21 December 2022

#Review - Standing by the Wall by Mick Herron

Standing by the Wall (A Slough House Interlude)
Mick Herron
Baskerville, 3 November 2022 
Available as: PB, 56pp, audio, e  
Source: Bought
ISBN(PB): 9781399807081

This is perfect Mick Herron, perfect Slough House. On a dank Christmas Eve, as the office workers spill onto rainslicked pavements for some jollity and the failures of Slough House consider leaving early, Jackson Lamb has a little job for Roddy Ho ('Ho? Ho! HO!' - yes, I know, but the idea of Lamb as Santa, is, well, not exactly funny, but...)

That job, plus the angst and lethargy that seep out of the Slough House wall and carpets, give a hint, perhaps of the next main book (The Secret Hours), due in September 2023. They certainly focus on Lamb's - and Molly Doran's - lives, so maybe we'll hear more of those. But they also drop one or two surprises and feature a status report, as it were, on the interpersonal relationships of the Slough House inmates.

Best of all, we get Roddy monologuing at length. I always enjoy his internal narrative, deluded and self-centred as it is, which seems like tidings form a parallel world. I don't think I've come across any character in recent fiction who is so un-selfaware and whose intentions seem so unpleasant yet who one has to accept is at a fundamental level almost completely naive and innocent. Ho is of course only a microcosm of the entire Slough house experience - a pit of darkness and despair which is it seems, at the same time, the nations's last, best defence against the deeper darkness beyond.

A lovely antidote to Christmasness.

For more information about Standing by the Wall, see the publisher's website here.

19 December 2022

#Review - A Restless Truth by Freya Marske

Cover for book A Restless Truth by Freya Marske. Green background. In the centre, silhouetted in orange, two women in Edwardian style outfits - longs skirts, puffed sleeves, high-piled hair. They are leaning slightly towards each other, as if in private conversation. Behind them, loops and swirls and flowers, reminding me of wallpaper and above their head, an empty bird cage.
A Restless Truth
Freya Marske
Pan Macmillan, 10 November 2022
Available as: HB, 400pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529080933

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of A Restless Truth via NetGalley to consider for review.

Following on from A Marvellous Light and taking place in the same Edwardian magical timeline - one threatened by the dark truth of how that magic originated - A Restless Truth focuses on two young women, Maud Blyth and Violet Debenham, who have taken passage on an ocean liner from New York to England. 

I love the idea of a Golden Age liner-set mystery. The little enclosed world. Strangers pushed together and having to get on (or not). A liminal space, neither one place nor the other. The different classes, demarcated but still cheek-by-jowl. People feeling free to be... a little free. The setup simply breathes intrigue, and A Restless Truth takes full advantage, it could indeed be a magical version of, say, Anything Goes! with the same Wodehousian complexity as the mess the two women are involved in becomes ever deeper and harder to untangle.

Where A Restless Truth departs from that model, of course, is in its frankly sensual aspect. I almost wrote 'subplot' but that's not right - this part of the story is not something that happen to Maud and Violet's it's about who they are (even if one of them enters the story innocent of that and is subject to an awakening). It is also as key to their motivations as are their magical interests and family backgrounds. They are attracted from the start and it's more a matter of when, not if, they will consumate that. Readers of A Marvellous Light will not be surprised by what follows. As in the previous book, Marske writes scenes between her lovers that are passionate, explicit and life-affirming. But to borrow that phrase again - Anything goes!

Readers of A Marvellous Light will also be pleased - as I was - to meet Lord Hawthorn again. We were introduced to Hawthorn in the earlier book where he wasn't particularly helpful to our heroes. Here, he's more obliging, either because Maud and Violet are more persuasive, or perhaps because on a liner he just can't escape them for long. Either way, Hawthorn is captivating. We do learn a little about him yet there is still a mystery that isn't resolved here - I want to know more! (Based on what we are told, I feel I ought to call him "Bad Lord Hawthorn" because he's the type that innocent young girls seek out when they have decided - like Violet - that it's time they were ruined. (He's happy to oblige)). Whether there is a redeeming streak to him (but do we want that?) or whether he just wants a quiet life, unpestered by interfering minxes, remains to be seen. 

What else? A pack of villains, obviously, some cooly dangerous and others bumbling. Murder. Jewel thieves. A radical vendor of smutty stories. A lot of social class barriers that Marske spends the novel disassembling, examining, reconstructing and generally subverting. Maud and Violet are shining examples of this disobliging attitude to convention (whatever is becoming of the young these days?) but there's more to them than that. In this short, hectic passage aboard ship, surrounded by peril and exploring aspects of themselves that Maud had never even dreamed of (well, maybe she'd dreamed...) there is still time and space for a most complicated relationship to build up between the two, one driven by social position, their previous histories, their fears and longings (really, really not simple!), not a little prejudice, and of course, Secrets.

It's all, frankly, captivating. I adored A Restless Truth, perhaps even more than its predecessor, if that's possible. Simple joy from the first page to the last with great characters, a ludicrous but involving plot and a great deal of action (of several types). 

Very strongly recommended, but more importantly, great fun.

For more information about A Restless Truth, see the publisher's website here.

16 December 2022

#Review - Undercover by Tamsin Muir

Undercover (Into Shadow Collection, 5)
Tamsyn Muir
Amazon Original Stories, 15 November 2022
Available as: e, audio
Source: purchased

I love genre mash-ups, even more those that are not simple mash=ups but which play with elements of style and with settings and archetypal characters to create something genuinely new. And I've loved Tamsin Muir's Locked tomb trilogy. 

So I wasn't surprised to be delighted by this long-short story, which sees a woman of mystery -Starr - taking a job as bodyguard to a gangster known as The Widower, all in a kind of weird-West setting where towns walk in a parched desert on monstrous mechanical legs and the undead have to be kept at bay.

It's with this last that Starr's expertise lies, and she pretty soon upbraids her employer for taking dangerous risks with Lucille, a burlesque dancer but also something much more dangerous. In a book where everybody is on their guard and clearly, more is going on that we are told, it's fascinating to watch the players make their moves and to speculate on how it will all work out. As a meet-up with a rival gang looms and we are made party to some of the secrets play it's frankly anybody guess how things will turn out.

This is a pacy and entertaining story with an absorbing atmosphere and strong characters. I'd recommend it, and would like to read more set in this work.

For more information about Undercover or to buy the book, see the Amazon product page here

14 December 2022

#Review - Skeleton Song by Seanan McGuire

over for book "Skeleton Song" by Seanan McGuire. A boy stands looking upwards, where a skeleton is dissolving around him, its bones dancing and whirling past him to pile up at his feet.
Skeleton Song (Wayward Children)
Seanan McGuire
Tor.com, 2 November 2022
Available as: e  
Source: Purchased
Skeleton Song fills a gap in McGuire's Wayward Children series, which studies - with great compassion - the lives of you g people who are out of place in "our" world, finding their fulfilment in various fantasy lands reached through magical portals - but who then are returned to this world, and left to work through that rejection. 

In many of the stories we have met Christopher, who found the love of his Skeleton Girl but - somehow - stumbled out of her world and madly, desperately, wishes to return. What test did he fail, what task did he find, that separated him for her?

Well, here we get some answers. We learn about the monstrous being that comes to Mariposa. We learn about Christopher's illness and his healing, and the origins of the bone flute. We learn about the price of love, and the grief that the price brings. It's a short and simple story but no less moving for all that, and it sets us up, I hope, to learn more of Christopher;'s and Skeleton Girl's story in some forthcoming book.

As ever, McGuire's prose is masterly, maintaining the story in a delicate banalise between high fairytale, dream and human - if that's the correct word when the humans include living skeletons - practicality and reason. Finishing these books always gives me that sense you get when you wake form a really good dream and you want to go back to sleep to recapture it - bit you know you can't. A distant echo perhaps of the grief and loss that McGuire sees in her young people on their return from the lands that have rejected them?

Strongly recommended if you're following these stories, if you are not then go and read Every Heart a Doorway first, you'll thank me, I promise!

For more information about Skeleton Song, see the publisher's website here.

12 December 2022

#Review - City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Cover for book "City of Last Chances" by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This image is so complex I'm not sure I can do it justice. It's Dione mainly in shades or red, black and beige, a palette that reminded me of 1920s and 30s Soviet propaganda posters. Lines of soldiers. Waving red flags. Soaring towers and columns. Reddish, intricate machinery.
City of Last Chances
Adrian Tchaikovsky
Head of Zeus, 8 December 2022
Available as: HB, 512pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781801108423

I'm grateful to Head of Zeus for sending me an e-copy of City of Last Chances via NetGalley to consider for review.

I think there is a theory that while science fiction is a literature focussed on change and development, fantasy is, rather, focussed on restoring what has been lost. "Space: the Final Frontier" vs "Return of the King", or something like that, with a good outcome seen either as transformative progress, or regression to The Golden Age.

In his new novel City of Last Chances, Adrian Tchaikovsky creates a whole world poised on the knife edge between these alternatives. He introduces us to Ilmar, also known as the City of Bad Decisions, a place with the reputation of being a last refuge for the unlucky, the stateless, the desperate. (I'm reminded of the nickname for Oxford, "City of Lost Causes"). There are rumours of a way out - a gateway out of misery - but the price of passage is high, leaving most of the malcontents, runaways and displaced populations stuck in Ilmar, their unique and disparate cultures decaying on that great compost heap of a town.

The Ilmari themselves have their own problems, though, now being ruled by the Palleseen, who, recently invaded, hanged the Old Duke, made Ilmar part of their Sway,  and set out imposing their ideas of perfection. (The Palleseen idea is a thing called 'The Perfecture', a glorious model society which all nations should want to be part of - those that won't sign up are clearly backwards, disruptive and sorely need to be brought to help).

The participants in this story are many and varied; among them are refugees who have settled in Ilmar (some after escaping from the Pels); factions among the Ilmari - most of whom are notionally part of a 'resistance', something Tchaikovsky shines a rather merciless spotlight on; and the Pels themselves. There are also hints of darker, older powers perhaps best alone. That gives a great many viewpoints including - to mention just a few - the last remaining believer in God; a man who's stepped out of another world where he was prepped for a merciless war, but who's lost his wife and is set only on finding here; an idealistic student radical; a foot soldier for the criminal gangs; a union organiser who's seen and suffered; and an cynical old academic who gives a nod to revolution in his classes while cutting deals with the Pels in the shadows.

That last is something of a theme here. The disparate rebel factions - students, aristocrats, thieves' syndicates and smugglers - have quite different views about how to free themselves from the Pels' yoke, and when a seemingly innocuous incident blows up into riot and uprising, nobody has a plan, or much of an idea how to proceed (apart from  raking off all they can in the chaos). That unfolding response, and countermoves by the occupiers, forms the texture of this story, together with desperate attempts, by a number of the characters, to track down the missing artefact that sparked everything off. That's important, because an avenger seems to be hunting down all those who may have secured the treasure. The decisions made here, by everyone, will determine who lives and who dies as the flame of revolution spreads...

City of Last Chances is a weighty and absorbing book, one I'd place far, far away from the run of fantasy or SF. Tchaikovsky clearly isn't buying into that simplistic binary that I mentioned at the start. The past of Ilmar isn't a desirable state to be brought back, but no future looks bright either. Better perhaps to remain on that knife edge, maintaining a complex relationship with the Pels. But that takes a lot of work and has a cost. Perhaps it's easier just to bring out the banners from the days gone by?

Nor will you find heroes or villains here. More or less everyone is - as in real life - out for themselves (I'd exclude from that idealistic student Lemya) or at least heavily conflicted. Take that union leader, for example, Father Orvechin. He's focussed on improvements in the conditions of his workers and, in the longer term, perhaps the overthrow of the Pels. But the factory owners who oppress his people are native aristos, not Pels, and the factories are kept turning by demons who are themselves enslaved, oppressed workers - workers that Orvechin is willing to see kept in their bonds, because they're not his people, though he knows that one day this will haunt him.

This whole sense of Ilmar as a nest of collaboration, compromise and negotiation with power, and that maybe that is just about the best things can be, is revisited and reworked throughout the book. The Pels themselves are split into different blocs who are willing to cuts deals when it suits them. The aristocrats ('Armigers') desire one future, the siblingries (unions and workers' guilds) another. At times they cooperate, at others they don't. The same goes for the other actors here. Picture a giant game of repeated Prisoners' Dilemma, played out in real time, with magic, lost deities and demons thrown in too, and you get some idea of the complexity and fascination of this book.

That may make the story sound academic or dry, but it's really not. It's passionate, urgent and angry. Tchaikovsky's central theme of compromise and collusion is shot through it, pulling against and reinforcing individual motivation is countless ways, different for every character.While there are so many of these that one can't really anoint any as the focus, they are all intricately, convincingly realised and the business they are about gloriously integrated with the setting and the wider history that is sketched. There was only one point at which a particular strand seemed to me to jar - when a mysterious assassin, otherwise not included in the story, played a part on behalf of unknown employers whom we never hear any more about. Apart from that very brief interlude though, this book was a marvellous symphony of clashing goals, missing information and immediate danger that had me hooked throughout. I would strongly recommend it.

For more information about City of Last Chances, see the publisher's website here.

7 December 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Dashboard Elvis is Dead by David F Ross

Cover for book "Dashboard Elvis is Dead" by David F Ross. Against a light background, a pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses lying diagonally across the page. Reflected in the right hand lens (as the wearer would see things) is a typical US rural gas station with neon sign. Both lenses are cracked. Reflected in the left lens is George Square in Glasgow, under a blue sky.
Dashboard Elvis is Dead
David F Ross
Orenda Books, 8 December 2022
Available as: PB, 300pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585401

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me a copy of Dashboard Elvis is Dead to consider for review and to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

In Dashboard Elvis is Dead, David F Ross hacks into the secret history of the early 1980s music industry, giving us an inside account of the rise and spectacular fall of The Hyptones, a band of young Glaswegian hopefuls for who everything goes wrong on a fateful tour of the US.

A tour which is a downfall for Ross too, because David F Ross appears in the book as the failed writer who documented the band's experiences and was badly burned by doing so. (So fact, fiction and identity are blurred form the start with real musicians, actors and artists appearing with and - one suspects, sometimes without - approval throughout the book).

Thirty years later, in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, Ross picks up with Jude Montgomery, a revered photo journalist, who's arrived in Glasgow. What they seem to have in common is a love for, and a fascination with, the Hyptones and their one hit, An Independent State of Mind, which has become an anthem for the Yes campaign.

It will take the rest of the story to explain how everyone's paths cross, and especially how Jude, who was running away from her Texas trailer park home when she came across The Hyptones the first time, fared in between. That story is an amazing saga of growth and suffering, of finding identity and seeking redemption, that frankly could have driven a whole sequence of novels. I loved Jude's honesty and her self-analysis. I loved Ross's evocation of the racially divided, tense Texan town from which Jude starts. I ,loved the portraits of 1980s San Francisco, of gentrifying New York later in the decade and in the 90s. Most of all I loved Jude. She is a well realised and sympathetic character who just has an awful habit of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Generally driven by good intentions, Jude makes mistakes, burns bridges as if she had shares in the ferry company, and generally leaves a trail of damaged and more or less resentful (or, in one case, dead) friends, mentors, exes and employers across the USA. Nevertheless, she perseveres, and through this story she's visibly growing, exploring her own identity and, in a somewhat twisted way, trying to make amends. (Ultimately it's down to her that An Independent State of Mind isn't wholly forgotten). 

I wouldn't say the same of Jamie, a tragic figure who is the other focus of Dashboard Elvis. Jamie is at the centre of The Hyptones, and he's the one who takes the fall when things go wrong. At his core he believes I think that he deserves that - the band has its own secret history - but really that isn't fair. Everyone deserves a chance, or a second chance, but ultimately Jamie's guilt robs him of that, leading him mon a destructive path that only reinforces the guilt. 

In describing the trajectory of the band, Ross brings the same sensibility to the lives and aspirations of young working class Scots in the 70s and 80s as he did in his Disco Days trilogy and in There's Only One Danny Garvey. Their voices ring true, lighting up the pages of the book in expressive Scots, albeit slightly indignant, as though being exhibited in a novel wasn't how they expected to spend the evening. (The exception is Jamie's girlfriend, the enigmatic AFB, 'Anna F*****g Belle' who in contrast uses standard English, a slight marker of class or privilege that prefigures her role in the later parts of the book).

There's an interesting contrast between the lives of Jude, who did manage to "get out" but, as her story makes clear, had to sacrifice a lot along the way, and the band members who as I've alluded to above, are basically on a downward slope throughout the book. Especially Jamie. Like Jude, Jamie makes many bad decisions and ends up with lots of regrets. But he's less in a position to try and put things right. The parallels and differences between Jamie and Jude are fascinating, posing a whole series of what if questions revolving around gender, racial identity and social setting. Both deserve a way out.  Jude gets one, Jamie doesn't, a fate he shares with most of his bandmates. 

This is eventually portrayed in a brilliant piece of non-writing. After sections dealing with the two fairly evenly, eventually Ross sort of has Jamie just... fade away, again contrasting with Jude whose climactic scenes are vivid and consequential. While Jamie's location and eventual fate are key plot points, we don't actually see them, and this building absence of a character is an eloquent way to express what he's become in the lives of those who knew him and those who don't. His absence is almost a more pointed depiction of him than his presence could be.

Oh I could go on praising this book but really, if you don't want to read it by now then what's the point of you? Just take my advice and read Dashboard Elvis is Dead. It's so many things. A very funny book. A sharp examination of young lives, of origins, identity and the complications of living, ageing and "growing up". A bit of a satire on dependence and independence. And a complex, engaging story set where music, crime, social aspiration, lust and politics overlap and mutate. 

Just pure brilliance.

For more information about Dashboard Elvis is Dead, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy Dashboard Elvis is Dead from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blogtour poster for book Dashboard Elvis is Dead by David F Ross, showing the blogs and other social media sites taking part in the tour.


5 December 2022

#Review - Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson

Cover for book "Cold Water" by Dave Hutchinson. A distorted image of a silhouetted female figure standing on a bridge, the floor of the bridge and the handrails warped as though by a mirror. In the distance, tall commercial buildings.
Cold Water
Dave Hutchinson
Solaris, 10 November 2022
Available as: PB 417pp, audio, e   
Source: Purchased
ISBN(PB):  9781786187222

Cold Water is a return to the world of Hutchinson's Fractured Europe, some time after the events of Europe in Autumn, Europe At Midnight, Europe at Dawn and Europe in Winter.  It doesn't assume any familiarity with those, although if you are you'll be rewarded by posting some referencing and of course you will have a head start in understanding the background. This is a world devastated by a viral plague; a world where the states of Europe have fragmented into statelets, free towns and pocket republics; and a world interpenetrated by alternate, pocket universes.

Against that background, we're given a twisty, tense and involving thriller mixing espionage, crime and derring-do. Carey Tews, a woman from the Republic of Taxes, has retired from the shadowy network Les Coureurs. She reckons she's getting too old for the work, and besides, her cover blown by what happened in Hungary (don't talk to her about Hungary!) But like Smiley of old, she's invited back to carry out One Last Job when her recruiter, mentor, and sometime lover, Maksim, gets himself killed in a little Polish town that's winding up to declare independence.

The story also follows Krista, a young Estonian police woman, whose investigation into a gangster's operations in Tallinn is rudely interrupted by scandal from the past, by way of Russian agents, a drunken journalist, and a crew of juvenile hackers and forgers who get you any credentials you might need. As always with Hutchinson's books the detail and plotting is meticulous, creating set-ups and pay-offs that are just so good, they could hang as works of art in any museum. There are mysteries here - so I am being vague about what actually happens - and they're fiendishly nested mysteries, so that while I spotted one or two points coming, the how and the why of their fit with the wider story absolutely took me by surprise.

There are some superb characters here too. Carey is just magnificent, a richly portrayed, complex woman who - whatever she believes - is at the top of her game. I love reading stories in which competent, experienced people meet difficult challenges head on: books where you have a sense that there is just so much happening - real danger combined with plausible, calculated courses of action... which don't always come off.

Depicting all that background doesn't make the story slow, not at all - there is plenty going on here from the start, which opens with a clandestine meet that wouldn't be out of place in the (old style, TV) Mission: Impossible, to the conclusion - a tense, high stakes confrontation at a deserted border post. The pace never lets up, with the parts dealing with Carey's history actually adding tension because - as we empathise more and more with her - we see just how impossible is the task she's undertaken (and why she didn't want it).

(In passing, I was particularly impressed by the way that is able to leverage the experience of covid to locate his story even more sharply in the imagined future (middle of the 21st century?) His "Xian 'flu" isn't covid, it is even more devastating - and it was mentioned in the earlier books. Still, the experience of lockdown, of helplessness as friends and loved ones succumb and the reality that things have changed, is deep in the DNA of this book making very real speculative fiction).

Vastly enjoyable, fun, and sharply observed. Read it.

For more information about Cold Water, see the publisher's website here.

1 December 2022

#Review - Hunting Time by Jeffery Deaver

Cover for book "Hunting Time" by Jeffrey Deaver. Against a red background, a pale blue butterfly, over which is the silhouette in black of a figure running - all in the cross hairs of a gun sight.
Hunting Time
Jeffery Deaver
HarperCollines, 24 November 2022 
Available as: HB, 432pp, e, audio  
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008503819

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Hunting Time via NetGalley to consider for review.

It's great to meet Colter Shaw again. The Restless Man sorted out his family problems - which involved murderous corporate goons trying to kill him - and is back here doing what he likes most, moving along, saving the innocent and claiming reward money (when he remembers to actually cash the cheques, that is). In Hunting Time  and so he's rolled into the industrial town of Ferrington in his mobile home. But this time he may be taking on more than he realises.

Ferrington is a shabby, rust-belt town - it can't even afford an adequate police department anymore - with a proud manufacturing past, plenty of decaying factories, and a poisoned river. A new startup promises to bring jobs with its small modular nuclear reactors, but its IP is being targeted by sinister forces and then the star engineer disappears. Can Colter Shaw help, please?

What follows is an entertainingly wild chase through the woods featuring gangsters, a vengeful ex, crooked cops and a particularly sinister pair of "triggermen" who have designs on more that Allison Parker and her teenage daughter Hannah's lives. As ever, Shaw's survival skills are indispensable, the more so as modern conveniences - guns, food, shelter - are stripped away. However Hunting Time is in many respects a more pared down story than previous Colter Shaw novels. Shaw is not, directly, trying to solve a complex mystery. (Though he does do that towards the end, and when he does you'll see things in a new light, but that's almost incidental). Rather he has simple goals - finding and rescuing the two women.

That made Hunting Time, for me, a very focussed story, a very pacy and entertaining story. There is though more to it - the delicate exploration of the Parker family and especially the mother-daughter relationship, Shaw's allowing himself to become romantically involved again, and the grim background of the anti-hero, Jon Merritt, are all done with a great deal of humanity and sympathy. That more than makes up for a couple of late, shock revelations which were perhaps just a shade unlikely.

The story is told form several different viewpoints - Shaw himself, the two triggermen, Allison, and Jon.  Each has part of the truth, but the pieces don't seem to fit together and what you understand will be affected by who you trust. With plenty of red herrings and some of the characters basically conflicted about what's happening, it's very hard to work out who to trust at all. 

All that, and hints that Shaw may be on the fringes of a wider, international plot trading in industrial secrets (perhaps something that Deaver will tell us more about in a future book) make this a must-read for the his fans.

For more information about Hunting Time, see the publisher's website here.

29 November 2022

#Review - Loki by Melvin Burgess

Cover for book "Loki" by Melvin Burgess. Red background, black figures. The name of the book is in angular, rune- like characters. Below, a mask.
Melvin Burgess
Coronet, 17 November 2022
Available as: HB, 262pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN: 9781399701525

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Loki to consider for review.

I am fascinated by mythology. The stories of ancient gods and heroes seem to have a staying power that has outlasted belief in them. Endlessly invented and reinvented, they clearly remain relevant today, immensely popular and indeed seem to be having a bit of a moment now, especially through feminist versions and as here, those which re-evaluate the villains of the pantheons. 

Villains are SO much more interesting than heroes, and Loki is a fascinating example, who's been under close scrutiny of late. Burgess's retelling takes that further, not just giving Loki's estimation of himself but also presenting the stories of Asgard, of Thor, Odin and Freya, from the trickster god's perspective. It's an interesting, not to say at times eye-popping experience. Like (I suspect) many people in the UK, my first encounters with the classic Greek and Norse myths were as a child, via retellings by Roger Lancelyn Green, versions designed to be OK for children and therefore missing out some of the more earthy aspects. In contrast Loki leaves little out, making full use of the mischievous god's full range. He (at times she) is one of the more entertaining and interesting mythical characters, allowing Burgess to fuse the separate Norse myths and legends and create a thematically satisfying narrative. That makes Loki a fluid and engaging read, rather than just a collection of episodes.

The setup here is that we - as modern humans - are being told this story by Loki from his deep prison. Like a celebrity giving an interview following a tabloid storm, he wants to put his side of things, to set the record straight. He's been traduced by the Asgard spin machine, his good deeds edited out, his crimes twisted and magnified. Loki acknowledges himself as a liar (indeed, the inventor of the lie) but promises that, this time, we're getting the truth. And a great deal of the story is uncomplimentary enough to him that we might accept this, although it's also, perhaps, a story spun and pitched to meet our modern sensibilities, showing Loki as the one who preached love, who always counselled peace, who urged (and performed) diversity and tolerance. We may therefore think we are being spun a tale, that he wants something from us. And indeed, as it eventually turns out, he does, though we're assured that is something that will benefit us, in the end. 

I'm not sure whether this is meant by Burgess to be a depiction of Loki as a being with a supreme ability to distort the truth, or as a genuinely wronged figure in the narrative that's presented. You will have to read the book and judge.

That reading was for me a fun and enthralling experience, the Norse myths being dismantled and reassembled with a very modern sensibility. Indeed some of the overtly "religiously" aspects are presented in what was for me, as a Christian, a very suggestive way - clearly, for all his confinement, Loki has a good knowledge of the modern work. Take for example Thor's passion, dying nailed to a tree before descending to the Underworld and arising again, bearing the scars of his experience. This was a very horrifying, but also moving, account, as much so for me as any Easter passion. Other elements touch on the modern understanding of gender fluidity, with one of the gods (I won't say who, because spoilers) challenging the rigid, patriarchal regime of Thor and Odin with their developing understanding of their own identity. 

Throughout, Loki takes pains to draw himself as the good guy, standing against the authoritarianism of Asgard and for freedom of conscience. He has been misunderstood, he seems to be saying, and the bad things attributed to him are often things that would have happened anyway, or else he was simply carrying out orders for the rest of the gods, and obviously regrets what happened - but what's done is done. 

That slipperiness makes Loki, for all the modern enjoyment of a morally grey character, hard, in the end, to actually like. We can empathise with him, yes, especially when some really awful things happen to him, but I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say he is morally conflicted - Loki is always guided at the time, when push comes to shove, by what's best for Loki, even if he expresses sadness after. Mistakes were made, he seems to be saying, but it wasn't, really, my choice.

Overall, this is an exciting and deeply readable retelling. Loki himself is a complex and shrewd narrator whose role is framed with just enough meta-ness to make what he tells us relevant today, rather than being lost in a vaguely medieval Never-Never land. (References to razor-wire defences in Asgard and the like crop up, not as anachronisms but deliberate placings to show us this a story of the now, not the long-ago). It's therefore thought-provoking, but the nature of the central character is such that it's hard to relax with him, so to speak. Perhaps that's the point?

For more information about Loki, see the publisher's website here. Or you could read Runalong Womble's excellent take here.

24 November 2022

#Review - The Hollows by Daniel Church

Cover for The Hollows by Daniel Church. White, as if seeing through a blizzard. On the left, a grim, grey outcrop. On the right, a sheer black cliff. Between, a bleak scene - a road winds among fallen snow, a sign warning of falling rocks.
The Hollows
Daniel Church
Angry Robot, 8 November 2022
Available as: PB, 460pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781915202383

I'm grateful to Angry Robot for sending me a copy of The Hollows to consider for review.

What. A. Book!

The Hollows takes us to the remote Peak District town of Barsall as midwinter appraoches. For non UK readers, the Peak District is a hilly part of England that is often cut off by snow in winter, a region of beautiful countryside, remote farms and isolated inns.

The author makes full use of that remoteness. As the darkest time of the year approaches, folk horror merges with cosmic horror to create a unique threat which Barsall's resident police constable, Ellie Cheetham, must take on with no backup or support. All communications cut off and with perplexing hints that the terror she confronts may spread wider than just her own town, Ellie is stretched to the limits. And the threat isn't all supernatural, there is one very formidable, very antisocial family in Barsall that regards the season as an opportunity to put itself first - and settle some scores.

I loved the Hollows. It scores highly in so many ways. There are hints of what is to come, and desperate attempt to understand the threat. There's a grimly determined woman at the heart of it all, absolutely set on doing her duty to uphold the peace and protect the vulnerable. There are desperate fights and heartbreaking loss (warning - and I make no apology for spoilers - dogs are involved). There is a satisfying historical mystery aspect that accounts for what's happening. Above all, there's a race against time as it becomes clear what is at stake.

But it's not just all those themes. The writing here is just so tactile and satisfying, blending the high fantastical - glimpses of monsters through the drive snow, cryptic runes, accounts of horror in ancient church records - with the mundane - the personal tragedy that brought Ellie to Barsall, the more or less trustworthy backgrounds of the townsfolk who she will have to depend on, her friendships with Milly, the local doctor and with the no-nonsense vicar who spends her afternoons in the pub drinking whisky and reading paranormal romance. Church is able to turn the story on a sixpence, taking us in a moment from the cosiness of an empty bar, the fire banking down, a single lamp lit, and a glass of whisky on the table to a jarring, utterly incomprehensible threat; or from banter between work colleagues to a threatening house full off potential killers - which nonetheless contains a vulnerable child. He's equally good at conveying the terror of being in a white-out blizzard to the weirdness of a cave system stocked with... no, I won't go there. Spoilers!

I loved how in this book we go from the mode of a normal police procedural - a body is discovered on the hillside, the doctor summoned, photographs taken - to the eruption of the uncanny, via a rising need for improvisation, a rising sense of threat, from a frenzied car chase on bad winter roads to a jealous confrontation, the human inextricably mixed with the monstrous. The book never rests, never gives a moment for the reader to gather their thoughts, before moving us on to another situation, another high-stakes gamble with enemies alternately very human and very alien.

A thoroughly good read, ideal for the cold, dark, nights.

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

22 November 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Suicide Thursday by Will Carver

Cover for book "Suicide Thursday" by Will Carver. Against a dark blue background, the title is spelled out in a variety of different typewriter and keyboard keys, in shades of beige, cream, white, black and blue.
Suicide Thursday
Will Carver
Orenda Books, 24 November 2022
Available as: PB, 276pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585388

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me a copy of Suicide Thursday to consider for review, and to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Oh this is a wickedly sharp little book. Take care how you handle it or you may end up bleeding.

In Suicide Thursday, Will Carver returns to a familiar theme of his recent books - the clue is in the title, so the reader should consider themselves fairly warned, it won't be for all. And in this book, I think the subject is handled in an even more personal and, well, creepy vein than he has yet, hard though that may be to believe if you've read Nothing Important Happened Today or The Daves Next Door.

In Suicide Thursday there's no sinister grand scheme for glory, no greater cause, to direct the action. The story is pared down, simple and stark. Three friends, Eli, Mike and Jackie.

Eli is a sort-of failed writer. He churns out first chapters, but is unable to take his books any further. Comfortably off, but not so much that can afford to leave his cubicle-bound job in marketing, he buys an abandoned bagel workshop in trendy North London and sets up his library of first chapters, available for purchase to those who can't get started. By day, he endures the tedium of office life. By night, he unloads his frustrations each night to a therapist. Who doesn't exist.

Jackie, Eli's girlfriend, is by turns haunted by Catholic guilt at her strong sex drive, which drives her to regular Confession, busy indulging that drive with Eli (mostly), and concerned for her friends Eli and Mike.

Mike is... well, Mike is unemployed and spends his life sanding and polishing the floor of his flat.

The book includes Mike's and Jackie's perspectives, and we also see some other points of view and some mysterious and unsettling text messages, but Eli is at the centre of things. 

I think it would be fair to say that Eli is trying to make his life more meaningful. His chapters reflect aspects of his own life (often, very funnily). Conversely he frets and fusses over whether his actual life is following narrative logic, and whether he ought to nudge it so it does. Ought he, for example, to break up with Jackie so that a reconciliation can come in Act 3? Eli hungrily eyes up women who could facilitate that, with little success.

Jackie sees things through a different, simpler narrative lens - one involving potential wedding bells and a relaxation of her crushing guilt.

And Mike... well, Mike sands his floor.

The three weave their dance, the story moving forward and back around that Suicide Thursday, Carver never inviting the reader to judge these characters, they do enough of that for themselves, but making three flawed people sympathetic, in different ways. I love that his books, while going to dark places, frequently - as here - do so with compassion and empathy. They may judge themselves and each other  but the author isn't doing so (yes, I know, the author is writing them judging, but that's not the same, I don't think) making the navigation of this story something of a moral journey for us and in places therefore, a sort of self-condemnation. That sense is heightened because while more or less standalone, readers of Carver's other recent book will recognise in Suicide Thursday hooks, overlaps and references to the wider Carververse, suggesting that it takes place in the same world and that concerns and threats in that world (the perverse suicide cult, the baleful Beresford) are present here in the margins even if largely unseen.

As always, the writing is simple, direct and often questioning: absurdities of modern life are exposed and highlighted without being ridiculed and the author is perfectly comfortable drawing attention to the contradictions and inconsistencies of these characters, especially to their different ways of seeing the world, without telling is who is right or indeed, whether anyone is. The Carververse is painted in a rich palatte of moral grey shades and Suicide Thursday is no exception.

The book is also often very funny, indeed there are some almost slapstick situations as well as excruciatingly embarrassing ones. Mike literally varnishing himself into a corner is one, as is the trouble that Eli's wandering eye gets him into and the reaction he gets form one young woman.

All in all an excellent addition to this writer's output and I'm glad that, in contrast to Eli, he not only starts but finishes his work, giving us more to be entertained by and to think about.

For more information about Suicide Thursday, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy Suicide Thursday from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

15 November 2022

#Review - What Moves the Dead by T Kingfisher

Cover for book "What Moves the Dead" by T Kingfisher. A left hand, held upright with the thumb on the left. It is overgrown by fungi - large ones with red and orange caps, much smaller ones with white caps.
What Moves the Dead
T Kingfisher
Titan Books, 18 October 2022 
Available as: PB, 192pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN (PB): 9781803360072

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of What Moves the Dead to consider for review.

What Moves the Dead takes us to Ruravia, a remote Central European country sometime in the 1890s. Alex Easton, a former soldier, has come to visit childhood friends Madeline and Roderick, with whom all is not well...

I completely loved this bizarre, fungus-steeped Gothic episode which echoes and completes Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, supplying an explanation and a great deal of background to that sinister story. Madeline and Roderick are the Ushers, and are central to this story, but while Kingfisher gives a plausible scenario explaining what is going on, this book is so much more than that.

Easton is, for example, a fascinating personality, Gallacian by nationality, a nation whose language has seven different sets of pronouns 'one of which is used only for God' and another which specifically applies to soldiers - creating a reality which the slightly buttoned up Dr Denton, an American also visiting the Ushers, has some trouble with. Easton is also a sufferer from tinnitus, and dwells in this story on the aftereffects of war on those soldiers who are lucky enough - or unlucky enough - to survive. Easton and Denton bond, somewhat, over the aftermath and pity of war: both have served. (Kingfisher surfaces something often, I think, hovering on the margins of Victorian fiction - think of Doctor Watson and his wounds from Afghanistan, for example).

With this small cast of characters (there are a couple more) Kingfisher has immense fun. The book is both deeply, scarily chilling and - often at the same time - very funny. It's also firmly rooted in a well-realised world, only partly based on evocations of the classics (as well as Poe, there are echoes of Conan Doyle and of course, Anthony Hope). 

All the familiar tropes are here - the isolated house, the mysterious wasting disease, the sense that something is being hidden, sleepwalking, the rational yet baffled outsider - yet the story has a heart and should bond those trappings and, when is all is finally revealed, a rather plausible if chilling explanation. It's quite different from those other horror - Kingfisher evokes an eerie reality closely tuned to the rhythms and growth of the natural world and indeed from the start there's both a fascination with that (conveyed especially though the eccentric wandering English naturalist Eugenia) and a sense of threat.

All in all, an entertaining and thought-provoking story, one I galloped through in a single day (even though I had another book on hand that I ought to have been finishing).

For more information about What Moves the Dead, see the publisher's website here.

11 November 2022

#Blogtour - The Stars Undying by Emery Robin

The Stars Undying
Emery Robin
Orbit, 10 November 2022
Available as: PB, 516pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356519388  

I'm grateful to Orbit for sending me a copy of The Stars Undying to consider for review, and to Tracy for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Gosh. What can I say about this one? The Stars Undying really got its teeth into me - it made me resent everyday intrusions (eating, sleeping...) that stopped me reading it.

An achievement, I think, the more so since you'd think a book self-proclaimedly inspired by the empires of Ancient Rome and Egypt (ie the story of Caesar, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra) is going to have to work hard to overcome the reader's assumption that they know what's coming. Some pressure, perhaps?

Well, there's no way Emery Robin lets that pressure show, or that The Stars Undying seems to be straining for effect. Rather, this beautifully written, exciting and sensual novel of rulers, religion, warfare, empire and artificial intelligence (really!) drew me in from the very start. It's a lowkey opening - we see Gracia, a young princess of the planet of Sayzet, fleeing her sister and escaping off planet - but the wiring is immersive and enthralling from there right though to the when Gracia... well, that would be a spoiler, but it's an amazing scene. Gracia's development though all her tribulations and challenges is fascinating, sometime horrifying and always unpredictable: at the beginning she may seem out of her depth, a victim, a loser, but there are depths to her where she finds the resolve to beguile great men - and women - and to plot her own path forward.

Also fascinating is Ceirran, the Caesar figure here, a restless protagonist - I'd hesitate to call anyone here a hero - Commander of the forces of Ceiao, general, politician, schemer, a man in a hurry - but so much more. Both of these, however, are made richer as characters by the complex cultural, religious and political background which Robin sketches - here's where the inspiration from Rome and Egypt really counts, but you also have to  recognise the Hellenistic layer in the background to early BCE Egypt, which Robin also references: the sweep of empires and the deaths of gods and conquerers has left the galaxy portrayed here richly textured, with Gracia, Ceirran and many others having to negotiate a treacherous landscape of historic animosities, debts and paradoxes. 

This is nowhere more true than in the capital city of Ceiao, where Ceirran, an outsider on the make, clashes with the descendants of priests and kings. He's aided by his close supporter, Captain Anita who is one of the most fascinating characters I've come across in science fiction or fantasy for a long time - able, cynical, full of contradictions, equally at home on the training field, speaking in Council for Ceirran or dancing in a scuzzy bar, she attracts and repels Gracia from the start, and the tension between them crackles from the pages of The Stars Undying.

While this is a novel characterised by sweeping distances - it's not bothered about covering billions of light years - towering themes (love, treachery, loss and vengeance to name but a few) - and often, a sensuality that simply grabs - it is also a book where the small things count. Details of conversations. The voices here - Gracia and Ceirran, yes, but who is speaking to whom, and why? And actions on the margins. All matter to the working of a complex and satisfying story that satisfies on many, many levels.

All in all, a brilliant book I'd have no hesitation in recommending (and I'm counting down the days till I can read a sequel!)

For more information about The Stars Undying, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy The Stars Undying from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

10 November 2022

#Review - The World We Make by NK Jemisin

Cover for book "The World We Make" by NK Jemisin. In shades of grey, the facade of an apartment block - windows, fire escapes and doors - with graffiti. Writhing across, coloured tentacles - yellow, pink, blue and red.
The World We Make (Great Cities, 2)
NK Jemisin
Orbit, 3 November 2022
Available as: HB, 352pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356512693

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of The World We Make to consider for review.

The World We Make concludes Jemisin's Great Cities sequence, the first part of which, The City We Became, was published in 2020. The author explains in the Acknowledgements why, in the end, this couldn't be a trilogy (basically, truth overtaking fiction) and why it was a tough book to write. However it is still, in my view, a brilliant accomplishment. Jemisin has - across two books - studied the essence of a confident yet wounded modern city - New York - through the lens of fantasy writing at its best. And it's fun to read too!

Jemisin's premise, if you haven't read the first book (you should!) is that "great" cities wake up. Past a certain point, they focus their essence into a human "avatar" (or in New York's case, seven of them - one for each borough and one for the whole. Yes, seven - if you want to know why not six read the first book). That has just happened for New York (there is a reason why it is so recent, which was one of my questions about The City We Became, though not something that particularly bothered me).

If that was all there is to it, we would not have far to go. But it's not. The Cities, NY especially, are under attack from a cosmic-horror style threat personified as The Woman in White and which has something of an affinity with gentrifying, authoritarian trends in the city. And, as becomes obvious here, in the wider multiverse. This threat was staved off somewhat in the previous book as the boroughs came together (mostly) but returns in The World We Made. Part of the meat of this book is the much closer detail we get about that threat and its motivations, which suggest some quite murky morality around the - what world shall I use? Ecology? - of the cities in the branching multiverse. 

That murkiness is reflected as Brooklyn, Bronca, Padmini (avatar of Queens), Manny and the rest seek wider help to defend their city, and find some of the other great World Cities less than supportive. I loved the way that Jemisin transforms a potential weakness of her metaphor - that a typical city contains millions, and will have had hundreds of years of history, so its avatar is surely going to be a babble of incoherent voices and intentions - into a hymn to the creativity, the creative destruction, even, of our great cities. They aren't, we are reminded, gentle things or. Making a cameo, London blithely admits to killing people and taking their stuff. But she has changed. All is movement and change here, good movement and change, in contrast to the stasis and bland sterility beloved of The Woman and her city.

This second book is, though, not all focussed on the comic menace or on supernatural (superurban?) struggle. The avatars are ordinary people too, and Jemisin's portrayal of their bickering, of who fancies who and of the pressures on some - pressures from family, from legacies of abuse or even just from work (Padmini's lost a job and has the immigration service after her) is very well done, indeed the human detail really drives this plot rather than the city-ness and creates a level of reality that the Woman finds hard to wholly comprehend (though she seems fascinated by it, I think).

That's lots else. Brooklyn, goaded beyond endurance by the corruption and racism of the city authorities, campaigns for Mayor - giving Jemisin scope for some satirical scenes but also opening up the team to wider attack from political extremists in a subplot that very much exposes the underbelly of US politics and society. Manny calls in allies, and we learn a bit more about his history and background - also rooted in the Black American experience. And Aislyn is faced with choices she can't duck over what the Woman is doing to her beloved Staten Island.

Less hectic, perhaps, than the first book, and more considered, The World We Make still rises to a heart thumping climax. It's vividly written and has a glorious sense of place, and above all, of engagement with the complex issues and messy compromises that make a real city a place worth living in and indeed, fighting for. Jemisin's writing is gorgeously inventive, and I felt that she truly inhabits her characters.

Finally, just look at that design from Lauren Panepinto. It's not just pretty - in the right conditions, it does things. This is a book you need to hold in your hand, not just have on your e-reader...

For more information about The World We Make, see the publisher's website here.

8 November 2022

#Blogtour #Review - The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave

Cover for book The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave. Photograph of a hospital patient identity tag.
The Pain Tourist
Paul Cleave
Orenda Books, 10 November 2022
Available as: PB 371pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585487

I'm grateful to Anne at Random Things Tours and to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me an advance copy of The Pain Tourist to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

The Pain Tourist plunges into immediate action as a peaceful suburban house in Christchurch, New Zealand is invaded by violent men. In heartbreaking scenes, a family is destroyed and an eleven year old boy left orphaned and struggling for his life. We see the police set about trying to solve the case, but the story then breaks and picks up nine years later as James Garrett begins to stir from a coma. In the faint hope that James may recall something to help identify the villains, even after all this time, DI Rebecca Kent is assigned to investigate. 

But Rebecca already has her hands full, with a possible renewed serial killer who seems to be taking more than a little interest in her personally. 

How much will she really be able to do? 

Meanwhile others are also watching James, wondering what he may recall...

In The Pain Tourist, Cleave gives us an utterly absorbing, accomplished attention-grabber of a novel, one where all the different threads compel and the whole is - well, addictive might be the right word? I adored Rebecca - a woman who's suffered and been passed over and who seems to be surrounded by men judging her performance as a detective based on her looks. Rebecca's ex-colleague Tate is also well drawn and has depth - he plays the part of the off-books maverick well, but not too outrageously as he's got his own concerns (a wife in a nursing home who's steadily deteriorating) to keep him from going too far off the rails. James himself is fascinating - a newly awoken man who was a boy of eleven when he fell asleep. He may have pointers to the crime, but due he go where they are to confront them? Already complicated for him, but he seems as well to have brought something else back from the dark - knowledge that he shouldn't have, which bears on Rebecca's other cases. Dangerous knowledge perhaps.

The story proceeds at great pace with jeopardy, false leads, misdirection and a string of further murders, as well as a nagging suspicion on Rebecca's part that crime scenes and evidence are being accessed by that mysterious "pain tourist" alluded to in the title. What do they want, and how are they getting in? The Pain Tourist also explores the toxic paraphenalia  of true crime - the souvenir hunters, the re-enactors, the obsessives...

A gorgeous book - if I can use that phrase of something that is inevitably very dark - one where the cast of characters stride onto the page as established individuals, trailing real dilemmas and problems, flawed and deeply human characters trying to cope as best they can with a far from perfect world - even before the murders start. 

This was the first of Cleave's books I'd read and I found it really very, very impressive.

For more information about The Pain Tourist, see the Orenda website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy The Pain Tourist from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blogtour poster for The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave, setting out the names of blogs taking place.

3 November 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Blood of a Novice by Davis Ashura

Blood of a Novice (The Eternal Ephemera, Book One)
Davis Ashura
Available 8 November
Formats: e-book, audio
Sour ce: advance e-copy

I'm grateful to Fantasy Book Critic for inviting me to take part ion the blogtour for Blood of a Novice, and for providing an advance e-copy to consider for review.

Blood of a Novice follows the early career of Cam Folde, a young man from a disreputable family (they're the town drunks) in a remote rural community a long way from anywhere.

Through a mixture of his own enterprising nature, some good luck (and then a dollop off bad luck) he receives enhancements to his magical nature. I should explain that in Cam's world (labelled 'The Salvation') everyone has, to a greater of lesser degree, what we might think of as supernatural powers (so perhaps the world 'magic' is not really appropriate). These powers derive both from innate nature and talent and also from absorbing natural 'ephemera', intense training and study and other means - to say too much would be spoilery. 

As such, the events early on are key to Cam's future, both establishing him as something of a chancer and showing how that luck he finds (or rather, the bad part) not only makes him a pariah in his community but also shapes his abilities in good and bad ways. Part of the result of this is a disability or perhaps an imbalance that will constrain his choices but also drive him to greater efforts in order to overcome it.

Cam's progress from his hometown reveals to us a wider world of good and evil, one influenced by South Asian mythology and stories. Ashura has written "As far as Blood of a Novice is concerned, this is the background of how it came to be. The philosophy and theology of the series started with a dream, which was weird. That isn't my thing. Anyway, the dream began with a question: "What is God?" That definitely isn't my thing, and I sure don't know the answer to that question. But at the time of the dream, I also didn't care. It was 2 AM, and I just wanted to go back to sleep. But sometimes when your mind is racing in the middle of the night, you can't sleep no matter what you want. This was one of those times, and in the end, I ended up imagining the theology of Blood of a Novice. Later on, I found out it was similar to the first three chapters of the Bhagavad Gita as translated by Eknath Easwaran."

Here we meet sages and divines (the story opens with a battle between two gods) and learn about the pathway to divinity - that honing of abilities and talents can take a young man or woman a long way. We see the deadly danger posed by rakshasas, human or animal-formed monsters that erupt into the world and contest with the sages and theeir novices, acolytes and other supporters for dominance.

It's a brilliantly depicted world, teeming with menace as much as with politics. As a young man from the wrong side of town, and one with a reputation for drunkenness as much as bad luck, Cam is unpopular with the young nobility who comprise the majority of the scholars at the academy which he eventually manages to join. Ashura makes this clear, but doesn't waste a great deal of time detailing how this plays out day to day - focussing instead on the big themes: Cam's (painful, slow) advancement and the eventual challenges and battles into which he's flung. 

Cam comes over as a thoughtful, if anguished, natural leader of the team, to which he's assigned and to whose successes he's key. He has plenty of regrets, but doesn't dwell too much on them, and very much looks to the future. There are though clouds in that direction, with Ashura dropping hints of something, some cause or plan, working its way out behind what we see.

While Cam is the focus of the novel, we see a little from other perspectives too, for example Weld, an arrogant young man to whom Cam takes an instant dislike (and who I suspect will prove to have more to him than we're allowed to see here - at least I hope so as I'l have liked him to play more of a part than he does) and one or two others besides. Weld is one of half a dozen or so Novices grouped with Cam in "Light Squad", who, with Cam's teachers, are the central characters of the story. Among the teachers my favourite characters was Sarai, a woman of some mystery with whom Cam had a previous encounter with which made something of an impression. Her exact history, status and intentions are though teasingly obscure, making her one of the most interesting figures here.

In all, Blood of a Novice is an extremely readable fantasy, using Cam's (in particular) attempts to progress in skill and power to illustrate the mythic and ethical basis for its world, as well as the dangers that world faces. There's plenty of action, and the magical basis of existence and life is taken for granted  providing skills and talents that can be exploited in different degree by everyone from the humblest fieldhand to the most powerful Sage. With some threatened disturbances to the even tenor of Cam's life looming by the end of the book it will be interesting to see how that plays out in succeeding volumes.

For more information about Blood of a Novice, see the other reviews on the tour already published or coming soon - Out of this World SFF, Fantasy Book Critic, Before We Go blog, Lena at Goodreads, Pages & Procrastination and FanFiAddict.

You can buy Blood of a Novice from Amazon here.

2 November 2022

#Review - Bournville by Jonathan Coe

Cover for book "Bournville" by Jonathan Coe - a weather vane in the shape of a rampant lion, with Art Deco style rays of sun behind it and, just visible, the spire of the building that it's on. The name of the book is spelled our in scrollwork lettering which is part of the structure of the vane.
Bournville - A Novel in Seven Occasions
Jonathan Coe
Viking, 3 November 2022
Available as: HB, 368pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780241517383

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

'And all that caper...'

Coe's latest novel takes us on a trip though the past 75 years of British (well, English) life, using as stepping stones seven significant episodes from with VE Day in 1945 to its 75th anniversary just as the Covid-19 storm was gathering. En route we see the Coronation, the 1966 World Cup, the Investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales, his and Princess Diana's wedding (and later, her funeral) and other moments of the (allegedly) whole-nation-together-watching on TV sort. (The Investiture? Really? I was only 2 at the time so don't remember it, but did people really tune in the same way as for the others?) 

It is perhaps an irony that the book appears too late to add in the recent death and funeral of Queen Elizabeth II - surely the apotheosis of this kind of shared experience. I certainly read the part dealing with the funeral of Diana - with its evocation of the ever-thickening crowds and then the comment that 'the Queen had not even returned to London from Balmoral' in a different way to how I might a couple of months ago. A persistent problem, perhaps, with anything touching the British royal family is the abundance of potential meaning and there being just too many references - Coe intended I think to use Diana's marriage and funeral to make a point about the refusal of the Lambs to properly welcome Bridget, a woman marrying in who's not from a White British background ('families like this... they never really accept people from outside, do they?' ) but actually when that's more or less reflected in the ballads every single day it might seem just obvious).

Coe portrays both the immediate consumption, as it were, of these moments - families gathered around flickering monochrome TV or flatscreen panel or sat at bunting-decked tables in the street - and the weeks and months around them, following several generation of the Lamb family. It all starts with Sam and Doll Lamb and their daughter Mary in Bournville, a suburb of Birmingham dominated by the Cadbury's chocolate factory, in 1945. The book plugs into the wider Coeniverse, featuring characters from earlier novels, sometimes as walks-ons (I glimpsed a couple of Trotters!) and sometimes in more significant roles (David and Gill Foley and their father Thomas - as Coe points out in his Afterword, this book has a particularly close relationship to Expo 58, The Rain Before It Falls and Mr Wilder and Me). 

For me, that embedding gives the book wider resonance, drawing on established characters and filling in gaps in the chronology, though it made me ache for a family tree. There would definitely be a market (well, of me) for a Coe Companion. It goes some way to address what is otherwise an inevitable result of the episodic nature of the book, that its alighting on particular moments from decade to decade risks a sort of "1970s House" ness - you know, the reality series where a family move through a year in each episode, their technology, food and possessions being rudely updated each time.  Coe tells us for example that 'there is a new shop on the King's Road, apparently - she has read about it in the Sunday Times colour magazine - which is called Habitat...' and we know that now the 60s are Happening. Or a character will be proselytising the virtues of the Sinclair ZX81, demonstrating that the age of the home computer revolution are upon us. I'm not saying that these moments ring falsely - the ZX81 thing is part of fleshing out a character who others comes over as rather unsympathetic, for good reasons - just that with relatively little space for each episode, references like this seem a bit obvious, and can rather draw the oxygen from character development.  Similarly there is a sense of characters being placed to experience or expound something - nearly witnessing the birth of balti cooking for example, or set up to compare bland postwar English cooking with the spicier, smokier German version.

Bournville does, though, tackle these moments of change, or potential change, in another way. As they witness national celebrations and mourning, characters here are prone - as I think we all are - to read a significance into things, to look for turning points and moments of decision. Of course these are often overturned subsequently (so, in a sense, the glimpse of a future Utopia at VE Day, with the Attlee government waiting in the wings, is soon undone by an Establishment that its able to stage the Coronation - Geoffrey's delighted musing: this marked the resumption of normality, like 'like a breath of stale air...'). By the end of the book we're more inclined perhaps to accept that (as is repeatedly stated) 'Everything changes, and everything stays the same' - whether you take that as comforting, or bleak (the book allows for both points of view).

Given its episodic nature, again, different parts come at the reader in quite different ways. There are lots of stories, story arcs and characters and I think everyone will have their favourites. I enjoyed the family holiday in Wales (but my family used to take holidays in Wales in the early 70s, so maybe it's that) which is virtually a self-contained episode, albeit one revisited later with more understanding. 

The funniest was the "chocolate wars" episode in Brussels, intended, I think, as a hook to bring in a certain straw-haired journalist and later politician whose career is touched on briefly (''always under-prepared, always over-committed' who Coe lacerates further in his Author's Note. I don't think though this book is generally trying to be overtly funny - though there are some moments that will produce smiles, for example when Sam was 'entertained by the sound of his daughter [Mary] and Beethoven engaged in mortal combat' or when Mary is dismayed that she and her mother have been invited to a church service to celebrate VE Day: 'This was a dreadful turn of events' (she even tries to get out of it by offering to do the washing-up).

My favourite of all was Lorna's European travels in the Prologue - I felt that her concert tour, undertaken as covid-19 was beginning to close down the Continent ('It would break her heart if this weird little virus were to derail everyone's plans') had the same shrewd observation as much of Mr Wilder and Me. I could have read a whole book about Lorna and her bandmate Mark. 

I'm not sure if it's significant that the two bits of the book that struck me most are set outside England. Clearly one can read Bournville as a "condition of England" novel (England, not Britain or the UK, because the current of progress and reaction, of prejudice and enlightenment, that swirl here are portrayed in relation to England). But the most interesting themes are wider than England. It's not, I want to assure you, a Brexit novel in the same way as Middle England, though inevitably some of the same themes occur - like the transformation of the Cadbury factory to a visitor experience, which proceeds in the background of the book, a counterpoint perhaps to the Lamb family's love of James Bond films (those 'strange, adolescent, sadopatriotic fantasies'). And it does have a sense of hope. There are people here who change their minds. There is a refusal by some to buy into the national myth ('It's just that I think there's an idea that some people like to have about the war. That it was a political thing...') There vis also a clear-eyed recognition that if the past, the present and the future are all present at once, then there still 'comes a time when everybody has to pick a side' (Bridget, again).

To conclude, there is a great deal in Bournville and I enjoyed reading it. How far everything is completely digested or made coherent, I'm not sure, but then maybe it shouldn't be, if we're thinking about England. One strange thing that I have to add it that as I was reading the book at breakfast, the BBC morning programme covered the historical discovery, in and around Birmingham, of large boulders deposited by glaciers which were apparently important in the development of geology as a science. One of these was found when the Bournville chocolate factory was built. And where did we see characters in this book going for a drink win VE Night but... the Great Stone Inn!

For more information about Bournville, see the publisher's website here