18 March 2018

Review - Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Cover by Will Staehl
Annalee Newitz
Orbit, 15 March 2018
PB, 291pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a copy of Autonomous to review.

In the future of 2144, things are not bright, even if the cover of this book is orange. The chained robot arm depicted here reflects the spirit of the time - corrosive property rights and free market ideology that have displaced states and tainted science, a shadowy International Property Coalition using its own armed forces to investigate and punish transgressions, patents - seemingly of indefinite duration - treated as Holy Writ and the poor sold into indentured servitude.

The insatiable lust of the market to turn everything into property is illustrated by a glitteringly casuistical argument: once it was accepted that bots, which start as property can, being intelligent, earn their autonomy, it also surely follows that humans, born free, can enter servitude (read: slavery). And the consequences follow - in a particularly grim scene, we see the "human resources" markets of Las Vegas where "The Alice Shop" sells just what the name suggests.

Yet there is hope. Free Labs attempt to generate inventions outside the proprietary system, and bio pirates reverse-engineer and clone drugs for the benefit of the poor. But they are always waiting for the moment when their labs will be raided by the IPC's goons.

Against this background, Newitz sets up a deceptively simply story, essentially a chase. The notorious "Captain" Jack Chen, is a pirate, smuggler and, to the IPC, a terrorist. She has inadvertently copied a new drug which is very dangerous indeed. The IPC will kill to protect its secrets, so as she attempts to put right the damage she's done, Jack knows there will be a pursuit.

That pursuit is led by a man - Eliasz - and an indentured robot, Paladin, enforcers for the IPC. As we watch them close in on Jack, we see how ruthless they can be, alternately wheedling their way in with activists, scientists and the counterculture generally, and using extreme force ("That was the last useful information they got out of her, though they continued to beat and drug her for the next three hours...")

Eliasz and Paladin seem like monsters. They certainly often act like monsters. Yet at the same time, they are in a delicate, evolving and even beautiful relationship, which Newitz portrays all the more powerfully for there almost being no references that we can use for what it is. Even as he murders and mains, Paladin is running queries, trying to understand what Eliasz is feeling. There are almost humorous scenes where he seeks advice from other robots.

And yet there's a power imbalance here that casts a shadow over the relationship, if we follow through the implications. Paladin is shackled to Eliasz, not physically but by little routines and programs with cynical names like "gdoggie", which manipulate and control his responses. He is not "autonomous". And ultimately Paladin is owned by IPC, not even by Eliasz himself so whatever accomodation arises between them may not survive the duration of the mission. As the two grow close we have to wonder how far Paladin would be free to say "no". Questions of freedom, of control and of destiny hang in the air.

At the same as we are learning about Eliasz and Paladin, Newitz gives us episodes from some 30 years earlier showing Jack's early life and the web of relationships that formed around her as she grew up, progressing from youthful radical to jailed activist to smuggler and pirate. These, together with her travels, and those of the IPC agents, between Canada and North Africa, the main locations in the book, sketch what society has become and establish a wealth of believable characters seeking, in various ways, to subvert or ameliorate the grip of the corporations on peoples' lives.

The plot itself may be straightforward, but with all these carefully layered and nuanced relationships Newitz deftly echoes the themes of autonomy and dependence which she explores with Paladin and Eliasz. The result is a satisfyingly complex read where nothing is ever quite what it seems and nobody - human or bot - is entirely in the right (or the wrong).

A genuinely fresh and thought provoking read and a book I stayed up late into the night to finish.

For more about Autonomous, see the publisher's website here.

14 March 2018

Review - Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

Arm of the Sphinx (The Books of Babel, 2)
Josiah Bancroft
Orbit, 15 March 2018
PB, 398pp

I'm grateful to Orbit and to the awesome Nazia for an advance copy of Arm of the Sphinx.

So. That tricky second book, eh? Following the acclaim for Senlin Ascends (my review here) Orbit have published the successor volume quickly, although we'll have to wait till December for The Hod King. So how good is it as a followup?

Indeed, how do you followup the central premise of that book - that the Tower, beacon of civilisation, the Lighthouse of the world, is really just a squalid mess of competing statelets, bleeding tourists dry and making them into hods - hopeless slaves doomed to port cargo up secret stairways in the Tower? (Not only a wicked thing to do - but pointless: as we know or son learn, the world in which the Tower stands has railways, airships, lifts, electricity and indeed, still more advanced technologies).

Bancroft therefore gave himself a tough task. My judgement is that he succeeds in making Arm of the Sphinx as compelling a book as Senlin Ascends. There isn't anything to quite match the creeping realisation of the truth about the Tower, rather, after we see a bit more of it - the Silk Reef is another fantastically drawn level - Senlin - or should I say Captain Tom Mudd? - and his crew are forced to seek refuge for their ship while carrying on repairs and are therefore "ashore" for much of this novel.

That doesn't mean that nothing happens, but the book isn't (after the opening section) the swashbuckling story of derring-do that Senlin's life seemed to be turning into at the end of the last book. Rather, it becomes a quite taut, psychological study of the different cremates as they kick their heels in a most strange part of the tower, and are tested in various ways (not least, in their faith in Senlin).

Through that testing, we learn - perhaps - more about the true nature and purpose of the Tower itself (this, if anything, is the counterpart to the horror in the first book at what it has become: something of a redemption, or at least, a possible redemption. But what we learn is from a very unreliable source who is, as becomes clear, pursuing their own agenda and keeping secrets from the crew - even while encouraging them to share their own secrets. That sharing isn't altogether a bad thing (certainly it means that Tom himself reaches a better place) but the overall setup is worrying. Having escaped Finn Goll, are the crew now just pawns of someone else?

So, this book gives the reader plenty to reflect on and sets up some dramatic confrontations in The Hod King. There's a well-drawn, three-dimensional roster of characters with Senlin, in particular, having moved on from the self-obsessed, heedless tourist of the earlier book to a resourceful and capable protagonist. And the team are now being drawn into wider - and older - mysteries. Arm of the Sphinx is a worthy sequel to Senlin Ascends and is neither just "more of the same" nor simply marking time to the next book.

But, oh, WHY do we now have to wait so long for the next book?

12 March 2018

Review - The Hollow Tree by James Brogden

Cover design by Julia Lloyd
The Hollow Tree
James Brogden
Titan Books, 13 March 2018
PB, 478pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for an advance copy of The Hollow Tree.

Mary in the oak tree
Cold as cold can be
Waiting for the sky to fall
Who will dance with me?

Shortly before the end of the Second World War, a young woman's body is found hidden in a tree in the Lickey Hills, south of Birmingham. Who is she and how did she get there? Who did dance with Mary?

Theories grow up to fill the vacuum.

She was a witch, killed in some sinister ritual.

She was a foreign spy.

She was a sex worker, murdered by a client one dark night.

Theories, but no answers.

Until Rachel Cooper suffers a horrific accident, losing her left hand. As she makes her recovery, she begins to feel things with that missing hand. Is this just normal phantom pain following an amputation? Or more? As she rebuilds her life, Rachel, and her husband Tom, are drawn into the mystery of Mary - of all the Marys. Some sort of boundary has been crossed, and the uncanny is loose. Can it be contained? Can Rachel find out what happened to Mary, and save her from the in-between world that she senses with her missing hand?

This book shares the modern Birmingham setting of Brogden's Hekla's Children, published last year, which similarly brought supernatural weirdness and paradox to trouble and perplex - and menace - the present. It's eerily effective. Rachel, the main protagonist, is capable, and coping well with her loss. Brogden grounds her and Tom in a believable relationship, furnished with slightly controlling in-laws and family secrets. The effect on Rachel of her injury is explored, as well as the difference it makes to Tom and both drive the story in ways that only become clear as it unfolds.

At the heart of that story are three women, and three acts of male violence. The unfortunate Mary is, effectively, challenged to be one of those victims - take your pick. She is, though, more than a victim. She is just as resolute and self-sufficient as Rachel and together the two women defy death (several deaths) and whatever rules in that shadowy Otherworld - even when this puts others in peril. It is a fantasy, but a fantasy with the drive and menace of a thriller, as the combatants duel across the city and across time for high stakes.

I was intrigued by the way that Brogden handles possibilities in the book. It is a very quantum horror story! What really happened? Well, that depends on how you look and what you want to see. What happened in the past doesn't stay in the past, and the present, though built on that past, filters through the layers of time to affect the past. It's never completely sure how fixed this is - what would Rachel find if she went back to visit a certain gravestone in a Birmingham churchyard at the end of the book? - and that's part of the mystery and appeal. Hekla's Children played a particular game with time and causality which wasn't apparent almost till the end: in this book it's much clearer what is going on, with parallel narratives for the three Marys, but even so Brogden does bowl a couple of googlies that I didn't see coming at all. And the pace of the action means that you don't stop to think too deeply about the central plot device (which might otherwise make your head hurt at least a little bit...)

An immersive, compelling fantasy thriller that kept me up till the early hours. Recommended.

For more information on the book, see the publisher's website here. You can buy The Hollow Tree from your friend local bookshop, or here, here or here (and no doubt other places besides).

10 March 2018

Review - The City of Brass by SA Chakraborty

The City of Brass
SA Chakraborty
HarperCollins, 8 March 2018
HB, 544pp

I'm grateful for an advance copy of City of Brass via Amazon Vine.

City of Brass was a wonderful book to read but - like many of the most enjoyable books - is difficult to review!

A fantasy, it's set during the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt (although this is really background that hardly impinges on the story).

Nahri is a young woman who survives as a thief, huckster, healer and a dozen other things in the slums of Cairo. As the result of a chain of coincidences (I think - there may be more to learn about this in future books...) she summons a djinn, Dara, who is bound to serve her family - and attracts the attention of its ancient enemies. Dara wouldn't call himself djinn, no, he's a daeva (not a diva, though from his behaviour you might struggle to see the difference).

The two are immediately hunted by the deeply scary ifrit, and we're plunged into a world of magic, ancient family feuds, murder, rebellion and unchecked slaughter with a backstory stretching the remote time of Suleiman, who tamed the daevas long ago.

It was, to me, a deeply alien fantasy and therefore exactly what fantasy should be. No cloaks, bear fur, snow or grim, grey Northern castles. This story is rooted in Middle Eastern culture, the djinn (mostly) having an Islamic background and the families, feuds and political factions of The City of Brass echo that. Chakrabortty exploits this with skill, rooting her story in a believable past and giving all of her characters convincing histories and motivations (and dilemmas).

There are no cardboard cutout goodies and baddies here. Dara, who is handsome, awesomely competent with his weapons, and Nahri's protector, has also done some truly wicked things, even unforgivable things. Nahri discovers that her family also had that blood on its hands. Yet King Ghassan, whose ancestors overthrew her tribe's rule centuries before, also has secrets. Actually, everyone here has secrets - and nobody (except, perhaps, Nahri herself - beyond a little thieving) has clean hands.

There are also credible tensions between the factions of the djinn, and the half humans ("shafit") with privilege, prejudice and history dividing the population.

The story is I think (and this is only the first part of a trilogy - things stop pretty much on a cliffhanger) proceeding on two fronts. Nahri, the outsider, is exploring this strange new world, to some extent as a proxy for the reader but increasingly as a force in her own right. As she discovers who she really is, and the labyrinthine politics and social tension that drives both djinn society, and Daevabad, the City of Brass itself, is unfolding. Naturally these come into conflict and the naive and ignorant young woman we meet at the start of the story has to grow up very fast if she's to survive at all, let alone flourish. But she shows every sign of being able to do that.

In case that makes it sound as though the book is dark, well yes, at times it's very dark. But Chakraborty also supplies some wonderful descriptions of the City itself - surely one of the great fantasy creation of recent times - as well as a wicked vein of humour, especially when it comes to the bickering djinn themselves and the fates that can befall them (open the wrong scroll at the wrong time and you can be turned into an apple, apparently a terrible insult; in Nahri's infirmary, on a pile of sticks, sits an unfortunate djinn who will slowly turn into a bird unless she can find a way to save him)

On the evidence of City of Brass, Chakraborty is a major new talent in fantasy and I can't wait for the next volume in this series.

Strongly recommended.

For more information about City of Brass see the publisher's website here. You can buy the book from your friendly local bookshop, or here, here or here.

7 March 2018

Blogtour review - End Game by Matt Johnson

End Game (Robert Finlay 3)
Matt Johnson
Orenda Books, 31 March 2018
PB, 299pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of the book and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the blogtour. (Full disclosure: I also reviewed the previous two books in the series for their tours and one of my reviews is quoted in this one).

End Game, as you might expect, brings to a close the trilogy of books (Wicked Game, Deadly Game) featuring Detective Inspector Robert Finlay, ex SAS. If you've read those you will want to read this and see how things pan out - I can tell you that this book is every part as twisty, as tense and as gritty as they are. If you haven't read them then, first, shame on you and, second, let me try and persuade you.

NB I will warn when approaching spoilers for the first two books - read on without fear!

End Game opens in 2002 with Finlay in the middle of an operation as part of his Scotland Yard anti-trafficking unit. The action very quickly moves back to the conspiracy that has dominated the three books: the mysterious document in Arabic whose existence must be protected, the string of murders, and all the cross purposes, suspicions and double motives among the police and MI5 officers.

As in the previous books, Johnson adopts a risky - but in his hands, successful - strategy of seeming to show us everything, narrating things from Finlay's perspective in the first person but also giving other characters' viewpoints in third person. So we'll get Finlay's take on a meeting and then read something like 'After Finlay walked out, Grahamslaw picked up his phone...' At other times we don't get this seamless transition but we do see what the antagonists (not naming them because that's a spoiler for the earlier books) are up to. They are though distanced by that third person voice. The result is that the reader identifies strongly with Finlay but also knows more than him - which is, as I said, a risky thing for an author to do but works well here, helping to emphasise the general murkiness of the world that Johnson creates (and building tension by showing just how deep Finlay's in - something he doesn't realise till very late in the book).

Yet some things are kept back from the reader: there are aspects that aren't revealed, leaving us, too, worrying about what is happening and why...

That murky world is one of the strengths of these books. Struggling to think of a way to explain it, I can only think of comparing the book to other genres. This book and its predecessors are clearly thrillers - set in modern London, they have guns, cops, spooks, ploys and tension. Yet there's also something of the fantasy about them. No magic or anything like that, but the atmosphere evoked isn't far off one of those stories where assassins roam the capital with impunity and the characters accept that anything can happen. For example (and this is a mild spoiler) people have been killed to protect the secret of that document. In a certain sort of thriller this would be the central scandal in itself: State sanctioned murder! It must be exposed! How do we get the truth out there?

Yet here it is very much taken for granted as the kind of thing that might happen and nobody wastes time getting outraged. Rather they process the facts and consider what it means for their safety and that of their families. At one level that's rather liberating, at another it makes for a very grim, dangerous world.

If somebody died, was it an accident? A suicide? A simple criminal act?

Or were State forces behind it?

If so, was that sanctioned or does someone have a private thing going on?

This ambiguity creates a whole world of doubt quite aside from the realities of what happened.

It's a very strong premise for a thriller, a world where nothing is off limits (in the previous books Finlay has basically mounted Special Ops actions under the radar and got away with it, and the bad guys here are just as prepared to do the same). In End Game it becomes even more iffy than in the previous books because new players join the deadly game - in particular a hunter from Complaint Investigation Branch who's got it in for Finlay and his friend, Kevin Jones. Between that hostility, the ambiguous roles of the various MI5 officers and a suspicion that he's being bugged, Finlay has a lot to worry about from the start.

And he's right to be worried. There's no safety net in these books, no margin for error. Past mistakes won't go away, cupboard doors swing open to reveal their skeletons, the skies are filled with chickens coming home to roost. It's all very compelling and amidst the mayhem Johnson does a very good job at tying up the many plot threads from the previous books and bringing things to a satisfying end (insofar as an end can be - I wouldn't say no to more stories about Finlay!) I wasn't sure if, in the end, we ever quite had an explanation for the full importance of that document, but maybe there are things it's better not to know...

Taken together the three books are a considerable achievement, all the more impressive given that they are Johnson's first books - he had an extensive police career before turning to writing and they arose from his need to process what he'd been through and confront his PTSD. I don't mean that to be faint praise of the "good books considering..." sort: they are good books, full stop. The octane is so high that if you sniff this book too hard you're likely to ignite. In particular Johnson's first person/ third person style makes the story come over as very visual and the chicanery and multiple agendas here presents here aren't a million miles from the world seen in current TV hits like David Hare's Collateral.

Which - given Johnson was in the Met and presumably closer to some of this stuff than Hare - might be just a teeny bit worrying... but thank goodness it's only fiction.

2 March 2018

Blogtour review - Holmes: The Darlington Substitution by Melvyn Small

Holmes: The Darlington Substitution
Melvyn Small
Indipenned, from 14 February 2018

I'm grateful for an advance e-copy of the book as part of the blogtour.

Ever since Conan Doyle stopped writing Sherlock Holmes stories, the character has been reworked, imitated, reinvented, pastiched. (In fact, probably before that...). I was intrigued to be offered the latest example of this - a Holmes of the North East, firmly living in the 21st century (the story includes a sizeable part for BBC Local Radio). Subtitled "A Boro's Greatest Detective Novella", this is a story that gets us away from gaslights, Hansoms, cobblestones and deerstalkers.

It does, though, pack into its short length a fair few references to the originals, just to prove that Small knows what he's about ("Sherlock ever investigated a case that included some sort of hound? I dunno, maybe one terrorising a bunch of posh twats..."; a mention of a horse running in the "Beryl Coronet"; the "Baker Street Kitchen" is a cafe and "The Twisted Lip" a pub, and of course namechecks for DI Barry Lestrade and even Col Sebastian Moran - who Holmes was lucky to escape from alive). Indeed the title itself is a reference Holmes himself drops in the course of A Scandal in Bohemia (the context being the universal human tendency, in case of fire, to save the most precious thing - a point relevant to this story).

Like many of the originals, this isn't, at least not apparently, a case of murder or theft but more of a puzzle. I won't spoil the story by saying just what has happened, but it's more of an oddity, a surprise, that sets Holmes' antennae twitching. But he lacks data and, as ever, John Watson isn't best placed to supply them. Indeed, being preoccupied with selling copies of his memoirs, he doesn't pay a great deal of attention to Holmes's concerns. (The sections detailing signings in bleak branches of WH Smith are written with feeling!)

The story is just the right length for a Holmes case: a novella/ long-short-story is to my mind ideal to introduce a mystery, show how baffling it is, let Holmes do his thing and then wrap everything up. If Small is a little mysterious about precisely how Holmes draws his conclusions, that may be forgiven, Conan Doyle often did the same, but we get a broad hint that detecting is easier in the days of social media so one might imagine he's a skilled at IT, and there are hints at hacker abilities. All this is I think fully line with how the original Holmes was written, a bit of a geek, up with all the latest technology and none too fastidious how he used it.

So once you become used to the central characters, and especially to them NOT addressing each other in the slightly stuffy manner of the originals, the story rattles along. There is some neat writing in places "...hoping I could transform his change of mood into a change of mind..." and use of (I think) real locations in and around Darlington and Middlesborough which slightly passed me by, not knowing the area (but then I don't know Victorian London either?)

All in all an engaging idea, well realised, providing a refreshingly different angle on the Great Detective.

Chapter 1 of The Darlington Substitution is available from 14 February 2018 on the Indipenned site - go over there now to read and to find out how to get the rest!

28 February 2018

Review - The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson

The Darkness
Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Victoria Cribb)
Michael Joseph, 22 March 2018
HB, 312pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Darkness.

I enjoyed Jónasson's Dark Iceland sequence, set in the far north of the island. With The Darkness and its forthcoming companion books, he's moved things to the more populated area around the capital, Reykjavik and introduced a new protagonist, DI Hulda Hermannsdottir. Hermannsdottir is reaching the end of her career in the police, a career during which, we're told, she's investigated a number of high profile cases and become highly regarded member of the team: but that isn't how she sees things, rather she feels passed over and excluded by the clubby maleness of the team. And indeed, throughout this story she's pretty much alone - and the title of her book reflects her experiences.

Quite simply, the book seems to record everything going wrong for Hulda as she faces losing the job that's the only thing left which gives her some identity. The book documents, in flashbacks, some of the events that brought her to that position, but makes no judgements: it's left to the reader to join the dots and I don't want to say more for fear of spoilers. What I will say is that Hulda begins to make mistakes and goes out on a dangerous limb. At first this seems mysterious, but as the story rattles along - it's a quick book to read, organised in short chapters, the tensions building and building - we begin to see where she is coming from and to appreciate both why she makes those mistakes and also what the stakes may be.

Faced with imminent retirement, Hulda sets out to investigate a cold case, the death of a Russian asylum seeker. Nobody else seems to care about Elena and by paying some attention to her life, Hulda almost seems to commemorating her, bringing her back to life and memory, in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy. This work of memory, of un-forgetting, is at the heart of what the book is trying to say, I think. It almost overtakes the point of "solving" a "case" and becomes a moral crusade, touching something deep in Hulda.

Which brings us to this series as a whole. We're told that in successor volumes (The Island and The Mist) we will see Hulda's earlier life. The book hints at a couple of major cases she has been involved with and I don't know whether they will be covered in those books but I hope that they do shed more light on Hulda and on the events of this book - because I want to know more as I'm sure you will once you've read it!

Finally, a word about the translation - the English of this book reads very well and clearly, while retaining just enough of a sense of foreignness to match the unfamiliar landscape - the black lave fields! the white highlands.

Overall a VERY strong start to this new series.