17 July 2017

Review - All Good Things by Emma Newman

Image from http://diversionbooks.com/
All Good Things (The Split Worlds, 5)
Emma Newman
Diversion Books, 6 June 2017
PB, 357pp

I bought this book from my local independent bookshop.

This is the 5th and final part of Emma Newman's Split Worlds sequence (quintology?)

Across the previous four, she has spun an extraordinary number of stories and deployed many characters (a list might have been helpful by this stage!) Tying everything together would be a formidable challenge for any author. Doing so - as Newman does in All Good Things - while still keeping the story fresh and maintaining a sense of narrative drive must have been even harder. Yet All Good Things succeeds triumphantly. The book moves closes in on its climax like an ocean liner chasing down the Blue Riband, Newman wringing every last drop of emotion - triumph, despair, rage, fear, acceptance - from both characters and reader. While it's tightly plotted throughout, new elements continue to appear. This series has not has tired itself out, the writing continues to dazzle and the description of Exilium (Newman's fairyland) is seriously haunting and beautiful.

The book goes to some very dark places indeed - including long sections narrated from Will's point of view. We readers have now long known - and Cathy learned at the end of the previous book - that he's a liar, a murder and a rapist, having used magic to obtain her compliance wish his wishes. He continually makes excuses, but it's hard to sympathise with him (and nor should we). Yet this story demands that we stay with him, that, to a degree, we understand him. It's very uncomfortable in places yet makes the book very raw (at the same time we are also seeing Cathy's point of view, with her outrage, shock and PTSD. Rest assures she directs some choice swearing at Will...) 

That isn't the only dark aspect. There are several deaths here, including those of well established characters. I felt that in a couple of instances these were handled a bit briefly and at arm's length, but possibly it reflects a desire not to dwell too much on suffering: the fact of what happened remains in the story and perhaps we don't need detail (in both cases the context of the deaths added to the shock - sorry if that sounds a bit convoluted: spoilers).

The redemption, though, is that, for the first time in the series, Cathy is fully aware of what's been done to her and of the realities behind the Fae, the Arbiters and the Elemental Court. And therefore for the first time she is able to fully match herself against her enemies (both persons and things) by practicing magic herself: relentless angry sweary sorceresses FTW! So in All Good Things we get the confrontations and conflict that we've been waiting for - and perhaps a sense of release that very distantly echoes Cathy's sense of liberation. It's been a long time coming but the wait was worthwhile.

Some thoughts on the series as a whole may be in order. I think these books are not only a terrific example of storytelling but, with its completion, we can now see that the books are also very important in the present moment of SFF storytelling. Newman has taken an old fantasy idea - the possibility of a fairyland and of dealings with those who live in it - and upended things, creating a mythology of sorts, and one that doesn't retread tired ideas about princesses, princesses and magic. Instead her theme is power: individual power, power structures and our relationships and responses to them. The books explore a number of possible reactions to the codified privilege embodied in the Spilt Worlds - acquiescence, quiet dissent, collaboration (get to the top and then we'll sort things out - Will's self justifying refrain right to the very end), more or less polite agitation and, in this book, an additional option, burning the whole place down. (But what then?) 

It's clear that, by this point, nobody's hands are totally clean (though some are dirtier than others), nobody has a certain answer, and nobody really knows what's going on. To a degree everyone here is a victim, but that doesn't make them all innocent.

That's not only true of the Fae and the puppets of Society - it applies too to the resource barons of the Elemental Court where Sam faces the same dilemmas as Cathy, to the Arbiter Max and his Gargoyle and to the Sorcerors as well. (Let me just taken a few moments to appreciate how Newman also twists the trope of the bluff, no nonsense industrialist - that would be Lord Iron - in contrast to the foppish toffs (the Fae touched).

What's the answer? Not an easy one, I'm afraid. Newman shows courage I think in even raising these issues - this definitely isn't escapist fantasy - and it would be wrong to expect her to announce an entire political platform as well. Truth, friends and courage feature: as Cathy goes into her future at the end of the book it's clear that more challenges are ahead and that she will need all those. A "Happily ever after" is far from certain, although taking command of one's own life is a beginning.

In short: I loved this book, and the whole sequence. The writing starts good and gets better and better and the books deserve a wide audience. I'm grateful to Emma for writing them - I hope they find and delight many, many readers for a long time to come.

You can buy the book here or here

13 July 2017

Review - The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
The Delirium Brief
Charles Stross
Orbit, 13 July 2017
HB, 435pp

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

What can I say? Strauss's Laundry series gets better and better with each volume.

The Laundry is the section of the British Civil Service that deals with funny business - monsters, magic and unspeakable beings from beyond the stars. The books are, if you like, techno thrillers - if your tech is necromancy, and the thrills come from abstract maths.

In the latest book, we see the aftermath of the attack on Leeds by an elven host in The Nightmare Stacks. And if that was a spoiler then stop now and go and read the earlier books - you shouldn't be here. If you read any further your eyeballs will catch fire, unless you've applied the correct wards, OK?

Now, assuming you haven't been blasted into another universe which has too many corners, I'll continue.

This is the eighth volume in the series (with a few novellas and short stories besides) and what strikes me is how the storytelling has evolved, in two ways.

First, the theming of the books. Beginning as brilliantly written pastiches of different espionage authors, the series then moved onto books each featuring a well known fantasy creature. It has now dropped the pastiche/ monster of the day thing - fittingly, since the Laundry is exposed to its enemies as never before and confronting a new level of threat. It's time to come out in the open.

Secondly, the books have also shed what was very characteristic wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels plotting, where every paragraph seemed to hint at a secret, for something a little more straightforward. There are still of course plot twists, and indeed deeply shocking reverses and hidden agendas, but it's a little more "what you see is what you get" with the psychic space thus cleared allowing a greater focus on character (Mo and Bob are one of the great couples of modern fantasy: genuinely real, fleshed out people, albeit with bizarre problems) and on how those characters shape up in view of the coming threat.

The trademark cynical humour is still there, but accompanied now perhaps by a new, sober mood. In my view, it's this ability and willingness to shift tone that keeps this series fresh despite its now considerable length.

This book also brings together for the first time most of the character ensemble which has been forming over the last few volumes - so we meet againAlex and Mhari, the blooddrinking ex-bankers, maniac pixie dream girl Cassie who is dread leader of the aforementioned elven Host, as well as Persephone Hazard (Hooray!) and her sidekick Johnny. There are also several other figures from Bob Howard's past who I won't name (spoilers: but also, something may be listening).

Best of all, we see Mo again and we're back inside Bob's nightmare-haunted mind. Darkness is gathering, and business he thought dead and buried - or at least safely thrust into a cursed dimension - comes back for revenge. Exposed to Government displeasure and a hostile Press storm (there is a very funny passage in which Bob Does Media, specifically Newsnight) the Laundry has for the first time to account for itself. Having had dealings with the eldritch bodies that hold HMG accountable, I smiled to see our favourite necromancers, for the first time, come up against little things like democratic accountability and the need for things to be seen to be done.

It's all, of course, in service of a deeply threatening move by a sinister cult, and they should have seen it coming, but the sheer speed of events puts our heroes on the back foot very quickly. Stross gets some digs in here at the outsourcing process: underfund something, make the service bad, then invite in the boys and girls with the spreadsheets to cream off the work, making a fortune in the process.

If only that were the worst threat here.

By the end of this book we've seen Bob - and Mo - and all the rest pushed to the edge, in several ways, personal as well as professional, and - again on both fronts - there is a real sense of peril which isn't tidied away neatly on the last page. This is certainly the darkest Laundry book yet - despite the vein of humour that does run through it - and in its writing, I'd say, easily the most assured.

And the timing couldn't be better. The books shows a trusted Government organisation seriously challenged by flaky and dangerous outsiders. The organisation we depended on to keep us safe is vulnerable to subversion from above, by the arrogant, the greedy, the stupid. Does that remind you of anything? And more, at a stroke, the Laundryverse becomes a grimmer place - through this series, despite the grim warnings of unspeakable horror, we have perhaps come to see the Laundry as if not a certain shield, a pretty good one. Now... well, read the book and see for yourself.

In passing, I smiled that - despite what I said above - there is a little bit of classic spy fiction resonance here, in that parts of it reminded me of George Smiley & Co running their clandestine operation against the mole-infested Circus from a grubby hotel.

Stross has said that he'll never do Le Carre in this series, and yet...

You can read a sample of the book here.


11 July 2017

Review - The Rift by Nina Allan

Image from titanbooks.com
The Rift
Nina Allan
Titan Books, 11 July 2017
PB, 418pp

I'm so grateful to Titan for an advance copy of this book, which was one of my most anticipated of 2017 after Allan's stunning The Race last year.

The books have some similarities. Like The Race, The Rift is complex in form - the story is told both through viewpoint narratives and through interpolated artefacts: letters, lists, newspaper articles, school essays, bits of stories, diaries. These aren't all written by the main characters, so for example we get a section from the diary of a specialist metallurgist who's consulted about an item of jewellery, giving a shrewd sidelight on one of the main characters.

Like The Race, this book centres on a disappearance: Julie, elder sister of Selena, goes missing from the North Cheshire village of Lymm in the mid 90s. Nearly 20 years later, she turns up again and the heart of the book is the section describing what happens then as Serena attempts to make sense of what happened.

It's a shifting, teasing story. There are issues of identity. Is it really Julie? She tells a fantastic story about what happened to her, but it's a very partial story. Apparently Julie stepped in a blink from the banks of Hatchmere, a lake in Delamere Forest some way from Lymm, to an alien planet, Tristane. But almost immediately this clarity begins to wash out. Julie poses two mysteries: the craziness of her story but also the fact that the account given hardly covers a few weeks of the time she was missing.

A lot has been missed out, one feels, is being hidden, even as Allan relishes the opportunity to sketch the geography, history and society of Tristane.  Indeed there's enough material there for whole volumes of a more conventional )and conventionally narrated) SF saga - the strange, mind eating parasites, the abandonment of travel to nearby planets, the thousands of years of history, the suspicion of a coverup - but I think making it into that would be waste: instead Allan presents this material in fragmentary form, scattered through the book, and it seems more real than any spacefaring epic I've read.

At the same time, the loss of Julie brings to a head a crisis in her family, making visible faultlines already there. Allan's writing is never more beautiful than picking apart the impact on father, mother, daughter - the guilt, the wondering what really happened, the dislocated lives, the need both to go on living and to not give up hope. In the course of this Allan explores - again almost in passing but never superficially, never without respect - the other lives touched, such as the teacher who befriended Julie, was hounded by the press and whose story ends up turned into a novel, extracts of which are quoted. There's a weird foreshadowing of this in a character introduced early on who seems to be going to play a significant part in the book but, after a tragedy, is barely heard of again. And yet, there are hints about him, echoes of him and his life in other parts of the book, other characters and other scenes. Somehow it is, I think, all part of a whole - something also glimpsed in the resonances between different parts of the story (such as Julie's using the word "temple" for Coventry Cathedral, inviting a comparison with her description of those in the Tristanian city of Firby.

Alongside Julie's and Selena's parents, there is also a focus on another tragic couple, Cally and Noah, with whom she seems to belong in Tristane (but is the Julie of Tristane the same person as the Julie of Earth? Is one dreaming the other and, if so, which is which?) Again, little is said explicitly about their situation though Allan is marvellous at implying things via a few words via behaviour such as Noah's endless nighttime expeditions.

It's an entrancing, audacious book. Somehow the games with language and setting reminded me of another book - M John Harrison's Viriconium. It's less in the subject matter or setting but more the way that Allan seems to create, almost, a body of myth in this book - a deposit of stories around a central theme but not all consonant, sometime contradicting one another but, by their separateness, actually supporting one another. (I note in passing that Harrison uses many placenames from the North West of England in those stories, Lymm included, and locates parts of at least one in Manchester).

It's also book that can't really be captured in a few words. The Rift put me in mind of a Kaleidoscope, perhaps, or of washing going round in a machine: all the colours and shapes are there but one can't quite see how they relate to each other. It works, though. I think, at a different level from a logical, unfolding story, those pieces assemble themselves, somehow. If you've ever tried to imagine a 4D object, you may see what I mean. You literally can't imagine the whole, but you can model it, capture it your mind at some other level. In the same way, this story comes together such that even the most improbable seeming details fit and make a mind of sense. In the same way, Selena's acceptance and rejection of Julie, and the response of Julie's mother Margery, and some of the other discoveries in this books, do click into place.

I see this as very much a 21st century equivalent to those stories of children being carried off by the fairies and returning years after, unable to explain where they've been, unable to be in the society they left, unable to go back. At the same time it's also very preoccupied with modern problems, with relations between parents and children/ teenagers, with shifts in loyalties and "growing up", with lonely people making their own worlds for themselves - or trying to.

Finally, is this book perhaps to some degree a comment on or response to Boneland, the recently published third part of Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen trilogy? Both concern the aftermath of losing a sister, both look to the stars for explanation, both focus on the Cheshire meres and seem to speak of sacrifice, sacred landscape and mystery.

A magnificent achievement, and a book to go back to again and again, I think.

10 July 2017

Review - Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente

Ten Dead Comedians
Fred Van Lente
Quirk Books, 11 July 2017
HB, 288pp

I'm grateful to Quirk Books for an advance copy of this.

Ten Dead Comedians is an ingenious and entertaining take on Agatha Christie's well-known mystery And Then There Were None (successfully dramatised on BBC TV at Christmas 2015). (This was the story that was originally published under a different title, unquotable today although closer to Van Lente's).

Basically, ten guests are invited to a remote island by a mysterious patron. They come because they are led to expect some benefit: they stay because escape is impossible - and one by one, they die. We know all that beforehand, and if we've read Christie, we may also think we know why this is happening and what the outcome will be.

The questions are, who is doing the killing and why, and can any of the guests survive? As that is unravelled we learn more about each guest and their history and why someone may wish them dead.

Van Lente has perhaps put himself at a disadvantage because so much is known or may be inferred from Christie's work, but of course he has also given himself the option of either confirming her structure or undermining it. And he claims another advantage by making his collection of mostly unappealing guests comedians. A problem with this template for a book is that you have ten main protagonists. For the reader to "get" the book they need to be well realised, and quickly. The comedy angle gives an immediate way in because by including or describing their various acts, Van Lente can sketch his characters very efficiently and effectively. In other words the presence of the comedy material - in very different forms - isn't just a fun bonus to this book, it's an integral part of the narrative (as well as being very funny).

More, by using the comedy to set up tensions between the protagonists Van Lente makes his Murder Island almost a microcosm of society - from the cultured, entitled comic cynically playing a redneck bigot to the New Age "Orange Baby Man" who has found release from a lifetime of bullying to the radical podcaster to the taboo-breaking young woman comedian who's smuggled a friend onto the island. It's a more diverse group (in every way) than Christie's original (although she wasn't completely blind to class and gender tensions either).

That's all very well, but a book like this could still fall flat if it didn't have a sense of mystery - and if Van Lente wasn't adroit enough at both embodying and undermining Christie's plot. I'm glad to say he does well on both scores and, while much of the enjoyment in this book is in the character development and interaction, there is a genuine sense of menace and a genuine mystery about why the murders are happening and who is responsible. You'll have to look closely to get any clues (though they are there).

So - a smart, rather unusual, book that manages to be both funny and bleak but never less than absorbing. Ideal for a summer holiday.

Though not, perhaps, one on an exclusive Caribbean island.

9 July 2017

Sunday Special No 2 - Back to School!

Going back to school

I'm trying to post stuff on Sundays that isn't book reviews. In a couple of weeks I'm going to be back digging here so I hope to report on that - but first, over the past few months I've occasionally muttered on Twitter about essay deadlines. I thought I'd explain what that's about. I have, sort of, been back to school.

I graduated in the early 1990s with a physics degree (actually two, I did some research afterwards). I haven't studied anything in particular since then, spending 20-odd years in an office job. I work for a UK public sector organisation you will have heard of and, if you live here, probably dealt with. I won't say who they are as we're discouraged from doing so on social media.

Obviously, books WILL be involved...
It's a challenging, varied job, which has taken me at different times to Brussels and Paris, to Parliament and to a range of interesting businesses. I know how lucky I am in that, but a lot of what I've learned about the job has been by doing it, with relatively little done formally barring the normal kinds of thing like three days on "Creatively Adapting to Change" or how to give and receive feedback.

All tremendous fun, but there have been many times when I felt as if I was winging it. So when I found an opportunity to do some actual education in it (sponsored by work) it seemed too good to miss.

The course I'm doing is provided by LSE and focusses on public policy. I signed up last summer and we started just before Christmas, working around the university's regular terms (meaning: weekends, and a term’s length of lectures being compressed into a week). That first module was a gentle introduction, focussing on Brexit and health service reform.

But.

As I said, I hadn't studied anything since 1994... that was a wonderful age where being at university gave you access to a text-based Internet that no-one else knew about, lab reports were handwritten and a laptop was something you'd only find in the shady part of town which I didn't visit. And it was mainly maths.

So having been set an essay to hand in after Christmas... and having reading to do that wasn't fiction over Christmas for the January module, was something of a culture shock. I hadn't written an essay for even longer - not a big part of physics, especially then - not since O-level days (and yes, that does date me). And these are a bit different, things like “Front-line bureaucrats are the barrier to successful implementation. Discuss”.

Since then we’ve done political basics, including what influences voting (such as that fathers of daughters tend to vote more left than those who only have sons) and forming coalitions and empirical methods (evaluation of policy, regressions, how to establish causality). Most recently we had three intensive days on “what works” covering education policy, regional disparities and how public services deliver (or don’t) which is where the street-level bureaucrats come in: they’re the subject of that essay, which I finished a few days ago.

So I've been a bit distracted. I've had to read stuff that isn't for review! I've missed book launches and signings! Did I mention there were exams? I swore I'd never sit another exam...

I would though strongly recommend this whole idea of learning things. It's not just that a lot of it is stuff I wish I'd known years ago, but the whole process has been stimulating

However, as I've said, it is all quite intensive and if you find me neglecting the blog a bit over the next year, that's probably because I've got another deadline coming up. And if I need to think something through I may well put it up here to get my ideas straight, and invite views...

8 July 2017

Review - The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt

The Management Style of the Supreme Beings
Tom Holt
Orbit, 22 June 2017
PB, 369pp

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

TMSOTSB is a fun comedy fantasy somewhere along the Adams-Pratchett axis, focussed on what happens if God/ the Gods were like business execs, operating their divine realms for profit. In the way of such fantasies, it doesn't do to think too hard about the details (in what currency would such transactions be settled?) but the concept gives Holt plenty of scope for humour and, indeed, for some musings on morality, character and the foibles of the human race.

The title is, though, perhaps slightly misleading. I was expecting (as much from the cover - which feature Post-Its and an office chair in a field - as the title) a riff on all those "Who Moved my Stapler?" and "Management in Six Seconds" guides you see in railway terminus WH Smiths. (Who buys them?) - only with God/ the Gods as fodder. There's surely enough in the doctrine of any organised religion to draw on.

The book is nearly that, but not quite (in the sense it's a bit more than that, not of it falling short in some way) That's probably just as well because I think the joke would pall fairly quickly. Instead it examines what happens after God (in the Persons of Dad and Jay - Uncle Ghost is somewhere out of sight) gets fed up and sells off the family business to a couple of hard-nosed investors, the Venturi brothers. So there's a corporate theme, but it largely drives the plot rather than the book simply making fun  of management guff.

You see, Jay, the Son, doesn't really want to sell, and the Other Son, Kevin, really really doesn't want to sell - cue Kevin's misadventures as he refuses to leave Earth and begins to struggle against the Venturis' new system of pay-as-you-sin. This system seems very effective at stamping out crime and wickedness, but doesn't actually make anyone very happy - and there, as we follow Kevin and a motley collection of allies (Bernie, Satan's indispensible human sidekick and COO of Hell, Indiana Jones style treasure hunter Jersey, Lucy, who was sacked from Heaven's helpdesk and Jenny, Bernie's succubus secretary), is the motivation for a rebellion. But who can face up to the all-powerful Venturis?

It's interesting that, as with earlier writers, Holt seems to find it easier to write about Hell than Heaven. Due to some sleight-of-plot, when the Venturis take over Earth, Hell is maintained for legacy souls and there's quite a lot of fun in the descriptions of how the various departments rub up against one another. There is though no comparable vision of Heaven even though the same logic would suggest there should be. Goodness just isn't so interesting to write about - which may be why the depiction of "Mr L" is so rounded while Dad, Jay and Uncle Ghost just seem like a bickering group of guys in a sitcom. Which is not to criticise the book at all, it could hardly be expected to top Milton.

All in all, the machinations of our rebels, of the Venturis, Mr L and, to a slightly lesser extent, "the former owners" make for an entertaining book with plenty of laughs and a few groans. The text is peppered with allusions to, quotes from, misquotes from and scramblings of the Bible ("the user manual") many making quite sophisticated points about the text itself and human (or divine) nature.

It's in many ways a growing up story about Kevin, that previously neglected aspect of the divine who comes into his own when his betters do something very silly.

At the end, a few questions still remain. Why did everyone hate Father Christmas so much? And in exactly what way is Holt's portrayal of the Trinity heretical? (It has to be heretical, almost anything you say about the Trinity is: I thought it might be Docetist perhaps, or Monophysite but I'm not sure).

Overall a fun book - I'm slightly surprised it's being published in the summer as it seems to me to be eminently suited as a Christmas present. Make a note, and when you've checked your list twice, perhaps you can bestow a few copies on friends and family come December.





7 July 2017

Review - Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

Image from http://www.tor.com/
Mapping the Interior
Stephen Graham Jones
Tor.com, 13 July 2017
PB, 96pp

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

There is a boy (we never learn his real name, he's just referred to as Junior, the shadow of his father).

Junior has a brother, Dino, who clearly has learning disabilities.

Junior has a mother, who's doing her best to raise her boys: she brought them off the reservation to get them to a better school, even though it meant leaving behind her support network, her family and friends. She's prepared to make sacrifices.

The father, though, is absent - and from that absence this strange bitter story springs. Junior begins to think he sees his dead father (either he drowned, or he was drowned) in the house. It happens around the same as his mother takes up with the Sheriff's deputy: "a boy needs a man" she says. Into that glimpse of hope, Junior pours all his attention, all his desire.

The father, when glimpsed, is in full Native American regalia - he was a "fancy dancer", he could have been the greatest dancer ever. The father - the ghost - and his costume are described in detail several times, despite Junior only seeing glimpses of him in the shadows. Is there some ceremony going on? Is this an overworked imagination, seizing on details seen elsewhere and creating an illusion? It's ambiguous, as is the intent of the ghost (if ghost it is). Why has he come back? To heal or harm? It could be either.

The story is played out against a harsh background: poverty (a $300 dollar charge when the ambulance has to be called out - how will they pay that?), merciless bullying of Dino by the kids on the bus, the hostile neighbour, and the parched, dusty countryside. Nothing is what it seems and yet Junior's attempt to "map the interior" - examine every square inch of the house for evidence that, yes, his father was there - gives his life some purpose (even if we suspect that the interior which really needs to be mapped is his own).

It is, as I said, a bitter story and oh, such a sad one:

"In movies, after you beat the bad guy, the monster, then all the injuries it inflicted, they heal right up. That's not how it works in the real world."

And in the end, there is real horror. The kind which leaves your dreams uneasy and sends you back through the text to see if you have misread. something

This is a short book, and compulsive. It's easy to read in one sitting. The prose is often electric:

"I can see my dad slitting his eyes in the bleachers like that all those years ago. What he's doing, it's pretending. What he's doing, it's waiting".

"He hadn't made it through to graduation - who ever does?"

There are moments of such sadness: lives blighted, Dino, whose condition may (or may not) be connected with his mother's drinking (she says not: don't judge). The dog left behind ("Chuckhead hadn't come with us here. He was living on the streets now, trying to put on fat for winter, or else becoming fat for one of the bigger dogs.")

It's a hard read in many ways, a powerful book, one that stays with you afterwards.

I'd strongly recommend it.