29 September 2015

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Witches of Lychford
Paul Cornell
Tor, 2015
PB, 144pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop.

If stories of magic, monsters and the supernatural in a modern setting are supposed to be called "Urban Fantasy", then what are we to make of this, set in an idyllic, sleepy English village? "Rural Fantasy" sounds a bit Cold Comfort Farm - but in this story there might well be something nasty in the woodshed, so I'll assert now that Cornell has launched a new genre with his clever, chilling book.

Lizzie is the new Vicar in Lychford. Recently bereaved and still mourning her husband, she has come back to Lychford where she grew up. Judith, eccentric and quarrelsome, knows a bit about the Other World you can find along certain paths in the woods.  Autumn, once so rational and ordinary, experienced something impossible and now runs a magic shop in the village.

Together, the three women will face an ancient evil - and an unstoppable modern power, the mighty supermarket chain Sovo. If Sovo has its way, it will be the end of village life - and possibly of all life. Because Lychford is a special place, and needs to be preserved.

Blending together conservation, magic, religion, and big business, Cornell has created an extremely readable and rather funny adventure with three engaging protagonists who may not know much about what's happening, but do know what's right. And I have to say, as the husband of a Vicar living in a small village, his observations of clergy life (those Church Council meetings! The fundraising!) are spot on.

Best of all, I understand there are going to be more stories set in this world. So we may hear about Judith's dark past, about Joe and what happened to him and more about where Autumn went, and why.

Highly recommended.

22 September 2015

Planetfall by Emma Newman

Emma Newman
Roc, 5 November 2015
PB, 320 pp

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

I apologise in advance if this review comes over as gushy, but I was quite simply blown away by this book.  I greatly enjoyed Newman's well observed, magic-with-manners Split Worlds series, and I hope there will be more of them, but in my view, with this book, she simply takes her writing to a new level: indeed, several new levels.

Renata Ghali - Ren - is part of a human settler group on a distant planet.  It is 20 odd years since they arrived (the "Planetfall" of the title) and the group has hunkered down and established a colony on this distinctly Earth-like world (the day length and gravity are nearly the same, and once they developed vaccines against the indigenous microbes, the group were even able to breathe the air). They live in domes, recycle pretty much everything (human waste goes into each dome's compost system, other stuff down pipes to be digested and turned back into feedstock for the 3D printers that make almost everything needed) and have built a harmonious and even idyllic little community.

And they watch for the return of their prophet from God's City.

Because the purpose of this one-way trip wasn't primarily scientific curiosity, or colonisation. Back on Earth - where, the book hints, things have got rather nasty, though we never get many details - Lee Suh-Mi received a vision, which revealed both the location of the planet and how to reach it. She gathered a group of pioneers (most of them psychologically screened) and leaving family, friends and careers behind, they travelled to their new world... where Suh-Mi disappeared into the strange, living City.  Now there are two members of the colony on guard over the entrance at all times, waiting to welcome her back. Periodically, the City has dramatic revelations for them, supporting their faith and hope. It is a community of believers.

The dichotomy between the sophisticated science that keeps the colony alive - recycling waste, 3D printing everything needed from food to clothes to buildings, monitoring the health of every member via chips embedded in their heads (which also allow them to communicate with each other in a kind of human Internet) - and this conscious, even ecstatic, vein of religion gives the book an immediate tension, a tension that crackles from every page.

Ren herself brings another sort of tension. The colony's 3D printer engineer, she was Suh-Mi's oldest friend, and mourns her absence. But Ren seems to have secrets, and as we go deeper into the story it's clear that loss has affected her deeply. The whole book is seen from Ren's viewpoint, and it would spoil the story to say much about her secrets: I will only note that Newman does a brilliant job at gradually - oh so gradually - revealing both what her problems are and what caused them. Along the way we learn about Ren's relationships with her parents and her daughter, none of whom she will see again. There are passages here which have an almost haunting intensity, for example Ren remembering sitting beside a hospital bed in which a loved one lay dying.

But this isn't only a story about Ren, although she is the heart and centre of the book. This is also the story of Sung-Soo, a stranger who walks out of the wilderness and sets events in motion. It seems that the colonists weren't as alone as they thought. Sung-Soo has an affinity with Ren, and wants to spend time with her and even help her, but his naive enthusiasm seems calculated to upset her carefully maintained balance and risk exposing those secrets. And it is also a mystery story - the mystery being, what really brought the colonists to their new world, and what is supposed to happen next? They have, it seems, been stuck for decades, moving neither forwards or backwards. There are questions that nobody will ask, answers, perhaps, that no-one wants to hear.

If the colony as a whole is stuck, so is Ren herself. Newman gives us a very human, very fragile yet also steely hero. You can't help but sympathise with Ren, but at times she - or perhaps, her situation, which she won't face - can be irritating. You cheer her on, while wishing she would, actually, move on. That's very much the reaction of Sung-Soo. As an outsider coming he in from the wilderness he put me in mind rather of the Savage in Brave New World, a proxy for the reader showing up the absurdities of the colony. But Ren has her feelings and experiences and instincts, and they are valid, and she insists that they are respected - didn't I say she was steely?

So - in the general and in the particular - there is frustration; the dilemma - I must do this thing, I fear to do it - with its resulting moral trauma is played out to the end.  The resulting emotional see-saw between Ren and Sung-Soo is yet another source - or effect - of the tension at the heart of this story.

Brilliantly written, haunting in places, with a constant narrative drive, this is the best science fiction I've read for a long time. Above all, Ren is a magnificent and magnificently written character who Newman does an excellent job of making real. When I arrived at my Tube station with 20 odd pages of this book left, I simply had to stand there on the platform, let myself be late, for work and finish it.

I think you'd want to do the same.

15 September 2015

Review - The Black Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce

The Black Country
Kerry Hadley-Pryce
Salt, 15 September 2015
PB, 166pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop.

The "Black Country" is an area of the English West Midlands which was central to the birth of the Industrial Revolution - it was so called due to the smoke and dirt from numerous factory chimneys.

In Hadley-Pryce's debut novel, there is a different darkness, less easily cleaned up, and the book is a journey into its heart.  It's like a nest of Russian dolls in reverse - rather than each opening to reveal a new, bright and smaller copy of itself, it is swallowed up by a darker, more horrific spectre.

The story is told in a very distinct style: ostensibly about Maddie and Harry, it's indirect, telling us what they thought, what they said they did, what they would have done. At first folksy, like a neighbour gossiping over the fence, the atmosphere becomes increasingly sinister. Nothing is certain, the story is conjecture, comparing Harry's and Maddie's accounts of the same events, dodging back and forward in time and making links in words and actions (and even smells - the book is laden with smells).  We don't know who is narrating: there's an element of judgement in it, we feel, especially when it comes to Harry, perhaps. Or perhaps not. We will make up our minds. We will learn what Harry's like.

Set in the cold of winter, in the Black Country, the book opens in the midst of a crisis in Harry and Maddie's life (I was going to say marriage, but then realised that i'm not actually sure if they are). This is rooted in an evening spent at the local hotel, celebrating the life of their old University tutor. What seems like a bit of marital discord is soon revealed to come from a much darker place. Neither of the pair is innocent. Sullenly, they bicker and try to shift the blame. What happened was bad, but what's revealed in the intricate dance between them afterwards is worse, much worse. Hadley-Pryce's writing and her handling of her subject are simply masterful here - she plays with our sympathies, holding up the pair in various different guises: the downtrodden, ineffective teacher, the desperate husband, the frustrated wife - while gradually stripping both Harry and Maddie of dignity and revealing their nasty secrets. The dry, judicial tone gradually, oh so gradually, becomes disturbing in itself: who is telling this story? An omniscient narrator? An inquisitor or some sort, we might think but with what agenda?

I found the first half of the story the most effective, the weekend in which Harry and Maddie seem almost trapped in a bubble of their own, going through horrific events but with almost no contact with anyone else. They seem like ghosts in the wintry landscape, locked in their own horror, or perhaps figures in a  painting by Edward Hopper. The events of the second half, while revelatory, begin to involve others - a policemen, a nurse, a schoolgirl - and lose some of the sense of gnawing loneness. On the other hand, those revelations strip Harry and Maddie to the bone.

This was a compelling read, but - and this is means as praise not criticism - it's a nasty book in which people do nasty things (and I'm not sure we see the half of it, there hints at plenty more below the surface). One leaves it feeling a need to wash. There is no redemption here, no escape, no happy ending. As Maddie remarks several times, she is living in Hell and indeed, while resolutely naturalistic with no trace of fantasy or the supernatural, this is in essence a horror story where everyone is the Devil.

Except for Faith, of course. Poor Faith.

Highly recommended, and I'm eager to see what Hadley-Pryce writes next.

Blogtour review! The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto

The Defenceless
Kati Hiekkapelto
(Translated by David Hackston)
30 July (e) 30 September (PB) 2015
Orenda Books, 301pp

I'm grateful to Orenda books for sending me a copy of this book. I found this an intriguing read, one of those rare crime books that gives equal weight to a twisty, credible plot and to well drawn characters who are themselves caught up in a believable moral drama.

Anna Feketa is a detective in Finland at the centre of a complex investigation involving asylum seekers, drug trafficking, gang violence and - at the start - the unexplained death of an old man on a frozen road in the dead of winter. 

These issues, particularly the theme of strangers in a strange land, are apt for her to be looking into because she is herself a foreigner - originally from the Hungarian part of Serbia.  Anna simply has no home country left.  The land she grew up in no longer exists, and while she has built a life for herself as part of the Finnish police she still feels herself a stranger there. This isn't helped by the (at times rather crude) racist language and attitudes of her sidekick, the grizzled cop Esko. He has accepted Anna (this is the second in a series and I think that the first book describes how that happened. The case that the two of them are drawn into now concerns a young Pakistani boy, Sammy, who had fled for his life, become addicted to drugs and ended up sleeping rough in the snow. Of course Esko sees him as a scrounger and criminal who should be sent back where he came from. Anna though feels sympathy for Sammy and tries to

Kati Hiekkapelto
help him, but the situation is tricky: he has become involved in crime and Esko doesn't trust him one bit. 

Anna faces a risk of getting in too deep emotionally - she also wants to help Gabriella, the Hungarian au pair arrested in connection with the death of that old man on the road. At a time when her family are distant and things changing at home, is she looking for something to hold on to - or are her instincts abut the two suspects correct?

At the same time, Esko wants to prove he is still in the game by facing down a dangerous and growing new gang, the Black Cobras, and keeping them out of Finland. His quest could bring more concrete dangers to them all.  Yet the relationship between the mismatched two - clearly lonely - people who are in many ways opposites and unlikely friends is touchingly, even tenderly drawn 

As I write this the headlines are full of the plight of Syrian refugees making their trek across Europe to safety, and I can't but feel that the publication of this book is very timely.

As a portrait of a (literally) cold new world, yet lightened by a degree of kindness and empathy, this would be hard to beat. It is a book with great heart, and I look forward to reading more about Anna Feketa in future.

13 September 2015

The Sand Men by Christopher Fowler

The Sand Men
Christopher Fowler
Solaris, 2015
PB, 320pp

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

It's safe to say The Sand Men book won't end up being recommended by the Dubai Tourist Board. It is a work of fiction with at its heart an (obviously) fantastical plot device which no-one is going to confuse with reality.

No offence there then. But in its more mundane aspects it is implicitly scathing about the treatment of migrant workers, the double standards of a state prepared to look the other way from the antics of expat Westerners (until some line is crossed) and the environmental hubris of building an artificial ski slope in the burning desert. Above all, it paints a deeply depressing picture of life among those well-paid expat engineers, architects and managers and their wives. (The spouses are generally wives: a deeply conservative culture seems to obtain where it's the men who are employed on the construction projects while wives endure an almost Colonial style of life in the walled compound - generally bored out of their minds and skewered by that double standard I mentioned above). So, if you knew you disliked the whole idea of Dubai but weren't quite sure why, this book might sharpen up your views. 

In other words, while this is basically a thriller, Fowler is also engaging with the society he depicts, and a very peculiar one it is.

Lea, Cara and Roy are newcomers to Dubai, innocents stepping off the plane into a new world. For Roy, his position on the luxurious Dream World resort project is the last chance, after he's been out of work for months, of making it as an architect. Dream World is behind schedule and must catch up. or the mysterious Chinese/ Russian backers of the project will not be pleased. For daughter Cara, the move is an unwelcome wrench from her London school and friends - yet possibly an opportunity to grow up, live a bit, and widen her horizons. For Lea, a journalist who supported the family though lean times, it's pretty much a prison sentence - more of less confined to the company compound and constrained, as a wife, by a set of conventions right out of the 50s - the 1850s, that is: Fowler describes the way of life you might get crossing Stepford with a hill station under the Raj ("...as if she had been stationed in some doomed and distant fort owned by the East India Company...")

Most of the story indeed focuses on Lea (after a gruesome introductory scene in which an Indian engineer dies horribly) with a few episodes from Cara's or Roy's point of view. We see Lea's optimism that she might find some local role writing for a magazine fade (investigative journalism is not encouraged, what's wanted are pieces on the joys of water skiing or shopping) to be replaced by a growing paranoia and a quest to discover why there are so many deaths and disappearances among the expats and their families. Meanwhile Cara makes those new friends ("Cara was unsure whether Norah meant good-sick or bad-sick") and Roy works longer and longer shifts, rising in Dream World Group and changing, demanding that Lea fulfil that alien wifely role ("The women around here are throwbacks. it's as if feminism never happened. And I think the men all secretly like it that way...")

The family seems to be fracturing.  Do they even need Lea any longer? Nominally a housewife she doesn't even have much to do at home as there is a frighteningly efficient and apparently compulsory maid to take care of things (the maids are rumoured to be spies for Dream World Group). Just what is her role? What will she do? Lea tries to reach out and make friends, but only seems to get on with those already marked down as trouble-makers. As events in the compound - and at Dream World - begin to go awry, Lea sets out to discover what's behind them. Is it just normal slapdash, devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism, or is there more going on? And in either case, who can she trust?

Replete with references to the Emerald City of Oz ("look behind the curtain") and to Kubla Khan's Xanada and introduced with a quote from JG Ballard (who else?) this is an excellent story, contrasting the gaudy neon excess of the hotels, bars and shopping malls with the timeless darkness of the desert - which was there first, and will be there after:

"...Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/
The lone and level sands stretch far away." (PB Shelley, Ozymandias).

2 September 2015

A Cold Silence by Alison Littlewood

A Cold Silence
Alison Littlewood
Jo Fletcher Books, 3 September 2015
PB, 368pp

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

I think A Cold Silence is best read as a coda to Littlewood's first novel, A Cold Season, which appeared in 2012. If you haven't read the earlier book - which in my view is superb - then go and get it and read it before starting A Cold Silence - and before reading any further in this review because there are, inevitably, spoilers for the earlier book below.

And I will now give you a little space to do that.

If you're still following me - A Cold Season ends with Cass escaping from Darnshaw, driving away from that cold, haunted place with her returned husband Pete and son Ben. She believes she has lost her soul to the sinister Remick, but that she somehow may be able to bargain for it using her unborn child - his child - as some kind of leverage.  Remick will, she believes, come back - a day she fears but also looks to with a strange kind of hope.

A Cold Silence answers the dangerous question, "What happened next?". I say dangerous because, when a book ends in as open a way as Cold Season does, there is a risk that any follow-up will disappoint, that it will not chime with how readers expect it to be. And indeed, Cold Silence is a very different kind of book. I think it may divide readers of the earlier story, but that, taking the two together, we do get a much more rounded view of what happened.

The story opens nearly twenty years on. Cass, Ben, and his sister, Gaila, have lived together as a family most of that time, albeit scarred by earlier events, but the children have now moved out. Ben's father, Pete, is absent again from this book. Cass, so active - at least eventually - in the previous book, has retreated into her home, where the consequences of what she did - of what Remick and his coven did - play out. She draws pictures of bleak moorlands and dark churches and insists that there is bad in Gaila: she is less hopeful, more damaged and more introspective than the Cass of Cold Season - which may, I'm afraid, disappoint some readers.

But that has to be the case, doesn't it? There is unfinished business here. Remick never, it seems, came back. Cass battled on, raised her kids, did her best - but nothing has been resolved and this has poisoned relationships, raising questions about the nature of family loyalty, about love and about motivation. (And as we saw at the end of Cold Season, Cass's motivations weren't exactly pure). Much of the book is, one way or the other, a meditation on these questions - so in that respect, too, this book is very different. There is little of the brooding sense of approaching horror that we get in Cold Season (and in Littlewood's subsequent two novels) - although having said that there are some effective scenes early on where Ben, who is the central character here, recalls how Cass would never visit Darnshaw and notes that, when approaching the valley, it was as if winter lurked close even on a summer's day. (Ben is mourning his friend Jessica - one of the characters who appeared as a child in the earlier book - who has killed herself, and he goes back to Darnshaw for the funeral - breaking an old promise to his mother).

Instead, the book signposts early on where the battleground will be: an online game called Archeron which has become notorious for its occult overtones and apparently Satanic aspects. You can ask things of it, but it will name its prices (Jessica's suicide followed immersion in the game). There is a scene in Gaila's London flat where the city is seen through a window, all ready for the taking: all this can be yours...

Archeron itself is a clever device to surface the presence of ancient, brooding evil - the Devil has modernised, come out of the shadows: CS Lewis's Screwtape would I suppose approve - but I have to admit that modern offices and online interaction can lack atmosphere compared to remote moorlands and standing stones, and much of the weight of this book is therefore carried instead by the shifts and compromises between Ben and the other central characters and the gradual revelation of the dynamics of the Cassidy family. It's much more character led, and in that respect a more subtle book (and this is where a reader of the earlier book will be much better prepared to understand what's going on - another reason to see these books as a whole).

The writing is great, there are surprises and shocks and this book still delivers the chills. Like Cold Season, Littlewood has fun dealing with a menace that's rooted in traditional Christianity but using characters who have a very modern ignorance and misunderstanding of the concepts. And we may be being primed for another sequel (please?)

So - a rather different read from the earlier book - still an enthralling and chilling horror story but more cerebral: food for (rather disturbing) thought.

1 September 2015

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm

The Killing Kind
Chris Holm
Mulholland (Hodder), 27 August 2015
HB, 320pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have a copy of this book through Bookbridgr.

At first sight, this book was surprisingly different from previous books of Holm's I'd read - his Collector series was a noir-tinged fantasy trilogy featuring an operative who stopped up souls as their owners died - think a smoother, wise-cracking version of Terry Pratchett's Death.

The central character of The Killing Kind is Hendricks, who doesn't collect the souls he sends to - wherever they go - but simply bumps off their owners. Hendricks is a very particular sort of hitman, focussing exclusively on other hitmen. Somehow he's got a line on who the organised crime gangs want killed, and, amazingly, it turns out the intended victims will pay a pretty penny to avoid ending up dead.

There are Reasons for Hendricks' taking up this particular line in crime: guilt after surviving when the rest of his US Army unit died, guilt at what they'd done before that, a desire to atone - but to be honest, for me, that didn't really matter, what matters in this book is the relentless action, Hendricks' ingenuity at doing what he does, and above all, the dramatic hunt that ensues when the Mob discover someone is messing with their plans. Of course they buy in another legendary assassin and of course we end up with a full-blooded duel - and of course there is plenty of carnage along the way.  There isn't much more to the plot than that, although there are plenty of twists and turns along the way.

In some respects, perhaps, it's not so different from the Collector books. The main distinction is perhaps less the lack of supernatural stuff than the simpler plot - here we don't have the complicated eschatological battle lines of the earlier trilogy.  

Not a deep character study - they are mostly lightly sketched - but the writing has great pace and, once begun, this book demands to be finished (actually it doesn't so much demand as grab you by lapels and make you read it). There is peril. There is a scary body count scary (so much so that it's entirely feasible no one will survive by the end) with ingenious deaths. There is a world weary, disillusioned hero who has to learn again what he will fight. 

Very satisfying.