28 April 2022

#Review - Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility
Emily St John Mandel
Picador, 28 April 2021
Available as: HB, 224pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529083491

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

Emily St John Mandel's new novel Sea of Tranquility looks at the little, unexpected links between lives at the largest scale, at cause and effect and coincidence. While we are dealing with a number of different stories, we are also only reading one story. 

It revisits some of the characters, events and locations of her last novel, The Glass Hotel but from a different (and explicitly, parallel worlds based) perspective.  Edwin St John St Andrew, for example, who we meet in 1912 and whose story forms the first of the separate timelines here, is an Englishman who has travelled to Canada to make something of himself. What, he's not really sure,  and he bounces around living comfortably on his remittance ('They've booked first-class passage on a delightful train that features an onboard post office and shop...') until he lands up in Caiette, the small town that featured in the earlier book, his story meshing across decades with those of Mirella and Vincent from The Glass Hotel

Meanwhile, if I can use the word, a 22nd century author, Olive Llewelyn, is visiting Earth from her home on a lunar colony for a book tour. During Olive's trip, a new and deadly pandemic breaks out - the description of which (including periods of lockdown, tracking of the day's 'numbers' and that troubling sense of psychic suddenness, of there being a before and now) vividly evoked, for me, the past couple of years. Two centuries on, another figure, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, looks back to Olive's life and death and to that 22nd century pandemic. Of course, Sea of Tranquility isn't this author's first pandemic story. Her Station Eleven (soon to be released as a TV series) addressed a more serious, acute and apocalyptic plague, and The Glass Hotel was set in a world where that pandemic hadn't happened, with a kind of "thin walls between the worlds" sense of paths not taken placing the two books in the same space of possibilities. 

Sea of Tranquility actually picks up more on the latter aspect, and the separate narrative threads here are part of that, although it would give away too much to discuss in detail how all these figures relate to one another. That - especially the way that the events of The Glass Hotel intrude - needs to reveal itself slowly as St John Mandel's story unrolls - but I will say that the separate threads here are very much in dialogue with each other, posing questions that only make sense, and are only answered (when they are answered) from that wider perspective. 

The timespan of the story is the most obvious, but not the only, way this is done, giving a view not all the characters have themselves. Edwin will see the horrors of the First World War, a war Gaspery, in the future, has no knowledge of and has to research, just as Gaspery has to remind himself just when that outbreak of covid-19 struck (he wonders whether people meeting in early 2020 would be aware of or affected by it).  St John Mandel shows how even the most salient of current events eventually get tidied away out of historical awareness (just as many of us in 2020 may have been unaware until recently of the post Great War flu pandemic).

Another example of this wider perspective is the sense of messages being passed, under the teacher's nose as it were, between the characters. If you've read The Glass Hotel you may recall that Vincent's brother's based an art project her VHS recordings. Here, that work assume a new significance when observed from afar, preserving events and perspectives that raise questions centuries later. Or again, we see a phrase from the future scribbled on a wall, something that happened in the earlier book but assumes an ominous new significance here. All of this points to something - a secret, a concern - behind the intersections of the various storylines, yet intimately bound up with them all.

I hope that doesn't make Sea of Tranquility sound too contrived, plot-y or clever-clever. It's really not. Rather, what I found in this book were perfect depictions of complex and conflicted characters, and engaging, almost glowing, writing through every strand of the story. "I couldn't put it down" is a much overused, much abused phrase, but for me, Sea of Tranquility totally merited it. St John Mandel really can write, skewering a character with a single phrase - 'When Edwin's father was furious, he had a trick of beginning speeches with a half-sentence, to catch everyone's attention'; 'The neighbourhood seemed fairly tame to her and it wasn't that late, also she was afraid of nothing...'; 

There were also moments that made me smile, especially some that, I assume, directly reflect St John Mandel's experience as an author. Olive muses, for example, that 'if you've stayed in one Marriott, haven't you stayed in all of them?' That shows how St John Mandel refuses to SF-up her book. She doesn't make life on the Moon strange and advanced and different, depicting poverty there, for example, or a run-down neighbourhood, and nor does she point up life on a 22nd century Earth as strange and advanced and different, beyond noting the essentials: the US is split into a number of separate republics, the moon colonies are built within domes. Otherwise, there are hotels, book tours, air travel, taxis. A pandemic can rage uncontrolled then, as now. We might assume some of these things are rather different in detail to those we know now, but we don't need to be told exactly how they are different. 

As I've suggested above, Olive's experiences often seem to parallel St John Mandel's. Her tour is for her book Marienbad. Before Marienbad she wrote three books that no one noticed and '"I've written two others since then. But Marienbad's being made into a film..."' Marienbad puzzles some readers:  '"There were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they didn't, ultimately. The book just ended. I was like-"' 

Olive ponders the comment for the next three days. Did she end her book too abruptly? 

It's conceivable that this is directed, at some level, at reaction to The Glass Hotel which, kind of, does "just stop". My own view is that it ends in the right place because what leads up to that "stop" creates a rich and wonderful background so that the ending makes perfect sense. But maybe Sea of Tranquility, with its links to the previous book, might be a response to that, giving us more? If so, then I don't think it was strictly necessary - but I do think the result is glorious. Sea of Tranquility is completely self-contained and doesn't need the reader to know about the earlier book, but, taken together, the two stories are like parts in a musical work, adding so much depth and meaning to each other and sending me back to re-read the earlier story and think through the experiences and perspectives of the characters there. 

In short, I'd strongly recommend Sea of Tranquility.

For more information about Sea of Tranquility, see the publisher's website here.


27 April 2022

#Review - One Foot in the Fade by Luke Arnold

One Foot in the Fade (Fetch Philips, 3)
Luke Arnold
Orbit, 28 April 2022
Available as: PB, 434pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356516189

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of One Foot in the Fade to consider for review.

One Foot in the Fade is the third book in the Fetch Phillips archive, and in my view, the best yet.

In the first two books of the series, we've seen Fetch, the "Man for Hire" in post-magical Sunder City - a sort of cross between an oil rush frontier company boomtown and a de-magicked City of Oz - inhabit the spiritual mantle of a noir detective, walking the mean streets, getting dirty, getting things done. But in One Foot in the Fade, Luke Arnold pivots and very firmly doesn't repeat the trick, giving us instead something rather different, forcing Fetch to confront some hard truths and, perhaps, grow up a bit.

To fill you in on the background, in case you haven't read the other books, in the world of Sunder City, there has been magic but it has dried up. (And Fetch was largely responsible for that - he has a Past, which is trying, with little success, to atone for by 'bringing the magic back'.) As a result this is a society where magical creatures - from elves to vampires to genies - are slowly dying, and where much of the "technology" that was previously relied on has failed. The result is an adjustment to 30s-style industry, proceding apace here in the hands of Thurston Niles and his corporation. The atmosphere of the stories is therefore bizarrely jumbled, with axes, swords and barbarian adventurers jostling alongside firearms, cars and telephones. Arnold is very good at drawing all this together so that it makes sense, creating a unique atmosphere and sensibility in his writing, one which I really enjoy.

Well, in One Foot in the Fade, things get real. Fetch thinks that he has, at last, a lead on a way to restore the magic to his world. That takes him out of Sunder, one of a bizarrely mismatched party of adventurers, seeking a cursed artefact guarded by a castle full of (now ex) Wizards. It's fun seeing Fetch, his friend the straight-talking, hard-drinking librarian Eileen, a fading Genie, a taciturn werewolf and young whippersnapper Larry, set out bickering in a sedan car (that Larry nicked from his dad). There are of course many adventures along the way and, rather to my surprise, a sense that Fetch is actually growing up, becoming more willing to listen to others and even to learn things.  

What none of that alters is his obsession with restoring the world. It's become clear over the first two books in this series that there is a price to what he's trying to do, but the unappealing nature of the alternative - Niles's industrial revolution - has only made Fetch dig his heels in and search harder for an answer. Now that he thinks he's found one, he becomes positively obsessed and there seems a real danger that the quest will cost him everything - friendships, safety, perhaps even his life. After all, what else can he do? In that sense, this book moves way beyond the themes of the earlier two, posing questions about responsibility, self-deception and acceptance, questions that Fetch spends most of the book avoiding.

That, perhaps, makes the ending to this third book slightly more downbeat than the previous ones - I don't think you can really say there is a victory here, though perhaps, instead, Fetch finds some space, some clarity, some understanding of what he's about and how to proceed. That still, though, leaves him with a mountain to climb before he can reconcile with the new world he's living in, but at least it's a start.

STRONGLY recommended.

For more information about One Foot in the Fade, see the publisher's website here.


26 April 2022

#Review - Nettle and Bone by T Kingfisher

Nettle and Bone
T Kingfisher
Titan Books, 26 April 2022 
Available as: HB, 336pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781789098273

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Nettle and Bone to consider for review. 

But where do I even start with this one?

How to describe Nettle and Bone

The glib way would be to say something like: modern, twisted take on a fairytale, feisty princess, unpleasant Prince, caper. And yes, all those elements are here. But there's actually a lot more in this engagingly written story - which is emphatically not just another entry in the burgeoning alt-fairy tale genre (though, almost in passing, it knocks the spots off many of them).

Let's start again. Nettle and Bone is an attention-grabbing and absorbing story. This is primarily, I think, because of how well its central character, Marra, is drawn. Marra is a princess, yes, but only the third of three daughters. She has been stashed away in a convent (dedicated to "Our Lady of Grackles" - the religion in Nettle and Bone is vague and pleasingly diverse), very much the "spare" required by dynastic politics but not expected ever to amount to much. Which is OK by her, on the whole. Far worse things happened to her older sisters, things about which she can do little but seethe (there is plenty of time in the convent to seethe). More constructively, Marra delights in embroidery, midwifery and mucking out the goats, learning the value of achieving things which are small (perhaps) but important.

Kingfisher takes the time and space to develop Marra over some fifteen years, through hard work, love affairs and solidarity between her and the nuns, showing how Marra's hopes and fears (mainly the latter) are shaped by the shrewd politics of her mother, determined to keep the kingdom safe at any cost and by her increasing sense of dangers and threats that she can't do anything about. Marra has been taught to see herself as superfluous, of little account, as not mattering - a couple of scenes where she visits the more powerful "Northern Kingdom" make this clear - but she slowly comes to realise that she has not only the duty but the ability to reject that pigeonholing.

And the main theme of the book is the way that she goes about that.

Marra's way - which she feels herself into as much as plans, this book is all about doing the best from moment to moment, with the future unclear - involves making strange alliances. Of course this begins with carrying out three impossible tasks, in order to engage the help of a dust-wife, an enigmatic figure living in a graveyard. This is where we first meet Marra, raiding a charnel-pit in a cursed land (we're never told exactly how or why it is cursed, this book has a broad canvas and there is a lot going on which it is not the point of the story to set right). We then follow on her quest as she assembles an unlikely group who will help in the hopeless task of killing a Prince. They are a mixed bag: a skeleton dog, a chatty fairy godmother, a disgraced warrior and a demonic chicken.  All they have in common, perhaps, is being marginal people, rejected, banished or overlooked by the powerful world.

As, of course, is Marra.

Distrustful of each other at first, unsure of how they will proceed, this group slowly bonds as they confront one threat after another. Kingfisher's fantastical world is full of wonders, both beautiful and terrible, from the sinister bargains of the Goblin Market to the strangest landlady I'd come across in fiction, and - I want to stress this - nobody knows any answers. Marra's little group is erratically wise, constantly improvising and making leaps of faith to address problems while bickering and going off the point and debating. It's all actually great fun. I know I said above that the characterisation of Marra is the main thing here, but in fact it's about more than her - this whole group comes alive and as they get to know each other, they reveal so much: about the world they're in, their histories and dilemmas and perhaps too about the imagination of the author, all of it a joy to take in.

So much so that when the book eventually did wend towards its ending (realistic in that not everyone's problems are solved, threats remain and prices have to be paid) I really, really didn't want it to stop. Three hundred odd pages isn't long by the standards of modern fantasy but it is quite enough for the group that forms here to become firm friends to the reader, I think, and long enough that I really missed them once it was finished.

In short, another brilliant book from this author who's firmly on my "must read" list.

For more information about Nettle and Bone, see the publisher's website here.

21 April 2022

#Review - The Odyssey by Lara Williams

The Odyssey
Lara Williams
Hamish Hamilton, 21 April 2022
Available as: PB, 208pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9780241502815

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

There are some gleeful tricks going on in the presentation of The Odyssey. First, take that cover, with its glittering swimming-pool water and a pink inflatable. That points to an aspect of the cruise ship WA (no, I don't know...) that the book largely isn't concerned with. Relaxed, holidaying passengers are not the focus here. The longest interaction we see between the main character, Ingrid, and a passenger is when Ingrid very rudely needles an unfortunate woman to buy something in the gift shop that she runs.

No, this story is squarely about the crew side of the ship, and about it's all about the crew, and about Ingrid in particular. And the title - it hints at what's going on, at a return home via many strange adventures, but it doesn't I think capture the sheer weirdness of Ingrid's life. Although that is something that only builds up slowly. Anyway, be clear this isn't a story of sun, sex, and reconciliation on a romantic cruise.

Ingrid herself is a puzzle. We gradually learn the details of her less than satisfactory marriage; that she more or less fled that to a job aboard the liner; and that she's been working there for five years, apparently content with her tiny, self-contained cabin and a minimum of possessions, playing at "families" with brother and sister Ezra and Mia (they take turns to be the baby) and rotating between postings aboard (currently, selling tat in the souvenir shop; later, she's a manicurist, then a lifeguard, and so on - none of them roles she has any qualifications, training or apparently, any aptitude for). The book also follows a couple of Ingrid's adventures when she takes shore leave, once in Spain and once in Canada, both leading to epic drinking and debauchery. The contrast between Ingrid's cool, self-possessed narration and the raucous quantities of alcohol and bad behaviour that she gets through is striking. Together with her relationship with Ezra and Mia, it feels as though she is trying to pick her way though something that has gone badly wrong, but that she doesn't want to articulate.

This smooth course of life get a jolt when Ingrid is invited to take part in the "programme", a development/ mentorship run by Keith (we never find out his exact role on the ship but he's obviously pretty senior as he has his own office with a secretary). Mia especially seems to resent this - is she jealous that Ingrid seems in line for advancement? Concerned that the process may upset their (strange) world of play-acting? Or genuinely worried that it will damage Ingrid? Whichever, it does seem to be revealing increasingly detailed accounts of Ingrid's earlier life in conversations with Keith. He also uses these to impart to her his unsurprisingly shallow philosophy, derived and diluted from the Japanese concept of "wabi sari".  And these revelations to seem to open a division with Mia and Ezra and to trigger something self-destructive in Ingrid. 

All through this there's a sense of something being missing, something Ingrid either sought aboard the WA or fled from on shore. The relationship with Mia and Ezra seems key, its undermining troubling but significant. And when things take an even darker turn, conditions aboard the liner becoming progressively stranger and even Ballardian, it's hard to tell whether Ingrid welcomes that (perhaps she will find what she's looking for, despite, or even because of, the strangeness?) or actually doesn't see it?

I loved the sceptical depiction of the cruise liner in this book. I've always been slightly suspicious of these liners - they long seem to have mutated from things you might mistake for ships to bizarre offcuts of the modern world, apparently self-contained and therefore full of possibilities for living in different ways while at the same designed to replicate all the worst aspects of modern society. There is a great store of weirdness to be explored here, and Williams sets about it with relish, highlighting the Upstairs-Downstairs division aboard with separate facilities for staff and crew as well as the distancing from any real sense of external reality (disembarking for one of those shore visits, Ingrid is surprised to discover where she actually is).

Yet Ingrid still seems to see the WA as a sanctuary. What does that say about her? What does it say about the life she's left? Williams is able to use this odd location to show us so much about Ingrid without needing to tell it, so that while Ingrid's narrated recollections seem full of detail and significance it's really her day to day life - conversations with her co-workers in the gift shop or the nail bar, or her experience of the trendily named menu items in the staff canteen as all basically the same - that really convey the knots and hidden corners of her character.

Intriguing, absorbing and very thought-provoking this book grabbed me, and I ended up pretty much reading it in one sitting, not wanting to wait a moment to see what became of Ingrid.

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

19 April 2022

#Review - Kezia and Rosie by Rebecca Burns

Kezia and Rosie
Rebecca Burns
Dahlia Publishing, 26 March 2022
Available as: PB, 128pp
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781913624095

I'm grateful to the author for an advance e-copy of Kezia and Rosie to consider for review.

This is a collection of stories which, while being self-contained in their explorations of a moment or an event, link to tell us about the lives of Kezia (8) and Rosie (6),  two young girls staying with their grandparents in the summer of 1986 while their mum is elsewhere. They, especially Rosie, from whose point of view the stories are told, worry about her absence - less about their dad's absence. The reader will see that there is some trouble there. Rosie is also conscious of that, but is focussed very much on the here and now.

Rebecca Burns is very good at developing this split perspective, showing the significant events that matter to Rosie (the forbidden delights of browsing the adult shelves in the library, receiving birthday presents, the weekly routines of life with her grandparents from "Final Score" to swinging on the garden gate) but also her interest in what the grown-ups are doing: overheard conversations and telephone calls 'when the girls were supposed to be asleep', looks between adults, things that don't fit. Both of these have a significance that Kezia ponders. As an eight year old ('Kezia is thrilled too bit it's important not to show it. She's almost eight, and that's too old to be excited by chips') she's interested in limits and boundaries - what is allowed and what is forbidden, what the consequences are of crossing a line, and whether or not it will be discovered. She notes when others cross lines - the unheard-of occasion when her normally demure grandmother swears, for example 

As the elder child, Kezia is also very conscious of her position with regards to Rosie, and the need to keep her in order. But she's also very concerned - Rosie's arm was hurt and causes her pain.

For me, the book beautifully portrays childhood in a certain time and place - pre Internet and media saturation, a telephone call a significant and probably expensive event, the smell of Savlon, mint sauce, cream from the top of the milk... I grew up in the 70s, a little earlier than this, but that same side of that divide and the atmosphere and detail ring very true to me. So  does the sense of wonder and fear that Kezia shows, experiencing so much for the first time, trying to join it all all up, feeling elated at one moment one she works something out, terrified another for the most unaccountable (to an adult) of reasons. 

And while the narrative is driven by those vivid childhood highlights - escaped ferrets from the garden next door and the exaggerated gusto with which the adults join in the pleasing terror, the boredom staying indoors during a rainy spell, loss of a favourite toy - there's always the wider picture in the background, a sense of uncertainty over the future, disruption to little lives, the fact that Grandad and Grandma are clearly worried. Kezia feels an anger, and 'something within her is praying for words that will make sense of this summer'.

It's a gem of a book, both sad in what we glimpse of the wider background and also comforting in its focus on loving relationships and on finding a way through. A great read, and a book I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about Kezia and Rosie and to order a copy, see the publisher's website here and the author's website here

16 April 2022

#Review - Escape from Yokai Land by Charles Stross

Escape From Yokai Land (Laundry Files, 12)
Charles Stross
Tor, 1 March 2022
Available as: HB, 81pp, e
Source: Bought from Transreal Fiction
ISBN: 9781250805706

I loved this novella as I've loved all of Stross's Laundry books. Unlike some of the longer works, it's a fairly simple story: set before the cataclysm of the New Management, it gives us a glimpse of Bob Howard visiting Japan on "business", as teased a couple of times in other stories where this trip conveniently kept him absent from crises which, with his newly-acquired abilities as avatar of the eater of Souls, he might have bossed rather too easily.

So essentially, a supernatural crisis is brewing in Japan and its equivalent of the Laundry has called for help, expecting Angleton (though, as becomes clear, not with any great enthusiasm: he has a reputation...)

Instead they get Bob and, rather than let him loose right away, decide he needs to be tested first. There is therefore a series of interesting scenes between Bob, his liaison Yoko Suzuki, and a series of bizarre supernatural infestations, before we get to the real bad. I enjoyed this, Stross is as ever sharp and economical in summing up the social side of things - the office politics, prejudices and little quirks of corporate life - and in Yoko he creates an interesting protagonist it would be good to meet again (though as the Laundry series is moving to a close, I suspect we won't).

In short, it's nice to get a glimpse of the powered-up Bob, though the book does show why Stross has had to hold him back from the more recent Laundry novels. His new powers don't though protect him from senior management and HR. It was a shame that Mo didn't appear, though I live in hope that we will see her again soon.

You'll obviously want to read this if you are following the Laundry saga, if you aren't it probably won't mean much to you - but then you have the blessing of being able to read the series form the beginning so you should get on and do that.

For more information about Escape From Yokai Land, see the publisher's website here and Mr Stross's online Q&A here.

12 April 2022

#Review - The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

The Cartographers
Peng Shepherd
Orion, 17 March 2022
Available as: HB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781398705425

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Cartographers via NetGalley, to consider for review.

The Cartographers is a vibrant and exciting mystery story with a real killer of a central concept (one which, however, I can't say very much about because spoilers) and it is a book that I greatly enjoyed.

Nell Young is in a corner, financially and professionally. Brought up in the rarefied academic atmosphere surrounding her cartographer father, Dr David Young, all she has ever wanted to do is work with him in the rare maps department of the New York Public Library. But seven years before, she was cast out of Eden, and now scratches a living - literally - by touching up fake copies of old maps (adding in little drawings of sea monsters to make them more saleable) for online seller Classic.

When Nell's dad is found dead in his office, she realises she has lost the chance to reconcile with him, and embarks on a quest to understand him instead. Orphaned - her mother died many years before - her only clue is the unremarkable 1930s gas station map that she finds in his desk...

As Nell begins to track down and question her father's oldest friends, she realises that there is something very strange in their background. And that somebody else may be interested in that very ordinary map.

I did, as I've said, greatly enjoy The Cartographers. It's a testament to the interest of Shepherd's story and the strength of her writing that the book is able to zip back and forth, exploring events of thirty years before from multiple viewpoints to paint in the background to what threatens Nell now, and without ever losing headway. I often find myself slightly floored if a book has a lot of flashback, but done well, as here, it maintains, rather than squashing, tension.

And the story that is teased out is rich and psychologically detailed - the story of a group of charismatic college friends, at the height of their abilities, joining together to try and make something truly new, a fusion of cartographic science and of art, a 'Dreamer's Atlas'. We see the allure of the project, and for me, also, Shepherd captured that sense of possibility, of being able to weigh how one will spend one's life and who with, that is I think a very special (and sadly brief) phase of growing up. We also see how that ends - with consequences that play out into the "now" of The Cartographers, where hope has become fear and spontaneous trust and love, suspicion and manipulation.

At the same time, it's an accomplished and polished modern thriller with a very real sense of menace. It's natural to that genre that the reader will be slightly ahead of Nell in knowing there is danger, and perhaps, eventually, also ahead in putting together the clues and determining what is going on. That doesn't detract from the drama of seeing her unravel her family's and friends' background and grasping the psychological tragedy that she has been shielded from.

How Nell will negotiate all this, whether she will be able to grow herself enough to understand her father and what he did, and whether she will be able to break that spiral in her own relationships - and above all, whether she can do any of this in time, well, you will have to read the book to see. 

Intelligent, fun and rather sad, this is a substantial and engaging book that I'd strongly recommend. 

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

7 April 2022

#Review - Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen Spotswood

Murder Under Her Skin (Pentecost and Parker, 2)
Stephen Spotswood
Wildfire, 7 December 2021
Available as: HB, 352pp, e, audio
Source: Advance HB copy
ISBN(HB): 9781472291677

I'm grateful to Wildfire Books for an advance copy of Murder Under Her Skin to consider for review.

It was a joy to return to the 1940s New York of detective duo Willowjean (Will) Parker and Lilian Pentecost following their debut in Fortune Favours the Dead.

In the opening pages of the new story we see Ms Pentecost in court, turning the tables on a murderer despite the best efforts of his lawyer. We also see the toll that takes on her. Lilian suffers from MS, something that means courtroom jousting and long-distance travel will have consequences - the realistic portrayal of a long-term illness being one of the ways in which these books are, despite outward appearances, very far from being "cosy crime". 

Another is the focus on figures who are very much outsiders in their world, one where conformism and keeping up appearances is becoming more and more important. Will, for example, is bisexual. The story will also explore the position of war veterans as well as the showmen and -women with whom Will previously travelled. When word arrives that an old friend of Will's from the circus has been murdered, there's never any doubt that Lilian Pentecost will want to take matters in hand, whatever the cost to her health. The scene therefore shifts from the big city to the small country town where Ruby died and which - surely not a coincidence? - is also the place she originally came from as the two women, arriving after a marathon train journey, set to work to disentangle circus rivalries, small town bitternesses and jealousies, and darker hints about Ruby's earlier life. This young woman, who appeared in the sideshows showing off her prolific tattoos, seemingly rejected the morality of her birthplace, never returning even for her parents' funeral. Might that act of rebellion have led to her death?

I really loved the way that Spotswood gets under the skin (as it were) of both communities and characters here. The circus he describes is in some ways more exotic than the upper-class moneyed world of the last book, but actually it comes across as much more relatable, more of a family. Similarly the town has its own ways and in particular Spotswood doesn't swerve from the fact that it displays open racism yet he resists the temptation to create clichéd backwoods villains. Rather we get what feels like a convincing and real network of relationships, both for good and bad, in each community.

Which doesn't make this an easy crime to solve. Both circus and townspeople are suspicious; the circus is failing, with crowds no longer flocking to the Big Top. There are hints of money troubles and defections. In the town, we see war veterans who have returned with injuries, visible or invisible, which nobody wants to hear about. There is also a revivalist religious element who are picketing the circus, and a Sheriff who sees the place very much as HIS town and who would be glad to pin the blame for the murder on one of the showfolk.

The truth is hidden among all this, but there is (of course) little time to get to the bottom of things. 

Are Pentecost and Parker daunted? Of course not. But getting to the roots of it all will mean Will having to tread on uncomfortable ground, with Ruth's background and her own open to question.

A really fun, intriguing detective mystery with great depth, shrewd characterisation and convincing characters and locations. A strong follow-up to Fortune Favours the Dead.

For more information about Murder Under Her Skin, see the publisher's website here

5 April 2022

#Review - Braking Day

Braking Day
Adam Oyebanji
Jo Fletcher Books, 5 April 2022
Available as: HB, 368pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529417111

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Braking Day to consider for review.

Braking Day is an intelligent and atmospheric SF thriller set aboard a generation ship as it nears the end of its voyage. I enjoyed the scuffed and worn atmosphere of the Archimedes, 132 years into the mission and 6 generations of crew on from the original pioneers. Constructed as a series of habitat wheels mounted on a central core, the ship has lost one segment - "Hungary" - due an asteroid strike and another - "Ghana" is failing as its bearings give out. There is a palpable air of decay and a weariness among the crew of the Archimedes, combined with a fatalism (at least from most) that the mission will, indeed shortly end. Elsewhere in the Fleet, another ship has problems with its hydroponics. They won't be arriving a moment too soon at Tau Ceti, the "destination star".

And yet. Some on board are still wary of the idea of planetfall. It seems weird and unnatural to contemplate living on the outside of a ball of rock, unshielded from the radiation of the star. And others have moral scruples. The faction known as "BonVoys" want to prolong the journey, saving the new world from pollution and exploitation and staying in their safe, familiar vessel. 

Ravi MacLeod, a young trainee engineer, shares some doubts with the first group. But relistically, the journey can't go on for ever, and he looks forward to just having more space than his current cramped quarters allow. That's if he ever makes it to the planet - life has been particularly challenging lately. The MacLeods are seen as, basically, thieving scum - Ravi's dad was condemned to the recycler several years before - and he feels at risk of being thrown off his training course at any moment. The division in this story between "officers" and the rest is stark, reinforcing the dystopian atmosphere of the book where anyone over 75 is seen as "Dead Weight" and recycled; where water is scarce, and treated as a unit of value; where despite everyone being "crew" with a single mission, power and prestige seen to inhere in particular families;  where those families seem to have their own agendas for the vogage. 

Other problems haunting Ravi include headaches, hallucinations, and disturbing dreams which seem to be trying to tell him something about the Fleet. This is not only worrying but it makes it hard to perform his - very strenuous - daytime duties. Desperate for help, he turns to the only person he can think of - his cousin Boz. Boz is, however, a quintessential MacLeod, a bad girl with fingers in many dodgy pies and who has herself come within a whisker of being declared Dead Weight. She, too, may well have her own plans for the future...

The interaction between model pupil Ravi and near-delinquent - even if she is a brilliant coder - Boz - we a great delight in this book. The light their different attitudes cast on the social structure of Archimedes helps make the story very, very real and those social structures are really the heart and soul of the book. I wasn't completely convinced by the science, especially the pseudo-gravity, but in my view that really doesn't matter so long as it's basically plausible: what counts rather is the credible treatment given both to the evolution of society aboard the ship, its current pathological form, and the impact of that on the fifth and sixth generation crew who never asked to be born into such a strange situation. 

Above all, perhaps, the focus this story casts on the why of the trip. Why would you commit to that one way journey, knowing your kids, and their kids, and their kids, will live out their lives aboard the ship, with only distant generations having any chance of arrival? Oyebanji makes out a very plausible case in the future of Earth and it's one that will drive a potential conflict for those descendants, albeit one they don't expect. Things have been hidden form the travellers, and Ravi and Boz may be the first since Launch to understand the full truth - and the nature of the danger that threatens everyone's dreams. 

Of course, Ravi's own dreams and hallucinations do prove to be linked to this central mystery. We're not kept on tenterhooks to the very end about it as he and Boz work out what it is, rather enlightenment comes earlier (though some mysteries remain) moving the second half of the book more into thriller and conflict territory as they have to face up to a responsibility for the Fleet and the 30,000 or so humans within it. That position poses particular dilemmas, especially for Ravi whose self-image and life plans have all been about distancing himself from his raffish family and progressing within Fleet society - what will he do if all that respectability is at risk because of the action he needs to take? 

Very much about growing up and taking responsibility, but also about learning to question and think for oneself, Braking Day is very effective in matching the external challenge to a protagonist with whom the reader will I think feel a lot of sympathy.

For more information about Braking Day, see the publisher's website here.

4 April 2022

#Review - The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu

The Tangleroot Palace & Other Stories
Marjorie Liu
Titan Books, 5 April 2022
Available as: PB, 239pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789099621

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of The Tangleroot Palace to consider for review.

The Tangleroot Palace contains seven stories, each with a short afterword giving context. While, there are I think, all squarely fantasy - and some are set in this world - they are all, in various ways, also fairytale-adjacent. Woods feature prominently, as does magic, and figures who might, as you hurry by, take for witches. Monsters abound, whether powerful magicians, scary creatures or dangerous men, and it's often a young woman who must understand what's needed and face down the threat.

In the first story, Sympathy for the Bones, Clora is apprenticed to 'old Ruth', both of them living in a remote, rural district of the US, perhaps in the first half of the 20th century. They are wise women, helping out with the problems and concerns of their community, and with a particular talent for dealing with troublesome men. But, as gradually becomes clear, Cora isn't happy herself and is considering using her magic for more personal ends. I found great sense of place in this story, and space and time given to credible human emotions even in a world of strange and dark possibilities.

The Briar and the Rose is set in a fantasy world and is (as the title suggests) a take on Sleeping Beauty which addresses and responds to the more problematic aspects of that story - the lack of agency of Beauty herself and her abuse while enchantedly asleep. The Duellist is a magnificent character, a female mercenary and a woman of colour hired to guard courtesan Carmela (so, perhaps a hint of the vampire?) Also featuring is Rose, with whom the Duellist (also called Briar, but only on a Sunday) develops a deep and bewitching romantic bond. No princes need apply!

The Light and the Fury takes place in an alternate, steampunk nineteenth century China where Xing, a proto superhero, battles against the machinations of the wicked British, against treason and familial disloyalty. I loved this story, an incredible mashup of genres and history but also a tale with righteous fury at its heart and a heroine who has, herself, plenty of heart.

The Last Dignity of Man also plays with ideas of superheroes, but also alternate science and power. Alexander Lutheran's scientific enterprise both echoes and contradicts his nickname of "Lex Luthor". There are no superheroes, but might there be villains? An intriguing take on destiny and the beguiling of self-image, this was a fun story that kept me guessing to the end.

Where the Heart Lives is a prequel to Liu's Dirk & Steele paranormal romance/ detective series, presenting an origin for the agency and introducing Lucy as she arrives at Miss Lindsay's house, fleeing her abusive father in a similar setting to that of Sympathy for the Bones. Her arrival catalyses change in the woods and the freeing of a captive but most of all, it requires Lucy herself to grow up very quickly. With tendrils reaching back into ancient myth, Where the Heart Lives balances many elements and was fun to read.

After the Blood is a story with a rather post-apocalyptic film, with the world overrun by monsters - I was reminded of zombie or werewolf fantasy, with scattered outposts holding out against the monsters. But these are monsters that see to focus only on some, and against whom those few have, it seems, means of defence. Complicated by changes in the world that have led to widespread religious prejudices, this was a nicely different "us against the monsters" take.

Tangleroot Palace itself, the final story in the book, is novella length. It's perhaps a more out-and-out fairy tale with a king (whose kingdom is threatened), a princess (facing unwelcome marriage to a barbarian chief) and a Quest. Initially Sally sets out looking for a way to avoid said marriage, but her journey develops into a formative experience with her learning both about her kingdom and her people - but also about the peculiar threat that dwells in Tangleroot Forest. With notes of heroism, sacrifice and the discovery that all is not it seems this was a satisfying and fun story.

Overall this is a very strong group of stories in which repeated themes are explored and, sometimes, similar situations and figures are examined form contradictory perspectives. It's one of those collections where each story adds something to a whole, a wider sense developing of a way of looking at the world.

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

1 April 2022

#Review - Our Child of Two Worlds by Stephen Cox

Our Child of Two Worlds
Stephen Cox
Jo Fletcher Books, 31 March 2022 HB, 13 October 2022 PB
Available as: HB, PB, 352pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781787471627

'Save all the humans!'

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for a free advance e-copy of Our Child of Two Worlds via NetGalley and for inviting me to join the social media blast.

I was really pleased to see this sequel to Our Child of the Stars coming.  Cox takes us back to his alternate early-70s, which is both familiar - the world is stuck in a Cold War and, in the US, the counterculture is running out of steam - and different. The ripples of Meteor Day, when an alien starship crashed near a small US town with one survivor, the child Cory ('Little Glowing Blue Frog' in his own language), continue to spread. The metal creatures known as Snakes are preparing to assault Earth (Moon landings have been attacked and satellites destroyed). Cory's people, the "Purples", have still not turned up, and Molly and Gene - his adoptive parents - are seeing their marriage under strain. Gene yearns to travel, but roaming Earth is impossible because of Cory and his complex situation. He'd really like to go with Cory to the stars ('He wanted to be the first human to breathe those strange, perfumed winds...') if his people ever return, but Molly can't abide the idea. 

Our Child of Two Worlds is about what happens next - about Molly and Gene's attempts to balance their love for Cory with their own hopes and fears in a world utterly changed; about his need, with no role models from his own people, to control the powerful psychic powers with which he's gifted (there is real fear in his recognition of what he can do: 'Cory not-good no-he-isn't Bad Man!'); and about attempts, by various unscrupulous parties, to use or manipulate Cory for their own ends. (Yes, Dr Pfeiffer appears again). 

When danger looms, with wider family threatened, the faultline between Molly and Gene is under even more pressure, with Cory, too, torn in different directions. Cox's nuanced portrayal of Cory is brilliant. We're not given a physical description, as though he was a different sort of thing, rather we see him through Molly and Gene's love - so occasionally a physical detail drops such as his 'strange striped ear', his inner eyelids (so he presumably has several), his tail - but there is no need to form a picture of Cory, rather all such glimpses are there to illustrate his emotions and mental state and the fullest description of him is as a loving, fearful and generous-hearted little boy on whom the hopes and fears of the word are projected.

I love the way that Cox weaves together big, startling, science-fictional ideas - Aliens! Earth under attack! Scary mental powers! - with very personal ones: a failing marriage where husband and wife want very different things, a scared child, a manipulative husband. And indeed, the wonderful, tiny details of parenthood - 'the trance of the midnight parent' or the beauty in 'seeing a child in healthy sleep'. I felt this portrayal of humans under strain - and not just Molly and Gene - was very realistic, and far from judgemental. Cox is at pains to make us understand the history and in all the arguments and disputes there is no absolute right and wrong (even, perhaps, when said Dr P comes on the scene). And he makes his alt-history seem so plausible - all the little details tell (Simon and Garfunkel have a hit called "Meteor Day", there are rumours (of course!) that the Beatles will get back together to sing for Cory). There are also some fun little points to be spotted, I think; I'd swear Cox has put a sign of his passing by into Molly and Gene's journey, I also thought I glimpsed both 2001 and War of the Worlds references as well as a belief that 'The Truth is Out There'. 

None of that detracts from or diminishes the tension, as Earth's defences are stripped away by the Snakes. Rather, the level of jeopardy is emphasised because the crack that runs through the Myers' marriage is all about Cory - if he returns to the stars, should they go with him or stay behind? Will they have that choice? Is it selfish to think of such things, faced with the threat to both humanity and to Cory's people? Soberingly, as I write this in March 2022, we read that Dr Preiffer, considering that threat, 'had been able to stare in to the abyss that was the possibility of nuclear war because he believed the Soviet leadership was not wholly irrational...' - that suddenly seems very on-point. 

Like the best SF, Our Child of Two Worlds is about us, at our best and worst, and how we respond to the best and the worst in others. Cory's people are from a very different, almost Utopian seeming culture and - as in one of Swift's novels - we're judged by that comparison, Cory himself noting it even as his love for his adopted parents and his friends burns bright. Are we worth saving, if we seem willing to destroy ourselves anyway?

A fiercely intelligent, engaged and often angry novel, Our Child of Two Worlds is moving, exciting and deeply readable.

For more information about Our Child of Two Worlds, see the publisher's website here and catch up with other blogs on the poster below