14 January 2018

Review - Iron Gold by Pierce Brown

Iron Gold (Red Rising 4)
Pierce Brown
Hodder & Stoughton, 16 January 2018
HB, 626pp

I'm SO grateful to Hodder for an advance proof of this book.

If you have been reading my reviews for a while (oh, who am I kidding...) you'll know that I simply adored Pierce Brown's Red Rising trilogy (Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star) which describe the career of Darrow (The Reaper), a downtrodden slave from the mines of Mars who joins the rebellion and helps to overthrow the rule of the hateful, oppressive Golds.

The earlier trilogy is notable for its visceral, brutal descriptions of battle; for the tension in Darrow, who is originally set on vengeance but is also more than half in love with the life he could have among the Golds (whose society he infiltrates in order to destroy); for its depiction of Darrow's dark side (he is, not to mince words, a war criminal) and for numerous betrayals, reversals of fortune and a mounting body count that sees many beloved characters murdered, assassinated or simply killed on the battlefields of Mars, Venus and Luna.

It is a magnificent achievement, ending only when the Society of the Golds was overthrown and a new world could arise. Iron Gold picks up the story ten years later, and I was at first nervous that a continuation could only be an anticlimax.

And, yes, this is in many ways a less romantic tale, infused with the compromises and failures of any demokratic* society seeking to replace a tyranny. (The copy I've been given contains a Howler Directive, forbidding any disclosure of plot details. I don't want the agents of the Republic to hunt me down, so I won't be more specific about these.) Darrow is haunted by what he's done, and hamstrung by the messy politics of a new Republic. Shadows of Julius Ceasar here, perhaps, as a military strongman clashes with the civilian order he has sworn to uphold - heightened by the fact that Darrow established that civilian order.

But "less romantic" doesn't mean "less readable". The heady stuff of rebellion, of "breaking the chains" may be absent but in its place is a more sober, perhaps more grown up, vibe. The story is of a whole with those earlier books. This is the same Darrow with the same drives and, as before, we feel for him, for his dilemmas, his shortcomings. More, knowing how Brown puts his characters - and Darrow especially - through the wringer, we fear for him: for what may become of him and for what he may become.

It's the same potent mix that Brown has served up before, yet still fresh and with a whole new cast of characters whose stories run parallel with Darrow's. An embittered ex soldier on Luna. A pair of exiled nobles in the Rim of the Solar system, caught up in politics of the exotic Golds who live out there. A Red woman, freed from the mines of Mars only to face new perils. All of these narratives are in first person, as is Darrow's, creating a very demokratic (as it were) picture of the new world Darrow has made rather than one focussed on a single viewpoint. And they allow Brown to experiment with slightly different styles: for example, the ex soldier inhabits a noirish world, popping pills to kill his empathy as he walks a narrow line between time bosses and his former comrades.

In short, my fears were proved wrong. Brown has avoided writing a mere potboiler, an equivalent of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, by widening his scope to address new issues, new complexities, and the torments of new characters. And all without jeopardising the raw power of the original trilogy, the feeling of almost playful violence, the sense of the Heroic (in a Beowulf or Homeric style) which infuses Brown's work at its best. It's that mode which shows us just how compelling the Gold myth is to Darrow and of course to the Golds themselves. Amidst the chaos and suffering of "democraky" who wouldn't yearn for order, for strength, for freedom from having to take decisions? I don't think I've read another recent author who shows us the insidious nature of authoritarianism - and the lessons are if anything more sharp here than in the first three books. I won't make facile comparisons with the current political situation but this does also give the book a sense of urgency, of relevance. (And indeed a couple of times Darrow's Howlers explicitly refer to the Society forces as "fascists").

In short: if you loved Red Rising/ Golden Sun/ Morning Star then Iron Gold is just as good, and benefits from a bit more philosophical and political oomph. If you haven't read those books yet, I'd strongly suggest you read them first since while this book is relatively self-contained, reading it first will spoil details of the plots of the others which develop in a nicely layered way and are worth discovering little by little. When you've done that you ought to read Iron Gold immediately though.

------

*The spelling Brown uses throughout, embodying the sneering Gold view that they are made to rule and that a polity which consults the lower Colours is a thing to be crushed.

7 January 2018

Review - Dark State by Charles Stross

Dark State
Charles Stross
Macmillan 11 January 2018
HB, 349pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Dark State.

I always look forward to Stross's books, and I've been following his stories of world walkers since the start of the Merchant Princes sequence (in its original, six volume, form). So this is the 8th book in that series I have read, and I'm glad to be able to say that Stross is successfully keeping the books fresh, while engaging with events whose seeds were sown right back at the start.

He's done this by successively widening the scope. We began with one woman, Miriam Beckstein (now Burgeson) who originates in what looked then like "our" timeline and her discovery of her place in the relatively parochial, parallel timeline kingdom called the Gruinmarkt as part of its "world-walking" Clan. Over the original series the story broadened from fantasy-like beginnings to a technothrillery narrative which took in nuclear terrorism, drug dealing and ultimately revolution (in a third, steampunkish timeline).

Empire Games, the first part of this new trilogywent further, into the world of superpower rivalries (both within and between timelines), revolutionary politics, and counter-espionage. Dark State develops that, while also bringing to the fore the possibility of conflict with a scarily advanced civilisation from yet another timeline - one which would make events so far look like neighbours arguing over an unruly hedge. That may come in book three, or be the focus of a future trilogy - let's wait and see.

So much for context. What is Dark State like? As with the previous volumes, it's an assured, well-written story about competent people playing for high stakes. Rita Douglas, the daughter Miriam put up for adoption and who was brought up by Franz and Emily Douglas, is proving a capable agent for Homeland Security although the clash between the personal and the political is about to hit her hard. She has an additional resource to draw on in being part, via her adoptive parents, of the Wolf Orchestra, an East German spy ring stranded after the end of the Cold War. In Empire Games Kurt put the Orchestra on standby and now it's tuning up to play a final symphony.

Rita's counterparts in the New American Commonwealth (across several factions) and the regime in exile of the pseudo British kings are equally effective, making this book a game of chess played between very high ranking players. Almost everything is on the board from the start (Stross does reserve a few pieces) and the way the games goes very much reflects the character of the protagonists. By that I mean that while one's first impression is that Stross is doing a lot of telling not showing, that isn't in fact the case - what these people do is who they are, so we are learning about how a well imagined and diverse set of characters see their world(s).

For example, we have Elizabeth Hanover, a doubly exiled princess brought up among emigres and dreamers in Europe, apparently a minor piece on the board but very much taking her fate in her own hands. By the end of this book we have a clear picture of her and Stross is obviously reserving a big part for her in Book 3. If Merchant Princes was in part about deconstructing the "exiled nobility" trope in fantasy, Dark State takes that to a whole new level since Elizabeth is, literally, exiled nobility - in fact royalty - but won't be defined by that. In what may be a two fingered gesture to SFF conservatives, Stross explicitly makes Elizabeth and Rita women of colour (and yes, the context of the story totally allows for that).

Given Dark State's focus on espionage, tradecraft and general chicanery, it's not surprising that a lot of space is dedicated to surveillance (and how to mitigate it). All of the protagonists are playing this game on different levels to such a degree that tiny advantages or disadvantages make a big difference in the outcomes. It's clever, engaging, well thought through and fun to read (as well as potentially useful - "every phone was, by definition, a wireless bugging device", "orient, observe, and decide before you act"). I do have a slight reservation which is that we get something close to a stalemate: it all rather cancels out and the resulting plot turns in a number of key places on essentially chance developments. But maybe that's just true to life! ("The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happeneth to all...")

There's a wider point beyond this. Dark State is a world - a universe - a set of universes - which make political points about such matters as democracy, economic development, and the surveillance society. Stress has thought long and hard about this stuff (as readers of his blog will be aware) and offers plausible, and often troubling, conclusions. For example, the New American Commonwealth is about to lose its First Man (its equivalent of its President, although it's more of a "guardian of the revolution" role). Will a newly established democracy manage this transition or will factional rivalry turn into civil war?

The author gives us few outright heroes or villains: I would have said "no" but there is Rita's boss Col Smith who seems to have been responsible for the nuking of the Gruinmarkt in Merchant Princes. We may sympathise with the survivors of the Clan because they're Miriam's people, but they are, as one sceptical figure here notes, an aristocratic-minded sect within an egalitarian society (in the same way as they formed a state-within-a-state in the Gruinmarkt). At the beginning of the book Stross illustrates, using the Wolf Orchestra as an example, how such a sect can survive and keep itself safe within a wider society. He's essentially set up a situation where an alternate timeline (the New American Commonwealth) introduced as an apparent refuge for the world-walkers when their own was nuked by the US becomes itself an active and interesting project which the reader will want to see survive, Clan or no. Given Col Smith's record that seems an iffy proposition and if I were one of the Clan's opponents in the Commonwealth, I'd be pointing out that the hostility from the US is primarily directed at the Clan and that they might be becoming dangerous guests...

Individuals may be in shades of grey but there is however a clear denunciation of the extent to which, in this timeline, Ubiquitously Surveilled America has descended into an authoritarian state: the Fourth Amendment is a dead letter, one character here is spirited away into "night and mist" (and may face "destructive debriefing and recycling), we're told that "everything is terrorism these days: downloading, uploading, jaywalking with intent to cause fear", a sinister sounding "Defense of Marriage Act" is in force. At one point, visiting a club with Angie,  Rita welcomes "the comfort of public affirmation, of having a lover whose hand she could openly hold (at least in safe spaces like this), of having someone she could get sweaty on the dance floor with and who would take her home afterwards..." It's an excellent flash of personal experience and anguish to juxtapose against the grand themes of politics and espionage, even if we suspect Angie may find herself used by the spooks as leverage to control Rita.

The US Administration here is also riddled with conspiracy theorists, adherents of fringe religions and so forth, so much so that Rita is tasked, alongside obtaining valuable intelligence about the Commonwealth, with verifying a whole range of bizarre beliefs and theories the need to pander to which hinder Col Smith's operation at times (contrary to popular belief, fascism is not "efficient", and Stross highlights this in passing).

Some of this is genuinely funny, and as ever, Stross also makes the reader smile knowingly at some of his references: in this world, Ruritania is apparently a real country (one can travel to Strelsau but Elizabeth would rather not), there's mention of the "game of Empires" which must go one better than one of thrones, a Slaveowners' Treasonous Rebellion which was NOT THE SAME AT ALL as the US Civil War (even if it it is an excellent description...), there's a warning against curiosity because it is "felicidal" (think about it!), we have Brilliant unironically echoing Bogart when she says "Play it again... Play it Sam". More soberingly, there's a description in the historical Appendix of what happened after the French invasion of Britain which placed customs barriers on the canal system, "breaking up what had hitherto been the largest free trade zone in Europe" and causing economic disaster. (Hmmm...)

To sum up: this is an intelligent, sharp SF-espionage-thriller which nails some dark tendencies in present day politics and use of tech while building up an even more nightmarish threat in the depths of the timelines. Strongly recommended.





4 January 2018

Review - Mad Hatters and March Hares ed by Ellen Datlow

Cover by Dave McKean
Mad Hatters and March Hares: All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tor, 12 December 2017
PB, 332pp

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

The playground that is Lewis Carroll's Wonderland begs to be peopled by authors, filmmakers, comic makers, indeed anyone with a creative spark who can produce a fresh take on the adventures of Alice and the surreal, sinister crew that she encountered down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass.

And so we have in this book an abundance: dark Wonderlands, Wonderlands turned into theme parks or battle fields, imaginary Wonderlands, Wonderlands that have spilled over into the "real world". We have White Rabbits (literal and metaphorical), Red and White Queens, Cheshire Cats (and other Cheshires), Jabberwockies, wabes and much, much more.

Above all, we have Alices. Alices of all sorts: little girls who fell down that rabbit hole, older women who came out, the real Alice Liddell, missing daughters, wayward Alices, tough cookie Alices. Alices as victims, as manipulators, as surrogates, as avengers.

All read at once, it is perhaps rather overwhelming, like eating a whole box of Christmas chocs in one go, and I wouldn't advise that (apart from anything else, many if not all of the stories evoke - mostly with some success - the jargon and atmosphere of Carroll's books and that is something which is perhaps best not taken in large doses). No, I'd suggest rather that you come and go: read a story, ponder, return. Hop around the book, depending whether you want pastiche Alice, Alice-with-a-twist or - and these were my favourites - Alice inspired fiction, perhaps with no Wonderland, indeed even no Alice as such, but with a sense of something.

As you fall down that rabbit hole, passing shelves and volumes, I offer the following as a brief guide, to help you choose what to read and in what order.

My Own Invention (Delia Sherman) - An Alice meets the Red Knight in a wood. Or is she a not-Alice? In Wonderland you can never be sure.

Lily-White and Thief of Lesser Night (CSE Cooney) is a beguiling piece of fantasy, clearly set in a Wonderland but not, for once, featuring an Alice. It's a nice story of fantasy and adventure set among the vorpal roses.

Conjoined (Jane Yolen - some of whose Alice stories were included in her The Emerald Circus which I recently reviewed, although not those featured here) is a story of the Tweedle twins touring with Barnum's circus.

Mercury (Priya Sharma) is a dark tale set in a debtors' prison not so far from the village of Daresbury where the real CL Dodgson is commemorated in church window.  It features a hatter and his daughter and the mercury that causes hatters' madness. The ensemble of Wonderland turn up in wonderfully distorted ways - a Duchess who is the boss of the jail. An Alice who's taught "Be tiny. be giant. Adapt to the dictates of the situation". A cat called Dinah. A Knave... Here, it's all about escape.

Some Kind of Wonderland (Richard Bowes) reimagines the Alice stories as a film made in 1960s New York, which is revisited by its stars, now advanced in age. Again, the Wonderland motif bleeds through into mundane reality raising possibilities of escape but also of entrapment in that beguiling pocket universe.

Alis (Stephen Graham Jones) is towards the horrific end of the whimsy-horror spectrum that these stories define, taking a familiar trope - foolish students experimenting with things that should be left alone - and giving it a distinctly Carollian twist involving a mirror. "Inspired by" rather than "interpretation of", I think, but nevertheless a fine and chilling story.

All the King's Men (Jeffrey Ford) is one of the odder stories here. Again it features motifs from Carroll's books, but is not quite set in either Wonderland or in any real world. It is more a nursery rhyme kingdom, complete with an evil Humpty Dumpty. It's an inventive, twisty tale, hauntingly effective, portraying a world which could surely feature in a longer piece of fiction.

Run, Rabbit (Angela Slatter) is firmly set in the (a) real world but in a seamy, noirish version of it. The Rabbit (something of a dandy) is on the run from the Queen, and he's late. Then he encounters a girl in a bar. Her name is Pleasance and she works in a garden, with roses. Rabbit works in import-export: don't ask in what he traffics or for whom. A truly seamy, shudder-inducing take on that original encounter between innocent Alice and the distracted Rabbit.

In Memory of a Summer’s Day (Matthew Kressel) is another rather twisted story, its embittered narrator working as guide ("I've been leading tours of Wonderland for forty years...")  in a tawdry version of Wonderland that's now run as a theme park. It's still not a safe place, though, as some of the visitors - and our narrator - discover. Memorable for the collision between the essential Wonderland magic, the sheer sinisterness of the reality behind that, and the hustle of the carnival, this one will stay in your mind a long time.

Sentence Like a Saturday (Seanan McGuire) points out that "doors swing both ways" as do stories and then rather brilliantly inverts the logic (or illogic) of Wonderland to ask what happens if somebody - or something - comes up the rabbit hole? A rather tender story, in point of fact, this contains multitudes and shows how strange our world would be - it runs on logic! - to a befuddled Wonderlandian exiled here. And the price they might pay. After all "a mother was the door through which tomorrow passed".

Worrity, Worrity (Andy Duncan) is another that might almost be a classical horror - I was strongly reminded of MR James. It focuses on Sir John Tenniel, illustrator of Alice, and his problem with wasps. Eerie, chilling and a nice counterpoint to the stories which actually take us to Wonderland.

Eating the Alice Cake (Kaaron Warren) is another horror story (I think!) There's no overt Wonderland here, quite the opposite: but we have an Alice, who has a consuming passion for food and a painful secret, we meet a Mock Turtle... and there are some familiar names and a mirror. It is a grim little story, slightly nasty in the manner of the best horror.

The Queen of Hats (Ysabeau Wilce) is a little different from the other stories here in that it takes the Alice mythology and transposes it into a new cultural setting: it's about a "poor tamale girl", locating the story in South America but also evoking a meta fictional world which might contain "Ticonderoga, Arkham, Cibola, Porkopolis, Beleogost, Goblin Town, Eboracum, Sunnydale" as well as that most fictional of locations, "London". These names are found on labels on a theatrical trunk, a trunk that contains many marvels, indeed, wonders... here the Wonderland settings are transposed to disused backdrops as might be found in an old style theatre, complete with wardrobe room and auditions for something called (to avoid bad luck) "The Oxford Play". What might that be?

A Comfort, One Way (Genevieve Valentine) speculates on the very question of the identity of an Alice, seeming to suggest that despite all appearances, Wonderland has its own logic and that this may lead it to consume you...

The Flame After the Candle (Catherynne M Valente), a long story, indeed practically a novella, is very much set in this world, the real world, until it isn't. Again it seems to suggest that to its hero, Olive (not, for once, an Alice) real world events and people foreshadow or parallel another, richer place ("Father Dear had left them for that pale, rabbity little heiress in London"). Olive's story is interspersed with an the story of an encounter between who great literary figures, scarred by their visits - whether real or not, is never quite sure - to Wonderland and Neverland. The two tales complement each other well and there are echoes between them, as there are echoes between Olive's own life and the fantasy behind the mirror. A truly enchanting fairytale with a rather bitter edge to it - my favourite in this volume.

Moon, Memory, and Muchness (Katherine Vaz) is another "real world" story. It invokes the tropes of Wonderland ("Everything screams, Eat Me, Drink Me") to tell a very sad story, set in present-day New York, about a mother's loss ("I turned my back, and the earth swallowed her.") A story about appearances, and hurting, and what comes afterwards. Very moving.

The book closes with Run, Rabbit, Run (Jane Yolen), a short poem and perhaps a warning that the childish delights of Wonderland will only carry you so far.

If there is a preoccupation that these authors return to time and gain it is perhaps, "afterwards". We see both the effect on the Alices (and others) of that time in Wonderland - a kind of theme of the effect on survivors of what was a very weird experience, whether treated as real or imagined. But we also see the effect on "real" people of their encounter with an author who, literally, wrote them into immortality. How does it change you to have your life defined at an early age like that?

Overall, a very strong collection of stories. Recommended.

2 January 2018

Blogtour Review - Dark Pines by Will Dean

Cover design by Kid-Ethic
Dark Pines
Will Dean
Point Blank, 4 January 2018
PB, 328pp

Happy New Year!

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Dark Pines by Will Dean. I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book and for inviting me to take part.

I'm in the bullseye of a fucking murder forest and there are no lights on anywhere.

Dark Pines is a tensely compulsive thriller set in the gloom of a Swedish forest as the autumn shadows gather.

Tuva Moodyson returned from her life as a rising journalist in London - and from the weekends lost to drink - to be near her mother, who's terminally ill. Even though Moodyson hates the wilds and the forests and just wants bright lights, shops, restaurants and roads. But in the place she sneeringly calls Toytown, everyone's a hunter and the dark woods can't be ignored.

When, however, hunters begin to turn up dead in the woods, eyes gouged out, this also means everyone's a target. Suppressing her distrust of the outdoors and grabbing the chance to make her name through a career-defining story, Moodyson throws herself into the case, riling both natives (why can't she just write nice things about their town?) and the police. She also, however, begins to get close to the suspects in the remote hamlet where the bodies keep turning up.

A reclusive ghost writer.

Two sisters who make a living carving grotesque troll dolls for collectors - which they furnish with their own hair.

A taxi driver who seems to take a reciprocal interest in her.

Hannes and Frida who have, we are told "a good economy" (a phrase that recurs thought this book) and are well connected in the town. But Hannes is leader of the local hunters. Might he know more than he lets on about what is happening?

I was impressed by how Dean built tension, particularly through Moodyson's repeated excursions, alone, into Mossen village and its surrounding woods. The woods themselves seem like nothing more than a playground, an arena, for the strutting menfolk of the district who just seem obsessed with shooting things (and their right to do so). As the town slides into ruin about them - we are told of plenty of closed shops and failed businesses - they can only complain about a hunting ban imposed due to the murders. So it takes some considerable courage for a lone woman - especially one already resented and who actively fears the wilds - to go into those woods in pursuit of a story.

Moodyson is though a resourceful protagonist, who won't take "no" for an answer. Dean hints at some darkness in the past - not only her mother's illness and her father's death, but something in those London days suggests a shadow on her life. In addition, she has hearing loss and depends on hearing aids. Dean integrates the details of maintaining these - battery replacements, keeping them dry, problems with feedback and picking up background noise - into his story, showing her resentment at being patronised or at the ignorance of some. He also shows how helpful the aids are to Tuva, as when she wants to get her head down and do some work.

It's skilfully put together, not least in the way that the speech is made just "different" enough for the English to appear slightly foreign - as it might if it had been translated - without that obscuring the story. Dean also uses food to suggest contrasts between his characters: Tuva's hastily snatched McDonalds from the drive-through, her Thai friend Tammy's delicious street food served from her van, and the delicious sounding, but perhaps overreach, traditional Swedish food served up to Tuva in some of the homes she visits.

I felt there were a couple of loose ends - some threatening incidents that are explained but not fully - but this is an elegant and tautly written story, with a great sense of place, a likeable protagonist and a thrilling climax. I hope we hear a lot more of Tuva Moodyson in future.

For more info on the book see the publisher's page here.

You can buy Dark Pines from your local independent bookshop, including via Hive, or here, or here.



31 December 2017

Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2018 - Part Two

Part One of this preview covered January-March 2018. This post covers the rest of the year, focussing on the books I'm looking forward to from April-June.

As always, details may change, dates may go back, books may even not appear. Time and chance happeneth to all. Any errors are of course down to me. Cover images are from authors' or publishers' websites: happy to remove these if the owners wish that.

April

April looks like a busy month bookwise. First on my radar is The Chosen Ones by Scarlett Thomas (Canongate, 05 April). This sequel to Thomas's Dragon's Green is part of her Worldquake series of children's books featuring the resourceful and bookish Effie Truelove. Dragon's Green just started to reveal the world that Effie and her friends inhabit and hinted at conflicts and dangers to come. Now, those seem to be becoming real.

The Wolf by Leo Carew is out from Headline on 5 April, the first in an epic fantasy of conflict and rivalry between the Anakim of the North and the Southerners.

AND there's Lucy Wood's The Sing of the Shore (4th Estate, 5 April). I totally, totally loved Wood's collection Diving Belles and her novel Weathering so it's exciting (yes, I know I over-use that word) to see this collection on its way. From the blurb:

"At the very edge of England, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the land and visitors flock in with the summer like seagulls, there is a Cornwall that is not shown on postcards. It is a place where communication cables buzz deep beneath the sand; where satellite dishes turn like flowers on clifftops, and where people drift like flotsam, caught in eddying tides. Restless children haunt empty holiday homes, a surfer struggles with the undertow of family life, a girl watches her childhood spin away from her in the whirl of a night-time fairground and, in a web of sea caves, a brother and sister search the dark for something lost.

These astonishing, beguiling stories of ghosts and shifting sands, of static caravans and shipwrecked cargo, explore notions of landscape and belonging, permanence and impermanence, and the way places can take hold and never quite let go."

On 12 AprilOne Way by Simon Morden (Gollancz) gives us a story described as "A murder mystery set on the frozen red wastes of Mars. Eight astronauts. One killer. No way home." I've been enjoying Morden's Books of Down series (Down Station/ The White City) and while I hope for more of that it's exciting to see Morden produce something different as well.

Now we come to THE MOST EXCITING BOOK NEWS OF THE YEAR. Emma Newman's superlative SF series spanning space exploration, colonisation, the corporate state, surveillance society and much, much more is being published by Orion in the UK. The first two books, Planetfall and After Atlas, which have already been published in the US, will be republished in February and March. The third, Before Mars, will appear on 17 April. This is well deserved recognition (and not before time) for Newman's writing in general and for the merits of this series in particular which provides excellent, intelligent speculative fiction combined with a shrewd eye for character. You must not miss this book.

See here and here for my reviews of the previous books.

I have a copy of Blackfish City, a debut by Sam J Miller (out from Orbit on 19 April) waiting on my TBR and it looks like a treat in store. Weird, climate change imbued fiction with a corrupt city in the Arctic, a mysterious woman and a polar bear. "After the climate wars, a floating city was constructed in the Arctic Circle. Once a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, it has started to crumble under the weight of its own decay - crime and corruption have set in, a terrible new disease is coursing untreated through the population, and the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside deepest poverty are spawning unrest. Into this turmoil comes a strange new visitor - a woman accompanied by an orca and a chained polar bear. She disappears into the crowds looking for someone she lost thirty years ago, followed by whispers of a vanished people who could bond with animals. Her arrival draws together four people and sparks a chain of events that will lead to unprecedented acts of resistance."

The Defiant Heir - sequel to The Tethered Mage - by Melissa Caruso is out from Orbit on 26 April. "Across the border, the Witch Lords of Vaskandar are preparing for war. But before an invasion can begin, they must call a rare gathering of all seventeen lords to decide a course of action. Lady Amalia Cornaro knows that this Conclave might be her only chance to stifle the growing flames of war, and she is ready to make any sacrifice if it means saving Raverra from destruction. Amalia and Zaira must go behind enemy lines, using every ounce of wit and cunning they have, to sway Vaskandar from war. Or else it will all come down to swords and fire."

Also on 26 April, Orbit publish Everything About You, a debut by Heather Child. "Freya has a new virtual assistant. It knows what she likes, knows what she wants and knows whose voice she most needs to hear: her missing sister's. It adopts her sister's personality, recreating her through a life lived online. This data ghost knows everything about Freya's sister: every date she ever went on, every photo she took, every secret she ever shared. In fact it knows things it shouldn't be possible to know. It's almost as if her sister is still out there somewhere, feeding fresh updates into the cloud. But that's impossible. Isn't it?"

28 April sees publication of Keeper by Johana Gustawsson (Orenda, next in the Roy and Castells series, following from last year's Block 46.)  The story swings from London and France to Sweden again, and then back to Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel... On a minor point, just look at the continuity in cover design with those slashing knives....

May

May sees the return of several authors I love to read, as well as some who are new to me. First, one of the latter - The Beast's Heart by Leife Shallcross-  (Hodder & Stoughton, 3 May) is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast from the Beast's perspective... hoping for some aching romance here and a bit of fairytale magic.

Also out on 3 May (from Point Blank) and bound to deliver magic is Strange Fascination, the third Essex Witches mystery by Syd Moore. I'm enjoying these stories of the Essex Witch Museum and the paranormal investigations undertaken as a sideline by its staff. There are tantalising hints of a mysterious background and we get to see the story behind various historical mysteries. Strongly recommended.


As if that wasn't enough, there are MORE of my fave authors coming back in May. On 8 May Titan publish the third of Andrew Cartmel's Vinyl Detective books, The Vinyl Detective: Victory Disc by Andrew Cartmel. If Strange Fascination gives an insight into the byways of England's strange history, The Vinyl Detective (we never hear his name) is a window into the subculture of obsessive record collectors with our hero inevitably embroiled in plots and capers which always have just a little touch of the odd. It's not exactly crime but it sort of is, if you see what I mean.

The Old You by Louise Voss (Orenda, 15 May) promises to be an excellent, Hitchcockian psychological thriller. A man develops early-onset dementia and dark secrets from his past emerge... 

On 17 May Orbit publish The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, a debut by Tyler Whitesides. "Ardor Benn is no ordinary thief - master of wildly complex heists, he styles himself a Ruse Artist Extraordinaire. When a priest hires him for the most daring ruse yet, Ardor knows he'll need more than quick wit and sleight of hand. Assembling a dream team of forgers, disguisers, schemers and thieves, he sets out to steal from the most powerful king the realm has ever known. But it soon becomes clear there's more at stake than fame and glory - Ard and his team might just be the last hope for human civilisation."

Another book from Orenda - Fault Lines by Doug Johnstone (22 May) looks like one of those compelling but impossible to categorise (SF? Crime? Mystery?) stories. A volcano has emerged in the modern-day Firth of Forth, just off Edinburgh, forming an island called The Inch. A young woman finds the body of her lover (and boss) there, and pockets his phone without telling anyone. Only someone was watching...

*DRUMROLL*

Then, I have news of books by two of my favourite superstar authors, Sarah Pinborough and Claire North. You MUST have read their books, if you haven't there is no hope for you, so get these on order NOW as they both promise to be SUPERB.

Sarah Pinborough, whose Behind Her Eyes last year can only be described as f***ing creepy, has a new book, out from HarperCollins on 17 May.

"‘Cross my heart and hope to die…’

Promises only last if you trust each other, but what if one of you is hiding something?

A secret no one could ever guess.

Someone is living a lie.

Is it Lisa?

Maybe it’s her daughter, Ava.

Or could it be her best friend, Marilyn?"

As for Claire North (The End of the Day, The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Touch, The First fifteen Lives of Harry August), her new book is 84K and is out on 24 May from Orbit. 

"From one of the most original new voices in modern fiction comes a startling vision of a world where nothing is so precious that it can't be bought...

Theo Miller knows the value of human life - to the very last penny.

Working in the Criminal Audit Office, he assesses each crime that crosses his desk and makes sure the correct debt to society is paid in full.

But when his ex-lover is killed, it's different. This is one death he can't let become merely an entry on a balance sheet.

Because when the richest in the world are getting away with murder, sometimes the numbers just don't add up."


And finally for May, two more sequels I'm excited about: Gemma Todd is back with Hunted (Headline, 31 May) following up on Defender, set in a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by voices heard in the head, and Andrew Caldecott has Wyntertide, the sequel to Rotherweird (31 May, Jo Fletcher Books). Rotherweird is a wonderfully realised fantasy about a "lost" English town where slightly different rules apply. Eccentrics abound and outsider aren't exactly unwelcome, but not encouraged either. It has a delightful sense of the "might" about it and I'm looking forward to more of the magic.


June

June promises to be another packed month. To begin with, there is a new Peter Grant mystery from Ben Aaronovitch. Lies Sleeping (Gollancz) promises a confrontation (with the Faceless Man, perhaps?) and warns that London is under threat. I don't have a date for this one though Amazon has an untitled Aaronovitch for 21 June - suggestive, but the case remains open. Keep your eyes peeled.

Then, on 5 June, Titan are publishing His Mermaid by Christina Henry who has previously delivered some marvellous, gritty and perceptive reimaginings of Lewis Carroll's Alice and of Peter Pan. Now she turns to another familiar story, the mermaid who leaves the sea for the land. But Amelia ends up in the entourage of the greatest showman of all time, PT Barnum. She leave any time she wants. Of course she can.

Also from Titan on 5 June is The Captives by Debra Jo Immergul. Prison psychologist Frank Lundquist is astonished to see Miranda Greene walk into his office. But why is Miranda, the girl he was in love with at school, serving time for murder? And why does Frank, whose life is unravelling after a scandal, remain as her psychologist rather than admit he knows her? Miranda is determined not to stay in jail, and as Frank’s obsession with her grows, they unleash a wildly risky chain of events, with dire consequences.

Sharing that publication date - 5 June - is The Outsider from Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton) - a crime thriller featuring a suspect who is apparently in two places at once...

June also sees publication of Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Doubleday, 14 June). (NB this is listed as "Untitled" by Amazon but a book of the same description with this name is listed in the penguin Australia catalogue, so...)

"It is 1928 and Matilda Simpkin, now in her late fifties, rooting through the boot cupboard, finds a small club in an old pair of galoshes. Giving it a thoughtful twirl she is finally struck by an idea. Mattie is a woman with a thrilling past and a chafingly uneventful present. During the Women's Suffrage Campaign, she marched, she sang and she heckled Winston Churchill. She was gaoled nine times. But she is still searching for a fresh mould into which she can pour her energies. Nothing - nothing - since then has had the same depth, the same level of excitement.After all, what do you do next after you've changed the world?"

I loved Evans' previous books, Their Finest Hour and a Half (which was filmed last year) and Crooked Heart so I'm really looking forward to another from her.

Also appearing on 14 June is The Old Religion by Martyn Waites (Zaffre). Tom Killgannon, an ex undercover policeman who's made some very bad enemies, is in hiding in the Cornish village of St Petroc. When he helps Lila, a girl in a different sort of danger, he only brings more trouble down on himself. Described as a "dark, twisted fast-paced and literate page-turner" this looks like the perfect book to take away on your seaside holiday to Cornwall...


Then, on 15 June, there's Kerry Hadley-Pryce's Gamble. (Salt Publishing). "Greg Gamble: he’s a teacher, he works hard, he’s a husband, a father. He’s a good man, or tries to be. But even a good man can face a crisis. Even a good man can face temptation. Even a good man can find himself faced with difficult choices.

Greg Gamble: he thinks he can keep his head in the game. He thinks he’s trying to be good. Until he realises everyone is flawed.

And for Gamble, trying to be good just isn’t enough."

I loved Hadley-Pryce's The Black Country, an absorbing and troubling account of things gone wrong in the English Midlands, a book that draws you in and leaves you thinking long after turning the last page. So I'm desperate to see what she does next.

In The Visit by Sarah Stovell (Orenda, 20 June) A young woman, Annie, looking for her birth-mother takes a job as a nanny in a wealthy household and becomes a close friend of Helen who is struggling to cope with her three children. When one of the babies is injured, the finger is though pointed at Annie. But did she do it?

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (Titan, 26 June) is described as "an intense novel of psychological horror and suspense." It features a family on holiday who are terrorised by four strangers... but this isn't just about survive in the face of an external threat. These strangers are concerned with the end of the world, either bringing it about or averting it. or so they


Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi (28 June, Gollancz) postulates a 1938 in which death has been defeated - to be replaced by a colonialist scramble for the afterlife, for Summerland. Featuring SIS agents and a Soviet told, Summerland takes the Great Game into an unknown country. Really keen to see what Rajaniemi does after his Quantum Thief trilogy.


July - September

It doesn't end there, of course, there are some great books coming in the second half of the year. Just to note a few highlights, The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross is out on 5 July (Orbit). This is the latest instalment in his Laundry series. The UK Government has now been brought under the control of an ancient evil, aided and abetted by The Laundry, the agency supposed to keep the country safe. What comes next?

On 10 July, Nick Eames' Bloody Rose (Orbit) is out - the followup to his Kings of the Wyld which treats fantasy mercenaries in the style of Rock'n'Roll gods. "Tam Hashford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown.When the biggest mercenary band of all rolls into town, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard.  It's adventure she wants-and adventure she gets as the crew embark on a quest that will end in one of two ways: glory or death. It's time to take a walk on the wyld side."

Vivian Shaw's Dreadful Company is out from Orbit on 26 July: "When Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead, is called to Paris to present at a medical conference, she expects nothing more exciting than professional discourse on zombie reconstructive surgery. Unfortunately for Greta, Paris happens to be infested with a coven of vampires - and not the civilised kind. If she hopes to survive, Greta must navigate the maze of ancient catacombs beneath the streets, where there is more to find than simply dead men's bones. The fabric of reality itself is under attack, and with the help of a couple of remedial psychopomps, a werewolf, two demons and her London friends, it's up to Greta to put things right." Shaw's previous book, Strange Medicine, introduced Greta and her, well, strange medical practice in London, catering to a VERY unusual patient base. Great to see a follow-up to this.

August sees the third (and final?) of Angela Slatter's Verity Fassbinder books, Restoration (Jo Fletcher, 9 August) with Verity now bound to a psychotic fallen angel. All Verity's mistakes seem about to come back to haunt her...

In September, I'm looking forward to Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 6 September). I so much enjoy Atkinson's books, so pleased to see another one coming! And there's Vengeful by VE Schwab (Titan, 25 September). Followup to Vicious - the first of VE's books I read. SO looking forward to more from that world!

There are also new books in the second half of the year from Orenda authors Lucy Hay and Michael Stanley as well as Louise Beech's The Lion Tamer who Lost - I love Beech's portrayal of character and place in her books published so far and new books by Michael J. Malone, Kati Hiekkapelto (Embers) Lilja Sigurdardottir and Antti Tuomainen (Palm Beach, Finland)

Note on gender balance: If I've counted right, the books listed here, excluding the previous paragraph, split 13:21 between make and female authors (so far as I can tell).

30 December 2017

Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2018 - Part One

I never seem to get organised enough to offer up a list of favourite books of the year as many other bloggers do. Hats off to them, as these lists are endlessly fascinating, but instead I'm going to look to the future, not the past.

Here are some of the books I'm aware of coming in 2018 which I think look exciting. I've put this list together from catalogues, what I've been told by publishers, what I've picked up on Twitter and of course from that old standby, the Amazon database. This part covers January - March, Part Two will cover the rest of the year (though focussing on April - June as I have less information further out).

I'm hoping to read many of them, although I might not manage all.

As always, details may change, dates may go back, books may even not appear. Time and chance happeneth to all. Any errors are of course down to me. Cover images are from authors' or publishers' websites: happy to remove these if the owners wish that.

January

First, some crime suitable for the cold, dark time of the year. Dark Pines by Will Dean is out on 4 January from Point Blank - I'll be reviewing it or the blogtour. It's a tense mystery set in the Swedish forests where a young reporter tries to penetrate layers of local obstruction to discover who is murdering hunters in the woods... and cutting out their eyes.


Continuing with the crime, on 5 January Steph Broadribb's Deep Blue Trouble is out from Orenda. A followup to Deep Down Dead, this is another adventure for bounty hunter Lori Anderson, now cutting dodgy deals with the FBI (topical or what?) Deep Down Dead is a very violent, very real, story and I may just have fallen a bit for Lori and oh I want to read more about her.

On the SFF side I'm really looking forward to Dark State by Charles Stross (Tor, 11 January) and I have this one on NetGalley so WILL be reviewing. The second in his Empire Games follow-up trilogy, revisiting the world of the Merchant Princes ten years later, it pits a corrupt and genocidal US Administration and its shadowy agents against a revolutionary alt-US.

In the middle is the granddaughter by adoption of a deep-cover East German agent - who happens to be the daughter of Miriam Beckstein, the main protagonist in Merchant Princes and now rather important in the revolutionary government. With both sides nuclear armed, the stakes are high.

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown is out on 16 January from Hodder.

Just let me say that again.

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown is out on 16 January. 

THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Picking up ten years after Morning Star left off (hmm.. what is it about 10 years...?) this carries forward the Red Rising trilogy (Red Rising/ Golden Son/ Morning Star) to address new challenges, new enemies and new protagonists. But never fear! Darrow, The Reaper, is back, as pig-headed as ever, and his Howlers with him. Like the previous trilogy, this is a book that'll have you afraid to turn the page for fear of what's going to happen next... full review to follow soon.

Interestingly, both Iron Gold and Dark State are in their different ways about how to build a just society after the revolution. Stross even references the "early days of a better nation" catchphrase. (See also The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.) Perhaps it's a healthy sign in the current dire state of politics that writers are looking ahead like this?

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor is also published on 16 January by Tor.com, completing the trilogy of short novels that started with Binti and continued in Binti: Home. This is compelling SF told from an African perspective.

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft (Orbit, 18 January) introduces a world where the Tower of Babel survived... and how. The story of how Senlin, a retiring schoolteacher who's lost his wife Marya in what seems like the world's most chaotic market, promises wonders as this less than perfect man strives to be better. 

Back to crime with The Confession by Jo Spain (Quercus, 25 January). Here's the blurb: "Late one night a man walks into the luxurious home of disgraced banker Harry McNamara and his wife Julie. The man launches an unspeakably brutal attack on Harry as a horror-struck Julie watches, frozen by fear. Just an hour later the attacker, JP Carney, has handed himself in to the police. He confesses to beating Harry to death, but JP claims that the assault was not premeditated and that he didn't know the identity of his victim. With a man as notorious as Harry McNamara, the detectives cannot help wondering, was this really a random act of violence or is it linked to one of Harry's many sins: corruption, greed, betrayal? This gripping psychological thriller will have you questioning, who - of Harry, Julie and JP - is really the guilty one? And is Carney's surrender driven by a guilty conscience or is his confession a calculated move in a deadly game?"


The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (out on 25 January from Headline) is a post-apocalyptic story which explores the impact of a networked society, when the network is in your head... and breaks down. Think EM Forster's The Machine Stops, dialled up to 11. I'm reviewing this for its blogtour and please believe me, it's good.

Finally, for January, Shadowsong by S Jae Jones (Titan, 30 January) promises the same intoxicating mix of music, romance and fantasy as her Wintersong and I'm looking forward to that A LOT.

"Six months after the end of Wintersong, Liesl is working toward furthering both her brother s and her own musical careers. Although she is determined to look forward and not behind, life in the world above is not as easy as Liesl had hoped. Her younger brother Josef is cold, distant, and withdrawn, while Liesl can't forget the austere young man she left beneath the earth, and the music he inspired in her. When troubling signs arise that the barrier between worlds is crumbling, Liesl must return to the Underground to unravel the mystery of life, death, and the Goblin King who he was, who he is, and who he will be. What will it take to break the old laws once and for all? What is the true meaning of sacrifice when the fate of the world or the ones Liesl loves is in her hands?"

Wintersong was good company on a foul wet night in a cheap hotel (it was a work trip) in Manchester so I can testify to its power!

February

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire is published on 1 February by Tor.com. This is the third in McGuire's series which asks who provides care afterwards for the kids who visited Fairyland or Wonderland or an Otherworld. You can't expect they'll just slip back into normal life, can you?

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Little, Brown, 1 February) follows up her The Dry which was a blazing murder mystery set in rural Australia. Force of Nature again features Aaron Falk, this time searching for a missing woman, Alice Russell, who's disappeared on a teambuilding hike. Falk knows that Russell knew secrets about a case he's involved with, and takes an especial interest in her whereabouts.

Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin (Titan, 6 February) is a debut described by Marian Keyes as "a unique, feminist coming-of-age novel, set in a fascinating post-technology world. Clever, beautifully written and compelling." Nell Crane lives in a city devastated by an epidemic. The survivors all have parts missing, replaced by biomech. So does Nell, but for her, it's her heart.

Moonshine by Jasmine Gower is published by Angry Robot on 6 February. It's a fantasy about a young woman starting a new job in sophisticated Soot City (which is not unlike 1920s Chicago). She has, though, a secret and it's one that could destroy her new life as the Mage Hunters close in.


The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale (Del Rey, 8 February) features a magical toy emporium that provides an island of enchantment during the grim years of the Great War. But it has secrets (of course it does...)

Also on 8 February, Zaffre are publishing the latest instalment of David Young's Karin Müller series (Stasi Child, Stasi Wolf). A Darker State sees Müller investigate the murder of a teenage boy. But she's under the eyes of the Stasi, and events begin to touch her team... this sounds another tense and intelligent thriller from Young.

8 February is going to be busy - it also sees publication of The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne (Hamish Hamilton) is described as "a tragicomic tale of modern living... a tale of sadistic estate agents and catastrophic open marriages, helicopter parents and Internet trolls, riots on the streets of London, and one very immature man finally learning to grow up." I loved Dunthorne's Wild Abandon and I'm pleased to see another book by him coming.


Blood of Assassins by RJ Barker is out from Orbit on 13 February. MOAR Girton Club-Foot! Whoop! I'm not normally the greatest fan of straight fantasy but I loved Age of Assassins. But then it's not straight fantasy!

Look at the blurb for the new book. "To save a king, kill a king. The assassin Girton Club-foot and his master have returned to Maniyadoc in hope of finding sanctuary, but death, as always, dogs Girton's heels. The place he knew no longer exists. War rages across Maniyadoc, with three kings claiming the same crown - and one of them is Girton's old friend Rufra. Girton finds himself hurrying to uncover a plot to murder Rufra on what should be the day of the king's greatest victory. But while Girton deals with threats inside and outside Rufra's war encampment, he can't help wondering if his greatest enemy hides beneath his own skin."

Barker's writing presents a strikingly different take on the "hero", the fantasy society and its relationship with magic. Age is something of a coming-of-age story, which I know is a sub-genre some are wary of, but I thought it was all the better for that as it grounds Girton in a very recognisable setting (among the weirdness). I'm looking to see how a slightly older, wiser Girton behaves.

London Rules by Mick Herron (John Murray, 15 February) is the 5th Jackson Lamb thriller. Lamb's job is esssentially to mind MI5's collection of "slow horses", officers who are less high fliers than low ploughers. But despite having been filed away in decaying Slough House, they have a knack for being at the centre of things, and in London Rules, it sounds as though Herron's fund a zinger of a plot for them to gatecrash.

"London Rules might not be written down, but everyone knows rule one. Cover your arse. Regent's Park's First Desk, Claude Whelan, is learning this the hard way. Tasked with protecting a beleaguered prime minister, he's facing attack from all directions himself: from the showboating MP who orchestrated the Brexit vote, and now has his sights set on Number Ten; from the showboat's wife, a tabloid columnist, who's crucifying Whelan in print; and especially from his own deputy, Lady Di Taverner, who's alert for Claude's every stumble..."

Kiss Me Kill Me by JS Carol (Zaffre, 22 February) is a psychological thriller focussed on Zoe, who meets a man. he's everything she wants... until they're married, when she discovers the truth and wants out. Be careful who you trust, as the streamline notes...

Finally for February, Blue Night (Orenda, 28 February) is a German crime thriller, the first in the Chastity Riley series by Simone Buchholz. Describes as having a strong female protagonist and as "very literary, very Chandler" it sounds like an exciting debut from a publisher that definitely keeps delivering the goods.

March

Jo Walton's Starlings (Tachyon) is out on 1 March, a collection of stories that "shines through subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. Through eclectic stories, subtle vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and magic—rising from the everyday into the universe itself."

Kin by Snorri Kristjansson (Jo Fletcher, 8 March) is the first of the Helga Finnsdottir mysteries, described as "Viking noir" as Finnsdottir attends a family reunion and finds herself having to solve a mystery with an impossible suspect.

The Hollow Tree by James Brogden (Titan, 13 March). I enjoyed Brogden's Hekla's Children last year - a full on fantasy rooted in the real world, and real lives, of the Midlands, and I'm pleased see this story, of a woman who, following an accident in which she loses her hand, begins to have nightmares in which she reaches out to someone in a hollow tree - someone she pulls into the real world...

Autonomous by Analee Newtiz (Orbit, 15 March) looks FUN. "Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap medicines for those who can't otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane. Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his indentured robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack's drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understands. And underlying it all is one fundamental question: is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?"

Stone Mad (Karen Memory) by Elizabeth Bear is out on 20 March from Tor.com - really looking forward to reading more about Karen, and her steampunk-Victorian Pacific Northwest US setting. Karen Memory, the previous book, introduced the irrepressible Karen Memery (note spelling) and she's now back in a story about spiritualists, magicians, con-men, and an angry lost tommy-knocker--a magical creature who generally lives in the deep gold mines of Alaska, but has been kidnapped and brought to Rapid City.

Ragnar Jonasson, author of the Dark Iceland sequence, has a new mystery, The Darkness (Michael Joseph, 22 March), the first in the Hidden Iceland sequence - which is being told in reverse order beginning with this story of Hulda Hermannsdottir who is about to retire from the Reykjavik Police. What will her last case be? The Darkness will be followed by The Island and The Mist. On the evidence of his earlier books this promises to be a treat for the crime reader and especially for lovers of Nordic noir.

We Were The Salt of the Sea (Orenda, 30 March) is described as a beautiful literary thriller from French Canadian author Roxanne Bouchard, set on the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, and is bound to draw comparisons with Annie Proulx. "As Montrealer Catherine Day sets foot in a remote fishing village and starts asking around about her birth mother, the body of a woman dredges up in a fisherman's nets. Not just any woman, though: Marie Garant, an elusive, nomadic sailor and unbridled beauty who once tied many a man's heart in knots. Detective Sergeant Joaquin Morales, newly drafted to the area from the suburbs of Montreal, barely has time to unpack his suitcase before he's thrown into the deep end of the investigation...."

End Game by Matt Johnson (Orenda, 31 March) is the final book in Johnson's Robert Finlay trilogy which has been informed by Johnson's own experiences in the Metropolitan Police, including his struggles with PTSD which are reflected in Finlay's story. Both Wicked Game and Deadly Game were unsparing in the pain inflicted on Finlay, or the violence he was prepared to deal out to see right done. Both wove fascinating, compelling narratives far removed from being routine, hairy-chested thrillers. I'm looking forward to seeing how Johnson closes the story (but also dreading what may happen!)

In Part Two I'll cover the rest of the year. Don't go away...

Note on gender balance: If I've counted right, the books listed here split 15:13 between male and female authors (so far as I can tell).



17 December 2017

Review - Terror Tales of Cornwall, ed by Paul Finch

Terror Tales of Cornwall
ed Paul Finch
PB, 283pp

This review first appeared in The Ghosts and Scholars MR James Newsletter, No 32, Autumn 2017.

I'm grateful for a review copy of this book.

This isn’t a collection of traditional ghost stories or folktales. Rather, the stories in this book are by modern authors. Between the stories are short essays about mysterious Cornwall, and about some of the authors who have been inspired by it. Here we meet Daphne du Maurier, but also the Morgawr, or Cornish sea-monster, fairies, piskies, giants, smugglers, murderers and many more. These sections draw both on traditions and more recent sightings and claims. These essays don't attempt to introduce the stories directly although there are some resonances - but they powerfully add to the mood of the book.

There is a good overall liminal sense to this collection. A county unlike any other in England (I write "in England" advisedly, given some of the content here), Cornwall juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, putting it at more than just a physical distance from the rest of the country. There are other boundaries as well: the distinction between the remote, inner landscape and the popular seaside resorts; between the locals and the visitors; the new and the old; the safe and the - unsafe. Boundaries seem to be especially significant places in horror. We can approach them. We can get too close. Things can come over. All of this creates endless opportunities for that chilling feeling you get when, on the warmest day, a cloud hides the sun.

And the authors take full advantage. Tasked with writing tales "of Cornwall" some have produced stories that draw heavily on Cornish tradition, atmosphere and themes, while some are simply set in Cornwall (and which might perhaps have equally been set anywhere else). I'm glad to say that the former are in the majority as that seems more in the spirit of the exercise, although there are some strong stories in both categories.

The book contains sixteen stories in all. In We Who Sing Beneath the Ground (Mark Morris) a dedicated teacher crosses a boundary when she follows up a non-attending pupil, turning up late one evening at the dilapidated farm where he lives to find all the lights out. But there's worse to come. This was a good opening story, bringing in a distinctly Cornish angle as well as an element of the fantastic that fitted well with the guidebook-style commentaries on Cornish myths and monsters that alternate with the stories themselves. As its title suggests In the Light of St Ives (Ray Cluley) also features light and dark, when a young artists tries to erase her work because the colours – particular colours – are seeping out. Again this reflects a distinctly Cornish theme - the artistic colony of St Ives – and has a nice effect of "pleasing terror" as we gradually discern what is wrong.

Trouble at Botathan (Reggie Oliver) is an authentically Jamesian story in which a young undergraduate discovers a harrowing narrative hidden in the library of a remote house on Bodmin Moor. It reveals a ghastly crime, and takes him out to a mysterious wood with its own guardian.

Mebyon versus Suna (John Whitbourn) begins as a more lighthearted tale and one which takes place outside Cornwall. It illustrates what happens when frictions between the Celt and Saxon come to the surface in the borderlands between two ancient kingdoms (and also perhaps pokes gentle fun at modern nationalisms which see the past through such 19th century, invented lenses). There is less terror here, perhaps – or so it seems – but there is a nice twist.

The Unseen (Paul Edwards) is perhaps only incidentally Cornish but is a horror story that would feel perfectly at home in one of the classic 1970s Pan anthologies, focussing on a particularly nasty DVD and a, shall we say, lacklustre father who allows his obsession with it to lead him astray. it's effective, nicely done and will stay with the reader. Dragon Path (Jacqueline Simpson) on the other hand is wonderfully shameless in its pillaging and piling up of the most vainglorious aspects of modern Celticism and New Age syncretism, to the point where you feel that in his showdown on Bodmin Moor the central character Mick is really going to come unstuck. But then something very nasty happens and it becomes a very real story. Great fun.

The Old Traditions are Best (Paul Finch) draws on that eerie atmosphere that can attend a fair, a carnival or - as here - a village festival (the scariest killings in Midsomer Murders take place at the Village Fete, don't they?) when the masks, the costumes and the ritual take over and the humanity is lost. Again drawing on custom and tradition, this was one of my favourite stories in the book

The Uncertainty of Earthly Things (Mark Valentine) arguably isn't actually terror or horror, it's more one of those epiphanies where a veil is split showing something else behind the solidity of life. The indifference of that something can provoke horror, blessed relief or curiosity. Here, it's a mixture of the three. This was another of my favourites, not least for the contrast between the cosy, dusty life of its museum curator protagonist and the truth of what is revealed. 

His Anger Was Kindled (Kate Farrell) is genuinely spine chilling, even if, I think only Cornish. I enjoyed the collision between a single minded elderly clergyman and the bureaucrat despatched to fire him (even if the story does ride roughshod over how things actually happen in the Church of England). Another story that simply uses a Cornish location is Four Windows and a Door (DP Watt) allows childlike innocence to collide with something very... un-innocent. All the stronger for being, at its heart, mysterious, this story does share a feature with The Memory of Stone (Sarah Singleton) - a father who, following a catastrophe, retires to brood on the Cornish coast. Watt's protagonist is easier to sympathise with than Singleton's, a middle aged man who turns stalker when he meets an attractive young woman, thereby bringing disgrace on himself and I found myself rather hoping that the strange pebble-leaving creatures would harm him. But maybe they're just an externalisation of the shame and self disgust he feels?

Claws (Steve Jordan) echoes The Old Traditions are Best in exploring brash, jangling creepiness - this time of an amusement arcade. The Cornish angle comes from the presence of something else, something bent on making mischief. Again, in the way that this something strikes against guilty and innocent alike, the story provides a true sense of horror as does A Beast by Any Other Name (Adrian Cole) which is, surprisingly, the only story in the book to feature the mines and caverns of Cornwall, pairing them with another legends, that of the Beast of Bodmin. But something more evil, more dangerous than a mere monster is at work here. A creepy, effective story – one of those where a subtle change at the end casts a new light on the earlier narrative.

Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning (Mark Samuels) is another little mystery. Creepy, not particularly rooted in anything Cornish, it takes its impetus, as it were, from the artifice of the theatre. Still chilling, mind.

In Shelter from the Storm (Ian Hunter) a group of Explorer Scouts on a training walk take shelter (from a storm) and foolishly stumble into something ancient that they ought to have left alone. While pretty chilling, I felt at times was slightly stretching what the boys would actually do – yes, I know, going into the old creepy house/ castle/ church despite the obvious scariness of the place is a bit of a cliche and Hunter provides good motivation for that, but perhaps less so for what they do next.

The last story, Losing its Identity (Thana Niveau) was, for me, the strangest in the book (and my very favourite). Framed by extracts from the Shipping Forecast, that invocation of British maritime topography, it is almost science-fictional in one respect, the treatment of a future of rising sea levels and increasing storms which is, bit by bit, drowning Cornwall. There's nothing supernatural, nothing eerily or creepily horrible in this and in some respects it's rather a gentle story. But it is one that rather haunts me.

Overall, this is a strong collection. The "Cornish" theme, however the particular authors choose to interpret it, delivers a focus which adds to the overall sense of place. For example, we hear the same place names repeated from story to story. A grumble in one story about the time taken to get to Penzance on the train sheds light on a couple of others. The factual information about wreckers and the murder of shipwrecked sailors is at the back of one's mind in one or two other places even if those aren't central events in them, as are the more modern examples of the weird which add an "anything can happen" sense to the stories (which are mainly set in the present, or recent past). Perhaps most of all, the sheer chanciness of life on this peninsula, especially when that life depends on the sea, injects an element of potential danger and menace that pervades every story in the book, almost as though the reader can taste the salt and hear the murmur of the waves.

Strongly recommended, whether you are after a good tingle of terror or just a dollop of satisfying atmosphere.