FATED by Alex Jacka
For well over a century many British authors from both the SF/Fantasy field and mainstream literature have found the
setting of London provides lots of thought-provoking places and history to use as a backdrop. Although I personally
would like to see the mythology of other cities explored more, Benedict Jacka’s FATED (the first in his Alex Verus
series) proves to me that there is still plenty of scope for excellent storytelling based in London.
FATED is what is described as an urban fantasy (ie where fantasy elements co-exist in our modern world). Like many urban fantasy stories, it is told in the first person viewpoint; in this case that of the probability mage, Alex Verus. A probability mage (or a seer) can see a short distance into the future, or rather the many possible futures. The exponential cascade of possibilities as he looks further ahead limit the usefulness of the information to hours rather than days. His abilities are rare and exceedingly useful to both Dark and Light mages which has had some nasty consequences for Alex in the past. He now owns a magic shop in Camden and tries to stay unnoticed and away from other magicians. However when an ancient statue stored at the British Museum is found to hide a powerful magic artefact, only Alex’ abilities can divine the correct and safe way to unlock it. Suddenly wanted by various factions, many of whom will use violence and coercion to get what they want, Alex must use his wits to protect his friends and himself and to prevent the artefact falling into the wrong hands.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book which shows a great deal of imagination. It avoids neatly the problem I have with many fantasy books that magic can be waved to solve any problem. The fact that Alex has no high-powered defensive/offensive magic of his own and must rely on preparation and his wits to survive against opponents who could easily kill or maim him makes it stimulating as you are kept guessing how he is going to escape from a bad situation. The characterisation is excellent. I like very much that Alex is a quieter more reflective character than the prototypical spell-slinging magician of much fantasy. His back story and its effect on him and some of the other characters is interesting and I look forward to further revelations in the subsequent books. The supporting characters are also good and fit well into the plot. I particularly liked his friend, Luna who is cursed to bring bad luck to anyone who gets emotionally close to her and the sometimes unexpected ways that affects the plot.
The book is well written and easy to read and has good pace with well-interspersed action and quieter scenes. In my opinion the author has succeeded in writing a book which has a unique voice and is clearly differentiated from others in a sometimes over-populated genre. I look forward to reading the following novels in the series.
REBEL'S CAGE: FOURTH BOOK OF ELITA by Kate JacobyOne problem with a fantasy series such as this is that the volumes are published at intervals so great that the nuances of the relationship between characters is forgotten. Another is the fact that the books form a continuous narrative and it is never easy to pick up the threads part way through. Despite a synopsis, character development and subtle clues that keep the reader one step ahead, are lost. Fortunately, there is not a density of characters or depth of political intrigue such as George R. R.
GRAVE SECRETS (Lavington Windsor Mysteries 1) by Alice James
Comic urban fantasy seems to me to be dominated by US authors with a few notable exceptions such as Ben
Aaronovitch (Rivers of London) and Neil Gaiman etc. Of those British authors, many of them seem to centre around
London, so it is doubly refreshing to read one set in Staffordshire (technically I guess that makes it a “rural” fantasy?)
Toni Windsor is an estate agent by day but a necromancer by night! Not that she’s evil – far from it, she just likes to sit in the graveyard at night and chat with a newly raised corpse! They don’t remember anything and as long as she feeds them and remembers to banish them when finished talking, there’s never been any problem. Apart from that she only uses her skill very rarely to occasionally secretly help her policeman brother to identify a cause of death. Apart from family no-one else knows about her necromantic abilities and life is otherwise pretty routine and boring. The biggest excitement is talking to Bredon Havers, a courteous and interesting corpse from the 1700’s who unusually remembers her. That is until she meets Oscar, an attractive and flirtatious vampire looking to buy an old house (with cellars!) and through him she is introduced into vampire society.
Vampires have recently been legally recognised and given rights in Europe, as their blood can heal some diseases, and many are re-locating from persecution in the USA, where there is a “Stake on Sight” policy. The official recognition and protection has led to a mini-property boom, which is good news for estate agents.
As she and Oscar get closer, she has to cope with the outdated and arrogant assumptions of vampire society, Oscar’s grumpy but handsome boss, Benedict, and try to avoid being killed by a rival vampire gang, while on the way also trying to solve a murder mystery! As if that wasn’t enough, she has to keep her abilities secret as vampires tend to kill necromancers, given that their ability to control the dead also extends to vampires.
I loved this book – it is laugh-out-loud funny. I found myself thinking of it as Bridget Jones meets True Blood –a rom- com with vampires and zombies. The dialogue is sharp, witty and one of the highlights of the book. Toni herself is an amusing and entertaining character who somehow gets involved in one disaster after another. Throughout she is kind, friendly, loyal and intelligent and the reader can understand why Oscar, Benedict and Bredon like her. Yes, on one level it follows some of the conventions of the sub-genre, but the worldbuilding is good, the various strands of the plot come together to a successful conclusion, and it rattles along at a good pace and kept me not wanting to put it down to the end. Now I just want to see how the story continues in the next book. Definitely recommended if you like humorous fantasy writing.
BY MIDNIGHT by Mia James
This is one of Gollancz’s Young Adult novels and the first of a supernatural series.
April Dunne is a sixteen-year-old uprooted from Edinburgh to a house opposite Highgate Cemetery because her father has a new job. She is sent to Ravenwood, a private school for high fliers. While most of the other sixth-form pupils seem either rich or geeky, she pals up with Caro who is, amongst other things, a conspiracy theorist, and Simon, Caro’s gay childhood friend.
While her father researches the Highgate vampire and April is becoming intrigued by Gabriel, a fellow pupil, two murders take place. One is of Alix Graves a pop star who lives nearby, the other April almost stumbles over on her way home. Then April’s father is murdered. Caro is convinced that the deaths are linked. She also becomes convinced that the school is being run by vampires.
Told from the perspective of a teenager, this is a fine portrayal of teenage angst, full of the usual arguments with parents, the on-off relationship with Gabriel, the urgings of her mother to make friends with Davina, daughter of one of the school’s richest patrons. Her loyalties are torn and she has not only her grief to contend with but also her mother’s decline. Then, just when she thinks things cannot get worse, she discovers that not only is Gabriel a vampire but she is a Fury. She can kill vampires – not with a stake but by kissing them. She is falling in love with a boy that she will kill if he kisses her.
Do these characters sound familiar? Imagine this as Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Highgate taking the place of Sunnydale. If you are a Buffy fan, you should enjoy this.
By the way, I forgot to mention the teacher who… never mind. Read the book and find out. Regardless of this, BY MIDNIGHT is a good example of teenage fiction that can also be appreciated by older readers.
Terry Pratchett’s THE COLOUR OF MAGIC: THE ILLUSTRATED SCREENPLAY by Vadim Jean
This is the screenplay of the Sky TV adaptation broadcast last Easter. It is profusely illustrated, with both publicity stills
and shots from the broadcast as well as design drawings and bits of storyboard to make a pleasing souvenir of the
production. Plus its main raison d’etre, the script (one must understand that the original script as written may be
changed as production rolls along).
One wonders at whom this is actually aimed. It provides little, if anything, which could not be enjoyed to better effect by watching the TV movie (which is now available to buy on DVD for less than the cost of this book) while on the other hand it cannot possibly serve as an effective alternative to the original book as a version to read – although it could perhaps be regarded as a kind of graphic novel. Perhaps the best way to use it would be to have it on one’s lap while watching the TV, thereby hoping to enhance understanding and enjoyment - if one is sad enough!
However, the publishers did the same thing for the previous HOGFATHER broadcast and that must have sold well enough for them to think it was worth doing again.
There must be a lot of fanatical collectors out there!
Be that as it may, the most useful purpose this review can serve is to let you know that such a book exists. A keen collector may well choose to buy it as a souvenir and will probably not be disappointed. Someone more cynical might dismiss it as a money-making publicity exercise.
PHOENICIA’S WORLDS by Ben Jeapes
Abingdon-based Ben Jeapes came to talk to the Brum Group in April
2003, and talked about his late lamented Big Engine small press. But he is also a popular YA (young adult) author of books such as THE
XENOCIDE MISSION (2002) and THE NEW WORLD ORDER (2004). Ben has now broken into the world of adult fiction – and an excellent debut it is too. Basically it is the story of two brothers (originally three but one, Felipe, makes an early departure – though he remains an important presence).
La Nueva Temporada is Earth’s first and so far only colony world.
It was chosen because it appeared to be earthlike – which it is, except that it proves to be in the grip of an Ice Age. Only a narrow strip of it is habitable by humans. It was reached by the only starship, Phoenicia powered by a ‘Matter Annihilation Drive’, and took forty years to make the trip, though the drive would only thrust for ten before shutting down, its crew and colonists in slow sleep. Yet Earth has a wormhole, through which people and objects can pass; but not objects as huge as Phoenicia. So the starship carried a wormhole terminus, which when opened allowed traffic back and forth daily. Since the bulk of the book depends upon it I don’t think I’m giving
too much away by saying that without warning the wormhole explodes, with disastrous results.
Most of the story centres around brother Alejandro – Alex – Mateo, and later his younger brother Joaquin –Quin. Their family is one of the leading – one might almost say ruling – classes on La Nueva Temporada, and they are hijos (‘hee-ho’s’) because they were the first to arrive on the planet. Alex wants only to stay and take an active part in the terraforming of his world until it begins to warm up
and humanity can expand across its surface. But the wormhole catastrophe puts an end to that, and he is forced to make the long, slow journey back to Earth in order to establish a new wormhole terminus. But when he gets there he finds that not everyone on Earth agrees with the plan to reopen it.
It is his much younger brother Quin, who hates La Nueva Temporada and everyone on it, who has to stay behind and watch his world collapse around him; only to become its ultimate saviour. Quin was
born just as the wormhole collapsed, so has never known his world as it was or should be. We learn about his life in a series of jumps, from a few years to decades, and his childhood and teen years are very well handled, shaping him as a future adult. So are the way that society and governments evolve on the two worlds; yet Jeapes doesn’t go into long passages of exposition or explanation, allowing the story to evolve at its own pace.
Likewise the science: we know that the wormholes take advantage of
quantum physics, but they have just become an accepted part of this future history. The story ends in a way that makes it clear there is plenty of room for a sequel. The characters are real and you care about them, and the worlds are believable too. This is one of the best hard SF novels I have read in a long time, and it is refreshing to find a ‘new’ author who can handle the subject so capably. In my book – and in his! – Jeapes is well able to join the ranks of Hamilton, Robinson and Reynolds. I look forward to his future output (no pun intended). Highly recommended.
As an artist I cannot resist a mention of the cover, which on the paperback is by Dominic Harman. For once it is a good old-fashioned
illustrative cover; indeed, those sharp, pointy mountains would be at home on a cover from the fifties! It shows signs of having been painted very quickly, yet it serves its purpose in attracting the eye. Which is what a cover is supposed to be all about, and other publishers would do well to remember this.
THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS by Micaiah Johnson
The multiverse theory has been used by many SF authors, from Philip K Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE all
the way through to more modern versions such as Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth series. Micaiah
Johnson’s THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS is a welcome addition and manages to breathe new life into an old (and
sometimes tired) trope.
The technology for accessing alternative Earths is relatively new and only universes with the greatest similarities to Earth Zero can be accessed. So far there are 382 realities that have been “unlocked”. Earth Zero is the only one which apparently has developed the ability to travel the universes. It is a world damaged by climate change, pollution and disease. Society is unequal with the fortunate few living in walled cities with greater access to food, medicine, technology and shelter from the heat. Outside the walls are the poorer people, those who helped build the city but who for the most part are not allowed to live there.
Information and resources from the alternative Earth’s are potentially highly valuable but there is one major snag. A person can only enter another world if their counterpart (or doppelganger) is dead in that world. However, as accessible universes are those with the least divergence then for the most part, people have similar lives – the rich remain rich and the poor remain more likely to die. Suddenly the poor, the undervalued, refugees etc have a value as they have more dead counterparts.
However, this is only for a lucky few. Cara is one of these, a “traverser” and is highly valued as she is dead in all but eight of the 382 possible universes. This status has given her a job for the last six years and an apartment in the walled city of Wiley (though not the full security of a citizen) while her family must remain outside in the wastelands. Having lived a life of hunger and hardship, she is content to put herself first and enjoy the benefits. That plan is disrupted however when news comes through that one of her eight remaining doppelgangers has died and she is sent to that reality. Stranded there for a while she must interact with the counterparts of those from her own world, but the changes and information she discovers reveal a plot that endangers not only her world but the whole multiverse. Having learned to be selfish as a defence mechanism, Cara must decide whether she is willing to act to save others.
This is excellent SF. It touches on lots of issues such as privilege, exploitation and family dynamics. Cara is a complicated character affected by her past and also the histories of all her dead alternates. On one level this has left her mercenary and apparently hard-hearted from knowing that there are so many paths she could take in which she doesn’t live. On the other side, she feels guilty to be a survivor when so many others haven’t. Also having to interact with different and, in some cases, kinder versions of her family and significant others ultimately makes her question her own choices and develop as the story progresses. It is satisfying as a reader to see how she moves very much from a passive to an active figure with agency. The worldbuilding is good, with both the Ashtown and Wiley city societies shown to have good and bad aspects. While the concept of multi-verses may have been used before, this is a fresh and unique take on the theme and one I recommend to anyone who likes intelligent SF.
BAND OF GYPSYS by Gwyneth Jones
This is the fourth volume in the science fiction series following the leaders of the Counter-Cultural Revolution. After
the collapse of the internet and the isolation of Britain by the rest of the world due to a virulent computer virus, the
leaders of the Rock and Roll Reich emerged from the musicians at the Reading Festival. BOLD AS LOVE saw the rise
of the Triumvirate – Ax Preston, Sage Pender and Fiorinda Slater. CASTLES MADE OF SAND (Book 2) saw Ax a
hostage of drug dealers, Fiorinda held as a figurehead-of-state and a prisoner by her father, as Sage pursuing a higher
Zen state. By the untangling at the end, the three had accepted their three-way sexual partnership. Abandoning the
trauma of the events in Europe, MIDNIGHT LAMP saw them escaping to America.
Here, there is an attempt to harness psychic magic into a weapon. The result is the rendering of fossil fuels unusable as a power source At the start of BAND OF GYPSYS, the Triumvirate are found in Paris, but quickly return to Britain as the visible head of state. There are, however, conspiracies and political manoeuvring just out of sight. These people want the three of them on show, to keep the populace quiet, but contained.
The members of the Triumvirate are likeable characters and their problems are dealt with in a highly plausible way. This volume, however does not have the same zing as the previous three and it only really begins to wake up towards the end. Just as many second volumes of trilogies have the feeling of filling in between the setting up of the scenario in volume one, and the dénouement in volume three, this too, feels as if it is the linking volume before all hell is let loose in the next book. It is not bad, or badly written, it merely gives the impression of a stepping stone. There are more exciting things waiting on the other side of the river.
MIDNIGHT LAMP by Gwyneth Jones
Do you remember when you thought how wonderful it would be if politicians disappeared and anarchy ruled? A world
where the rock stars of the day actually ran tilings? In her trilogy, of which MIDNIGHT LAMP is the third volume,
Gwyneth Jones, envisages just that. In BOLD AS LOVE, Ax Preston finds himself Dictator (in the original, Latin, sense
of the word) of England. Sage Pender and Fiorinder Slater are the other members of his triumvirate. During volume
two, CASTLES MADE OF SAND, Ax is kidnapped and held in Mexico, leaving Sage and Fiorinder to carry on. Soon,
Sage leaves to pursue an agenda of his own, an attempt to reach a Zen-self state. They are reunited at the end of the
volume but no longer have a taste for being in the forefront of politics.
The start of MIDNIGHT LAMP finds them hanging out in obscurity in Mexico, all three of them traumatised by recent events. They are found by Harry Lopez who tells them that he wants to make a film of their exploits. Although the project is real, it is also a ploy to lure them into the USA. It is believed that groups are trying to reach the Zen-self state, not for enlightenment but to create a human bio-weapon. The US government thinks, because of their past experiences, the triumvirate can help them. The events that unfold, although seeming apposite to it do help initiate the healing Ax, Sage and Fiorinder need to be able to come to terms with the past.
This is a highly enjoyable book and although the story can stand on its own, I would urge readers to read the previous two volumes first as it will enhance their appreciation of a work that is a mixture of adventure, surrealism and what if…
RAINBOW BRIDGE by Gwyneth Jones
Gwyneth Jones started this series with the proposition that the revolution did takes place and that musicians were at
the heart of it. The first volume, BOLD AS LOVE, began at a Reading festival, a meeting of musicians and mystics.
Civilization in Britain collapsed dramatically when a virulent virus infected the internet and the rest of the world cut off
the island to protect itself.
Isolated, the revolution happened. Three musicians end up ruling the Rock and Roll Reich – Fiorinder Slater, Ax Preston and Sage Pender – with Ax elected President of Britain. This Triumvirate is able to survive everything thrown at them because of the love that binds them. It is not just the men’s love for Fiorinder but for each other that gives them their strength.
Throughout the series, disasters have beset Britain. At the end of the third volume, MIDNIGHT LAMP, a secret project in the United States went drastically wrong, resulting in the destruction of all of the world’s fossil fuels.
Then at the end of BAND OF GYPSYS (volume 4), the Chinese invaded.
RAINBOW BRIDGE is the fifth in the sequence. The Chinese are canny. They have observed the effect music has on the populace and the influence the Triumvirate have wielded in holding the country together. Their conquest resembles that of the Romans two thousand years previously. They came with military superiority and showed they meant business by slaughtering and perceived opposition, real or imaginary. Everyone was aware of the mayhem they were prepared to create. Then they recruited the local leaders to help keep order. RAINBOW BRIDGE begins with a reprise of BOLD AS LOVE in that they both begin with a rock concert. After the first, at Ashdown instead of Reading, the Triumvirate go on tour. The Chinese sent them to the lawless stronghold of Rainbow Bridge in Norfolk. Initially a labour camp, the place is a fortress and the three are in effect spies as well as ambassadors. The Chinese are prepared to let most areas continue in relative normality but they do not want any pockets of insurgence.
It would be wrong to believe that the Triumvirate have become puppets of the new regime. Ax is a skilled diplomat and able to take advantage of opportunities presented. At the same time, the three are under constant threat. A number of their friends have been killed in previous episodes and it is never certain that any of them will survive to the end of the volume. The skill of Jones as a writer is to keep the tension high with twists that will surprise the reader.
Within the highly charged situations there is also the ongoing development of the relationship within the Triumvirate. Nothing must be taken for granted Although the series is brilliantly conceived, this is probably not the place to start as the nuances of the unfolding world changes are carried through the narrative.
To understand fully the shifts and subtleties it is best to start with BOLD AS LOVE.
SPIRIT by Gwyneth Jones
Between 1991 and 1997, Gwyneth Jones published a trilogy of novels (WHITE QUEEN, NORTH WIND, and PHOENIX
CAFÉ) which chronicled the arrival on Earth of an alien race known as Aleutians (because they arrived on the Aleutian
Islands between Alaska and Russia). Four hundred years have passed since most of the Aleutians departed. On Earth,
the politics and social dynamics have changed greatly in the meantime. The Buonarotti device, which enabled the
Aleutians to arrive in the first place, has begun to open up the Universe and other planets and other alien races are
Ten–year old Gwibiwr (Bibi) is the sole survivor of a clan of rebels that have been holding out in the mountains for decades. The time came when this anomaly had to be eradicated. General Yu’s army swept the caves clean of life. Bibi survived because she was good at hiding but once discovered she is given a choice, to be become Lady Nef’s servant, or the General’s concubine. From that moment, her fate is tied to that of Lady Nef.
The first part of SPIRIT shows Bibi’s development into a young woman and the friendships she develops.
Bibi is only partly aware of the political machinations surrounding Lady Nef and General Yu but it is these that cause her life to change direction. The General is sent on a mission to the planet known as Sigurt’s World. After a spell on Speranza, a space station in the Oort Cloud, they transit to the planet populated by aliens which have characteristics in common with bats. Due to several miscalculations and wrong assumptions, the mission is cut off from Earth, the situation goes horribly wrong, especially for Bibi who is forcibly married off to the local prince.
The Spirit of the title is a semi-sentient space ship owned by François, the Aleutian advisor to Lady Nef. François seems to be the only one who has planned ahead and when he becomes suspicious of their Sigurtian hosts, he gives command of his ship to the three mercenaries who looked out for Bibi in the early days. Despite desperate hardship Bibi finds that she has friends in unexpected places.
This is a well written, likeable novel. The different races have their own characteristics distinctly drawn and the planets Bibi visits are well realised.
Ultimately it is a novel of survival and adaptation but with the essence of honour and duty laced through it. The main complaint is that in the later stages of the novel, Bibi’s character becomes aloof and unemotional as she tends to drift through the last part of the story, leaving the action to others.
DARK TERRORS 4 edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton
This year's paperback is noticeably less horrific and more literary in tone. Not that this is a flaw; most of the stories are
clever, highly original and very entertaining.
Picking a favourite is difficult from such a glittering array, but I think that Poppy Z.Brite's "Entertaining Mr Orton" is
going to stay with me the longest; it's a tour de force of gay sex, beautifully researched.
Moving from sex to alcoholism, Joel Lane's "The Country of Glass" is one o f the best of his stories, a strong and
emotional piece about a drinker's quest for his own holy grail, and set in Birmingham (particularly in Moseley).
Ramsey Campbell is as good as ever in "Never to be Heard", in which a boys' choir give the first ever performance of a
supposedly religious oratorio. David J.Schow provides an amazingly composite view of the Jack the Ripper murders in
"The Incredible True Facts in the Case". Conrad Williams writes about ghosts and suicides in the underground system
of a city slightly like London, while Michael Marshall Smith shows a frenetic view of New Orleans.
If there is real horror here at all, it's to be found in "The Wedding Present" by Neil Gaiman (the present in question is
just a description of the wedding and the marriage, but it changes) and in "Family History" by Stephen Baxter—yes,
the SF writer, with his first horror tale
DARK TERRORS 5 edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton
This is a bumper-sized book - 500 pages and 31 new stories. There aren’t many horror anthologies in the UK (heck,
there aren’t many anthologies), especially ones that present such a wealth of previously unpublished tales. For the
horror fan, this series is invaluable. For someone on the outside, this volume is an ideal introduction to the horror field
- to the literate horror field. I mean, this is feel the width and feel the quality territory. Meet the authors: Chaz
Brenchley, Eric Brown, Ramsey Campbell, Graham Masterton, Kim Newman, Lisa Tuttle, Michael Marshall Smith,
Brian Stableford, Peter Straub … and the others.
Campbell’s story is a bitter-sweet piece, about an author aspiring to past success in a world were publishers leave a sour emptiness, and where the final outcome is street poetry - o f a type. Newman writes scathingly of “victim” television, as I’ve heard it called: Big Brother. Big bollocks. Birmingham’s Joel Lane’s story remembers the carefree days of the university student - only they weren’t quite so happy in all cases, where one can be dry in an ocean of emotion and romance. In Nicholas Royle’s tale, we spy a ghost, miserable from its previous life, imbued with sadness and tragedy. And perhaps the longest story, more a novella by David Case, is a wonderful yarn of mad scientists and cannibalistic zombies, melded into a refreshing 50s-style science fiction. C’mon', you don’t expect me to comment on all 31 stories, do you?
The book also sports a classy illustration. The last thing the book looks like is a traditional slash 'n ’ dice horror fest. And of course it isn’t. It is a marvellous taste of top-notch horror fiction, an appetiser and main course in one volume (although I wouldn’t say “no” to Dark Terrors 6). This is a very large-format paperback and is cursed by cracking-spine syndrome, no matter how carefully you read it. If you can afford the seventeen pounds, buy the hardcover - you won’t be disappointed.
WHEN SHE WOKE by Hillary Jordan
Many novels search for that elusive, excellent hook in the first sentence.
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ is pretty hard to beat. Hillary Jordan's first line is really two, but ‘When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign’ is not a bad try, all in all.
WHEN SHE WOKE is Hillary Jordan's second book, but her first work that falls within the broad boundaries of SF. It concerns a young woman, Hannah Payne, living in a none-too-distant and not-too-implausible Christian Fundamentalist version of the USA. She has always tried to conform to her religious upbringing and finds herself in a situation with which modern readers might be able to sympathise, but which the society she lives in cannot tolerate.
The killer hook at the beginning occurs when Hannah awakes following administration of her punishment for having an abortion and thereby being convicted of second degree murder. As opposed to a prison sentence, Hannah is ‘chromed’, whereby she is genetically programmed to pigment her skin scarlet and released back into society , making the punishment fit the crime.
The first part of the book gives us the back story while Hannah reflects on it during the thirty days she is incarcerated before being released. This has to cover not only Hannah’s falling in forbidden and secret love but also her childhood in a religious family and an overview of recent American history which shows us how society has evolved to the fundamentalist. Throughout this we get the feeling that Hannah is not always the model child, often asking awkward questions where she is supposed to blindly accept. An example is made of her inability to accept that Noah’s Ark must also have carried examples of the known dinosaurs alongside all the other animals.
However this does mean that the first sixty-odd pages contain mostly flashback. This reviewer found himself tiring of the technique after a while and was glad when the second part started with Hannah’s release into society. It’s a good opening line, certainly, but at the expense of the book being harder going for the first sixth of its length.
The next section was the best in this reviewer’s opinion. It deals with Hannah’s attempts to continue to conform to the Christian Fundamentalist ideal.
She enters a kind of institute for fallen women - all ‘chromes’ of one colour or another, with different colours denoting the kind of crime. Green, for example, denotes a convicted committer of violence. Given their status the treatment these women receive can be considered harsh at best and downright inhuman in some cases, as Jordan introduces us to the potential abuses of position that can occur in individuals with authority, but without accountability, in fundamental societies.
From there it seems downhill. The rest of the book deals with Hannah’s journey through various rebellious and nefarious situations. Gradually, she questions her blind faith, discovers more in life and goes through fire and water to find solace in places and peoples she would never have dreamed possible.
In the end, none of the later parts of the book can live up to the strength of that second section. It is almost as if Jordan has had a great idea for a story, but isn’t sure where to go with it. In the end, the conclusion feels anti-climactic and weak. Also, there is a kind of bizarre tacked-on happy ending on the last page, which seems out of place given the boldness of earlier parts of the book.
This reviewer found the actual text to be easily read and the pacing felt urgent. It is a good book, but, maybe, not as good as it might have been. If the invention and commitment of the first 150 pages was sustained then the hyperbole from the press release might be better suited. As things stand, this is a thoughtful and enjoyable book that speaks well of Jordan’s future output.
INDIGO by Graham Joyce
As you would expect from Graham Joyce this is a riveting tale of suspense, with superbly drawn characters and a
wonderful all-pervading sense of menace.
Jack Chambers’ father deserted his mother and himself when he was five. Now, as executor of his father’s will, he must make arrangements to publish a strange book on his father’s search for Indigo, the colour that doesn’t really exist. (Well have you seen it? Oh yeah, describe it, point to it…)
Jack’s beautiful half-sister Louise and a mysterious, but alluring woman in Rome who knew his father, both have their part to play in the puzzle. As Jack uncovers the secrets and lies that dominated his estranged father’s life, he realises that the revelations could put his own life in danger.
This is a superb novel, riveting from the first page. There’s a wonderful (very short) review that I read of this book which summed it up: "It opens your eyes not in the usual way of saying that I mean it actually makes you look at things in a new way, like the world has been rinsed for you ” (lta reader from Glasgow” on amazon.co.uk). Yeah, that’s it - after you’ve read Indigo see if you can ever put a pair of sunglasses on again without thinking of it!
The only reason I give it four rather than five stars is that it suffers from Joyce’s usual problem - a weak ending. But please don’t let that put you off! This ending is weak only in comparison with the strength of the rest of the story!
SMOKING POPPY by Graham JoyceThis is most definitely not a science fiction book. It isn’t even a fantasy novel. Why, then, am I reviewing it?
SOME KIND OF FAIRYTALE by Graham Joyce
There is an age-old tradition of people – men and women of all ages – being taken away by ‘the fairies’ and returned
many years later, if at all.
Sometimes they are changed, sometimes unchanged, either outcome being in its own way equally mysterious.
In his latest book Graham Joyce tells the same kind of story in a thoroughly modern setting.
Fifteen-year-old Tara, who disappeared whilst out with her boyfriend in an ancient woodland, reappears just as unaccountably twenty years later. To almost all outward appearances she has not aged, although one or two tell-tale signs emerge which might put the lie to her assertion that for her only six months have passed. Her story of what has happened to her gradually emerges – she was to all intents and purposes abducted to a hidden land by a representative of what may be some kind of supernatural folk whom she resolutely refuses to refer to as any kind of faerie.
However, it is not Tara’s story that constitutes the majorly significant theme of the book, but the effect of her disappearance and, more importantly, reappearance on others. Principally affected are her brother Peter and the erstwhile boyfriend Ritchie, who were originally best friends but became estranged as a result of her disappearance. Also involved are Peter’s family, together with other characters who at first seem peripheral but who acquire greater significance as the book unfolds. It is in the various reactions of these people to what may or may not have happened, and the consequences for their lives and futures, that the true substance of the book is found.
A subsidiary theme of the book is the question of what rational explanation there might be for incidents of the kind of thing that has happened to Tara. This is explored by introducing a psychiatrist who listens to Tara’s account of her experience and endeavours to make sense of it by relating what she says to possible alternative interpretations, with a view to bringing about a ‘cure’ for her supposed delusions.
This multiplicity of important characters does introduce something of a problem for the reader in that each has his or her own individual story and the narration switches every ten or so pages from one point of view to another, making it difficult to follow. There is a perpetual temptation to skip ahead in order to better pursue an individual narrative line. It is better to resist, and in the end the reader finds his or her perseverance rewarded as it all comes together, with a couple of unexpected twists which suggest that this tale is only one part of an ongoing cycle.
The complex structure and an ambiguous ending work to make this another excellent book from a writer who rarely fails to delight and who here demonstrates on every page that he is a master of his craft.
THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT by Graham Joyce
Graham Joyce has always written on the edges of fantasy. His apparently straightforward style is accessible to readers
of mainstream fiction as all the quirky bits can be passed off as psychological aberrations. Or can they?
Fern, the narrator, is a young woman living in rural Leicestershire in the 1960s. She has grown up in her adoptive mother's cottage, an old farm labourer's house which still has no gas, electricity or running water. The plumbing is a shed in the garden and a hand pump provides water. It could easily have been the setting for a tale in any rural part of the British Isles in the past five hundred years except that Fern owns a transistor radio and listens to pop music as she hangs out the washing.
Mammy is still a respected wise woman. Although the National Health Service is available, many of the local people call in Mammy to attend childbirth, visit for advice on unwanted pregnancies and to bake love into a wedding cake. Mammy has taught Fern some of her skills but there is a sense that she is holding some things back.
Fern, she says, is not ready. Fern is caught between the old ways and the new. She is aware that regulations will stop her continuing Mammy's line of work, but at the start of the novel, these things do not concern her. It is only when Mammy is taken into hospital that her problems start. Fern is forced to consider the idea that Mammy will not be around for ever. Then the estate they rent the cottage from demands all the arrears of rent and she is faced with eviction. She has no way of raising or earning the money. To add to her woes, her enemies attempt to have her sectioned as crazy so that she can be totally disposed of.
For the characters in THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT, 1966 is a time of change and they are caught up within a greater change. Society, its structure, beliefs and expectations are in flux and the survivors are the ones that are prepared to compromise. Mammy, illiterate but knowledgeable about the old ways represents a past whose purpose has been replaced by the young, vibrant technological age. Science and legislation is not on her side. Fern is poised on a stepping stone in the middle of the fast flowing river of progress. A misstep and she could be swept away.
Once again, Graham Joyce has produced a book that will delight on a number of levels.
THE SILENT LAND by Graham JoyceThe blurb on this describes it as ‘A chilling love story, a romantic supernatural tale’ and ‘…a brooding and tender look at love and whether it can survive the greatest challenge we will ever face.’, which would have the effect of making you think that this novel is just another soppy romance novel. But you’d be wrong, very wrong. The blurb writer on this got it wrong!
FOURSIGHT by Graham Joyce, James Lovegrove, Kim Newman and Michael Marshall Smith.
Now this book didn’t even make it to the reviewing table. Nope. I snatched it out of the envelope and marked it down
for mine, all mine. I buy any book I come across with a Michael Marshall Smith story in it, hence owning all four Dark
Terrors books though I don’t like horror. This had the additional attraction of a Graham Joyce story. I hadn’t read
James Lovegrove or Kim Newman before but I will now.
So here is dark fantasy with depth, flavour, humanity. Hurray. I wrote some time ago that I didn’t like dark fantasy but it seems I was wrong, I just didn’t like that particular novel, because I like this book very much indeed.
Graham Joyce’s story, 'Leningrad Nights’ is an ugly story told with great beauty. It’s the fight for survival of Leo, young and abandoned in the nazi’s nine hundred days siege of Leningrad. Surrounded by death and starvation, transported by his grandfather’s opium tea, Leo survives by sordid means and with the help o f a frozen grandfather, a whore and her baby and various parts o f himself. This is a very dark story indeed and yet, illuminated.
James Lovegrove’s 'How the Other Half Lives’ is very much a modern fairy tale with the princess in the tower replaced by a prince in the cellar.
The idea of power being bought by subjection and sacrifice of an innocent victim is not a new one but this has an up-to-date feel to it whilst retaining all the strength of the archetype.
Kim Newman’s ‘Andy Warhol’s Dracula’ is an alternative reality story where vampires are undeniably real. Johnny Pop is new into America from Romania. Finding his feet, making a place for himself, he is drawn into Andy Warhol’s circle. This is a fascinating story, so woven into ‘real life’ that I was hard pressed to know what was real, what invention. The idea of vampires selling their blood as a drug filled me with admiration.
A lovely decadent story.
Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘The Vaccinators’ tells of Eddie who looks back with longing for the days when he could cut a deal with Columbian kidnappers, make some easy money, save a life and know the deal would be honoured. The ‘people’ he’s dealing with now are much less reliable.
As always, Smith is witty and amusing whilst being at the same time clever and disturbing.
This is a book well worth buying, even in hardback. I very much look forward to Peter Crowther’s next volume of four SF novellas.
UNHOLY GHOSTS by Stacia Kane
This is the first book in the Downside Ghosts series and is set 27 years after the 1997 Haunted Week disaster in which
the spirits/ghosts of the dead arose and slaughtered two thirds of humanity. Neither the established religions nor the
governments were able to control the ghosts and so they fell. Mankind was rescued by a little known sect, ‘The Church
of Real Truth’, which by the use of magic was able to banish the ghosts to the underground ‘City of the Dead’ also
known as the ‘City of Eternity’. So confident is the Church of its ability of controlling the ghosts that it pays
compensation to any household that becomes haunted. This, of course, provides an irresistible opportunity for fraud in
an impoverished world. To counter this, a corps of ‘Debunkers’ are employed; if necessary they perform exorcisms.
Chess Putnam is a ‘Churchwitch’ employed as a Debunker. However, she is hiding a secret from the Church as she is a drug addict and owes the local drug lord, Bump, a lot of money. He wants the debt cleared and forces her to investigate the haunting of an old airport he wants to use and either identify the mundane cause of his problem or exorcise the ghosts.
Investigation reveals black magic, human sacrifice and puts both her personally and the Church in great danger. To complicate matters she starts to feel a strong attraction to Bump’s strong-arm enforcer and also becomes involved with one of Bump’s rival drug lords.
UNHOLY GHOSTS is extremely well written introducing the reader to a likeable if damaged heroine trying to survive in an impoverished and dangerous world. The support characters are well defined and the action is non-stop from start to finish, exciting but none of it gross or explicit.
This is a really enjoyable book and I look forward to reading the other books in the series, UNHOLY MAGIC and CITY OF GHOSTS which are to be published in July and August 2010 respectively.
THE LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay introduced us to his fantasy alternative history in SAILING TO SARANTIUM and followed it up in LORD OF
EMPERORS. This is a world that has the same geography as ours but has two moons (one of them blue). The history
of the planet has followed a similar path with the Rhodian Empire being the equivalent of our Roman one. Sarantium
is synonymous with Byzantium with all its splendour. These two books were magnificently conceived and written,
portraying a divided empire heading towards its demise as seen through the eyes of a mosaicist.
THE LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN is set about four hundred years later in what we would have regarded as the Dark Ages. The setting is effectively Britain of that period, but here called Anglcyn. To the west lies Cyngael. To the north and east lie the lands of the Erlings, many of whom are blood-thirsty raiders. The country of Erlond to the west also gets a mention. The action begins in Cyngael when Ivarr Ragnarson leads a raid on the farmstead of Brynn ap Hywell, a ‘clan chief’ who killed his grandfather twenty five years previously. The attackers are driven off but not before one, Thorkel Einarson, is captured but who saves Brynn’s wife from Ivarr’s sneaky treachery. Thorkel had been on the raid with Ivarr’s grandfather that gained him the sword that Ivarr wanted to retrieve from Brynn. This sword is the focus of all the events in the novel and is directly and indirectly responsible for the fates of the principle characters.
Ivarr is a bit of a stereotypical villain. He is deformed, scheming, manipulative and thoroughly unprincipled. When the direct attack of Brynnfel fails he hires the Jormsvik mercenaries (including Thorkel’s son Bern), to attack Aeldred’s lands, telling them it will be easy as Aeldred will not be at home and Esferth can be easily looted. He knows they will fail, but his plan is to force them to sail further west and attack Brynnfel, as the Erlings would not be able to honourably return home after a resounding defeat. Fortunately, not everything goes his way.
Kay is a brilliant story-teller but this is not up to his usual standard. It could have done with some careful editing. Facts about the characters and their backgrounds are repeated too often, often close together suggesting that he has not been given the time to check through the narrative and cut out the extraneous information. In places, incidental characters are introduced because in real life they would be there. Surely it is not necessary to give an account of how a chance encounter affected the rest of their lives? Kay has missed the opportunity to invoke the magic and the differences of his world to make this more than just another Dark Ages fantasy novel.
UNDER HEAVEN by Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay is a man who likes to play with history. His novel SAILING TO SARANTIUM was an alternative world
narrative based on the Late Roman Empire; UNDER HEAVEN travels east down the Silk Road to the China of the
This was a highly civilised and mannered society. Everyone knew their place and to rise in society it was necessary to pass examinations. Not only was it necessary for even the humblest to be able to read and write but it was also important to know history and to write poetry
One young man, Shen Tai, is prevented from taking his exams by the death of his father, General Shen Gao. According to custom, the family is expected to withdraw from society for a period of two and a half years. The only exceptions are for those with military rank. Tai decides to spend his period of mourning on the plains of Kuala Nor, the site of fierce battles between his people, the Kitai, and the Tagur. He spends two years alone, burying the bones of the dead.
Lives can change on a whim. When the Kitan princess, who was sent to Tagur as a peace bride, hears of Tai’s efforts, she gifts him with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. These are the most sought after horses in the whole of Kitai making Tai immediately the target for assassins. Unfortunately, an assassin is already on the way, sent by Wen Zhou, the new first minister, but for an entirely different reason. Tai has to negotiate through the minefield of manners and political intrigue. A casual gift has already changed his life; it could change the fate of his nation as well.
This is a book that starts with a strong image and unfolds in a mannered way. It is never short of interest, the life in ancient China being painted with deft strokes and the beauty of fine poetry.
NO MAN’S WORLD: BLACK HAND GANG / NO MAN’S WORLD: THE IRONCLAD PROPHECY by Pat Kelleher
These books are volumes 1 & 2 in a series.
They cover the translocation of the 13th Battalion of the Pennine Fusiliers from the hell of the Somme to an unknown world and their adventures there.
When they arrive they discover that this land is occupied by a hostile anthropoid race, the ‘Chatts’, as well as conveniently English speaking humans, the ‘Urmen’. Under attack from the start by inimical animals and vegetation, the Broughtonthwaite Pals, as they are known, have swapped one hell for another.
With many good characters the story focuses on Private Thomas ‘Only’ Atkins who could be said to be the book’s hero; Lieutenant Gilbert W Jefferies, the black magic weaving villain and 2nd Lieutenant J C Everson. In addition there are many supporting characters these include the crew of a tank (which is the ‘ironclad’ in the second book), the pilot of a Sopwith plane, two nurses and their FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) driver.
There is throughout a high death toll with many dying in each book, several in gruesome ways.
In developing his tale the author clearly takes inspiration from two actual First World War events. The first being the creation on June 1st 1916 of the Lochnagar crater on Hawthorne Ridge in the area to be assaulted by the 10th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment (The Grimsby Pals).
The second of these being the disappearance in the Sulva Bay area of Gallipoli by the Sandringham Company of the 5th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment on the 13th August 1915.
He also suggests in his acknowledgements section that the adventures of the ‘Pals’ are actual events, quoting the sources on which he has based his story.
These books are described by the publisher as being pulp science fiction adventures. However I hesitate to describe them as SF as the translation of the Pennine Fusiliers from the Somme to this unknown world appears to have been effected by the performance of a ‘black magic’ ritual. To my mind SF requires the use of ‘advanced’ technology. That said the stories are cleverly written reflecting many of the attitudes of the early part of the twentieth century, for instance the approach of authority figures (including medics) to shell shock victims, females and native populations.
Although the author’s style of writing took a bit of getting used to, the adventures of the Broughtonthwaite Pals grew on me and I found myself enjoying these books. Their story will continue in THE ALLEYMAN.
WIND ANGELS by Leigh Kennedy
A good short story explores one idea and engages all the reader’s senses.
Anyone wanting to become a short story writer should look at the way an expert constructs their fiction. A fine example of such an author is Leigh Kennedy. Each of the fifteen stories in this volume do exactly what they set out to do. Each one is a small gem.
Contemporary short stories have an advantage over genre ones in the reader is familiar with the background and little needs explaining, leaving the tale itself to ensnare the reader in its wiles. Those written by Kennedy start in ordinary ways and subtly change. The first story in the volume, “Bats”, starts with the strange incident of a bat flying through the bedroom window, followed by others; by the end both you and the narrator know that something creepy is going on. “Vulture Trucks” could be set in any mid-American small town but the female tow-truck driver owes her success to her prescience.
Some have very definite SF themes, such as the title story, “Wind Angels” which is set in a flooded future, “Helen, Whose Face Launched Twenty-eight Contestoga Hovercraft” is set on an artificial habitat in Earth-orbit and “Belling Martha” is set in a future that has entered another ice age due to the eruption of three massive volcanoes. In each of these, the information needed to understand the setting is dropped in gently, the focus being on the interactions between the characters. These demonstrate the sure touch of Kennedy’s subtle hand and the way stories like this should be written.
Horror can feature as part of a story depending on the traumas the author decides to put their characters through. Several stories here deal with grief.
“Tropism” deals with a situation of a wife exhuming her dead husband because she believes that he is not fully dead while “The Preservation of Lindy” is a 3D walk-in image of a dead daughter. “Vida” has grief at its heart when fleeing from seeing her stepfather kill her mother, Vida finds a strange sanctuary.
Yet there is also fantasy here, as in “The Ineffable” where a nettle fairy is working in a hospital netting souls but catches a very rare one.
If there is any secret to Kennedy’s ability to write exceptional stories it is that she is able to take and follow through one idea and refuses to get bogged down with the side issues that rightly belong in novels. Also she doesn’t allow genre labels to restrict her. If the idea demands elements from several genres, it gets them. If you have never read any of Kennedy’s stories, buy this volume and find out how it should be done.
TWELVE by Jasper Kent
TWELVE is Jasper Kent’s first published novel. Researching Jasper Kent’s past reveals he has turned his hand to a
variety of callings, having graduated from Cambridge in Natural Sciences: he has worked as a software developer and
has composed a number of musicals; clearly he has a rounded talent. However, I hope that his efforts in these other
areas are less pedestrian than his authorship.
I realise that we get a lot of variety in the books forwarded to the BSFG for review; nonetheless I did find this one bit of a surprise. It is an historical horror; a vampire novel set against the failed Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812.
The plot, told from the first person view of a Russian army officer, concerns a group of Russian special operatives pitting themselves to stop Napoleon’s advance. When a group of mysterious mercenaries offer their seemingly implausibly competent services, the officers are quick to take them up. The secret behind the mercenaries’ abilities (they are all vampires) soon causes the protagonist to convert from fighting the French to fighting the supernatural threat.
Given the author’s academic background I anticipated that I might learn something of the period from the novel. Unfortunately it felt very light on period detail to me; on reflection, the story might have been told against any military campaign, and aside from place names the book gives no insight into period specific life or motivations. I did find the specific main characters of the Russian officers, the protagonist’s love interest, and the main antagonist to be quite vibrant. However, as this numbers just 5 characters in total, I would certainly hope that the author would give them the effort necessary to make them come alive a little.
The writing itself is very neutral; reasonably easy to read, but lacking in character. The large page count slipped by quite easily, possibly as the font is quite large (enhancing readability) and I suspect that the text could have fitted easily into a smaller volume.
The horror content did not seem to scare me at any point. Maybe this is more me than the book (I cannot recall a time when I was scared reading a horror novel). Certainly it contains gore, as a vampire tale would seem to require, and it is quite creative in the gore’s deployment. Luckily this aspect is used in a sparing manner, which gives it the greatest impact; I have read other volumes that liberally waded through blood, and that approach loses its character very quickly.
The action sequences are written snappily, which does help to produce a level of excitement, and, as with the horror, the action is well placed and never overused. These evident skills of authorship, in conjunction with the overall slight character, makes this book seem rather workman-like: competent, but hardly inspired.
I note that the website ‘Fantasy Book Review’ rates this book highly (currently 8.5 out of 10). I can only assume that this is a damning statement about the field of historical horror, which must be dire indeed if a work as pedestrian as this can claim great praise.
THE SPIRIT STONE (Deverry Cycle Pt 3, Dragonmage 5) by Katharine Kerr
This is a complicated book featuring many characters, which, without any preamble, plunges you straight into their
various stories. As usual with a book of this ilk you are pretty much expected to have read the previous instalments,
otherwise, as I found, things quickly get confusing. One of the most interesting characters is a Merlin-type character,
Nevyn, who is incredibly long-lived then lives on in another younger man. This seems to be a feature with several
characters where death is not the end, and the newborn versions have faint memories connected with their past lives.
Nevyn/Neb features with his adventures for much of the book as he travels far and wide spreading his wisdom. Another
interesting character is Salamander who is first seen as a little boy then in the latter half of the book as an intriguing,
magical adult – he appears to be a major character throughout the series, and this may be a deliberate flashback to
his earlier years to provide some back-story. The story weaving the characters and expanses of time together involves a
fight against their ancient enemies, the Horsekin. The elven, dwarven and human races must join together against
them, along with a couple of dragons thrown in for good measure. The Horsekin however think they have the best ally
in the form of a goddess. Religion and various deities feature prominently – there are several religions, all believing
theirs is the true one.
Interestingly the book swaps from viewpoint to viewpoint – we see not just the one side’s point of view but also the enemy’s, so we don’t end up believing either are the bad guys. The Horsekin seem primitive at first but through a newcomer to their midst we learn more about their customs and beliefs. The sheer expanses of time and intricate relationships are also well executed here, which I appreciated despite the obvious confusion caused by joining the tale 5 books in. Overall I think this is worth a look with a view to reading others in the series, so that one can understand the context of this book.
POLAR CITY NIGHTMARE by Katharine Kerr and Kate DanielThis is one of the most enjoyable books I have read for some time. The authors have managed to combine several genres very successfully.
FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes
I have often heard of this book, ever since I was at school, but I have never had the opportunity to read it until now. I
was expecting a difficult read but I was very pleasantly surprised, in fact I found it extremely difficult to put the book
The book is in the form of a diary kept by Charlie Gordon, a mentally handicapped man, who has agreed to take part in an experiment that will increase his IQ. Algernon, of the title, is a mouse who underwent the experiment before Charlie, whose intelligence has increased immensely.
As the diary progresses you can see Charlie’s intelligence increasing and very soon he loses his job as a floor cleaner at the bakery and eventually surpasses even the scientists’ intelligence. He writes of the cruelties of the people around him as he becomes aware of what and why they do things to him and eventually he becomes aware of the inadequacies of the scientists treating him. The story told in the diary covers a period o f time of about nine months, in which time the story goes full circle. At the beginning Charlie is willing to do the experiment even if it will only make him clever for a short period of time. However, at the end, his loss of intelligence is felt a lot more as he desperately seeks a cure for himself and Algernon. Also, he desperately searches for friendship, love and respect from other people. Only on the way up and on the way back down again does his intelligence measure the same as any of his friends and as he surpasses them they become scared of him. It seems to him like the greatest gift to be given intelligence and yet the cruellest torture to lose it again.
I found this book to be one of the most gripping books I have read in a long time. I loved it and would heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to read a master’s work.
THE MARK OF THE BEAST AND OTHER FANTASTICAL TALES by Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling was one of the greatest writers of his time. He wrote stories that covered every genre from Science
Fiction to Journalism. He produced stories that helped define modern fantasy. So why does this collection feel at
times like someone is scraping a barrel?
The most obvious omissions are in the ‘children’s’ stories. None of them are included. Since most of Kipling’s best fantasy was included in books like JUST SO STORIES or PUCK OF POOK’S HILL this could be a problem.
The ‘solution’ has been to include non-genre material that has some tenuous connection. The collection begins with the poem “The Vampire” which has nothing to do with the supernatural creatures we usually associate with the name.
There is also “The city of dreadful night” which reads like a gruesome tabloid travelogue with the dead walking the streets but ‘dead’ seems to relate more to the way people look and feel when the temperature is still over 100 degrees at night. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. You also get “The Man Who Would Be King”, one of Kipling’s best adventure stories.
Some of the stories included lose a great deal from their period.
Occasionally it would help to have a glossary or footnotes. Some seem to concentrate on things that belong to a certain time or place. “The Joker” seems to rely on a knowledge of Euchre (a card game). Many stories need the reader to know how much the Europeans knew of India at the time. Some of the stories aren’t that well written.
On the other hand, there is a lot of worthwhile material. There are classic ghost stories like “The Phantom Rickshaw”, early SF (both “With the Night Mail” and its better sequel “As Easy as ABC”) and adventures like “The Man Who Would Be King”.
This is a broad selection of Kipling’s adult fiction. It’s not the best of anything, nor does it belong to any particular genre. Take it as anything else and you do a great writer a disservice. William McCabe
THE WALKING DEAD: FALL OF THE GOVERNOR PART ONE by Robert Kirkman & Jay Bonansinga
The third entry in the novelisation of the Walking Dead franchise and in particular the continuation of the story of the
enigmatic Governor, FALL: PART ONE is the strongest of the novels so far. For those who are not familiar with The
Walking Dead, this started as a series of well-regarded graphic novels and was adapted into a successful TV series now
in its fourth season. Set in the USA it tells the story of a group of survivors after an infection has decimated the
population and turned many victims into shuffling zombies. It is strongly character-driven and although there are
horrific set-pieces the focus is more on how the characters must compromise and adapt to survive.
The novel starts with secondary characters to get the reader immersed into the world of Woodbury, where the Governor reigns. The Governor has successfully organised the barricading and the defence of Woodbury to provide a haven from the outside. It is two years since the dead were first reanimated, and to keep the town of Woodbury in check, the Governor puts on regular 'gladiatorial' style shows in which residents fight each other in an arena filled with chained up zombies.
We first meet fighters Bruce and Gabe in the arena. The scenes here are brutally honest about death (its smell and the sight of it) and incredibly visceral. Lilly, who appears in the second book, has become disillusioned after a failed coup to overthrow the Governor in the last book. She is now persona non gratis yet is tolerated in the town. She is also very isolated and lonely given her outsider status and soon becomes involved with one of the young men in the town.
Lilly is warned by Nurse Alice to keep her doubts about the town to herself. The only reason Dr Stevens and Alice are allowed to stay in Woodbury, following their involvement in the failed coup, is the fact that they are the only medical staff in Woodbury and are needed.
The enjoyable aspect of this book, is the inclusion of iconic characters from the TV series and the graphic novels; Rick (who needs no introduction to WD fans) and a certain hooded warrior woman clasping a machete, which brings the excitement and tension to a whole new level.
This novel takes place roughly near mid-season three when Rick's group are holed up in the prison (a defensible refuge from the undead) and Rick and the Governor first meet. As a result, it left me wanting more and eager to grab the DVD series or the graphic novels to see what happens next.
Their strongest collaboration to date.
THE WALKING DEAD: RISE OF THE GOVERNOR by Robert Kirkman & Jay Bonansinga
It is Friday 21st October. Not for a long time has there been such anticipation for a second season of a genre
programme. The Walking Dead: Season Two premiered on FX
tonight and what a start (yes, this is a book review. Stay with me...). Because those clever producer chaps decided to
cash in on the network premiere by releasing a tie-in book on the same date.
The episode delivered on all counts, drama, gore tension and zombie goodness.
What a shame that RISE OF THE GOVERNOR let the side down.
Touted as a standalone trilogy, this novel features the journey of widower Philip Blake, daughter Penny, his brother
Brian and a couple of hard-as-nails old school friends as they try to reach the CDC in Atlanta. It starts three days into
the zombie apocalypse and is written, rather distractingly, in third person present tense. The point of view is
predominantly Brian, with a dash of Philip. However the whole technique means that the book lacks in emotion where
the reader should obviously feel something.
There is no denying the scenes of gore and the vista of despair that is the broken city of Atlanta is stunningly bleak,
and the story itself is sound, but there is something missing from this novel. It’s called ‘feeling’. It is an unrelentingly
grim piece of fiction. If that’s what you like, then great - if it isn’t, watch the series or read the comics instead.
GALACTIC GEOGRAPHIC ANNUAL 3003 by Karl Kofoed
At first glance, this looks (as it is meant to) like a magazine. It’s a bit thicker than most magazines, but not a lot. My
initial reaction was “This has all been done before”; and I was right, as I found upon reading the back page.
OK: I wanna tell you a story (not now, Max!). Back in 1978 I did a book with Bob Shaw called GALACTIC TOURS, the idea (which I believed to be original, or as original as anything is) being to produce a sort of interstellar travelogue, with my paintings instead of photographs. The publisher folded, but before that STARLOG magazine published a two-page excerpt from it, with several of my illos. Not long afterwards, books began to appear with titles like TOUR OF THE UNIVERSE (Holdstock and Edwards); SPACESHIPS 2000 TO 2100 AD; THE ALIEN WORLD; SPACE WARS, WORLDS AND WEAPONS; BARLOWE’S GUIDE TO EXTRATERRESTRIALS - I could go on, but I won’t.
The point being that by the time GALACTIC TOURS came out in 1981, it looked like one more book jumping onto the bandwagon, instead of the first, as it should have been.Or so I thought, then. But according to the blurb on this book, Karl Kofoed started to write and illustrate GALACTIC GEOGRAPHIC in 1978, in HEAVY METAL magazine. No-one has ever mentioned that to me, so we live and learn. But here we have a ‘magazine of the future’, with articles on ‘the most bizarre life forms and most puzzling mysteries of the Milky Way’. Karl Kofoed is a good artist, and it’s refreshing to see painted artwork, rather than the hyperrealistic digital work that pervades nowadays. I don’t really like it that much; it has an almost ‘primitive’ quality at times, and seems to have been done with watercolour and crayons. But he does have some quite original ideas, and the text goes into great detail about these alien worlds, cultures, vehicles, technologies and so on. Clearly a lot of work has gone into it. But the feeling remains: it has all been done before, and will anyone really want to wade through all this fictitious information? Well maybe there is a whole new generation to whom this is fresh and original, in which case it should do well. .
STORMDANCER: BOOK ONE IN THE LOTUS WAR TRILOGY by Jay Kristoff
STORMDANCER is a fantasy novel set in the Shima Imperium beset by imminent environmental collapse and as such
is a very enjoyable story. The looming demise of this, a Japanese type empire, is due to the misrule of a line of
despotic emperors, the current one being sadistically mad, and the actions of the virtually all-powerful ‘Lotus Guild’.
The latter are the source of the clockwork industrialisation marvels/horrors and the lotus based fuel that is destroying
the environment. You will be horrified to discover the source of the fertilizer that is used to temporarily restore land
made toxic by the ‘Blood Lotus’ plant.
The book’s heroine Yukiko is engaging, compassionate, brave and well supported by the other characters. These include the mad emperor, his intriguing sister, an artificer of the Lotus Guild, her father the emperor’s hunt master, demons and the legendary, thought to be extinct, thunder tiger as well as many others. On the basis of a rumoured sighting of the thunder tiger (half eagle, half tiger), the first for a century, and a dream, the emperor sends Yukiko and her father on a desperate mission that they cannot refuse to the last wilderness within the island nation. There she becomes stranded with only a crippled and furious thunder tiger for company, which even though she has saved its life only wants to kill her. However despite their traumatic initial meeting they develop a remarkable friendship that will challenge the empire and presumably form the backbone of the following parts of the trilogy.
STORMDANCER is described in its press release as “Japanese Steampunk” and unfortunately I seem to have an almost automatic aversion to anything described as steampunk.
That said my misgivings quickly evaporated when I started reading it. Jay Kristoff has an easy style that produces plenty of narrative colour without detail overload with each character’s viewpoint adding to the scope of the story without drowning Yukiko’s voice. Readers who prefer a narrative strand that does not continuously jump backwards and forwards in the story’s timeline will be well pleased by this tale, there being only few look-backward scenes and these are essential to the tale. Support to the reader’s understanding of Japanese terms is provided by a glossary at the end of the book. If I had one minor complaint about this book it would be that on one or two occasions I would have liked the story to explain how Yukiko and the thunder tiger got from point A to point B. However the last notwithstanding STORMDANCER is highly readable and I look forward to enjoying the following parts of the trilogy. Jim Pearce
THE HOUSE OF STYX (Venus Ascendant 1) by Derek Künsken
Venus was a favourite setting of many earlier SF tales (Edgar Rice Burroughs Carson of Venus series, Olaf Stapeldon’s
THE LAST AND FIRST MEN and Robert Heinlein’s BETWEEN PLANETS are just a few that come to mind). All that
changed in 1962 when Mariner 2 revealed that underneath the clouds was not the habitable planet of SF imaginings
but instead a hell planet with average temperatures around 500 C. While there have been some novels since then
dealing with the reality of Venus (eg 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson and CALIBAN’S WAR by James S A Corey) it has
been far less popular as an SF location
In THE HOUSE OF STYX, the author imagines a Venusian colony, but one which is based on coping with what we now know of the extreme conditions of the real Venus. In some superb worldbuilding, the colonists eke out a living in the acid clouds of the Venusian atmosphere. It is a fledgling colony, settled mainly by French Canadians and newly independent, though heavily in debt to a predatory off-world bank. There are tensions between the colony administration who live in the higher levels of the atmosphere in larger dirigibles and the prospecting families who eke out a living in the deeper atmospheric levels
The D’Aquillon family are one of these; “coureurs des vents” (wind-runners) who live in floating plant-like “trawlers”. The trawlers take electricity from the clouds and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to survive and the coureur families have herds of them from which they harvest chemicals, organics, water and metal-rich volcanic ash. Life is hard, with small margins and the constant danger from the environment. George- Etienne, the patriarch particularly resents the government. When his wife was expecting their first son, they pressed him to abort the child as he had Downs syndrome and would be a “burden” on scarce resources. When he refused, they embargoed any medical or other support for the child, (now a grown adult) and the family survive on their own. When they discover something strange and valuable on the surface of Venus, they are determined to keep the proceeds for themselves rather than see it “nationalised” by the resented authorities
Banding together with two other families, they form the “House of Styx” and hatch a plan to build an outpost on the Venusian surface. But to do so, they need metal to construct something strong enough to resist the high pressures of the surface, and to do that they need to steal back a large family habitat which the government are about to seize. However, the government are suspicious and it becomes a race to see whether they can pull off their daring raid before they are detected
I loved this novel and it shows there is still plenty of exciting SF to be written in our solar system. This is credible near- future SF and one which has seriously considered and incorporated the hazards and challenges of Venus. I liked the inventiveness of the “trawlers” and also how the economics and challenges of such a society might work. During lockdown, we have been watching an Australian series, Outback Opal Hunters and there is a similarity there between the “coureurs” of this book and the real prospectors in that series which confirm their verisimilitude. They both operate in a hostile environment, have small circles of trust and are convinced that “buyers” are out to cheat or exploit you
As well as the high-stakes “heist” towards the end of the book, which is fast-paced and thrilling, the book is also excellent at characterisation. The different members of the D’Aquillon family all have distinct personalities and issues, and there are clashes as well as co-operation, and they have the feel of a real family. I also liked that Jean-Eudes, the son with Downs syndrome is shown sympathetically as a functioning, useful and accepted member of the family. There is also a sensitive portrayal of adolescence and first-love for sixteenyear- old Pascal D’Aquillon as they attempt to understand their sexuality
While THE HOUSE OF STYX is a unique book, it is something that I think would appeal to fans of Peter Hamilton or Alastair Reynolds, especially as there are hints that the sequels will widen the focus from just Venus. I’d thoroughly recommend it, and if I have any criticism, it is only that at the end there is a lot to still be uncovered or resolved, and I begrudge the wait for the next book to see what happens!
FENRIR by M D Lachlan
The second in a fantasy series (the first was WOLFSANGEL), FENRIR, takes us into a barbaric period of European
history. The clash is between religion and politics. The followers of the Norse pantheon regularly forage southwards in
search of the glory of battle and any spoils they can win on the way.
Their targets are the Christian communities and the fabled wealth of churches and monasteries.
At the start of FENRIR, Paris (then only an island in the river settled by Franks) is under siege. Aelis, sister of the defending lord, has taken refuge in the main church. The blind crippled monk, Jehan, is taken to persuade her to come out as her brother feels her presence would strengthen the resolve of his troops. The siege is not accidental in that the sorcerers, who call themselves Munin and Hugin, have directed the Northmen to capture or kill her. Also wanting Aelis is Helgi, the ruler in Novgorod. He has sent a shapechanger to fetch her and paid a merchant to guide him. The question is who will get to Aelis first.
The plot revolves around the replaying of a myth cycle. Aelis. Jehan and Hugin all have to reprise the roles thrust on them in previous lives. Norse gods walk this earth leaving havoc in their wake with deaths that are brutal and callous as well as necessary. Parallels are drawn between Christianity and Norse mythology that might sit uncomfortably with some readers.
Lachlan is the pseudonym of a successful mainstream writer and his plot complexities certainly bear this out. It is a shame that the point of view is sometimes unnecessarily changeable. It would have been useful to have had a greater clue as to when the action actually takes place and this is novel for which a map of Europe of the period would have made the wanderings of the characters easier to follow.
LORD OF SLAUGHTER by M D LachlanM. D. Lachlan's century-spanning series of gods, wolves and humans reaches the 10th century and Constantinople, magic, Christianity and intrigue. The book starts from multiple viewpoints. On a battlefield strewn with corpses, a ragged figure, dressed in wolfskin and intent on death, slips past the guards into the tent of the Emperor and draws his sword. The terrified citizens of Constantinople are plagued by mysterious sorcery. The wolves outside the city are howling. A young boy has traded the lives of his family for power and a Christian scholar, fleeing with his pregnant wife from her enraged father, must track down the magic threatening his world. All paths lead to the squalid and filthy prison deep below the city, where a man who believes he is a wolf lies chained and the spirits of the dead are waking. The Norsemen camped outside the city have their own legends, of the wolf who will kill the gods, but no true Christian could believe such a thing. Yet it is clear to the Christian scholar, Loys that Ragnarok is coming. Will he be prepared to sacrifice his life, his position, his wife and his unborn child for a god he doesn't believe in? This epic dark fantasy/horror from Lachlan is third in the Craw trilogy, yet the beauty of this book first of all, is that it can be read independently of its predecessors. Brimming with action, blood, guts and gore, this book is not for the faint-hearted. Although it is much more fantasy than horror, particularly given its interwoven Norse mythology, it is gruesome enough that horror readers will enjoy it. As with all major fantasy nowadays, there is the ‘task’ or ‘quest’ that the lead character must embark upon, and the plot rattles along at a fair speed. The language and atmosphere in this book is gripping, the atmosphere being dark, broody and rather depressing to be honest, yet despite the darkness underlying the adventure, it remains an entertaining read. Though by no means an expert on Norse mythology, I know my Asgard and my Ragnarok from other sources, and I have to admit, this feels historically accurate. It rather reminds me of the Silverwolf series by Anne Rice’s sister Alice Borchard. And this similarity is predominantly because both authors create a strong and believable medieval world. This is an excellent example of historical dark fantasy that delivers on all fronts.
BLACK JUICE by Margo Lanagan
It's difficult to fault any of the stories in this collection. The characters and situations are as well-conceived as any I've
read. The writing is up to any standard you care to name. Although you don't often get much of a plot, that's just a
function of the short story. The longest here is 33 pages long so there isn't much chance of anything too elaborate.
There's no real theme here. I would have said that many of the stories here are mainstream fiction rather than any
particular genre but it seems that some would argue.
Consider the first story here. It's a moving portrait of a very public execution. The method of execution seems odd (slowly sinking into a tar pit) but then different places have different methods of execution. The only unusual thing about the people here is that they seem to have adopted this method of legal execution and they accept it. They seem to be a small tribal community. There is reference to a ‘chief’. Plants have names I don't recognise. There is a group of outsiders known as the fish-people but this could be a reference to how they live (fishermen). I couldn't tell you how these people compare to modern-day tribal communities in Australia or America. I would have said this would belong to the mainstream. Nevertheless, this story “Singing My Sister Down”, won the World Fantasy Award in 2005. I've no doubt that the story deserved awards but I'd not have called it fantasy.
There are stories here that obviously belong to various genres. “My Lord's Man” seems to be historical. “Sweet Pippit” is Richard Adams with elephants. “Red Nose Day” is an alternate-world where Christ was a clown. “Yowlinin” and “Earthly Uses” involve SF-type creatures even though the latter is referred to as an ‘angel’. Others might be taken as some other-world or fantasy situation but I don't think they belong. Almost all of the stories here are set in small communities or out-of-the way places. Almost all involve families or small communities. If I had to compare her writing to anyone else’s, it would be Ray Bradbury. If this were a regular collection and not a selection from a larger body of work, I'd have said she was his equal already and showed promise for better things. I just wonder whether we'll see any of rest of that work in this country.
Despite my comments as to it being fantasy, the story “Wooden Bride” is shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr Award and this collection is shortlisted for the LA TIMES Book Award in the Young Adult section.
TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan
A few years ago, Margo Lanagan's first book - a collection of short stories entitled BLACK JUICE was published. That
book (and several of the stories in it) was nominated for several awards. She has had two more collections published
since then and this is her first novel. As with those early works, most of the story here is horribly realistic. The fantasy
element is stronger although, most of the time, this could be taken for historical rather than fantastic fiction. Parts of
the plot are deliberately emotive but written well enough for it not to appear artificial. The grotesque aspects of the
plot are presented in enough detail to establish events and emotions but not so much as to repulse most older
teenagers or adults. This is not recommended for younger teens or anyone below that age.
The setting is mediaeval or later. This is the story of Liga and her two daughters Branza and Urdda. Liga had been raped by her father regularly following the death of her mother. Despite various attempts at abortion, she gave birth to her first child at age 14. When her father dies a few months later in an accident with a cart she is gang-raped by a group of youths leaving her pregnant again. The horror of such events is enough to make anyone withdraw from the world but Liga is given the opportunity to withdraw into a different reality where everything is safe and she can bring up her two children with no real worries. The new world is exactly like the old one except that all the people that ever did her harm are gone. It is not entirely separate from the real world. Some real people manage to cross over, like the dwarf who finds that everything he touches there turns to precious gems or the men who participate in a regular ritual dressed in bear costumes and find themselves living as bears for months in the other world while no time passes in their own. Things cannot last forever. The new world collapses and Liga and her children must make their way in the real world again.
There seems to be a whole lot here borrowed from fairy tales. There are points of style and a few images that seem to have come straight from the Brothers Grimm but none of it is really a direct lift. There are people who are animals, there are magical charms taken away in what seems an act of betrayal, there's a character description that seems to come straight from Snow White. It's something that has been done before, most notably by Angela Carter, but it stands up against anything else like it. This deserves the award more than anything she's done before.
DEMON ROAD by Derek Landy
I'm aware of Derek Landy from the Skullduggery Pleasant books, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so when I heard about
DEMON ROAD, I knew I just had to give it a go. Especially when some of the reviews compare it to my favourite TV
And the book starts with a bang; "Twelve hours before Amber Lamont's parents tried to kill her, she was sitting between them in the principal's office ..."
She's been called in by Mrs Cobb, because over the last month she has been involved in three altercations, nothing like her normal behaviour. It's clear from the start that Amber is a strong, resilient character and as the quote says, "from the mouths of babes" - Amber's logic and honesty in the face of adversity is honourable. Of course, the adversity isn't what you think - it isn't the threat from Mrs Cobb that's the issue, it's the calm way in which her parents react to Mrs Cobb and decide to 'punish' the principal.
Amber's parents are odd, to say the least. Of course everything starts to make sense when Amber finds herself on the run, and on a hellish road trip on the Demon Road.
As always, Landy's sense of humour shines through the narrative. On this demonic road trip we have the guy with the mysterious and dangerous background (Milo) Glen, the Irish youth exploring America, and Amber. It is through Glen that most of the humour comes through, giving Landy a chance to share his Irish heritage. As for the car the group are travelling in, I can see why the publishers have compared this to Supernatural, as Milo's car has the same amount of personality as Dean's 'Baby' from that series. It's a serious car for a serious dude!
Despite the humour there are also some dark and grim veins running through this book, which add to the overall enjoyment of the novel, from dark characters, to settings, to all manner of creatures, this is immense fun. There's a section of the book, in the town Cascade a Falls, that reads very much like a classic Stephen King novel, but I refuse to say which one because of spoilers.
As well as the aforementioned comedy that is rife through the book, there's also a great deal of poignancy and exploration of what exactly family is and how important family can be. And the end of the adventure is a helluva cliffhanger that means we know Amber has more adventures to come.
Skullduggery was good, but with DEMON ROAD, Landy has outdone himself. A hellishly awesome book.
BENEATH THE GROUND edited by Joel Lane
Not my usual cup of tea, this kind of thing, but I thought the local connection might provide a point of interest - The
Alchemy Press is located in Acocks Green. I was, however, to be disappointed as only one of the stories is set in
Birmingham. Under Birmingham I should rather say, as the common theme of all twelve is that they are set “ Beneath
The Ground” . Down there is a whole different world of abandoned mines and old railway tunnels, not to mention
caverns which were there long before men began to dig their own holes. Down there beings older than man may exist
and degenerate forms of humanity may have joined with them in a domain of horrors. Anyone who descends from the
familiar sunlit world of the surface into the darkness below is liable to meet only with despair, disappearance and
It is only to be expected that these stories vary, both in quality of ideas and quality of execution. All the writers represented here are experienced, some considerably so, yet I thought that one or two at least of these stories were not well written at all. Such of them as have kept to a reasonably straightforward style succeed better, but any attempt to reproduce the flowery metaphorical manner of H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith seems to have been doomed to failure - it is much more difficult to accomplish than it looks.
As far as the subject matter is concerned, I felt that the subtle novelty that would make the stories freshly entertaining was scarcely to be found - the context might be new but the horrors have nearly all been done before. I did quite enjoy reading them and the actual presentation of the book, as a book, is good. But at the end of the day it is little more substantial than the ghosts and spirits it contains.
THE END OF HARRY POTTER by David Langford
J.K. Rowling’s creation of Harry Potter has been such a phenomenal success it is no wonder that there have been spin-
offs in various forms. As the publication date (July 21st 2007) approaches for the seventh and final volume,
speculation as to the content appears more and more frequently, especially on internet sites. Langford’s timely little
book is carefully balanced. He begins from the base-line of what is actually in the previous six books and from
interviews Rowling herself has given. He considers various aspects of the books, from the various spells to the naming
of characters. He discusses her plot devices and the apparent errors that have crept in while acknowledging that clever
writers can turn these to their advantage. Like a good stage magician, Rowling uses misdirection to sneak the
important plot elements past the reader. There is no reason to suppose she will not do the same in the last book.
Langford brings together themes and trends within the previous volumes to speculate on possible directions for book seven, dismissing, with reasons, some of the more fanciful ideas that have appeared in internet chat rooms. He includes a section on possible titles since at the time of the publication of this book that had not been announced. Those who have been keeping an eye on the series will now know that it will be called HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS.
The tone of the book is just right. It is not too erudite to put off the younger readers but at the same time has enough depth for the more serious speculator to take seriously. The tone is light and easy to read but does not denigrate a series that Langford knows well. This is a serious addition to a growing genre and even after book seven is published, will still have interesting and positive things to say about the writing of an international success story.
LORE BRINGER by Miller Lau
The third in Miller Lau's The Last Clansman series, this is a multi-dimensional joyride The first book was great, the
second fair. But LORE BRINGER is world-class fantasy. The central cast remains the same: Talisker, a 20th Century
Scot accused of murder, his Glaswegian pal Malky who just happens to be a ghost, and the part-Italian Sandro must
once again return to Sutra, the Otherworld of Celtic legend, but don't think this is standard haggis bashing fare.
Navajos from Arizona, a bulimic teenager and a whole cast of beings from different Otherworld races combine to battle an army of demons who threaten to skin and devour every last being on Earth and Sutra.
LORE BRINGER has its share of tension and gore but it also raises questions of death, life and purpose. Carefully plotted, intricate and action-packed.
LORE BRINGER is a must for every fantasy fan. To get the best out of it, read the first two as soon as you can so you can plunge into this compelling novel without delay. Anne Gay
THREE BY LAUMER by Keith Laumer
As well as numerous stand-alone novels, Keith Laumer wrote three major series: the Imperium, Retief, and Bolo books.
This book, provided by Orion books contains the first in each series. Of these only the first, WORLDS OF THE
IMPERIUM is a novel the other two; RETIEF: ENVOY TO NEW WORLDS and BOLO being collections of short stories.
WORLDS OF THE IMPERIUM covers the kidnapping of an ‘American’ diplomat to Sweden and his transport to another
dimension, that of the Anglo German Empire. There he is made aware of the existence of a series of adjoining
realities and of a major risk from a terrorist rogue state. His help of course is key to solving the crisis. It is a good old
fashioned enjoyable ‘SF’ typical of the best of its era (1962) and well worth reading.
RETIEF: ENVOY TO NEW WORLDS is as stated above a series of short stories charting the progress of a young diplomat, James Retief through a series of assignments. In these he solves problems of which his ‘superiors’ are not aware and of course saves the day, although credit always goes to someone else. These were, to me, moderately enjoyable with the best bits being the acronyms, e.g. MUDDLE - the Manpower Utilization Directive, Division of Libraries and Education, and also MEDDLE - the Motorized Equipment Depot, Division of Loans and Exchanges. In one of these, to the initiated there is a reference to Bolos. BOLO is also a collection of short stories that includes a ‘Retief ‘story which however only briefly and almost in passing refers to Bolos. These most of my readers will know are Artificial Intelligence-controlled super tanks that are totally loyal and ingenious in carrying out their responsibilities. It was a pleasure to read these stories. Fans of the Bolos may or may not be aware that other authors have written collections set in this ‘universe’. These include David Weber, William H. Keith Jr., John Ringo & Linda Evens. Personally, I own copies of those written by David Weber, namely BOLO and OLD SOLDIERS and thoroughly enjoyed them. They are true to Keith Laumer’s vision. Orion books are to be congratulated for republishing these masterworks
CHANGING PLANES by Ursula LeGuin
The dust jacket on this is the most slippery I’ve ever come across. I put it on a chair and it slid off. I piled books on top
of it and they slid off. Now, while I don’t really want to ascribe intelligence to book designers, that ultra-low coefficient
of friction is a good metaphor for the whole volume. It’s a collection of slippery concepts.
Let’s call the contents sixteen slightly linked pieces which are mostly not stories. They are inventive, polished descriptions of other worlds which are reachable by a trick of mental agility rather than by conventional rocket ships or matter-transmitters. It’s a way in which people waiting at airports, with nothing better to do, can slip away to an alien planet, just to pass the time: changing planets while changing planes.
So the whole book is based on a pun. And LeGuin’s means of travel is as much of a plot device as any rocket ship or matter-transmitter ever was. More important are the other worlds visited, a peculiar mixture of the almost familiar, the satirical, and the downright surreal.
Communication problems loom large in several pieces. There are other worlds where genetic manipulation has changed everything, where seasons last for decades and seasonal migration dominates lives, where dreaming is communal, where there are sorts of Disney-worlds devoted to Christmas and Easter, where two sentient species interact in an unexpected way, and where a few of the population use their wings to fly.
I was reminded of some of Jack Vance’s delightful planetary customs, of Robert Sheckley’s early stories, and of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel”. But LeGuin, the daughter of noted anthropologists, has often written about odd, near-human civilisations. In this volume, despite some variation of intent, most of the pieces should be read as satires; the trappings of SF in the book are just devices, metaphors.
All the pieces are in their own way delightful, witty, surprising, though the lack of plots and characters makes it a dry read. Best dipped into, but worth rereading.
LAVINIA by Ursula LeGuin
Now in her 80th year, Le Guin has lost none of her power or subtlety or, as is most important in her latest novel, her
ability to adopt the enthusiastic persona of a girl and young woman. This is a major work, not SF but mythological
fantasy. It is as sharp and thought-provoking as those Hugo-winning novels from 25 and 30 years ago.
The setting is the vicinity of Rome in the Bronze Age, at the end of the Trojan War, when Aeneas of Troy (post Dido) arrived to establish a new colony. But this, perhaps the 13th century BC, five centuries before Rome was founded, is not an historical background. It is the fictional construct of Vergil, writing in the 1st century BC. Le Guin has taken characters from Vergil's THE AENEID and has developed, ornamented and re-slanted their stories.
Lavinia herself, a very minor character in Vergil, is the narrator here. In THE AENEID she was the daughter of King Latinus, who married Aeneas, a great hero of Troy. Le Guin makes her come to life but allows her to discover from visions of Vergil that she is only a piece of fiction. You see, Lavinia is a Jasper Fforde novel for grown-ups.
There is, of course, much more to this novel. The action flits about, cleverly, between earlier and later parts of Lavinia's life. The fulfilment of prophecy is a major theme, including much killing in the hand-to-hand combat of minor wars. If I mention that there's a feminist theme (no women's rights; power behind the throne; only men kill) you won't be surprised.
I was reminded of the alienness of primitive societies in our world, especially Rome as detailed by Robert Graves. And while the writing of top quality novels should never be reduced to a contest, it may be that LAVINIA is better than the best mythological fantasy previously written which is C.S.Lewis's 1956 novel TILL WE HAVE FACES, the Cupid and Psyche myth retold against a fictional pre-Roman background.
THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD and Other Stories by Ursula LeGuin
LeGuin creates societies and cultures. As an anthropologist by profession, it is the inter-reactions between her peoples
that are important rather than the plots.
This is also where the strengths of her writings lie.
In the universe that many of her novels and stories are set, there is no fasterthan- light space travel. The distance between stars is real and although travelling at near light-speed means that ship time is short, the people you have known by the time you complete a return journey are long dead. This knowledge influences the decisions characters make.
“Coming of Age In Karhide” is a return to the planet of Gethen, where the acclaimed novel THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS was set. This story is a snapshot of the society where the sex of the people alternates seen through the eyes of Sov during the change from child to adult. “The Matter of Seggri” is a compendium of accounts showing how contact with the off-world Ekumen, changed the society. Superficially, the change is from a repressive society where the sexes are segregated, to a more open one where they can mix and form relationships. There are echoes in it of Sheri Tepper’s novel THE GATE TO WOMEN’S COUNTRY and a lingering feeling of perhaps imposed (better!) changes cause as many problems as they solve.
The title story, “The Birthday of the World”, also features a society that lias change caused by off-world visitors but this time, they are catalysts for the events that occur accelerating the dissension that is already growing within the hierarchy.
“Lost Paradises” is set aboard a generation colony ship. When the last Earth-born voyager dies, the links with home are broken and many people forget the purpose of the journey and begin to fear the discomfort and changes that planet fall will bring.
The stories were written between 1994 and 2000 and not only show a diversity of cultures but also present ethical dilemmas that afflict our Earth-bound lives, they are deep, thoughtful stories for the thoughtful reader.
FAREWELL TO LANKHMAR by Fritz Leiber
The big, red-bearded barbarian, Fafrd, and the slight, grey-clad swordsman and thief, the Grey Mouser, were fantasy
legends of the 1970s. They have been the inspiration for numerous later fantasy heroes, none of which quite match
Gollancz has reprinted these classics in three volumes instead of the original six. This, Farewell to Lankhmar, is an extra, bringing together the remaining stories. In "Rime Isle" ,the last story o f the previous volume, (Return to Lankhmar in this series, Swords and Ice Magic in the original) the heroes were recruited by Cif and Afreyt, two Rime Islander women, who proved a match for them. When the adventure they were hired to complete was over, Fafrd and the Grey Mouser stayed.
There are four stories in this volume, all of which have been printed elsewhere. Collected her, they form a sequence that is not quite a novel.
In the first, "Sea Magic", the last two Simorgyans decide to reclaim their treasures, which are the sacred icons of the Rime Islanders. They would have succeeded, but Fafrd is drawn to follow Ississi as she flees. In the tussle between them, Fafrd rescues the icons. In "The Mer She" Ississi has a go at the Grey Mouser, who is returning to Rime Isle with a cargo of necessities. He is saved from disaster by his sudden obsession with triple lashing the cargo. This gives the ship sufficient buoyancy to rise to the surface after being dragged under.
In "The Curse of the Smalls and Stars" the two wizards who have sponsored the heroes in the past, decide to try and entice them back to the mainland o f Lankhmar to continue acting as their agents. To this end, they persuade the gods favoured by the heroes, to curse them. Fafrd becomes obsessed with the stars, and Mouser with insignificant things found in gutters. Meanwhile, assassins have been hired to kill the heroes, as previous opponents do not want them returning to the mainland. This story, longer than the previous two, has the touches of humour that made the other novels so enjoyable. "The Mouser goes Below" brings in a number o f characters from previous books and although enjoyable in its own right, is better appreciated if the earlier volumes have been read first.
The plot concerns the wrath o f Loki against the heroes, and without warning, Mouser suddenly sinks into the ground. A frantic digging ensues to rescue him. Fafrd, conversely becomes lighter and floats off into the sky.
Read and enjoy the series, but start with Ill Met in Lankhmar to fully appreciate these legends. This is the weakest book in the series but essential rounding off the heroes lives.
RETURN TO LANKHMAR by Fritz LeiberLoads of people rave over the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd, the heros of the Lankhmar books. This one includes an introduction by Neil Gaiman where he calls the book ‘an enchanting confection of magic and adventure, funny and witty and sane.’ I don’t know. Somehow I’ve never quite found the magic of Lankhmar, maybe because it’s very much fantasy for guys.
SMILER’S FAIR (Hollow Gods 1) by Rebecca Levene
Many years ago, the Sun Goddess defeated the Moon God who died. The Moon God’s remaining followers were
driven mad and exist now as the homicidal and dreaded Worm Men. Destroyed by sunlight, they were forced
underground. Permanent structures or large groups of people attract their attention and they will emerge to create
havoc. Adapting to this has meant that most large settlements are now mobile, with large floating towns towed slowly
around lakes or travelling groups who settle for days and then move on at the first death. The eponymous SMILER’S
FAIR is a large peripatetic carnival that sells all varieties of goods and entertainments. In the story it serves various
roles; a home, a meeting place and the location of major events.
At the start of the story, a new-born prince is smuggled away from the father who would kill him to prevent a prophecy. It soon becomes clear that this child will become the re-born Moon god. The main action then takes place some years later as the child is maturing into manhood. The story is multi-stranded as we get to know various characters including: Krish, (the maltreated goatherd and unknowing prince), Nethmi (married unhappily to seal an alliance), Dae Hyo (a drunken warrior of a decimated tribe), Eric (a young male prostitute) and Rii (a giant sentient bat enslaved by the Sun goddess’ acolytes). Their lives and actions gradually move them towards Smiler’s Fair, where a hunted Krish will start to come into his powers and moon magic begins to return to the world.
This book is a bit of a “Marmite” book. I am sure that there are many fans of traditional fantasy who will enjoy this. However I struggled with this book. It is easy enough to read and the story flows along at a reasonable pace. I think my difficulties are with the characters, who I found lacked depth. Many of them do bad things, which is not necessarily a problem even for “heroes”, but these actions seem to have little emotional effect on them. They felt a little too much like archetypes rather than fully fleshed-out characters. Also, if we are supposed to feel that the Sun Goddess is bad and the Moon God good, then not enough is done to establish where our sympathies should lie. If you want a straightforward unchallenging fantasy then this may suit but I prefer authors who add far more complexity to their characters such as Robin Hobb and her excellent Farseer series.
DARK HEAVENS by Roger LevyFor his second book, Levy returns to the devastated London (presumably standing for the whole of Earth) of his previous RECKLESS SLEEP. Law and order are on the verge of collapse and available resources are barely sufficient for the dwindling population, many of whom seek an escape in virtual-reality gaming.
ICARUS by Roger Levy
There are times when you know that good ideas are not enough. A lot of care has gone into the world building in this
novel. There are two planets in a far distant solar system which have been colonised by humans. One is an
inhospitable world of raging winds where the inhabitants live mostly underground, the other is mist covered and lushly
forested. They are designated Haven and Haze. The societies on both are tyrannical dystopias.
On Haven, Quill is a part of Survey. Teams of two burrow through rock in small coffin-like craft in search of useful minerals. He and his partner, Schek, come across a space ship escape pod buried in solidified magma. They are immediately attacked by a team from Fact who want to destroy the knowledge about and aboard the ship.
On Haze, Petey is forced by the lord of her village to give up her son, Marten, to be educated as a lord. Her people are not allowed possessions, not even sons. When her mate is killed she tries to stay close to Marten but finally has to accept that he is gone. After the massacre of a nearby village by the lords she is found and taken to a village high in the mountains where the haze permeates everything.
The third strand of the novel is the story of the charismatic and philanthropic preacher who was directly responsible for the colonisation.
Although the action and mechanisms of the societies are well constructed, the characterisation is weak as are some of the structural elements. It might be supposed, as there are no clues given, that Petey’s and Quill’s misfortunes are concurrent. They are not, and though they come together eventually the initial time difference is about fifteen years. Though he might be good at some things, Levy is very poor at emotions, sex and writing from a female viewpoint.
Solid science fiction but not to be recommended to the sophisticated and mature reader.
RECKLESS SLEEP by Roger LevyAt some time in the unspecified future the survivors of a failed colonisation attempt have returned to a world devastated by vulcanism. In this dystopian England, where the forces of law and order barely maintain control, people eke out a precarious existence from which virtual reality games offer some kind of escape. Jon Seiler, one o f the survivors, becomes involved with a project to develop a bigger and better game but finds that the project seems already to have taken the life of his best friend and looks likely to kill him as well unless he can discover the secret agenda in time.
THE FIRST SISTER by Linden A. Lewis
There are always problems with attempting to write far-future science fiction in that scientific concepts and
understanding of the universe are constantly changing. It is hard enough for the expert to keep up with them and more
difficult for the writer where they haven’t that training. Science Fiction that ventures into space tends to take one of
two main forms – that where a means of FTL travel has been obtained (the methods are as many as the novels) and
that where most of the action remains in the solar system sticking to most of the rules that apply now. Linden A Lewis’s
debut novel is of the latter.
In THE FIRST SISTER the solar system is divided into factions. Earth, Mars and the asteroids form one group, referred to as Geans. They are at war with the Icarii, colonisers of Venus and Mercury. The Icarii are the ones with more advanced technology after the discovery of a substance, hermium, that is only found on Mercury. The Geans only get the technology by winning it in battle. The two societies have developed very differently.
The eponymous First Sister is part of the religious community aboard the battleship Juno, captured by the Geans from the Icarii. It uses hermium technology to produce artificial gravity and seal the ship from the void. The sisters don’t only take confession from the troops (male and female) aboard but are also expected to be available for sex. For these reasons the sisters have had their voices taken away so that they cannot reveal any secrets that they hear. While there would be advantages of this system in reducing the tensions amongst the troops, the fact is that the women are taken from orphanages or bought from poor families and trained for the job of what are effectively licenced prostitutes. First Sister has been claimed by Juno’s captain for his exclusive use and when he retires he has told her that he will take her with him. He doesn’t and she is left behind with a number of unpalatable choices. She will now have to submit to any that want her unless she can persuade the new captain, Saito Ren, to claim her as favourite. Aunt Marshae, the overseer of the sisters on the ship makes it clear that if she doesn’t find evidence that Ren is a traitor, she will be the one accused of treachery. To emphasise the point, Second Sister is executed by being spaced.
Society amongst the Icarii is very different. With technology, they have created cities which float in the dense atmosphere of Venus, protected within hermium bubbles. Lito sol Lucius will always be defined by his name which denotes that he is from the lowest, poorest levels. He has fought his way up to become an elite soldier. These work in pairs. His partner is Hiro val Akira, middle child of Souji val Akira, CEO of val Akira labs which develops the technology the Icarii use. Hiro expresses as gender neutral. Lito is given two tasks – to kill the Gean Mother who is leader of First Sister’s order and to kill Hiro, something Lito does not want to do.
The third set of players in this novel are the Asters. They have been genetically engineered to be able to work in the minimal gravity of the asteroid belt. For much of the novel they are present but largely unnoticed and ignored. This is a deliberate ploy as this is how both Geans and Icarii see them – inconsequential, slaves, menials. This is never a good approach to a group of humans who have more intelligence than they are commonly credited with.
Lewis tells a good story from the viewpoints of both Lito and First Sister as well as through an “audio” account of the background leading to the critical point of the novel from the point of view of Hiro. She is also examining a number of issues within the narrative. It is the kind of book that is likely to stimulate all kinds of discussion. The two main societies, Gean and Icarii have very different approaches to life and honour. There are good aspects of each as well as some that readers may consider morally reprehensible, though this may be a reflection of modern sensibilities. Attitudes change with time and we always think that ours has the moral high ground. Perhaps the line is blurred between willing women employed to give succour to troops (there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent brotherhood) and girls brought up to believe that they have no choice. If people have willingly undergone genetic modification to fulfil a useful role should they be treated as inferior by those who created them? Where is the line between employment and slavery? Lewis has worked hard to stimulate this discussion.
She has also researched the problems her setting involves and although there may be dispute as to whether she has got the science exactly right according to current knowledge, these points should not detract from the overall effect. A debut novel worth reading.
THE SECOND REBEL (The First Sister 2) by Linden A. Lewis
Much of hard Science Fiction (that which has a focus on space-faring technology) has an emphasis on warfare,
reminiscent of the early SF which was once described to me as Mills & Boon for boys. The quality of the writing,
understanding of technology and characterisation has vastly improved since those days. The more thoughtful hard SF
can largely be divided into those novels that take the current view of science and stick to sub-light travel, and those
who project a development that will make it possible to reach other stars. The former usually contain their story to the
solar system. Linden A. Lewis is one of these.
Lewis’s debut novel, THE FIRST SISTER, sets up the factions involved and much of the divisions rely on the mineral hermium, which only occurs on Mercury. The inner planets of Mercury and Venus have been able to use it to create high-tech solutions to living in those planets. Genetic developments have allowed people to have their genes tweaked to survive in the non-Earth conditions. These Icarii, as they call themselves, have control of new technological developments. The inhabitants of Mars and the asteroids are the Gean and most of their technology is stolen from the Icarii. A third group of people are the Asters. They are genetically changed to cope with conditions among the asteroids and are regarded by both sides as inferior. In THE FIRST SISTER we were introduced to the different societies through the first-person viewpoints of a handful of characters.
In some ways, THE SECOND REBEL has the hallmarks of a second book in a series. It continues the stories of the main characters but is also a holding volume, relating more about the societies, introducing new elements but frustratingly leaving them in limbo at the end.
Hiro and Lito were elite warriors of the Icarii of high and low status. Hiro’s father runs the Val Akiri labs which develops the gene technology and has been illegally experimenting on Asters. Lito came from the slums of Cytherea, the main city floating in the clouds of Venus. Now both of them have had their horizons expanded. Lito and his new partner, Ofiera, are engaged in rescuing Ofiera’s Aster husband, Sorrel, from the Val Akira labs and escaping to Vesta, the asteroid that is effectively the Aster’s home-world. Hiro has thrown his lot in with a group of outlaws on Autarkeia. They are trying to track down the elusive Synthetics. The Synthetics are a new element. They are an artificial intelligence that has largely kept itself apart from the squabbles of humans but they will destroy any ship that enters their space. They have also prevented humans from spreading beyond the asteroid belt.
Astrid, who was the First Sister of the previous novel, has, after leading a coup, become First Sister of Ceres and wishes to be nominated Mother of the order. To achieve that she needs to go to Mars and face the Agora, which is the ruling body. While the Sisters are seen by most as a refuge for orphaned or poor girls, it is effectively licenced prostitution. The sisters are intended as comfort sexual and mental to all who ask, male and female. On Mars, she discovers that not all members of the Agora are as compassionate as they appear.
Lucinia sol Lucius is an artist and sister to Lito. She has been persuaded to steal data from the Val Akira labs. She and her contact, the Aster Castor, flee to Vesta. Among the data is the information for undoing the genelock. This is the way of undoing all the gene tweaks that have allowed humans to survive the hostile conditions away from Earth.
It may appear that all the combatants are heading for the same place but Lewis skilfully thwarts expectations and puts them all into extreme peril. While THE FIRST SISTER is a complete novel with potential for further development, THE SECOND REBEL is full of cliff-hangers. Because so much has been invested in these characters a reader will want to know what happens to them next.
This is a skilfully plotted and thoughtfully developed book but to understand fully what is happening, and the relationships between characters, it is better to read them in order.
ONCE BITTEN edited by Steve Lewis
Too many authors have been asked, by non-writers, where their inspiration comes from. There is never just one
answer. It can be from anything – a piece of music, an overheard conversation, a newspaper report. Many will tell you
that writing is about hard work rather than inspiration, but the initial spark, the starting point has to come from
somewhere. In the case of this volume, the starting point was the art work. Theresa Derwin, the instigator of Once
Bitten, saw the painting by Stephen Cooney and thought it would make the ideal cover for a horror anthology. The
fifteen stories that finally ended up between the covers all have a theme of love or obsession. There is a very fine line
between the two, and there is always a problem when the object of desire doesn’t return the affection.
The two stories that are most memorable in this volume are ‘Housebound’ by Jacob Prytherch and ‘Mama’s Boy’ by Steven Chapman. In the first, Tom Harper is the object of desire and she is very jealous. He cannot leave his house. All his groceries are ordered online. It is the house itself which loves him, and will kill intruders to keep him. The second has similarities. In this case it is Roger, a postman, who is the prisoner, but he is being kept in the basement by a woman who treats him as though he were her baby.
In some stories, the obsession doesn’t always become apparent until the end as in ‘Paper Frog’ by Martin Nike. A meeting on the train between Donald and Suzy develops nicely especially as he realises that she can read minds. The other significant characters are well drawn but the end of this particular story is disappointingly rushed and confused.
The brief for these stories didn’t confine the writer to contemporary horror and SF and fantasy scenarios have been exploited. ‘To The End Of Love’ by Elle Joyce is a future setting where civilisation has suddenly broken down. There is no explanation but none is needed. In fleeing from an exploitative man, Gina falls, literally, into a safe house. Marax is willing to keep her safe in exchange for experiences he cannot otherwise have via the use of a drug. Here, both the drug and love are addictive. It is a well-executed piece of writing. ‘Love Bites’ by Nic Martin is also set in a civilisation which is disintegrating. When Tom is bitten on the way home from shopping he becomes ill and Deb loves him too much to carry out the necessary mercy stroke the media tells her she ought. These stories, despite similarities, have strengths in different areas and are good counterpoints to each other.
‘Oblivion Is The Sweetest Word’ by John R Fultz is the only story that actually uses the cover image as the focus. It is a fantasy in which Taizo the thief is promised great riches to acquire the venom of the sacred spiders of Ghoth. He falls in love with one of the local girls, a love that is doomed by tradition and by what he later discovers. Not only does it match the cover but it is also well crafted.
Myth is always a good source for stories. Unfortunately, too many are just retellings without adding anything to the myth. No so in the case of ‘Thrill Of The Chase’ by N O A Rawle. It starts shakily but gains strength as the narrator gains confidence. It works on the premise that there are monsters living amongst us, in this case a lamia. She wants to fit in to human society but her true nature is always likely to surface.
The eight other stories all have something that gives them a touch of originality. Not all of them are brilliantly executed – they may start heavily and improve towards the end, or do not have clear enough endings. Ambiguity is fine in a story, so is surrealism but confusion lets it down.
All the stories have a horrific or macabre element to them and if you enjoy that kind of story, there will be something here to like.
THE NIGHTMARE FACTORY by Thomas Ligotti
This is a collection of four short stories in comic book form written for the medium, drawn and coloured by the likes of
Colleen Doran, Ted McKeever, and Ben Templesmith from horror stories by and with new introductions from Thomas
I’d not heard of Ligotti before this collection and, on this showing, I’m not sure that I really want to. I can see bits of Ray Bradbury, Poe and Lovecraft on occasion but nothing really comes up to any of them. This may not be Ligotti’s fault. Each story is rewritten by a different writer and some don’t seem able to get to the grotesque nature that the story tries to imply. If anyone has produced the right kind of artwork here, it’s Templesmith on “Dream of a Mannikin” but the material of that story is the least grotesque in the book.
The only outright monsters are in Doran’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and they are shown in such a traditional style that they are no more shocking than anything in an old superhero book. The other two stories—”Dr Locrian’s Asylum” and “Teatro Grottesco” - are much better fits but mostly more mundane.
COTTINGLEY by Alison Littlewood
The Cottingley Fairies, which provide the idea behind this novella, were a series of five photographs taken by two
young cousins living in Cottingley (near Bradford). They appear to show the girls with small, winged fairy figures
supposedly taken at Cottingley Beck. When the photographs were shown at a Theosophical Society meeting in
Bradford in 1919, a leading member, Edward Gardner submitted them to a photographic expert who declared them
genuine unfaked photographs. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle learned of their existence and used them in an article in the
popular The Strand magazine in 1920. They became a sensation, with Sir Arthur being one of many enthusiastic
supporters for them being genuine. This novella is written as a series of letters to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mr
Garner from a grandfather, Lawrence Fairclough describing his family’s encounters with the Cottingley fairies. As with
the original Cottingley fairies, it starts with a child seeing the fairies at Cottingley Beck. Photographs are also taken,
which are forwarded to Mr Gardner but they also discover a dead fairy body and take it away. However, the
consequences of that act show a darker and more malevolent side to fairies. The fairies of this book hark back more to
those of a capricious and spiteful nature as shown in traditional folk beliefs than to the saccharine and “innocent”
images displayed in the original photos and later popularised by books such as Cicely Mary Barker’s FLOWER FAIRIES
OF THE SPRING.
This is a novella that is hard to categorise for me. There are certainly elements of horror although I would probably
describe it more as dark fantasy. I enjoyed the story and how it gradually develops the growing mischief and then
actual menace from the fairies. As the small family of grandfather, daughter-in-law and granddaughter first recognise
and then try to propitiate the vengeful beings, there are some bleak and emotionally affecting incidents. The
epistolary format (ie a series of letters) works well for some aspects; for instance, it allows for ambiguity about the
reliability of the narrator’s account and for the possibility that the narrator might not survive. On the other hand, I also
found personally that it distanced me somewhat from the emotions of the characters ie one felt more of an observer
than being inside the characters’ thoughts. I also felt that it meant that the character of the narrator, Mr Lawrence was
the one that felt most real with the others feeling less fully rounded. That being said though, I did find Mr Lawrence
was an interesting character; his slight vanity and wish for celebrity contrasting well with his affection for his family.
The author has written previous works set in Victorian/early twentieth century times dealing with the transition and
conflict between modern “scientific” views of the world and traditional folk beliefs (particularly THE HIDDEN PEOPLE).
This novella continues that theme. As with her other work, she clearly puts a lot of effort into research and this detail
does add depth to her stories. This novella is well written and will appeal to a reader who likes “folk horror” fantasy.
MISTLETOE by Alison Littlewood
Strong emotions can leave their mark. One of the theories behind hauntings is that powerful events are recorded by
the fabric of the place they happen in and are replayed is the right trigger is tripped. Other ghostly sightings are
attributed to unfinished business on the part of the deceased. This might be benign or, in some cases, a desire for
revenge. Whether ghosts can actually influence the actions of the living or are merely apparitions depends on the kind
of ghost story being told. If strong emotions didn’t generate the ghost, the actual haunting can provoke them. Ghost
stories belong to a popular genre and while readers enjoy them, the reality is open to speculation. But it is not only
the strong emotions of the ghost that should be taken into consideration, there are also those of the one who perceive
Leah has had a tough few months. Her son and husband are dead (we learn later the circumstances) and her grief is raw. Before the tragedy, she and Josh were considering buying a house in the countryside with space for Finn to play. One of the places Josh had thought had possibilities had been Maitland Farm. Leah had considered it with disquiet as her maiden name was Maitland and she suspected that she was descended from the original owners but in the aftermath of Finn’s and Josh’s deaths, she bought it. Now she has arrived.
It is just before Christmas and it is snowing. The house is very rundown and has barely any furniture. Conditions are fairly primitive as there have been no recent improvements and it has been empty for a number of years. It is not surprising that she hears noises outside during the night. She thinks she has an explanation when she disturbs Charlie, the son of a neighbour, lurking in the barn. Initially, she thinks that the very ugly doll he has dropped is his. When she is holding it, she has a vison of another boy dressed in similar clothes to the doll.
Charlie’s mother, Cath, brings the boy over to apologise for trespassing and invites Leah for Christmas dinner. It looks as if Leah has begun to be accepted and she discovers a little about the previous owners of the farm. Discoveries of mistletoe leaves in a cupboard as she begins the mammoth task of cleaning seem to trigger more visions and the tragedies that led to the Maitland’s deserting the farm are played out for her.
This is the kind of ghost story that can be taken in different ways. All the events could be because Leah is in an emotionally vulnerable place, it is her first Christmas on her own, in a house that is isolated, neglected and external sounds can be exaggerated. All these factors coming together are likely to excite the imagination and disturb sleep causing hallucinations. Mistletoe, which plays a significant part in the story – it being prevalent on the trees in the orchard behind the farm, can be mildly hallucinogenic and could be the cause of what Leah is experiencing. Alternatively, her connection with the house through her heritage, and the unresolved events of the past could equally be a haunting to which she is susceptible. After all, someone had to have chopped the wood for the fire and brought the tree into the house, and she doesn’t remember doing it.
Whatever the explanation is, and only the reader can decide, this is an excellent piece of story-telling. The characters and situation draw the reader in, and if there are some aspects that seem familiar, they are dealt with in a very competent way. A good read.
THE CROW GARDEN by Alison Littlewood
This story can probably best be described as Victorian Gothic. The story starts with a recently qualified doctor,
Nathaniel Kerner travelling to his newly accepted post as an “alienist” or “mad doctor”. This is at the remote Yorkshire
institution of Crakethorne. He is driven by a need to make his mark in science, and thus redeem the family name which
is tainted by his father’s suicide when Nathaniel was a child. He wants to experiment with his kinder talking therapies
rather than the crude, unscientific and often cruel methods the profession was notorious for in this era. However, his
dream posting is not what he has been led to expect. The surroundings are gloomy and depressing, especially the
graveyard of former patients, the Crow Garden. Rather than the forward-looking employer he had anticipated, Dr
Chettle is instead motivated by money and an obsession with the discredited theory of phrenology (diagnosing a
person’s character from the shape of their skull). Disillusioned and disappointed, he is nevertheless determined to
persevere and he is particularly drawn to one new patient. This patient, Mrs Harleston appears both more genteel and
less obviously affected than the other patients. She had been committed by her husband after claiming that the ghost
of his dead child (from a previous marriage) contacted her. As he talks to her, he begins to wonder whether she is truly
‘mad’; might it be a contrivance of her husband to discredit her accusations or is there some truth to her claims of
supernatural experience. When one of his attempts to help her leads to her escaping under mysterious circumstances,
he follows her trail and in the process, begins to uncover the truth about the enigmatic Mrs Harleston. Alison
Littlewood’s last book, THE HIDDEN PEOPLE was one which I really enjoyed. In a similar vein, this book starts with the
reader swaying between rational and supernatural explanations for the mysterious events surrounding Mrs Harleston.
There is some excellent worldbuilding and the author has clearly spent a lot of time in researching Victorian places,
social mores and the “crazes” of the time such as spiritualism and mesmerism. There has also clearly been good
attention paid to using vocabulary and prose consistent with those used in contemporaneous novels, so there are no
obvious jarring modernisms. However, I found the start of the book far more satisfying than the later portions. The
setup is very atmospheric and there it felt to me that the narrative would lead more into a creepy supernatural horror,
with Mrs Harleston’s incarceration acting as a catalyst for more strange incidents involving the back stories of the
patients and Crakethorne Asylum. There was also a lot of subtext regarding the role and lack of agency of women in
Victorian times, which I felt was going to be built on as the story progressed. However, once Mrs Harleston leaves the
asylum, I felt the story shifted to a more purely historical drama, rather than the conflict between magic and science in
a transitional age that I had expected based on the initial setup. The scenes in London to me lacked the atmosphere
of the Asylum setting. Also, I started to lose sympathy with the character of Dr Kerner and I struggled with the slower
pace of this section. In the final section of the book, although the location has shifted back to Crakethorne, the plot at
this point felt to me to have descended into more melodrama and I found it hard to credit the actions of many of the
characters, even given that some of them had been “mesmerised”. This section, following on from the slower middle
section, felt somehow rushed in comparison and the potential of the setting and the other patients felt under-utilised.
Also at this point it becomes clear that the narrator is now unreliable, which can work in some stories, but is not one of
my favourite things. While the author is clearly skilled, I did struggle with this book. Perhaps if one approaches it purely
as a historically based story, it might work better, but as a fan of speculative fiction it didn’t quite work for me.
THE HIDDEN PEOPLE by Alison Littlewood
We like to think we live in a rational world, but irrational beliefs still lie close to the surface. Animal shelters that can’t
re-home black cats as people consider them “unlucky” and the recent hysterical reaction to “scary clowns” are only a
couple of examples. The horrific consequences of one such belief is the central theme of this novel.
In the middle of the 19th century, a young man leaves behind his comfortable life in the city to see to the affairs of his pretty young cousin. She has been killed in a dreadful way by her husband who apparently believed she was a fairy changeling. (This central incident and the inspiration for the novel is based upon a real event). Feeling that his family have neglected his poorer relation, and with an unrecognised romantic fixation with her, the protagonist wants to understand and uncover the events and reasons which led to her death. When he arrives in the small rural village where she lived, he finds an almost universal belief in the existence of changelings, the Fairy folk and their interference in the lives of people who attract their attention.
When he moves into her “unlucky” cottage, halfway up the fairy hill, he finds himself drawn into this miasma of superstition. What seems easy to believe in the city, bounded by iron railways and modern machines is much harder to hold onto in the “endless summer” of the village. When he is joined by his young, newly pregnant wife, the stage is set for another tragedy as he also struggles to understand her apparently “changed” behaviour in this new environment.
This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel. There is an excellent attention to detail in this book. The careful consideration that has been paid to the vocabulary and style of the prose, so that it is appropriate to the Victorian setting, yet still being eminently readable is exceptional. There was an added verisimilitude to me in that many of the old superstitions were reminiscent of those some of my older relatives held – eg not wearing green because it was the fairies’ colour, or not walking through a fairy ring. The contrast between the new rational, industrial world of the city and the older, unchanged and superstitious countryside is well done without being heavy-handed. The author keeps the narrator, and the reader reeling (like the Fairy dancing road in the book) between whether to believe the superstitious or the more mundane and rational explanations of his cousin’s death. As he digs deeper into village life and the circumstances surrounding his cousin’s death, the story builds to a climax, and the true cleverness of this story becomes more apparent. The reader becomes more and more intrigued as to who the actual hidden people are? Do the fairies exist or does the belief both engender and conceal more human motives and wickedness?
When I started this novel, I expected a fairly straightforward dark fantasy but the book has far more depth to it than that. I loved the difficult balancing act that the author credibly maintains throughout the book and the complexities of character in the narrator and his wife in particular. It is not a gruesome horror book, apart from one somewhat graphic but justifiable scene at the beginning so would suit many who like intelligent, well-written fiction with some fantasy elements.
THE DESCENT by Jeff Long
Deep beneath the earth lie a maze of tunnels and caves that connect all the continents of the world. Ruling this
subterranean world is ‘Satan’, alive and well.
Over the years people have disappeared into caves and other recesses of the earth never to be seen again. Into this unknown world stumbles Dwight David Crockett - Ike to his friends - the leader of a party of trekkers into the Himalayas. Cut off from civilisation by a ferocious blizzard, Ike and his party take refuge in a mountain cave only to discover the remains of an RAF flyer encased in the rock walls of the cave and covered with strange markings. As the members of the party descend further into the warren of tunnels they discover they are not alone.
The return of Ike to the normal world triggers a massive move to explore the subterranean caverns beneath their feet, but little do the explorers know the consequences of their actions. The battle that develops, between the subterranean dwellers and the invaders from the surface, forces the underground people further from their normal territories. A small, mysterious group, which has been watching and collecting data concerning the occasional forays of the underground dwellers into the surface world, is forced to stand aside and simply watch the events unfolding before it.
The subterranean world has tricks of its own to play on the invaders from the surface, as the casualty rate on both sides climbs.
The blurb on the front cover reads: ‘One major takedown of a read. A page-burner.’ Unfortunately I cannot agree.
This is a story, based on old myths and legends, that, like the story of Atlantis and the stories in the Bible, have been exaggerated and warped through the retelling. As a purely fictional work it could have been better crafted with more sympathy for the characters. The plotline loses its way, so that the whole book becomes a mishmash. The basic idea holds a lot of merit but I feel that the author was running to a publisher’s deadline and what could have been a fine story has turned into a collage of scenes that only start to coalesce near the end.
One definitely for the insomniacs.
THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS by Karen Lord
In the future humanity has divided into distinctive groups. The Sadiri were the elite amongst the various human races
in the galaxy. With their strong intellectual and telepathic gifts they were the backbone of law, diplomacy and
scientific discovery. Their strong mental and emotional discipline means that they are perceived as aloof and
unfeeling by many. Disaster strikes when their homeworld is poisoned and rendered uninhabitable by an act of
terrorism. Only the Sadiri who were offworld at the time of the attack survive and that is mostly the males.
The scattered survivors are given asylum on the world of Cygnus Beta. Wishing to preserve their culture and genetic identity, they agree with the Cygnus Beta government on a joint expedition to search for suitable sub- populations of the planet who may be close enough genetically and culturally to the Sadiri to provide suitable brides. Grace Delarua is the Cygnian linguistic liaison assigned to the group and much of the novel centres around the developing relationship between the emotional, empathic Grace and the Sadiri councillor, Dllenahkh, as they travel from one different culture to another.
This book has received widespread praise and has been recently nominated for the Locus Award. There are some good ideas in here but they feel under-developed. It is technically well-written but I found it extremely frustrating. The pace is very slow and we seem to move from one episode to the next quite jerkily at times. Situations are set up and then in the next chapter we learn they have been resolved “off stage” without full details of what has happened. Also apart from the two main protagonists, I found it very hard to differentiate between the other characters who seemed very one-dimensional. These two factors means that despite what should have been intense situations I never felt that the characters were in any real danger.
I also found the relationship between Grace and Dllenahkh unsatisfying and unconvincing. Much of it feels like a developing friendship rather than a romantic relationship. I recognise that we are meant to recognise the reserved nature of the Sadiri makes expression of emotions difficult but for me personally, whilst I can see an emotional bond developing it feels completely platonic. Dllenahkh has some depth as a character but I found Grace annoying and unsympathetic. Indeed yet again the reserved detached style of the narration makes it very hard to feel much empathy with any of the characters.
I went into this book with high expectations but the main experience was puzzlement that I must be missing something that other readers clearly like. Whilst Karen Lord evidently appeals to a lot of people, on the evidence of this book she does not suit me.
PROVENDER GLEED by James Lovegrove
I wonder sometimes that people write science fiction. It’s said that it’s a declining market that doesn’t make as much
money as it used to. So why should someone write an SF novel when they’d probably make more from a regular
thriller? This is a good case in point. As a thriller it has all the right moves: the plot moves fast enough and the
characters are (mostly) solid and believable.
Then there’s this ‘alternate world’ thing. The idea is that sometime during the Renaissance several trading families took over effective control of the world and have been passing down that power along lines of primogeniture (firstborn son) ever since. Technology is somehow changed - they still have airships, there’s a secure tram system for the privileged and lower classes live in tower blocks. It all feels a bit hokey. I can’t help but wonder why it was put in. I don’t believe the history would hold up to scrutiny – think of how often the throne of any country has passed from father to son (many times it doesn’t). This world does have elected governments but their members rely so much on the support of the ‘Families’ that they have little real power. Think of it as a more obvious version of corporate sponsorship. Apart from the odd item, this never really interferes with the plot.
The problem with reviewing this kind of thriller is that it’s so easy to reveal too much of the plot. Provender Gleed is the grandson of the head of the most powerful family in England. Since he is the eldest son of the eldest son, he is being pressured to find a wife to continue the line. Then he is kidnapped.
Although we know from the start who the kidnappers are, we aren’t told who is really behind it. Who is the ‘inside man’? Maybe it’s the actor cousin who is desperately short of money. Has he been paid off by a rival family?
The head of the Gleed family has hired ‘Milner & Moore, Anagrammatic Detectives’ to find his missing grandson. Do they really have a chance of success? Why would anyone think they did? Are they just comic relief, or a chance for the writer to exercise his fascination with anagrams? Believe it or not, there is a good explanation.
Lovegrove has shown that he is capable of writing a good thriller but, on this showing, I wouldn’t rate him on his ‘science fiction’.
UNTIED KINGDOM by James LovegroveUNTIED KINGDOM is about a future in which the United Kingdom has been isolated from the rest of the international community. Not only have essential supplies been cut off but the kingdom has also been bombed randomly leading to smaller communities being set up that are separated from a central control and protection. The whole incident is the result of an unlucky economic gamble of which the details are never revealed in the text.
WORLDSTORM by James Lovegrove
This is a book where the reader has to take a lot on trust or get very annoyed.
The setting is a world ravaged by a very powerful storm, the ‘Worldstorm’ of the title. It moves around the populated areas causing devastation. It cannot be a natural meteorological phenomenon because it does not diminish or follow any logical weather pattern. The people are divided into four factions, each group manifesting psychic powers relating to one of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water. There is a certain amount of tension between factions.
There are three main characters. Elder Ayn is a pre-visionary. He already knows what will happen in his life, in great detail. This makes him arrogant. He believes that as it is fore-ordained, there is no alternative to the actions he is going to follow through. By implication, everything is predestined and no-one has choice.
He has decided that he can thwart the Worldstorm by bringing together two people to create a child who will have the power to destroy it. He manufactures excuses to be in the right place at the right time to meet them.
Yashu is the first of them. She is born in the islands of Water Inclined people.
Until Ayn arrives, she thinks she has no powers. He proves to her that she is Air Inclined like him and should go to the mainland with him. She is a sooth-seer and recognises when others are telling the truth. As Ayn believes what he is saying, she trusts him. He is very careful not to lie in her presence.
Gregory Brazier is the son of a Fire Inclined family. His powers belong to the Earth persuasion. Ayn picks him up in the aftermath of the Battle of Penresford which pitches Fire against Earth after a visit by the Worldstorm.
This is a world riddled with prejudice and superstition. At the end, nothing has moved on. Lives are very much the same as they were, with the exception of the major characters. Even then, it is difficult to know whether Ayn’s manipulations have changed anything. Finally, the reader is left with the thought that either there will be a sequel which will decide if Ayn was right or wrong in his suppositions, or Why? The story is left hanging.
As far as the writing is concerned, it is competent enough. Perhaps the prejudices between the factions are insufficiently explored, though they may be a result of the format. Part of the book is related as Ayn’s memoirs to his enshriner, Khollo. He has an eidetic memory and can forget nothing and these sections are pompous as befitting Ayn’s character. However, they distract from the flow of the narrative which really belongs to Yashu and Gregory. Without knowing if there is to be a sequel it is difficult to know whether to recommend the book. There are probably more fulfilling novels available than this one. A shame, because there are some interesting ideas within it.