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.