Map of Blue Book Balloon

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.