30 October 2021

#Review - The Midnight Bargain by CL Polk

Cover design
by Micaela Alcaino

The Midnight Bargain
CL Polk
Orbit, 15 April 2021
Available as:

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.

26 October 2021

#Review - The Twelve Even Stranger Days of Christmas by Syd Moore

Design by Andy Allen.
Against a blue/ back ground,
alternating holly leaves
(in neon green) and skulls
(neon blue) surround
the title.

The Twelve Even Stranger Days of Christmas
Syd Moore
Point Blank, 28 October 2021
Available as: PB, 277pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781786079794

I'm grateful for an advance copy of The Twelve Even Stranger Days of Christmas to consider for review.

Syd Moore is a favourite author of mine, so it was a a delight to see this collection of short stories following up her The Twelve Strange Days of Christmas which I see was only published two years ago but 2019 seems much more remote to me! This collection of new stories is appearing just in time to be an indulgence for the dark winter nights - if you can't bear to keep it for Christmas, that is.

I should mention a couple of things about the collection. First, while The Twelve Even Stranger Days... does feature some stories set in Adder's Fork, home of the Essex Witch Museum, most aren't. While this may disappoint some, Moore's writing is always to be relished and it's great to see the range she covers here. Secondly, while there is indeed a story for every day of Christmas, many are not explicitly Christmas themed.  Again though, that range is shown off: here you'll find transformed fairy tales, folk horror, an enigmatic glimpse (I think?) of earlier generations of the Strange family, detective stories (including a winter themed story from a pre-Great War Adder's Fork), classic ghost stories, tales of supernatural, and of perfectly natural, revenge - and, yes, the plum in the pudding, Christmas Day at the Essex Witch Museum, updating us on how lockdown has been affecting our friends there.

At the centre are three linked stories, Journey of the Magi: a Triptych. The separate parts of this make excellent use of the Essex topography, locating an eerie story amidst the lonely marshes and remote communities to be found there and documenting Maggie's journey on Christmas Eve to visit friends. We see what happens in a little world which seems a long way from the comforting and the modern. Combining Essex history with a vein of folk horror, Moore operates in the shadows; between what's spelled out and what we guess, between our fears and our hopes. Taking loops into history and with a dark mystery at their heart, this triptych would make excellent reading by the fire on a dark evening.

Another story with a folk horror motif, Rogationtide, could in my mind almost be set in the same community. It's not a Christmas tale - Rogation, the blessing of the community's crops and animals, takes place several weeks after Easter - but has the same preoccupations as the Triptych: the stubbornness of an inward-looking, remote rural community, its capacity to apply a weird logic that resists incomers' attempts at change, and the lurking possibility that picturesque ceremonies and beliefs may suddenly take us somewhere very dark indeed. Moore creates an atmosphere of menace hanging over what are apparently some rather jolly celebration, the unease that goes with the reign of the Lord of Misrule. While not perhaps so explicitly seasonal, this is a very fitting theme for Christmas itself, I think, as is the first story in the book, Pantomime, whose opening sentence turns expectations on their head: 'Nobody ever realised that the Seven Dwarves were female.'  Upturning received hierarchies is of course the essence of pantomime (even if paradoxically it's done according to hallowed conventions) and Moore sets about that with relish, mashing together the conventions concerning the Dwarves and those of the noir in a story narrated by a straight-talking Doc which gives us all the inside secrets of  what really went on in that cottage.

Moore returns to the detective story, but more conventionally, in The Over-Winter Harrowing of Constance Hearst, which opens with the melting of the snow and the discovery of a preserved corpse in the churchyard at Adder's Fork. This is pre First World War, and the story is narrated by the delightfully stolid Inspector George LeGrand who flits about the county in pursuit of a solution, staying now in this, now that, grand house, making use of motor cars and telephones loaned to him and generally having a fine time before finally grasping and exposing the details of a crime as devious as anything encountered by Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. 

Moore sticks with the detective theme in the much more modern Two Minds, which sees the underrated Inspector Drew Oates, victim of sexist assumptions, come through to the solution when a woman is found dead in a pool of blood.

Another highlight of the collection is Thirteen (a number that is something of a theme in this books as you'll have spotted - what could be more fitting given the witchy background) which takes us far from Essex, to a paradise Mediterranean island whose history has, however, been far less than heavenly. This is a lovely ghost story in the best MR James style - however primed you are for the horror, you won't I think spot it coming: Moore slants reality ever so slightly to give us a satisfying and oh-so chilling vignette of the weird beneath everyday life.

After the Party Comes the Bill is a story it might be best not to say too much about, to avoid spoiling the gentle ramping up of unease that builds up as an unappealing City boy narrator makes his way home from an office party on Christmas Eve. Repellantly un-selfaware, sexist and bullying, he is somebody it is very hard to like and I for one was delighted when he got the runaround from C2C Rail...

Christmas Dates has at its centre a similar figure, a self-styled pick-up artist who's used the loneliness and isolation of lockdown to prey on women. On the last day of 2020, he's determined to get his "score" up to 52 for the year. Again, Moore magnificently portrays this unpleasant, unsympathetic man is what feels like a very of-the-moment story.

The two remaining pieces in the book both intrigue, albeit in very different ways. In String of Lights, young Rozalie recalls her youth before the Great War, and her mother's stories of her youth, in particular her dalliance with a certain Archduke in an ancien regime world of dazzling balls, gowns and uniforms. A world that's gone now, but is there a tantalising possibility that this is a glimpse at the past of Rosie's own family? And in Thirteenth (that was a formatting challenge!) the volume as a whole meets a fitting conclusion in a poem describing the coming of the Four Housewives of the Apocalypse - who are naturally working even harder over the Christmas season than they do the rest of the year.

Overall, a gorgeous collection (and it would be an excellent gift too, I'll just plant that thought).

For more about The Twelve Even Stranger Days of Christmas see, the publisher's website here

21 October 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Beyond the Veil, edited by Mark Morris

Beyond the Veil: New Horror Short Stories
Edited by Mark Morris
Flame Tree Press, 26 October 2021
Available as: HB, PB, 320pp, d
Source: Advance review copy
ISBN(HB): 9781787584631  

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Beyond the Veil to consider for review and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the blogtour. 

Following on from last year's anthology After Sundown, editor Mark Morris's new collection of stories Beyond the Veil is an eclectic sampling of modern horror, touching upon so many varieties of the genre beyond the spooky house or violent slasher. 

In some of the most shocking stories, the darkness comes from bleak relationships or social isolation rather than the overt supernatural. Consider Soapstone, for example, in which Aliya Whiteley looks at the aftermath of a funeral. Jen has chickened out from attending her friend Sam's send-off. In a sensitive and poignant (and sympathetic) examination of death we see something of what he meant to her, but her reaction seems extreme even before taking a turn for the weird and the horrific. This does though seem to exemplify something about modern society and its capacity for distraction. One of my favourites in this volume. 

Or Away Day by Lisa Tuttle, which updates an old folk motif - I won't say which for fear of spoilers. I will just say that the horror in Kirsty's team-bonding weekend seems to lie in her dreadful colleagues and frosty husband - but maybe there's worse in the woods?

Or look at A Mystery For Julie Chu, in which Stephen Gallagher gives us what could almost be a pilot for an urban fantasy series. Julie makes a bit of money on the side by spotting useful stuff in car boot sales and selling it on to auction houses. She seems to have a knack for spotting things that will command a good price for, well, esoteric reasons. Things that aren't auctioned publicly but which will find just the right client. But that can lead to some dark places and reveal some dark secrets. Does the horror come from what's revealed here, or simply from the way it happens? Either way, an enjoyable, twisty and well realised tale.

Clockwork by Dan Coxon is also an eerie little tale, a story of abuse, revenge and obsession in a potentially slightly steampunky alternative present. I loved what it doesn't tell us - why, after a pitiful funeral, a young woman is so eager to dig up her father's rhododendrons. She finds something down there, but was she looking for it? Is what happens after intentional? That mystery adds to the claustrophobic texture of a story set largely in one down-at-heel home. I should say, to the multiple mysteries: we don't get all the answers.

There are also more traditional stories. For All the Dead by Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten takes place in the Saltcamp, a small fishing village on, I think, the Dutch coast. It's an atmospheric, sea-drenched story focussing on young Hanne whose father was lost, with many other men of the place, in a catastrophe at sea. The story is steeped in the superstition of those whose lives depend on the unpredictable sea. It's a place and time where customs are fiercely protected and change is distrusted. A real classic ghost story, to read on a dark night when the wind is growing. And years ago (before I was blogging) I loved Jeremy Dyson's collection The Cranes that Build the Cranes - it's great to see a new short story form him. In Nurse Varden, Brosnan needs an operation on his knee, but a pathological fear of being unconscious holds him back. Seeking therapy to overcome his problem, he tries to recall his earliest memory... from what seems liken a simply phobia, Dyson creates a really creepy story of compulsion, bristling with suppression and darkness. A real chiller.

Those are only some of my favourites. Mark Morris has assembled stories from more than twenty writers, some I'd encountered before but most of whom were new to me. It's one of the joys of a collection like this that one will encounter new writers and new writing and, prompted, look out for their future appearances. I think there will be something here for everyone. 

In The God Bag by Christopher Golden, an elderly woman, suffering from dementia and other illnesses, draws comfort from what she refers to as her "God Bag" - which contains scraps of paper on which she's written heartfelt prayers, both weighty and trivial.

Caker's Man by Matthew Holness is a really dark story in which so much might be taken more than one way. An innocent gift of cake? A lonely neighbour who simply want to be friends with a young family? Where is the line crossed, and how exactly? Holness's story expertly keeps one doubting, from that first line - 'They keep asking me...' Who are asking, and why, and why don't Toby's answers satisfy?

Priya Sharma's The Beechfield Miracles is set in a new future, decaying UK ('Brexit Britain. Blackout Britain. Britain on the brink.') in which Rob Miller, a notorious journalist, sets out to investigate one of the vestigial reasons for hope - a (perhaps) miracle worker who's giving the poor new hope, rescuing the vulnerable and, we learn, punishing the wicked. What's her secret? We're left wondering if the horror is what surrounds,. or what may come.

The Dark Bit by Toby Litt features a comfortably-off urban couple, Pyotr and Anaïs, who Pyotr admits won't garner sympathy (mid-thirties, corporate... South London') whose lives are about to be seriously derailed (or have been - for reasons the story makes clear, Pyotr is recalling what happened). It's an intensely creepy story of something going gradually wrong. Whether in reality, or in a kind of collective delusion, is never clear but, oh, it's scarily plausible and made me want to switch all the lights on and sweep out all the dark bits ion my own home.

In Josh Malerman's Provenance Pond, Rose plays by a pond at the end of her garden. She meets imaginary friends there. All seems harmless enough, but her parents, and particularly her father, object, telling her she should be growing up. Yes, Rose's friend, especially Theo, seem a bit weird but can this justify what her father does? But then Malerman pulls away the rug, twisting things round so that the whole story appears in a new light, commenting on the relationship between childhood and adulthood and the peculiar dynamics of families. A moment of enlightenment but still a very scary one!

The Girl in the Pool by Bracken MacLeod is a third story exploring the fear and peril to be found in water - but we move from the dark and cold and wind of the Old World to the heat and dappled light of the new, and from seasalt to the chlorine of a swimming pool, as Rory sets out to burgle a wealthy mansion. He's done his homework and nobody should be at home, but makes a nasty discovery. A bitter little example of that theme of classic horror, the trespasser who gets more then they expected, I found this one enjoyable on every level.

If, Then by Lisa L. Hannett is a clever take on a fairytale theme - the briar-encrusted castle, the sleeping princess, the faithful gardener are all there... as are the nobles clearing the thorny growth from the enchanted building. But nothing is quite what it seems here. Hannett pivots her story from charming and romantic to horrific and... other things I won't mention for fear of spoilers... in the blink of an eye. The sounds of the exes from outside may build tension, but it's what's going on inside that brings the real dread.

Aquarium Ward by Karter Mycroft evokes some of the feelings of the current pandemic - the new condition springing from nowhere, overwhelmed medical staff and and an atmosphere of frenzy and even suspicion. But with the presence of mysterious law enforcement operatives hauling away victims, a fatal condition and a miraculous cure, one overworked doctor begins to think they see a pattern in events... grim, heart-thumping horror in this one.

In Polaroid And Seaweed by Peter Harness, my heart really went out to sad little Danile, a boy who never seems to get a break in life. The horror, again, seems to come from humdrum things: a difficult home situation, horrible kids at school who scent blood and go after him like a pack. But, again, there may be worse things at sea? This one definitely left me wondering, and thinking.

Are you intrigued by abandoned urban sites - lost metro stations, for example? If so, Der Geisterbahnhof by Lynda E. Rucker is for you. Set in Berlin, this sees Abby's past reach out to her - in a city that has so much past. Rucker seems to be able to evoke all those layers, all that horror, as Abby navigates her way around the city, eventually receiving an invitation that she she can't quite see her way to refusing. Chilling and unusual.

Arnie's Ashes by John Everson evokes the sticky, seedy horror of the sprawling modern city - the things that may breed in darkness in the corners of the "adult" club, its impact on those living precarious lives in cheap lodgings, and the means that may need to take top defend themselves. Grimly funny, this is monster horror a million miles from the gothic castle or whispering wood.

In A Brief Tour Of The Night by Nathan Ballingrud, we see something of the same world as in Arnie's Ashes - desperate men and women living on the edge, always one payday away from ruin, but the story reminds us that there are others caught up in that world too. Allen, a figure hated and derided in his community is able to see ghosts. But what does he seem to welcome that? Who does he want to come to him on his nocturnal walks? 

In their very different ways, though, the two stories that close the book encapsulate for me the essence of horror. The Care And Feeding Of Household Gods by Frank J. Oreto was I think the most horrific story in this book. It's hard to say anything about it without giving too much away - as the title hints, it features a particularly ancient superstition which ought to hold no traction in the modern day but which surprisingly does. Then Oreto takes that idea and lets it run. Where might we end up...?

Finally, Yellowback by Gemma Files is one of several stories here with a pandemic influence. Women are being struck down by a strange skin condition which results in their faces scabbing over, ending up producing a yellow-brown, chitin-like mask whose detaching marks the end of a painful and unpleasant illness, almost invariably resulting in death. The rapid speed of this affliction has produced all sorts of ructions in society, including firing misogyny, but as Files hints there's something else at work besides a new pathogen. The attentive reader may notice implicit references here to something older, deeper and distinctly creepy.

So - overall, this is a very strong collection indeed, one I'd unreservedly recommend.

For more information about Beyond the Veil, see the publisher's website here. As well as visiting the other stops on the blogtour, which are set out on the poster below. 

You can buy Beyond the Veil from your local bookshop, online from Bookshop dot org UK, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

19 October 2021

#Review - Girl in the Walls by AJ Gnuse

Girl in the Walls
AJ Gnuse
HarperCollins, 1 April 2021
Available as: HB, 384pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008381028

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Girl in the Walls.

Girl in the Walls is an original and entertaining take on the gothi, in effect a story of confinement and strange events - the hallmark of gothic - told mostly from the point of view of the monster.

Not that it IS a ghost story - for the most part it's rooted very much in reality and the natural (although Gnuse's dreamy, philosophical prose blurs the divide between the natural and the weird). But to the family who share a house with Elise, she might as well be a ghost. Those traces of her presence - are they imagined or real? Even as she pursues her everyday life in the place she regards as home, the house she grew up in - eating, sleeping, watching TV, the only constraint being never to get caught by the family - they become increasingly uneasy, suspicious, listening for creaks or footfalls or for objects out of place, as you do when your house is haunted.

Elise's house is set in an ordinary suburb in a Louisiana city. It's subject to summer hear and to winter storms, and the idea family who dwell there do all the ordinary things - they go to school or to work, they attempt to fix up the rambling, over large place, they (especially the two teenage boys) bicker and ignore one another. Eddie, the younger child, is presented as a bit different, secretive, introspective, not- rather than un- social. His elder brother Marshall thinks he's a freak, and the pressure of dealing with the absence that Elise's presence creates adds to the strain of that. Eddie knows he is growing up, but he finds it hard to be in the gap between recent childhood and... whatever comes next. The growing and developing relationship between the boys was one of the great things in this book, as was Gnuse's ability to see the world through the eyes of a lonely and frightened eight year old girl - yes, that's Elise, hiding in the walls because she has nothing else but at the same time, unable to leave the house simply because she might find she has nothing. So long as she can convince herself that outside, all is well, and not allow herself to see the truth contradicting that, she's OK. Sort of.

But that kind of bubble can't last forever. There are forces moving beyond the walls of the house that threaten Elise. Human forces, and natural forces. The frightening denouement to the novel sees her face those threats, and survival will mean translating them into the reality of a young child who holds conversations in her head with Thor and relies on a scant few rescued possessions to connect her with her former life.

The conclusion to this novel is therefore dramatic and thrilling, the earlier part in contrast almost dreamlike, as it meditates on the paradox of being fully in and of in a place but not acknowledged or known there. There's an impressive balance between those two aspects, the more so because we, as readers of this book, will see all the ways that things might go wrong - apart from anything else Elise as a growing child won't fit between the walls for ever - even more so than she does. 

That conclusion leaves us with a little thrill of doubt and uncertainty, as befits such a mysterious occupant of a house that turns out to be, in a sense, liminal, unfinished, accommodating people who are passing through but never quite make their mark. There is no neat tying up of loose ends, only hints. 

Intriguing throughout, frightening in places, this is a book that builds up a deep bond with its characters - even Eddie's brother - and will leave you looking over your shoulder if you read it late and night by the fireside...

16 October 2021

#Review - The Rose Daughter by Maria Lewis

Cover by Nick Hayes
The Rose Daughter
Maria Lewis
Piatkus, 7 October 2021
Available as: PB, 352pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780349427232  

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Rose Daughter to consider for review.

It's good to be back in Maria Lewis's shared supernatural universe, which began with werewolves in Who's Afraid? and has progressed through other magical peoples including witches, ghost, banshees and now, sprites. 

Or rather, a sprite. As Dreckly Jones makes clear in this narrative, split between the present day when she is lying low in Sydney and an account of her life up to that point, a sprite is a very rare thing indeed. Offspring of a selfie and an earth elemental, her kind are outlawed by the Treize (why?) the self-appointed government of all supernatural creatures. So Dreckly's life began in prison, locked up by the Treize with her father. 

Now, a century later, she's off their radar, and determined to stay that way.

I was entranced by the way Lewis uses the story of Dreckly's life to explore the 20th century from below. Stowing away for the New World, she gets involved in the movie business, drifting into espionage as the times darken. Lewis has her witness some significant moments for the history of women: a period of brief and precious freedom and self-expression for women and minorities in the Hollywood of the 20s and 30s which gives way before a growing climate of moral censure and then the chaos of violence and loss that is the Second World War. Lewis has done her research, introducing us to some fascinating characters who provide the perfect milieu for a misfit like Dreckly. Throughout, though, Dreckly remembers her father's advice that she shouldn't try to be a hero. Though she sometimes disregards it.

The Rose Daughter seemed slightly different to some of the other episodes in this extended story of supernatural creatures, as a large part of the narrative is distanced from the immediate conflict with the Treize which has been developing throughout the series. That reality - of their desperation and willingness to commit atrocities growing - has to break in eventually, though, with Dreckly's hard won safety (hard won both in terms of what she's given up, and the guilt she feels for keeping her head down) inevitably threatened. First, though, Lewis explores what makes Dreckly, Dreckly - who she has loved, what and who she has lost in her long life, and what regrets she has. All of that lies behind her desire to stay out of sight, stay safe, not play the hero. It also illustrates what a competent and ruthless soldier she's capable of being when she has to be - one who will I'm sure reappear in future instalments of this fascinating saga.

A gloriously page-turnery novel that sheds new light on the revolution boiling up against the Treize, meshes nicely with the earlier books (even including some earlier scenes them a different perspective) and introduces a bold and distinctive new character. What else? Well, of course we have handsome, smouldering werewolves, some energetic sex, and plenty of peril. And signs of a team-up that should make the Treize very, very scared indeed.

I'd strongly recommend for fans of paranormal fiction, lovers of a good, exciting story and anyone interested in some of the less well known corners of 20th century history.

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


14 October 2021

#Review - The Hood by Lavie Tidhar

The Hood (Anti-Matter of Britain, 2)
Lavie Tidhar
Head of Zeus, 14 October 2021
Available as: HB, 448pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781838931315

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

Following his iconoclastic take on the King Arthur mythology in By Force Alone, Lavie Tidhar has now turned to Robin Hood. The Hood is very much a sequel, despite being set six hundred(ish) years later - some of the same characters appear or are mentioned, possible because both books dip into the fae-tinged lore of the green and pleasant land. (Even if characters here repeatedly characterise all the Elves and magic as made-up nonsense - nonsense can still have power).

The book's also a sequel in a thematic sense, exploring some of the same themes - for example, how unaccountable power lurks behind the tapestry of history - and in a similar, picaresque style, across a horde of characters and merrily leapfrogging years or decades when needed.

We are in the second half of the 12th century and England is plunged in civil war. Or at least, nobles and princes are at war: a definite theme of The Hood is the lives going on around that, mostly ignoring the battles, escapes, marches and rivalries that are occasionally referred to as the struggle moves backwards and forwards. Instead, the book focusses on Nottingham and Sherwood (of course) though beginning in London where one Will Scarlett gets himself into a bit of bother.

That isn't, though, our entry point to the happy band of outlaws making free in the forest. Throughout this book there is a Hood in Sherwood, just as there are numerous "hoods" who form part of his crew. Tidhar plays happily with concepts and language to compare the outlaws to a gang of mobsters (fair, since that's really how they appear in the sources). Hood is even named Robin, or Rob, at times. But he's hardly a central figure in this story. Necessary, yes, like a king on a chessboard, but also weak. Marian is more important, as are the various figures who wheel around her - Birdie, the strange figure sheltering from the world in a monastery; Rebecca, the daughter of Jewish merchant Isaac of York, who herself becomes something of a gang boss in Nottingham, and even Mrs More-Goose, the cook at Nottingham Castle who has a hidden identity. There's also Sir Richard at the Lee, a knight and agent of  the Archbishop of York, and of course Guy of Gisbourne, the last two acting as vehicles for Tidhar's characteristic noiriness. They play the shady fixer, the tough guy(!) who goes where others won't to serve a kind of justice. Or injustice.

It's a mark of how well Tidhar does this sort of thing that a concept like that - referring forward eight hundred years to a different world and a different medium - works so well in this book. It isn't, of course, the only one - the book is filled with allusions to music, books, media of all sorts, as well as historical parallels and comparisons that I kept thinking ought not to work but just do. There are, for example, numerous characters here who've been through horrors in the Crusades, things they can't explain to the civilians they meet but that others just understand. That haunts the book, bringing to mind so many wars over the past century and more. So many returned and haunted men. So many appalling sights and events.

At the other end of the scale in emotional terms are some really obvious references that had me grinning - a bar called Dick's ('Everybody comes to Dick's', yes I know), allusions to TV and films and, of course, sideswipes at more traditional depictions of Robin Hood (including, yes, That Song). The joke on those is that the Nottingham of The Hood isn't, in contrast to Robin of Sherwood and the like, the Nottingham of, er, The Hood at all. It's the Nottingham of whatever gang boss can hold onto it - be that a Sheriff (but Nottingham has a way with its Sherriffs), the daughter of a Jewish merchant, an enchantress, an alchemist in the vein of Dr Frankenstein or, well, you get the idea. 

Like By Force Alone, the real action here is criminal: control of rackets, production and smuggling of substances, throat-slitting, the works. That coexists with a slippery stratum of forest magic, portrayed at the same time as made-up and as ancient and powerful. That world is populated by some of the same entities and forces as appeared in the previous book but it's not a neat, Neo-Classical pantheon but a confused gaggle of deities and powers scavenged from the mythologies of North-Western Europe and, of course beyond, this being an age of faith and the faith being that of Jesus. But it's also an age of commerce with a lively trade in relics, something that is at the same taken seriously by its participants and treated as a bit of a joke. 

Maybe that's a key to the book as a whole - so much here is both presented as fake, artificial, mutable and as rooted, significant, serious. Sometimes it's at the same time, sometimes the treatment swings between the two depending which characters we're following and what they're doing. The way the book works kind of illustrates how historical figures and events we're used to seeing of thinking of in a certain way can also be shifty, contingent and make-do.

Historical figures and events including of course some key and cherished bits of (admittedly mostly made-up) British history. Which is of course Tidhar's point. It is a point he makes in a highly entertaining, and compellingly readable, way, one that leaves me eagerly looking forward to the next part of this rackety story of Britain.

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


12 October 2021

#Review - The Bone Ship's Wake by RJ Barker

The Bone Ship's Wake (Tide Child, 3)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 30 September 2021
Available as: PB, 576pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356511863  

I'm VERY grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Bone Ship's Wake.

The Tide Child series - which The Bone Ship's Wake completes - give us that rare thing, a perfect trilogy. In these books Barker gets so many things right. Each part is a complete, exciting adventure in its own right. While telling an increasingly complex story as whole, one could still pick any of them up and enjoy it without having read the earlier parts (though why you'd deprive yourself like that, I have no idea). Each book is actually better than the previous one. While the setting is profoundly convincing and the events involving and exciting, Barker doesn't let them rule his writing. Because most of all, and best of all, at the centre of these stories is the most wondrous, gloriously portrayed, developing relationship, between Shipwife (captain) 'Lucky' Meas Gilbryn and her Deckeeper (First Mate) Joron Twiner. 

I came to realise, and to love, that the plot - all the voyages, battles and double-crosses - and its motivation - the desire to escape the endless tyranny of the Bern - was pretty much secondary to that complex and evolving relationship. And that is good, because the dimensions of that central relationship - the secrets, the hurt that both have suffered, their prickliness, their faults - are so sprawling and angling, well, I could have read these books if they featured Joron and Meas having their chats on deck, and nothing else. Both are simply glorious humans. Put them together and Barker's writing simply soars away. It's just intoxicating.

Not, though, in case that gives the wrong impression, that the plot itself is inconsequential.  Far from it. As this third book opens (slight spoilers, if you haven't read the others) Meas has been captured by her enemies and is being tortured. Joron, determined to rescue her, has made himself into The Black Pirate, scourge of the seas, and is raging his way through the Hundred Islands' fleet, using the ships that Meas gathered in her mission to forge peace between the Hundred and the Gaunt Isles. In doing this he comes into his own as a leader, a planner and a killer. Nobody in these books is wholly good, or wholly bad: it's clear that Joron has done some dreadful things, Barker doesn't hide that. The ostensible goal in these books has shifted from defending the newly returned Arakeesians (great sea dragons) in The Bone Ships to forging that alliance for peace in The Call of the Bone Ships to this bloody quest for vengeance in The Bone Ship's Wake. More and more personal, less and less in service to the Thirteenbern, Meas' mother. And increasingly bound up in that relationship, that deep and profound friendship, that has grown between Joron and Meas since the day she took his shipwife's hat in the first book. 

Behind all the salty nautical jargon, the lonely seas and the skies, the tactical problems and superhuman endurance and cohesion of the crews, we come to this. At last, in the closing pages of The Bone Ship's Wake, everything else falls away, everything is made plain (including things from the previous books that were less clear at the time) and we see the two, in many ways greatly diminished - facing overwhelming odds, nowhere to go - revealing, finally, what they mean to each other. NOT a romantic relationship but a strong and profound friendship and yes, a loving one, almost beyond words, tested and tried in fire and ice. 

What a story.

Of course, the supporting elements that made the previous books so readable - naval battle, the close observation of the little society aboard the Tide Child, the portrayal of the deeply alien yet very familiar world of the islands, the Gullaime and its kind - are lacking here. The Gullaime, in particular, takes a central role as we learn, finally, about its role, its hopes and its fears. (I love the Gullaime!) Those things are just as strong. But Barker has resisted the temptation to double down, to give us yet more and more naval battle, more and more ship-speak. We know he can do that, we know this world, we can feel it, smell it, taste it. There's simply no need to pile it on. We know Tide Child by know, we fear for him - but we know what he is capable of, in the hands of the deckchilder, that found family held together by a combination of fierce discipline and something like love.

But Tide Child is in new waters now, facing danger beyond anything we saw before, and possibly needing help beyond what the brave souls who crew him can achieve...

This final instalment is an epic, triumphant read, fully meeting the promise of the earlier books. Be warned, though - it's a true RJ Barker story, it may break you. Reading this book is like receiving a broadside from a ship of the Fleet. Once loosed, everyone is at risk, from the shipwife standing rigid on the deck to the deckchilder aloft in the spines. You'll not escape unscathed. Just trust in Shipwife Barker, who has brought us safe before through storm and fire and ruin and can do so again.

In short I'd STRONGLY RECOMMEND The Bone Ship's Wake.

For more information about The Bone Ship's Wake, see the publisher's website here.

5 October 2021

#Review - My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

Cover by Julia Lloyd

My Heart is a Chainsaw
Stephen Graham Jones
Titan Books, 7 September 2021
Available as: PB, 448pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789098099

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of My Heart is a Chainsaw to consider for review.

My Heart is a Chainsaw is so strange. Also, so sad. Stephen Graham Jones uses the language of the horror movie to animate and illustrate Jade's story. Jade, the lonely goth geek, who lives and breathes the horror movie. The deliberate loner with an unhappy family background. The misfit, half Indian and daughter of the town drunk.

But My Heart is more than that. It's also a portrait of Proofrock, a small town in the US midwest, a warm community facing up to wealthy outsiders who want things their own way.

Of the two, it is I think in the end Jade's story that is deeper and more interesting and indeed heartbreaking. Yet we can't understand her without understanding how she sees the world, and that means engaging with her horror film obsession and understanding its depths and roots. 

Jade is, simply, obsessed with horror movies and the slasher genre in particular. Each section of this book is opened by an essays she's written for her English teacher, Mr Holmes, analysing and explaining the influences, history, themes and meaning of those films. Jade's knowledge is vast, with reference points far beyong the usual suspects, and she's bright enough to go far beyond the surface - yet this takes her into a kind of twilight world where these gory slash-fests seem to be given a degree of reality and internal coherence beyond that of mere fictional creations. When Jade speculates on the mechanics and workings of the films, she writes as though she is discussing a natural phenomena, something like natural history or anthropology, rather that the story and commerce-driven productions of filmmakers.

Conversely, as events in Proofrock begin to echo the genre, Jade feels free to speculate on what may come as though that internal logic also applies to the real world. She fixates in particular on one young woman as the putative "Final Girl". Letha Mondragon is an incomer to the town, daughter of one of the group of ultra-rich "Founders" who are building their own gated community across the lake. She's therefore an outsider, just as Jade is peripheral. 

One of the things I found affecting about this story was the way in which, while Jade seems isolated (certainly by herself) she does have people on her side - Mr Holmes.  The town Sheriff, even Letha. The tragedy of it is that when they try to help her they always seem to misstep and make things worse than before. Jade comes over as angry, vulnerable and opinionated. She's spiky, independent-minded and awkward. A fascinating personality with all sorts of deeps and quirks - and with some secrets of her own, which she curls round protectively. Her whole mythology of Horror, the slasher and the Final Girl may - consciously or not - be constructed to hide those secrets, or to protect her from them. 

As you move through this book, you will have plenty of opportunity to wonder how far Jade is imposing her own logic on the town, and how far the typically horror-y elements deployed here have some objective reality to them. Stephen Graham Jones takes his time setting things up, allowing Jade to give us the tools, as it were, we will need to understand what's going on - but also marking out the deeper secrets and currents that are swirling about.

I won't spoil the story by hinting at how it all turns out, but I will say that I found the conclusion moving, shocking and, in the best possible way, genre transcending. I've seldom read a book where the conventions of a genre, the actual grammar and beats of an apparently familiar story, were used so well both to mislead and then to deliver a wrenching, stunning climax.

You have to read this book!

For more information about My Heart is a Chainsaw, see the publisher's website here.