In the simple days of my youth, there were an alarming number of fantasy stories in which the hero is suddenly made aware he or she has magical powers. This was wish fulfillment overcompensation just after the war. There we were, walking around towns and cities with major bomb damage, wondering when life would get back to normal and speculating on how much easier it would be if we were all endowed with superpowers to clear the sites, dig new foundations and get everything ready for the rebuilding. It offered hope for the future when we could read about people who could not only rebuild, but use their powers to ensure we never had to go through another war. In these stories, we were there, looking over their shoulders as they experienced shock and surprise at the discovery they could do super stuff. These “ordinary” men and women had been living routine lives in whatever settings the authors picked. Suddenly they are pitched into situations in which their very survival depends on them mastering these new skills and besting those who have spent decades (or in some cases centuries) practising and refining their powers. And all this before eating breakfast and learning the magic spell, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side”. The most annoying feature of this approach is the assumption some people are so inherently superior to others, they could always prevail because they are “good”. It’s a kind of übermenschlich approach to the traditional battle between good and evil. In this binary world, there’s a superhuman lurking in everyone, just waiting for the chance to leap into action when the chips are down and the barbarians are at the gates.
And talking of chips, here’s Blind God’s Bluff by Richard Lee Byers (Night Shade Books, 2013) an urban fantasy novel built around a poker game. I confess to being a reasonably good bridge player but poker leaves me cold. This judgement has nothing to do with the merits of the game. The blend of straight probability calculation and psychology is intriguing and, when played at a high level, it can be interesting to watch. But with only one or two exceptions like The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), the idea of making poker a central plot element has not attracted me. So, from the outset, this book is facing an uphill struggle. Now add in the human who turns out to have superpowers trope and you see why this book is never going to get anywhere in my estimation. So how does all this work?
Well, within ten seconds of our hero stopping to help an injured “man”, he’s attacked by feral fairies who try to rip out his eyes. Now you’ll understand this is not an everyday occurrence as you walk down a busy city street. Usually, the only thing assaulting your senses are the garden gnomes and their faux clay smiles. But the old “man” touches him and, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side” this awaken superpowers. In an instant, he’s able to throw up a force field. Moments later, he’s sending out his Ka (as in Gifford Hillary by Dennis Wheatley). In this form, he’s able to fetch his car, i.e. even when on the astral plane, he can manifest in the physical world to drive a car — neat trick, huh? And all this without any practice and within minutes of understanding the world of the supernatural and magic are real. This guy is a real operator in every sense of the word. As we go on, we meet the other players in the poker game. It’s the usual Friday night crowd in the backroom at the pub: the Mummy, a vampish female, a mechanical man calling himself Gimble of the Seven Soft Rebukes, a Queen Bee, and a demonlike figure called Wotan.
The other feature I found distinctly wearing on the nerves was the general lack of seriousness. This is not to say the book is a barrel of laughs. Perish the thought that any work in the urban fantasy subgenre should be a comedy. But there’s a lightness in the tone that militates against there being any sense of menace or threat to our “hero”. This does not deny that two of the dream sequences have potential in the horror zone, but you just know our hero is never seriously at risk and is always going to emerge stronger and more experienced from whatever the latest challenge is. The race at the end is overblown and the final nail in the coffin. Overall, I regret to say I found Blind God’s Bluff tiresome and, even more disconcertingly, when I finally arrived at the end, I discovered that it’s left open to become a series. If that’s the case, I will definitely not be reading it. This does indicate an acknowledgement that Richard Lee Byers is a competent author who has a good command of the craft of writing. It’s just that he’s allowed himself to be diverted from the need to write something genuinely scary by his obvious love for poker and his desire to construct an urban fantasy suitable for teens and young women to read. Definitely not recommended for anyone who likes red meat.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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.
For once, I’m going to say something good about the blurb. The catch phrase, “A bad day in the Big Apple” is actually rather appropriate in the same way that the title, Redlaw: Red Eye by James Lovegrove (Solaris Books, 2012) reflects a pleasing ambiguity. Our hero, John Redlaw has just emerged from his flight to America feeling a little under the weather, the designation of the weaponised soldiers is Red Eye One, and the vampires have spooky eyes. So kudos for a little wit from the editorial staff and/or the author. Now the the book itself. This is a direct sequel to the first Redlaw and picks up with our hero enjoying real hero status, i.e. his reputation has been shredded and he’s being pursued by the forces of law with the same enthusiasm they bring to manhunts for terrorists and traitors. Fortunately with the newly promoted Captain Khalid in command, the opportunities for evasion and escape are always good. Except John Redlaw recognises he cannot continue in London. When a friendly vampire mentions a new urban myth about attacks in America, this seems a Heaven-sent hint he should investigate.
From the moment he arrives in New York, John Redlaw finds himself immersed in a completely different culture with vampires viewed ambivalently. Whereas the Brits mix fear, loathing and indifference in equal measures, the Americans have no formalised framework for accommodating their existing population of bloodsuckers and the new immigrants. For the most part, the two populations physically avoid each other and the humans hesitate to make a judgement on whether they are welcome. At this fairly critical stage, the remnants of the international cabal that Redlaw disrupted in Britain are looking for power and influence in America. As a byproduct of testing to find a cure for a blood disorder, they have developed what may become an effective way of producing supersoldiers. The first group of seven are being field-tested in a program to eradicate vampires in New York. Obviously the vampires are aware of this and a young and inexperienced Tina “Tick” Checkley has captured the enhanced seven on video as they returned from eradicating a nest. Before she can make herself a target by posting the video on YouTube, she meets Redlaw and they set out to discover who’s behind the attacks. While visiting Father Tchaikovsky, a vampire shtriga, Red Eye One attacks and Redlaw inherits a small group of vampire survivors to protect. For this ragtag group, it doesn’t matter their new leader is human. They are interested in survival and think Redlaw is their best chance.
This is a fairly remarkable piece of writing from a technical point of view. As a vehicle for carrying the story forward, James Lovegrove adopts the chase. This is one of the most difficult to get right at length. Most authors chicken out and have their heroes running for the length of a short story until either death catches up with them or they triumph against the odds. In this instance, our hero attracts the attention of the superseven at an early point and, recognising their professionalism as warriors and their physical improvement, he decides running away is better than standing to fight. In other hands, this would have grown tedious but there’s consistent inventiveness in the way Redlaw leads his no-hope band of vampires. Indeed, our hero’s capacity to absorb punishment is tested to the limit in this story as he grimly moves forward to the inevitable confrontation at the end. Except, of course, he gets to decide where to make the final stand. For those of you who know Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he fights on “hemmed-in ground” and so must rely on deception to see them through.
As with the first book, there’s a lean mean approach with stripped-down language and non-stop plot development. The result is a most pleasing blend of urban fantasy and straight horror as our human hero steps into the role of shtriga, leading this band of vampires into completely new territory for them. Redlaw: Red Eye is a delight and even though our hero is left in New York, I hope to see him again. I suspect moving on to Japan might be a little too much because of the language problem, but there’s plenty of scope for building on his most recent acquisition.
For a review of the first in the series by James Lovegrove, see Redlaw.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I suppose I must classify myself as having been an addict. I grew up at a time when more or less everyone smoked so, being one of the herd, I followed. Looking back, this was less than rational. I was born an asthmatic and was plagued by a wide range of allergies. To have begun smoking was a tragic error. With breathing an increasing challenge, I then recognised the only approach to quitting is abstinence. It’s the psychology of the process. If you are serious, you give it up and never go back. If you are less than serious, you switch your dependence to something supposedly less dangerous. Why? Because perpetuating addictive behaviour means you don’t want to make a full recovery. As part of the process of getting clean from the more dangerous drugs, many in the counselling industry advocate different versions of the 12 Step Programs. Obviously you should not try to beat addiction alone so regular meetings with other addicts reinforce the commitment to stay clean. It’s helpful to know others are struggling with the same problems and holding out. This package of measures may include finding a “higher power” This is often taken to mean you should pray to God, but prayer and reading the Bible are not actually necessary so long as you develop the self-discipline to avoid relapse. Feeling you have someone stronger in your corner fighting for you helps. Why are we starting in this way?
As the title, Clean by the gender-neutral Alex Hughes A Mindspace Investigation Novel (Roc, 2012), suggests, our nameless Level 8 telepath with precognitive skills is a recovering Satin addict. As a first-person narrative, we’re therefore given a ringside seat as our “hero” struggles not to relapse (again). In the general run of genre classifications, this makes the book a dystopian, noirish, urban fantasy, thriller, science fiction police procedural story about identity and redemption (assuming he can stay clean, of course). Ah, you noticed the labelling confusion. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I despair of the publisher/retailer conspiracy to categorise books. Although I concede it’s useful to know which part of a big store to visit to find books I’m likely to want to buy, it’s not constructive to label with increasing particularity. This forces authors to write to a predetermined formula so their book fit, i.e. it stifles creativity. For what it’s worth, I approve of books like this which conflate elements into the whole as needed to build a world in which the action is to take place.
So we have a telepath who works for the police force. There’s a serial killer on the loose so our hero and Homicide Detective Isabella Cherabino are off on the trail. The writing style is reasonably hardboiled or noir, but we’re set in a future following Tech Wars in which sentient technology tried to take over the world. Humanity was saved by those with Abilities and there are serious consequences including the abandonment of many types of technology. This has left the survivors in a very rundown city environment in which many aspects of life are unpleasant. To relieve the pervasive dystopian gloom, there are elements of romance between our hero and the Detective. Finally, the general level of threat and the need to fight to survive allows us to consider this a thriller. Thematically, if our hero stays clean, he may be considered redeemed and this will say something important about him as a person.
As a not wholly irrelevant aside, I wonder whether a part of the author’s intention is actually Edenic. Although it would be literally absurd to consider a dystopian environment anything like the Garden of Eden, we have a man who is struggling not to eat the apple. I also note that one of the 12 Steps is establishing a relationship with a higher power. In the Biblical sense, we distinguish between two types of covenant with God. Some are unconditional, i.e. God holds to His side of the bargain no matter what we do. Others, as in the Garden of Eden, are conditional, i.e. to avoid the loss of God’s bounty, Adam and Eve had to obey the covenant about the apple. What was the penalty for breaching this covenant? Instead of being able to live free off the land, Adam and Eve would have to work hard as farmers to grow their own food. Now return to one of the unconditional covenants. If you are redeemed from sin, you are allowed into Heaven. By hard work, you earn the ultimate reward.
So the essential questions are what Satin is, how and why our hero was first exposed to it, and whether he has sufficient strength to avoid relapse. In the midst of it all, there’s a serial murder case to crack and considerable personal danger to overcome. I find Clean very interesting. Although this may sound as if I’m damning the book with faint praise, this is not intended as a negative review. One reads books for many reasons and while this may not be the best science fiction book I’ve read this year and it’s certainly not the best noir thriller I’ve read, it does have a genuine willingness to explore the city and the implications of the Tech War that proved so devastating. The interaction between the Guild responsible for those with Ability and the police is intriguing. And the underlying motivation of those involved is revealed in a distinctly pleasing way. Clean is worth reading. For the record, the second book in the series is titled Sharp is due around Spring 2013 and I shall look out for it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Desdaemona by Ben Macallan (yet another pseudonym for Chaz Brenchley, this time suggesting an affinity with single malts) (Solaris, 2011) sees us kick off a new series with a new name as author (up to this point, Benedict Macallan has merely been a character in two Brenchley novels, Dead of Light and Light Errant following Edmund Cooper’s example of Richard Avery, i.e. turning a fictional character into an author). Uncharacteristically for what’s billed as urban fantasy, Chaz has bravely chosen to hide behind a male name. This runs contrary to the norm with most urban fantasy written by women for women. There was a time, of course, when Chaz was not afraid to use a female pseudonym (not moving too far over to the female side, it’s only once, not time and again). Fortunately, he recovers self-possession in titling the book with a female name and adorning the cover with her lithe figure — the marketing department would throw in the towel if it could not commission another sexy picture of a woman in black — only to completely lose the plot with a first-person narrative from Jordan, a seventeen-year-old boy (although quite how many years he’s been seventeen is not immediately clear). Has no-one whispered in Chaz’s shell-like that urban fantasy is all about female heroines hacking supernatural nasties to pieces when not agonising about their weight or fussing over a hangnail. It seems nothing is sacred when it comes to this book. It even includes sex with a demon! Although it’s all described in the best possible taste, this is not the urban fantasy we’ve been trained to expect with a virginal young woman waiting for just the right hunk to drop down on one knee and pop the question, “Do you want that roasted or fried?” referring to the dead nasty at her feet, of course.
As an aside, I admit to living in a bubble almost completely insulated from the outside world save by what I read in books. To learn of Dusty Springfield’s death therefore came as a shock. It seems only yesterday she was performing with the Pet Shop Boys — like Jordan, yet more males who will be forever young boys when in the presence of animals. Anyway, back to the book which is told in a fun way. Not outright humour, you understand. There are some laws carved in stone and “Thou shalt not crack jokes in urban fantasy” is up there with Google’s “Don’t be evil!” Yet you can see Chaz edging that way. “I can hear sirens,” says one. “I knew a siren once. She was a bitch. . . Oh, you mean the police are coming.” It’s not going to bring the house down although, if you asked her nicely, Desi would probably do that for you, but it’s symptomatic of a general wish to entertain the reader while describing various escalating levels of conflict. Or perhaps it was an undine. . . sorry, still thinking about sirens.
Desdaemona is not unlike a computer game with different levels of threat to contend with. Jordan and Desi are on a quest to find her missing sister. They start off by rescuing a young man who’s been asked to do lunch with a coven of vampires. This has nothing to do with finding the sister but, hey, the seaside town where they met is now a safer place save for the members of the Masonic Lodge, local councillors, bent police officers and other assorted people to avoid meeting in a dark alley. Then we do spend a few pages looking for the sister in London and find the trees are alive with the sound of music — the tree was a trap, OK! Then it’s off to Richmond where the news of Dusty’s untimely death was unceremoniously broken to me. After an exchange of view with a naiad about the problems of climate change as they affect water levels in the river, it’s back to London where things get a little rocky for a while before our lustful couple find neutral ground on which to recuperate. Once they leave this sanctuary, events take an increasingly perilous course leading to a conclusion that neither Jordan nor Desi desired (rather neat meta-alliteration at work). To that extent, the book has a pleasing edge. Too often, everything in urban fantasy turns out rosy as virginal status may be surrendered in the hormone-enhanced aftermath of assorted nasty-slaying.
This is a nicely designed puzzle book at two different levels. The first is the more obvious quest to find the missing sister before Hell’s mobsters lay their claws on her. It seems she’s literally just dropped off the face of the Earth although, at one point, it’s punily suggested she might have been turned into stone — yes, there are gorgons about. The second is to discover exactly who Jordan is and why he’s on the run. To that extent, it’s all about family and the problems teens have with their parents and each other if abstinence is not on the agenda. While admitting a predisposition to like books by Chaz Brenchley, I confirm this as a superior fantasy with a supernatural cast of hellions trying to deal with their teenage angst while fighting off increasingly dangerous supernatural threats (including the Morris Men trying to wipe them down with their handkerchiefs and whack them with their sticks). It’s great fun and you should not be put off by the urban fantasy label or the jacket artwork by Vincent Chong. Anyone, i.e. both male and female, who enjoys supernatural fantasy, particularly when told with knowing smile, should pick up Desdaemona and probably order the forthcoming Pandaemonium which threatens to be more of the same or even better.
One of the problems when you write a serial is to keep the everyday events grounded in whatever passes for reality. In Britain, a classic example is the weekday serial called The Archers (BBC Radio) which is set in a farming community. Now it would no doubt be great for ratings if a flying saucer descended on to a field of wheat and the little grey occupants explained why a nice geometrical design would be left when they took off again. But this would be a one-shot audience high. Until the cylinders fired from the guns on Mars arrive, the writers would have to keep going with talk of which fields they will fertilise next and what they will do if there’s an unexpected frost after seeding. In fact, the weather patterns in the show closely follow the real world. That way, when the fictional farmers look out of their windows, they see what the listeners see. It makes them feel like the folks living next door.
I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by Right Hand Magic, the first in this Golgothan series (I wait with interest to see which part of the body is to be featured in the title of the next book). It seemed to me a rather pallid piece of romantic fiction with some vague supernatural threats to deal with. Indeed, I’ve rather consistently found these urban fantasy or paranormal romances (pick whichever label you find most appealing) less than exciting. I’ve speculated the reason is my gender. As a man, I’m more used to blood and gore following on from assorted violent mayhem. Just as gooey romance on the large and small screen tends to leave me nauseous, debates over whether hunks are hot enough to bed are not my choice of reading material. Anyway, now we come to Left Hand Magic by Nancy Collins and, while it sticks to the script of nothing too exciting, there’s a slow improvement in the overall performance.
In Right Hand Magic, Nancy Collins dumped us in media res and I was critical of the failure to explain any of the background. Now we have the first book out of the way, this is evolving into an alternate reality series in which the author is applying the “what if” principle to a world in which the human exists alongside the supernatural. As in The Archers, we look out of the window and see a New York in which all manner of magical folk live in Golgotham, hopefully rubbing along without too many inter-racial or species conflicts. Except, of course, that’s always too much to hope for. So, when newspaper articles emerge praising the bohemian delights of pub crawls round Golgotham, the locals suddenly have to deal with an unwelcome flood of human rubberneckers. Inevitably, after both sides have consumed an appropriate quantity of alcohol, there can be disagreements about whether smoking should be allowed and other cultural issues. Unless nipped in the bud, this can build into a major civil disturbance. Then which policing agency should take jurisdiction and how should both sides of the community deal with the aftermath?
The answer to these questions is provided with some degree of rigor. Nancy Collins is exploring the initial premises and reaching some interesting social and political conclusions. Some of the ideas are also appealing. I like the methods for making an artist’s impression of alleged criminals and taking evidence from witnesses. We could do with such abilities in our human courts. So while I would prefer to avoid the angst over meeting the prospective mother-in-law, the ghastly sentimentality over acquiring and keeping a dog for the home, planning the wedding with Vanessa, dealing with jealousy from female magical folk, and issues over who gets to see whom naked around the home, there are emerging signs of intelligent life in this alternate reality. The argument to stir up the older magical folk is that the humans are marginalising them by developing technology. Who needs teleportation when you have a car or van? Who needs to be able to fly when you have aeroplanes? This has the right level of irrationality to appeal to the prejudices of anyone whose living depends on supplying magical services to the human community.
So Left Hand Magic is an improvement on the first volume, if only because it has begun to take itself seriously. The real test is satisfied. Nancy Collins does not feel the need to go out of her way to introduce outrageous supernatural threats. All the events feel reasonably consistent with the prevalent levels of magical abilities shown by each racial group or bloodline. Yes, there are threats to life and limb but they are not oversold. In other urban fantasies, there are citywide or, in one or two cases, state-wide effects to contend with. Here, everything is highly individual and the greater effects would come from political and not magical pressures. From my male point of view, it’s a shame I have to read through all this romantic mush but, hey, you never know. Perhaps our human heroine will turn out to have superpowers or, better still, the children of this mixed relationship will lead humans and the magical folk into a bright new future together.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Water to Burn by Katharine Kerr (Daw, 2011) is rather a strange book. First as to its delivery, the prose is somewhat stilted. When I come to think about it, “stilted” is rather an odd word. I always associate it with my youth. When not trying to whip a top into action or bowl a hoop along the local highways and byways, I used to try to walking with the aid of stilts. As various bruises, cuts and scrapes were able to testify, it’s harder than it looks, but marginally less masochistic than whipping your own legs when the top gets too close. Anyway, even those of professional standing can only strut in that rather artificial way. What we might describe as ordinary walking can have grace and, in some cases, a kind of suppressed athleticism. Stilt-walking always has that faintly precarious air of imminent loss of balance as kneeless poles describe those delicate half-circles in controlled falling as forward motion. So it is with Katharine Kerr’s prose style. I find it awkward. Instead of feeling the words are smoothly delivering the content, I find myself staggering slightly, feeling word and grammatical choices are jarring. Now, obviously, this is an entirely subjective reaction and you may find her style limpid, clear and bright. If so, I wish you well. All I will say is that I struggled to read it.
As to the story, we’re into this new subgenre the publishers want us to call urban fantasy or perhaps it’s a paranormal romance. The subtleties of these new distinctions escape me. Either way, this means we have a spunky heroine with supernatural abilities, prepared to take on a passel of beasties to keep the world, or maybe only San Francisco, safe. This time, Nola O’Grady and her sidekick, Ari Nathan, continue their fight against Chaos — he makes the mess and she tidies up after him. We first met this dynamic duo in License to Ensorcell with the psychically-endowed Nola working for a secret US government agency and Ari seconded from Interpol, Israeli intelligence and other agencies with letters rather than names. Together, they’re out to maintain Harmony with the erratic O’Grady and Houlihan families in support. Sadly, there was little to like. Mysterious “waves” appear and sweep victims out to sea, drowning them before they can be rescued. Our couple continue to track down members of the coven who were working as Chaos agents in the first outing, a figure from Ari’s past has reappeared, a treasure hunter who gives off the wrong vibes is lurking around the families, and young Michael wants to relocate a “friend” from the radioactive dimension into our own. There’s little sense of any real threat and the relationship between Nola and Ari is distinctly off-key as our possible Israeli superspy has real anger-management problems while she dresses in an increasingly weird array of clothes to distract the eyes of family and friends from her possible anorexia. Frankly, the whole enterprise just lurches along and I was bored to tears.
It may just be the lifeless prose or the story itself. I really neither know nor care. Unless you have run out of exciting stuff to read like the back of cornflake packages listing the ingredients with all those fascinating e-numbered chemicals, avoid Water to Burn like the plague.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Without fear of contradiction, I’m able to confirm Redlaw by James Lovegrove is the best vampire book of 2012 (so far). A book like this is why I read through relative mountains of printed material. Every now and then, you come across a title where something just clicks. In this case, we have two key factors present for this to be classed as a really good book. First, the manner of the storytelling. This has a stripped-down approach. Everything is kept really simple. The language is lean and transparent. Nothing distracts us from a smooth start-up which then builds a genuine pace as we go through the middle stages and into a great, almost cinematic, climax. Where descriptions are offered, they are kept to a minimum, giving us only what we need to carry us forward. Where people must speak, they are always on message and keep it short. As a result, this is a real page-turner with a strong narrative dynamic.
Second, this is a really pleasing and original take on the tired urban vampire trope. I’d like to think enlightened governments across Europe would respond in this way if vampires proved real. So, for those who sit in Britain, obsessing over the influx of Polish plumbers and the threat of unemployment this creates for local water engineers, here comes a completely different wave of refugees. Driven out of their quiet homes in Eastern Europe and the ex-satellite Soviet states come the sunless — the euphemism the government spin doctors devise to describe the vampires who no longer have a safe haven. Like the waves of refugees fleeing persecution that have come before them, they come seeking asylum. Reluctantly, Western Europe takes them in. Politicians in Germany and other European countries cannot be seen to advocate an ultimate solution for the undead — they are, after all, ex-people and, no doubt, some were Jewish. It’s therefore better to have a known threat in a relatively secure place rather than allowing unregistered individuals to spread through the human population. Politicians lose votes if too many electors disappear. So our leaders create ghettos with fences. The security is two-way. There are humans who would kill vampires out of fear or for sport. There are vampires who might tire of a diet of cow’s blood and seek out their preferred prey. Standing uncomfortably between these groups of predators is a thin line of police officers. One of the key British officers is Captain John Redlaw who has become a legend in his own lifetime, keeping the peace in London.
Redlaw is a hero straight out of an anime or comic book. Indeed, the excellent jacket artwork by Clint Langley captures the essence of the man perfectly (I’ve reproduced the artwork without the cover design so you get its full effect). He’s tall with white hair and a face as craggy as a cliff. He wears boots, a long overcoat and a shirt with a collar like a priest. There’s a wooden cross around his neck. He carries a long-barrelled handgun and other assorted weaponry that can despatch vampires (and humans if they get in the way). In a fight, he’s calm under pressure and likely to emerge the winner. This is not to say he’s superhuman like Alucard in Hellsing whose job it is with Integra to keep England safe from supernatural threats. Redlaw is just tough and determined to get to the bottom of any trouble on his patch (by any means necessary). All this should tell you this novel would make an excellent anime — film-makers tend to get the look-and-feel wrong when they try to realise urban vampire stories on the big screen. I could see Redlaw in a Hellsing-style anime with a female vampire standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him as the plot progresses — note to Gonzo or, more probably, FUNimation Entertainment since it owns the rights to Hellsing Ultimate, to consider picking up the rights.
So putting all this together, Redlaw is terrific fun. It’s not intended to be the next great novel. It has no literary pretensions. It simply tells a very good vampire story very well and, if that’s your thing, you should make haste to acquire a copy. As a final afterthought, I was vastly amused to see a quote from the Guardian reproduced on the cover. It’s actually a reference to James Lovegrove’s The Age of Zeus. I suppose it’s not defamatory under English law to say an author can’t write because, in the case of Dan Brown, his reputation as an author can’t be any lower. Critical opinion already holds Dan Brown in contempt, whereas Lovegrove is pleasingly talented.
For a review of the sequel, see Redlaw: Red Eye.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
There’s always something appealing about a freewheeling approach to fiction. It starts off with impetus, bowling along once it has established momentum and, unless something with powerful stopping power gets in its way, it just keeps on a-running. So it was with Bloodshot, the first in The Cheshire Red Reports. Now here comes Hellbent by Cherie Priest. This time we find ourselves in the calm before the storm as Raylene Pendle settles into new premises, and watches with relief and approval as Ian assumes an interest in the waifs who no longer stray quite as much. It’s distracting him from the events of the first novel and providing some stability in the lives of the “kids”.
With the picture of domesticity established, Raylene picks up a job which her instinct tells her is not going to be as easy as her handler would have her believe. And so it is as we watch her walk into her first encounter with what will prove to be a magician of considerable ability. During her escape from indirect attack, she has the chance to acquire another orphan, this time of the feline variety. It seems she’s obsessed with the idea of leaving no-one (human or animal) behind on the battlefield. Now we get into a three-pronged narrative in which she continues to search for the missing box of bacula (the plural of baculum for those who want to look it up), a “murder mystery”, and helping our kick-ass drag queen in the continuing search for his missing sister.
All this involves us flitting from one city to another as we slowly work our way down the shopping list. In the end, we have some of the bacula, an identity for the killer, a sister, another stray, and a probable future collaborator. Several jobs well done, you may say, and indeed it proves so. Hellbent has a slightly more laid-back approach. Bloodshot was more on the serious side with many of the developments coming so thick and fast we arrived at the end feeling somewhat breathless. This is slightly more formulaic because, with only two of the characters on display and better known, we can focus on their situation rather than trying to work them out as people. That said, I do have vague unhappiness. The bacula sequence feels like a bolt-on to establish elements for the third in the series and I’m never happy when an element like the sister has to depend so obviously on coincidence for resolution. For me, it would have been better to focus on the supposed murder and find the sister in a more proactive way. As it stands, this strikes me as lazy plotting to hit a word count. Having had fun with the bacula, that element just stops in its tracks and the sister becomes a dea ex machina to facilitate the escape from Atlanta. This latter feels like a Lionel Fanthorpe ending. He used to write books to a word count and a deadline. When caught short, he would finish with the desperation of a juggler about to drop all the balls. Hellbent is more leisurely that most of the Fanthorpes, but it still feels contrived.
I know we reviewers are supposed to take the book as we find it and not as we would like it to be, yet there’s an additional circumstance to take into account. Curiously, this was only a two-book deal. Publishers have been getting a wee bit more cautious as Amazon flexes its muscles and tries to convince the world it’s in a dominant position. With Borders going belly up and the other brick-and-mortar booksellers struggling in difficult market conditions, we’ll have to wait and see whether Ballantine Spectra shells out for another two (or more) in this series. In this situation, I think Cherie Priest should have left things poised with the arrival of the sister. This would have allowed us a much better development of a rather better mystery element and the political situation between the vampire houses could have been explored in more detail. We could then have had the bacula in volume three should more dollars be forthcoming. Nothing need be wasted. This would have allowed us more time to understand cause and effect, particularly on the question of the earthquake as it affects current and past realities.
So, overall, Hellbent is an entertaining read which develops our understanding of this version of reality. That I think it could have been better is, in a way, a tribute to Cherie Priest. If I had been indifferent, I would simply have put the book back on the shelf and begun the next. But I was sufficiently interested to take the time to analyse the source of my dissatisfaction. For me, she remains an author to watch and my advice to Ballantine is that it should pick up the contract for more in this series.
For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still
The Council of Shadows is the second in The Shadowspawn series, following on A Taint in the Blood, by S M Stirling. In general terms, the book is classified and marketed as urban fantasy. This is not unreasonable since the plot is about a superior species of Homo Sapiens that’s been eating us since the dawn of time. So when you walk down the dark city streets, the next vampire or ghoul that starts nibbling on one of your extremities — without your permission, of course — could well be a shadowspawn.
In theory, these are really dangerous creatures. They not only have the usual bloodsucking, shapeshifting predator thing going, but also a whole range of other supernatural abilities ranging from some degree of precognition to low level psychokinetic ability. In other words, if you took each of these skills and attributed them to creatures prefixed by were, or to vampires, witches, warlocks, and those lucky SOBs who win the lottery, you’ve got them all in one package. The reason why we’ve seen signs of these creatures throughout our history is because these hominids have been interbreeding with us through the generations. So while the purebloods are really powerful (because they interbreed), there are a lot of halfbreeds with low levels of the supergenes, who only fitfully display one or more of the attributes.
To add to their general capacity for meanness, they are also blessed with the cat’s habit of enjoying play with the prey. This leads to gratuitous cruelty and torture, both physical and psychological. Fear makes the blood taste sweeter. Since they link at a psychic level, this can trap the prey in a form of living nightmare where the human can experience being chased and eaten repeatedly.
The leader of the more dangerous faction is Adrienne. Opposing her is her twin brother (and the father of her two children — don’t ask) Adrian. At the end of A Taint in the Blood, Adrian rescues his human lover, Ellen Tarnowski, from Adrienne and, after marrying, they set off on a campaign to stop the Council of Shadows stepping out into the light and taking over the world (again). Unknown to them, Adrienne did not die (these pesky creatures are damned difficult to kill, what!?!) and now lies in recovery, still plotting world domination. The local police are trying to work out what happened when Ellen’s home burned to the ground, and Harvey Ledbetter, another pro-human shadowspawn, plots to wipe out the Council by acquiring a nuclear bomb. Yes, there will be collateral damage, but that’s a price worth paying to save humanity from a tailored outbreak of disease, nuclear explosions in our cities, or EMP blasts to disable all our technology (although preventing the nuclear power stations from melt down might be challenging for the shadowspawn).
Having all that out on display should set us up for an exciting ride as our love birds come under attack and Harvey moves inexorably closer to getting his bomb in place. Except the book lacks any real kind of tension. Apart from the odd nightmare, Ellen is untouched by trauma. She’s just emerged from being under Adrienne’s claws for six months and now she’s enjoying sex on her honeymoon in Italy. While full-blown PTSD might slow us down a little too much, some adverse reaction to the torture would offer us some credibility. As it is, we’re obliged to read through pages of fairly wooden dialogue between the newlyweds as they slowly unwind and then move off to Paris to recruit a scientist to investigate shadowspawn powers. Although there’s mild fighting in Paris, we’re then immediately pitched back into the spycraft undercover work to discuss which culling method to prefer against us quick-breeding humans. It’s all so faux-civilised as the food comes in gourmet style, accompanied by the very best wines.
This leads me to a more general reservation about the way in which the narrative is developed. Initially, I said this book was classified as urban fantasy. If you look at the jack artwork and read the blurb, this will reinforce the impression. Given the state of the market, this is a not unreasonable way to sell a book these days. But the reality is rather different. Although we’re dealing with beings who exhibit supernatural powers, a major talking point throughout is the science of it all. Yes, friends. It’s what we’ve all been dreading as urban fantasy meets science fiction. Our happy couple recruit one scientist and team him up with another from the first episode. Together, they begin a major scientific exploration of the “power” in an underground lab. This leads to very jarring changes of pace. There are some heavy-going passages of speculation and observation where we’re supposed to be interested in how our spawn interface with the power. These are seeded through the fantasy bits where different individuals fight or snack on the local human wildlife. For me, this rather destroys the tension. If we’re reading a horror-oriented fantasy, we meet the heroes and learn to love them, then follow on through an escalating roller-coaster ride of threats until they emerge relatively unscathed at the end. If it’s a science fiction novel, we also have heroes to care about as they come under threat and use their scientific knowledge to survive. But I’m thinking S M Stirling couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to write, so produced a primary set of fantasy elements, with second-tier characters to do the scientific work. Instead of these elements reinforcing into each other, they clash in style and tone. Worse, we also have a human police investigation that makes little progress as a third-tier narrative element.
I’m not saying The Council of Shadows is really bad, but it’s a series of unhappy authorial compromises that left me feeling uninvolved and, at times, rather bored. With a better focus, the creative work invested in this world could have produced far better results. Indeed, it does build to quite an interesting point as the cliffhanger to take us through to volume three but, by then, it’s all too little too late. If you enjoyed the first, then this develops the story in a reasonably interesting way and you’ll probably like this one too. Otherwise, you’ll need a stiff drink before starting and keep it topped up to carry you through to the end.
Jack artwork by Chris McGrath.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For a review of another book by S M Stirling, see The Tears of the Sun.