Map of Blue Book Balloon

19 May 2022

#Review - Someone in Time (ed Jonathan Strahan)

Someone in Time
Edited by Jonathan Strahan
Solaris, 12 May 2022
Available as: PB, 416pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781786185099

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Someone in Time to consider for review.

This is a collection of stories of time-crossed lovers, by some major names in contemporary SFF - there are stories here by Alix E. Harrow, Carrie Vaughn, Catherynne M. Valente, Elizabeth Hand, Ellen Klages, Jeffrey Ford, Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Margo Lanagan, Nina Allan, Rowan Coleman, Sam J. Miller, Sameem Siddiqui, Sarah Gailey, Seanan McGuire, Theodora Goss and Zen Cho.

As with any such collection, part of the fun was reading pieces by authors I hadn't encountered before, as well as recognising the styles and approach of some I was more familiar with, and seeing how those addressed the overall theme of the anthology. Blending time travel and romance sounds straightforward, but it's not just a matter of two time travellers (or a time traveller and a citizen of the past or future) falling for one another, is it? With the possibilities of forbidden knowledge from another timeline, or of losing a lover in the multiverse, or, with whole futures at stake, having to do the Right Thing, there is much to explore.

Among my favourites were Allan's story The Lichens, in which future time-adventurer Joe (Josephine) falls for Helen, a woman living at the time of Culloden. It has a sense familiar in her writings of taking part in a wider universe with various mysteries alluded to but left unresolved. I enjoyed Joe's and Helen's delicate dance around each other, expressed by each separately in the idioms of their own times which combine to create a narrative with emotional depth. 

Or there's Sam J Miller's Unabashed, or: Jackson, Whose Cowardice Tore a Hole in the Chronoverse, which is a story of a lost love, a young man who's lost his just-met boyfriend and sees through a whole life all the ways that things could have gone differently. More, he inhabits a myriad of possible worlds of regret and self-blame - a vivid way to bring to life those times when the multiverse tips and it's impossible inability to fix it. This reminded me of themes in Miller's forthcoming collection Boys, Beasts and Men

And in Ellen Klages' Time Gypsy, there's a glimpse of California in the bad old days as time travel enables a moment heroine to travel back to the 50s to unravel an issue of scientific attribution. It's so vividly imagined - both the casual sexism and homophobia, and the human connections that route around it. I simply love Klages' writing.

But really, all of the stories here are excellent. In Alix E Harrow's Roadside Attraction, I loved the idea that a working time "machine" - actually, a sandstone obelisk in a remote rural community in the US - could become one of those local attractions that brings in a trickle of tourists and has an extensively stocked gift shop. Such is the fate of the object here, which attracts Floyd Butler - heart not really broken by Candace Stillwater - to seek out adventure. The presence of time travel is almost incidental, simply providing a means of escape as Butler runs into increasing levels of danger rather than face what his heart is telling him. A beatifully imagined story, all the more so for the balance between the personal and the cosmic.

In a slightly different conception of time travel,  Zen Cho's The Past Life Reconstruction Service imagines a service that can immerse the subject in their own previous incarnations. It's time travel, but then again, it's not. Setting the scene, perhaps, for self-discovery rather than messing with the timeline (an issue many of the stories here have to navigate) we see Rui, a brilliant film director who is stymied creatively after the poor reception of his most recent film, distract himself by exploring past iterations of himself, taking in different genders, different periods of history, and even different species - in one iteration, he has the life of a cow. Each time, a perplexing presence appears - can that be telling him something?

Seanan McGuire's First Aid takes Taylor back in time for research purposes. It's a strictly one-way trip, intended to immerse the subject in her era so that she can bury notes for the future, and the prep is extreme - including surgery to help her blend in with the folk of Elizabethan England. You can't prepare for every eventuality, though, and surgery can't anticipate matters of the heart. This was a sweet story juxtaposing the grim near-future financial necessity which drives Taylor to do what she does and the possibility of fining something - someone - that can redeem her from it.

Moving from time exploration to the "Time Police" idea which had to feature here, Sarah Gailey's I Remember Satellites features a young woman being sent back for a "short straw" operation. You'll recognise the setting, though the names have been changed. It's a sacrificial assignment to change the the past - or, perhaps, prevent it being changed, but the reality of what's going on is less important than the dilemma here: the pull of love against duty as two young women, far away from home, weigh their passion against world-changing consequences.

The Golden Hour, by Jeffrey Ford, introduces its time traveller in the first sentence. Our narrator's encounter with him is slightly beguiling, allusive, taking place in a quiet town that seems to be nowhere in particular or perhaps, everywhere at once. It's a story of quite observation and the working out of a puzzle, whose nature isn't actually revealed until almost the end. 

Also among my favourites here, Elizabeth Hand's Kronia takes this sense of wonder, of having no firm ground, even further. It's a story that, read closely, seems to contradict itself, presenting alternatives and crossings over, enhanced by being written in the second person and therefore posing the question, is this being told to the Other or is it somehow hypothetical? Sometimes I thought it was one, sometimes the other, but the sense of possibility seems very apt for the story of a romance, or a potential one.

If I had to name an absolute favourite in this book it might well be Bergamot and Vetiver by Latanya Lakshminarayan. This none has it all. There is a hopeless quest for a lost love, a burning injustice to be resolved and a massive, irredeemable tragedy. We see a traveller from the - a - future visit a past, a past which, unknowing, she is bound to affect. Positing the advanced technology and knowledge advantage of the future as a potential source of exploitation, Bergamot and Vetiver is I think the story here that seems to question the whole ethical basis of time travel, not just point up its potential unintended consequences.

Catherynne M Valente's  The Difference Between Love and Time is very difficult to sum up. Of all the stories here, it's perhaps the most distinct, introducing us to "THE SPACE/ TIME CONTINUUM" as a character ('It is, as you have probably always expected, non-linear, non-anthropic, non-Euclidean, and wholly non-sensical'). It is also dangerous to fall in love with, or dangerous not to fall in love with, depending - in this surreal, Cubist painting of a narrative, all truths are true and all untruths as well, the beginning is the middle and the end, the beginning. 

Romance: Historical by Rowan Coleman was always going to delight me, because it's a story about a bookshop. Beth, a young assistant who wants nothing more than to disappear into the bookshelves, finds that something else got there first. You'll find no time machines or paradoxes here (well, not exactly any paradoxes) but instead rather a sweet romance, the more so for being clearly, hopelessly, doomed. Really enjoyable.

The Place of All the Souls by Margo Lanagan takes us both to a near future bless with longevity but perhaps cursed by infertility, and a Victorian past, linked by time travel, and is one of the few stories here that examines infidelity and jealousy as a daughter learns some truths about her mother. It rather splendidly illustrates the theme of love finding its way, as does Timed Obsolescence by Sameem Siddiqui which imagines a future where one can employ a time-traveller to go back and record a Significant Moment featuring an ancestor. But where there are employees there will be office romances, whether the employees are desk bound or ferreting back through the timelines.

In A Letter to Merlin, Theadora Goss gives us the real background to The Matter of Britain as a dying woman form the future endlessly revisits one corner of history - or mythology - seeking to change the timeline. But that aspect is actually almost incidental, what really impressed me here was what is only hinted at, an interior view of the whole fantastical tale of Arthur, Guinevere and Merlin which would make a cracking novel, I think. 

Carrie Vaughan's Dead Poets features one of the most inventive methods of time travel I can recall, although in a sense it's of a piece with several stories in this book that portray it as a mental exercise, rather than the creation of elaborate physics. That's in keeping with the theme of the story: 'The study of literature is the process of continually falling in love with dead people'. And how. The protagonist here follows her heart and in return, receives a wholly unexpected insight into one of the darkest love stories of history. Creepy, beautiful and entrancing, this one is simply glorious.

So - time travel as accident, as profession, as mental exercise; alternate timelines precious and to be preserved (until forbidden love says otherwise) or the subjects of manipulation and exploitation, love both attained and deferred, its object gloriously present or lost in a myriad of dimensions, realities and alternatives - they're all here, and much more. A collection that will get the pulse racing in place, or evoke a sigh in others. But always fun, readable and heartfelt.

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


17 May 2022

#Review - The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

The Stardust Thief
Chelsea Abdullah
Orbit, 19 May 2022
Available as: HB, 467pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356517438

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy (a SIGNED ARC!) of The Stardust Thief to consider for review.

The Stardust Thief delivers all you could want from intelligent, engaging (and engaged) fantasy: a sweeping, well-realised setting, ancient magics, devious plots and schemes and - most important - a band of absorbing, flawed and complex characters. 

It's good on so many levels. It really is.

Loulie al-Nazari is a notorious thief, the "Midnight Merchant", renowned throughout the kingdom for her ability to source priceless magical artefacts which she then sells to her clients. Accompanied by her faithful friend and bodyguard, Qadir, she cuts a glamorous figure - but hides a desperate sadness, having lost her family and indeed her entire tribe at a young age to murderous bandits.

Qadir, too, has secrets: yes, there are things that Loulie, who he trusts absolutely, knows about him which could get him into deep trouble, but he carries an air of mystery even beyond that. An exile, with dangerous powers and skills, whose life depends on not attracting attention, he's appalled when Loulie is summoned by the Sultan, who wishes to employ her.

Also introduced here are Mazen, the Sultan's younger son, and Aisha, a thief employed by Omar, Mazen's elder brother. Without wanting to, the four end up sharing a journey out of town, towards the dreadful Sandsea, habitation of jinn, ghouls and worse.  Deception and double-dealing abound, to be gradually revealed over a series of hair-raising adventures. The story is held together in the meantime by traditional tales, printed here as they are given by storytellers or by one of our faithful band. Reality and folktale blur as we hear of ifrit, magic lamps, cunning bargains driven with fearsome jinn, forty thieves, a storyteller who protects her life by the tales she recounts every night to her lord. And revenge. So much revenge! You will recognise some of the elements, but Abdullah brings them together into a whole that adds depth (and clues) to her narrative. The background is the persecution of the jinn by Mazen's father - we only gradually learn why he is doing this - and human greed for the precious relics that they enchant and which are left behind when they die. My sympathies were rather with the jinn than with humans, but at the same time it's clear they are dangerous, unbiddable beings. (Though the same could be said for other characters here).

Overtly, the story is a quest: Loulie, Mazen and Qadir, in particular, but also several other characters, have a simple - if difficult - task to accomplish, and they think they know what's going on and who they are. But in reality they won't get anywhere unless they learn to trust each other, and to trust they need to understand one another - and themselves. Secrets between friends prove deadly when enemies begin to appear, and while everyone is physically brave and determined (I loved seeing bookworm Mazen learning to understand that about himself) it's clear that other forms of courage than the physical will be needed, including the courage to let go of long-nursed grudges and griefs, to trust, and to forgive.

The Stardust Thief is glorious, not just a well-plotted and exciting adventure story but one where the characters - even the villains - are deeply sympathetic, with all their failings and faults. The adventure is as much internal as external. (It does add a lot though that externally, this is a gloriously portrayed world with a real sense of the numinous in every description and scene).

This is not to be missed, you should go and order (or pre-order) a copy NOW!

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



14 May 2022

#BlogBlast #Review - Momenticon by Andrew Caldecott

Momenticon
Andrew Caldecott
Jo Fletcher Books, 12 May 2022
Available as: HB, 362pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529415421

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Momenticon to consider for reviews and for inviting me to take part in the social media blast.

If, like me, you are a fan of Caldecott's Rotherweird series and eager to get another the fix of that slightly out-of-kilter world, then your wait is over - while Momenticon is set in a different (and in many ways darker) world, there is more than enough kinship between this book and the eccentric characters, contrivances and convolutions of the earlier series to satisfy. Momenticon is, thoug,h rather more direct about what's going, making it generally tauter with a greater sense of peril from the start.

We are in a post-apocalyptic world, some years after the "Fall" (but not so many that it has passed out of memory). Fogg, to whom we're introduced first, is the curator of a museum which contains many of Earth's greatest artworks. Shielded by a chitin dome to keep out the caustic gases that have destroyed most life, the museum is isolated, and has no visitors. (There's a digital counter, just to make sure). Three years into this role, Fogg has settled into a routine, taking his meals as paste from the "rearranged", doing exercise under the stern eye of his AI personal trainer, and inspecting the exhibits. Nobody comes, and nobody leaves, and Fogg doesn't enlighten us about his history.

Until Morag appears.

Fogg's and Morag's meeting provides an excuse for them both to tell their stories (or bits of them), explaining more about the world they're in which is dominated by two organisations, Tempestas and Genrich, broadly working in the arts and the sciences respectively; about its dependance on dwindling stocks of chitin and tantalum; about the array of strange characters they've met and who have directed them where they are now. It's a complex, desperate story full of loss and abandonment, co-option into others' plans, ambition, and revenge. The upshot is that the scattered communities which have survived the Fall are in danger, but also that a faction or factions are placing Fogg and Moral in danger. They must leave the Museum Dome and find a way to live outside.

That's the cue for a series of breakneck adventures, including journeys by airborne ships (not airships, proper ships but flying), encounters with the enigmatic Lord Vane, head of Tempestas, and his disturbing son, Cosmo; flights from danger into danger and a deeper and better understanding of art. I really mean that - just one of the threads here is the "momenticons", little pills which allow the taker to be present at the creation of a work of art, briefly ("moment icon", yes?) Building further on this idea, there are villages and town set up to recreate paintings from Fogg's museum and roving characters taken from books (especially, the Alice books). Fogg's perfect memory for every last detail of those artworks will prove important - as well as a ragged and committed band of holdouts who are opposed to Vane's, and Lord Sine's (of Genrich) plans... whatever these are.

What else? lost parents. Families where all is not what it seems. Arcane machinery. Postcards. And, at every turn, those spillovers from Alice - not only characters, but themes such as the Looking Glass chess-world that Alice moves through and, most of all perhaps, an air of puzzle-ality, if I may invent a word, to everything - a layering of mysteries and challenges where, just as one is about to solve a riddle, another pushes it aside, leaving a nested series of conundrums which it is vitally important to understand. (Not so easy when you're being pursued by mechanical huntsmen, minions with crossbows, or actual slithy toves).

Quite simply, Momenticon packs an enormous lot in, keeping its protagonists (and the reader) on their toes througout, if rather dizzy, and taking both into a deeply strange but also deeply compelling world. 

I'd strongly recommend.

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

You can buy Momenticon from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.



 

12 May 2022

#Review - A Sh*tload of Crazy Powers by Jackson Ford

A Sh*tload of Crazy Powers (The Frost Files, 4)
Jackson Ford
Orbit, 12 May 2022
Available as: PB, 496pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 978-0356514673

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of A Sh*tload of Crazy Powers to consider for review.

With book 4 in a series, there can be a risk of things becoming stale. Still readable, yes, still what you came to it to get, but - flat. After all, why change anything and risk putting people off?

It's a trap that Jackson Ford avoids here with aplomb. Crazy Powers - while I don't want to say too much about its outcome - upends the safe little world (well, for rather exotic values of "safe") that Teagan Frost, possessor of awesome psychokinetic (PK) abilities and would-be chef (if she can ever scrape together the money to train) has inhabited so far.

A recap. Teagan ('She has zero strategic skills, no filter, a constant ability to screw up even the best-laid plans. She can be ungrateful and whiny, and she takes sarcasm to an Olympic level') was gifted her abilities by mad-scientist parents who endowed her brother and sister with equally awesome, but different, powers (seeing infrared and never having to sleep, respectively). Teagan's brother then killed her parents and sister, and she herself was snapped up by the US Government which uses her for black ops in the Los Angeles area. Over the previous three books we've seen this situation gently come apart, culminating, at the end of Book 3, Eye of the Sh*t Storm, in Teagan sitting in hospital with her friend Annie, who's in a coma, and blaming herself for that. 

This story picks up exactly where that previous one ended. Teagan is still battered, drained and haunted by the earlier events, and may have fatally exposed the secret of her powers by saving hundreds of people from a horrifying death, but she gets no rest, oh no. Ford plunges her into the midst of a kidnap attempt which leads up to one of those fabled LA police chases, all broadcast live on ghoulish news networks. From that point it only gets worse and worse. China Shop, the outfit for which Teagan works, is tasked with providing security for a convention of arms dealers (in an LA hotel? Something seems a bit off here) - and she's not even started to recover from recent events...

I loved this book. Totally loved it. Ford blends together a pack of irritable, exhausted operatives, living on shreds of their nerves; a new group of antagonists in the form of a weird, religious cult; and a bizarre location - the hotel itself, a gothic pile with rumoured hidden tunnels, a helipad and secret rooms. And a mystery, whose unpicking will show the whole sequence of books so far in a new light. He's also very sharp on the setting - we meet 'people who are able to take a red pen to black budgets' (watch out, China Shop!) in a milieu where 'Like most crowds of rich people, it's a mostly white, mostly male demographic.')

At the same time, old antagonists also return, affording Annie, who's a likeable and interesting character, a whole adventure of her own in parallel to that of Teagan and the rest. Annie is also battered and bruised, and her escapade - accompanied by Teagan's boyfriend Nic (is there a bit of a spark there? Ouch...) - gives an opportunity for her to reflect on her own early life, sharing details with the reader that we didn't know before. It also illuminates the relationship between her and Teagan, revealing a much more human side to both that Teagan's endless banter and Annie's chilliness has so far concealed. (Teagan's friendship with ex-gangster and drug dealer Annie is touching - 'Teagan is one of the most exasperating, irritating and confusing people that Annie has ever met... but she is also her friend. Maybe her only real friend.')

Both women, basically, get put through the mill here - one can almost taste their weariness and pain - and it's made plain that both care about much more than their own survival. There's a bond there, but there's also a sense of wider ethics and involvement in society, and perhaps also a sense of growing up, maturing (a bit. A little bit.) A reminder that they're not just action heroes. As you'd expect, it makes this a compelling and must-read instalment of this series and one which sets things up for another which I'll eagerly await. Truly, Teagan (and Ford) throw lots of sh*t up in the air and who knows where it will ever come down?

For more information about A Sh*tload of Crazy Powers see the publisher's website here.


10 May 2022

#Review - Bad Actors by Mick Herron

Bad Actors (Slough House, 8)
Mick Herron
Baskerville, 12 May 2022
Available as: HB, 352pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529378702

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Bad Actors to consider for review.

Bad Actors is the lates novel in the Slough House series, focussing on the spooks (the 'slow horses') that MI5 left behind. Left behind in a decaying, seedy, London office, to be overseen by the decaying, seedy Jackson Lamb. Eight novels in (plus a few novellas) this series is still firing on cylinders - and delivering some surprises.

Slough House has recently been brought to TV (rather splendidly, I think) and in his credits in this book Herron makes clear that the title isn't directed at the actors in the series. It's true that it has been trailed in previous books, and it is also a clever pun on the overlap between 'bad', that is, malign figures - several of whom feature here - and more straightforward hopeless losers and misfits - who also appear - who are simply 'bad' at performing their roles. Not all of the latter are Slow Horses. 

I think there is a bit more to it than that, though. I do wonder whether the adaptation of the series as drama has influenced this book. In Bad Actors, Herron seems to be reflecting the drama in a running series of theatrical metaphors. For example, ''No, really, don't. Let's just workshop it, shall we?' during a meeting, or 'the street dazzle of Soho - the neon lights and mirrored windows'. A junior spook who 'wasn’t quite Oscar material' nevertheless 'had her moments' while one of the characters, Nash, is 'stepping into noir, dimming everything to a monochrome rainbow'. There are many more examples, all contributing to a sense of a stage waiting, of the streets of London as an arena, a performance space. And the sections in the book reflect this, dividing the story into 'Acts' (we actually get Act 2 first, something that itself contributes to the atmosphere at the start). 

This sort of leitmotiv is very much in keeping with the earlier books, which I think each tend have a particular language or framing in a similar way. Of course the books in this series are always alive to the context and setting of a crumbling UK in the cold winds of the 21st century (indeed, Slough House itself could be the overarching metaphor for this) but, perhaps, they draw attention to it in different ways. Here, the theatricality perhaps emphasises that the current crop of 'bad actors' (perhaps in both senses) in Westminster and Whitehall are also, largely, creations, acts in fact. 

But Herron also delights in a less subtle characterisation - for example, giving us a failing Prime Minister whose 'sole qualification for the job had been the widespread expectation that he'd achieve it. Having done so, he was clearly dumbstruck by the demands of office: the pay cut, the long hours, the pandemic, and the shocking degree of accountability involved. For a man who'd made a vocation out of avoidance of responsibility, this last was an ugly blow...' as well as unscrupulous unelected advisers, lurking in the shadows to reshape the hapless nation over which they exercise control. 'The PM's enforcer, Sparrow wasn't as high profile as his predecessors had been - it would have been challenging to maintain that level of unpopularity without barbecuing an infant on live television - but those in the know recognised him as a home-grown Napoleon: nasty, British and short.')

One of this doleful band - a 'superforecaster' attached to No 10, no less - has gone missing. Her boss, the Sparrow referred to above, is perturbed, and Slough House may be a convenient scapegoat. A retired spook is reactivated to investigate, and in a story perhaps showing more crossover than usual between the despairing landings of Slough House and the gleaming corridors of Regent's Park, a host of actors, good and bad, seek to take advantage of the situation; or simply to survive. So Louisa, Lech, Roddy and the rest carry their spears (in Roddy's case, a broken broom) onto the stage, pursued by a Lamb. But we also see Regent's Park on high alert as a foreign spy appears, unheralded, on their radar, with a special message for the First Desk, Diana Taverner. At the same time, she is fighting a battle to prevent her empire being absorbed into the nebulous world of the PM's Special Adviser. 

It's a very full, fast-moving and exciting story (as ever) plumbing deep into the minds and motivations of the cast, but often illustrating them as much through petty office politics as through major plot developments; the consequences of pinching a colleague's lunch from the fridge, for example, or of catching somebody out on a personal Zoom call. But make no mistake that the stakes are high. The events of Slough House, the previous book, are still very much with us (especially a particular absence) and various members of the team cope with their guilt, or don't, about that: that straight-into-Act 2  structure of the book allowing the hangover from Slough House to blur with their recollections of an Act 1 which of course we haven't read, all creating a truly disorienting effect. What happened in Wimbledon? Should we know? Why is there shattered plastic all over Roddy's floor? What has Shirley done now? (And where has she gone?) Combined with the fallout from the missing adviser, there seems a distinct possibility here that somebody in Slough House really has stepped out of line - or at least that Lamb may not be able to prove that they haven't. 

It's a very disquieting opening, setting up a book full of subtly shifting (or undeclared) loyalties (watch Slough House's new recruit, and the machinations of the straw men on the fringes of the Park) which nest slightly with the many enjoyable contrasts and juxtapositions. There is both sophisticated verbal fencing between senior officials ('...Regents Park string pullers knew to tread carefully around Diana. String pullers carry weight, but Diana carried scissors') and, of course, Lamb's crude put-downs. There is Roddy's absurd inner monologue and hapless pantomime shadow combat with a broomstick, but also some utterly serious violence. There is the fatuous and solipsistic world of the politicians and advisers where everything is about message and position and we don't want to hear from experts ('lying in office was no longer a career-threatening felony; the consequence of misleading Parliament was nowadays a lap of honour') and, outside in the cold, the chilling realpolitik and tradecraft of the even badder actors. 

Pretty soon, realities will begin to show through the waffle and piffle...

In short this is a terrific addition to the Slough House series, as sharp and engaged as ever. (And oh, there are scenes here that I can't wait to see on the screen, though some of them may be very tricky to translate...)

For more information about Bad Actors, see the publisher's website here.

5 May 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Sistersong
Lucy Holland
Macmillan, 28 April 2022
Available as: PB, 416pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781529039054

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Sistersong and to Jamie and Stephen at Black Crow for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Sistersong is a generously imagined and well told story rooted in the sub-Roman period, when Britain was no longer defended by the Empire but "England" had not yet formed. It's a story of family, love, revenge and treachery but above all I think a story of becoming what one is - and the costs doing that can accrue. 

This period of this book is sometime described as the "dark ages" -  a term originally used because of the lack of contemporary written records, but which is now avoided because to many it suggests that it was barbarism and decay, which (as this book shows) it was not. It's also sometimes seen the "age of Arthur", a British leader defending his people against the invading Saxons. Again, though, the historical records are scant. This gives an author a great deal of room and Holland takes full advantage, placing this story in a definable place - the kingdom of Dumnonia, in what is now South West England - and associating it with real people (her King, Cador, his successor Constantine, and their Saxon opponents). To these she adds a conflict between the old religion of Celtic paganism and the new Christianity represented by the priest Gildas - also a real person, who wrote one of the few contemporary histories of Britain. (I loved the way that Gildas's actual habit of denouncing pretty much everybody in his writings carries through to acrimonious relationships with nearly everyone here.) 

The main focus of Sistersong is though not on the historical characters but on the fictional Riva, Keyne and Sinne. Cador's three children are vividly portrayed and only too plausible. The story is told from their viewpoints, Holland switching between them - shifts which sometimes preserve the flow of events, sometimes deliberately jar them, but which always illuminate, showing an event from two or even three perspectives as well as giving the reader a fuller picture than any of the characters have.

Of the three, Riva and Sinne are the "twa sisters" of the traditional murder ballad which, as as Holland has explained, was the inspiration for the book: Keyne is the one the ballad left out, for reasons which become clear. It's the relationships between them which really drive the story, each wanting something different. 

One seeks love and adventure. 

Another, injured and (as she sees it) disfigured in a fire as a child, retreats into books and her magical talent for healing, but deep inside, may yearn for other things. 

The third would lead, but is in a society where that seems unlikely, and fears that society seems likely to impose.

The ups and downs of their relationships both affect and illuminate the wider political events - war, invasion, religious conflict and the loss of magic - which will determine the future of Dumnonia and, later, of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which will become England. 

I loved the way that in this book, Holland foregrounds the struggles of the three relatable (if at times frustrating) young people who are doing their "growing ups" just as the tides of history lap the walls of their hill-fort.  Both sides of the story are urgent, and nobody really understands what is going on. It may be tempting to assume that we, privileged 21st century readers, know how things turned out eventually and so understand everything. But no. This is such an unknown period, and Holland so cleverly brings in different factors (I don't want to do spoilers!) that nothing is certain - except love, change, and loss. Family love and romantic love. Personal loss as childhood familiarity gives way to new battle lines: wider loss as the old ways are challenged and change. (But not without a fight!)

I just loved Sistersong, which portrays a complex historical situation without painting heroes and villains (if there were a villain in this book, it might be Gildas who perhaps appears at times as slightly monomaniacal - though once the full truth about him is made known, the reader may revise this point of view). There are nods to what people will recall of the Arthurian stories (especially with one character) but this isn't an attempt to "retell" those - Holland instead creates a world here with echoes in history and in other sources, but which is fully her own.

Overall, a compelling story filled with magic, romance,  and adventure and with many contemporary resonances.

For more information about Sistersong, see the publisher's website here. You can buy Sistersong from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.



3 May 2022

#Review - The Great Witch of Brittany by Louisa Morgan

The Great Witch of Brittany
Louisa Morgan
Orbit, 17 February 2022
Available as: PB, 432pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy and audio subscription
ISBN(PB): 9780356516820

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance e-copy of The Great Witch of Brittany. I also listened to parts of the story as an audiobook, ably and atmospherically narrated by Polly Lee (who rises magnificently to the challenge of portraying the range of accents that the setting and characters demand).

The Great Witch of Brittany is I think the fourth in Morgan's "Witch" series (the others being A Secret History of Witches, her first, which I haven't yet read, The Witch's Kind and The Age of Witches). It follows the life of Ursule Orchière, who at the start of the book, in 1741, is a young Romany woman living with her mother and her wider clan in Brittany. Through the course of the story, Ursule and her mother suffer many trials. Ursule discovers and grows over decades into her magical abilities, while her mothers suffers an appalling ordeal that leaves her with mental scars, eventually becoming speechless. 

The story spans decades, including the birth of Ursule's own daughter and, eventually, her grandchildren. We see death, birth, prejudice, the impact of wider events, and always, always, the little details of life, whether's Ursule's tasks on the farm where she has settled or the particulars of her magical practice. Morgan is good on details - whether Ursule is churning milk, tending a sick goat, meaning a wall or brewing a simple to assist in childbirth, there's a directness to the descriptions here, celebrating all those moments which make up a life well lived, despite challenges that may seem overwhelming.

The story is given in several parts, structured around short, legendary narratives of of Ursule's witchy predecessors, their names and titles - 'The Prophetess Liliane, The Lady Yvette, Irina from the East' - recited almost as a liturgy in her magical ceremonies (recalling the names of saints in the Mass) and leading inexorably up to a final section of the book which summarises the deeds of 'The Great Witch of Brittany' herself, Ursule, somewhat embellished, as the reader will realise, after the manner of legendary material.

There is, then, a certain pre-determinedness to the outcome, but Morgan doesn't let that undermine the sense of jeopardy for her characters or, indeed, the losses and reverses they suffer. Nor does she allow Ursule to be all-powerful, all-knowing or invincible: she may come into great power but she isn't, especially at first, particularly wise and she makes innocent mistakes that cause great harm to herself and those around her. Indeed, almost to the end she's prone to fly into a rage when her family is threatened. and in late 18th/ early 19th century France, there are many threats and, as I have said, much prejudice against the Romany. But there is also kindness, solidarity and friendship though it can take Ursule some time to recognise it for what it is.

Overall, an engaging and heartfelt story using Ursule's position and powers as a witch to explore the place of women in a turbulent age. 

I only had two reservations, neither of which really detract from the story. 

First, in a book set between 1741 and 1820(ish) I expected a little more impact from historic events - yes, the story is set in a remote country district and yes, there is an eruption of banditry due to the "Terror" but no other impact on Ursule and Agnes's lives from what was a series of wars, invasions and political turmoil. 

Secondly, Morgan goes further than just making Ursule a (rather powerful) witch and has her practicising what I think is pretty much modern paganism/ Wicca or something like it (complete with feast days borrowed from both Celtic and Norse mythology and indeed - Lammas - Christianity) and portraying it as the religion of her Romany. I was a bit uneasy about that in principle (in her other books that I've read the protagonists are not members of similarly marginalised groups and they are not given such a detailed belief system) but I suppose this is in the end a fantasy, the Romany people described here may I think be inspired by groups in our world, but this is not our world. It is I think done very respectfully. 

And Ursule's outlook is in the end basically syncretistic - in another plot strand, she purloins a relic of St Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary ("Holy Annie, God's Granny" as I've heard her described). The sliver of bone, housed in its reliquary, is fully integrated into (and clearly, in some way, cooperates with) Ursule's ceremonies  and workings, and "Anne" is recited along with the names of the other "grandmères". A certain pragmatism suits Ursule's character in the end, I think: she is about survival and protection of her family above all, rather than any kind of social or theological purism, and I will therefore take the belief system described as fairly personal to her, in this world, regardless of its resemblance to something in our world..

I'd recommend The Great Witch of Brittany overall. (It was great to see that in Morgan's afterward she gives a shoutout to a book I loved as a child, Rumer Godden's The Diddakoi).

For more information about The Great Witch of Brittany, see the publisher's website here.


 

1 May 2022

#Review - Four more Nightjars! Bat Walk, Spoon, On Mirrors, and Return

Bat Walk
Shirley Stephenson
Nightjar Press, November 2021
Available as: PB, 20pp
Source: Annual subscription
ISBN: 9781907341588

Bat Walk is the story of a woman and her boyfriend who are taking part in just that - a nature walk, held once a year in a remote Northern country, which is an opportunity to observe bats. The story, told in the second person present and therefore subject to a distancing effect, describes events leading up to the trip and then what happens on the night of the walk itself. 

The narrator is preoccupied by her father's illness and her attempts to check up on him back at home and in hospital. Her concerns about being out of phone coverage and unable, when she does get through, to get any update, add a sense of tension and an air of being out of contact. She's already suffering bad dreams and these, combined with a suspicion that not all is well with the boyfriend, set us up for things to go wrong at any moment. 

It's clear that the narrator is far from 100% onboard with the bat project, and really seems to have little in common with her boyfriend, but that fact seems to shrink in importance as the bat walk itself morphs into something folk-horror adjacent at the end of the story. Just what is going on? Stephenson refuses to make it clear, rather leaving things on a delicious note of uncertainty.

Spoon
Robert Stone
Nightjar Press, December 2021
Available as: PB, 16pp
Source: Annual subscription
ISBN: 9781907341656

Oh there are so many dangling mysteries in Spoon. Where shall I begin? 

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who shares his mother's home. He has recently returned with only a small bag of possessions. He has no job. Perhaps he ought to find one. Has he been abroad? In prison? Travelling? We don't know, though there is a sense of some significant past event, something to be regretted.

Rather than explaining this, the narrator spends a lot of time telling us about his observations of animal life in the house and garden: welcome - bees, spiders - and unwelcome - rats, which he attempts to eradicate. (The squeamish may not care for this part.) It's almost as though the close observation of the other creatures that share the space is an effort to avoid something - or, just possibly, the opposite, a way of conveying some truth without being able to state it plainly.

In a few pages, the story covers lots of ground, beginning by evoking the normality of family life, with shrewd nods to the ways things work over time, the tray of tea things that stays in its place for decades, the items nobody ever thinks to replace, the sense of familiarity with all the little noises of the house (water pipes, floorboards). Then is begins to inject notes of doubt. Those noises are so familiar that variations immediately stand out: scurrying in the attic or a poorly functioning boiler provoke dis-ease. The familiar may still be, or point to, the weird.

All this, blended together, gradually loosens the reader's sense of what is real, what is being dreamed and what might simply be an untrue, so there's a sense the story may go anywhere... as indeed it does.

A deeply unsettling, yet fascinating story.

On Mirrors
Ben Tufnell
Nightjar Press, November 2021
Available as: PB, 14pp
Source: Annual subscription
ISBN: 9781907341601

Like many of us, I've spent most of the past two years working from home over a screen and become more familiar than I'd like with my own face. I've noticed the weirdness that results when a different screen options shows both mirror image and camera view at the same time - are those faces behaving themselves?

Tufnell's eerie little story explores this disquiet, though he stays away from modern tech (I think the story is set pre Internet, with the analogue camera still in everyday use) and the weirdness induced by a mirror - which allows for a fine description of the time-worn, spotted artefact and also an investigation of its history and origins.

Tension builds as this history unfolds and as the true nature of the narrator's situation becomes clear. Eventually he takes drastic action to resolve things, but - in a twist of cosmic horror - I suspected that what he did "won't hold up the weather".

Return
David Frankel
Nightjar Press, November 2021
Available as: PB, 13pp
Source: Annual subscription
ISBN: 9781907341595

A young man (impliedly, though it is never confirmed) returns to his home after an absence. He hasn't sent a message ahead, so nobody is expecting him, and he just walks into the house. Where is everybody? The absence of his family grows from being a bit odd, to strange, to the defining feature of the books. And there are strangenesses besides.

Frankel's story packs into a few pages an entire account of what went wrong and presumably what led to the narrator's absence. It's done layer by layer, with the reader's level of concern rising steadily until it consumes one's understanding of the story and suddenly shows everything in a very different light. The unease bleeds over from a curiosity about what happened then, to a doubt about what is happening in the now of the story, a concern over how what we see can coexist with what we seem to being shown - and about what will happen next.

The realisation of how this is going to play out comes suddenly,  with various explains, from the supernatural to the religious to the psychological still available - the choice between them perhaps for the reader.

This is edge-of-your-seat, tense stuff, transporting the reader to an unfamiliar and very uneasy place.