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Archive for July, 2009

The Alchemist’s Pursuit by Dave Duncan

In my previous outings dealing with The Alchemist’s Apprentice and The Alchemist’s Code, I have hitched my wagon of disquisition to the admission that my grandma read tea leaves and claimed powers of clairvoyance. So it was that, once a week at its predictable time, the Lipton’s van pulled up in our street and the driver would start knocking on doors to sell his packets of floor-sweepings as my grandma uncharitably described the quality of the tea. Indeed, everyone from knife grinders to grocery delivery men variously announced their arrivals, often horse-drawn, by the ringing of bells or the honking of horns — dray horses were still making beer deliveries for Scottish & Newcastle Breweries when I left the North East in the 1960s. However, just as fashions change in delivery systems, my taste in drinks has also evolved. Perforce, tea was the main drink with food rationing continuing until the early 1950s and coffee beans hardly a priority for import to support post-war reconstruction. My taste for the overly milky and sweet concoctions of my youth slowly faded to be replaced by coffee — a drink that seemed more exotic to a teenager. Now, I rarely drink anything other than black coffee. This somewhat limits my ability to foretell the future since residual coffee grounds make very poor indicators of likely events. Instead, I rely on track record for predictive purposes.

With The Alchemist’s Pursuit by Dave Duncan, the third in the series, we have an emerging pedigree which predisposes the timorously optimistic book buyer to believe that the latest episode will be as good as the last. In fact, it proves an engaging read. We are plunged straight back into the Venice of the faux Nostradamus and his apprentice Alfeo with the ultimately invisible crime: the murder of a courtesan. As any patriarchally inclined observer will know, all prostitutes invite death simply by selling their bodies to men. That courtesans deal with a better class of men does not exempt them from this reality, particularly in late 16th or early 17th century Venice. Except that the circumstances surrounding this first death are unusual, and when the number of deaths rises to three and then four, it’s obvious that something more sinister is afoot. So Alfeo is sent out on to the mean canals to ask his questions and use his well-honed memory to remember every last detail of what he sees and hears while an increasingly disabled Nostradamus distracts himself from the pain of his rheumatism by concentrating his analytical mind on fitting the facts collected by Alfeo into a potential solution.

The supernatural element is slightly less prominent than in the two earlier volumes. Here Tarot forms the main guidance for the investigation and then there is the curious behaviour of the cat. So how does the “problem” and its solution match up to the previous volumes?

The Alchemist’s Code remains one of the most elegant reveals of the last five years or so. It cannot easily be surpassed. In this third volume, there’s slightly less mystery — the actual whodunit is fairly obvious because of the small number of possible suspects — but the overall context for the deaths is most cleverly worked out and highly credible. Even on the last two or three pages, details are still emerging which give psychological depth to the “answer”. That not everything is played fair because some of the explanation depends on what Alfeo can see but does not describe in sufficient detail is more or less forgivable. Almost all mystery/detective stories “cheat” to some extent. As a story slowly revealed through Alfeo’s investigation and the musing of Nostradamus, this shows everyone caught up in a wonderfully tangled web, with all elements drawn together in a most satisfying way. It more or less stands on its own but, as with all series, the enjoyment is enhanced when you read the books in order and watch how the characters develop and interact.

A new series starts with Speak to the Devil and we have a stand-alone called Pock’s World.

Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox

Many moons ago, there was a girl group somewhat improbably called The Cookies — presumably, they were sweet things on the musical casting couch. Anyway, as is the way of pop culture, their brief reign over the charts bequeathed us “Chains”, a haunting song, penned by Goffin and King, and later covered by The Beatles, which boasts the immortal refrain,

Chains, my baby’s got me locked up in chains

And they ain’t the kind that you can see.

Fast forward more than fifty years, and we find ourselves with the same leitmotif in the Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox. In some systems of magic, there is an expectation that, if you know the true name of a thing, animal or person, you can command it. So it is with some ironic satisfaction that I confront a book about magic knowing that the real name of the pseudonymous author is Chaz Brenchley. He is currently a denizen of Newcastle which was the nearest city to where I lived in the earliest part of my life. At least he has the good sense to stay on the north bank of the Tyne — perhaps he has also had the good sense to read The Fire Worm, a book with autobiographical asides by author Ian Watson on life in Tynemouth, which deals with monstrous consequences to be found in the river dividing the true Geordies from the rest of England.

In this book, we are in the world of Chinese mythology. Yet again, the Son of Heaven (as Emperors liked to be known way back when) comes to the Imperial Throne under the regency of his mother and her flock of feuding generals. The book begins with the court in flight from a rebellion by a general who would not play the mother’s game, the young Emperor caught up in an undignified retreat to an island which is the principal source of jade. His arrival completely disrupts the life of the people whose main interests have lain in mining the jade and fishing. Those on the mainland have the worst of the bargain because the arrival of the pursuing army results in a mass slaughter among the coastal towns which involuntarily provided the men and boats to ferry the retreating imperial forces to the island. It is strange how often the lives of the innocent can be so rudely interrupted when their rulers fall out.

The book is therefore dealing with several well-worn themes. It’s a coming-of-age story for the young Emperor, the young woman he takes from the fishing fleet as his mistress, and a young jade miner who, like the Emperor, has had significant exposure to this stone for most of his life. It also reflects on the social and political forces that shape and constrain the lives of those both within the power structure and without. In theory, everyone including the Emperor is caught in cultural chains, restricting what they can do or the way in which they can do it. While under the sea, chained by sympathetic magic, a real dragon chafes against her intangible bonds and dreams of being free again.

At many levels, this is an unflinching story. It could have glossed over the casual brutality of life and death in early China, yet the author’s gaze is focussed on the use of power as a means of imposing order and discipline on the world. There would be no hegemony over the enormous land mass of China without an iron fist to hold its disparate parts together. There would be no crew of a ship without a captain unafraid to take a limb or the lives of those who offend him. Armies depend on a balance between loyalty and fear to maintain full ranks of motivated soldiers. Mothers need a ruthless streak in them to protect their children. Yet tip the balance too far and Emperors, captains and mothers may find themselves transformed from caring authority figures into monsters with no-one prepared to follow them. Balancing power and respect for, if not love of, others is a difficult art for all to learn.

The book (as the first in a trilogy called Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water) is also balancing social upheaval against the threatened upheaval of the dragon if she can free herself from the chains that bind her beneath the sea. This dragon is not some benign Westernised creature of Hollywood design, prepared to pull up a rock and chat amiably with a young hero in Sean Connery’s Scottish brogue. Rather it is a fierce creature waiting to savour a cold dish of revenge by laying waste to human settlements up and down her part of the coast, including the straits now separating the Son of Heaven from his pursuers. Indeed, as readers, we can ponder which would be worse for the local inhabitants: an army killing all in its path or a single dragon that can call up tsunamis or attack from the air.

All this is told in a most pleasing style. Too often magical fantasy descends into purple prose whose baroque extravagance weighs down threadbare plots. Here we have an intelligent plot with a restrained but evocative tone. The characterisation is allowed the time and space to give us a real insight into motivations. So long as we all suspend disbelief at the magic and forgive Mei Feng her unexpected sophistication as she rapidly changes from a deck hand on her grandfather’s boat to imperial mistress, this represents an auspicious start to the intended trilogy. I recommend it.

For the next volume in the trilogy, see Jade Man’s Skin. For the concluding volume, see Hidden Cities. For a new series, see Desdaemona and Pandaemonium.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

I suppose that, in real terms, we must be the people we remember ourselves as being. Memory is the mechanism that supports identity. Supposedly, it’s the past that informs the present. Thus, we only repeat or deny prior decisions if we recall what we did. Should something interfere with our ability to store or recall information, we are diminished as human beings — hence our dread of the creeping loss of self caused by Alzheimer’s disease. I had this not terribly profound insight while reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry. As I read through the opening chapters, I was in full retrieval mode, finding myself reminded of previous books and films. Generally, I find this echo phenomenon most active when the stimulus text is rich in ideas. The interest created in the current mind resonates through the information stored in my memory and triggers associations.

The novel is set-up in the style of a detective story where the key source of person-power to serve and protect the community is an Agency. It’s easy to see this work as Kafkaesque because the bureaucracy of this Agency allows reality to be rewritten (and potentially distorted) because Mysteries are passed to the Detectives whose work is then edited by clerks on the fourteenth floor and passed on to Solutions for filing. Because each function is separated by Chinese walls, there’s no way of knowing whether the Detective actually investigated the mystery he or she was given. Nor is there any way of knowing how the clerks shaped the Detective’s reports before passing them on to their final resting place in the Archives. In the end, each part of the Agency will remember what it did but, perhaps, only the clerks see more of the information as they whittle down their Detective’s reports into the case files the Agency will remember.

However, for me, the final resonance is not with Kafka, Se7en for the rain that pours continuously throughout the investigation or more surreal explorations of the interface between dreams and reality. Rather, I am reminded of an almost unknown work from the sixties called Smallcreep’s Day by Peter C. Brown. This is a surreal and somewhat macabre satire on the implicit worthlessness of human existence, particularly as experienced by factory workers. After some sixteen years of curiosity, the eponymous Smallcreep abandons his work station to find out exactly what function his component plays in the finished product. As he journeys through the factory, he comes to recognise the futility of his life. Love and humanity are shredded and replaced by a despairing anomie.

So it is that Unwin, a clerk from the fourteenth floor, finds himself pitched into a journey through a cityscape to find the palindromic Travis Sivart, the Detective whose work he has so meticulously edited over the years. The interesting feature of Unwin’s quest is that he remembers all the details he has edited out of Sivart’s reports. In a sense, he becomes the memory of the Agency in seeking to solve the latest Mystery. So just as the author suggests the “criminals” may rely on ageing elephants to remember important facts, it’s the meticulousness of Unwin’s ability to memorise that will finally build a bridge between the perceived and the actual worlds.

The whole is a metaphorical, not to say allegorical, investigation into the nature of the world we believe ourselves to perceive. For some, a dream can be so vivid, they forget whether the imagined events actually occurred. Did they dream about something that had happened, was happening or would happen? If they remember their dreams, does that make them any more real than the physical experiences of a sleepwalker who gets up, makes breakfast and drives to work, only to wake in the carpark still wearing pyjamas? It’s convenient to believe that we all see the same world and can distinguish fantasy from reality. Indeed, those with the appropriate credentials and the status of psychiatrists make a living out of designating different gradations of mental illness if the perceptual line between the real and the unreal becomes blurred in the minds of their patients. But Jedediah Berry would have us think about this. His novel is populated by a stock of iconic cyphers. Their characters are presented ambivalently, challenging us to decide whether their actions are real or imagined, whether what they do is the product of free will or directed by some Svengali.

For a first novel, this is very good because it contrives to maintain plot momentum without sacrificing the quality of the ideas. There are also odd flashes of a wry sense of humour at work which leavens the mood of the writing. Overall, I think it goes on marginally too long. I confess to finding myself slightly jaded as I approached the end. It also lacks the mordancy of Smallcreep’s Day and ends on too sentimental a note. But, for those among you that enjoy something more cerebral, this is well worth a look.

As an additional note, The Manual of Detection has won the Dashiell Hammett Prize 2010.

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