24 August 2016

The Constant Soldier

The Constant Soldier
Image from www.panmacmillan.com
William Ryan
Mantle, 25 August 2016
HB, 368pp
Source: I'm grateful for an advance copy of this book to review 

It is early 1944. A soldier rides away from battle  through a fairytale landscape of glittering ice, snow-boughed trees and frozen rivers. he is injured and will have to spend many weeks and months recuperating before being discharged home, used, broken and racked with guilt. But the war hasn't finished with him, and even on that journey back from the Front, he passes another train - 'a long line of snow-roofed cattle trucks'. There are no windows, only high, barred slits. 'From some of them - not all - thin, blood streaked hands ingnored the wire to reach out, as if looking for something their owners couldn't see.'

In 1944, on the Eastern front, the Third Reich is entering its final days, reaping the fruits of murder. Brand is coming home to face his past, make what peace he can with it and try to save something. meantime, Polya is also coming, part of the all conquering Red Army, driving her T-34 tank on the long road to Berlin.

In an afterword, Ryan explains how this story was inspired by a real place - an SS rest hut in German-occupied Poland, where murderers and torturers came to forget their work and relax. The book includes two photographs from an album kept by one of the officers looking after the hut during those last days: incongruous pictures of Christmas trees and hunting parties. This contrast between everyday life - if one can use the term - and apocalyptic events taking place over the hills, where the Russians approach, or down the road in the camp, where human beings are butchered, underlies the story, beginning as a mere convenience for the hut's orderlies and guests - the ignoring of inconvenient and evil truths - and growing into a grand collective delusion as the enemy approach and the end comes near - but none dare admit it.

That battle rages in all the characters (except Polya, perhaps) - Brandt, who was forced into the army to escape 'political trouble' and bears a double guilt, for what he did then and for the fact that his lover fell into the hands of the Gestapo due to him; for Neumann, in charge of the hut, who has been excused 'active involvement' in the camp after a trauma which literally haunts him; Jager, the hardened Waffen SS man who has no hope left and sees through everything. Only, perhaps, the more stupid remain comfortable. 

I was in two minds about this pervasive guilt and sense of mis-ease. At one level, it might be reassuring to think that many Germans - and those who joined in the terrible crimes of the Second World War - knew, at some level, that what was happening was utterly wrong. I want to believe in their humanity, that they would be troubled by what was happening, what they were complicit in. That seems like a sign of hope, a small flower in a bleak desert. But no - I think what the book demonstrates is the terrible power of events, of going along with things. Those mental reservations, that unease, doesn't save a single wretch from death. Still less the realisation that it's all going up in flames and time to turn to turn coat and denounce what's been going on. (A couple of soldiers discuss the inevitable future war between the West and Russia and how they will be needed in it).

In this moral cesspit, Brandt, tainted and loathing himself, tries to rescue those he can. His determination to atone plunges us into an action-filled and morally ambiguous story, one that powers along like those Russian tanks sweeping westwards. Against the huge forces in motion it seems as though nothing he does can have any significance, yet he, and some of the others, do what they can. There is the woman he lost all those years ago and her fellow prisoners. There are the boys and old men of the village, press-ganged into Hitler's last ditch Dad's Army, the Volkssturm. There's his sister and the rest of his family. (The village will not be safe when the Russians come: but even before that, it's not safe - partisans prowl the woods and fanatical Nazis like the Mayor prowl the streets. And it hasn't been safe for many for years: "The Glintzmanns have moved away"). The political prisoner, Agneta, knows that the body of her Jewish friend Lena should be washed but only has tears to do it with. The two women who are 'Bible students' refuse to condone the killing even when a single word would free them at any time.  does what he can. 

One can't escape guilt - even Polya suffers guilt as her tank crushes a refugee wagon and kills a mother and her children - and there is no redemption or absolution here but one can try to save something from the wreckage, perhaps, make things a bit less bad. But it's deeds that count not inner guilt, unspoken repugnance nor even - as with a couple of characters - self-destruction (either by suicide or throwing oneself at the approaching Russians). 

It's a sobering and at times desperately sad book, a story of love, loss, revenge, guilt and endurance - perhaps above all, of endurance. A magnificent read and a real reminder of the times Europe and its people have been through and the need to be on our guard against their repetition.

23 August 2016

The Girl with all the Gifts

The Girl with all the Gifts
MR Carey
Orbit, 2016 (film tie-in edition)
PB, 461
Source: Paperback copy kindly supplied by the publisher, original ARC from Amazon Vine (2014).

In celebration of this book being released as a film, it's been reissued in paperback in a pretty nice new design - something that you don't often get with film tie-ins, in my opinion! It also has some nice extras - an interview with the author, some book group questions and previews of his next book Fellside and of Resistance is Futile by Jenny Colgan.

I'm therefore dusting off a review I did of Girl for Amazon Vine back in 2014: I blogged less, and never posted the review here.

I haven't made any changes, I think the review speaks for itself.

I hope and believe that this book will be a big success - I found it a gripping read, hard to put down and genuinely engaging.  It is though difficult to review without giving too much away, as as the effect depends on careful pacing and the gradual revelation of what is going on.

We are first introduced to Melanie, the Girl of the title, who may be about 10 years old.  She goes off to lessons every day - but the journey is from her underground cell, along a short corridor, to her classroom.  She travels strapped into a wheelchair, pushed by "Sergeant", unable to move her arms or legs. And once she arrives, her chair is placed so that neither she, nor her classmates, can communicate. The adults around her seem to either fear her, or hate her, or both. Apart from Miss Justineau, her favourite teacher.

Melanie's day to day treatment isn't by any means the cruellest thing that happens to the kids.  We slowly discover that something has gone very wrong with the world.  ("The population of Birmingham is zero!")  Outside the fence around the site where Melanie lives, threats loom - Hungries and Junkers - and paradoxically it's only Sergeant and his men who keep them at bay.  The site exists to find an answer, and Melanie may be the key.

Eventually, the fragile normality Melanie has known is threatened, and she and a small group of companions - including arch-torturer Dr Caldwell - have to band together to survive.

Though all this, Melanie grows and learns. Can she find a way not only to save herself, but the human race?  And if she succeeds, what will the cost be?  Dr Caldwell believes that the pain and suffering she inflicts is justified, given the potential prize.  Can that be right?  What does survival mean - it it more than finding a way to beat off or destroy the Hungries?

This is an action-filled story throughout, with Hungries and Junkers to be fought off, but it's also a story of discovery, at the heart of which is the developing relationship between Melanie and her teacher, Miss Justineau.  I found that sad and beautiful, as what Melanie discovers about herself, her origin and her life affects Justineau - even as the latter risks everything to protect the girl from the threats that surround her.

The book is well written and compelling. The closest comparisons I can think of are some of John Wyndham's post apocalyptic stories such as The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids or perhaps closest, The Chrysalids, where similar dilemmas are explored - but it is better than any of them, not least in the degree to which the characters become real.

Definitely one to look for in 2014. [And wasn't I right?]

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/

22 August 2016

Associates of Sherlock Holmes

Image from titanbooks.com
Associates of Sherlock Holmes
Edited by George Mann
Titan Books, 23 August 2016
PB, 378pp
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by the publisher

In this collection brought together by George Mann, we have stories about, or inspired by, people mentioned in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series. I think this is an excellent idea: there are screeds of non-canonical Holmes and Watson stories, so a slightly different angle adds freshness without the need for anything too bizarre.

Inevitably some of these 'associates' (Irene Adler, Lestrade, Mycroft, Col Sebastian Moran) are more memorable than others (Clarence Barker, Billy the Page) so helpfully the authors have written a short introduction to each. That's also useful because some of the stories (not all) riff directly off the canonical ones, and, unless you've lately reread them, the details may be hazy.others. So while it wouldn't do any harm to reread, say,  The Adventure of the Creeping Man or The Adventure of the Three Gables before this book, the intros mean that's not necessary.

Most of the stories, while not narrated by Dr Watson, adopt the same straightforward approach (there is a rational solution which is discovered by logical detective work). There are though a few that bend the rules, for example by flirting with the supernatural (or, in one case, even proposing a supernatural explanation), telling a straight adventure narrative (indeed, almost SFF in one case) or simply acting as a framing device to another story with no great element of detection involved.

Stepping outside the normal Holmes-and-Watson setup also allows some games with the Sherlock universe, such as hints in a couple of stories of things that Watson wouldn't have referred to for reasons of Victorian propriety, or of fallibilities that he (as an unreliable narrator) wouldn't have admitted (one of the stories hints at his gambling addiction).  It as if all those silenced characters - including a number of women - are finally able to dish the dirt on the good Doctor. There is also scope for or fixing continuity errors (Watson's confused marital history) or outright errors (the Speckled Band itself was not, as Holmes admits, a swamp adder).

Inevitably the stories vary rather in theme and tone. I found them all enjoyable but everyone will have their own favourites:

In The River of Silence by Lyndsay Faye, we see Holmes's first meeting with Stanley Hopkins, a young Inspector who turns up in some of the later Conan Doyle stories. Faye convinces with her story told through the voice of Hopkins, and it means she doesn't have to imitate Conan Doyle's style (or, as many have, run the risk of pastiching it). In theme and overall atmosphere, though, the story - opening with a gruesome discovery and proceeding though the fogs of London to a squalid Limehouse -  is very much in keeping with the original tales, right down to the vagueness about illness ("fever") and the mental collapse of one character. It's a nice little origin story for Hopkins, a minor Conan Doyle character, which allows Faye plenty of room to develop his personality and backstory.

Pure Swank by James Lovegrove picks up the story of Clarence Barker, Sherlock Holmes's 'hated rival on the Surrey shore' who appears in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. Who is Barker, why are he and Holmes rivals - and where is Barker from? These questions are answered in ways that gives a slightly different and more cynical view of the Great Detective. In the end, you're left with a choice to which is the more reliable narrator - Watson or Barker.

Heavy Game of the Pacific Northwest isn't a crime story at all. While it features the brilliant, amoral Colonel Sebastian Moran, he's not up to some sort of caper, nor is he trying to kill Holmes - instead he is again the Great Hunter. It's nice to see this character - who only appears a few times in the canonical stories but who is portrayed so well that he seems to dominate even so - finally step out from behind the curtain.

A Dormitory Haunting by Jaine Fenn picks up the later life of Violet Hunter, the governess from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, who's now Head of a girls' school. When a mysterious figure begins to haunt the dormitory by night, she remembers Holmes' example and sets out to find the truth. This is a lovely story featuring a determined and independent woman who's not afraid to flout convention.

The Case of the Previous Tenant by Ian Edginton is a rather fantastical concoction focussed in Inspector Barnes who appears only once (in The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge) but seems to be Holmes's equal. That said I wasn't sure he was really allowed to shine in this rather fantastical tale which seems closer in theme to MR James than Conan Doyle.

Nor Hell a Fury by Cavan Scott is definitely my favourite story but then it features The Woman, Irene Adler, so how could it not be?

The Case of the Haphazard Marksman by Andrew Lane features Lansdale Pike, a gossip columnist(!) who originally appeared in The Adventure of the Three Gables. This story was another favourite of mine, I think it nicely captures something of the atmosphere of the originals, with an ingenious mystery that fully stretches both Holmes and Pike, standing in for Watson.

The Presbury Papers by Jonathan Barnes is one of those stories where the introduction helps by going over the salient points of its inspiration, The Adventure of the Creeping Man, but which goes beyond that original in implied depravity and danger. It also brings in Mycroft (as does A Family Resemblance by Simon Bucher-Jones).

William Meikle's A Flash in the Pan revives another one-off Conan Doyle character, the bruiser Shinwell Johnson. It's a slightly sulphurous tale set amongst the cheap places of evening entertainment - and shows Holmes accepting methods that he doesn't want Watson to know too much about.

The Vanishing Snake by Jeffrey Thomas continues the story of Helen Stonor from The Speckled Band, taking the chance to correct a couple of glitches with that and also advancing a new theory about what was really going on in the original. It was a rather different Holmes story and great fun.

Page Turners by Kara Dennison is a nice little story - the one featuring Billy the Page, in a thrilling adventure which comes across as just another tricky day for that resourceful lad.

Finally, Peeler by Nick Kyme features my favourite of Scotland Yard's also-rans, Inspector Lestrade himself (Lestrade also plays a supporting role in The River of Silence). The is a properly grisly story to end the book on, perhaps a little more so than feels natural a Sherlock Holmes story but it's definitely an ingenious mystery.

20 August 2016

A Little Knowledge

Image from www.enewman.co.uk
A Little Knowledge
Emma Newman
Diversion Books, August 2016
PB, 359pp
Source: Bought

This is the fourth book in the Split Worlds series from Emma Newman, coming after a gap of nearly three years. If you haven't read the other books, this isn't a good place to start: not because it's inaccessible - she makes sure, without info dumping, to remind the reader what's been going on - it's more that this inevitably, reveals things which happened in the earlier books. You will want to spend more time in the Split Worlds so it's much better to go back and read the others (Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name and All is Fair) in order.  (Links are to my old Amazon reviews of the books, which I've tidied up and resposted here). I've written this review on the assumption that you have done that, so there are spoilers here for them, and I'm not going to explain who the Fae are, or the Elemental Court or the Arbiters.

The publication gap was unfortunate for several reasons. First, this is a cracking series and it was frustrating to have to wait for more. Also, the action in this book picks up only a few days after All is Fair ended, so the flow especially broken. Also, rereading online reviews, it seems to have led some readers - fantasy trilogies being so common - to believe that the first three books were a self-contained trilogy and so to complain that things were left unresolved. While I'd defend the right of any author to leave things unresolved if they want, that's unfair. The three strands in these books - Cathy and her forced marriage to horrible rapist husband Will, Sam (Lord Iron's) exploration of his inheritance and newly gained powers, and the adventures of Arbiter Max - have been running in parallel through all the books and only gradually coming together, but that did accelerate in All is Fair giving a degree of closure, but making it clear that there was much more to come.

A Little Knowledge takes this forward but with an even stronger unifying theme.

Cathy has stuck with Will, it becomes clear, not only because of the Charm he used on her (without her knowing) but because she thinks she can use his new role as Duke of Londinium to bring about social progress and especially to improve the position of women in the strange world of the Fae-touched. There is a great deal of impassioned, even angry feminism in this book (which is a GOOD thing) showing how the claustrophobic, archaic world of the Fae-touched, with its brokered marriages, male power and stultifying conventions, bears down on women. In point of fact, everyone here - not just the women - is a puppet, with the so-called patroons, the male heads of the various families, answering in turn to the Fae. No-one has much say over their own lives. But the men at least have the illusion of some control - and they have the women to bully and sneer at - so they're resistant to change. (It could be mistaken for a very deft and biting social commentary, except that, thankfully, our world isn't like that at all is it?)

However, no progress is being made. In reality, change never comes from above and both Cathy and even Will are powerless to actually do anything from within the system that controls them.

Cathy is magnificently angry, frustrated and sweary.

And Will? What can you say about Will? Basically he's an appealing slimeball with a few feeble good intentions.

As the books have progressed, Newman's handling of her characters has developed in subtlety and power and Will is its culmination. He is, I think, at bottom a weak man. In the earlier books there was a moment when it looked as though he might act to help Cathy escape from the political designs of her father, and he was certainly appalled that her father was violent to her. However in the Split Worlds there are no white knights. Will eventually used the magical equivalent of Rohypnol - a Charm spell - on Cathy, and he has even worse in store for her in this book, while all the time telling himself that he's "protecting" her. So he could be a hateful, despicable figure and on one level he is" but instead - the way that Newman writes him - he remains complex and human, almost a tragic hero.  (almost). If only he'd learn to cut the puppet strings and stop dancing to another's tune!

At the same time, Sam - now Lord Iron, inheritor of a vast mining empire and also gifted with his own magic, strong against the Fae - is learning the same lesson as Cathy. The other members of the Elemental Court are not going to listen to him, reform, and begin respecting the environment and their workers. Power will not reform itself just because you have good intentions.

Whatever is to be done - both in the Elemental Court and in the Nether, the world of the Fae - isn't going to come till those puppet strings are cut.

I felt this was easily the best book in the series so far, not simply because the pace has picked up - though it has - but because of the confidence of the writing, and the way the central dilemma is faced up to rather than being fudged. Fantasy is often thought of as an inherently conservative genre: all you have to do to put things right is follow the Prophecy, restore the True King or find the Chosen One (who is often the True King disguise) and accompany him (usually him) on his quest. The Split Worlds emphatically turns all that upside down - nobody really knows what's going on, not in the mess of Nether politics, not in the spreadsheet fuelled Elemental Court, not in Aqua Sulis where Max the Arbiter tries to rein in the Fae touched. There is no quest, no sense of destiny, and it doesn't offer any easy answers to how things might be made better.

The books deal in big themes and Newman's writing is well matched to them.

Frankly I've no idea what's going to happen and I await the fifth and final book with impatience!

19 August 2016

All is Fair

Image from http://fantasy-faction.com/
All is Fair
Emma Newman
Diversion Publishing, 2 August 2016
PB, 350pp
Source: Bought

This is an updated version of my review of the first publication of this book, posted on Amazon in 2013. I have revised it and am posting to the blog for the first time to celebrate the republication in 2016 and the publication of the fourth book in the series, A Little Knowledge.  

This is the third part of Newman's Split Worlds sequence, after Between Two Thorns and Any Other Name. Newman has a flair for world-building and has created a wonderful setting in which the ordinary world ('Mundanus') coexists with a 'Nether', a ghostly world where nobody ages, inhabited by a pack of immortal toffs and spongers, the "Fae-touched". They are maintained in some opulence by the mercurial Fae, which inhabit a third world, Exilium. This place is really their prison: under an ancient treaty they are forbidden form meddling with the 'innocents' of Mundanus, but allowed their way with the folk of the Nether. All this is overseen by a kind of supernatural police, the Arbiters.

Over the course of the three books, this system has begun to collapse. It still isn't clear at the end precisely why, but we do learn who has been killing off the Arbiters - and why those in London are so corrupt. It has also been challenged from within by our heroine, Cathy, who is a modern woman trapped in a Jane Austenesque world. Newman uses Cathy's position to dramatise, very starkly, the unequal position of women through most of history, and the urgency of change. She does this at the same time as telling a convincing and involving story, and portraying characters that one (well, I) really cared about. (Don't bother with Will, Cathy! He's not good enough for you!)

If by any chance you're reading this review and you haven't read the first two books, go and read them NOW. I'm about to inflict a few spoilers on you, and you've had fair warning.

Still here?

OK. In "All is Fair" we do learn some answers, and Cathy becomes again the active heroine she was through much of the first book, and who I missed in the second where she was rather firmly kept in her place. The different threads - Max, the Arbiter, Sam and his strange friend Lord Iron and the shenanigans in London Society - come together in a deftly woven plot which finally - finally! - brings what we might think of as the "goodies" into one faction. (But Will is among them. Boo!) There is also rather less of the irritating sorcerer, Ekstrand, whose place is taken by a rather different magician.

So there's lots to love in this and, as I said above, it left me wanting to know more: About Sophie. About what Lord Iris is really up to. About Iron's true significance, and that of the "Elemental Court" (remember right back at the start where Sam had a pin put in his leg and saw that as having been "contaminated"? We still don't know exactly what that means). And lastly, but most importantly, how Cathy and her reformers will address the knotty question of making social progress in a bitterly hierarchical system supported by the quixotic (at best, malignant at worst) Fae...

Any Other Name

Image from http://fantasy-faction.com/
Any Other Name
Emma Newman
Diversion Publishing, 2 August 2016
PB, 344pp
Source: Bought

This is an updated version of my review of the first publication of this book, posted on Amazon in 2013. I have revised it and am posting to the blog for the first time to celebrate the republication in 2016 and the publication of the fourth book in the series, A Little Knowledge.

This is the second volume of Emma Newman's Split Worlds series (if you haven't read Between Two Thorns yet, go and do so - this isn't a series to pick up mid way). It improves on the first, which was already promising, building the tension up nicely. The book picks up from right where the first left off - this is one story not separate books - with Cathy Rhoeas-Papaver dragged back into the Nether by her tyrannical father, about to be married to a boy she doesn't know.

The Nether is a parallel world whose inhabitants seem to think they're living in the pages of Jane Austen (without the good bits). They are encouraged/ motivated by links to the Fae, supernatural beings who live (or are imprisoned?) in a third world, Exilium. The Fae act out their quarrels and plans through the families of the Nether, named after flowers associated with the Fae. This setup is policed by Arbiters, spell-wielding policemen, and Sorcerers.

The meat of this novel consists of Cathy struggling against the marriage her family wish on her, and William, the boy she is to marry, on the one hand, and Max, the Arbiter, on the other, dealing with some fairly tricky loose ends from Between Two Thorns. We also learn more of Sam, who featured in the first book, but whose relevance to the rest was a bit of a puzzle. Cathy is - necessarily - more constrained here, which could have made the book sag, but Newman avoids that by using her plight rather shrewdly to illustrate the position of women in a patriarchal society (yes, I know that sounds dull and worthy, but please believe me, it's not). William is also a focus both as he comes to terms with Cathy - and this isn't all nice by any means - and joins in Londinium politics, seeking to become "Duke" (on his patron, Lord Iris's, orders). It is a society of morning gowns, ball gowns, duels, etiquette, and hidden drudgery and oppression - one Cathy sought to avoid - all buttressed by the devious Fae. And there is another faction - the shady Elemental Court - which also seems to be manipulating the "puppets".

An excellent read, with the main characters becoming more distinct and three dimensional and in places rather contradictory (even those we're meant to boo are allowed partially redeeming details, such as Cathy's abusive father, whose life is shown to have been constrained by the Fae - if not as much as his daughter's).

The only slight defect (perhaps) is that in the first few pages a fair amount of information is repeated from the earlier book through helpful exposition by passing characters, and it seems a bit forced. It's not that the information isn't helpful - it is, because even in a few months one tends to forget the detail - but I wondered if this might have been done through a short synopsis. But that's a minor criticism. In this book Newman seems more confident with her characters and her invented world and she really spins the story along.

Between Two Thorns

Between Two Thorns
Emma Newman
Diversion Publishing, 2 August 2016
PB, 334pp
Source: Bought

This is an updated version of my review of the first publication of this book, posted on Amazon in 2013. I have revised it and am posting to the blog for the first time to celebrate the republication in 2016 and the publication of the fourth book in the series, A Little Knowledge.

The first volume of Emma Newman's Split Worlds series gets the series off to a flying start.

Image from http://fantasy-faction.com/
Cathy Rhoeas-Papaver is a runaway, a girl trying to live a normal life away from her domineering parents. If they catch her she'll be forced back into a restricted, subservient role and probably married off, like it or not. Happy with her similarly SF-obsessed boyfriend, she understandably wants to avoid this.

The twist is, Cathy doesn't just come from some traditionally minded family - they are residents of the Nether, a weird parallel world whose inhabitants seem to think they're living in the pages of Jane Austen (without the good bits). The Nether is supported or sustained by the Fae, supernatural beings who live in a third world, Exilium. The Fae act out their quarrels through the inhabitants of the Nether (the Fae-touched), but are themselves unable to leave Exilium because of the zealous Arbiters, spell-wielding policemen. Which brings me to the other main character, Max, the grim Arbiter. Max has a quest of his own - I can't say any more for fear of spoilers - which he must put aside when the Master of Ceremonies disappears. The Master is an important figure in Society - and Society seem to be the the most important part of life for the dim and snobby inhabitants of Aqua Sulis, the Nether version of Bath, so his loss is a disaster.

So, a strong setting, albeit one where the exact workings are kept tantalisingly vague. There are lots of allusions to how this world works and how it became like it is, but little detail.

And, in Catherine, a likeable central character in a horrible fix. The story is genuinely interesting and certainly keeps the pages turning, as a sense builds up of how ghastly life is for those who want to live in the real world rather than the Nether. I did have a slight problem remembering all the main characters and families, especially Cathy's siblings and those of William (won't say who he is, spoilers!) There are a number of annoying, spiteful sisters and pompous brothers who make life difficult for the central characters and at times I forgot which was which. (I'm a hoot at family gatherings as you can imagine...)

This is the first volume in a sequence of five books. It's really a single continuous story rather than separate books), so there are a number of loose ends which become clear in later volumes - for example the story of Sam which doesn't seem to have much to do this the rest of the book does join up in time!

I wrote in 2013 that 'I believe and hope that Emma Newman will do great things with this series...' That hope was fully justified in later books, and indeed greater things are still being revealed.