Wednesday, 30 December 2015

More boundless leaps of Imagination - Part 2 of my Spoiler free review of Unbound

So here is the second part of my review of the Unbound anthology published by Grimoak press.  I will post it also on goodreads though I should warn you that just putting unbound in the goodreads search box seems to lead to an entirely different genre!

The Diamond Queen - by Anthony Ryan

This is story that reaches skywards with its epic scope.  The opening battle of tens of thousands, is a bloody victory won that would make Nirnaeth Arnoediad look like a minor skirmish (allow me a little hyperbole here).   The warrior general Sharrow-met flies into combat astride her blackwing like a Nazgul Lord and none dare come between her and her prey.  But the spoils of victory prove elusive and Sharrow-met's past stubbornly intrudes on the present.  The Voice that is her master, commands, controls and rewards but Sharrow-met finds mysteries it cannot answer as she strives to complete her subjugation of the last city on the continent.

And when the dust has settled and silence has fallen, I am left feeling I have finished a novel, rather than a short story.

The Farmboy Prince - by Brian Staveley

There is a distinctive voice in this first person point of view tale, the unnamed narrator coarsely dismissive of both noble and ignoble visitors to his home town which aspires - at its best - to be a shit-hole.  The noble are reviled as they sit "holding one of Nick's filthy tankards as though he'd filled it up with some pox-victim's phlegm instead of ale, which, considering Nick's ale, was about right."  while the ignoble are warned "if you go for your sword in Two Streams, you'd better be ready to drop some motherfuckers"

In short, in this short story, the lives of the people in Two Streams - like the people themselves are short and ugly. Throw into the mix a traditional tale of hidden parentage, dodgy fake names, and a looming national crisis, and it becomes clear that something needs to be done.  What is less clear, is exactly what that something is, and who's going to do it but Staveley manages to raise a smile and surprise in the process.

Heart's Desire - by Kat Richardson

The style is hauntingly strange, like a letter to an absent lover.  The narrator sits entwined in the twisted ghosts of fairy stories of old, atop a tower tall enough to have held Rapunzel.  There is a wall of thorns such as entombed sleeping beauty.  There are helpful talking animals though their purpose and manner is a long way from the timely home helps that assisted Snow White.

Something is awry in this fairy tale world, a story too full of desperation and shadow to lift the reader's sense of foreboding, but the twist when it comes, still cuts to the heart.   

The Game - by Michael J. Sullivan

Those of us brought up on the SIMS and World of Warcraft will love the inventiveness of this tale.  My second daughter, not the most skilled SIMS player, used to get genuinely upset when - by some accident in playing the first version of SIMS - she managed to set her SIMS on fire and watched them reduced to a pile of ash and then an urn. My eldest, slightly more clinically observant, used to experiment with different ways of killing them off - for example putting them in a pool and then removing the ladder so they could not get out and would eventually die of exhaustion.

In the Game Sullivan plays with the idea of games and the characters that populate them as well as the people that play them.  It is cleverly done, so I cannot - in all spoiler-free safety - say much more than that Jeri Blainey, Project Lead for the Realms of Rah - MMPORG is about to have a very bad day.

The Ethical Heresy - by Sam Sykes

Dreadaeleon is an apprentice wizard with more to worry about than his mouthful of a name.  Even as they hunt down heretic mages, wielding ice, fire and lightning, Dreadaeleon - in the grip of adolescence - is obsessed with his cooler, taller, more gifted fellow apprentice Cresta.  In the midst of death and destruction and the disdain of their grim tutor Vemire, Dread vainly tries to draw some approval from his crush.   The prose captures his failures well as Dread tells himself Well done, old man.  She dressed you down like a six-copper prostitute, and you simply stood there and took it. 

But even apprentices can find danger in this well crafted piece, the backstory of politics and magic system injected seamlessly into the writing - like the fine marbelling of fat within the lean of a high quality steak that gives the whole its flavour.   Humour and pathos mix perfectly as Dread finds himself thinking

At that moment what he was going to do seemed to fall along the lines of "die horribly, possibly while crying"

Small Kindnesses - by Joe Abercromie

The story spins around three women and the men who underestimate them.  There is Shev the young but retired thief turned smoke house hostess, Carcolf the alluring blond siren from Shev's past still flinging temptation in her way, and there is the unconscious redhead.  Though - as facebook told me only this morning - "It takes a special kind of stupid to piss of a redhead and expect calm"

Shev is the central sympathetic character, given to small kindnesses, to protecting others from their own foolishness, from striving to escape the trap of being the best thief in Westport.  Maybe there was some stubborn stone in her, like the stone in a date, that refused to let all the shit that had been done to her make her into shit.

Shev, has her share of earthy passions but tries not to let these cloud her thinking too much. 
She tore her eyes away as her mind came knocking like an unwelcome visitor.  When you live in life's gutter, a certain caution has to be your watchword.

But in a grippingly related day that grows increasingly turbulent, our charming but diminutive heroine discovers that fate neither forgets, nor forgives a small kindness. 

The Rat - by Mazarkis Williams

A boy, Emil, awaits his great-grandpa coming to stay, hoping for an insight into the past.  In this well written tale a backstory of epic grandeur is distilled down to a child's eye view of a simple hut and four people sharing an evening warmed, inflamed even, by fires of history. The title at first seems misleading, the eponymous rodent and its feline huntress little more than shadows on the fringes of the lyrical prose. But by the end the story had put me in mind of the sad fate of the crew of USS Indianapolis, torpedoed in 1945 and left for days floating in shark infested waters, their numbers steadily and inevitably diminished until they were spotted and rescued by chance.  A horror like that would etch deep into an old man's memory and so it is with great-grandpa curmudgeonly and distrustful when awake, restless and fearful asleep.

And for Emil the excitement of the new, not just great grandpa but his road companion the musician "young enough to hold his shoulders straight, but he carried snow in his hair." quickly gives way to questions he dare not ask, answers he does not want.

The Siege of Tilpur - by Brian McClellan

I had heard of the powdermage series, but this was my first excursion into the world of magic and musketry that McClellan has created. It is a tale of warfare, of a desert siege, of prejudice, class and incompetence.  Sergeant Tamas and his squad, serving the aristocratic General Seske are in the classic mould of the infantry lions led by officer donkeys as they bid to take the fortress that has never fallen. It also has shades of the Sharpe novels of Bernard Cornwell, the period feel (if not the generalship) more suited to the Napoleonic era than the first world war.

It is visceral action, but with very human heroes.  For a moment I saw a hint of Blackadder goes Forth as Tamas explains his cunning plan to a disbelieving general clad in a silk dressing gown (perhaps one of General Melchett's cast offs?).  As with most cunning plans, things do not run exactly smoothly, but then that is what makes the story so entertaining.

Mr Island - by Kristen Britain

A charmingly atmospheric tale of what happens when a strange traveller is welcomed to a small east coast community, all told with a true 19th century period feel by a narrator known only as Mrs Grindle.  If Jane Austen and Jules Verne had been inspired by the story of Grace Darling to collaborate this might be the tale they came up with. Of propriety and love, science and shipwreck, mystery and loss.

As the layers of the story are peeled back, and truths are raised - in some cases from the sea bed - several themes enjoy a brief flash of illumination, as though from the sweep of a lighthouse beam.  Women's emancipation, commercial advantage, luddite impulses, all flare in this skilful depiction of small town life exposed to new influences. But Mr Island and the woman whose kindness captures his heart form the spine to the story and prove that - no matter how small the space in which you stand - there is no limit to the direction in which you can look. 

Jury Duty - by Jim Butcher

There have been many great courtroom dramas since Henry Fonda first swung a jury in "Twelve Angry Men" but when Harrry Dresden - Chicago's wizardly private investigator gets involved in an open and shut case the debate will be won with spells and claws more than words and points of law.

This fresh fast paced story was my first introduction to Harry Dresden and the cynical wit that permeates the writing as Harry first questions "What does justice have to do with the legal system?" and then observes of the judge "This was a woman who had seen a great deal, had been amused by very little of it, and who would not easily be made a fool."

Strings pulled beyond the courtroom threaten to make a mockery of justice, but for a hardboiled kind of guy, Harry has an unusually soft centre; when the lives or happiness of children are at stake... well let's just say you wouldn't want to be at the sharp end of any stake Dresden might be holding. 

The Dead's Revenant - by Shawn Speakman

A bit like Delilah Dawson's tale of Monsieur Charmant, Shawn Speakman gives us the point of view of a main story antagonist. For 9000 words we walk with Tathal Ennis as he prepares to bring death and disaster to a sleepy English village. He has a certain amoral charm, an indifference to right or wrong as he draws people in with the spell of his words, or the words of his spell.

There is young Tim Becket "tossing in his sleep, his nightmares darker than the purpling new bruises that mingled with old yellow and green, all delivered by a grandfather who abhorred weakness." Tathal offers him an escape of sorts, not caring whether he takes it or not.  There are old sisters and a not so young barmaid who all must yield and give Tathal what he wants lest he takes it anyway.

But Tathal does not dispense death and cruelty for its own sake. There is a darker purpose a deeper quest that he pursues, a destiny sown on a bloody battlefield of long ago. The names Camlann and Myrddin Emrys evoke links to a legend - to the legend - of dark age Britain.

A Goodreads target reached?!

So there we have it - an entertaining anthology by the great and the good.  This is the 24th book that I have read and reviewed this year, far short of my goodreads target of 42 ... but hold on, if I treat each of these excellent short stories as a book read and reviewed, then I add 23 rather than just one to my total, and sail past my target with room to spare.

Hmm ... somewhat like that moment when Legolas brings down the Oliphant and all who ride in it in "Return of the King" and Gimli insists that counts as "just one."

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

With an Unbound They Were Free - Part one of my spoiler free review Unbound

An assemblage of short stories liberated from the imaginations of great story tellers

Perhaps it is a product of the busy age we live in that short story anthologies have become more appealing to my taste than before.  Bite sized fiction for a world driven by sound-bites, and there are plenty of bites of different kinds in this riveting collection which Shawn Speakman has edited.

Some of the authors I already knew and had read, others are names glimpsed on social media.  Some of the stories have roots in the authors' main works though still read well as stand alone stories, others are tales told in isolation, their backstory fashioned at the convergence of each reader's and author's imaginations. The anthology is inevitably an eclectic mix, but still entertaining in its own right and a powerful taster of different authors' styles and approaches.

In some ways it is like those trios of deserts offered in the best restaurants these days, a mix of different but complementary taste sensations that leave you hungering for more.  Just as a festive season taster can lead to bigger things and a damaging expansion in the waisline, so too this anothology might cause an explosion in my already daunting TBR pile.

But - to the stories themselves - and there are so many and with such variety that it will take two blog posts to do them justice..  

Madwalls - by Rachel Caine.  

Beautifully written, the transition from the normal world of a teenager into some dark secret, an accident of birth landing her in the midst of an ancient covenant handed down from generation to generation on which the fate of the world rests, the world and one captive.  Surreal, hypnotic, like its central theme, the reader like the protagonist is drawn into a world that lingers in the mind, or is it the mind that lingers in the world?

Stories are Gods - by Peter Orullian. 

 A story that believes in the power of argument, or perhaps an argument that believes in the power of stories.  A hero who is physically weak, but mentally strong fuelled by a powerful love and a tragic schism to take to a debating floor in a world where academic philosopy has suddenly become dangerous.  Themes from a wider well-built world (The Vault of Heaven I infer) bleed into this story though, like its protagonist, the story stands well enough on its own two feet.

River and Echo - by John Marco.  

If you have seen Will Smith's "I am Legend" or the film "Silent Running" you may see the same similes that I did.  A lone survivor and his unusual companion, living ghosts in the detritus of a plague ridden city. There is a traditional fantasy feel to it - rather than sci-fi, a city with walls, lit and heated by fires, defended with arrows. Though with a slight steampunk feel.  The story is sustained by the wonderfully well-drawn poignant relationship between River and Echo.

A dichotomy of Paradigms - by Mary Robinette Kowal  

With this story the anthology lurches into a far future of interstellar piracy and technological innovation that enables artists to pursue their craft with the same vibrant immediacy of a war photographer.  Patrick the brush wielding protagonist reminded me of a pen scribbling character W.W.Beauchamp in the Clint Eastwood film "Unforgiven"  - the journalist hack turned biographer chasing after a gunslinger to document his life.  Only Patrick finds that painting the pirate queen poses more of a challenge to his conscience and his craft than he expected. 

Son of Crimea - by Jason M Hough

John Crimson is a policeman perched on the cusp of the age of science and reason - a time when method replaced madness, when passionate crime would yield to patient investigative technique. And into his world steps the disturbing Malena Penar, intoxicating and bewitching.  In a journey that spans half the world she challenges his faith in the rational, his dismissal of superstition but in the end I found it hard to tell who won!

An Unfortunate Influx of Filipians by Terry Brooks 

The story is a bridge into the magical world of Landover where lawyer turned King Ben Holiday finds himself presiding like a cross between Judge Judy and Solomon over a gnomish dispute.  Problems beget problems in a progeny of biblical proportions and in the end it is management, rather than leadership which must resolve the crises that competing incompetencies have created.

The Way into Oblivion by Harry Connolly. 

When the centre of an empire has suddenly fallen to an unknown power, that is not so much an opportunity as a threat to those previously subjugated peoples who might be tempted to flex the muscles of their newfound independence. Song, sister to the leader of the Holvos people, finds more dangers lurk beside a crocodile infested river than within it. When all choices are difficult and all options are unpalatable, she must decide what motherhood means to her. 

Uncharming by Delilah S Dawson  

The writing is delicious, a tasty heady morsel as the daimon Monsieur Charmant frequents the darkest corners of an alternate Paris and London in an obsession to utterly possess a poor desperate soul who had already sold him the best part of herself.  The story draws on a well built world of Dawson's other works but gives what I assume to be a smalller character his moment to preen his awful nature in technicolour limelight.    I liked this line especially Money had been important to him once. Now it was power and possession, the tang of owing that hit the air everytime a client gave more than they really had.

A Good Name by Mark Lawrence.  

This is another work where a supporting player from Prince of Thorns (and the short story Select Mode) has an opportunity to be fleshed out in more detail. Jorg had his band of brothers and "the Nuban" - never given an identifier beyond that - was one of my favourites. In this short story we find what brought him from the village of his birth to a place at Jorg's side in Ancrath.   It begins with pride, the pride in a name won through hardship, a name that should not bow when it was not merited.  But sometimes it is not enough to be right, and the consequences of pride cast long shadows.

All in a Night's Work by David Anthony.  

In an action packed adventure Ash - a prince's faithful bodyguard finds a night off is anything but quiet.  Deadly demons stalk the palace of an alternative Egypt and our young hero sets off in a pursuit of the assassin as single minded as it is foolish.   The only assistance to be had comes from a beetle with a broken antenna and as Ash realises partway through the chase " can't think of everything when you're dangling a hundred feet in the air, holding on to the scrawny legs of a faulty beetle."  The action is as relentless as the opening sequence of a James Bond movie, and the hero scarcely less resourceful than 007 himself.

Seven Tongues by Tim Marquitz  

A grim tale with a grim hero illuminated by some startling pose from the very first line onwards-  The clouds gnawed at the moon, devouring it in slow steady bites. Gryl is an unusual killer - a Prodigy - who escaped enslavement and sells his formidable powers, though still constrained by some sense of a just cause, of a distinction between the guilty and the innocent.  When such a man goes in pursuit of a slaver who has been trading in and abusing children the outcome is unlikely to be pretty. However, it is the jobs that seem easiest at first, that are likely to end most messily and by the end of this gripping piece Gryl has certainly painted the desert red.  

Fiber by Seanan McGuire.  

This was outrageously entertaining.  My eldest daughter has resolutely resisted the lure of the fantasy genre but also enjoys cheerleading as a base with the Cambridge Cougars, so a story that throws a carload of squabbling cheerleaders into a dark fantasy/horrow blend should be the kind that would fire her interest. It's a bit like the way "Dawn of the Dead" combined zombie apocalypse with fantasy shopping to become one of my wife's favourite films.  Speaking of which, this riveting short story also features a reformed zombie amongst its kick-ass, kick-head, kick everything leading females.  "...thus proving the old adage that you should never forget to wear a cup to a cheerleader fight.  No matter what kind of junk you're packing in your pants, a good boot to the groin is going to put you down if you don't have protection."

So there I am, 51% of the way through.  I'm off to enjoy the rest of the anthology and I would suggest that you do the same.    

Friday, 25 December 2015

Sometimes Numbers are not Enough - My spoiler free review of Chains of the Heretic

Jeff Salyards has conjured up a remarkable world in his debut series. I was delighted that my unsubtle badgering yielded an ARC of the final instalment of the "Bloodsounder's Arc" trilogy.  While this review will eschew spoilers for Chains of Heretic, the whole work is such an interlocked series that there will inevitably be spoilers to the preceding two volumes. So, if you have not yet met Braylar Killcoin and his band of cussed and cursing warriors then look away now.  Or still better, look here at my reviews of the preceding books.

I review Scourge of the Betrayer

I review Veil of the Deserters

However, those like me - who have lived and travelled in the head of Arkamondos scribe to Captain Killcoin's ferocious Syldoon company through two gripping books - you gentle reader may read on - though bewarned any gentleness in this book begins and ends with the reader.

At the end of Veil of the Deserters it had all pretty much gone to hell in a handcart, as Braylar's argumentative Lieutenant Muldoos would say.  Or at least as he would have said if his thinking and speech had not been slurred into incomprehensibility by a memoridon's attack.

Fighting their way out of their home city of Sunwrack, the coup masters of the Jackal tower had been out-coup-ed by the emperor they thought to overthrow and Braylar's already depleted company heads out on a desperate mission to find the previous emperor Thumman lurking in exile.  Arkamondos, never especially lucky where women were concerned, was reeling from being betrayed by a kiss. Such concerns of the heart (or - as Muldoos would consider it - somewhat lower than that) are swiftly shown to be of small consequence against far greater threats.

In war one must be able to outrun whatever one cannot outfight.   But Arki and the Syldoon find their foes are legion and disinclined to give them a simple and accessible choice of fight or flight.  It is hard to imagine a more friendless band than the one Braylar Killcoin led out of Sunwrack, and along a tortuous path they find not only more enemies, but a climate of distrust amongst even those friends who should hold each other most dear.

The previous books had set up an array of plot threads.
  • What is the mysterious Godsveil - that shimmering thousand year old curtain dividing the world in half with the power to drive any who approach it insane - who created it, and how and why?
  • Where does the flail Bloodsounder draw its power and what is its purpose, beyond its ability to steal the memories of those it slays and torture its wielder with them
  • What caused the deep-seated antipathy between siblings Braylar the warrior and Sofjian the memoridon, a mutual distaste which makes Liam and Noel Gallagher look like the Osmonds.
  • How can the crisis at the heart of the Syldoon Empire be resolved now that the Emperor Cynead  has destroyed the delicate balance of power between the Towers and the throne.
These questions carry an implicit demand for Salyards to weave them into a satisfying conclusion as Braylar wends a twisted and arduous path through political and military perils,

But they are not small questions and answering them requires new people in fresh environments as the circle of Arki's vision and Salyards' world expands still more widely. Salyards also shows again his vivid creativity, with whole new settings that stretch the envelope of his innovation. There is an originality to his world building, to the creatures he populates it with and to the system of magic that he uses, which - for me at least - defies any comparison.

After all the casualties of the first two books the brief stopover in Sunwrack gave Braylar a chance to replenish his company and we get to meet Rugdi a female sergeant and an ogrish lieutenant more belligerent even than Muldoos. But for all these intriguing characters, it is the sparring between Soffjian and Braylar that still drew my attention most.  The warring siblings who seemed to hate each other almost as much as I - as reader - loved them both.  Brother and sister circle each other, tongues as sharp as swords, conveying a bitter and weary disappointment which still does not mask the respect they hold for each other's powers.  Soffjian's journey is more tortuous than her brother's, her perils more grievous her desires more complex. Braylar takes his greatest chances on the battlefield driven by an unswerving loyalty to the orders of his Tower Commander and to the welfare of his soldiers.

The great strength of Salyards' writing continues to be his description of battles all seen from the near ground level of the cowering Arki.  To be fair the scribe makes efforts to extend his contribution beyond penmanship to some semblance of swordcraft and even gets tuition from an unanticipated quarter.  There may have been an element of luck in the survival of so useless an unarmoured civilian through the hard fought battles of the first two books. But it is dangerous to taunt fate for so long and Arki - the progressively more embedded war correspondent - dons gambeson and helmet as well as strapping on a blade.

Over the course of the trilogy it is Arki's arc that shows the clearest development.  At the start we had the awkward, bookish civilian in company with soldiers so coarse their funniest story concerned the death of a colleague beneath the mountainous prostitute whose suffocating favours were his particular predilection.  By the last few pages Arki has grown into a far more worldly and resourceful individual prepared to take up arms and brave any danger alongside the soldiers whose grudging respect he has earned.  Still nervous and squeamish - he nonetheless has learnt that mercy has consequences and does not flinch when it is his turn to stick the knife in. I am reminded, as Arki is, of how miserable and barren his life had really been before he fell in with Braylar. Life without companionship is more a matter of existence than living and there is no companionship quite like that of soldiers facing the most desperate of circumstances, knit together into a corporate being by discipline, training and such loyalty that they will lay down their lives for their comrades.

Salyards paints a vivid picture of the crude coarse camaraderie of fighting men, of a military spirit buckled to the point of breaking by the sledgehammer blows of adversity, and of an unlikely hero who finds his place, indeed his family, in the middle of a battlefield where far more than the Syldoon Empire is at stake.    It was with a certain serendipity that my favourite iPhone playlist (The one titled "Sad shit that I like") tripped round to play Dire Strait's "Brothers in Arms" just as I reached a crucial rain filled point in the perils that beset Braylar, Arki et al.  

The trilogy is called Bloodsounder's arc and it is only as I write this that I see the meaning of that title.  For it is not just the flail that carries the name Bloodsounder!  The story may be told by Arki, but this is the story of Braylar Killcoin, one time son, brother, nephew, but above all else he is Syldoon.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Fraternal Fragments - my review of Road Brothers by Mark Lawrence

My goodreads target of 42 books to be read (and reviewed) in 2015 continues to mock me, supremely confident in its inevitable victory as - even now - I just crawl over the halfway line. However, I am determined to go down fighting and Mark Lawrence's latest publication - an anthology of short stories about Jorg and his brothers - is an easily digested morsel which nonetheless packs quite a punch.

Jorg bestrode the Broken Empire trilogy dominating his stage as completely and charmingly as Shakespeare's Richard III.  With a central character of captivating brilliance, I found that the brothers sometimes struggled to illuminate and define themselves. It is like the search for planets orbiting distant stars (exo-planet) where the planet's characteristics must either inferred from the effect they have on the central star, or can be observed directly only when the central star is obscurred.

Photo by Gemini Observatory - an exo planet (Brother Makin perhaps) outshone by a central star (Jorg of course)

This collection of short stories offers plenty of opportunity for individual brothers to showcase the subtle nuances of their own pasts, free from Jorg's dazzling light.  We see Makin (twice), Red Kent, Brother Sim, the Nuban and of course Rike operating alone, driven (mostly) by their own motivations.  It is interesting to see, in Makin and Kent's stories particularly, how slim is the line between the bandits and those that they prey on.  Jorg's rampaging band of brothers, after all, was not a single abherration in the midst of a perfect civilisation (it's not called the broken Empire for nothing).  They were one band amongst many in an era reminiscent of the 12th century turbulence of King Stephen and the Empress Matilda - a time when it was said that God and his Saints slept.

There are also two stories specifically about Jorg - "Select Mode" and "Sleeping Beauty" - which I have a particular fondness for having read both when they were previously published.  As a result of one of Mark's many competitions, I got to do a sound recording of  Select Mode while the author Richard Ford did  a recording of Sleeping Beauty. I liked the economy of Select Mode - an insight into a young man still near the start of his road career.  Sleeping Beauty, a longer piece, has all of Mark's inventiveness, more of Jorg's cussed refusal to lose, and an entertaining take on some familiar fairy tales.

You can listen to both audio recordings here.

Select Mode - read by T.O.Munro

Sleeping Beauty - read by Richard Ford

Right up until the end of this collection of short stories, I was unsure which would be my favourite.  I had always liked Sir Makin and the Nuban so their tales - filling in back stories in a way which made sense of their behaviours in the main trilogy - had a head start insecuring my affections.

But then I read the last story that of Father Gomst, and here perhaps I return to my initial observation for - intriguing as Father Gomst is - this is a story of the Ancraths - dazzlingly dark as they outshine all others.  Gomst appears in their lives with all the hope but none of the power of a Mary Poppins figure put in charge of a murderously rebellious nursery of two young brothers. In this story we see Olidan - instinctively cruel. We see Jorg aged six and you may, like me, be reminded of the Jesuit saying, "Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man."  We also see William aged four and see how even the very young can manipulate and control adults, snaring them in a mesh of their own threats and promises.  It is this story too, where lines of Lawrence's prose most readily leapt out of the page at me.

"Clergy, no matter their station, do not bow to crowns, but Gomst felt the pressure on his shoulders even so."

"Gomst had told bigger lies for worse reasons.  One could hardly rise in Roma's church these days without a crooked tongue."

"Lies are soft and accomodating.  The truth is hard, full of uncomforatble angles. It rarely helps anyone."

In this venture Mark Lawrence joins the ranks of the self-published authors - or at least hybrid authors - ably assisted by Pen Astridge's wonderfully professional cover.

Within all the stories and their footnotes, there are massive spoilers for the Broken Empire trilogy, fateful forecasts and promises - enough to make those of us who have read to the end of Emperor of Thorns, smile at a circle completed, while others new to Jorg would find the trilogy denuded of some of its biggest twists.

But then, although these stories mostly precede the trilogy's bifurcated chronologies,  they were not intended as an introduction to Jorg's tale, so much as an opportunity for those of us who loved it to revist some old acquaintances an ambition it fulfils splendidly.

I might also mention at this point that I too have found some inspiration in Jorg's tale, having twice used him as the subject of entries in fan-fiction themed short story competitions at Fantasy Faction, so for those still hungering for Jorg related short stories, my own offerings are here.

The Road to Arrrow (Feb 2014 Fanfic entry)

Kittens, always the kittens (Feb 2015 Fanfic entry)



Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A Dark Light shines - My Spoiler Free Review of Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu

Well... what can I say.  I started this book (a Novella it is true) last night and finished it 21 hours later in two sittings separated by the necessity of 5 hours sleep and the irritation of an 11 hour working day - a day incidentally when my thoughts strayed several times to Montessa Tovar and Lu and what must still lie ahead of them.

The book naturally falls into two parts - two acts in an electrifying drama, well suited to my bifurcated reading schedule. It is difficult to write about either half without littering this review with spoilers, but then a book is far more than its plot.  Characters drive a story's beating heart and quality writing is the lifeblood that courses through its veins.  It is this which transforms the bare bones of a story, the nuts and bolts of plot and scene, into a haunting reading experience to send ripples of shivers down your spine. 

Mercedes M Yardley has deftly drawn a mesmerising pair of deeply damaged people in Montessa and Lulu.  Montessa is a young woman doing exotic dances in a seedy bar so that an ungrateful boyfriend can be kept supplied with the means to abuse her.

Lu?  Well Lu is a truck driver.  To be honest it took a little while for me to work that out - the "semi" being an idiom that does not cross the Atlantic well.  I mean I could tell it was a vehicle but in the UK a semi is a house, a semi-detached house -  one of conjoined pair that populate housing estates and suburban streets across the land. 

In essence Lu and Montessa meet and what follows is a road trip of sorts - but Thelma and Louise it most definitely isn't.

Yardley writes dark stories, stories that delve into bleak corners of human existence. Like the spot beams of those deepwater submersibles probing ancient wrecks, her writing shines unaccustomed light on dark creatures slumbering within the human psyche. It can make for an uncomfortably convincing read - desperate people, desperate circumstances rendered with such vivid credibility.  And even in horror something beautiful can flower - like the poppies in the Flanders fields.

Yardley's stories always challenge the reader, flirting with violence but never indulging in it. For Yardley it is always about what the mind thinks more than what the body feels - it is about the experience of being human while perched on the brink between life and death. And that evocative theme is always well served by Yardley's elegant economical prose while the reassuringly surreal touches that augment her characters remind us it is only a story.

I dare not say more, it is too short a book to risk spoiling with the merest hint of what might happen.  I will just quote one short early passage which struck me with the powerfully simple insight into  Montessa's working life as she packs up at 3.a.m.

"She put her six inch stilettos in her purse, along with her dancing costume. It didn't take much room."  

When I read Yardley's work I am put in mind of the opening verse of Don Maclean's soft lyrical tribute to Van Gogh

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Though maybe it is the darkness in everyone's soul which she captures in those quick short sentences as she paints a page in red and black.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Walk on the Dark Side - my spoiler-free review of "Without Light or Guide" by Theresa Frohock

I treasure ARCs. Those advance review copies which can be procured by attracting attention through virtuously diligent blogging, or perhaps just by whining in the right ear like a plaintive five year old with sufficient tenacity to crumble all resistance. I leave you to guess which approach has secured me two ARCs in as many weeks. 

Without Light or Guide is part two of Teresa Frohock's new series "Los Nefilim" where angels and daimons do battle in the mortal realm against the backdrop of the looming Spanish civil war and with the greater horror of the Second World War casting an even darker shadow over the plot.

These are short books, purposely so.  Ms Frohock describes them as novellas and at 128 pages each, so far, they are easily digested reads.  The impression is not so much of a sequence of books rather than a series of episodes.  The parallel that sprang into my mind was "The Sopranos" though I must confess to never having seen an episode. Los Nefilim are most definitely a "family" of secrecy, power and influence - though in a more virtuous service than the Tony Soprano - and each story is a self- contained bead on a longer and as yet indeterminate story thread.

In this second outing we get more insight into the workings of Los Nefilim and the minor factions and inner strife that besets any organisation of more than two people.  Diago is set loose on his first mission for Los Nefilim, some three weeks after the events described in "In Midnight's Silence" when he is still not fully recovered from his injuries. In particular he is afflicted by chromesthesia, a disorientating dizzying condition where sounds appear as colours.  The detail appealed to the physicist in me having used pitch and colour as similes for each other through years of high school teaching.

Miquel and Rafael are the ones keeping the home fires burning in this episode, forging a tight knit family unit, while Diago struggles to prove his value and his loyalty in his new sworn allegiance. But there are those amongst his new friends who do not trust him and, to be honest, I am not sure how far he should trust them. 

Lurking outside Los Nefilim are the panoply of angels, not a homogenous host in the service of a single purpose, but a group that seems to be tottering on the brink of a schism such as has split many faiths and churches over the years.   And daimons and angels alike have an interest in the unique unmatched duality that is Diago, born of daimon and angel. To some he is an opportunity for power, to others an aberration beyond trust or comprehension. It is these twin perspectives on Frohock's intriguing hero which drive the story forward.

As with In Midnight's Silence, this is a lean spare story which indulges in little overt world building or exposition.  What we learn of the world we learn through the character's words and actions and these hint at a deeper plot, a darker but important conspiracy which ebbs and flows beneath the present urgent crises. I am sure there are things of great importance which I have been told as a reader and yet whose long term significance I have missed - but then I am sure it has escaped the central characters as well.

In this episode we see more of Guillermo leader of the Nefilim and others of his kind like Inspector Garcia Los Nefilim's grumpy plant within the local police force and Suero Guillermo's trusted driver. We begin to see how the Nefilim operate and interact with the world walking alongside mortals, sometimes spying on them, sometimes steering them yet all the while as invisible as the Rowling's wizards are to the muggles of Harry Potter's world.   One might wonder at why Spain is such a nexus for these powerful agents. When angels from other countries put in an appearance I found myself asking if there were Nefilim in those countries too and did they owe the same allegiance to Guillermo that Diago did.

In "Without Light or Guide" Frohock continues to carve out a unique path for herself through the hinterland of horror with an digression towards fantasy.  There are angels, daimons and vampires, there is magic of a different type woven with music, notes turned into weapons (I can only weakly guess that they are sharps rather than flats, though my ear is too dull to tell the difference).  I am not as widely read as I would like - though one might ask (with  a glace at most people's tottering TBR piles) who amongst us is. However, within my limited experience I struggle to find a comparator, a benchmark to set Frohock's work against and say - "It is like this but with a bit of that." 

And that has to be a good thing, we need works that defy categorisation for how else would we define new categories.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

I Don't Write Steampunk, but SS Great Britain Might Just Inspire me to start

 After Bristolcon back in September, I had the chance to visit SS Great Britain, a magnificent piece of maritime heritage housed in the dry dock that built it over 150 years ago.  I hadn't realised that the ship had come back home from its resting place in the Falklands as long ago as 1970 and I cannot imagine how much work was involved in restoring the battered hulk to the glory of its heyday but I have to say it was worth every loving hour and penny exerted on it. 

 I will confess to a certain damp eyed moment as I looked at the pictures of the battered hull being brought up the River Avon to the dock that birthed it.  

In the gift shop I toyed with buying a book of all the preserved old ships around the world, and was pleased to find how many of them I had visited myself - having something of a fondness for tangible maritime history.

I have seen
HMS Gannet,
HMS Ocelot,
HMS Cavalier,
HMS Victory
HMS Warrior
HMS Belfast
The Cutty Sark,
The Mary Rose (well half of it)
The Medway Queen
The Kingswear Castle
as well as a working facsimile of HMS Endeavour.

Wonderful and intriguing as all those great ships were, I have to say that none of them quite come up to the total quality of exhibit that is SS Great Britain.

This was the Titanic of its day, pushing the boundaries of technology with an iron hull that lasted so well parts of it could be used to patch up a battered second world war cruiser nearly a hundred years after they were first forged. 

With the quality of restoration and the variety of exhibits in the accompanying museum it was like journeying back in time and Ash, my reluctant companion on a trip to see "another bloody boat" was quite won over by the experience even if she struggled somewhat to tell one end of the ship from the other and stood staring majestically over the stern in the mistaken belief that the steering wheel must be at the front.

The history of the ship's voyages, brought to life through an audio commentary and brilliantly evocative settings,  made me itch to write a story.  Forget all those authors obsessed with Victorian airships.  Take a stroll down the companionways of SS Great Britain and like me you may find your head filled with inspiration for a steampunk fantasy ocean voyage. 

If ever there was a ship ready to carry a disparate collection of desperate passengers and crew into adventure, then this was it. Murder, mayhem and monsters could stalk its elegant decks, who knows maybe some mad scientist's man-eating machine could be lurking in the hold.  It is a setting so powerfully complete that the whole idea of a steampunk novel has not just leapt onto my "to-be-written" list, but is leapfrogging several other stories along the way towards the top.

For those visitors of a bold (and vertigo-free) disposition there was even the opportunity to climb into the rigging (after appropriate safety training) and walk out on the yard arms like the sailors of old used to.

The interiors were gorgeously restored and my only regret is that I have so few photos to share, partly from pressure of time (we had an airplane to catch) and partly from a desire to savour the moment rather than record it, to soak up the atmosphere.  The steerage cabins up forward, the great galley kitchen, the bath and the "heads" complete with torn sheets of paper for the necessities. It is a marvellous experience and I guess that leaves just more for you to discover if you choose to visit yourselves.  I don't suppose every visitor has to be inspired to contemplate a steampunk novel by the experience, but I would be surprised if I was the only one.  

It's Complicated - a spoiler-free review of "Half a War" by Joe Abercrombie.

Joe Abercrombie draws his first foray into Young Adult genre fiction to a conclusion with another performance so pacy it smacks of blitzkrieg, or at least half a blitzkrieg,

As with the second book of the trilogy there is a shift of view point.  In Half the World Yarvi faded from being the point of view reluctant heir and story teller that we followed in Half a King to being an eminence grise, the puppet master pulling the strings to forge Thorn Bakhu and Brand into key pieces for his game of diplomacy. In the same way, Thorn and Brand step out of the limelight in Half a War to let a new trio of heroes lay claim to the stage.  (Is it only me who sees an arithmetic progression in the one hero for book one, two for book two and three for book three?)

In Half a War Abercrombie gives us Skara, princess and grand-daughter of a king, yet thrown on hard times and forced to argue her case with all the political and military might that Luxembourg might exert in a dispute between France and Germany.  Still, as the title of the first part of the book attests, "words are weapons" and Skara wields them with a skill that belies her years (after all this is a young adult novel)

Then there is Raith, fierce warrior or unrepentant murderer depending on which end of his sword you are looking from. A man raised to dizzy heights at the right hand of the hard to please, impossible to satisfy, Grom-gil-Gorm. 

And finally there is Koll - who we saw scampering up masts to his mother's dismay in Half the World and who is now Father Yarvi's heir apparent, committed to the ministry by duty and tempted from it by love.

With these three we can follow the complex political and military machinations of a national struggle for survival.  It is a tale well told and, in Skara we have a heroine who is no ass kicker as Thorn Bhaku was in Half the World. Perhaps that makes her more relatable? certainly it makes her different and different is always interesting.

And against them Abercrombie sets a new nemesis - Bright Yilling - captain of the High King's armies carving his way around the coast with skilful cruelty and a caustic wit.

The story swirls ferociously like a whirlpool on the Shattered Sea, toying with the reader through juxtapositions of success and failure, of threat and security, of love and despair. As the plot not so much unfolds as rollercoasters, I was left wondering at the rationale behind Abercrombie's bid for the YA readership.

Was he seeking to colonise a new genre? to invade it? or perhaps, more in keeping with the warlike Gettlanders and Vansterlanders, this was a raid into enemy territory to drag a new clutch of readers kicking and screaming back into the bowels of Grimdark fiction proper (if such a thing exists).  Certainly as the story progresses, happy endings and fine romances drift ever further from reach like a will-o-the-wisp.

This is after all a war and, not withstanding the book's title it is a total war where the stakes are raised so high no-one can afford either to leave the game or to lose it.  Battle lust and mendacious diplomacy compete to commit crimes of the most villainy and nobody's hand is entirely unstained by sin, save perhaps the fragile form of Skara and the worthy mountain that is Brand.

The love interests (for they are multiple) are complex like the politico-military backdrop.  Happy endings are for fairy tales and this is no fairy tale, even the elves -we discover - are not what we thought they were.  And when dust and lust has settled and a calm descends once more upon the shattered sea, we are left wondering how much has really changed, how much is ever changed through war? It is a grim business after all. 

Individuals do not win a war, they survive it, and not everyone can survive.  And that is where the YA readership splutter their last protests as Abercrombie drags them in triumph across the border of Grimdarkland.


Friday, 11 September 2015

Grimm Mistresses - a review of a collection of 5 dark tales edited by Stacey Turner

I'll be honest, I seized this book as a new formed Mercedes M Yardley addict.  A second read of "Pretty Little Dead Girls" left me so hungry for more I'd probably pay to read Ms Yardley's shopping lists. A quick trawl through the amazon pages threw up this anthology as the best (indeed in the midst of a publishing hiatus the only) source of my next fix. To see a novella length short story lurking in this admirable anthology of fairy tales would have been enough to lure me in to the purchase, even if every other short story in it had been Fifty Shades of Grey fan-fiction. In fact the other four stories were of an extremely high and enthralling quality so that the whole volume comfortably fitted into a working week of rather dark bedtime reading.

The premise of Grimm Mistresses is to have five female authors put an unconventional spin on some much loved Grimm's fairy tales.  The result is a handful of very diverse stories that are most certainly not for children (unless perhaps the child in question was Wednesday Addams). 

With some the original Grimm inspiration is more obvious than others - though it is possible that some picked a more obscure tale than others.  For example, The Leopard's Pelt - fascinating and well written as it was - triggered no tremor of Grimm resonance in my admittedly under-read mind - unless that is, the Swiss Family Robinson were a Grimm tale.  With all that, the stories still twist in quite convention defying ways. 


Little Dead Red by Mercedes M Yardley

But let us start with the story that brought me to this book.  "Little Dead Red" by Mercedes M. Yardley.  Ms Yardley said of the story "I think that's the darkest thing I've ever written. It was tough to write..."  This is a woman who routinely writes of serial killers, of death and mayhem all in a light lyrical prose that teeters on a tightrope above the abyss of hell.  A woman who coined a term not so much convention defying as convention defining in the phrase "whimsical horror." So if this is the darkest thing she has ever written then know it will send shivers so deep your bones will tremble for days.

That is not to say this is horrific, there is no gratuitous gore, only a glimpse of real credible people, broken people who a cruel fate has not yet finished with.  Marie is a guilt laden parent in a harrowing search for redemption at any price.  The writing is perfect.  Economical lines that build vibrant pictures in the reader's mind, images that remain long after the story is finished - burned into the retina of the imagination.  "...the flash of red Converse looking like fire flowing up the steps."

There was a film my wife and I watched once and she swore she could never watch it again.  The film was Wolfcreek, set in the Australian outback and based on true events. It centred on a very bad man and the three foolish young backpackers who fell into his power.  It was brilliantly convincing, the bad guy's contempt for humanity horrifically credible.  It was just too good at doing what it did to bear a second viewing.

Little Dead Red evoked for me that same intensity of emotion in a story that haunts me as few others have, though I will tease and torture myself by picking at a few lines here and there and maybe, one day, I will be brave enough to read it all again. 

Nectar by Allison M. Dickson

Henry goes on an unwise double date with his co-worker Greg. The fairy tale reference begins with the choice of names and becomes more overt as the date descends into and beyond a strangely depraved disaster.

The writing conjures up the jaded faded echo of a man that is Henry.  His bleak black outlook on life bleeding out with every cynical thought we share.  "I can tolerate a friendly dinner and head home, where Netflix, the only partner yet to disappoint me, awaits." This is a man who contemplated putting a bullet in his head but in searching the internet for the best shot to take instead "became distracted enough by irrelevant YouTube videos that the idea of suicide lost most of its allure."

However, when his unusual date draws him into a bizarre kind of honey trap, he finds a desire to carve out a new life for himself, before somebody does it for him ... or to him.  


The Leopard's Pelt - S.R.Cambridge

This has the feel of a fairy tale, a promise extracted under duress which condemns a stranded sailor to an impossible quest.  Henry Lowry, with his ship sunk beneath him by the Japanese, washes up on a deserted island haunted by something so dark that even the trees would have fled if they could but move.

Not since Tom Hanks was Cast Away with just a painted volleyball for a co-star has a story needed such a compelling central character to sustain it, and Cambridge delivers in the person of Henry Lowry. The shipwrecked sailor is vividly portrayed in the opening segment of this compact three part story.  His childhood poverty; his love of stories heard through the charity of a kindly librarian; an unspent coin; the sadness of his last liaison before he went to war - a woman who never intended to wait for him.  A man unlucky in all ways who deserves a better chance and a better mistress than the one fate gifts him.


Hazing Cinderella - C.W.LaSart

We are used to the wicked step mom with her dreadful daughters who persecute and enslave the poor little Cinderella.  But what if Cinderella were the step-mom's daughter or indeed something older and more primal than a mere daughter.  Neil Gaiman's "Ocean at the End of the Lane" had a charming trio of women possessed of strange powers, in communion with other worlds and in someway ageless.  They too were woman whom you crossed at your peril, but Step-mom Diane and her daughter Katie are definitely two women you would not want to fuck with.

LaSart treads the line between sex and violence with the steady footedness of many a teen horror flick.  The author darts to one side and then the other as a night heady with lust and vengeance goes decidedly tits up.

The Night Air - Stacey Turner

The anthology ends with another story about parenting.  Marla the graphic designer and husband Nick are moving out of Chicago together with their three children. 

The town of Hubble seems at first like a kind of Amish Stepford - an abhorrence of technology and an adherence to secret ways by its leading citizens foster suspicion in the reader, if not in the lead character.  But then, as readers of such fiction, we are more conditioned to doubt, to seeing malignance in the benign, than the characters we read about.

Like a good horror story, the little pebbles of disaster are dislodged piece by piece until there is enough to trigger an avalanche and in the end, for all that she left the Windy City behind her, it is the wind which haunts Marla with its soft whispering breath.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

A second look at Bryony Adams - "Pretty little dead Girls" by Mercedes M Yardley

I am not a great re-reader of books.  There are too many books and too little time.  Even those great books which have moved me to tears, The Time Traveller's Wife, the Book Thief, The Lovely Bones, Before I Die, The Girl with all the Gifts got just the one chance for my entire and complete attention. But this week I have re-read and re-lived the short bright story of Bryony Adams in its totality

The late great Sir Christopher Lee may have re-read Lord of the Rings cover to cover once a year every year, and I might even claim the same book as my all time favourite, but I have never re-read it as he did.

That is not to say that, once read, I ignore these literary gems.  It is more a matter of dipping in and out, of picking up those moments that piqued me so much that I replay them over and over.  (Like Henry the eponymously referenced time traveller in Audrey Niffenberger's great book finding his curse/gift drags him back to frequently revisit key nodal points in his life.) From Lord of the Rings who can forget the lines that captured the moment

"Begone foul dwimmerlaik, Lord of Carrion, leave the dead in peace"


"I am an emissary and may not be assailed"
"Where such laws hold it is customary for ambassadors to use less insolence."

Or even

"I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil."

But at the same time I have never revisited the mysterious enigma that was Tom Bombadil and the digression of the hobbits' time with him.

To that extent I have treated the books I loved like the sporting events I most admired, be it a great test cricket match, or a brilliant game of football.  I will re-watch and savour the highlights, the goals, the wickets and the near misses but I do not replay the entire game.

There are of course those childhood books, the bedtime favourites which are endlessly read and re-read - "Amy Said"  "Each Peach, Pear, Plum"  "We're going in a Bear hunt"  Books  so ingrained in my mind by repetition that I barely need the book to re-read them.  There are also a very few short stories, consumed at a gallop which bear a line by line word by word rediscovery - most notably Mark Lawrence's "During the Dance."

But until I met Bryony Adams, the delightful heroine of Mercedes M Yardley's "All the Pretty Dead Girls" I am sure that I have never re-read anything of more than a few thousand words cover to cover.

And such an exceptional circumstance merits an appropriate response.  A second read, deserves a second review. Not just to consider what drew me back again following Bryony on the life long journey towards her tragic fate, but also what new discoveries I made.

My original review is here  My later thoughts as follows

While I do not re-read books much, I do listen to certain songs over and over again.  There is something about music, and especially familiar music, which envelopes me, shrouding out the rest of the world in a mix of sound and poetry and symbolism. And there is a similar part musical, part poetic quality to the whimsical writing of Pretty little dead Girls.

The writing is unashamedly surreal.  There is fate personified as a hissing malevolent desert. There is a sadistic killer who is a scrupulously polite indeed good young man in all things except in the matter of murdering people, and even then he views the perceived evil in his actions as a matter of personal perspective rather than moral absolutes.  There is the impossibility of everyone's knowledge that Bryony is destined to be a murderer's victim and the struggles they experience in coming to terms with that.

The great sad songs are not just beautiful sounds, but have words which touch on deep themes of love, of loss even of death and it is that blend which turns beautiful into great, which makes the harmonious also moving.  It is that which makes us listen not just inspite of, but because of knowing the ending. In the same way Pretty little dead Girls resonates, for me at least, because it holds up a surreal mirror which does not distort so much as highlight what it is to be human.

There is throughout the book that fragility of human existence which we forget at our peril, along with the evil inhumanity which lurks within humanity.  A picture taken this week of poor Alyan Kurdi on a beach is another poignant reminder of these simple truths.  It is perhaps when we are in the shadow of death that we value and appreciate life most of all, maybe even it is only then that we are at our most alive.

Bryony Adams lives her entire life in the shadow of a horrific death and it is that which makes her possibly the most alive heroine I have ever read. It also makes her a potential Mary-Sue (or as I once thought it Pollyanna), a character of such unblemished virtue, such saintly forbearance, that she might be considered an irritation to read about - just too good.  But it is not flawed virtue which makes a character interesting, it is the compassion they engender in the reader, which Bryony draws out aplenty. And in any case Bryony is flawed - a flaw that clouds her relationships and constrains her lifestyle.

Bryony is of particular interest to me, as a writer, because my current work in progress features a virtuous and kind heroine who, to some might seem a Mary-Sue/Pollyanna cross.  It is at once reassuring and humbling to see Mercedes M Yardley manage so deftly a heroine with so many perfections.  But then, like Bryony my Persapha too is flawed.
  • Bryony's flaw is that destiny that stalks her - she is fated to become a serial killer's victim.
  • Persapha too is stalked by unkind destiny - she is fated to become a serial killer.
In the re-read there were parts that I remembered and others that had not registered so deeply.

I had entirely missed the significance of Jeremy in my rapid first read, or at least forgotten it in the intervening months.

I discovered and smiled at the line "They stopped by the first Starbucks..."  I mean how many Starbucks does any one market need to have, and I thought of a Simpsons shot of Bart walking along a shopping arcade where every shop closed and re-opened as a starbucks as he passed it.

Even the cover offers itself for rediscovery, the innocent white capitalised text of the first and last words PRETTY GIRLS bracketing the horrifically coupled adjectives "little dead" in subtler lower case red which lie between them. A motif repeated in the author's name, with the middle initial M in red, should we read M for Murder?

And then in the later pages, when the omniscient narrator speaks directly to the reader, I picked up the reference to jonquils and googled them as instructed.

So here, we leave for the time the addictive story of Bryony Adams with an image of her favourite flowers.  This is the book, of all that I have read, which is most like a song and I have need of books like that, maybe we all do at times.  It is, as far as I can recall, the first book I have entirely re-read; it is possible it may also be the second, the third and the fourth.

Source Wikipedia


Sunday, 23 August 2015

Mighty Men of Old - My Spoiler free review of "In Midnight's Silence" by Teresa Frohock

Back in January of this year Goodreads tempted me to set a target for books read this year. In the spirit of continuous incremental "improvement" which has dominated my working life in education in the UK, and in homage to Hitch Hiker's Guide to the galaxy, I promised myself I would read 42 books in 2015, one more than the 41 I clocked up in 2014.

It is now late August in a year dominated by exceptional work and life pressures, we are nearly two thirds of the way through the year and I am barely one third of the way to my target with 15 books read.  Other targets are also creaking under the strain. 
  • Get the extension built by Christmas (fingers crossed - but it's up to the builder now).
  • Get book one of my two part extended epilogue to the Bloodline trilogy out this year (more finger crossing as both book and work are hitting a fever pitch of activity at the same time). 
  • Write a review of  every book I read (as an author myself I would rather miss the 42 than miss this one!)

So, in the midst of these pressures "In Midnight's Silence" - the third work of Teresa Frohock's which I have read - is most welcome.  As a very readable and self-professed novella, it is a book precisely aligned with my target driven needs.  (Next up maybe "The Slow Regard of Silent Things" and after that I'll start re-reading and reviewing the children's books I used to read to my daughters.  No kidding, "Amy Said" is a classic work of fiction - while venturing an opinion on the Mr Men books might significantly lower the average star count of the ratings I have given.)

But, let us hasten to the world of Diago and Miguel lurking on the fringes of the Spanish Civil War.  Like Frohock's other works it mixes the familiar and the supernatural.  A perilous maelstrom of angels and daimons hovers beyond human perception making jagged intrusions into (and extrusions from) a world we would recognise as totally normal.

I have recently watched Insidious and Insidious 2 - horror films where it is people not houses who are haunted by beings from beyond their world.  In 1930s Barcelona, Frohock paints a similar picture of a dark other world swirling beneath the thin ice on which our own existence rests. However, with its detailed historical reference the atmosphere is more akin to those glimpses I have seen of Pan's Labyrinth than to contemporary American based horror films.

In Miserere and The Broken Road, Frohock kept the worlds more separate than "In Midnight's Silence" Here the dark and the normal are intertwined like strands in a braid and walking with Diago on the foggy streets of Barcelona every dimly perceived street corner is approached with the utmost caution.

It is beautifully written, though it's length gives little time for elaborate world building.  That makes the experience of reading it more visceral, we ride in Diago's head - for the most part - and we see only what he would notice, watch what he does, hear what he thinks, but all without tedious exposition.  Those who hanker after spell systems and education might better attend Kovthe's alma mater, but others will savour the experience of experiencing Frohock's dark flickering world.

There are other themes in this book, of love and fidelity. Diago and Miguel are a couple, their love for each other described with the same simple tenderness afforded to hetrosexual couples in fantasy literature.  Frohock has written her heroes as heroes who happen to be gay, rather than heroes either because or in spite of their sexuality. It is an absorbingly believable description, though it might deny her a place on any future sad puppies' slate - but then - who would want to be on such a slate anyway?

As in the Broken Road, Frohock imbues song with a power more deep than mere entertainment. It is a means through which spells are cast, power revealed and evil can be conquered and it is an interesting development of the usual finger twirling with which incantations are delivered. There is also a train and a train station, though this is no Hogwart's express puffing away at platform 9 and three quarters.  And its destination is no magically enhanced Enid Blyton boarding school experience.

I recently read a short story in the Fantasy Faction Anthology called "The Dealer" by Miah Sonnel.  Sonnel's work shares with "In Midnight's Silence" a notion that Angels and Demons are both terrible beings.  They are after all involved in a war and humans are exposed to collateral damage, our world is the battlefield not the place they seek to protect.

Los Nefilim are a secretive group that Miguel works for. Diago knows them as any lover might know his partner's workmates but, for himself, he finds that being immortal does not exclude you from the tedious business of earning a living.  For one who loves music in all its powers there are moments of torture in delivering lessons to the tempestuous young and moments of amusement - for the reader at least - in watching him deal with parental pressures.

I found Frohock's use of the sub-title los nefilim a linguistic tease.  Having been foiled in my assumption it was latin, google translate turned the Spanish into English (nephilim) and Wikipedia gave me this 

The nature of the nephilim is complicated by the ambiguity of Genesis 6:4, which leaves it unclear whether they are the "sons of God" or their offspring who are the "mighty men of old, men of renown".

Well that ambiguity fits the protaganists of Frohock's book who are certainly men of power and antiquity embroiled in a hidden war. This is the first book in a series, a story complete in itself which nonetheless introduces us to characters and conflicts we can follow onwards and upwards (or downwards).  I look forward to watching the work of Diago, Miguel and Los Nefilim as their own shadowy world shadows arguably the darkest period in the twentieth century.   

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Rotting Frontier, my spoiler free review

I bought this book as part of a six-pack, Realmwalker publications "The Portal." Although I had already read one of the six stories "Fae: The Wild Hunt" by Graham Austin-King (You can read my review of it here) five full novels for £5.13 still represented pretty good value.

The second story in the pack to catch my eye was book one of "The Rotting Frontier: The Hunger" by David Atwell and, as it is a separate novel I will review it separately, even if I didn't buy it that way. 

Atwell's story snagged my attention because of the setting.  As a child in the 70s I lived on a diet of cowboy films.  It seemed the wild west, in truth probably far shorter and less bloody than the films would have us believe, was the only thing anyone could make films about.  But in the 70s the cowboy meme was already fading from the cinema apart from comedic blips like "Blazing Saddles." Even Clint Eastwood's subsequent intermittent attempts at cardiac de-fibrillation with hits like "Pale Rider" and "Unforgiven," did little to fundamentally reanimate the corpse of a much loved but sadly expired genre.   How could majestic scenery and gritty unshaven gunslingers compete with CGI and space opera. 

But then I read "Those Poor, Poor Bastards" by Tim Marquitz, J.M.Martin and Kenny Soward. Here was another way in which the good old western was to be resurrected, ironically as a zombie apocalypse. I would say that Shane would be spinning in his grave at the idea, except that he wouldn't, he'd be crawling from it clabbered in grave rot and hungry for human flesh. So that experience gave me an itch to scratch, with other alternative history westerns.  I tried and enjoyed Elizabeth Bear's "Karen Memory" steampunk western which started in a bordello but never descended into crudity.

Which set me up nicely for Atwell's take on a different kind of cowboy story.  To be fair his is not really a zombie story.  The flesh eating human monsters have not died, though their bite does infect and condemn others to the same desperate hunger.  They also seem easy enough to kill provided the weight of numbers doesn't do for you.  In many ways their affliction is like the rage that consumes people in the films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. 

Atwell's unique take on this notion of infectious cannibalistic human monsters is to delay the onset of insanity. Provided the afflicted feed regularly on human flesh they can stave off the madness and continue to function as rational if somewhat psychopathic human beings.  I have seen this kind of motif - the rationality hijacked by a hunger it cannot deny - also used well in the eponymous hero of Glen Duncan's "The Last Werewolf."  

That then is the life Atwell breathes into the western format. It is not a spoiler for me to mention it because it emerges pretty early on in the story and in fact even before the story starts with an author's explanation of what it is like to have "The Hunger." 

And that is part of the oddity of this book.  There is a not quite polished enthusiasm which propels but sometimes encumbers the story.

There is front-matter which might better be placed as back-matter, a note from the author a dedication which reads like acknowledgements, a list of the dramatis personae and the early reveal (pre-reveal) of the nature of the sickness.  To me these pages were merely gossameer curtains of distraction to be brushed aside in my desire (hunger?!) to get to the story.  

 The story proper begins with a wagon carrying Thomas Hutton and his family to a new life in the West. They and their eldest sons bear with them differing traumas from the recently concluded civil war.  I was worried at first that Thomas and his wife Beth's penchant for giving all five children names beginning with "A" might cause me a little confusion, but their characters separated out well enough with the two eldest boys, Axel and Amos, a nice juxtaposition of ruthless survivor and na├»ve idealist.

The family stumble upon an abandoned settlement where all that seems to threaten their peaceful rest are coyotes who would prey upon their oxen.  But then the rotters arrive and survival becomes distinctly more difficult.

I don't like to give spoilers.  Suffice to say that the Huttons gain help from a surprisingly well concealed community of other survivors including a remarkably resilient blacksmith and part-time pastor. The main engine of the story is the conflict that inevitably occurs when circumstance forces people together in despite of all notions of personal space and under severe external threat.  Just as the little community in Anne Frank's attic suffered from mundane tensions in the shadow of horror, so too the Vatt's Crossing crowd face simple real human perils and desires. Notwithstanding the collapse of society around them, prejudice, greed and misplaced morality still drive selfish actions. Foolish choices threaten the survival of everyone and in particular those the perpetrators most profess to love.

There are enemies and allies too beyond their community.  There is a militia consumed by hunger, sacrificing their humanity to stay sane.  They are led by a charismatic Colonel who would have thought the slaughter of native americans at Sand Creek was a humanitarian act. Indeed reading this quote from Colonel John Milton Chivington the Sand Creek commander

"Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians. ... Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice."

It makes Atwell's Colonel Lexington Banks, far from being the caricature he first appears to be, into something approaching a faithful historical representation.

The Native Americans make credible allies. There is an earnest desire in Atwell to be fair to all groups, to have his characters show a respect for diversity which at times, to an untutored eye, appears more fitting to a modern context than contemporary with the period.  But then, Elizabeth Bear's "Karen Memory" had a refreshingly robust attitude to prejudice and why should an author not challenge prejudices and champion humanity while still telling a good story.

There are some acts of generosity and some macguffins of invention which stretch credulity a little.  If Tony Stark or  Emmett Brown had dropped into the settlement of Vatt's Crossing even they might raise an eye at the imaginative solutions to some insuperable problems, while the gift which set the Hutton's heading west could only be believed if there were some greedier motive of self-interest at work - and perhaps there was.      

However, the story is the thing, and the story rattles along at a good pace.   Bloody action is described in skull crushing detail and, while some of the plot kinks are foreshadowed a little too obviously and the prose could in parts be more polished, that doesn't make the ride any less enjoyable.  Our band of survivors prove a little better at surviving than the miscellaneous groups who gather in a George Romero film. That is to say, a surprisingly large number of them make it to the "final reel", but there are some significant fallers along the way and this is after all only book one. Plenty of life (or death) left in the story yet. 

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A Great Book - a few spoilers as I review The Great Gatsby

Two people and one imperative made me read this book. The first was my daughter who had studied it for A'level and having watched the film wanted to discuss it.  The second was a colleague who quoted the book's final line at me when a decision of mine sent her department back to a high dudgeon within the building that they had a few years earlier and with some relief escaped. "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." The imperative was my fast receding ambition of reading 42 books in this year and the Great Gatsby had the huge advantage of being a short (171 page)book more a novella really.

It turns out that my daughter had seen the film to completion but read bits and pieces of the novel, such is the cherry picking nature of A'level English literature these days, and even the Great Gatsby, consumed in a few days by the side of Lake Garda, could not put me back on reading track.

However it is a great book, one that deserves its tag of classic.  I have long felt that a measure of artistic genius is economy.  The great artist paints in a single brushstroke an image that draws you in.  The great writer in a few well-chosen words conjures a vivid scene within the hollow O of our heads. Another measure of artistic talent is whether something makes you think, whether the story stays with you turning over and over in your mind after you have put the book down, whether the picture captures your attention in a new and different way every time you look at it.

The Great Gatsby, passes both those tests.  Each scene is brief but necessary, events off stage are alluded to by the passage of time in which we can assume Gatsby's rekindled love affair with Daisy is proceeding as these things do while the narrator Nick Carraway tries to ingratiate himself with Jordan's senile aunt.  There is a sparseness to the dialogue, snatches of speech, isolated quotes which give the whole the genuine feel of a young man reminiscing, picking out key memories.

There is comedy too, deftly described. The scene where Gatsby contrives to coincidentally call on Carraway at a time when by scrupulous prior arrangement, Carraway has invited his cousin Daisy for dinner is a delight.  The transparency of Gatsby's angst, the gardener sent over in the pouring rain to cut Nick's lawn so it will be just right.  (Whoever cuts wet grass, let alone grass on which is actually raining?)  Gatsby with his hands his pockets, a desperate bit to quell his agitated fidgeting that reminded me of my own pose, hands clasped behind my back (in fact behind the chair) during one of many unsuccessful interviews.  (I must have looked like I was being interviewed by the Gestapo).  And the naivite of Gatsby who can tell it is not going well but needs Nick to tell him that Daisy is as embarrassed as he.

It is beautifully written and, in its way reminded me of another classic whose title seems particularly resonant.  Great Expectations, which I was forced to read for English O'Level long ago and from which my enduring impression was of Miss Havisham, the jilted bride still in her dotage wearing her wedding dress within the dusty remains of her forsaken wedding breakfast. What struck me there was the grand waste of such a life lived on a fragment of memory, trapped in the past like a fly in amber.  But there was a magnificence in that waste, and Gatsby carries a similar single minded obsession, an inability to move on from the past.

Gatsby's greatness lies not in his wealth, his entertaining, his shady dealings, or even his self-invention.  Gatsby's greatness is in the focus with which he brings all his considerable resources to bear in a bid to recapture a butterfly moment of happiness in his past.  A belief that you can not just revisit but also recreate the past.

There are modern resonances too.  Since first "friends reunited" and then "Facebook" came along social media has been a means by which to find not just new friends but old loves.  How far would Gatsby have pursued the easy option of a sending Daisy a facebook friend request if that had been available to him?

My eldest daughter who, unlike the A'level English literature student, had read the whole book did not like it.  The reason she gave was that there were too many unlikeable characters and indeed there are deep flaws in almost everyone we meet.  Fitzgerald paints a picture of decadence, arrogance and self-interest.  Gatsby is flawed, fatally flawed.  But the other central characters, Tom and Daisy are far from virtuous.

While Tom's bristling arrogance in the way he treats others is clear through his infidelity and the simple fact that he breaks Myrtle's nose, Daisy's flaws are less obvious.  At first we might think her the victim in a loveless marriage, but it is one she walked into of her own accord lured by money such as Gatsby never seemed likely to possess.  The money insulates her from real life in a way whch enables her to play at everything, at marriage at parenthood at friendship, at love, yet always thinking that they can be dropped at an instant.  In this she shares more with her husband than with Gatsby and that, in the end is why she cannot leave him. It is Carraway who must play the part of Nanny and take her lover away, just as her briefly glimpsed well behaved daughter is taken away to the more parental support of her Nanny.

And Gatsby, for all the perfection he imagines in her, still tries to lure her to him with an ostentatious display of wealth and entertainment. He knows money counts for her and that is all right by him it is part of her charm rather than a shallow weakness. She is not just the perfect complement to the lifestyle he has carved out for himself, she is the keystone that completes it.  Or rather, the person he imagines her to be is that keystone.  A cynic once said that "The person one loves never really exists but is simply a fantasy of the heart focussed through the lens of the imagination onto the screen which it fits with least distortion."  So too Gatsby strains for a perfection that is certainly not in the present, and may not even have been in the past.

And that is the central theme that Fitzgerald alludes to in the final line of the book, that desperate magnificent struggle to recapture a love that never really existed to burrow into the past as those facebook ex's pursue each other, viewing it all with spectacles so rose-tinted they are almost puce.

One wonders too at the timing of the book, written in the 20s when the Great War still cast a long shadow.   A war too that Gatsby himself lived through and, in reputation at least, prospered by. How far did Gatsby's infatuation with the memory of Daisy reflect the world's yearning for the innocence of the pre-war days, when everything was at is was assumed it should be and always would be.  However, in pursuing the old love affair Gatsby's struggle reminds me of the title of a child's book about a Dinosaur a Dragon who discussed their different origins and summarised themselves as "No Now and Never Was." That seems to describe the love Gatsby imagined Daisy had for him, but it is his single minded pursuit of that vision which earns him his epithet of Great, an adjective which the book also richly deserves.