23 November 2017

Review - Artefacts and Other Stories by Rebecca Burns

Artefacts and Other Stories
Rebecca Burns
Odyssey Books, 30 September 2017
PB, 154 pp

I'm grateful to the author for a review e-copy of this book.

Having previously enjoyed Burns' collection The Settling Earth I was keen to read more of her stories and wasn't disappointed. The seventeen here are all, in their different ways, treats. There are stories that find hope in bleak times; stories that leap time, joining moments across the decades through the recollection of a dandelion, a display of hats in a museum, or the gathering of a family after a death.

Many of them come at their point sideways - or, perhaps, they approach it from the margins, from the kitchen, typically, not the front hall. We often get a view from below of history - especially of war, and in particular of the First World War. A soldier home from France mourning the loss of his best mate with whom he shared a death and coat. A last cricket match, the boys taking it slowly, making the afternoon last, before marching off to war.

In keeping with that sidelong viewpoint, Burns often uses food to show what a character is like, where they stand in relation to others. Essential yet often neglected, the meals eaten or a lack of food to eat illuminate lives here.

The first story, The Dandelion, reminded me with something of a shock how controversial the building of the Channel Tunnel once was. We're back in the 80s, pre Tunnel. Monica is travelling to France with her daughter Rachel who's going to study French at a language college. Monica is against the idea and at first seems something of a fusspot, but it's not till the journey stirs painful memories that we understand why - and begin to sympathise with her.

The Last Game, August 1914 has an elegiac qualty, one of a number which examine the impact of the Great War, one hundred years on. It's no less powerful for the fact the War itself is never directly mentioned. Sport as a metaphor for war - and, in England, cricket as a metaphor for life, especially stiff-backed, English imperial life - is a recurring image in fiction from England but Burns does something remarkable and different here, turning the idea inside out. The cricket game being played is at once a rehearsal for the imminent conflict and a means of deferring it. Could we, her characters seem to feel, remain here, now, poised forever in this perfect moment, on the eve of the great catastrophe?

The Bread Princess similarly looks at a series of moments in successive generations in the life of a colliery town through the eyes of the young women chosen to distribute loaves to the poor (they're commemorated in their ceremonial bonnets, displayed in that museum). We see the changing life of the community, families rising and falling, hopes for the future dashed, we see injury, disease and death. From the bits and scraps of stories we can infer the whole sweep of nearly a century in the town. Here we're not trying to remain in a single moment but experiencing history as dynamic, forward moving and vibrant.

Walter Bidelow's Egg sets a change of mood. Rather comic in tone, it chronicles rotund Professor Julian Cramp's attempts to lay hands on a precious dodo egg from what he sees as an obscure Colonial museum. Meanwhile, his wife grows frustrated and his daughter dabbles with Suffragism. Cramp's stomach complains and his weighty breakfasts and dinners act as a fine metaphor here for his (Imperial?) acquisitiveness. But why is this fifty-two year old professor so obsessed with a bird that was notoriously stupid and prone to gluttony?

The Greatcoat returns to the theme of the Great War. A discharged soldier cherishes the coat that sheltered him and his mate on the battlefield (he's supposed to hand it back in within two weeks). A gentle story, teasing out the impact on Jack of four years of war, this is all the more powerful for being low key, understated.

Spark is in the minority here for being set in the present day. Wanda awaits her husband, Ray's, coming come to their house in Alaska. She suspects infidelity. One of several stories that feature women who want, but can't have, children ("the house was a womb of wadded calm") this story also explores a moment in Wanda's life: one where everything seems on hold, waiting, perhaps for a great change - we never find out.

The Waiting Room is another Great War themed story. Here the protagonists - an artist and her brother - have escaped direct consequences, but the preoccupation is still with death and loss, almost more dreadful for being indirect, not a matter of shells and gas but of some more creeping doom. Again, history from the sidelines.

I enjoyed the titular story in this collection, Artefacts, the most of all. Set in 1940, this is the only one with a hint of the supernatural. It revolves around Leah - "the woman in the registry office" - who has a secret ability to "see" things about people by touching their possessions. Following her and a colleague, Patrick, on a date at the cinema, we learn a great deal about Leah and her life with her grandmother. Good on the details, the daily inconveniences, of life in the Blitz, this story is perfectly paced and, I thought, deeply moving. I wanted to know what came next!

In Mayflies of Apollo, Burns agains uses the present day - so many of these stories are historical that those that don't need to delicately imagine the feelings and routines of a century ago almost seem strange, almost seem alien. Daphne hears on TV about a giant swarm of mayflies nearby on lake Erie and, on a whim, goes off to see them. The story works by frustrating the reader, by avoiding what one might expect - some epiphany brought on by the wonders of Nature - when Daphne is unimpressed and leaves in a hurry to take in a new vodka vapour bar.

An Old Man Walks up a Road shows the dangers of keeping family secrets for too long. Families change, it seems to be saying, secrets that might safely be kept at one time grow stale and things need to be shared, and until you're ready to that, relationships will go sour.

Lamb's Lettuce returns to the aftermath of the Great War. Adrian is back in his childhood home. Everything is the same - except that people are older - but nothing is the same. His father's stuffed animals evoke the horrors of war. "The hawk's eyes were black, like drops of ink. No brightness to them at all. And this is how it really is, he thought, remembering figures prone in mud."

In Tide we see a boy and a girl separated by a bridge - more a symbolic than actual barrier but it seems as though they will never be together. As in several of the other stories, there is a moment of choice, a moment of potential change but it's not clear whether it will come to something or just wither.

On This Day shows the dangers of being too drawn into memory, into commemoration. Richard Brakeman sees the past through the events described in one of those "On This Day" books. Starting by recapitulating the start of a Great War attack, he jumps through  variety of personas in an almost Walter Mitty way. But never on a Sunday. In the meantime his life in the here and now, the present, seems to dissolve.

In Cleaning the Gite a woman tends the holiday cottage that she lets out. Why does a baby's bootie, left by a mother who's otherwise been meticulous in clearing up before leaving, move her so? A sort of counterpoint to Spark, this isn a story about a woman who's lost (well, kicked out) her husband, a story of where Wanda may be several years down the line. There almost seems an affinity though between those characters.

Defibrillate gives us a surgeon suspended after an operation goes wrong contemplates her life in a a remote cottage in Scotland. Rather than food metaphors we have the commentary from the surgery to counterpoint her reacquaintance with a figure form her past.

The final story, A Gathering of Relics, features a big, ramified family (the relics of the title). Three generations of women (sisters, aunts, nieces) are gathered for a funeral. (No men - "menfolk always die early") Change may be in the air - Ruth hopes for forgiveness (from who? For what?) Again the story has a sideways feel. A lot is implied, a lot has been going on that no-one wants to state directly: Veronica knows this and uses tricks to bring some of it out in the open. Hovering over all is loss, and secrets and, as with An Old Man Walks up a Road, there is a question about whether those secrets should remain that way, or not.

Overall this is a strong collection of stories. They're all excellent taken separately but the themes that thread their way from one to another - or perhaps, I might say, season them, like a series of dishes prepared in the same kitchen - mean there's a unity and clarity here. Something is being worked out, something about what's missing from lives and how time plays tricks on us all. And Artefacts is well chosen as the title since in that story perhaps we come closest to what Burns is doing here - it's as though she is, like Leah, putting out her hand and touching something significant, seeing the whole in the part - and sharing that insight with the reader,




18 November 2017

Review - The Overneath by Peter S Beagle

The Overneath
Peter S Beagle
Tachyon, 30 November 2017
PB, 336pp

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

The Overneath is a kind of non-Euclidian, extradimensional connectedness linking certain special places in our world via a ramified set of routes through another - provided you make the right moves. It's discovered by Avram in the story The Way It Works Out And All which is part of this collection and it might function as a useful metaphor for the book. Overneath. "The sub-basement of reality-all those pipes far down under pipes, tunnels beyond tunnels, vast valves and connections, profound couplings and joints and elbows."

Like the imaginary Overneath, this collection joins things up - it will take you to unexpected places. Here be unicorns, and fantasy worlds (well, you might expect that) but also fairytales, urban fantasy, steampunk (of a sort), ghost and horror stories - and a great deal beside.

I'm ashamed to say that I hadn't previously read Beagle but, on the evidence of this book, there is a great range and variety of his work to explore.

There are thirteen stories here, including The Way It Works Out And All. Each is briefly introduced by Beagle. Thus, for example, he informs the reader who hasn't yet encountered Schmendrick the Magician, one of Beagle's most popular characters, of his place in the wider canon before, in The Green-Eyed Boy, we read his "origin story". Schmendrick is apprenticed at an early age to a magician who takes him on almost, it seems, to prove his father wrong to dismiss him. It seems to be a rocky start to an illustrious career, with many mistakes. Part comedic, part fond, the story looks at a boy on the cusp of growing up, and at what that might mean when he has powerful, if ill-controlled, magical abilities.

Then, in Schmendrick Alone, we see the first adventure, in which he confronts an arrogant lord ("His voice had the sound of boot heels in it") and eventually summons something unpleasant that he can't control. Schmendrick isn't the first young and inexperienced wizard to have done this (I thought of Sparrowhawk in Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea), but Beagle's story really captures the reader's attention and shows us why he did what he did (it involves a girl, of course).

The Story of Kao Yu is the first in this book that reflects a recurring theme of unicorns. Set in China - or in a Chinese fantasy mileu - it features a rigidly honest judge who travels the country trying cases and comes up against something he never expected to, something even the unicorn that sometimes shows up in the courtroom to help him out may have trouble with. My Son Heydari and the Karkadann is another unicorn story. The karkadann is a destructive, implacable Near Eastern variant of the creature, modelled on the rhinoceros but is sadly dying out at the time the story is narrated. This is a fact the narrator rather rejoices over, since one karkadann in particular has caused trouble for him and his son - but we feel that it may actually have led the boy to something better.

The Queen Who Could Not Walk is very much a fairy story, with a curse and a quest, love, loyalty, revenge and consequences. Featuring the oft used trope of a king and queen who lose their royal privileges, it shows have true love may still endure.

In a brisk change of mood, Trinity County, CA: You'll Want to Come Again and We'll be Glad to See You reads to me as urban fantasy (although Beagle doesn't use the phrase). I loved this story which examines what might happen if dragons were real, and common, in our world. Who would deal with them and how? Under-funded and hard pressed, it focuses on the D patrol, who police the backwoods of California. At the same time realistic and fantastic, it is very convincing and fun.

Also set in the modern world - but in, perhaps, an SF vein - Kaskia is a strange, haunting story in which a supermarket manager acquires a miraculous laptop. We'll all recognise his nervousness at invoking a feature we don't understand or can't control ("There were keys he carefully avoided touching, software settings he never once changed... areas of the screen where he never let the mouse wander...") but in this case the consequences go far beyond lost data or unfriendly account settings, they place Martin in contact with something that draws him in...

Great-Grandmother in the Cellar is, I think, more of a horror story, if an amusing one, and set in one of Beagle's fantasy worlds. A solid merchant family is confronted by a (one suspects) slightly deranged witch-boy who wants his way with the daughter. Father's away - how will they defend themselves, what resources might have to be called upon, and what will the price be? Creepy, funny, convincing, this was my favourite story in the collection. While not sequential I'd pair it  with The Very Nasty Aquarium which I think is firmly a horror or ghost story and reminded me of M R James classics such "The Haunted Doll's House" or "The Mezzotint". When Mrs Lopsided purchases a pirate figure to place in her new aquarium, she's struck by how keen the shopkeeper seems to be to get rid of it. Maybe she should have paid more attention, as it begins to transform her fish tank into something darker. This story is notable for introducing the redoubtable Mrs Bascomb ("She had taught junior high school English, and feared nothing") who steps in to help.

With Underbridge we return to the fairy story, perhaps, yet in a modern world. A variant on the troll legend, this is the story of a jobbing academic and his obsession with a very unusual troll. Notable for pairing Richardson's gradual slide into despair of ever getting a safe university position with his growing obsession and loss of restraint this story grounds a horrifying and creepy narrative in a modern setting.

Music, When Soft Voices Die is a strange story. Beagle confesses in the introduction that he's got no background in steampunk (a point he then illustrates perfectly by mentioning William Gibson - confusing "cyber" and "steam"?) yet this was an attempt at such a story. Thankfully he eschewed brass goggles and airships and instead produced a rather effective alt-Victorian tale (I think that is the essence of steampunk?) set after a UK-Turkish war which went badly for Britain ("Ramadan came early that year"). Four slightly Bohemian young men occupy a flat in Bloomsbury, where one of them embarks upon a series of experiments. Again almost a ghost story, I felt that this skilfully blended its Western and Turkish themes, as well as - without labouring the point - exposing the casual racism beneath the surface of the Imperial power.

The final story, Olmert Dapper's Day, stands out slightly as it is, while still fantastical, a historical tale, set mainly in New England and based on an actual recorded sighting of a unicorn by Dr Olfert Dapper in 1673. How cool is that? We want to know, however, who Dapper was, how he came to be in Maine, what became of him - and how he met a unicorn. Beagle sets out to answer these questions in what is a beautiful little tale.

Altogether an exceptional collection, a beautiful introduction, as I've said, to Beagle's writing.

One note of warning. The Overneath may be a convenient way to travel, but it doesn't always get you exactly where you expect, and you may find yourself attracting attention from what dwells there. venture in, and eyes will be one you. You may not be the same when you come out.



16 November 2017

Blogtour review - Blood Rites

Blood Rites
David Stuart Davies
Urbane Publications, 9 November 2017
PB, e 288pp

Today we join the blogtour for Blood Rites by David Stuart Davies, the third book featuring DI Paul Snow. You can see all the dates on the tour below.

I'm grateful for an advance copy of this book as part of the blogtour.

This is a short book and a spare one. Despite covering five grotesque murders and going deep into the character of investigating police officer DI Paul Snow, Blood Rites doesn't have the level of detail - or the baggage - of a typical police procedural, or the accumulation of clues, red herrings and deductions of a mystery. (Indeed, I guessed who the murderer was going to be pretty early on - this is not, I think, a "whodunnit?")

Rather, Davies uses the story of the murders to counterpoint the isolation of his protagonist, Snow (the name itself suggesting coldness, and indeed the book does have a socially bleak atmosphere, concluding in suitably wintry weather). Paul Snow is a gay man, a gay police officer, in 1980s Huddersfield. It's not a forgiving time, with Clause 28 and the moral panic in the background - despite being only 30 years ago, it is a bit of a shock to be reminded how things were.

Accordingly, Snow has ruthlessly suppressed his sexuality in order to survive in the Force and in the town. Indeed, Davies flags this a couple of times by having Snow refer to his 'proclivity', rather than his sexuality or orientation - a cold, distancing term if ever I saw one, but accurate in that he's been rigidly celibate for years.

David Stuart Davies
Snow's denial of his nature means he is truly alone. He is not in touch with anyone else who is like him or who might understand. He's begun to cultivate a relationship with a woman - though whether primarily as a smokescreen (he has a boss who 'likes my officers to be married') or as a way to overcome the loneliness, isn't really clear. But even this paradoxically isolates him, as she wants it to develop in ways which, he begins to understand, aren't what he really wants.

Ironically, the story is then a study in how Snow becomes more lonely, more isolated, both personally and professionally, as he attempts to solve a baffling series of murders which seem to have nothing in common bar the weapon used.

As if that wasn't bleak enough, in setting up the crimes, Davies shows us a whole slew of truly desperate people, living far from hope; the girl raped by her father, the despairing single mother, the wife abused by her husband, the young woman so desperate for a few pounds that she'll go home to a seedy flat with an ex-con who picked her up in a bar...

A lot to pack in to what is, as I said, a fairly short book, and it leaves no space for detective theatrics or elaborate theories. Rather, the focus is on Snow's gradual unravelling and on the motivations of the murderer. Of these, I felt that Snow was the more interesting and - not surprisingly - sympathetic.

This was a very different sort of detective fiction from what I'd have expected, more of a book about isolation and corruption than it is a crime or mystery novel. It is truly, exceptionally, dark and atmospheric.


For more information about the book or David, you can visit his website at 

http://www.davidstuartdavies.co.uk/ or

http://urbanepublications.com/book_author/david-stuart-davies/

You can follow David on Twitter @DStuartDavies

Buy the book at Hive here, at Waterstones here or from Amazon here.


11 November 2017

Review - Jade City by Fonda Lee

Image from http://fondalee.com/books/jade-city/
Jade City
Fonda Lee (maps by Tim Paul)
Orbit, 7 November 2017
HB, 498pp

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

Jade City is an extremely readable, smart - and violent - account of life and street power. The setting might, I'd guess, be somewhere, in South East Asia based on the historical background (military occupation some decades ago; a liberation struggle during the "Many Nations War"), culture and atmosphere but the country names, politics and religion make clear that this is a fantasy world.  Not being set in another retread vaguely Northern Europe fantasy kingdom gave it all a distinct freshness. Every detail (the names of cars, models of sub-machine guns, foods) of the intricate, convincing worldbuilding adds something and - since there's a lot of this book - Fonda Lee has the space to do it properly, digressing to give us religious myths, fragments of the history of Kekon, the island where the story takes places, and information about the codes of the families who run the city of Janloon. The map of Janloon itself is a marvel - it could have come straight out a Rough Guide.

It's not only the little things, but the power structures here convince. Take those families. "Family" is a good word, isn't it? Families are warm, nurturing places to be. But the word can have other connotations. As the cover proclaims

Family is Duty. 
Magic is power. 
Honour is Everything.

If that (barring the magic) reminds you of, say The Godfather or perhaps of Dune, you aren't far wrong. At the heart of Jade City is a struggle between rival families for control of the city. It's not a pretty sire, but makes for a captivating read with real tension. In its intricate plots, manoeuvrings, betrayals and - above all - outbreaks of bloody slaughter, the book has an irresistible dynamism, a sort of tragic momentum. We know it's going to end badly but we still watch enthralled as each move and counter-move plays out. Yes, I know that sounds as though it's a film, not a book: it's a very visual book, OK?

Two noble families, alike in dignity, former allies in the struggle for national freedom, descended to the level of mobsters, carving up the city between them, accommodated by a weak and corrupt political class. They were The Mountain, and No Peak. We see the story mainly from the perspective of No Peak, a clan whose aged boss is sinking into senility. The grandson, Lal, is the new Pillar of the Clan; his brother Hilo is the Horn, the military leader, while sister, Shae, groomed to manage the business side as Weather Man, is absent, having rejected the life and left to study in foreign Espenia. The tensions and history between these three will drive much of the action: Lee has provided a triplet of deeply believable, flawed yet human characters and shows is enough of their history to show just where they're coming from, and likely to end up.

It's not only these three who convince. Almost everyone in the book, you might meet on the street or in a bar (though you probably wouldn't want to). In particular there's Anden, the adopted sone of the clan who's at the Academy honing his magical abilities but whose internal conflict - where does he belong? Does he really want to wield the jade? Can he handle it? - is key here

One might almost include the jade itself as a character. How to explain the jade? "Bioenergetic jade", it's described as in one place - by an outsider - and it only exists on Kekon. A focus for power, addictive to those who are sensitive, it can consume its users, enabling the six forms of magic used by the Green Bones, adepts who have learned to control it. (In passing, the author has designed a lovely way of referring to these powers. A character will "jump Lightly" or a bullet will "meet her Steel" meaning that she's used the ability to become nearly weightless, or to deploy an impenetrable barrier against missiles).

When a Green Bones is killed by another, the victor takes the loser's jade. The more you wear, the more dangerous you are - and the more danger you're in. Trade in the gemstones is lucrative, a faultline for clan rivalries (alongside more traditional mob businesses such as gambling or girls). Jade is central to the history, moral system and religion of the Kekonese people - and those who don't have it, like young hoodlum Bero, can hunger for it almost to the point of madness.

With jade, Fonda Lee delivers, I think, a metaphor for corruption, temptation and hunger for power such as I've seldom seem before. Perhaps, as I hinted above, the place of spice in the Dune books is similar, though less extreme: jade is much less a commodity, much more a way of life. It's hard to overstate its importance to the lives of these characters: whether they reject it, like Shae, or want more, like Bero, it's jade that rules here, whatever clan you belong to. Do what you will - dress it up in codes of honour, limit the quantities available as the KJA cartel tries to do, or train yourself to master it - you'll end at the same place.

Even as a reader, I'm hungry for more jade - this book stops at a natural pause in the war that has broken out, but it's not over; "a Mountain is not easily pushed into the sea", we read towards the end. I'm eagerly looking forward to more corruption, violence, good intentions gone awry, and honour bleeding out on the streets of Janloon.




9 November 2017

Review - Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

Places in the Darkness
Chris Brookmyre
Orbit, 9 November 2017
HB, 403pp

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

Chris Brookmyre is well known for his successful series of crime novels featuring journalist Jack Parlabane and for his Jasmine Sharp trilogy. Among these, he has also published SF (Pandemonium and Bedlam) and I was interested to see how Pandemonium in particular seems to have divided the fanbase. Look at the Amazon reviews - some baffled crime fans there wanting to know why their favourite author is suddenly writing SF.

Places may have a similar effect, because it's heavily SF influenced (A space station! In space! Mysterious advanced technologies! World governments!)

...but it may not, because it's also a murder mystery.

The hero, Nikki Freeman (aka Nikki Fixx, who can make any problem go away, for the right consideration) is a detective on futuristic Ciudad de Cielo (as Spanish is the majority language in the US, much of the nomenclature on Seedee is Spanish influenced). Nikki is a player, cynical, connected and in the sights of morality campaigners like Helen Pititjean. So having to team up with the straitlaced Alice Blake to investigate the gruesome murder of gangster Omega (the first murder ever on CdC) is not her idea of a good career move.

So far, perhaps, so stereotyped. Nikki is the partner with the street (or rather Seedee) knowledge), Alice the senior, by-the-book cop. We know it'll be Nikki's role to bring the realities home to Alice, show here how things really work. And, yes, there is a big gap on Seedee between the public version - what the four corporations of the Quadriga, who run the place, want everyone to believe - and the reality which is rather, er, seedy. Drinking dens, sex clubs and fighting holes are the least of it.

And Alice will show Nikki that rules are there for a purpose.

So, a run-of-the-mill setup, despite the location and futuristic background?

NOT AT ALL.

I don't think Brookmyre could do run-of-the-mill if his writing hand depended on it. There is so much more here.

First, the relationship between the two women is a novel in itself. Of course there is stuff in both their backgrounds which slowly emerges - and mysteries about their present (why do both keep forgetting stuff?) but that aside they're both, from the start, seriously competent (in different ways) and on top of their jobs. Brookmyre sketches enough of the political background to show how much depends on their success, and how they are invested in their different viewpoints (Alice starts with an almost puritanical zeal: Nikki has a fire of righteous fury in her about the treatment of CdC's more disposable citizens) but he does this subtly and allows us to see the multiple levels of the relationship.

Secondly, there is just enough unreliability in what we're shown that almost until the end of the book, multiple perspectives are plausible. (A quantum novel?) I liked Alice, but suspected there was more to her than she - or Brookmyre - was letting on. I liked Nikki, but I didn't trust her. A lot of the book focuses on memory technologies, ways to assist and manipulate the brain, and I felt Brookmyre was up to a fair amount of that himself. Yet when all(?) does become clear, he had, I think, played fair with the reader. The risk, and temptation, of SF-detective fiction, is that a previously unmentioned technology was responsible for everything. That would be cheating, just as it would in a classic detective story if it turns out to have been a twin who did it all. Brookmyre knows his rules, I think.

Finally, the location is gloriously realised and imagined. From the two Wheels spinning round the Core to the space elevator itself, this is a very plausible city in the sky, large enough to require its own Metro and broken enough to have its own underclass and its own dodgy neighbourhoods (and posh suburbs). There's more than a dash of the noir here though, obviously, no rainstorms. I only found one aspect a little hard to swallow - I don't think rotating cylinders create artificial gravity in the way Brookmyre describes. But that's still a good deal less absurd than the typical Star Trek episode, so let's not quibble.

But beyond that - this book simply has heart. In their different ways, Alice, Nikki and CdC - and its people, especially the forgotten ones - aren't being what they could be they need (different types of) healing. And that isn't going to happen while the four corporations, the Federation of National Governments, who oversee the who thing, tussle over control.

That's even before we factor in the others who have a role here, out in the darkness, who have their own plans - which Nikki and Alice may be part of, whether they want to or not.

Cracking the case will take the two women to the heart of this deeper mystery, to confront a threat they could never imagine.

This is a lovely book, pacy, intelligent, fun, and, as I said, with a big heart. If you read SF, you'll love this. If you don't, you should still love it.






2 November 2017

Review - Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Image from www.nickharkaway.com
Gnomon
Nick Harkaway
Penguin, 2 November 2017
HB, 684pp

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

This has been a hard book to review. I find this is surprisingly often of true the very best books, say the ones you'd give six out of five stars to if you could. The main reason is that while not a short book, it's very compact, the very least it needs to be to reshape the reader's mind and make something new. So it's impossible to distil it any further and present the essence.

Nevertheless, I want to persuade you to go and get this book and to read it next, before the heap of other books you doubtless have waiting. So here goes.

Gnomon is unusual.  It reminds me at times of Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, at other times of Umberto Eco. The structure encapsulates the subject, is recursive and ramified; it is preoccupied, I think, by what is real - which is explored by setting up alternate viewpoints that the reader can only accept if some of them aren't, at some level, real.

Starting with the death of a suspect in custody in a near future UK (after 2040, but it's not clear exactly when) the story follows the investigation of Diana Hunter's life and death during her final interrogation by Inspector The Witness. - an AI supported nightmare of future surveillance policing - all for our own good, you understand.

Hunter was, it seems, a dissident, living off-grid, her home Faraday-caged, her past mysteriously firewalled. As Inspector Neith is drawn deeper into trying to understand her, one question dominates: what did Hunter think she could achieve, resisting interrogation, retreating further and further into her own mind? What was she running from? What was she running towards?

The book makes use of several loosely related sub-narratives, revealed as characters in Hunter's interrogation. Living, experiencing the records of that interrogation, Neith discovers these layers of stories. Are they stories true, within the structure of the book? Do they encode deeper information? Are the subjects real (and at what level?)

The stories begin as fairly self-contained with their own themes and concerns. Then resonances and connections appear. The separate tales begin to outgrow their framing. While there is an explanation within the context of the continuing narrative, rooted in Hunter's mysterious aims, the stories evolve and their protagonists become something more, acquiring deeper purposes and doing things that echo in the (that is, Neith's) 'real' world. But they don't, didn't, exist in that world, as her enquiries show. Just how powerful was Hunter's ability to fox The System? is she foxing us, too? (Almost certainly).

At the centre of the book is a concern with all that data. The System is benign, we are told. It is there for us. Democratic checks and balances are included so that the technology serves us, not the other way round. Yet the result is sinister, Harkaway brilliantly hinting at the doubts that even a loyal and successful member of society like Neith might hold, at the shadows behind the reality. 'All this technology flowed in its earliest days from America. With it came the political and social assumptions of a small number of engineers and entrepreneurs, predominantly male and white...'

There's beautiful writing here ('a lonely detective pursuing or fleeing a killer along a film noir alleyway whose shadows were cast not by dressed net-gothic stone but by the steel and glass of tomorrow's Skid Row'). There's humour ('Here I am, a Greek in a sack, in the back of a truck... It does slightly seem as if it might be a very violent Dr Suess book...')

And there are secrets.  Perhaps the key is a throwaway comment that something is 'like reading a book where all the stories are jumbled up and there's just a line of numbers at the beginning to tell you where to start'.

The stories in this book are jumbled up.

There is a line of numbers at the start...

A fuller review will be published in Shiny New Books later in November - but I didn't want to let publication pass without some thoughts on this remarkable book.





1 November 2017

Review - Malice of Crows by Lila Bowen

Image from www.orbitbooks.net
Malice of Crows (Shadow, 3)
Lila Bowen
Orbit, 2 November 2017
PB, 344pp

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

Following directly on from Wake of Vultures and Conspiracy of Ravens, Malice of Crows picks up Rhett Walker's story immediately after Conspiracy ends. He's defeated the necromancer Trevisan, who was using gruesome magic to control monsters like Rhett - ordinary men and women with the ability to transform into animals, both mundane and esoteric - and compel them to labour building his railroad.

Yes - Trevisan was defeated, but fleeing he possessed the body of six year old Meimei, sister to Cora the healer (who is able to become a dragon when she wishes). Now Rhett - in his persona as The Shadow, avenger of wrongs and slayer of what needs to be killed, must track down Trevisan and free Meimei. Thus the story is really one long chase through the barren wastes of Durango Territory, with Rhett's posse confronting ever more daunting threats (not going to give details because spoilers).

Walker is a Durango Ranger and proud of it. It's his identity, given to him by his beloved Captain. But we learn more in the course of this book about what that means. Rhett's pride in this status takes a hammering: it seems the Rangers aren't all he believed. Not just slayers of monsters, they are a weapon of the 'civilized' world, driving out the native people - and Rhett happens to be one of those himself. In many dialogues with Coyote Dan and his sister, Winifred, Rhett seeks to come to terms with who he is and what his destiny will be. In another sense, he is learning who he is from Sam. Beautiful, golden haired Sam, who he has loved since Rhett was called Nettie Lonesome. The story of Rhett and Sam gives the book a whole different dimension though there are some heart stopping moments when it seems Rhett may give away his former identity. What will happen if Sam discovers how old Monty, his (and Nettie/ Rhett's) former mentor, actually died?

There are secrets here, and complicated identities jostling against each other: in other hands it could all seem overcomplicated but Bowen (Delilah S Dawson) knows just what she's doing and she makes Rhett, Sam, Winifred, Cora, Earl so alive, and drives them along through such a pacy series of fights, flights, escapes and puzzles, that characters and story just leap from the page.

Gradually Rhett becomes more comfortable with his identities both as man and as monster. Bowen animates her story by making the 'outsiders' into so-called 'monsters' who are at the same time the most human of the characters. At one point a frustrated Rhett shouts out that he's 'unnatural': his friends help him see that isn't true at all. But Rhett is a monster and Trevisan, for all his necromancy and murder, isn't a 'monster', he remains just a man. Being able to pass in polite society, wield power and money and claim the protection of sheriffs - and Rangers - is no guarantee of a good heart.

I loved this book. As a continuation of Rhett's story it has the same epic storytelling as the earlier volumes, but I think it explores his personality more throughly and shows him growing. The book is proudly, obstinately diverse, on a number of different dimensions while at the same time being a sharply written, exciting and in some ways endearingly old-fashioned Western, albeit one set in a slightly parallel world with magic - and monsters - acknowledged. Whether you like action, fantasy, a bit of tender romance or just a well-written, entertaining story, you'll find them - and more - here.

The author very kindly answered some questions about the books for me last year - you can read what she said here.