23 May 2017

Review - Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

Image from tachyonpublications.com
Wicked Wonders
Ellen Klages
Tachyon, 23 May 2017
PB, e 288pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance e copy via NetGalley.

I hadn't read any of Klages' work until getting my hands on Passing Strange last year (silly David) so was very pleased to be able to catch up (not least because in two of the stories we meet characters from that book). It is great that the book lived up to expectations in every way.

These are serious, funny, tough, tender and varied stories. Above all, they have heart and offer hope. In many, women or - especially - girls - struggle with constraints, actual or impending loss or change, and things aren't made easier by the strictures of society: a woman accidentally falling pregnant is placed in an impossible position by her partner. A girl is misunderstood by her mother, forced into a mould that doesn't fit her. Another girl is about to lose everything. In all these stories there is, though, hope: the comfort of a good friend, a chink of light or a realisation of power and potential.

Friendship is at the centre of many of the stories: new friendships, old friendships renewed after decades, unlikely friendships suddenly tested, as in the longest and most intense of the stories, Woodsmoke, an account of two girls spending a summer at camp. Apart from the dawning relationship between then - they don't start off friends, Peete is pretty resentful to begin with - this story is shot through with a kind of childhood luminosity. This is NOT a sentimental story - it has great clarity and honesty, but it shows the glory of enjoying life, of enjoying the moment and - I hope - promises a future of support and solidarity.

The experiences here are common ones: clearing a house after the death of a parent (touched on a couple of times, including in a piece of non-fiction, The Scary Ham), the coming of a new sibling, two women meeting for coffee and cake, a mother putting her child down for the night. But the everyday is made strange - passing strange, perhaps: those two women (in Mrs Zeno's Paradox) meet across time and space in a variety of cafes as they halve their cake and halve it again, the child is being nursed on Mars, the schoolgirl settling down to play boardgames on a Friday night at her boarding school ends up an Alice in Wonderland style adventure - and in San Franscisco, a sorceress can fold space through origami.

Not all the stories are actually fantasy or science fiction: Woodsmoke, for example, is entirely naturalistic (although infused with a sense of the magical) and Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl while fantastical in setting (a thief, an inn, a quest for treasure) actually contains nothing not rooted in real science (Household Management is similar, though rooted in a different kind of fiction). Many of course are, and in some it's a twist of magic that provides that little glimmer of hope from the future.

As well as the stories themselves, the book contains a shrewd (I think!) introduction form Karen Joy Fowler and a piece by Klages herself describing her approach to writing and the genesis of some of the stories. Both provide useful insights but in the end the stories stand alone in their wit, courage, fellowship and above all, humanity.

This is a collection of stories that I felt better for having read. Strongly recommended.

For more information about the book see here.

21 May 2017

Review - Dark Cities

Dark Cities
ed by Christopher Golden
Titan Books, 16 May 2017
PB, 400pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Everyone knows a street that doesn't feel right. Where the light from the streetlamps feels sour and spoiled, like bitter honey. Where the shadows are too deep and too dark, and creep up on you when you're not looking...

I love a good anthology and this collection of horror stories attracted straight away. There is so much to say about the city, so much to appal - whether it's those unexplored turnings that might take you into a strange new place from which you can't return, an abandoned building in which... who knows what... may lurk, all the layers of lives and history which are there just under the surface, or just the oddness of life among all those mostly anonymous people. 

As with any collection, the various contributions grip and enthral to different degrees, but this is overall a very strong collection. For me the first and the last stories in this book were the most unsettling. In The Dogs (Scott Smith), the first story, Rose knows that her pastime meeting up with men off Craigslist may be risky but she knows what she's doing. And surely an apartment with three friendly dogs can't be too wrong... can it? This is a story that keeps you guessing and is truly horrific, though I felt the author did perhaps employ one over used device that wasn't really needed.

The last story, The Crack by Nick Cutter,  was queasily upsetting. As a father I know that feeling when the young baby just won't sleep. As a father I also find the determination of the father in this book - the mother hardly features - to stamp his will on the helpless infant repulsive, crossing the line into abuse. The supernatural that creeps up on both of them is scarcely registered at first, bound up as Daddy is in making his little boy into a strong man: in many respects, in this story, it's the human that's the monster and in that respect it fits well with the overall feel of the book, although as the events mainly take place within a single house it arguably isn't particularly a city story. 

In Stone (Tim Lebbon), our unnamed narrator, unable to sleep well after the suicide of his friend Nigel, roams the streets of the city at night. One of those nights he spots a woman and follows her. Lebbon creates a nice balance between the haunted, despairing life of the narrator and the darkness of the city and its brooding dominance over those it notices.

Like Lebbon, in The Way She Is With Strangers Helen Marshall leaves much unsaid. What exactly did happen to Mercy's daughter? How is it affected by her having come to the city? Again there are dark secrets here and one senses that the progression of events mirrors something private we're not quite seeing. Atmospheric, creepy and despairing.

MR Carey's We'll Always have Paris has a lighter tone, welcome after the preceding dark stories. Inspector Philemon is one of the city's top detectives and is assigned to investigate a series of horrible murders. He jostles with rivals in this, such as Riordan, of the Garda and it becomes clear that somehow, Paris has become scrambled up with Dublin, New York, Berlin, London... just what's going on and how is it associated with the murders? An inventive and disturbing story.

With Good Night, Prison Kings, Cherie Priest dials us back towards the grim in a powerful tale of a murdered girl seeking revenge as does Amber Benson in What I’ve Always Done, an unsettling story of obsession, revenge and love gone sour, showing how in the city, anything can be  a trap. Traps are a frequent theme in this book - the city's a maze and it's a maze set with snares. But not everything wandering it is monster and in Grit by Jonathan Maberry we meet on of the good guys, albeit one who's definitely a bit tarnished – bounty hunter Monk Addisson, who has a very strange relationship with his fugitives, which  can last beyond their deaths.

Dark Hill Run by Kasey and Joe R Lansdale features a rather different pursuer and a pursuit that lasts years then we're back to the traps with Happy Forever by Simon R Green, the sad story  – of a girl frozen in time

In The Society of the Monsterhood by Paul Tremblay the threat and tension comes from the unseen narrator and the people of the neighbourhood ('we') who have taken against a group of bright kids offered a free place at a suburban school. Somehow the situation seems to conjure a monster: but is it real? This story is very powerful, the style giving a real sense of the exclusion of the little group and narrator's complicity. Field Trip by Tananarive Due addresses exclusion in a different form - a short trip on the subway leads astray young teacher taking her class home from a trip?  With a powerful and unsettling background in racial prejudice and police violence this story literalises the idea of people becoming nothing. 

With The Revellers by Christopher Golden we encounter some real 24 hour party people! In New York! Endless PARTY! But what happens when you can't find your way out again? Ramsay Campbell asks the same question, in a way, in The Stillness. Campbell has an unerring eye for the creepy, the wrong, in modern life. If you've ever seen a living statue in full sunlight on a crowded street and thought about it, um, then imagine meeting one at dusk in an empty ally.  

Imagine it following you home...

Moving from the modern world back to fantasy, or sorts, in Sanctuary by Kealan Patrick Burke, which, with The Crack and Graffiti of the Lost and Dying Places was my favourite story in the book, a young boy exists in two worlds. There is the normal one, where he is wounded by a family break-up, and a truly strange place (the pub has darts made from bones wrapped in leather). He seeks sanctuary, but in which of the worlds? And from which? And why is the end coming?

Matter of Life and Death by Sherrilyn Kenyon is a story to make the publisher tremble! Helga East, the author from Hell is dead, and her editor rejoices. But something strange is afoot in the bank building across the way. And even stranger things begin to happen in their office. A spooky and twisty story - written with some feeling about authors and publishers...

In Graffiti of the Lost and Dying Places,  Seanan McGuire evokes an eerie sense of dissolution as a rundown district is gentrified, gradually killed off by the encroachment of a shiny new financial quarter. What might the old bricks and plaster do when attacked so?

Overall, a strong collection with something for everybody.

17 May 2017

Review - The Switch by Justina Robson

The Switch
Justina Robson
Gollancz, 18 May 2017
PB, 360pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of this book via NetGalley. (It's one of those books I will also buy a copy of, I want a real book to put on my shelves...)

I just loved this book. Loved it to bits. It is sharply written ('I felt like I was ruining an otherwise perfect world, and I couldn't ruin it fast enough', 'Nothing's easy when everyone's paranoid'), clever ('the body holds all the feelings that the person doesn't want to acknowledge'), well observed ('I was in love with my fantasy of being the tough guy, the survivor, the one in charge', 'the real trouble is the people who all benefit from things as they are') and utterly, utterly scathing in its condemnation of hypocrisy and prejudice ('Someone leaked a picture of her holding hands with a woman she knew outside school. Inquisition. The usual.')

Nico Perseid is an orphan. His only friend, the only person he trusts, is Two. In a rigidly orthodox, religiously trussed society, they share a deadly secret: they're both gay. Nico's and Two's world is a bizzarely unequal, upstairs-downstairs kind of world where the masters and mistresses live in Harmony while the scum, the dregs, the rejects are left to the crime cartels - and drone policing - in the underworld of Chaontium. The day that they flee their orphanage and drop over the wall into Chaontium, the two friends are free: free to run with the gangs, live under piles of garbage and scrabble for enough to live on as best they can.

So the years roll by without any way out. Until one day, Nico is made a very high-stakes offer...

I first read Robson's work when she was putting out her Quantum Gravity series, which features that sassiest of transhuman heroines, Lila Black, so it rather made me smile to see the cover image for The Switch - there's a definite similarity there: in one, the kick-ass woman in her tight combat outfit, dominating the cover, in the other the muscly hero, sans shirt, doing likewise. A bit of payback for all that fantasy and SF decorated by attractive young women. And why not? You definitely should judge this book by its cover and inside Robson happily turns the conventions - or perhaps I should say, the conventions of a couple of decades ago because happily things are changing - on their heads and inside out. What's more she does so intelligently and, as I said above, with point.

Because in The Switch, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, is as Nico points out, fundamental. His very existence is an affront, a crime, to the strictures of The Alchemy, the weird, concocted religion - part molecular biology, part astrology - that rules Harmony and which despite everything, still commands part of his respect. The stage is set for rebellion, a journey of self-understanding and the pursuit of liberty (not to say, happiness) - and this is central to the book. It isn't some redress-the-balance diversity chucked in, it's the burning, corruscating moral heart of what Nico (and Two) are.

If that all sounds a bit worthy, it isn't. The book has a stonking good plot, introduces a whole gallery of truly rounded characters, and Robson's writing is at its most versatile. She's able to range with a few paragraphs from Nico's introspection, alone in a hostile city, surrounded by those he fears and who hate him to one of the most bewitchingly erotic scenes, I think, I've ever read as he tears down barriers of fear and restraint to finally be himself with a fellow 'two suns' (the phrase used by The Alchemy for his sort - that astrological gobbledygook again, which seems bizarre but here, goes hand in hard with cutting edge science).

I don't want to give ANYTHING away about that scene in advance. But when you get to it. It just... Well.

So, is there anything actually wrong with this book? Not that I could see. It is of the plot-within-a-plot, what the heck is really going on sub-genre, with revelations, betrayals and reverses coming at us steadily - nothing is ever as it seems, from the opening section, where Nico is under sentence of death, to the end, when we finally discover what The Alchemy is really up to (or do we?) Not everyone enjoys that sub-genre, and you really have to trust your author.  Having read the Lila Black books, I would always trust Robson, so I'm OK with that - if you haven't read your work before I'd simply urge you to go with it, she really knows what she's doing. (There's even a nice line in sardonic references -  from the hints of Culture to 'Nico, you're our only hope' to 'Go back to the start, do not collect any goods and chattels')

So buy this book and read it for the zinging story, the real challenges here to stereotypes, assumptions and conventions, the characters - but most of all because it is, at heart, first rate SF.

13 May 2017

Review - Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott

Image from www.quercusbooks.co.uk
Andrew Caldecott
Illustrated by Sasha Laika
Jo Fletcher Books, 18 May 2017
HB, 456pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for am advance copy of this book via NetGalley. I also bought a copy - well worth it even if only for Sasha Laika's beautiful, brooding illustrations.

You won't have heard of Rotherweird. The town is hard to reach (you have to go to Hoy, change for a taxi to the Twelve Mile Post, then await the Polk Land & Water Company's charabanc). It's forbidden to write about it, and the inhabitants don't welcome outsiders.

Nevertheless, it's a fascinating place, almost an independent kingdom nestling within the English countryside. Created by fiat of Elizabeth I because of - well, that would rather give the story away. Let's just say, because reasons...

Into this somewhat baroque, somewhat Dickensian world come four strangers: Jonah Oblang, the new history teacher for Rotherweird School (forbidden to teach anything earlier than 1800), Sir Veronal Slickstone, the well-known business tycoon, and his wife, Lady Imogen, and son, Rodney. (Some of these may not be all they seem).

The newcomers soon collide with the townsfolk and countrysiders (forbidden to remain in town after 7). Oblong is intrigued by the disappearance of his predecessor, Flask. Sir Veronal has plans for the town. Lady Imogen and Rodney are there to support him, but do they have ideas of their own? And will the Mayor, Sidney Snorkel, welcome a challenge to his authority?

This is an immensely enjoyable,  Gothic(ish) / steampunk/ Gormanghast-esque romp with Dickensian overtones. We see a mysterious small town whose secrets are gradually unwrapped - but only partially, to a slew of different characters in different degrees, so the reader has a distinct advantage over any. We see an existential threat - to the town, visible and hidden - develop alongside a slightly petty jostling for status (but nonetheless, a dangerous jostling). There's a tension between the absurdity of the rules that govern the town and a growing realisation that they have a purpose - a serious purpose. There is the unravelling mystery, and a sense that, even behind what are told, something else is going on.

It's a book with swags and swathes of atmosphere, created not only by the prose but through those illustrations (best seen on paper). Rotherweird itself is a great imaginative creation - a city of narrow streets and towers with bridges and walkways between them - but Caldecott doesn't let the start of the book lapse too much into descriptions: the action picks up quickly, with the setting gradually filled in as we need to know more.

To go with the twisty location there's an impressive roster of equally twisty and well drawn characters, many with impressively Dickensian names. Here it's helpful that we're given a list, to prevent confusion of Godfrey Fanguin with Gorehambury, or Gregorius Jones with Hayman Salt (which would be a risk otherwise - as I said, the action gets going quickly and the characters take a little longer to establish themselves).

I have to say that the plot is outrageously complex (more so, as becomes clear by the end, than you would actually suspect through most of the story). Not everyone likes that kind of plot. However - in my view - there's nothing wrong with a complex plot as such, and in any case Caldecott keeps the story spinning along and doesn't allow the story to sag. Indeed perhaps the complexity is as much a hint that there is more to explore in Rotherweird as it is embellishment to this story.

Overall, this is a fun, often funny, exciting and highly readable story. Get it now.

Although the advertised publication date is 18 May this book is already widely available in shops (at 13 May)

12 May 2017

Guest Review - Wonder Woman Vol. 2: Year One (Rebirth)

Image from Netgalley.com
Wonder Woman Vol. 2: Year One (Rebirth)
by Greg Rucka
DC Entertainment
DC Comics

This is a guest review contributed by Joshua Harris.

Thank you to the publisher for an advance copy of Wonder Woman via NetGalley.

Having read writer Greg Rucka and artist Liam Sharp’s very strong first volume of Wonder Woman since the DC Rebirth re-launch I was looking forward to seeing what Rucka would create with Nicola Scott on art duty. The result is a book that feels very much in line with the rest of the DC Rebirth titles but for all of the right reasons.

What Scott and Rucka have managed to create is a ‘meat and potatoes’ retelling of the origin story of Wonder Woman. Rucka structures the book well initially cutting between the military and masculine world of Steve Trevor and the all female island where Wonder Woman resides. Scott’s skilful clean style aids the nature of the story as it is always clear and economical in selecting the action. When the story plot threads merge early on in the book, things really get into gear. Rucka streamlines the story with a satisfying mystery building towards a fulfilling climax while Scott provides some terrific action sequences.

Ultimately Wonder Woman Year One is no reinvention of the wheel it is a highly effective sincere and exciting superhero comic.

9 May 2017

Review - The Vinyl Detective: The Run-Out Groove

The Run-Out Groove (Vinyl Detective, 2)
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 9 May 2017
PB, 416pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for sending me a copy of this.

The Vinyl Detective is back, accompanied by girlfriend Nevada, friends Tinkler, "Stinky" Stanmer and Clean Head and the cats, Fanny and Turk. If you've read the first part of these adventures you'll know what to expect - a search for a rare record crossing over into detective work about, in this case, a dead 60s popstar and her missing son,  peril, wisecracks and a tapestry of (mainly) London streets, housing estates and record shops.

The two books are very much in the same vein (perhaps this one is slightly less violent - though a key character does come to a sticky end in a pretty shocking way) and, with the setting and characters established, Cartmel has more time and space to develop their relationships: the Detective and Nevada are a touching couple and his bickering with Tinkler is fun.

Slightly less well defined are the clients in this case, Lucy Tegmark and John "the Colonel", the brother of the deceased star. They're pretty hostile to one another but I never quite got why. That said, I didn't warm to the Colonel anyway, especially after his pretty unpleasant response to a woman who is rather on the large side.

But. The client brings the mystery, the mystery is what drives this genre: here it's a devilish one with a real touch of tragedy. When Valerian died and her son disappeared, a bother and sister were left behind and they clearly never came to terms with the loss. Now, it's time to try and get closure. But there's someone out there who'd rather things were left open...

I liked the way, in this book, Cartmel has his protagonists actually learn from their experiences in the earlier. Yes, the atmosphere and the general setup is similar but they are determined not to get caught out as they did before (cue a lot of rather clever dialogue as they assess whether they really are, or aren't, residing in "Paranoia Heights". This may be connected with still being rather haunted by those experiences - the Detective himself certainly is early on in the story.

But of course history never repeats itself exactly. The threat here is rather different, and not obvious. I certainly didn't figure out who was behind until very late in the day: Cartmel weaves the story with so many red herrings and false turns that I don't think you will, either.

In short: an excellent continuation of the series. Give me more!

(By the way, Cartmel collaborates with Ben Aaronovitch on the Rivers of London comics. I think I saw a couple of RoL Easter eggs in here - perhaps you'll spot more....?)

6 May 2017

Review - Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell

Image from http://decastell.com/press-kit/
Sebastien de Castell
Hot Key Books, 4 May 2017
PB, 396pp

I was sent this book for review by Amazon Vine.

Imagine you're back at Hogwarts, But you've no magic. You're a muggle - or at best a Squib - and about to be found out...

That's the dilemma that faces Kellen in this fast-paced YA fantasy. Kellen is from an ancient, high family of spellcasters, but what little magic he has is drying up - and he's due his trials in a few days.

But in Kellen's world, those with no magic, those who fail the trials, are disowned, cast out, treated as servants of even slaves.

De Castell takes this idea and spins a high-stakes tale of ingenuity, of growing up and of realisation. It's set in what - were it cloaked in modern dress and language - would be a classic dystopia: a cruel world, based on lies, prejudice and power, where those who fail are trampled down and a narrow ruling caste holds power for itself. The book spares no punches as it dissects Kellen's society: a society of rather conceited wizards who take for granted their moral superiority and their fitness to lord it over all around. And Kellen's part of it - so long as he sees himself among the privileged. But the events he sets in train as his trials approach will reveal some secrets about both his clan, and himself...

I loved this book. While serious in its subject, it's far from being dark fantasy of any sort - not least in Castell's brilliant counterpoint to Kellen and the pompous wizards: a woman called Ferius, a stranger who rides into town, looking and sounding for all the world like a gunslinger from a Western (except, no guns). As such strangers tend to do, she challenges the self-satisfied, brings new ways and stands up for the weak. Kellen is both enthralled and repelled by her, the struggle mirroring, perhaps, his internal struggle as he comes to realise there's more wrong with his people than simply his failing magic.

Add in a gallery of bullies and entitled schoolmates who could easily have come from Dickens or Tom Brown's Schooldays, a talking squirrel cat who drives a hard bargain, and layer upon layer of conspiracies, and you have potent blend. Indeed the only feature that isn't immediately obvious is where the title comes from: its derivation may seem obvious but until quite late in the book it isn't really clear what, in this world, a 'spellslinger' might be. That is eventually cleared up, though, and De Castell thereby prepares us for, I hope, many sequels following Kellen's and Ferius's future adventures.

Excellent, page-turnery reading.