Monday, 12 June 2017

Book Review | Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott


The town of Rotherweird stands alone—there are no guidebooks, despite the fascinating and diverse architectural styles cramming the narrow streets, the avant garde science and offbeat customs. Cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I, Rotherweird's independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history.

For beneath the enchanting surface lurks a secret so dark that it must never be rediscovered, still less reused. But secrets have a way of leaking out...

Two inquisitive outsiders have arrived: Jonah Oblong, to teach modern history at Rotherweird School (nothing local and nothing before 1800), and the sinister billionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has somehow been given permission to renovate the town's long-derelict Manor House.

Slickstone and Oblong, though driven by conflicting motives, both strive to connect past and present, until they and their allies are drawn into a race against time—and each other. The consequences will be lethal and apocalyptic.

***

[The Full English: Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott]

If J. K. Rowling had given Jasper Fforde permission to document a decade of derring-do in Diagon Alley, the result would read rather like Rotherweird, an appetising if stodgy smorgasbord of full English fiction set in a town unlike any other.
Like everyone else, Oblong had heard of the Rotherweird Valley and its town of the same name, which by some quirk of history were self-governing—no MP and no bishop, only a mayor. He knew too that Rotherweird had a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world: no guidebook recommended a visit; the County History was silent about the place. (p.15)
Yet Rotherweird is in need of a teacher, and Oblong—Jonah Oblong, whose career in education to date has been a disgrace—is in need of a job, so he doesn't ask any of the questions begged by the classified ad inviting interviewees to the aforementioned valley. Instead, he packs a bag, takes a train, a taxi, and then—because "Rotherweird don't do cars," (p.16) as his toothless chauffeur tells him—"an extraordinary vehicle, part bicycle, part charabanc, propelled by pedals, pistons and interconnecting drums," (p.17) and driven by a laughably affable madman.

Need I note that nothing in Rotherweird is as it seems? Not the people, not the public transport, and certainly not the place, as Oblong observes as his new home heaves into view:
The fog enhanced the feel of a fairground ride, briefly thinning to reveal the view before closing again. In those snapshots, Oblong glimpsed hedgerows and orchards, even a row of vines—and at one spectacular moment, a vision of a walled town, a forest of towers in all shapes and sizes, encircled by a river. (pp.19-20)
It's here, in lofty lodgings and under the care of his own "general person," (p.41) that Oblong is installed after he's hired as a history teacher. But the position comes with one stickler of a condition: he has "a contractual obligation to keep to 1800 and thereafter, if addressing the world beyond the valley, and to treat Rotherweird history as off-limits entirely. Here he must live in the moment. Private speculation could only lead him astray." (p.43) And if you venture too far off the beaten path in Rotherweird, you might just end up disappeared—the very fate which befell Oblong's incurably curious predecessor.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Book Review | Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami


"I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden."

Across seven tales, Haruki Murakami brings his powers of observation to bear on the lives of men who, in their own ways, find themselves alone. Here are vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles, woven together to tell stories that speak to us all. 

Marked by the same wry humor that has defined his entire body of work, in this collection Murakami has crafted another contemporary classic.

***

"If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden," muses Haruki Murakami in the materials accompanying Men Without Women. He must, then, be something of a glutton for punishment, having immersed himself in metaphorical forestry for the decade and change since his last short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, allowed the World Fantasy Award-winning author to tend to his wending trellises.

Compared to the twenty four works of fiction featured in that last, Men Without Women is a strikingly slim volume, compiling only seven stories, six of which Murakami's legion of English-language fans may well have read already. And whilst I wish I could tell you their haunting quality makes up for their wanting quantity, so many of said struck me as uneventful retreads that I can only recommend this collection with a handful of caveats.

That being said, if you come to Murakami for the cats and the cars, the deep obeisance to The Beatles and the bars choked with smoke, then come! Men Without Women has all that jazz—and oh so many miserable men and mysterious women.
The day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you're already there. But by then there's no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called 'Men Without Women.' Always a relentlessly frigid plural.  
Only Men Without Women can comprehend how painful, how heartbreaking it is to become one. (p.224)
That's as may be, but if this collection is about anything, it's about communicating that pain, that heartbreak, to the reader.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Book Review | City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett


Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing. 

So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do—and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve. 

Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And—perhaps most daunting of all—finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.

***

The Divine Cities series comes full circle in City of Miracles, a positively action-packed fantasy about getting your own back. But revenge is not just what the hardy anti-hero at its heart is after: revenge is also what its both figuratively and literally tortured villain is interested in.

This child of the night, who shall not be named because to identify him is to invite his wickedness in, is not a divinity like the other antagonists of Robert Jackson Bennett's incomparable narrative—at least, not quite. He's really just an angsty adolescent; a "selfish kid who thinks his misfortunes are bigger than everyone else's" and has decided to take his frustrations out on everyone around him.

Unfortunately for everyone around him, this angsty adolescent just so happens to be the spawn of a few fallen gods. To wit, he has a domain—the dark—and some of his mother and father's magic. City of Miracles begins with him flexing his miraculous muscles: by outfitting an assassin to slaughter the former Prime Minister—and the first of this spectacular saga's protagonists—Ashara Komayd.

When news of Shara's shocking death reaches a remote logging range beyond Bulikov, every man around the campfire is taken aback, but only one among them takes it personally. He is City of Miracles' new central perspective, and whilst he hasn't played this role before, he's a figure folks who've followed this fiction will be intimately familiar with; a fan-favourite character, in fact, who has flitted around its fringes but never before been at its fore. That's right, readers: the focus of Bennett's barnstorming finale is finally on Shara's right-hand man, the Dreyling she saved who has saved her so often since. Good to see you again, Sigrud!

Following the death of his daughter in City of Blades, not to mention the mindless massacre that followed, Sigrud je Harkvaldsson has been in exile, none too patiently awaiting the day when Shara can at last bring him back into action. But with his dearest friend so dramatically departed, what does he have left to live for? Nothing, initially, but a need to make her murderer pay.

He does so summarily, racking up a rather improbable body count in the process. As a member of the supporting cast who crosses his fiery path puts it: "You've lost none of your subtlety, Sigrud."

But whilst raining hell on everyone who had a hand or even a hair in Shara's assassination, our daring Dreyling learns about a scheme that gives him a reason to keep on keeping on. In short, "someone is targeting Shara's adopted daughter" Tatyana, and having failed to save his last loved one, the least he can do, he reasons, is ensure that this small part of her legacy lives on.

To do what needs doing, he has to go to Ghaladesh. "Ghaladesh, the capital of Saypur, the richest, most well-protected city in the world. The place with perhaps the most security in the civilised nations—and thus the place that he, a fugitive from Saypur's justice, is most likely to be caught, imprisoned, tortured, and possibly—or probably—executed."

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Book Review | The Boy on the Bridge by M. R. Carey


Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy.

The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world.

To where the monsters lived...

***

Whether it's a character that captures us or a narrative that enraptures us, a situation that speaks to something unspoken or a conflict that builds on something broken—who can say, on this or any other day, what makes a book a bestseller? The quality of a given novel has next to nothing to do with its success on store shelves, that's for sure. Plenty of bad books have shifted millions, and many more deserving efforts have come and gone to no such notice. It's a blessing, then, when a truly wonderful work of fiction becomes a bestseller... but it can also be a burden.

The Girl With all the Gifts was probably the best zombie novel to have been released in recent years, and it sold hella well—well enough to spawn a movie that was also pretty swell. But while the next book to bear M. R. Carey's name was a dark delight in its own right, Fellside didn't catch on in the same way, I'm afraid.

To wit, I wasn't entirely surprised when I heard that Carey's new novel was a sidequel of sorts to The Girl With all the Gifts. I was, however, concerned; concerned that setting a second story in the same world that Melanie and Miss Justineau so wholly inhabited ran the risk of diminishing their devastating adventures. Happily, The Boy on the Bridge bears its burden brilliantly, and I can only hope it's as blessed by the book-buying public as its predecessor.

It is, admittedly, a little derivative. And I don't just mean that it tugs on many of the same heartstrings The Girl With all the Gifts did—though it does, ultimately: The Boy on the Bridge is an equally bleak book, and equally beautiful, too. But that's not it either. I'm talking about the plot, which is, at least initially, almost a mirror image of its predecessor's: it's an apocalyptic road story about the relationship between a teacher and her unusual student.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Book Review | Borne by Jeff VanderMeer


“Am I a person or a weapon?” Borne asks Rachel, in extremis.

“Yes, you are a person,” Rachel tells him. “But like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”

A ruined city of the future lives in fear of a despotic, gigantic flying bear, driven mad by the tortures inflicted on him by the Company, a mysterious biotech firm. A scavenger, Rachel, finds a creature entangled in his fur. She names it Borne.

At first, Borne looks like nothing at all―a green lump that might be a discard from the Company. But he reminds Rachel of her homeland, an island nation long lost to rising seas, and she prevents her lover, Wick, from rendering down Borne as raw genetic material for the special kind of drugs he sells.

But nothing is quite the way it seems: not the past, not the present, not the future. If Wick is hiding secrets, so is Rachel―and Borne most of all. What Rachel finds hidden deep within the Company will change everything and everyone. There, lost and forgotten things have lingered and grown. What they have grown into is mighty indeed.

***

Following his triumphant trek through Area X in the cerebral Southern Reach series, Jeff VanderMeer mounts a more modest yet no less affecting expedition into uncharted territory by way of Borne, a surprisingly beautiful book about a blob which behaves like a boy and the broken woman who takes him in.

Her name is Rachel, and when she was little, she "wanted to be a writer, or at least something other than a refugee. Not a trap-maker. Not a scavenger. Not a killer." (p.37) But we are what the world makes us, and no poxy author would have lasted long in the world in which this novel's narrator was raised:
Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world. (p.37)
There is hope even in this haunted hellscape, however, and it takes a strange shape, as hope tends to: that of "a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours" (p.6) Rachel finds in the festering fur of a skyscraper-sized flying bear called Mord.

She brings the titular thing, Borne-to-be, back to the Balcony Cliffs, a broken-down apartment building where she lives and works with Wick, her sometime lover and a secretive biotech beetle dealer who pushes a memory-altering product "as terrible and beautiful and sad and sweet as life itself." (p.7) Out of the gate, Rachel intends to give her purplish prize to him to pick at—but something, the beginning of some instinct, stays her hand. Instead, she places it in her room, and tries to take care of it.

"This required some experimenting, in part because [she] had never taken care of anyone or anything before," (p.17) but equally because her amorphous mass is a complete mystery. Certainly Wick has never seen its like, and having worked once for the Company, he has seen everything there is to see. To wit, Rachel treats this colourful clump like a plant to start; reclassifies it as an animal after it starts to move around her room; and then, when it shocks her by talking, she takes to behaving around it as she would a baby boy. She talks to him; teaches him; comes, ultimately, to love him—and he her in turn.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Book Review | Waking Hell by Al Robertson


Leila Fenech is dead. And so is her brother Dieter. But what's really pissing her off is how he sold his afterlife as part of an insurance scam and left her to pick up the pieces. She wants him back so she can kick his backside from here to the Kuiper Belt.

Station is humanity's last outpost. But this battle-scarred asteroid isn't just for the living. It's also where the dead live on as fetches: digital memories and scraps of personality gathered together and given life. Of a sort.

Leila won't stop searching Station until she's found her brother's fetch—but the sinister Pressure Men are stalking her every move. Clearly Dieter's got himself mixed up in something a whole lot darker than just some scam.

Digging deeper, Leila discovers there's far more than her brother's afterlife at stake. Could it be that humanity's last outpost is on the brink of disaster? Is it too late for even the dead to save it?

***

On the back of one of the best debuts in recent memory, Al Robertson rounds up a brand new cast of characters for his second successive stop at Station. Absent "the dynamic duo" (p.173) that was Jack and Hugo—respectively "an accountant of the future [and] a psychotic virtual ventriloquist's dummy," in the words of the award-nominated author—Waking Hell isn't as compelling as Crashing Heaven, but between its excellently embellished setting and a narrative that boasts more momentum than most, there are moments when it comes close.

As of the outset, much has changed on Station, the battle-scarred asteroid where what's left of humanity lives under the purview of a pantheon of corporate gods:
Two and a half years before [...] Jack Forster, Hugo Fist and Andrea Hui had worked with the Totality to release the dead from semi-sentient slavery. But the Rebirth was just the start of a longer coming of age. It was one thing for ten thousand weaveselves to be reborn as fully self-aware continuations of ended lives—quite another for them to come to terms with that new start, both as individuals and as a group, and understand what to do with it. When Leila stepped out of the sea and into her new, post-mortal life, she became part of that conversation. (p.23)
The hero at the heart of Waking Hell has had to hoe a hard road in the years since her resurrection as a fetch. Initially, those like Leila Fenech were seen as sub-human, to be used and routinely abused by the living before being disposed of, like so much deleted data. The events of Crashing Heaven changed that; now, fetches finally have rights.

Still, there's resistance, including an organisation of individuals who damn near decimated the dead in an act of technological terrorism that'll stay with Leila to her last day. Luckily for her, she had her brother Dieter—a hacker with a particular fascination for the past—to lean on when the fanatics attacked:
When the Blood and Flesh plague shattered the deep structures of her memory, completely disordering her sense of herself, Dieter had helped her rebuild. He'd taken her out of the Coffin Drives' convalescence unit and back to his weavespace. Then he'd opened up his own memories of her life to her. They became a template, guiding her as she remade the structures of her past. He'd helped her heal when even the Fetch Counsellor had given up on her. 
Now he needed her just as much as she'd needed him. And she could only watch. (p.14)
She could only watch as he dies, infected from the inside out by an infernal artefact that feels like it fell straight out of Hellraiser—and by design, I dare say. Early on, at least, Waking Hell has a lot in common with a horror novel: it's all unsettling silences and gruesome goings-on, monsters and murders, and beyond these, thar be bees! Bees and some bloody ugly bugs. But for better or for worse, Robertson reverses gears too soon for these potentially interesting elements to have a dramatic impact on the narrative. What Waking Hell is is a solid science fiction sequel, despite the departure of its first act.

And its second, in a sense. This section is concerned with revenge, because while death is no longer the end in this milieu, Leila learns that for Dieter it will be. Essentially, he's been swindled into signing away the rights to his resurrection, ostensibly so that his sister will be looked after. And financially speaking, she is. Whoever the devil Dieter dealt with is, he's as good as his word. But rather than using the huge sum of money she inherits to live a right nice afterlife, Leila spends it in search of said devil's identity.

Then, with the help of a few friends—first and foremost a fraud investigator and an amnesiac janitor who aren't nearly as dreary as they seem—she sets out to bring the fight to the being that bastardised her beloved brother. Little does Leila realise that the being already has an army... an army it's planning to aim straight at Station. And as one of her new comrades says, "Of course you've got to look out for the people you love. [...] But if the whole of the rest of the world is in danger, you might have to start thinking a bit bigger." (p.147)

A bit bigger is actually a decent way of describing Waking Hell as a whole. It doesn't have the personality of Crashing Heaven—although its characters are a relatively rambunctious bunch, only the Caretaker entertains in the way Hugo Fist did, and I'm afraid he's far from front and centre—but it has scope and scale to spare. Nothing less than the fate of our race is at stake, and happily, there's more to humanity than the blasted asteroid Robertson's first novel focused on.

Leila's race to recover her brother—and, in so doing, save the day—gives us a window into this well-widened world, from the repellent reality underlying the weird and wonderful weavespaces people have created on Station to the scorched surface of the Earth humanity abandoned. And at the same time as casting the core conflict as increasingly crucial, the explosive expansion of Waking Hell's setting gives its narrative a frisson of the frenetic.

When I reviewed Crashing Heaven two years or so ago, I remarked that I hadn't a clue what the second of the Station books would look like. Given the devastating denouement of Robertson's dizzying debut, I knew it was destined to be different—but what those differences would be, I could only wait and see. That was enough to excite me. From here, however, it's much easier to conceive of an act three... and that's oddly disappointing.

An exploration of identity filtered through a revenge fantasy with a humble helping of horror, Waking Hell is fearsome, fast moving and fun—but it's also fairly straightforward, flat where the last book was full, and frankly much less memorable without Hugo Fist, who I really, really missed.

***

Waking Hell
by Al Robertson

UK Publication: October 2016, Gollancz
US Publication: April 2017, Gollancz

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