Big Blind by Lavie Tidhar

Cover by Pedro Marques

The Big Blind
Lavie Tidhar
PS Publishing, November 2020
Available as: HB, 164pp
Source: Signed HB bought from the publisher
ISBN: 9781786365989

I ordered the signed edition of The Big Blind last Autumn and forgot all about it. Then it arrived as a very welcome surprise in February, I leafed through it to remind myself what it was... and found I was sitting there at midnight finishing it.

All that despite it being a close study of a poker player and poker games - something I know almost noting about (cowboys in saloons? Something something raise you? Poker face?)

Tidhar's story follows Claire, a young Irishwoman whose father was a legendary poker player. She was introduced to the tables young, given a bit of money and left to get on with it. Later she ran wild (though, I have to say, she doesn't sound VERY wild - drinking and smoking seems to be the sum of it). Now she's considering life as a nun (she's a novice, she hasn't taken final vows yet: still time to decide what she really wants) but sneaks out and night to play for money, which she donates anonymously to the convent.

Or perhaps, Claire can't bear to lose all of her former life, and she's found a way to play and yet satisfy her conscience? 

That question hovers over this book. What is Claire really at? In conversations - with Mikey (who she meets over cards), with her mother (who's aghast that Claire may be going the way of her father), with the other nuns, with a priest at Confession - Claire dodges round and round this issue. Told to stop playing, she absconds by bus to play the Big Game, which could lead to a place at a televised London championship. Aghast at what she's done, explaining it to that priest, has she accepted that she can't go back? Is she inside looking out, or outside looking in? Tidhar handles this spiritual dilemma delicately, embedding it in a compelling story that's driven by a succession of poker games.

I don't, as I have said, know the first thing about poker, so the detail here is lost on me. Yet it's still clear from Tidhar's commentary where we are in the game, who's going down and what the risks are. This is as nail-bitingly portrayed an account of an epic contest as you could wish for (I assume that if you know your poker it's even more than that!) The depiction of the relatively tight, closed and familiar world of the professional and aspirant players (it, too, has its novices and its sworn members) is also good, showing us a community, a little world. The championship itself is interpreted and commentated by a pair of slightly cheesy TV presenters (complete with fourth-wife jokes) who act as a kind of chorus, further clueing-in the reader to what's just happened and why it might, just might, be rather remarkable.

A really enjoyable book, different from anything I'd read by Tidhar before (but then, I think that every time I open one of his books). Recommended. 

For more information about The Big Blind, and to order a copy, see the PS Publishing website here.

19 February 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Deity by Matt Wesolowski

Matt Wesołowski
Orenda Books, 18 December 2020 (e), 18 February 2021 (PB)
Available as: e, PB, 249pp
Source: ARC
ISBN: 9781913193485

I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne Cater for an advance copy of Deity to consider for review as part of the blog tour.

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).

You can buy Deity from your local bookshop - check whether they are doing click and collect - or from UK Bookshop dot org, Hive Books, Blackwells, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.


18 February 2021

#Review - Residuum by Dominic Dulley

Cover by www.headdesign.co.uk

Residuum (The Long Game, 3)
Dominic Dulley
Jo Fletcher Books, 18 February 2021
Available as: PB, 497pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781529410747

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance e-copy of Residuum via NetGalley.

Residuum is the third part of The Long Game, after Shattermoon and Morhelion. (Note - there are spoilers here for those previous books).  SFF being what it is, I suppose that means it may be the final part of a trilogy - or perhaps not, there are some intriguing threads here and I hope there will be more books.  What's undeniable is that Orry (Aurelia) Kent, the hero here, definitely deserves a break, after losing her father to space pirate Cordelia Roag, losing her ship, hooking up with morose loner Mender, and helping the Imperator out of several nasty scrapes.

And at the start that's just what she's doing, relaxing with her brother Ethan on the pleasure planet, Halcyon.

However it isn't long before Orry's in trouble again, fomenting revolution and on the run from the Arbiters. Whereas in previous books Orry and Ethan were in control (kind of), running some grift or other largely with personal gain in mind and only reluctantly getting drawn into Galactic politics, here trouble comes looking for them and the book is essentially a series of heists and escapes as they attempt to turn the tables on whoever - whatever - has them in its sights. They'll make some strange friends on the way (perhaps...) and get deeper into the mysteries hinted at in the previous books: the fate of the race known as the Departed and its sought-after tech, the militaristic Kadirans, and the secrets kept by Roag.

It's a fast and furious story, matching Orry and co's talents (we must also include Quondam, the renegade Kadiran, and Dainty Jane, the sentient ship) against increasingly deadly environments, from a planet infested by rogue, human-eating tech to a waterworld run by cephalopod warlords. That means that an aspect I loved before, something I'd tentatively describe as a sense of cosiness, is lacking. What I mean by this is the situation of the small crew on a small ship, isolated and slightly bored on their long journeys but capable, between them, of dealing with pretty much anything that comes along. The more frantic pace here diminishes that, meaning less time spent on the travels and generally interacting and less attention given to the remarkable ship, Dainty Jane. (She does, though, have some excellent scenes of her own).

However that didn't actually diminish my enjoyment of the book. In a sense Orry has grown rather, though these stories, going from having to step up in Shattermoon after the attack by Roag and her father's death to someone who can drop in confidently on Fleet Admirals and demand support. She's also developed something of a moral core, looking rather disdainfully at the Ascendancy and its Ruuz aristocrats (hence the opening scenes on Halcyon). Watching her engage with a series of challenges, leading up to a true Galaxy-menacing threat, was enthralling, making for an addictive book that simply demanded I keep turning its pages. It's all I might have wishes for as a fulfilment for The Long Game (as I said, I hope there is more to come). The writing is also, as in the previous books, smart and on-point and the characters, with whom we're now pretty familiar, engaging and fun to be with.

I'd recommend Residuum, although it really needs to be read in sequence. (But then, if you haven't read the first two books you shouldn't be down here at the end of this review).

For more information about Residuum, see the Jo Fletcher Books website here.


13 February 2021

#Review - The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

The Shape of Darkness
Laura Purcell
Bloomsbury Raven, 21 January 2021
Available as: HB, 416pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781526602589

'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.

11 February 2021

#Review - The Library of the Dead by T L Huchu

The Library of the Dead
T L Huchu
Tor/ Pan Macmillan, 4 February 2021
Available as: HB, 336pp, e, audio
Read as: ARC 
ISBN:  9781529039450

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.

9 February 2021

#Review - The Archive of the Forgotten by AJ Hackwith

The Archive of the Forgotten
AJ Hackwith
Titan Books, 9 February 2021
Available as: PB, 384pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781789093193

'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!

5 February 2021

#BlogTour #Review - Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Winter's Orbit
Everina Maxwell (@Av_Stories)
Orbit, 4 February 2021
Available as: PB, 428pp, audio, e
Source: Proof kindly provided by Orbit
ISBN: 9780356515885

I'm so pleased to be joining the blogtour for Winter's Orbit and so 
grateful to the publisher and to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for a copy of the book to consider for review.

Winter's Orbit is several things. It's a well-imagined space opera, with a tense military situation, political intrigue - and a hard deadline. It has a mystery at its core: a death which hasn't been satisfactorily explained. It's the story of a relationship, beginning in very difficult circumstances and whose direction will shape the course of wider events. 

And it's a well-written and absorbing, character-led SF novel.

Prince Kiem and Count Jainan are very different men. Kiem is sociable, impulsive and used to being in the public eye. One of many minor members of the Imperial family, he has too little to do and is prone to landing in scrapes that bring unwelcome publicity in the newslogs. Kiem says what he thinks - and repents at leisure. 

Jainan, an engineer by profession, is a widower whose husband, Taam, recently died in an accident. Jainan's a very private man, driven by duty, and finds it hard to express his feelings. It's a surprise when the Emperor decrees that the two will be married - in haste, to satisfy urgent political expediency. Neither of them is very happy, but in these circles you don't say "no" to the Emperor, you make the best of it. 

The first third of the book follows the consequences of this match, seen from both mens' points of view  but not revealing too much about their backgrounds. (And neither will I, because there are things there that need to come out in their own good time). Politics dictates that the marriage must prosper - the two can't go through a token ceremony and then live their separate lives. So here they are, right from the start, coping with the emotional baggage of their earlier lives and knowing that one misstep could bring disaster. 

It's a forced (in every sense) and stumbling relationship, a difficult time for both. This arc - a mismatched pair forced to endure one another, to find common ground, to discover how to be together - may be a familiar trope but there is a reason for that. Done well it can provide the beating emotional heart for a story. Done badly, of course, it can leave the reader cosy so it's a high-stakes way for a debut author to open her first book, but Winter's Orbit is written with such aplomb and such a depth of human insight that the choice in fully justified. Knowing what both Kiem and Jainan are thinking, we can sympathise with both (what a dilemma they are in!) while at times also feeling frustrated with their attempts to find a way through. For me, sympathy with them didn't, at first, translate into liking the two - although as the story developed (and I learned more about them) that came too.

Jainan and Kiem are not helped by there being an ongoing mystery about what happened to Taam, something Kiem takes it upon himself to investigate, leading us into a world of diplomacy (Jainan is, effectively, a hostage provided by a vassal planet), radical student unrest, classified military projects - and secrets. This is an absorbing web, set against the background of treaty negotiations with a powerful alien civilisation. Kiem's and Jainan's status is central to the validity of all this, so they don't have the option of sitting it out, yet if the talks break down, the Empire is doomed so they can't afford any mistakes.

I think the balance between these two themes - the politicking and the evolving relationship between Jainan and Kiem - was just about right. I suspect most readers will care more about the latter, and less about the precise details of the balance of power which are important is setting up the whole situation. Yet the two strands can't be separated so easily. There are others here, too, with interests in the treaty outcome, and unless they get what they want, Jainan and Kiem may suffer.

Overall, I felt this was an assured and readable debut novel. Jainan and Kiem really step off the page and their world is fascinating.  I will be interested to see what Maxwell comes up with next - whether that is more in this universe (there is a lot to be explored) or something different. 

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here - and take a look at the stops on the tour (see the poster below!)

You can buy Winter's Orbit From your local bookshop, if they're currently doing click and collect or you can order online from UK Bookshop dot org or Hive Books, from Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

3 February 2021

#Review - Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts

Purgatory Mount
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 4 February 2021
Available as: HB, 336pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781473230941

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

1 February 2021

#Review - Slough House by Mick Herron

Slough House (Slough House, 7)
Mick Herron
John Murray, 4 February 2021
Available as: HB, 307pp, e, audio
Source: advance e-copy via Netgalley and ARC
ISBN: 9781529378641

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. 

Strongly recommended.

For more information about Slough House see the publisher's website here.

*I know I'm breaking the First Rule of Reviewing here - to not directly compare the book with another - but it's meant as a compliment, I love seeing these two authors in dialogue with each other through their writings and it saddens me that it must now be a one sided conversation.