Orbit, 24 February 2022
Available as: HB, 413pps e, audio
I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of Incy Wincy to consider for review.
Last year's A Numbers Game debuted mystery crime newcomer RJ Dark's not-so-cosy series, featuring psychic fraud Malachite Jones and "respected local businessman" Jackie Singh Khattar who solve crimes on the Blade's Edge Estate, a rough district of an unnamed Yorkshire town. In this follow-up, Dark turns to a story that goes deeper into Mal's and Jackie's backgrounds.
After the events of the first book, Jackie has decided that Mal's psychic business needs rebranding as a detective agency. Of course, Mal gets no say in this, and the first he knows is when Jackie has a new sign installed over the shop. Cue a running gag where Mal says, in effect, I don't know, I'm not a detective and Jackie responds by citing the sign.
It's probably fitting, given Jackie's hand in creating the "agency" that its first case involves tracking down one of his mates (the "Spider" to whom the title nods). Spider is ex-army, like Jackie, and it turns out that other members of his squad live nearby and that understanding their past will be key to explaining what has happened to Spider. Similarly, Mal's earlier life as a homeless drug-user will also be relevant, not least in providing him with contacts to work (fairly likely that an ex-squaddie will end up among the street people, right?)
But it's not a straightforward case (which of Mal's cases ever are?) Pretty soon the usual pattern emerges as figures both familiar - the 'Kray Twins', Trolley Mick, the town's Russian gangsters - and new - a smooth talking American - turn up at Jackie's shop to threaten him if he either won't give up a line of enquiry or won't take a side job. It gets more and more menacing, as Jackie can't be there all the time to defend Mal (and anyway, Jackie has bigger problems of his own). Mal's by no means a helpless victim in all this, he's actually a pretty shrewd and streetwise character, but the degree of peril in this book felt on a different scale to the previous one.
Add in Yorkshire's own racist front, a missing boy and a crop of UFO sightings and there is almost too much here to wrap one's brain round. Almost, I write, because Dark's story zooms along with brio, carrying us with no apparent effort from nasty fight to intriguing clue to dissecting the nature of the society that has produced Blade's Edge. There's some heartfelt, well argued criticism here, Dark comes across as really knowing his stuff. It's very, very entertaining read, a book with a punchy plot, hard-hitting but humorous dialogue and developed, relatable characters.
Oh - and there's a climax that had me biting my nails.
I'd strongly recommend - you can buy the e-book here from Amazon.
|Design by Duncan Spilling|
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Free Bastards to consider for review.
The Free Bastards brings to a pause the sequence that began with The Grey Bastards and continued in The True Bastards. I say a pause, not a conclusion, because French states, in his Acknowledgements, that he would like to ride the Lots again some day. And clearly, there is much remaining to be worked out in story terms which would allow that.
Nevertheless, we have some closure here, seeing how the war turned out that began when the Bastards rose up against the tyranny of Hispartha; understanding Crafty and his motivations (perhaps...?) and witnessing several well loved characters get some ease from their tribulations (and others die cruelly and unfairly: these are the Lots, after all).
I think I like this approach to a fantasy sequence. All too often an author, bent on tying up EVERYTHING, produces for their third volume an indigestible pottage of plot. We've also seen this with certain film franchises (mentioning no names but I know who I'm looking at). In contrast, the Free Bastards sets itself more modest goals, and meets them with aplomb.
The story is seen through the eye of Oats, closest friend of Jackal and Fetching, who the first and second books respectively followed. It some respects it's a more worm's eye view of the world than in them - both Jackal and Fetching have gained, or discovered they had, unnatural degrees of power or talent (though, as we see in this book, nothing that makes them invincible or always right). Oats, in contrast, is still rather ordinary - for values of ordinary that encompass a Thrice, a three-quarters Orc - and my, how he suffers here as a result. The Lot Lands trilogy has not previously, and The Free Bastards does not now, spare us the messy aftermath of conflict and both physical and mental wounds abound here. The downside of the raw, bloody conflict that's described in minute detail is the scars and suffering that follow. Oats becomes, bluntly, battle-sick and part of his struggle in this book is to keep on keeping on through it all, especially when the odds seem well-nigh impossible. That's a struggle that in the end is down to him, one which can't be helped by magic, artefacts or relics of old or even the loyalty of his mighty steed, Ugfuck.
And the way that struggle plays out - its relationship to ideas of loyalty, friendship and rivalry as well as to wider plot threads involving the Lots, the elves, Orcs and Halflings - is at the heart of this book. It couldn't, in the end, be anyone else's story other than Oats', and the way it ends is magnificent. I think that French's decision to tell each of these books wholly from the perspective of a different character - rather than having one main viewpoint, or chopping up the three stories among different protagonists - really pays off here, allowing undiluted focus on the three individuals. It was perhaps a high risk device, but really succeeds by allowing each of the three the necessary emotional depth and space to tell their own stories.
It also, of course, leaves a lot unspoken, unsaid, as we know that each of the three was having adventures in the background, as it were, of each others' books, adventures we only know the bare bones of. I feel knowing that will add even more depth and resonance if - when - French returns to Ul Wundulas.
I'll be waiting for that day, ready to saddle up again and 'Live in the saddle; Die on the hog'.
I read the paperback of The Free Bastards but I also enjoyed much of the book as audio, again I'd strongly recommend Will Damon's narration and mastery of a range of voices which together with the great narrative drive of this story and its intimate and personal moments, makes it a superb experience to listen to.
For more information about The Free Bastards, see the publisher's website here.
I'm grateful to Picador for a free advance copy of Our Wives Under the Sea to consider for review.
When I saw an upcoming first novel by Julia Armfield, I just had to get my hands on it. I was judge on the Shadow Panel for the 2019 The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award when her short story collection salt slow was shortlisted for the main award and won the Shadow Panel.
Our Wives Under the Sea is a story of two women, Miri and her wife Leah. Miri works from home writing grant applications for charities; Leah is an explorer, a scientist working on deep sea research for the mysterious Centre (there's something a bit... off... about the Centre, although we never find out what). In chapters narrated alternately by Miri and Leah, Armfield tells how Leah went to sea, was lost, and unexpectedly returned. And about the aftermath of that. Along the way we hear about their earlier lives, how they met, and their friends.
It's a short book but packs so much in. There is loss, twice over - Miri's time after Leah vanished (her dive went several months past its scheduled end) is mentioned in retrospect, with her complex feelings, the lack of closure, hinted at. More directly addressed is the growing realisation that the person who came back is not the same. Returned, Leah spends much of her time in the bath; she eats little; there is little conversation and no intimacy. Yet is she is, indisputably, back and shows flashes of her old self - and Miri desperately tries to find a way to cope, to reach out, researching, for example, an online community 'Our Husbands in Space' of women who pretend that their husbands have gone off on space missions (or, in some cases, 'Come Back Wrong" - CBW).
The Centre is little help, refusing to take Miri's calls, eventually providing a counsellor who it fails to pay. It's as though Leah has gone again, and only Miri's love for her remains. Miri's emotions - a mixture of anger, fear and (declining) hope really come over, all complicated by her relationships with her (now dead) mother and fear of developing the same degenerative illness as her (Miri once booked a generic test but lost track of time and missed the appointment). Miri has always seen herself as the one in the relationship who might end up needing care - selfishly, she now understands - and struggles to understand how she should be with Leah, becoming isolated from her friends and letting work slide.
Leah's side of things focusses more on the research voyage and her relationship in the diving ship with her two crewmates. Leah was always ocean obsessed - as a teenager her best friend was an octopus - so you'd think the dive would have been everything she wanted but the account of it seems frustrated, slightly disengaged, as though something were wrong from the start. Nor does it reveal, exactly, what it was that changed her so much (Armfield is clear that Leah is changed, and changing). The meaning of what happened needs to be read between the lines, worked out, imagined. There is a lurking sense of strangeness here, of being excluded from something even as we're let in to be told about events on the ocean floor (Leah hasn't shared these yet with Miri, though she will - but we don't see what Miri will make of them, another of the frustrations to communication which litter the book)
Alongside all the weirdness (lovely weirdness!) Armfield gives us very mundane, rooted scenes of modern life: a party with Leah's mates, figures who are immediately familiar, the recurring annoyance of a neighbour who leaves their TV on loud at all hours, the difficulty of negotiating the logic loop of a call centre. Gradually, I began to compare the isolated lives of Leah, Jelka and Matteo in their little capsule on the seabed with those of Leah and Miri marooned in their flat. Their lives outside those settings seem to become, increasingly, stories they recall or tell themselves, Leah almost unable to leave the flat, Miri more and more unwilling to do so. Isolation brings recollections of earlier lives - Miri's mother, Leah's dad from whom she seems to have taken her obsession with the oceans.
Inevitably the question arises of whether this is a "lockdown" novel and, yes, it does have that sense of enclosure, of squashing one's head against the window, as well as reflecting on the openness of sea (the book is imbued with the heaviness of the ocean) and sky ('People grow odd when there's too much sky'). But there's much more going on here than that. Leah's and Miri's lives, as seen in glimpses of the 'before' are being milled into something else by the rolling of the waves and that's not just a slide, it's a very active process which we seen going on - and, while the book may sound very sorrowful, it's not a process without hope.
I'd strongly recommend Our Wives Under the Sea - it may especially appeal to you if you enjoyed M John Harrison's When the Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again or Jeff VanderMeer's Acceptance, Annihilation and Authority.
For more information about Our Wives Under the Sea, see the publisher's website here.