10 December 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Fall by West Camel

West Camel
Orenda Books, 9 December 2021
Available as: PB/ independent bookseller HB edition, 323pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781913193928

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance copy of Fall and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour.

Fall is set mainly on the fictitious Deptford Strand Estate in London. Designed by idealistic architect Zoë Goldsworthy in the 60s to permit - or require - a 'new way of living', by 2021 it's fallen on hard times and is being reworked, the Marlowe Tower in particular into premium, exclusive apartments.

The redevelopment has split the Goldsworthy family. Zoë's twin sons twins Clive and Aaron are intimately connected with the project, Clive as head of the development company, Aaron, a resident (the only resident) of Marlowe Tower, bitterly opposed to it and - when the book opens - holding up the project. Whether this is out of respect for his mother, spite at Clive or simply because he doesn't want to move out isn't clear.

The antipathy between the two men goes back more than forty years, to the scorching summer of 1976, when the estate sizzled and anger rose among the (white) residents because of the arrival of two young Black women, also twins. Not that anybody on the Deptford Strand is 'racialist', oh no - they just don't like outsiders...

In the quartet of Annette, Christine, Aaron and Clive, West creates a complex, simmering group among whom stresses arising from racial discrimination, coming-of-age, and the intricacies of twindom arc like lightning at the end of an overheated day. The double timeline particularly brings this out as Camel is able to examine the attitudes of the 70s from the point of view of the present day, casting additional light both where behaviour was unthinking (the language of the police, the prejudices of the estate residents) or where it was analysed and judged at the time.

Race isn't the only prejudice visible here. Once the estate was complete, Zoë moved her two boys from leafy Blackheath into a flat in the 24th floor of Marlowe Tower (where, four decades on, Aaron still lives). Outwardly an egalitarian gesture - Zoë argues that she should be willing to live anywhere that she designed - there does also seem an element of patronage and even control as, over subsequent years, she seems to see in herself the leading figure on the estate. And despite living alongside the working class residents, Zoë still sends her boys to distant schools rather than the one she designed, and mixes mainly with her own middle-class friends (who make visits akin to anthropological field trips).

One senses that the dislocation of that move, at the age of ten, still rankles with the boys, despite their outward devotion to their mother. As the events of the story unfold, they have just reached eighteen and are beginning to separate from one another, a painful process (though one Camel depicts very subtly) made more painful by some shocking discoveries and twists in this story. In some ways the wounds of that summer will never heal, with Aaron and Clive still estranged even before the redevelopment is proposed - and their relationship with Annette and Christine is part of that breach. Delicately exploring issues of intention, (mis) communication and the search for redemption, this is a fascinating study. There are some dark themes and incidents but none of them are gratuitous and West uses the eccentricity of Zoë's architectural practice to lighten the mood when needed. Apparently seeing the place as much a playground for her kids as a place for people to live, she designed it with a full complement of hidden doors and secret corridors, allowing access (for those who know) via shortcuts to most of the estate. A fun idea - but again one that seems to declare a sense of ownership, a right to dictate who goes where and how. 

Fall is, like West Camel's Attend (shortlisted for several major awards) something of a study in secrets, the private routes and spaces of the estate echoing concealed corners and bits of private history in the lives of the four protagonists. As the estate is torn down and reshaped, the hidden will inevitably be brought to light - as, it seems, will the true events of 1976. Will that be a traumatic revealing, with dust and rubble everywhere? Or will letting sunlight into those unlit places clean and heal?

Never less than grabbily readable, Fall is an exploration of the recent past and our relationship with it. It's a book I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about Fall, see the Orenda Books website here as well as the other reviews and stops on the blogtour listed on the poster below.

You can buy Fall from your local bookshop (a gorgeous independent bookseller edition is available!) or online from Bookshop dot org, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon.


9 December 2021

#BlogTour #Review - The Wildest Hunt by

The Wildest Hunt
Jo Zebedee
Inspired Quill, December 2021
Available as: PB, 272pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9781913117115

I'm grateful to Inspired Quill and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for an advance e-copy of The Wildest Hunt and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Amelia, a struggling young artist, thinks she's struck lucky when a mysterious, wealthy client offers her £15,000 just for one painting. Enough money to sort Amelia and her boyfriend Joe's debts, maybe even replace their wreck of a car.

The only catch is - Jean wants the painting of remote Glenveagh Castle in Donegal to be done over Christmas. Tempted by the prospect of spending the alone time at Jean's remote cottage, and imagining a romantic, cosy time together, Amelia and Joe instead find themselves isolated in the worst winter anyone can remember with no power - and something has noticed them...

There's a time-honoured link between Christmas and the supernatural (as I write this, I'm preparing for a trip to see A Christmas Carol tomorrow) and it's one Zebedee draws on in The Wildest Hunt, blending the season of cold and darkness with powerful, mythic themes: not only the ancient entities that haunt the Glenveagh estate, but also a lost child, the propitiatory sacrifice of an innocent, and a greed for power and control. All of these play out in both of the couples about whom the story revolves - Amelia and Joe, and Jean and her husband Robert.

Amelia isn't exactly a stranger to the uncanny - she's had disturbing experiences before, and at the start of the book, we see another one. It's not something she actually wants to explore. However, she may not get to choose - the powers rising here are cunning and Amelia's weakness may be Joe, something of a reformed bad boy with whom she's very happy but who may be just a bit too enchanted by the atavistic threats awaiting here. The tension thrums as the story unfolds, Amelia perturbed by the reactions of her partner and unsure how far she can trust him.

There's a similar tension in the relationship between Jean and Robert, although for them, things have already been soured by Jean's suspicions about events forty years ago at Glenveagh. Zebedee's portrayal of the marriage here is stark - two people who seem to at best dislike, at worst hate each other, but who remain tied together as much by bitterness and suspicion as by circumstance. The darkness of Glenveagh will be eager to exploit this rift, posting the question, what does Robert really want?

I loved the way that Zebedee uses the relationships between these four people to sound the depths of the ancient darkness that confronts them. They face a struggle at two levels - understanding the supernatural forces that threaten, and keeping a hold on their humanity, their love, to resist those forces. With almost no other characters featuring for more than couple of pages, it's an intense, emotional read, the coldness without only endurable because of odd moments of inner warmth, alongside the short respites from that coldest of winters which Zebedee allows her characters.

A truly chilling read in every sense!) strongly recommended for the fireside on an iron-hard night, a book with both complex and intriguing characters and real sense of place - as well as an absorbing and knotty plot. But if you stay up late to finish it, don't blame me if you think you hear hoofbeats snd something snuffling outside... 

For more information about The Wildest Hunt and Jo Zebedee, see Jo's website here, the publisher's website here and the stops on the tour, listed on the poster below.

You can buy The Wildest Hunt from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books, Blackwell's,  Waterstones or Amazon.

8 December 2021

#Review - The Untold Story by Genevieve Cogman

The Untold Story (Invisible Library, 8)
Genevieve Cogman
Pan Macmillan, 9 December 2021
Available as: PB, 400pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9781529000634

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

So, after eight volumes, The Invisible Library sequence reaches an end. Or a pause. While I would gladly read a new instalment in this series every year until the last syllable of recorded time (I think I may have fallen just a teeny bit for Irene, Librarian, Thief, Spy, and Assassin) an author will understandably want to explore new characters and themes. All good things come to an end.

In the case of The Untold Story, though, they come to a good end. The books have always been balanced between Irene's derring-do retrieving (stealing) books for the Library - which, in traditional style, we see more of as this instalment  opens - and wider Libraryverse politics, which dominated more as the series grew longer. Cogman cheekily makes this shift the hinge of The Untold Story: haven't you noticed, various characters mutter darkly, that the Librarians have been more and more involved with treaties and talks, and doing less actual book stealing? Why might that be?

This sets the scene for what was always bound to happen - an adventure that doesn't deal with an external situation but instead delves into the ancient secrets of the Library itself, its origin and purpose and what the guiding hand is that keeps it on course. In a moment of crisis, there is dissent among the Librarians. Irene's mentor, Copelia, is dangerously ill and others - whom Irene likes much less - are giving the orders. Who is she to trust? In a real sense we see Irene growing up here, forced to make her own decisions not just about how to fulfil a duty assigned to her but about her values and her loyalty and how far she is prepared to go for them.

The book focuses, more than any adventure to date, on Irene's own past and her connections to Alberich, the greatest traitor in the history of the Library. Its tone is, I think, subtly different to the previous stories - less of a heist, less of a trail of chaos through the worlds (though, be assured, there is plenty of action) and more introspective, more tricksy, perhaps. The landscape is shifting, ancient truths coming under question, and the Library's justification for its existence is somewhat wanting.

Against this background, of course Cogman gives us lashings of what we've come to expect: here is Vale, the Great Detective, ingenious, methodical and deeply moral; here is Kai, dragon prince and Irene's lover, impulsive, and struggling as ever with the tension between personal life and family duty; and here is Catherine, Lord Silver's Fae niece, with her own mysteries (actually perhaps I thought she might have done a little bit more here, but she's still very young). And of course Silver, that archetypal seducer and all round cad, plays his part too, to my great satisfaction.

All in all, this book rounds off the series so far with great flair and it will delight everyone who has been following the series. If you haven't, this isn't the place to start, you need to go back to The Invisible Library and read them in order, but doing that will be a treat, not a chose. Maybe*, like me; you'll read the first book on the Eurostar to Brussels and get glitter all over your business suit and not care? Or maybe you'll read it at home after your family have decided your cryptic hints about what present you want? 

Either way, the important thing is to read it, and to read the other six books, and then to read The Untold Story.

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

*Possibly not, as trips to Brussels are probably less likely now because of Your Know what and also the other You Know What? And for all I know the publishers have managed to make the covers less glitter shed-y? I hope not though.

7 December 2021

#Blogtour #Review - A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

A Marvellous Light
Freya Marske
Tor/ Pan Macmillan, 9 December 2021
Available as: HB, 384pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529080889

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of A Marvellous Light to consider for review and to Black Crow PR for inviting me to take part in the tour.

A rather magnificent queer romance with magic, A Marvellous Light takes us into an alternate Edwardian age where aristocrats weave spells at house parties, suffragettes chafe against the constraints of society, and dark forces seek powerful artefacts...

Sir Robin Blyth has recently inherited his father's baronetcy on the death of his parents. He's actually inherited little else, the family fortunes having been squandered in social climbing, and to make ends meet, he has taken a job in the Civil Service.

Unfortunately, this turns out far from the sinecure Robin might have hoped for. The Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints is, it seems, the British Empire's own liaison with the world of magic and Robin's been placed there to replace the luckless Reggie Gatling, missing in suspicious circumstances. Before he knows what's hit him, he's under attack from faceless men - and strangely attracted by Edwin Courcey, his counterpart in the hidden world.

Courcey is a prickly, cold and reticent man, one who's been taught to bury his feelings deep, but something in him sparks at Edwin. 

These two awkward and shy men soon find that to survive they need to depend on each other. Edwin is all the help Robin will get with the magical forces now pursuing him, and Robin holds the only clues Edwin will get about what happened to his friend Reggie. So the two bicker along, introducing each other to their respective worlds as they race against time to understand a creeping curse.

I loved Edwin and Robin. Their reticence and defensiveness at first make this seem like Pride and Prejudice squared, but Marske soon shows how much of it proceeds from their being gay in a world that would persecute them for what they are. Yes, defensive instincts are all to the fore but it's because any moment of weakness - any confession of what they really feel - could be catastrophic. What follows is a measured and careful dance, interrupted by volcanic bursts of emotion - not just romantic passion, but fear, jealousy, despair. Edwin's awful family doesn't help: almost all better magicians than him, they're inclined to treat him with bored tolerance at best, scornful bullying more often.

You may, of course, guess how things will end up - I hope it's not too spoilery to say that there are, eventually, some very steamy scenes indeed. But that doesn't mean everything's done and settled. These are complicated men, thrown into an imbroglio of secrets, betrayal and lust for power. Much, much more is at stake than their personal happiness. If they make mistakes as they negotiate that tension, they risk death, ruin or, perhaps worst of all, being made to forget what they have found in one another. the stakes are certainly high.

Secrets are laid bare on many levels in A Marvellous Light. Most obviously, there's the process of "unbushelling", the revelation to a non-magical person of the hidden powers and abilities that exist in the world (the name coming form the Biblical reference to hiding one's light - the marvellous light of the title, perhaps - under a bushel, a container for grain). There's Robin and Edwin's sexuality, hidden from society and, at least initially, from each other. There's the revelation to each of them what the other is, or might be. And, more prosaically, there's the exposure of a fiendish plot that could endanger all magicians. And this is only the first in a series of books - who knows what secrets await?

This mannered and passionate book comes as something of a breath of fresh air in fantasy and introduces a pair of fascinating and deep characters who will I hope appear again soon in what is sure to be a successful and fun series.

For more information about A Marvellous Light, see the publisher's website here or the stops on the blogtour listed on the poster!

2 December 2021

#Review - Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Cover design
by Lisa Marie Pomilio
Jade Legacy (The Green Bone Saga, 3)
Fonda Lee
Orbit, 2 December 2021
Available as; PB, 716pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9780356510590

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Jade Legacy to consider for review.

I seem to be reading a lot of books this Autumn that end, or at least pause, series. I'm not sure which Jade Legacy does - it certainly rounds off The Green Bone Saga in a satisfying way (that is with conflict, reconciliation, drama, heartbreak and loss) but in doing that it brings onto the stage a whole new generation of the Kaul family. And it's a book that covers such a long period - twenty years or so - in which so much happens that it's conspicouosly more than "just" a conclusion to the series. This book left me asking so many questions about what might come next!

Taking the three books together - the others are Jade City and Jade War - I'm impressed by the sheer scale of Fonda Lee's storytelling. Through all those books, her fantasy world has just hummed with life. Their focus is on the island of Kekon, a place inspired by South East Asian cultures and set in a wider world with enough echoes overall of our own to seem achingly familiar. That familiarity means that the key fantasy idea - of "bioenergetic" jade which imbues its wearers with almost superhero level powers, if they can learn to control them - just seems, well, everyday, and the politics and culture and codes and jealousies that arise from this idea appear as natural consequences of it.

What particularly comes across in Jade Legacy though is that this world isn't static, it's not just a background for the protagonists, it is evolving, technologically, politically and culturally. 

In technology, we start to see changes as camcorders and videogames appear; as Green Bones who get in a spot of bother on nighttime Janloon streets no longer need a phone box to report back to base, but can use a cellphone; as computers and then flat screen TVs are mentioned. 

In politics, the dominant power in this world, the Republic of Espenia, has been in a state of "Slow War" with a rival nation but is now stepping back form that (while leaving a good few small but hot wars to be fought by private contractors).

And in culture, the Kekonese-Espenian community is finally winning a degree of acceptance for its traditions, such as the use of jade for healing. One of the things these books, and especially Jade Legacy, do so well is to explore the cultural challenges faced by this minority community - placed as they are between the cultural milieu of Kekon with its Green Bones clans such as the Kauls' No Peak, and that of the self-proclaimedly "modern" Espenia which still has its criminal gangs or "Crews", many of them rather highly connected, and its religious fanatics devoted to Truthtelling. The rich layering of detail allows many aspects of this to be explored, from the family whose daughter, ensconced in a powerful Government job, chillily disrespects the Kauls' envoy, to the Kekonese-Espenian gang boss who earns opprobrium from his own community and from the Espenians.

Technology, politics, and culture. But there is much more here. The heart of Jade Legacy is, I think family, and love. New characters come onto the scene - such as Niko, son of murdered clan leader Lan, adopted son of the current leader Hilo, Lan's brother - and old ones mature and develop - it was wonderful to see Shae again and to find some of her wounds healing, even as she suffered new ones. But they all have to face the same choices, none more so perhaps than Hilo. Hilo and his wife Wen saw their relationship severely tested in Jade War, and much of this book circles around whether they can rebuild it: the emotional hurt and physical wounds went very deep. 

There is so much here about finding the right way forward - whether by embracing tradition with a twist (as does Jaya with her force of Little Knives) or by challenging or doubting it (as Shae had done before the Saga even began, as Anden did in Jade City and Jade War, and as others do here). So many themes and currents. What about those (like the indigenous inhabitants of Kekon) who cannot wield jade? Clan members so born are referred to as 'stone-eyes' and considered unlucky, but will they continue to accept that status? Others chafe at the arrogance and dominance of Clan resting on the laurels of their role in freeing Kekon during the Many Nations War. New ways of thinking, new ways of living (Anden finally finds love with another man), new demands for inclusion and recognition.

And all through the story, like a chorus, unlucky Bero, who we saw in both the previous books, a clanless man trying to carve himself a niche from the outside. Through chance or effort, he's caused grave hurt to No Peak but done himself little good in the process. Yet here he is, still trying and in so doing, casting a light on the assumptions which uphold Clan power (as well as giving an in to lots of new mischief!)

What else can I say about Jade Legacy? There is just so much to praise, I could go on and on. Loved characters with real human dilemmas, fears, weaknesses and, many of them, willingness to do terrible things. Nobody here here is exactly a hero. It would be easy to see many of them as a pack of cutthroats, even others in Kekon point that out. This world can be - generally is - patriarchal, hierarchical and kind of corrupt. At the same time, the struggles we see here have their own moral context and more, a deeply human appeal - Hilo and Wen seeking to repair their marriage, Shae trying to reconcile her role in the clan with a love that may do the family harm, Niko's need for his own identity, Ru's need to find a new way to be a member of his family.

None of it is easily achieved. There are so many frictions between these characters, and others, often accentuated for the reader because Fonda Lee's writing makes it impossible to dismiss anyone's perspective or to hope for a simple, single correct answer. And all this is being worked out as No Peak struggles for its existence against the larger, even more ruthless Mountain clan so that actions are constrained, resources limited and options often poor. 

In all, this is a glorious read, a zinging, exciting, absorbing book stuffed with drama and sadness, love, fear and tragedy. It wrung my heart again and again, but also had me punching the air, laughing and crying for joy. Whether it is the end for the Kauls and their enemies, or a pause, it is a terrific end, or pause, cementing this series as a magnificent achievement in 21st century fantasy.

For more information about Jade Legacy, see the publisher's website here.