Pandaemonium by Ben Macallan
Authors are potentially the freest people on the planet. They get to write what they want and, if they have the common touch, what they write sells to the mass audience and they can become self-supporting professionals. Except, of course, there’s an enormous amount of hard work that goes into the process, followed by considerable anxiety that the right tone has been struck to appeal to the largest number of buyers. This continues the work of building the loyal fan base and consolidating the brand image that will hopefully make the next book a best seller before it’s actually published. If only this could be true for every author, yet financial stability for the average professional is tenuous at best. Even midlist authors with relatively well-known names can struggle to make ends meet without a day job. The confidence that should allow the words to flow can dry up. The muse departs and the impoverished but wiser author searches for alternative sources of income. All of which background makes Pandaemonium by Ben Macallan (yet another pseudonym for Chaz Brenchley) (Solaris Books, 2012) a fascinating read. This is an author at his self-confident best, not caring whether the words strictly match the expectations of the marketplace. Certain his approach to the subgenre is going to work.
So what does the jacket artwork by Vincent Chong promise us? Not trying to avoid sexual stereotypes, we see a youngish woman, appropriately shapely and dressed stylishly in black, patting the head of a spectral horse while posing in front of a gas holder and belching factory chimneys (industrialised Britain is not the most romantic of backdrops). This is signalling urban fantasy (the scope of factory fantasy was wonderfully exposed in “The Mangler” by Stephen King and then slaughtered in the Chocolate Factory by twee Oompa Loompas) but when you actually get into the text of the book you find a slightly different style.
While the label slapped on these books by publishers inevitably promises supernatural shenanigans, the unresolved issue is the tone. Because of the romantic element, the majority of the books avoid darkness. The evildoers and beasties are not that threatening. This makes the books accessible to the female market which tends to avoid anything too frightening. But conventional wisdom also says such books cannot be humorous or ironic. Romance is often deflated if the author makes fun of the men in the heroine’s life or of relationships in general. Indeed, this would be subversive, denying the mythology of fairy-tale romances and replacing the saccharine with real or metaphorical prat falls. What avid readers expect to read is essentially a naive heroine embarking on an adventure during which she will meet one or two men whom she may consider suitable candidates for mating purposes. There will be trials and tribulations. We may even be permitted a sympathetic smile as our heroine misjudges the situations as they arise. But we will serenely move to an ending where bliss (marital or otherwise) is achieved. There can be no grim humour which blames any of the men for failing to come up to expectations, none of the social expectations will be undermined by satire, and even a hint of pessimism is outlawed.
One of the most interesting of the characters we meet in this peripatetic novel is an angel who has suffered torture and abuse. She was held down, her pinions were slowly pulled out and, when the skin was left bleeding and bare, they cut her wings off, leaving only stumps by her shoulder blades. Being an immortal, she did not die. Now, when this angel steps out of her office, the door flings itself open, “. . .as a courtesy, an announcement like a flunkey calling out arrivals at the head of the stairs”. In other words, she has not exactly treated this mutilation as a reason to give in to self-pity and despair. She remains a warrior. You should also notice the language. It’s nicely conversational. You can hear the first-person narrator telling you this story and giving you permission to smile whenever the mood takes you. This sets up a narrative tension between sometimes quite dark fantasy elements and the lighter descriptions which I find beguiling. We’re being invited to enjoy the moment of levity before dropping back into the more serious stuff. If there’s to be humour, we smile with and not at the characters. It’s an essentially innocent enjoyment, as befits an urban fantasy.
To add further complications, she begins by running away from one ex-boyfriend because she betrayed him and is naturally worried he may be not-a-little upset. She runs to another ex and finds herself having to continue running to a third ex because his life may be in danger. As a heroine‚ she feels morally obliged to stand on her own two feet, defending herself as best she can and, when necessary, reaching out to save others. This does not mean the young men are not useful to have around. At times, they do contrive to save her but she finds this humiliating so does her best to keep them all at arms length. At some point, she may have to choose between the two more obvious candidates but that’s for another book. Until then, she’s now fully empowered as a human, having shed her supernatural protection. This makes her feel more comfortable. If she’s going to succeed, it should be on her own merits, on her terms. She stands proud, pleasingly determined and sufficiently credible to be able to carry the first-person narrative.
Frankly, I enjoy hanging out with Desi or Fay depending on how she’s feeling and who she’s with. I look forward to the next step in her development as a human being. As a result, Pandaemonium is great fun and, at times, aggressively original by leaving the city behind and going rural — a petrifying thought for those only comfortable in urban environments.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.