Sunday, 28 December 2014

Miserere an Autumn Tale by Teresa Frohock, spoiler free review

When I was much younger I walked often in London and past a theatre proudly and forever proclaiming its production of "Les Miserables."   Literally for decades the show's title put me off until the film and my daughters' affection for it awoke me to its qualities.  I even went to see it live in celebration of a big birthday (I won't say how big).  There in the programme I found an echo of my early suspicions when the director had told the original cast words to the effect of, "We are putting on a musical about French history in England, with forty two on stage deaths and its got the word miserable in the title, how hard did we want to make it for ourselves."

In a similar vein I had seen Teresa Frohock's debut novel on book shelves and hesitated to lift it down.  The title - seemed at  a glance a little less than cheerful, the cover striking but a little too crusadery?  However, I am glad I did not wait as long to correct my error with this engrossing book as I waited with the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's masterpiece.

I read it in three days, it would have been two but for a headache perhaps induced by too much kindle-ing - serves me right for not buying it in hard copy when I had the chance.

It was half way through the book before I found the meaning of its title (I blame a miserable experience with latin at school for my ignorance) and glimpsed a language bridging pun on misery and miserere, very different themes that chase each other through the pages of this book.

For a debut novel it reads surprisingly like a sequel.  The three principal adult characters Lucian Negru. Rachel Boucher and Catarina share a fascinating backstory, rivaling the different adventures of Persephone and Dante in straying beyond mortal boundaries.  I wondered if perhaps the author had in fact written it all in detail, and then chosen to discard the first half in order to launch us at her characters at a key point in their tumble down the slippery slope of fate.   That is not to say Miserere suffers by the missing prequel.  It is that rarity in modern Fantasy, a self-contained book that does not abandon us at a Falls of Rauros type cliffhanger, nor demand a sequel to tie off loose-ends.  Then again, there is enough life in the setting and the characters to afford another story or two, if the author could be so tempted.

Two comparisons spring to my mind in trying to give a feel for Miserere but both have only a tenuous link to Frohock's masterpiece.   The first is the Narnia books, for they too have a parallel worlds and a christian theme and the potential for people to slip from our contemporary world into somewhere fantastically different.  However, the woerld Frohock writes of is no Narnia with talking animals and an excess of turkish delight.  It is like slipping from 1916 England into 1916 Flanders, from the untainted world they fought to preserve, to the bloody frontline in the defence against hell itself.

The second comparison is with Kirstin Cashore's Graceling books, for a select few in her world were special characters (denoted by unmatched eye colours) with powers whose nature only become apparent over time.  So too people who are enabled to slip from Earth into Frohock's Woerld have special powers which can be nurtured and can aid in the fight against the denizens of hell.  For example the hero Lucian Negru has the power of exorcism and the power to open gates - doorways - into hell itself.  Other people who have crossed the divide have different powers - but all of them valuable to the righteous and a target for the damned.

The book opens with its hero crippled, imprisoned and in disgrace, and its heroine scorned and sickening, like Blake's Rose, she is sick assailed by an invisible worm,  The forces of darkness seem doomed to triumph, the forces of good are in disarray.  But faith, hope and if not charity then a little mercy will go a long way and I enjoyed going along with the ride, even if at times I had to read through splayed fingers so fearful was I for characters I had come to love. lists Miserere as Christian Fantasy and it is true, there is not so much a spine as a full skeleton of christian faith that supports this story.  But that does not stop it from being a rip-roaring read that can be enjoyed by people of all faiths and none.  The films Solomon Kane and Constantine both grew intoxicating and fantastic tales from the fertile soil of christian belief.  More so than that, Miserere presents a world - or rather a woerld - parallel to earth where every religious belief has forsaken their differences and worked in close allegiance to combat a far greater peril.  While Frohock's characters are overtly christian, it is clear that there are many faiths and many routes that lead to heaven, and as many ways to fall into hell.  (There is in that a lesson perhaps for our own earth and its religious leaders)

The reality of the threat that faces the leaders of Woerld, of demons made real, of possession, of gates into hell itself, of betrayals great and small, makes for a culture that is austere and unforgiving.  There is a medieval tone to the reality of religion in the setting Frohock has created and the absoluteness of both its absolution and its condemnation.

I had dipped into one review of Miserere long before I read it and I remember the reviewer expressing some disappointment with the hero Lucian who they felt had simply made a bad choice sixteen years before the book began, and in so doing had precipitated the story's central crisis.  Having now read the book I think that view does a disservice both to the character and Frohock's story telling.  This is a tale about the repercussions of a choice, an impossible choice between blood and love, between family and friendship, between an unbreakable oath and a broken heart.  Lucian made a choice in good faith (forgive the pun) and has lived with and been changed by the consequences.

Frohock makes clear the reasons for the decision Lucian made and for all the peril it brought upon his woerld I will not criticise him for it.  He is a man of faith and honour, faithfully and honourably portrayed.  He is determined to do right at any personal cost and with no hope of anything more than a fleeting opportunity for redemption.  A tale of such a man is worth following.

There is a intriguing motif in Frohock's writing that the devil does not so much steal or buy our souls entire, as have us barter away our most human emotions in exchange for power, surrendering such gifts as empathy, or compassion in order to work satanic miracles.   It is a thought that lingers with me, and one perhaps to bear in mind as I hear more tales of regions of this our world torn apart in the name of religion.  All we have to do to become monsters, is to abjure those emotions that make us human.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Low Town series - a dark masterpiece which I review here

I've just finished "She Who Waits" the third in Daniel Polansky's outstanding Low Town series,

There is a bit in the final book where a door handle rattles and the man on the other side seems to be having trouble opening it - I knew what that meant, I saw the significance and smiled to myself. But the author never rubbed my face in it, never went back to show explicitly how clever I'd been in my reading or how clever he'd been in his writing.  It was just something we both knew, it didn't need saying.  And in a way, that is one of the many beauties of the Low Town series, so much understated - unstated even - understanding lying between the lines of lyrical prose.

Low Town is only the second Fantasy Trilogy that I finished reading in 2014 (after Mazarkis Williams' Tower and Knife series right at the start of the year).  The genre is now so packed with good reading that I feel like a dog presented with a multiplicity of over flowing food bowls, running backwards and forwards between each wagging my tail ferociously, desperate to miss nothing.   Faced with such a bountiful smorgasbord, it takes a special quality to hold my fickle loyalty through three books when my variegated list of Goodreads, facebook and reddit recommendations is fit to bust even a kindle's capacious memory.

Daniel Polansky has that special quality and I completed his last two books as at much of a canter as Christmas and work would allow.

Tomorrow the Killing (Spoiler free review)

In some ways Low Town is an atypical trilogy in that it is not three parts to a single story - as the archetypal Lord of the Rings was -  but three stand alone stories with a common spine of core characters, setting and back story.

Tomorrow the Killing is set three years after The Sharp Razor Cure, and She Who Waits is set a further three years after that).  The events of each book are just so much history for the book(s) that follow.   Our first person point of view hero continues to be the Warden, the disgraced ex-soldier, ex-secret policeman turned one man drug dealing mafia of Low Town - the seediest quarter of the splendid capital city Rigus in a lustrous empire still aching from post-war wounds.

In Tomorrow the Killing, The Warden is engaged by an old general to help find an errant daughter on a foolish quest for truth and vengeance in his seedy hometown.  In this set-up Polansky and the Warden again remind me of Chandler and Marlowe; there is a vitality to the Warden's cynical voice that is reminscent of Marlowe's drawling best.  But the comparison quickly fails to do justice to Polansky's multi-dimensional masterpiece of character.

Threads from different pasts are woven around the present: the Warden's war - in the bitter trenches fighting the Dren; the Warden's peace as an ambitious policeman navigating a rise into the favour of the unnamed Old Man.  We learn more of what made our hero, what made his friendships, and wonder still at how and why his star fell.  It is not so much his descent from upholder of the law into crimelord that is the enigma.  After all, it is clear that - in the empire capital of Rigus - the difference between the policemen and the criminals is more a matter of clothing than character, of weaponry than motivation.  The puzzle is not what turned him to crime, but what triggered the cancerous self-hate at the core of his being - a hatred he is generous enough to share with a fare few of his fellow low-towners and former colleagues,

But it is that self-hate which makes his actions credible, when he displays a rare and grudging show of interest in another human's fate or future you see not the hardened crimelord but the man lying in the gutter glimpsing still the occasional star through Lowtown's smog of decay.

The three timelines of Tomorrow The Killing march in harmony towards the denoument, where threads cast years apart meet a logical and satisfying fruition.

  • There is the tale of The Warden and Adolphus's accidental wartime heroism, the kind of those too fortunate to be hit by the big bombs and too stupidly stubborn to know when to run away.  
  • There is the mysterious but sordid end of the one truly heroic aristocrat from the war, A general in the tradition of Custer who ultimately and fatally failed in his bid to rally Low Town as a political power and forge a future fit for heroes. 
  • There is the present of a sister trying to uncover her brother's story and of a dark political machinations at work to maintain the status quo, otherwise known as the iron rule of Warden's mentor and nemesis the equally nameless Old Man.   

And through it all,the Warden weaves a skein of vengeful chaos not seen since Mark Antony stood by Caesar's corpse and promised an apocalypse so violent that "mothers will but smile when they behold their infants quartered by the hand of war, all pity choked with custom of fell dead."

I will not spoil the plot beyond saying that it twists and turns as tightly as a Low Town alley, throwing up plenty of surprises but more than that, a ton of vivid imagery and richly sketched characters.

However, I must spare a word for the setting.   Polansky sets out a stall of rich cultures and vibrant flavours, a melange as varied as any medieval mediterranean city - or indeed many a modern one from New York to London.  Walking at the Warden's side I sometimes struggled to keep up with the mosaic of peoples and politics that he slipped effortlessly between and through.  But that is as it should be, we see the world through his eyes in an immersive experience that is all the more pleasurable for feeling real and mysterious, rather than laid out like a text book.

I am also fascinated by the history of Polansky's world.  In my own writing I have mined real world history more systematically than anyone so far seems to have realised, and I am always keen to spot real world inspiration on which a fantasy has been founded.  GRRMartin took his inspiration from the Yorks and the Lancasters to form the Starks and the Lannisters, and turned the humble Hadrian's wall into a mountainous slab of ice, both barriers setting a northern boundary to a belagured  civilisation.  Mark Lawrence took catastrophcally shifted sea levels to generate a fantasy map at once strange and familiar.

Polansky draws still on the Great War, though whether he sees Rigus and the Empire as representing the American or the British contribution to that conflict is unclear - perhaps because it is a mixture of both.  But there are trenches and there are idiot generals and there is youthful enthusiasm shattered in the indiscriminate slaughter of industrial conflict.  Instead of the lethal trump card of machine guns we have the power of magic practitioners, but the impact is much the same.   For those who know nothing of history, the links will not disturb their enjoyment of a well written story one whit, but for others like me, it adds new resonances and links to enrich the reading experience.

She who Waits (Spoiler free review)

The final installment of the trilogy advances us another three years.  Things are unravelling in Rigus, where the Warden attends to business while also guarding and nurturing his little family of old comrade in arms, his wife and Wren their collectively adopted stray. 

As with the other stories we slip between past and present.  The two time periods are most easily telegraphed by the presence or otherwise of old friends now departed or the absence of deep scars previously inflicted, for it is not Polansky's style - or perhaps not the Warden's - to put anything so prosaic as a date stamp at the start of a chapter.  His town, his story, his rules.  That said, the time switches are smooth and logical as ever, a thought at the end of one chapter sparking a reminiscence at the start of the next. 

The plot, the cliques and the cultures are as beautifully interwoven as ever, though the micro-politics of Lowtown power struggles and informers can be a little baffling at times.  However, even when I was trying to remember whether I was supposed to recognise a character or not, I was swept along by the beauty of Polansky's prose. 

Without giving too much away, the storyline in She Who Waits moves deeper into the world of the Black House.  This was about more than policing, more than secret policing, more even than international spying, the Black House we learn is the power behind the throne, the de facto ruler of the empire and a colossal target for the Warden's destructive hatred.

The Old Man slips further out of the shadows, another character not given the dignity of a name, and all the more special because of it.  There were parts of the book that reminded me of John Le Carre's tangled webs of espionage woven around the genial George Smiley.  The kind where not so much the left hand suspected the right, as the little finger suspected the ring finger.  The Old Man is as paranoid a leader as Le Carre's paradoxically named "Control",  he is a glowering presence like the fictional soviet spy master Karla.  Just as Le Carre brought his two great adversaries, Karla and Smiley together for a final denoument, so The Warden and The Old Man do have their moment to revisit old times, though the Warden is of a very different mettle to Smiley.

But just as Karla and Smiley had a nexus at a woman, Anne Smiley the unfaithful wife whom Smiley could never let go or forget, so too we must cherchez le femme to understand the life and death of the relationship between the Warden and the Old Man.  Her name is Albertine and she is to the Warden what Irene Adler was to Sherlock Holmes, always and forever the imponderable "that woman" with a power that reaches across the years to still haunt and distract him.  

There are again other intriguing parallels with real world history and peoples.  When I read of the Dren groaning under the weight of post war reparations, with some nationalist agitator and demagogue straining for power, I was reminded of Weimar Germany and the early days of Hitler.   When I read of old Queen Bess and her servant the Old Man, I saw another parallel, Queen Elizabeth the First and her spymaster Walsingham.  

There is a great deal to read in Polansky's books.  Although I am not much given to re-reading anything in a world that is plagued by a shortage of time chasing a surfeit of good books, Polansky is a writer for whom I may yet make an exception.

As the trilogy concluded I found myself wondering what I had learned of the cussed drug dealing crimelord in whose head I had travelled through three intoxicating books.  There was the bitter cynicism of the first book, then the thinly veiled self-loathing in the second.  In this third volume I find a man who had been swept along and swept aside by the most basic of human ambitions, and yet still - in the midst of a torrent of rapids - he clings to a small rock of humanity.  For all the dark cruelty and machinations that he is capable of, the Warden is above all else a man, painted unapologetically for us by his own hand, warts and all.   He makes no request of the reader for judgment, or mercy, or pity but he earns them nonetheless,

Monday, 1 December 2014

Unravelling Wyrdes (A spoiler free review of the "Fae - The Realm of Twilight" by Graham Austin-King)

One of the great joys in blogging is when you come across that rarest of things an ARC or Advance Reader Copy of a soon to be released book - or maybe it is just rare for me and the rest of you are all buried in the things.

So far my ARC count numbers just 3, Mark Lawrence's "Prince of Fools", Joe Abercrombie's  "Half the World" and now Graham Austin-King's "Fae - the Realm of Twilight."  The first two I won fair and square in competitions, but Graham has been the first author to gift me an ARC.  In honour of that distinction I shall launch myself with even greater alacrity to be one of the first to hit the interweb with a review.  (And, just for the avoidance of doubt and in case GRRM himself might be reading this - I would afford the same impetuous courtesy should a preview of "Winds of Winter" fall into my hands).

"Fae - The Realm of Twilight" is the second in Austin-King's Riven Wyrde saga (I believe it will be a trilogy)    It is a comfortable but pacy read which I devoured in a couple of days.

I tend, when thinking of a book, to try to place it and describe it by comparison with other works.  (I hope that helps others picture the book rather than appearing too much like those irritating movie moguls hearing a unique film pitch and dismissively summarising it as a one line pastiches of other films.)

For example in reading book one "Fae - The Wild Hunt" I found myself thinking of Michael J Sullivan and the intricate plotting and anti-archetype elves of the Ryria Revelations.

In this second book another couple of authors plucked a certain resonance for me.

Peter Brett's works - the Painted Man and the Desert Spear had a similar context of warring nations who do not seem to realise the need to co-operate against a far greater common foe.  Like Brett, Austin-King gives us two sides of this war within mankind and we are moved to sympathise with both sides, the battered coastal farmers and the fierce but desperate sea warriors who would take their land.

However, Austin-King also gives us a deep insight into a well developed world of the enemy - the Fae, and in this I was reminded of The Wise Man's fear, where Kvothe strays into the world of Felurian.     Austin-King's twilight world is equally strange and dangerous filled with creatures whose charm is as lethal as their cruelty. I must confess that the scientist within me at one point lead me into trying to work out the genetics of Fae pro-creation and to what extent Fae-ness might be a recessive gene.

As with the first book, Austin-King tells his story through a handful of key points of view.  In a sightly tangential opening we are swept far over the seas away from the scene of the cliffhanger climax at the end of Book One, to the city of Hesk the raiders' home, where all is not well and young Gavin picks up a desperate tale.

Then we follow others' stories, long enough in each ones' shoes to get comfortable and see each separate story line developed in satisfying depth.  There are battles described at every level from the bone crunching eye piercing horror of hand to hand combat, through the wider tactical matters of command and control and on to higher strategy and the pursuit of political ends, all described through the eyes of a variety of intriguing characters ranging across a spectrum from the old man Obair, to the sharp witted duchess Selena.

This is fantasy, a fantasy epic. And with that comes a demand for imagination from the author.  Austin-King delivers in the tantalising details of his magic and religious and world systems, eked out through character interaction.

This was a relatively quick but still eminently satisfying read that built on and amplified the tensions delivered n the first book.  My only question is how is Mr Austin-King going to save the world he has thrown into such deep and imaginative peril?