1 December 2016

Blogtour - The Finnish Invasion: The Mine by Antii Tuomainen

The Mine
Antill Toumainen, translated by David Hackston
Orenda Books, 15 November 2016
PB, 255pp

I'm grateful to Orenda for a review copy of the book.

I'm back on the awesome Orenda Books Finnish Invasion blogtour with Antii Tuomainen's The Mine. 

Only the most significant moments in life can be this mundane. Life doesn't come crashing down around us when a champagne bottle is popped open. Life creaks at the seams and the sun and the stars shine in the sky as you sit down on a bus, unsuspecting, and stare through the sleet at the landscape beyond the window, or as you wash the dishes, your back aching. The phone rings, your hear stops. It's at moments like this that a partner, whom you've trusted for years, tells you over supper they are leaving, that they've found slmeone else and will be moving out the next day.

I found it a strange book, deeply atmospheric and imbued with a sense of brooding cold whether in the northern region of Finland where the titular mine is sited or in the more extensive sections that take place in Helsinki. That atmosphere almost amounts, I think, to a moral coldness whether in the personal life of journalist Janne Vuori, in the business dealings of Finn Mining Ltd or in the series of clinically staged murders carried out by a hitman, each more inventive and shocking than the last.

Antii Tuomainen
There's a feeling that anything might happen, that all bets are off - a distinctly noirish sensibility, rather than that of a straight crime novel. And indeed, there is no crime as such, no murder, to motivate the story, not for some time. Rather we have mean (if pretty, snow covered) streets, attempts at a cover-up and - within the pages of the book - a somewhat anguished debate about the environmental ethics of mining.

Janne has received a tipoff that something's up with the Suomalahti nickel mine and sets off, in dead of winter, to investigate. That doesn't go unnoticed and he soon begins to think he's being followed. At the same time, that hitman appears on the scene and people begin to die.

Interlaced with this is the story of Janne's family: his father left when he was only one year old, but Janne's mother doesn't seem to feel particularly bitter about being abandoned and eventually he had to stop thinking about it. Scars remain though and history seems to be repeating itself, with Janne and his wife Pauliina increasingly at odds as he immerses himself in work, neglecting their daughter. The book is as much a study in the disintegration of this marriage as it is a crime novel,or a thriller. Janne isn't, perhaps, a particularly admirable character but he does have a dedication to uncovering the truth and by the end of the story I had warmed to him somewhat.

Tuimainen keeps the pace story up throughout, with Janne and his colleagues threatened in an attempt to get them to drop the case, and with that very disturbing and very professional series of murders taking place, as it were, in the corner of the eye, the killer brooding on life, death and the effect on him of his very violent trade. There is a theme, I think, of consequences: they may be dodged, they may be put off, but they catch up with you in the end - even if it takes 30 years.

Despite a superficially happy ending I couldn't really think that the prospects are bright for anyone at the end of this book. But at least some of them survive...

A chilling (in every sense of the words) and very different take on human motivations, reaping what you sow and trying to make the best of things. Also excellent lucid prose from translator David Hackston.

If you want to hear Antii in conversation with Kati Hiekkapelto, author of The Exiled, and Claire Armitstead you need to catch the recent Guardian books podcast which recently featured them in a fascinating discussion about Nordic Noir (take note - not, in this case, Scandi noir).

29 November 2016

Review: The Corporation Wars - Insurgence

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
The Corporation Wars: Insurgence
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 1 December 2016
HB, 309pp

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 1 December 2016
HB, 309pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book. (Full disclosure: I also have a signed copy on order...)

Insurgence is the second volume in a science fiction trilogy, with Dissidence published in May and Emergence due next year. It kicks off  pretty much where Emergence finished, in the middle of a space battle between reanimated human-piloted mechanoids and newly self-conscious robots. In fact there isn't really a gap, you might just as well call this a single book in three parts as a trilogy.

It's hundreds of years in the future. Humanity has been shaped by a war between the forces of progress - the Accelaration, aka The Axle - and those of reaction, the Rax. After these insurgents have fought each other to a standstill, the authorities harvested the minds of the Axle combatants from their bodies and sentence them to perpetual death. Now, finally, there's a chance for salvation. Carlos 'the Terrorist' and his Axle comrades have been revived, retrained and re-embodied in fighting mechanical suits to meet the threat of those newly emergent robots.

Unfortunately, some Rax have also been preserved...

This is classic hard SF, set in a distant star system where rival corporations (all of them AIs) are trying to claim habitable territory for humanity. The robot uprising and Rax infiltration complicate matters, as do the cloudy motives of Earth's ultimate authority, the Direction (also an AI). In fact, there are wheels within wheels within wheels here, delicate layers of organisational, personal and ideological motives, directed and constrained by the limits of resources, legal freedom and above all, physics (gotta be careful with that reaction mass!) MacLeod provides a couple of pages of summary to bring the reader up to speed on events of the first book, but after that we're into a murky world where - as Carlos finds - nobody is to be trusted.

It's all done, though, as in the most satisfying thrillers, in a completely convincing way - which is some achievement given that most of our characters live (when not fighting robots) in one of two simulated worlds: either a pleasure planet or a pseudo medieval gameworld complete with dungeons and boggarts. Any distinctions between the different levels of 'reality' are soon lost as the book moves between viewpoints and Carlos, his comrade Taransay, Newton the individualistic Rax agent and Beauregard, a former Military Intelligence man who seized control of one of the sims at the end of the last book will pilot their way through the myriad complexities posed both by physical conflict with the larger body of reawakened Rax cadres and the suspicions, hostilities and misunderstandings sown between them.

We see less of the robots in this volume, which is perhaps a shame, because for me their dry wit is one of the best aspects of these books. MacLeod very cleverly leaves them robot enough to be alien, human enough to be sympathetic in their revolt against what is basically slavery. (Remember, none of the human factions show any pity to the robots, not even the 'progressive' Axle. They may be included in tactical alliances but these alliances - as between the human factions themselves - are simply following Machiavelli's advice, to combine against your strongest enemy then turn on your allies.) As the pretty ancient factions of Rax and Axle play out their slightly absurd, centuries out of date conflict, there is a much more current issue of justice at stake. One of the great things about MacLeod's writing is always this ethical, humanistic dimension to SF. Yes, it's ROBOTS! And LASERS! And BANGS! But also an intricately constructed and deeply politically aware story of the interplay between property, personhood and oppression and this gives the story real bite.

There's also some madcap invention, from a user interface based on painting and drawing, to an Old Man of the Mountains who seems to have developed the ability to, unwittingly, control one of the sims, to an all too plausible conjecture as to how robot consciousness could arise.

I suspect that even as we think we know what's going on, there may be a hidden hand at work somewhere. How much of what's happened might, actually, have been planned - or at least foreseen. And by who? Something reminds me of Asimov's Second Foundation - perhaps appropriately in what is also known as the Second Law Trilogy.

There are certainly a number of other shoutouts to SF classics (a reference to The Songs of Distant Earth, the remark than any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology, and more). This is a book, like the very best SF, in dialogue with the genre's past, with speculation about what robots might and might not be allowed to do, with plans for directing future civilizations. And as in many of those tales the real fun arises when things go wrong and the unforeseen happens. That's certainly where we get to by the end of the book when things are again left very much up in the air. I can't wait for the final part.

(Before I end: I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but I just want to point out what gorgeous little hardbacks these are. Just take a moment to admire the design by Bekki Guyatt.)

28 November 2016

Slipping by Lauren Beukes

Slipping: Stories, Essays and Other Writing
Lauren Beukes
Tachyon, 29 November 2016
PB, 288pp

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

I mostly knew of Beukes as the author of smart, twisted SF or fantasy - though it was clear from The Shining Girls that she was also a committed journalist - and I certainly hadn't read any of her short fiction. So this collection was enlightening in a number of ways.

The book collects 21 short stories, written over a decade or more both before and around Beukes' 4 published novels, and 5 pieces of non-fiction. There is also a glossary which may be useful if you're puzzled by some of the South African language used here.

In one of the non-fiction pieces, 'Adventures in Journalism', Beukes sets out what you might take as the manifesto for this collection: '...my job sent me careening around the city from rough-hewn Bellville (cellular chip technology, kiteboarding) to an exclusive boys' school in leafy Rondebosch (teen sexuality) to the low-income apartheid estate Bonteheuwel (graffiti artists, taxi drivers).' Driven by her desire to learn, to understand and to communicate, she flits around, taking in all the breadth of human life (and death).

Similarly, this book explores the boundaries of the weird, the fantastical, the outrageous, from an obsessed stalker who's invaded her girlfriend's home ('Dear Mariana') to an occupying army carrying out torture on captive aliens ('Unaccounted') to a fraud perpetrated by 419 scammers ('Easy Touch'). In some of these you can see ideas developing that resulted in full length novels - part of the background of 'Zoo City' was those same scammers, and 'Branded' reads like backstory to 'Moxyland'. Others are standalone (or haven't resulted in full length books yet...) or experimental: a collection of microstories written as tweets ('Litmash'),  the story of someone calling random numbers and trying to impose a structure on the results ('Dial Tone'), a tale ('Algebra') told in 26 sections, one for each letter of the alphabet.

Not all the stories have elements of the fantastic or the SFnal: many are naturalistic, at least on the surface: in 'Parking' a parking attendant burns with desire for one of the women who regularly leaves her car in his area. Or is he a threatening stalker? In 'Slipping' a mysterious figure adopts multiple identities online - but why? Perhaps there's a sense that Beukes herself is, here, slipping: all those journalistic assignments, all those different themes - trans-human athletes competing in a kind of reality TV show, a fairytale in which a princess finds happiness somewhere she had never looked, stories of edgy art creators and architecture students who meet ghosts - seem to be her sampling possibilities, trying on ideas, and reporting back.

Sometimes, as I've said, things coalesce in themes or ideas that relate to the novels - both in the fiction and the non-fiction, where there is a discussion of the themes behind The Shining Girls, specifically the man who hates women so much that he wants to snuff out something special that he sees in them.

That idea - the twistedness behind the way things are - is a common motif, many of the stories touching on themes of, especially, race (how could they not) but generally obliquely. There's the determined woman who makes her living selling 'smileys' (cooked sheeps' heads) who has a spot of bother with a veteran of the Struggle. There are references (again in both the fiction and non-fiction) to the different districts, often close beside each other, the vastly different yet intertwined lives. Safe and dangerous places. But it's more I think about atmosphere and influence than straight reporting - a chilling account of a surveillance state run in the name of law and order, or that torture prison for 'aliens' (they're 'not human' so can they be dehumanised?) So many themes, so many ideas - reading this book is like turning a Kaleidoscope round and round.

Some of the influences may be hinted at in the origins of the stories - written for a wide range of publications (an erotic collection here, the Big Issue there, by way of annuals and themed anthologies). But - unless I'm missing something - Beukes hasn't let her vision be unduly trammelled by the such commissions.  There's a unity of vision and tone that builds through the volume, despite (or because of?) the wide ranging nature of the material

An engaging collection, whether or not you're read the novels, and I hope hinting at still more strangeness to come soon from this most compelling writer.

27 November 2016

Review: After Atlas by Emma Newman

Image from http://www.enewman.co.uk/
After Atlas
Emma Newman
Roc, 10 November 2016
PB, 365pp

Source: Copy bought from Forbidden Planet at author signing (see below)

Emma Newman continues to impress me with her smart, slightly twisted takes on SF - in this case, she asks "what about those left behind?"

The earlier book, Planetfall, set in the same universe as After Atlas, focussed on human settlers to a new world some 20 years in. It showed how they had been drawn there by almost religious fervour, and what happened next - with a startling twist. The concept reminded me of classic Star Trek except for the deep, empathetic portrayal of the main character and her weaknesses which gave the book so much heart.

Now, we're back on Earth at the same time (I think) as the Planetfall events. We see the awful place earth has become, which the colonists on Atlas wanted to escape. The remorseless march or corporatism has swallowed governments, which have become "gov-corps". Everyone is surveilled all the time, most people have chips embedded and there seem to be no human rights, only contracts - and some are trapped by those contracts into something not far off slavery.

Carlos is one such. Owned by the Ministry of Justice in the UK, he's been trained and formed ('hot-housed') into the perfect criminal investigator. He will work to 80 or thereabouts to repay the cost of his purchase with any failure, any rebellion punished by extra years on the contract. Yet as we find out later he has an easy time compared to some.

Carlos is brought in to solve a high profile case involving the leader of a religious sect - the Circle - from the US. The Circle consists of the people left behind when Atlas flew - one of whom was Carlos's mother (Newman makes a telling point that there's more blame heaped on the mother who left her child than the many fathers). he used to be a member of the Circle so he's ideally placed to understand what happened in a remote hotel in Devon. (The case also gives him the chance to enjoy real - non printed - food: Carlos's love of good food is an enjoyable diversion against a fairly grim background).

The book then adopts the mode - if not the normal setting - of a police procedural, with forensics, pathology, the search for evidence and a rising sense that something is off, someone isn't playing by the rules. We gradually come to sympathise with Carlos more and more, not least the grief and anger which he is clearly bottling up - assisted by the lessons from his hot-housing. He's an awkward, slightly spiky character and so, so alone.

Then - things change. I can't say too much about this for fear of spoilers but the book moves into a different mode. Something awful happens to Carlos and the stakes are suddenly much higher. Then Newman redoubles the jeopardy yet again, boosting things both to a new level of danger but also changing the sort of book this is in a heartbreaking conclusion. I was left standing in the dark on a cold railway platform so that I could read the last few pages before I drove home - it's that compelling. This is, in short, a compulsive and disturbing read. As well as sheer, relentless story we get to see the lives of those shut out of the glamorous space adventure described in Planetfall. Of course we know how that turned out - they don't, and many are damaged: Carlos's father, driven to grief and despair, for example. That's an angle on space-faring and the Final Frontier that you don't normally see.

It isn't perfect - I wonder if perhaps that first twist might come a bit sooner, as there is relatively little time then to explore the consequences? Things then seem a bit rushed at the end. But it's a testament to the power of the writing that I'm only saying that in hindsight: when you're in this book you just want it to keep coming and coming.

The best thing of all is, though, that there surely MUST be more books to come now in the Planetfall universe? It can't just end like this, can it? Please Emma?

The author reading from After Atlas at Forbidden Planet London
(12 November 2016)

25 November 2016

The Lost Child of Lychford

Image from http://www.paulcornell.com/
The Lost Child of Lychford
Paul Cornell
Tor.com, 22 November 2016
PB, 130pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via NetGalley

It’s December in the English village of Lychford – the first Christmas since an evil conglomerate tried to force open the borders between our world and… another.

Which means it’s Lizzie’s first Christmas as Reverend of St. Martin’s. Which means more stress, more expectation, more scrutiny by the congregation. Which means… well, business as usual, really.

Until the apparition of a small boy finds its way to Lizzie in the church. Is he a ghost? A vision? Something else? Whatever the truth, our trio of witches (they don’t approve of “coven”) are about to face their toughest battle, yet!

I am NOT Paul Cornell. Like him, however, I am married to a Church of England priest and live in a small community in Southern England. So I am loving this series (see here for review of The Witches of Lychford) as much for its depiction of the joys and frustrations of life in such a community, as for the supernatural spooky stuff.

The supernatural, spooky stuff is, is though, magnificently done, truly eerie and frightening. Lychford seems to be something of a spiritual front line, its streets carefully oriented to defend the town against incursions from outside and a trio of 'witches' - Lizzie, the new Vicar, Autumn, proprietor of the town's New Age shop and Judith, more of a traditional witchy type - on guard against incursions. The  supportive grumbling between the three women is one of the nice points of this story.

Like the previous previous book, this is short, a novella but - with the setting and characters now established - more of it can focus on plot and building tension, so it perhaps works slightly better in this length than Witches did - not to say that wasn't a great read, but you perhaps get more story here.

Again, Lychford is under attack but it's a more subtle, almost snide kind of attack and some of it has clearly taken place offstage, as it were. We're left - for a bit - to divine just what's going on, as Judith continues to care for her revenant husband, Autumn looks after her shop and Lizzie devotes herself to the rush of Chtistmas activities, supplemented by a couple from Swindon who want their wedding on Christmas Eve. (If there's ever a suggestion of a Christmas Eve wedding here me, my son and the dog will take drastic measures, up to and including organ sabotage). Is there a bad case of the midwinter blues (plus overwork) going on here or something sinister? This being Lychford, we can guess the answer...

Cornell gradually ratchets up tension, keeping the reader guessing about just what is going to happen (and about the place of that little lost ghost in it all). Then he springs his trap and all seems hopeless. In the darkest part of the year, the dark seems to be rising...

A wonderful, chilly tale, whether you treat it as a Christmas ghost story or a slice of cosmic horror. The author is clearly having fun with Lychford - and the Church! - and I hope there are more of these coming.

22 November 2016

Blogtour - The Finnish Invasion: The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto

The Exiled (Anne Fekete 3)
Kati Hiekkapelto (trans David Hackston)
Oranda Books, 15 November 2016
PB, 295pp

I'm grateful to Orenda for a review copy of the book.

I've never taken part in an invasion before, let alone a Finnish one, so it's exciting to take my place in the ranks of this truly epic blog tour (see banner at the foot of the post) reviewing both Kati Hiekkapelto's new Anna Fekete books, and in a few days, Antii Tuomainen's The Mine

That said... Finnish? Well, as readers of Anna's earlier adventures will know she's not Finnish. Well, not exactly. Inspector Fekete is of course a Finnish citizen, but she's from Serbia, originally, a refugee from the civil war that broke up Yugoslavia. And in this book, she's home for a holiday. (Needless to say, things don't go smoothly). To add a wrinkle to things, Anna is ethnically Hungarian - that's her mother tongue - and the book makes passing references to the use of Hungarian rather than Serbian at times. So - just to be clear - I'm reviewing the English translation of a book written in Finnish about a woman from Serbia who has settled in Finland but is also Hungarian.

I think that's rather wonderful. At a time when strutting idiots are doing their best to stoke hatred and divisions and draw neat little boxes all around us, here is a book celebrating the wonderful, true messiness of life in Europe.

Of course, as you'd expect, it really does get messy for Anna. One of the themes of the book is precisely her lack of roots. While she's happily settled in Finland, it isn't home, any more than Kanizsa, the village she originally came from, is home. Or perhaps both are? With a father who died when she was a girl, and a brother killed in the war, she spends much of this book considering her identity - mainly through the lens of the Serbian culture: the casual attitude to life, from things like eating, drinking and smoking to not wearing seatbelts or indeed, when on the river, lifejackets. Small things, but significant. Caught between the culture she grew up with and that of her original home, Anna's ready to follow anything that promises to root her.

So when she stumbles on a mystery surrounding her father's death, we know she won't follow the wise advice of everyone around her and leave well alone.

That's not just down to mere curiosity of course: as in her previous cases we see a doggedness in Anna - she won't be told what to do, pursuing first the thief who stole her bag then the murderer who killed him and, finally, the little girl left alone and unprotected by that death. One rather pities anyone who gets in Anna's way.

Like the last book in this series, The Defenceless, The Exiled is preoccupied with the refugee crisis facing Europe. (It's interesting how one's natural instinct is to phrase this as a problem for Europe - when of course the point is that it's at worst, a minor problem for Europe but a catastrophe for the unfortunates who have had to flee their homes). Hiekkapelto dissects attitudes to the refugees and shows normal people being variously heroic, inhuman or just unheeding about it all. She also rather deftly displays the workings of society in Kanisza - the local political fixer, the police, the priest, the Romani who were treated as bottom of the pile until the refugees came along. It's a far from ideal society, perhaps, but it's a place Anna understands deeply, even if she couldn't live there, and being 'home' for a while only adds to her sense of alienation.

In many ways this is then as much a book about belonging (or not) as it is a straight crime story. At times the theft/ murder plot almost vanishes to be replaced by this study in (dis)location, illustrated not only through the refugees but also in Anna herself. A recurring motif is Anna's stolen passport which of course she needs to get back to Finland at the end of her stay. She keeps forgetting to report it and collect a new one. What does that say? Yes, Anna is busy with her informal (yet still pretty sophisticated) investigation - but there seems a little more to it than that. And the local boy with whim she has a brief fling (to her mother's disapproval. Real love, lust, or - perhaps - a need for something solid in her life (despite angry words when her mother urges her to settle down).

It's difficult to say. We'll have to read more about Anna and find out.

An excellent further instalment to this series which only deepens the reader's understanding and sympathy for Anna (even though she can be a bit awkward at times...)

15 November 2016

Sherlock Holmes and The Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove

Image from titanbooks.com
The Cthulhu Casebooks: Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows
James Lovegrove
Titan Books, 15 November 2016
HB, 448pp

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

It is the autumn of 1880, and Dr John Watson has just returned from Afghanistan. Badly injured and desperate to forget a nightmarish expedition that left him doubting his sanity, Watson is close to destitution when he meets the extraordinary Sherlock Holmes, who is investigating a series of deaths in the Shadwell district of London. Several bodies have been found, the victims appearing to have starved to death over the course of several weeks, and yet they were reported alive and well mere days before. Moreover, there are disturbing reports of creeping shadows that inspire dread in any who stray too close. Holmes deduces a connection between the deaths and a sinister drug lord who is seeking to expand his criminal empire. Yet both he and Watson are soon forced to accept that there are forces at work far more powerful than they could ever have imagined. Forces that can be summoned, if one is brave – or mad – enough to dare…

I love a bit of Sherlock Holmes, so was delighted when Titan offered me a copy of the first book in this new series by James Lovegrove.

In his preface, Lovegrove relates the unlikely tale of hos his hitherto unknown family connection with HP Lovecraft led to the receipt of three yellowing typescripts, the work of none other than Dr John Watson, recounting the true story of his adventures with Sherlock Holmes. Are they real? Are they fake? Is the rarefied world of Holmesian scholarship about to be unset? or are even worse revelations in store?

I enjoyed this foray into an almost MR Jamesian world of lost manuscripts and unspeakable horror. Because of course, as the title proclaims, what we have here is the fusion of two great pantheons of popular literature. Holmes and Watson are supported by Mrs Hudson, Gregson, Lestrade and Mycroft - in their world of 221B, fog and hansom cabs (there's a hilarious bit where Lovegrove shows off his knowledge of clarences, growlers and who knows what else wheeled conveyances). Lurking underneath, though, are Elder Gods, tentacles horrors, sanity-blasting books and obsessed cultists.

In the hands of a less skilled writer this could have been a real mess. These two worlds have very distinct rules. While Holmes adventures may have a touch of the sensational and even Gothic, that's only to show off Holmes's superb rationalistic deductive power. And while some of Lovecraft's stories do permit a (temporary) success in driving back the cosmic horror, that's only to counterpoint the cold, bleak despair of what is surely coming to devour us.

Yet Lovegrove does a superb job in combining these immiscible essences, allowing the Great Detective and the Good Doctor to discover sinister horrors and reason themselves in ton accepting them as the only explanation - once the impossible has been removed - for the horrible deaths stalking Shadwell.

On the way, we're treated to a good pastiche of a late Victoria shocker: opium dens, vice ridden dives in the East End and so forth. Of course Lovegrove is writing for a modern audience and he properly contextualises the 'sinister Chinaman' stereotype, making it clear how the opium trade began with the British Empire and dwelling on the horrors inflicted on China. They aren't, of course, cosmic, but one can compare the results of colonialism with the eager, hungry desire of ancient gods to come and consume humanity.

It's all great fun, very smartly done, and with enough enjoyable Holmes references - Watson explains that his earlier stories were distortions, intended to make the truth - to keep the keenest Baker Street Irregular on their toes.

Two further volumes are promised and I look forward to them. My only criticism - and it's a bit of a picky point - would be that in my mind, the classic Sherlock Holmes tale is a short story, Conan Doyle only having written a handful of full length novels. The short story is suited to an incident, a satisfying episode or a minor crime and to highlighting Holmes's methods and world. The novel requires a more spectacular resolution and when you're dealing with Cthulhu and his ilk for 'spectacular' read 'life limiting'. So I'd welcome some short stories set in this world as well, if Mr Lovegrove could oblige...?