26 November 2021

#Blogtour #Review - The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Emperor (The Drowning Empire, 2)
Andrea Stewart
Orbit, 25 November 2021
Available as: HB, 560pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356514994 

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Bone Shard Emperor via Netgalley to consider for review, and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

The Bone Shard Emperor picks things up almost where The Bone Shard Daughter left them and, yes, I really think that before reading this, you should read the earlier book, if you haven't already. Some series you can pick up the middle, but not this one, and the reason goes to the heart of why it's so compelling. Quite apart from simply understanding the plot detail - something I don't think is that important - you need the context to really appreciate the characters here. 

Lin, for example, is now Emperor, having killed her corrupt and abusive father, but she's struggling. She really wants to be a better Emperor than her father. In the previous book we saw what he made her and how he treated her, and that is central to her struggles to be herself but also to understand him (which itself risks her becoming more like him). In The Bone Shard Emperor we will see that tension play out, and the danger that Lin courts. Apart from the forces that shaped her as a person, she's inherited a volatile political situation. Her rule isn't absolute: the islands making up the Empire have their own Governors, who consult their own interests first. There is rebellion in the air, and in a series of catastrophes, islands have begin sinking for unknown reasons.

Similarly, notorious smuggler and folk hero Jovis is now Lin's Captain of the Imperial Guard, but his loyalties are conflicted. Stewart's writing here is deft and her characterisation subtle: Jovis is far from loyal to Lin, retaining affiliations both with the Ioph Carn crime syndicate and with the Shardless Few rebels. It would be easy to hate Jovis for what seems like betrayal (it IS betrayal) but if you travelled with him through the earlier book you will understand what he was trying to achieve and the hopes and fears which he still has, and will sympathise with, if not perhaps forgive, him. 

Again, the enigmatic exile Nisong, who spent most of the first book enslaved and befuddled by 'mind fog' has now woken and is visiting a terrible revenge on the Empire. In many ways a hateful character, Nisong has suffered greatly, and using her, Stewart shows how abuse and betrayal can feed on itself - just watch her justifying what she is doing, blaming the innocent who she destroys for the deaths of her friends in the bloody rampage. Again, Stewart's characterisation is chilling and convincing. 

The other main characters here, island governor Phalue and her wife Ranami, perhaps need less backstory - their loyalties were more conflicted in the earlier book and things are simpler in this one: Phalue is trying, in a similar way to Lin, to be better, to raise up her people, and she confronts many of the same problems as Lin in establishing her authority, introducing radical change and dealing with the horrors left by Lin's father, the wild 'constructs' which previously controlled and administered the Empire. Lin and Phalue contrast nicely, Lin having forsworn the bone magic that drives the constructs, thereby leaving herself vulnerable, Phalue resorting enthusiastically to her sword and armour in a most un Governor-like way and rather relishing her hands-on exercise of power.

This book was full of characters I wished would join up, get on, and work together. Lin and Phalue could complement each other so well. Phalue would make a much better Captain than spy/smuggler Jovis. Jovis and Lin, in turn, clearly fancy the pants off one another, but they are held apart by all sorts of formalities and conventions as well as what they don't know about each other. It's frustrating, but Stewart has written a story that captures the nuances and contradictions of these characters extremely well, so that although there are all sorts of catastrophes, rebellions and magical weirdnesses breaking out, it's the central relationships that really drive the plot, adding a sense of peril and risk - as though everyone was on a high wire and might fall of any time - that keeps the reader turning the pages.

A potent blend of politics, magic, warfare and romance, The Bone Shard Emperor fully lives up to the promise of The Bone Shard Daughter, giving us plenty of action and mystery and, best of all, more of the strange creatures Mephi and Thrana, whose nature is now a little clearer. There's also a new character, Ragan, a mysterious warrior-monk who confounds stereotypes (you'll have to wait, no spoilers) and makes Jovis VERY jealous when he gets close to Lin (great fun to observe).

In short, if you've read The Bone Shard Daughter you'll love this sequel, if you haven't read that book I hope I've inspired you to go and do so - before moving on to The Bone Shard Emperor next.

For more information about The Bone Shard Emperor, see the publisher's website here and also the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below.

You can buy The Bone Shard Emperor from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop dot org UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

25 November 2021

#Review - Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeod

Design by Duncan Spilling

Beyond the Hallowed Sky (Lightspeed Trilogy, 1)
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 25 November 2021
Available as: PB, 336pp, audio, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356514796   

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Beyond the Hallowed Sky to consider for review.

Ken MacLeod is an absolute master of near future SF thrillers that intelligently reflect politics and society as well as science. So Beyond the Hallowed Sky is securely rooted in a not so far off* Scotland, part of a multi-nation Union that has undergone revolutionary transformation but in a low key way (the 'Cold Revolution'). It's set against the Alliance, an array of anglo powers who have recently restored democracy, and Co-ord (China and Russia). 

There's a lot of stuff about defections from one to the other (which seem fairly easy) and a glimpsed history that involves some nuclear exchanges, though I don't think all out war. But many here, including one of the main protagonists, John Grant, aren't keen on recalling history too much, either what they did (Grant is a responsible, a key figure in the Revolution) or what happened more widely. Macleod rather brilliantly portrays this future society through small details and hints, not outright description, so making it more of a living and breathing thing that if there were lengthy passages setting out what had happened or how things are structured.

A central theme of the story is, I think, one of technological change and transformation: what becomes of this world when a crazy, impossible idea - faster-than-light travel - turns out to be attainable (and actually, rather easy to realise). Evoking such upheavals as the launch of Sputnik-1 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, MacLeod shows how such an event - despite not having a direct impact, or much impact at all, on the ordinary lives of many people, might still play with the psychic moorings of a society, its sense of worth and purpose. He has I think further shocks in store for the folk of the 2070s because in another thread of the narrative we see attempts to come to terms with a truly alien sort of alien, one which seems intimately linked to our planet and its history and to be capable of great harm.

The way that this book brings together great themes - Space exploration! Aliens! FTL! - with the little details of individual lives - a boy and a girl meeting while out hiking, a trip on a ferry that will change lives, an evening spent in a bar listening to traditional music, the rhythms of life in a workplace - was for me one of its strengths. I enjoyed that this isn't for the most part "zappy" SF, although MacLeod shows himself more than capable of that when the story calls for it, as it does in the final quarter, when some concepts arise that - if I could name them here which I can't because of spoilers - would seem absurd in cold pixels. In context, however, and arising from the very ordinariness of much of the earlier story, they just makes sense and work.

Another theme, which is worth looking out for because it's so well integrated and embedded that it almost seems a matter of course, concerns the place of AI in these future societies. In Beyond the Hallowed Sky, it shows up incarnated in a sort of super-Siri virtual assistant available always and everywhere and charged with meeting needs before they're stated (the kind of thing I think that visionaries might hope could replace the action of markets?)  It also figures embodied in robots, given a remarkable amount of latitude, you might think, and there are some intriguing conversations about consciousness, conscience and freedom here which perhaps aren't quite so integrated into the narrative but were thought-provoking.

All that may make Beyond the Hallowed Sky sound over-ideasy, perhaps, but that would completely wrong. I love ideas in a book but more I love believable, quirky characters, especially the bad guys, an active and twisty plot, and being kept guessing about where everything bis going. And Beyond the Hallowed Sky scores very well on all that, and more, as well as being an engaging and complex opening to a trilogy whose subsequent volumes I'm already looking forward to reading.

To read more about Beyond the Hallowed Sky, see the publisher's website here.


*If I live to be 100 I'll be contemporary with the events of this book.

23 November 2021

#Review - The Midnight Lock by Jeffery Deaver

Cover for The Midnight Lock by Jeffery Deaver. We are looking through a keyhole in a scuffed, copper-green metal plate. Through this we see a blurred figure standing on a staircase, lit by bright light from a window visible over the head. Text on the cover: Jeffery Deaver, The international bestseller, The Midnight Lock, The new Lincoln Rhyme thriller. You shut your door. You turn the key. But nothing will keep him out...
The Midnight Lock (Lincoln Rhyme, 15)
Jeffery Deaver
HarperCollins, 25 November 2021
Available as: HB, 448pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008303846

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Midnight Lock to consider for review.

I enjoy Deaver's novels so much, and especially his Lincoln Rhyme thrillers. It's something to do with the strong setting and the collegiality of Rhyme and his group of friends/ helpers, but it doesn't hurt that, as Deaver described at a recent online session to launch The Midnight Lock, the author knows he's competing for attention with social media, games, video  and countless other channels and he sets out to write books that grab the attention. 

And how. In this latest visit to Rhyme's New York townhouse forensics lab - we've been away for a couple of years following the doings of new Deaver protagonist Colter Shaw on the West Coast - there is, as always, plenty of action, but this time, behind it all, a distinct air of menace. Rhyme has learned he's being targeted by old adversary The Watchmaker; he's also fluffed a case, and a crime boss who's free as a result wants revenge for Rhyme's involvement (some people have no gratitude); 'Verum', an online purveyor of fake news and rabble-stirring conspiracy theory, highlights Rhyme's failure as the outworking of a vast conspiracy; and, perhaps most concerning of all, the Mayor and the City authorities have turned against Rhyme, forbidding any police officer to work with, or even speak to him (tricky as Rhyme's wife Amelia is a cop).

It's all getting very dark, and amidst this, in a first person narrative, we hear the mysterious stalker known as 'The Locksmith' lay plans and carry them out. This figure, who will be Rhyme's main opponent in The Midnight Lock, is a master of burglary, entering women's apartments at night and disarranging things just enough to alarm. In some truly tense scenes, we see the break-ins and observe the Locksmith move around as if at home, toying with thoughts of going further still, selecting knives, musing on even worse crimes. Deaver gives us the dry, technical background to all the lockpicking, with serves both to show the depth of the Locksmith's skill and knowledge and also to undermine any faith I had in the ability of locks to protect. 

Bolts, bolts are the thing, and don't trust electronics either.

As usual in these books, it's very much a game of cat and mouse - or several games, in fact; Rhyme can't of course let the fact that he's still looking into the case come out, and there are other forces at work too, with their own agendas, their own truths. The malleability of truth here is something of a theme, the story covering not only Verum's bizarre ravings but also the activities of a sleazy tabloid which monetises lies for the sake of sales, and a dubious streaming service one of whose content moderators seems rather casual to say the least.

Against this background, Rhyme's absolute faith in the truth as revealed by evidence (by which he means, scientific evidence, not testimony) is a rather helpful touchstone and pointed up something I should perhaps have spotted sooner, that Deaver is pitching Rhyme as a modern day Sherlock Holmes. Certainly the milieux of the two men are similar, solving crimes from their homes at the heart of the world-cities of their age, London and New York, but the focus in The Midnight Lock on samples of material from shoes to enable identification of movements put me in mind of Dr Joseph Bell, whose deductions Conan Doyle reflected in Holmes. More prosaically, I think, Rhyme has some of Holmes' crabbiness, his disdain for "unnecessary" information, even commonplace knowledge if it isn't related to crime or forensics (which gives a bit of comic relief here, akin to the judge who'd never heard of the Beatles). And the same sense of ennui when not actively engaged on a case.

I wouldn't take this parallel too far - Rhyme has married! - but the presence of The Watchmaker as a Nemesis does create another similarity. In this book, the first question to be determined is, of course, whether The Locksmith and The Watchmaker might be the same person, a possibility that adds to the sense of danger in the air, a sense that only builds as the unknown stalker becomes aware of Rhyme's interest and builds it into his plans...

As always with Deaver's books, The Midnight Lock is terrific, page-turning fun and I was pleased to re-acquaint myself with Rhymes after the break (although also glad to hear on that Zoom event that Shaw will also be back again).

Strongly recommended.

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


16 November 2021

#Review - Terror Tales of the Home Counties ed by Paul Finch

Cover by Neil Williams
Terror Tales of the Home Counties
Edited by Paul Finch
Telos Publishing, 22 October 2020
139 Whitstable Road, Canterbury CT2 8EQ
PB, 299pp
ISBN 9781845831592

This review first appeared in issue 41 of Ghosts and Scholars, a newsletter about the ghost stories of MR James (and ghost stories more widely).

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Terror Tales of the Home Counties to consider for review. 

I was pleased to see this volume in the expanding Terror Tales series, focussing as it does on a part of England often neglected, seen simply in relation to London, the Home Counties being regarded as London's dormitories filled with safe, chocolate-box villages populated by vicars on bicycles and stockbrokers polishing their cars on a Sunday morning. Given this reputation, horror authors may perhaps feel prefer to set stories in sinister London itself, or in more outlying, less cosy regions. It may be true that a bit more work is needed to establish a credible sense of horror in the Home Counties, but this volume shows that it can be done, and done with aplomb, even in the space of a short story. (We should perhaps recall Sherlock Holmes's view: 'It is my belief, Watson... that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside' (The Adventure of the Copper Beeches). 

So we find here a varied lineup of authors generating some really pleasing terrors in those leafy villages; as with the rest of the Terror Tales series this book features stories by both established and newer authors, and the tales themselves alternate with more factual pieces giving legends or nuggets of history that sometimes relate directly to the stories, sometimes less so, but which all add to the atmosphere. Again like the others in this series, Terror Tales of the Home Counties mixes stories that logically belong here because they reflect some aspect of the chosen region and those which could equally have been set elsewhere. There are, I think, rather more of the former than usual - even more than in previous anthologies, a story that doesn't overtly draw on a location in the Home Counties may, I think, still be inspired by a place or its atmosphere or reflect an author's formation or experience. 

That's true of all the anotholgies in this series but I found myself considering that for this volume there is another factor. The Home Counties as a region has an association with wealth and power and entitlement, characteristics that often set up protagonists for a fall (or give them the power to inflict horror on others) and so for example in Monkey's by Reggie Oliver, we see how a group of Etonian schoolboys, having a nice time on the river, encounter something dark. A ghost story located in Eton might be seen as parking tanks on MR James's own lawns and indeed there is a rather Jamesian feeling here - to stretch the metaphor a bit, I'd say Oliver parks his tank very neatly. There is a perfect balance between the everyday and the incursion of the strange. 

There's a Twitter account I follow which tweets images from pulp literature and occasionally shares book covers featuring "Women with great hair fleeing gothic houses" and the opening of Love Leaves Last by Mick Sims really put me in mind of those images as May just does that, fleeing in terror that someone - or something - will follow. As soon becomes clear though this isn't a straightforwardly gothic mystery, though it is a story of family secrets, a curse, and - something I always love - a warning foolishly ignored. Slightly comic, very scary and refreshing different. Again, though, we may wonder about the wealth and power of titled families and what lurks in their histories. Another story exploring this theme is The Topsy-Turvey Ones by Tom Johnstone, which manages to weave together a modern film-maker, a family curse, the Commonwealth radicals of the English Civil War and even the detention in 1999 of Genral Pinochet in Surrey.

Moving from old money to new, a characteristic feature of certain Home Counties villages which is picked up in this collection is their propensity to host newly wealthy celebrities. In the English Rain by Steve Duffy is set in the late 70s and tells of a couple of teenagers exploring an abandoned mansion rumoured to be owned by one of the Beatles. The terror is in the ease with which traces of 60s psychedelia they find there tip over into a different sort of weirdness. The atmosphere is heightened by Duffy's meticulous attention to detail and by a deeply ambiguous ending. And The Gravedigger of Witchfield by Steven J Dines, set during the present Covid pandemic, appeals to the deserted streets of lockdown to give Ben, who works with his father as a gravedigger, licence to wander unseen, and to enter the grounds of a house in the village which has been taken over by a wealthy DJ. Ben is surprised first to find an orgy in process (I would advise story is pretty explicit) but then to discover something darker still - which we may think finds an echo in his own life. Eerie, with an unexpected shock and a sense of palpable evil.

The Old, Cold Clay by Gail-Nina Anderson could perhaps be set in any one of a swathe of country towns or villages popular with tourists. It opens as Viv attempts to occupy a coach party, negotiating the delicate line between sometimes blunt historical truth and the kind of picturesque story that goes down better with visitors. But reality is about to take a hand. The darkness in this one was well counterpointed by the closeness, even cosiness of the community depicted.

Between by Sam Dawson successfully exploits the contrast between a modern, semi-urbanised region and traces of older and darker things, implicitly judging a pair of modern trendies taking on a rural cottage against the steadfast character of their grandparents' generation. It's a genuinely thoughtful story, posing questions about how one deals with the strange and hinting that even in our modern century the much-abused landscape and natural world may take a hand in human affairs. I'd perhaps describe is as Lovecraftian rather than Jamesian.

My Somnabulist Heart by Andrew Hook is a lovely study in ambiguity and tells a lot of story in a short space. We don't, for example, ever learn exactly how Ian, relocating to the country from London, earned his money, but we soon gather from what we piece together of his character that it probably wasn't done very ethically - but also that he's, perhaps fatally, disengaged from life and consequences, comparing reality - which he feels has no overall arc or direction - with fiction. Perhaps it's this that lays him open to something that is either form his imagination, or its very opposite - reality getting even? Either way, a deliciously thought-provoking and ambiguous ending.

Where are they Now? by Tina Roth teeters on the brink of the Home Counties, exploiting the fact that the margins of London often blend seamlessly into their surroundings. Drawing on the dark past of Mortlake and rumours of Dr John Dee, this story - told in the rambling, often distracted narration of an elderly actor - weaves together past and present, the mundane and the strange, to give a real sense of gathering trouble.

As the husband of a vicar, I was slightly disappointed that there are few stories in this book featuring clergy as protagonists. Surely they should be a staple of this sort of horror? However The Doom by Paul Finch himself bucks that trend with a lucid, sting-in-the-tail horror that hangs on the discovery in a remote church of a medieval Doom - a wall painting showing lost souls being tormented in Hell. Drawn into a theological debate with a nosy visitor, he's clearly out of his depth and we sense trouble but when it comes it is from an unexpected direction. 

Summer Holiday by John Llewellyn Probert is not a supernatural story, indeed more of a comic, albeit darkly comic, caper and more amusing than scary. It put me in mind of Kind Hearts and Coronets, so I guess there is another sort of Home Counties link there (albeit Ealing is more London) and elsewhere in the collection Bray Studios (where the Hammer films were made) get a mention too.

Chesham by Helen Grant was, for me, the outstanding story in this volume. Kay, returning to the family home to clear things out after the death of her parents, is one of three children. She's drawn the short straw because she hasn't been able to visit much of late, but in going through old photos and clearing cupboards and drawers she discovers a rather sinister vein of family history. Written with a growing sense of menace - the young woman alone in the silent family home - this one will, I promise, stay with you long after you've finished it.

The book ends with three stories that remind us that "Home Counties" is not always the same as "wealthy and privileged". The protagonist of Taking Tusk Mountain by Allen Ashley lives in Luton, and has been through some bad stuff in his life, but is now getting straight. There's a tension between keeping out of his dodgy mate Brandon's schemes, and getting enough money to move his girlfriend Mel and her son Leo out of the scuzzy area where they live. What follows is something of a supernatural tug of war, a very different story from the others in this collection as a half-baked caper goes completely wrong. A fun and enjoyable story. 

Moses by David J Howe similarly stays in the edgelands, this time on the fringes of London, where a grisly monstes stalks two young boys planning a night camping. This one really did build tension. 

Finally, The Old Man in Apartment Ninety by Jason Gould mixes horror with post-apocalyptic. It is set in Stevenage, rather movingly seen, after a catastrophe that seems to have destroyed civilisation, as having been something of a Utopia. Where is the horror in that, you might think? Well, it is there, I promise this one will also stay with you.

An enjoyable collection, with many stories that chill and a balance that, overall, does the Home Counties justice, I think, displacing that stuffy image and giving a glimpse of the darkness underneath.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website.

12 November 2021

#Review - Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

Under the Whispering Door
TJ Klune
Pan Macmillan/ Tor, 28 October 2021
Available as: HB, 384pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529087970

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Under the Whispering Door.

Price was dead, to begin with...

TJ Klune casts light and wisdom on the mysteries of life and death in this engaging new novel.

Wallace Price would not be anyone's idea of a sympathetic boss. Seen early on in Under the Whispering Door firing an unfortunate employee whose life problems are affecting her work, he is driven, unempathetic and demanding. So it's hardly surprising when, after his sudden death, only a handout of people attend Wallace's funeral. Wallace himself IS surprised by that: but more at having actually, you know, died. Basically he's having trouble accepting this whole "deceased" thing and so a Reaper has to be despatched to escort him to - well, we'll come to that.

Yes, there are overtones of everybody's favourite spooky Dickens novel here. Like Scrooge, Wallace wasn't always a work-obsessed misanthropist: like Scrooge he knew love, but it turned sour on him. But there are also differences. Wallace isn't quite the caricature that Scrooge is. And while Scrooge was offered visions of what may come - including the prospect of going to the grave unmourned and unsung - and time to amend his life, no such luxury is accorded Wallace. His time's up, and he's out.

The biggest difference, though, lies I think, in the dynamics of what happens after Wallace's death. In many respects, his life only begins then. Accompanied by reaper Mei (pronounced "May") whose first gig this is,  Wallace is led to a teashop, run by Hugo, also inhabited - haunted? - by Hugo's dead grandfather Nelson and dead dog Apollo. The teashop - Charon's Crossing - isn't some weird borderland thing, it's an actual, genuine teashop serving a range of infusions to the customers as well as home made scones and other baked goods. 

(I need to stop here to smile for a moment over what are clearly difference between the associations of "teashop" in the US and the UK. From the reaction Klune puts into Wallace's head, Over There it has clear overtones of aching hipsterdom, while this side of the Atlantic one thinks of crumbs, chintz and copper ornaments, also probably steamed up windows and rain).

Actually Charon's Crossing DOES have some weird borderline characteristics. It hosts The Door through which Wallace and his fellow deceased will eventually travel (to where? we never learn). It also holds those who need to spend time reconciling themselves with the fact of death, or with the way they spent their lives. And it provides a locus for all kinds of half-and-half entities to mingle with the living - such as those who rejected the idea of death entirely and lost themselves under the winnowing forces of the mundane world. 

Yes, there is some spooky stuff here, but it doesn't dominate and, honestly, it was a breath fo fresh air to read a novel with such a definite, unambiguous fantasy setting but which doesn't all turn on some threat to the nature of reality, or an evil plot by beings from Beyond to conquer the universe. Instead, we get tea and chat and honest, often painful, character development. I know that won't perhaps be everybody's cup of tea (pun intended) but it is done so very well here and really grabbed my attention and sympathy. At Charon's Crossing, the focus is on being, not doing. And - to let a bit of a spoiler slip - the being is especially focused on Wallace (who, is, of course, dead) and Hugo (very much alive), with a thread of romance between these very different men. And of course some definite obstacles in the way.

Quite how Klune orchestrates and explores this theme, I won't say any more about - first because it would be spoilery and secondly, because it would only clumsily sum up what's set out much better in the book, and why do that? But it does involve human loss, a vengeful ghost, a podcasting medium and a besmitten public health inspector, creating a darkly comic plot that surrounds the central romantic one, so there is a lot here to hold the attention.

What you need to do then, is, to put the kettle on; warm the teapot; cut yourself a slice of cake; settle down, and read Under the Whispering Door. You won't regret it...

For more information about Under the Whispering Door, see the publisher's website here.

10 November 2021

#BlogTour #Review - Psychopaths Anonymous by Will Carver

Psychopaths Anonymous
Will Carver
Orenda Books, 25 November 2021
Available as: PB, 276pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781913193751

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance review copy of Psychopaths Anonymous, and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Will Carver is, I think, one of the most distinct novelists that I've encountered recently. His books form a meticulous catalogue of the vices and failings of contemporary humanity, which sounds depressing and tedious, but they are the very OPPOSITE of that. These compelling, readable books are a sort of ethical noir, going to dark places to show us ourselves. His characters may be appalling people doing terrible things, but they're still people one can relate to - albeit this may be a troubling (self) judgement on the reader.

Psychopaths Anonymous follows in this tradition and I think it may actually be his best yet.  

Maeve is a psychopath. She makes no bones about the fact - the book, which is written in her voice, presents the fact calmly, without debate.

Maeve is also, I think, as depicted here, an alcoholic, something she is less ready to accept, and possibly a sex addict besides (there's lots of sex in the book). 

Maeve is part fascinated, part appalled by the Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-step process. Much of the book focusses on her visits to a succession of AA groups and her careening off the various stages of the process. Carver pays this whole phenomenon the compliment of a deep, skewering analysis that systematically deconstructs its dependence on religion, highlighting the uneasy contradiction of acknowledging an omnipotent and vengeful deity while seeking strength within oneself to overcome addiction. 

Before I go on, I should perhaps declare an interest here as the husband of a Church of England priest. Having done that, I would point out the conception against which Maeve is so strongly rebelling - the controlling, angry and manipulative God - is not by any means a universal conception of religion. I'd go so far as to say that it is a heretical and abusive presentation of my faith and something that any decent human being ought to reject. It is, however, sadly, a common one, humanity being so prone to project and deify its own faults, and Carver's righteous anger at, and rejection, of this monstrosity comes through sincerely and clearly in Maeve's uncompromising refusal of it. Maeve is actually a wonderfully drawn and vivid personality all round, though her attendance at so many AA groups, whose basis she hates, is to begin with something of mystery. (It does become clear).

She's not a wreck of a person, she holds down a responsible job (in marketing) and is very self-aware both about her drinking and her sex. And, as the story spirals on its way, also about her putative psychopathy - an aspect of her personality that she doesn't wish to "cure" but to learn to live with. To this end, she establishes her own self-help group, "Psychopaths Anonymous" (though they're careful not to use that name too widely). The commentary that this book provides on different means of exploring, and living with, one's self is truly illuminating and to my mind showcases (ironically, given the subject matter) Carver's empathy for and understanding of his characters.

But there's more! Maeve is on something of a journey here - readers of Good Samaritans, Carver's first novel with Orenda, may well recognise her and know where it is going to end as a new man comes into her life. Seth seems to provide some relationship ballast (even as the sex becomes more intense) although the presence in Maeve's life of an enduring boyfriend only makes that life more complicated. An ongoing theme here is just how far Maeve is really on top of things - do bear in mind that she is the one narrating the story, and she isn't exactly a sober citizen - and the presence of a man in her life raises the stakes in that respect, Carver perhaps hinting that she isn't as in control as she thinks.

Not a book for the squeamish, as you might expect, Psychopaths Anonymous nevertheless feels like a story with a firm moral centre. It's a vividly told story, one that will have you paging back and forth to check details (there are a few secrets that readers of the other novels in the Carververse may also decode...) While fairly short, it takes on gigantic themes and nails them brilliantly. I was just bowled over.

For more information about Psychopaths Anonymous, see the Orenda Books website here - as well as the entries on the tour poster below! You can buy Psychopaths Anonymous from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

6 November 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson

Against a background of stars, a blockily rendered, blue wolf howls with head and snout raised.
Far From the Light of Heaven
Tade Thompson
Orbit, 28 October 2021
Available as: PB, 350pp; e; audio
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356514321

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Far From the Light of Heaven to consider for review, and to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the blogtour (in fact, to close it off).

I'm having to be very careful writing this review, perhaps more careful that I would normally be since I am not just worried about upsetting people with spoilers but also about not creating a misleading impression for the book. I suspect that's a concern that Thompson himself shares because in the Afterword he explains that he doesn't consider it a space opera (albeit it takes place, mostly, in remote space aboard spaceships). I'd concur with that. 

I'd also add that neither is it really a "locked room" detective story. One might jump to that conclusion, as a crime is committed, on an isolated ship, with a limited roster of suspects and a detective - of sorts - is dispatched to resolve it. However, Thompson robustly - almost gleefully - refuses to go through with the dance moves you'd expect for a locked room mystery. Yes, Fin is an isolated, washed-up investigator who has been suspended form duty, lives in a domestic tip and now has One Last Chance at redemption. Yes, he does insist on procedure, against the protestations of Shell, Captain of the ship Ragtime. Yes, there are inferences and red herrings. But - slight spoiler perhaps - Fin doesn't reason his way to the heart of a fiendishly complex mystery and announce it in a dramatic conclusion. 

Rather, as we move into the endgame of the story, we're given an account of what actually happened. By this time it's fairly clear that the immediate heart of the matter is more about survival in space and the dangers therein - albeit the motivation behind the crime creates a potent threat to that survival. But also that Thompson is using Fin more as a chorus or commentary to cast light on the deeper story (behind the survival theme) than him being the focus of the story itself. 

I have, rather ploddingly, spelled this out because I have seen online reviews of the book which I think came away slightly disappointed, or perhaps perplexed, because they were trying to fit this book into a different template. I could make the point more bluntly by citing one very well known classic SF novel which nobody would ever try to approach in that way, but doing so would probably cross the line into being spoilery so there I will leave it. 

Having got all that out of the way, what do we have in this book? I found three elements of the story particularly notable. 

First, as a survival story, Far From the Light of Heaven is absolutely top class. Shell, the human captain woken from ten years of sleep when something goes wrong aboard Ragtime, is an excellently drawn character. She's strong and prepared but trying oh so hard to keep her doubts and fears in check, alternately helped and hindered by the necessary routines of life in space - necessary to remaining alive, that is. It's her first mission. She trained for years in the knowledge that she would only be aboard the ship as a backup, in case something came up which the AI systems can't handle. Her family background and motivations - including a missing space hero father - are described, and we then see her forced to step up, having to make myriad crucial decisions not only to discover what has gone wrong but to try and preserve several hundred lives aboard the ship. The technical stuff here is first rate - kind of like The Martian but with higher stakes and greater danger - as is the humanity of our Captain, notable in a story which also involves significant portrayals of AI. I also enjoyed Shell's relationship with Fin: both professional and rivalrous, as they have slightly different interests, backgrounds and goals.

A second strand was the background of the voyage, one of merciless plutocrats directing space exploration from afar (we briefly meet the richest man in the Galaxy). It is an interesting thought experiment how these Earth-grown tyrants relate to their distant empires, and how the inhabitants of the planets, colonies and stations feel about that. At one point in this story there's something like a popular show of protest against the behaviour of the trillionaires - something that Thompson leaves to us to decide whether or not it will come to anything, or indeed, is justified in the particular circumstances.

The third element that grabbed me in this story was the one I'd ideally have liked more of - the background and personalities on the space station Lagos, which Ragtime visits some time before the fatal events. Lagos's identity, and its crew/ inhabitants, explicitly recognises that the spreading presence of humanity in distant space is not just about White Americans, but that other cultures have also travelled to the stars. That sets up some promising potential conflicts, and Thompson introduces us to a range of characters, a couple of whom do travel to the Ragtime and intervene (kind of) in the central plot. However I felt that we could have heard far more about Lagos, and I got a definite sense that Thompson could have done that, albeit it would have been a longer book. In the event I wondered if Far from the Light of Heaven might best be seen as establishing a setting within which further adventures can take place? I would welcome that, although I think there's always a risk when work is being done here establishing that setting, work will only really pay off properly if more books do follow.

Which is, kind of, why I'd refer back to what I said earlier - approach this book with the right mindset. I think it is a fascinating introduction to a remarkable universe, and I'd like to read more about that. More, over and above my own selfish motivations here I think this kind of risk-taking deserves to be applauded, both by the author and by the publisher, and it deserves to succeed.

For more information about Far From the Light of Heaven, see the Orbit website - as well, of course, as the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below.

You can buy Far From the Light of Heaven from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop dot org UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blog tour poster for Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson.

5 November 2021

#Blogtour #Review - The Commandments by Óskar Guðmundsson

Against a grey background, a cross. The vertical is formed by a nail, point downwards. The horizontal by a sneak of red lipstick.

The Commandments
Óskar Guðmundsson (trans. by Quentin Bates)
Corylus Books, 29 October 2021
Available as: e-book
Source: Advance copy
ASIN: B09H1GJ323

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Commandments to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Corylus continues to bring excellent European fiction to readers of English, with The Commandments being the first of Óskar Guðmundsson's novels to be published in English. A standalone featuring former detective Salka Steinsdóttir, home in Iceland from the UK amidst a messy divorce, I can see this kicking off a series if Guðmundsson wants to do that - I would love to find out more about Steinsdóttir, a rather effectively rendered and sympathetic central character, and her background. That said, be prepared for some darkness. The present-day events of The Commandments - a series of gruesome torture-murders - are grim enough, but the history in which they're rooted point to disturbing events in the recent past and, perhaps even worse, to ongoing collusion and collective silence about those events.

The opening of the novel reflects both those strands. After a disturbing intro, set in 1995, we're introduced to Steinsdóttir on a fishing trip, staying near (but not with!) her parents. Guðmundsson makes clear that there is some private trauma or conflict going on - Steinsdóttir's father is ill, but there seems to be more to it than that. Soon, she is approached by the local police, who are short-handed, to help out with the investigation of a cold-blooded and sadistic crime and of course - and fortunately for us! - she eventually agrees. To a degree this all seems very informal - Steinsdóttir has been working with the Met Police in London and apparently has a formidable reputation, and she was in the Icelandic police before, but still, there is an impressive lack of bureaucracy to this appointment (and perhaps, consequent sulking from some of the new colleagues). 

Never mind. The story takes off from here, deftly blending a number of themes. 

There's Steinsdóttir's personal life - she rapidly discovers she rather fancies one of the other cops, although there's still some family background that isn't quite clear, and she seems rather reluctant to sign the divorce papers that a miffed soon to be ex-husband is pressing on her. 

There's the team she's joined, involving both a resentful colleague who clearly wants the interloper gone, a young and keen (but rather inept) officer and the various specialists who fly in and out and who, endearingly,  Steinsdóttir keeps forgetting the names of (I can relate). Overall, we get a vibrant and convincing portrayal of shifting team dynamics without any of the cliches of detective fiction - no unreasonable boss banging the door of his office, no washed-up wrecks of detectives who've given their all to the job and ruined their lives. 

And, of course, there's the mystery itself - the horrific series of murders taking place (will it be possible to stop them, or will the police always be playing catch-up?) and, lurking somewhere behind, the historic crime - it's clear there has been one. Guðmundsson is very good at drawing out the connections between present and past. The damage that can be caused by things that happen to people at a vulnerable age leading to trauma and loss in later life. The more specific ways in which the past can shape the present. The unseen victims. In the frame for much of this is the Church, which it would be fair to say takes a bit of a kicking here. I know very little about the Church in Iceland but (I should declare my interest here as the husband of a Church of England priest) we all know the various historic scandals which have been exposed over the years around the world and so the web of cover-up, looking the other way and plain denial is all too credible.

All in all, The Commandments is a tautly-written (and crisply translated) crime novel with engaging characters and a fair bit of action that unflinchingly takes on a historical scandal. If at times it is a bit condemnatory, well, it's hard to complain about that. 

Whether as a standalone or potentially the start of a series, this left me wanting more from Guðmundsson.

About the Author

One of the rising stars of Icelandic crime fiction, Óskar Guðmundsson has been writing since he was a youngster, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that his novel Hilma was published – and was an immediate success, winning the Drop of Blood award for the best Icelandic crime novel of 2015. This was followed by a sequel, Blood Angels, in 2018.

The first of his books to be published in an English translation, The Commandments is a standalone novel which appeared in Iceland in 2019. All of Óskar’s books have been bestsellers and rewarded with outstanding reviews. The TV rights to Hilma have been acquired by Sagafilm.

His latest book is The Dancer, which has been published simultaneously as an ebook, audiobook and paperback – accompanied by an original song in which Óskar’s words have been put to music featuring some of Iceland’s leading musicians.

Óskar’s talents don’t end there, as he’s also an artist and has held a number of exhibitions of his work.

"Óskar Guðmundsson is the kick-ass breath of fresh air that Icelandic crime fiction has been waiting for" - Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

About the Translator

Quentin Bates has roots in Iceland that go very deep. In addition to writing fiction of his own, he has translated into English books by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Sólveig Pálsdóttir, Guðlaugur Arason, Einar Kárason, Ragnar Jónasson and others. He is one of the original founders of IcelandNoir crime fiction festival in Reykjavik. 

For more information about The Commandments, see the publisher's website here - and also the stops on the blogtour, listed in the poster below.

 The Commandments is available as an e-book here.

Blog tour poster for book The Commandments by Óskar Guðmundsson (translated by Quentin Bates)