24 April 2018

Review- The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Defiant Heir (Swords and Fire 2)
Melissa Caruso
Orbit, 26 April 2018
PB, 515pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Defiant Heir.

This is Book 2 in the series, following from The Tethered Mage. Refreshingly, it's very accessible so that even if you haven't read the book, you'll quickly be up to speed and able to enjoy this one. But as is the way with series it's much more fun if you start from the beginning so, in case this review influences you to follow the story, I'll keep it as spoiler-light for Book 1 as I can.

The Defiant Heir is set in  a very well imagined world which is perhaps 17th-18th century in development (flintlocks, gunpowder, carriages) but also has magic (Witch Lords, mages) and its own form of technology (referred to here as "artifice"). It's a diverse society with women and men taking equal roles and no qualms about same sex relationships.

Lady Amalia Corner, the first-person narrator here, is a smart operator, a bookworm-turned-spy-turned-military-specialist with a place at the heart of the Serene Empire. (In nomenclature and (very loosely) setting there is a whiff of renaissance Venice, with a Doge, Italianate titles ("La Contessa") and lashings of political intrigue). Amalia's also a Falconer for the Imperial forces - handler to Zaira, a woman who's a talented warlock but magically bound to obey Amalia. The relationship between the two forms the bedrock of this book, with Caruso tackling head on the ethical and personal issues arising from such a form of control. The women like each other and get on increasingly well, but their relationship naturally has constraints. So does Amalia's romantic interest in a fellow soldier, Marcello. They clearly fancy each other rotten, but Amalia lives in a world of duty and service which she puts first, and a relationship with Marcello doesn't fit with that.

The relationships were where I really noticed Caruso's cleverness and subversion of what you might expect from fantasy. The situation of Zaira and her fellow mages is odious and oppressive, but no-one sets out to overthrow the Empire simply to root it out. Rather, Amalia has a plan for reform but she is pursuing it by the political means within her power. She needs to build alliances and win support. And while her personal situation is also perhaps a mess, nor does Amalia fling everything overboard and elope with Marcello. Lurking in the background is the threatening Northern empire of Vaskandar whose Witch Lords are greatly to be feared. The Serene Empire is a far from perfect place, but it's a the better place of the two (even if we gradually learn that Vaskandar also has its complexities, and that some parts of it are at least less worse than others - the Witch Lords are as well drawn and varied as anyone in this book, definitely not caricature villains).

The book is then all about compromises - in personal lives, in politics and statecraft, in war (at one point Amalia has to take a heartbreaking decision, accepting one evil to avert a greater one. That decision will have its cost). It's about smart, competent people working together to overcome enormous difficulties. Some of those people are more to be trusted than others. Some have their own agendas. Almost all are willing to make sacrifices - of themselves, or of others. Bad things happen, and the prospect of war hangs over all. But in the focus on what can be done, on cooperation, on achieving things, it's "bright" rather than "dark".

It's also a dashing, compelling and exciting story, blending magic, assassination, conspiracy and diplomacy. The Empire is threatened both by war from the North and by a danger closer to hand. Aiming to resolve both, Amalia and Zaira travel to the borderlands. It may be possible to ally with certain of the Witch Lords, but what will they want in return? What might the consequences of that be? Amalia is playing a dangerous game and she doesn't know all the rules.

I'll make no bones about it, I loved this book. It's fantasy through and through, but avoids - indeed, subverts - the kind of dark "fantasyness" that I find off-putting, with a fresh take on its societies (even the Witch Lords, while a threat, aren't unthinking hordes of evil - there is a logic to their expansionism) and its characters (part of the story concerns a rescue mission, but some of the rescuees have qualms about being rescued, for very understandable reasons).

Amalia and Zaira in particular are fun to spend time with, full of life, complex and interesting.

So glad I read this one - even if I ended up awake till 1am to finish it. What else is coffee for?

For a preview excerpt of The Defiant Heir see here.

For more about the book and to order from the publisher see here.


22 April 2018

Review - The City of Lost Fortunes

Design by Julia Lloyd
The City of Lost Fortunes
Bryan Camp
Titan Books, 17 April 2017
PB, 477pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of The City of Lost Fortunes.

Post–Katrina New Orleans is a place haunted by its history and by the hurricane’s destruction. Street magician Jude Dubuisson is likewise burdened by his past and by the storm, because he has a secret: the magical ability to find lost things, a gift passed down to him by the father he has never known...

A delightful, syncretistic mash-up of urban fantasy, mystery and redemption, The City of Lost Fortunes explores the health and secret life of New Orleans. Set six years after Katrina devastated the city, the hurricane and the ham-fisted emergency response dominate the book, with houses still showing the ghostly "X" that indicated they had been searched for survivors and with a psychic hangover, too: the event robbed the city of its Luck, its Voice and its Magician - not at once, but in the lingering aftershock of the crisis.

Without them, it is vulnerable in so many ways.

None of this matters to Jude Dubuisson, ex apprentice magician, potential demigod, and general fixer for the mysterious Mr Mourning. He want to put the whole thing behind him. Little problem there: Katrina did something to his magic, laying him open to its effects as never before, and now he spends most of his time trying to bleed it out with as little pain as he can.

So he's not best pleased to receive a summons from Mourning - but you don't ignore Mr Mourning...

Thus begins a rampaging quest taking in tarot, religious symbolism, magic, fate, the gods, an angel, a vampire, Jude's eccentric mother and much, much more. Through it, Camp shows a mastery of the city - its music, religious traditions, history, food and culture. Jude lives and breathes those things and through him, Camp shows them to us. If you ever wanted a tribute to a living, breathing city, it's here.

And there's more. Each section begins with a potted summary of an aspect of religion, piling on the contrasts and similarities between traditions drawn from across the world - because all traditions find themselves in New Orleans. It will be Jude's task to navigate through the alternatives and paradoxes as he pursues his own quest.

Exactly what that quest is, what's really going on, the actual stakes for which the game is being played - and who is playing it - only emerges slowly, at times frustratingly slowly. There were moments when I didn't completely follow Jude's or the narrator's reasoning about what was going on. I'm not sure whether that was intentional - there's noting wrong with maintaining a mystery until the right time -  or whether I was misunderstanding stuff I was meant to have got, but either way the effect was to pace the story very well, keeping a great deal in play till the very end while revealing some important, more personal, history about Jude as the story proceeds.

The book is, I think, in the end a celebration of New Orleans - what is has been, what it is, what it can be - as well as an inditement of what has been done to it: there are plenty of sharp-eyed opportunists here who want a slice of the city's body for their own uses, and unprotected, she's ripe for the plunder.

The fact that it all works both on that level, and as urban fantasy, is a credit to Camp's writing and the themes he explores mean that his postscript setting out the origins of the story is genuinely enlightening and informative.

All in all an epic, compulsive read and a rather unusual addition to the canon of urban fantasy.

For more about the book, see the publisher's website here.

19 April 2018

Review - Before Mars by Emma Newman

Cover design by Adam Auerbach
Before Mars (Planetfall 3)
Emma Newman
Gollancz, 19 April 2018
PB, 352pp

I'm SO grateful to Kate for passing me her proof of this book (see her review here).

This is the third book set in Newman's Planetfall series, following Planetfall itself and After Atlas. Planetfall is set on a distant world some time after it was colonised by humans aboard the ship Atlas. After Atlas shows what happened on Earth after that ship departed, and Before Mars is a companion, happening alongside After Atlas but, as the site suggests, on Mars where the main character, Anna Kubrin, has travelled to paint and to geologise. (If you've read After Atlas that will give you an idea of some of the events here, although you don't need to have done to appreciate this book).

When I say Kubrin is the "main character" here, that is probably understating her role. Why she has gone to Mars, what she leaves behind and why she is as she is are all issues that preoccupy the unfolding story. As in Planetfall, there is an aspect to Kubrin's personality and history that is gradually revealed and which answers a question I asked myself early on - why has she gone to Mars? The colony there - a handful of people - is ostensibly carrying out research, though really it seems to be more of a setting for a reality TV show, but the idea of going there to paint seems bizarre even in a future where everything seems to be run by oligarchs ("gov corps") at least one of whom is quixotic enough to send an artist all that way.

Newman excels here in putting across exactly what Anna is like, what she is running from and what she is looking for. Without wishing to speculate too wildly I think there are some deeply personal things being explored here and it must have taken great courage to write parts of this book. I hope nobody finds that off-putting - the result is a convincing and deeply human protagonist who would be fascinating even outside the pages of a gripping SF story, which this is. In a genre sometimes criticised (fairly or not) for flat characters and tech-based storytelling, this book stands out as a penetrating character study.

It is also, as I said above, a gripping SF story. There are mysteries here. Upon arrival on Mars, Anna discovers a note to herself warning her against one of the crew. then she finds that her neural chip has apparently been hacked, allowing her very memories to be used to send her messages. All of this makes her worry that she may be losing her grip on reality in the same way her father did. And that's before a certain AI begins misbehaving (shades of 2001 here).

Occupying a corner of the Planetfall universe and calling back to some of the same events referred to in the earlier books, this is nevertheless a fairly standalone story albeit one that - I hope - points to further instalments ahead. I certainly hope so: Newman can certainly spin a tale and is second to none in creating real, human, fallible and credible characters.

The author's website is here. I reviewed Planetfall here and After Atlas here. Originally published in the US, they are both now available in the UK, published by Gollancz alongside Before Mars.

17 April 2018

Review - One Way by Simon Morden

One Way
Simon Morden
Orion, 10 April 2018
PB, 336pp

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

In the mid 2040s, Frank Kittridge is serving life (or many lives) without possibility of parole for murder. He's lost touch with his son, his wife has divorced him, and there's no future apart from years inside followed by death.

So when he's approached by Xo, the company behind the upcoming Mars mission, and offered the chance of a one-way ticket if he'll join a team of cons doing the spadework for the new base, he knows he's got little to lose. And perhaps, he may find redemption and even some honour one day in the eyes of his son. So Frank says "yes".

From then on, the story is of hard physical training and team building as the group - recruited for their various skills, all put away for life - practise, practise and practise for their different tasks. It's made clear by Brack, the group's brutal overseer, that any slip, any failure, any disobedience - even any illness - will mean being thrown off the programme and consigned to the Hole - a lifetime of solitary in a super-secure prison.

Frank may be out, but he's never going to be free.

Morden effectively portrays the forming dynamics between the members of the little group, their attempts to make the offer work for them and to ensure they succeed and don't get put in the Hole. They are, as one might expect in a story like this, a fairly mixed bunch and trust is hard to build. All the same, Frank gets some satisfaction from accomplishing his assigned task - building the habs that will form the base on Mars, and driving the Mars buggies to be used on the surface.

Throughout this - and indeed throughout the book - we also see internal memos, emails and transcripts of meetings from the Xo Corporation, giving information about the aims and means of the project but increasingly making it clear that corners are being intentionally cut and that there are other agendas than simply completing the base on time and to budget. It's a fascinating patchwork and I'd advise the reader to pay close attention to the dates here as this material bobs about a bit over the ten years or so in which the mission is planned and developed.

The story proper really picks up pace once Mars is reached. The team awake from suspended animation to find that the materials, equipment and food they're supposed to use have been scattered far from the landing site. They will need to pull together to survive, but accidents begin to happen...

I really enjoyed this story. Really, really enjoyed it. It's the kind of book that keeps you reading long into the night and has you annoying the family at meals when you pull out your e-reader. (Reader, I know whereof I speak...) Morden tells a compulsive story, which is at first driven along by the technical challenge of survival in a harsh environment but then, as the base seems to be coming together, turns into a deadly game or murder in a closed setting. There is plenty of tension in how that latter element is resolved (although I did work out fairly early on who must be behind it all, if not, exactly, how and why it was done and I also became rather frustrated that Frank was a little slow to do the same).

It's one of those books that almost seems to change character as you move through it. Given the first parts seems to be an exploration of how teamwork, and trust, might ensure survival, I began to wonder if there was almost a riposte here to what otherwise might seem a very similar book, Andy Weir's The Martian. (You knew I was going to have to mention that...) Weir's book read to me as very old-school, technocratic and individualistic SF, with everything coming down to its protagonist's skills and determination. Like One Way, I read it at a gallop. Unlike One Way (I was surprised to discover when I went back to check) I never reviewed The Martian (one of the few books I've read and not reviewed in the last 5 years or so) which suggests perhaps that for all its readability it made little mark. And it was certainly criticised on grounds of diversity.

Morden does perhaps invite such comparisons by exploring the same survival-on-Mars space,
and in centring the story very firmly on Frank as viewpoint and protagonist, especially in the final part of the book with everyone else a potential suspect, the book explicitly doesn't totally reject The Martian's individualism. What it does do, I think, is enrich it. Frank is a much more rounded and complex character than Mark Watney, with a set of motivations and a backstory which are much more developed. And for much of the book, he is able to demonstrate his relationships with, and his care for, the rest of the team (with all their flaws). In that, the story reminded me of Morden's fantasy novels Down Station and The White City which take a group of Londoners and thrust them into a parallel reality as London burns. There, too, one sees the team dynamics, the trust and the betrayals. It is those same dynamics which Morden uses to build up to his conclusion - a conclusion that is in the end very human.

So while the setup to this story and some of the practicalities may be similar, which seems vary courageous, Minister, on the whole I think it would be unfair to Morden to see this book through that lens, although  I suspect he'll be asked about it A LOT.

In short this book is a fine read, providing a lot to think about.

For more about One Way, see the publisher's website here.




15 April 2018

Review - Blackfish City by Sam J Miller

Cover by Ellen Rockell
(see http://samjmiller.com/uk-cover-for-blackfish-city/)
Blackfish City
Sam J Miller
Orbit, 19 April 2018
HB, 326pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Blackfish City.

One might expect the coming (it's probably more accurate to write actual) climate apocalypse to influence the field of speculative fiction, both in a "what is happening and what the blazes do we do" sense and also as a backdrop to anything set in the future.

Blackfish City is I think an example of the latter. Some 100 years in the future (it's not completely clear) this is a story of life on (aboard?) Qaanaaq, a vast water-borne community named for a shore settlement and built in the shape of an asterisk (a central hub with eight arms). It's clear from the history given that climate change and pollution have caused havoc in this wold - there have been wars, states have fallen and huge populations of refugees are on the move, so one of the most precious resources on Qaanaak is space. The most fortunate have apartments: the merely lucky have a "nook", enough space to sleep, the rest simply have to take shelter where they can. And there is a hierarchy among the Arms.

It is a polyglot, multicultural place filled with traditions, history and languages, a thick broth of a society which the protagonists sample in very different fashions. It's also diverse in other ways, with gender fluidity (one character is referred to throughout as "they") and a key thread in the story built on the missing mothers of another of the characters. Against this jostling background, Miller spins a dazzling story of gangsters, political operators, family, and revenge, all catalysed by the arrival of a woman: "people would say she came to Qaanaak in a skin towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse. In these stories... the polar hear paced beside her on the flat bloody deck of the boat."

The woman is Masaaraq, and soon all of Qaanaak is agog at her arrival. Where has she come from? What does she want? Is she really "bonded" with the orca - or the bear - surely all those people were massacred years before?

The story shows how Killer Whale Woman's arrival impinges on the lives, hopes and fears, and schemes of a cross section of Qaanaak's people, with chapters following each in turn. There's Fill, heir to one of the comfortable fortunes of Qaanaak as grandson of a Shareholder. There's Kaev, a reliable pro in the world of illegal all-in beam fighting, who has links to up and coming gangster Go. Ankit, part of the political machine for an Arm Manager seeking re-election. And Soq, skate messenger, who's looking to advance himself by working for Go.

All of these characters are pretty much flung at the reader early on, with little overlap (at first). It does take some time to orient and begin to follow the distinct strands, but once you've established who is who and what they're doing there is a firm narrative here as well as a rich sense of place, with the story exploring some of the the distinct strands in Qaanaak society. We hear from City Without a Map, the cryptic broadcast(?) exploring the past, present and future of Qaanaak and whose whispered hints both comment on and direct events. And we are told about the incurable disease known as The Breaks, which overwhelms suffered by feeding them memories of those who infected them, and of those who infected them, and so on. This condition will have a central place in the story, both as a motivation and as a mystery to be solved. the scraps and hints of Breaks-mediated experiences tell us more about how the world came to this pass.

I could happily have lingered much longer enjoying all this (and the hints of catastrophe behind the presence of the different races, tribes and peoples - in particular a fragmented narrative of the fall of New York.) but this is a fairly short book and Miller soon begins to bring his main characters together. I did feel that when this happened, things slowed down at first, rather than sped up. This was first because the characters come with radically different interests and objectives so a bit of work is needed for them to establish any common cause and secondly, due to the story rotating between all the point-of-view characters. (Miller keeps giving chapters from the perspective of the different characters even once they have teamed up and are working together).

But. BUT. Then the book powers on to a nail-biting final third involving plenty of action and with a real sense of jeopardy till the very end, due to precisely those different aims and alliances. These lead to so many possibilities and different futures that it did feel by the last page as though the real story was only just beginning and the book left me wanting more.

An impressive debut novel which was great fun to read. I'd eagerly read a sequel (though I don't sense that's on the cards).



14 April 2018

Review - The Sing of the Shore by Lucy Wood

The Sing of the Shore
Lucy Wood
4th Estate, 5 April 2018
HB, 228pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop (@wallingfordbook).

I'm a great admirer of Lucy Wood's stories. First, in Diving Belles she told short stories about women, men and the shore, with a fantastical bent. Her novel, Weathering moved inland, upriver, from the sea-salt and sand to snow and mud but still catching a hint of the wired behind everyday life.

The Sing of the Shore goes back to the coast (mainly), the Cornish coast, with tales (mainly) less magical, but perhaps sadder, chronicling lives lived awkwardly in the gaps left by absent owners and tourists, in caravans and short term lets and tents. The characters here engage with winter cold, with gales or mildew or missing parents, meeting all these different challenges with a degree of acceptance and endurance.

In Home Scar a group of children kick their heels in the off season, mooching on the shore and gently breaking in to holiday cottages. Ivor's dad seems pretty deadbeat, always trying things but giving up halfway. Ivor wants them to move away, to a more secure life. In the meantime, he, Crystal and Gull Gilbert try to enact a stolen life.

In The Dishes, Jay and Lorna and their baby have "use of" a small terraced house while Lorna works nearby at the top-secret Dishes (some kind of satellite or comms establishment, which features in several of these stories, often in connection with misplaced/ displaced families and absent parents). Alone most of his time with the not-quite-talking baby, Jay becomes obsessed with voices from the empty house next door. Something has happened which he dreads coming to light and gradually - without any weirdness, any supernaturalism - his world distorts.

Dreckly is subdivided into sections according to the fall and rise of the tide, following three friends as they comb a beach for leavings from the summer tourists. Just about making ends meet - one of them lives in her van - they are the last of their group: the others have moved on, gone away. Imbued, like many off these stories, with a sense of the seaside after hours, out of time, out of season, this is a beautiful story that really lets its protagonists breathe.

One Foot in Front of the Other takes a step back inland. It is almost folk horror story in miniature. A woman needs to "get back" (From where? To where?) but her attempts are thwarted by hedges, brambles and an ominous herd of brown cattle. With its repetition of slightly varying threats - the noise of gunfire, of an angle grinder, repeated phrases and vague geography, and constant barriers (hedges, fences) this almost felt like a story of imprisonment.

Way the Hell Out takes an old trope - the idea of the outsider family terrorised by some horror in their new rural home - and shows us another perspective, all through a conversation between Fran and Morrie, in a cafe. They almost seem to be weaving the story as they go, prompting each other. Flotsam, Jetsam, Lagan, Derelict is as much an undermining of the idea of a retirement idyll but told the other way round.  A husband and wife have retired to a small house above a sea cove. They have cut all their ties, left no loose ends, and are ready to spend their time not having to think. Except they haven't. Rubbish begins to wash up on the beach and Mary becomes obsessed with clearing it away. Meanwhile, we're told there is something particular they don't want to think about. A letter arrives from Vincent's ex employer and is put away, unopened. There is some problem with "our daughter" (not named). With not a word out of place, this is a perfect, intriguing gem of a story.

Salthouse opens "Winters are when people disappear". Following teenagers Gina and Evie one evening, it evokes both the in-between of an off-season resort and the in-between of young lives on the brink of changing, showing something also changing between the girls but a lot staying the same.

The Life of a Wave is anonymous, written about "you", "your father", "your mother", "your sister". Second person is tricky, personal, involving in a way neither first nor third comes near. In this story it is very effective at drawing the reader in to this story of a father and a son, set along the lifecycle of a wave from its beginning as a wind blown crease far out at sea to the final crash on the shore. That's fitting because the key thing about the father here is that he's a surfer - to the extent of forgetting his family, forgetting anything that may happen. As the story gathers pace this drives a wedge between the two and we wonder, can this end well?

Standing Water is the story of two neighbours who have long fallen out over a flooded ditch. Alive with long-fostered hatreds, it details the way the lives of the two fold intricately round each other.

A Year of Buryings is just that - vignettes of the lives lost over one year, the restless ghosts spawned form those deaths, the interrelatedness of the new occupants in the cemetery. Every story here is a perfect miniature - Wood can get as much feeling and narrative out of a single paragraph as some writers manage in a full length novel. As with Way the Hell Out there is a sense here of a participant shaping events and sometimes perplexed ("What the hell am I meant to do with that?")

Cables is another meeting with Fran and Morrie, now telling the story of a man obsessed by the undersea cables coming ashore on the beach. Convinced he can hear a hum from them, he is digging holes on the beach. As they fill up with water the two speculate on what's really going on (and it's clear they also know a fair bit about some of the other stories in the book).

The Sing of the Shore is a bout a brother and sister who run a fading campsite. Present and past blur together as they wander the fields and lanes both as children and adults (maybe 30 years later?) There's no sign or world now of the parents who appear in the "past" but nor of the boy who came to stay when Kensa was twelve, and then vanished. As with The Dishes there are perhaps hints to be decoded in the story but they almost seem to be there to tease the reader: all that is sure is the decaying site on a windy headland with the caves beneath and over it all that sound, the sing of the shore.

By-the-Wind Sailors is named for creatures that float where the wind blows them - here a family of three, homeless, shifting between caravans, flats over shops, garden huts and other semi-permanent accommodation. It goes on year after year, with the main feature of interest being the weather - you can learn to endure anything , except when you can't. A shifty, sad final story in this excellent volume, which has atmosphere in spades (make that children's, beach spades). It's a lovely book - not only in the writing but in the cover design too which is, sadly, uncredited.

As these stories grow, ramify, refer to one another and diverge again, Wood creates something more than simply a collection, she creates a world. An odd world with a lot of shade and may in between places, but also an intriguing, glinting world. Strongly recommended.

For more about this book, see the publisher's website.







12 April 2018

Blogtour - Friends and Traitors by John Lawton

Friends and Traitors (Inspector Troy)
John Lawton
Grove Press, 5 April 2018
HB, 342pp

I'm grateful to Ayo and to the publishers for inviting me on the blogtour for Friends and Traitors and providing me with a copy to review.

If I were looking for a snappy title for this review (as for example you have to on Amazon) I might lift a phrase from the novel itself and use "The Burgess Game". The spy, traitor and (in this book) friend Guy Burgess is at the centre of this intricately plotted, chewy novel.  (In case anyone doesn't know, Burgess was a real man, one of a famous spy ring composed of ex Cambridge men who, working for the USSR, blew the UK's spy service, MI6, apart in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. This caused ructions even into the 70s and 80s. I remember the fuss when it became generally known that one of the group, Anthony Blunt, had been protected by the Establishment he betrayed and given a cushy job counting the Queen's pictures; and when the self described "spycatcher" Peter Wright published his memoirs - without official approval, and banned in the UK - in 1987s, alleging that another senior officer, Roger Hollis, had also been a traitor).

Here, Lawton devotes ten years or more of the life of his fictional detective, Freddie Troy, to a tale that unfolds in a leisurely fashion, as the lives of the two men cross and recross - from Freddie's early days as a naive police recruit to his ascendency to the rank of Detective Chief Inspector in the Murder Squad at the Yard. Treading lightly around various cases documented in earlier books of the series, and revisiting some earlier characters, Lawton uses the world he's created to give a convincing depth to the story although this does mean that in the earlier sections Troy does comparatively little (you can't meddle with an established timeline!) and the burden of the story is with Burgess.

Rather, this part of the book is used to good effect to convey some of the moral ambiguity necessary to understand a man like Burgess and also the attitude of his friends and acquaintances. Burgess is suspect from the very start: Troy's emigre Russian family have him pretty much nailed. (They are rather grand - as a policeman Troy's wealthy, well-connected and possessed of a small house in the West End, making him something of a ringer for Margery Allingham's Albert Campion - complete with a hefty Cockney manservant). Yet nobody thinks to report their suspicions and Burgess continues to waft through Society and through the supposedly secret world, hiding in plain sight, surely too indiscreet and unreliable to really be what he appears? Can we trust our judgements here? Perhaps seventy years of Cold War and terrorism have made us all cynical and incorrigibly suspicious about such things, and the answer to the success of Philby, Burgess, MacLean and the rest (Third Man, Fourth Man, Fifth... that's "The Burgess Game" I mentioned above) is less a sinister Establishment conspiracy than an attitude we simply cannot, in these more devious times, now understand.

Whatever, Lawton does an excellent job of bringing alive older attitudes and dilemmas. Troy is, we slowly learn (even if we didn't know before) morally compromised in various other ways, with his (perhaps) turning a blind eye to Burgess a comparatively minor matter. As somebody points out here, British spooks tend to die near Troy. When Burgess reaches out to Troy for a chance to "come home" and Troy is drawn into a catastrophic operation in Vienna, his past comes into question as never before. Which is where Lawton's clever recapitulation of those ten years really pays off. There is, you sense, real jeopardy here, real skeletons that might claw their way into daylight - and real risk to Troy's life, liberty and relationships. I felt especially for his brother, a rising politician, and for his partner, Shirley Foxx (who has her own reckoning with her past as well the possibility of being hurt through Troy).

There is also - and without any anachronistic imposition of 21st century attitudes - the matter of Burgess's sexuality. He is a gay man, in a milieu of gay men (as well as a wider, Blitz induced, sense of moral freedom in which other characters, including Troy's sisters, take part) and this brings a hovering sense of danger to him (though in the end, it is not Burgess but someone else who suffers directly from prejudice on this score).

It is, as I said, meticulous, clever and well observed, the kind of book you need to read slowly and carefully because every line, every word matters. Which is as well, because it's also a book to be savoured. With its pages crowded by spies, femmes fatales, detectives, old friends and enemies and, yes, traitors as well, it can be appreciated as a masterpiece of atmosphere, character and motive as much as a thrilling story and continuation of Troy's career.