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First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

First Novel A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle (Jonathan Cape, 2013) is a slightly challenging but ultimately fascinating book. Think binary: to read a printed book or digital characters on a Kindle screen, read only the first novel or read all the novels by one author, turn left or right, stay or move on. Individually, each decision is insignificant, but significance comes in the accumulation of such decisions, particularly if the choices are skewed by external factors or prejudices. Indeed, the more “ordered” the mind, the greater the potential for obsessional behaviour. A possible example would be placing dummies in a bedroom. This could be Sylvia Plath translated into the real world or the representation of a surrogate family. Talking about obsessional, there’s Grace, a young student on the university course our “hero” teaches on first novels. She’s interested in our first-person narrator, maybe even following him to a bookstore he frequents. And just who is this man who teaches creative writing at a place of higher learning in Manchester? And how reliable a narrator is he, he who sometimes claims to be unable to distinguish between being alive and being dead? Or to know whether to be unfaithful to his wife? And if she finds out, whether the marriage will survive — barring suicide, of course.

If we want to get technical, this is a work of metafiction with a very precise interest in the creative processes that go into writing. The question most pertinent is whose responsibility it is to tell the story and whether it should be told in a linear structure. As an example, there’s the elegant short horror story about salt that wraps up the first section in this book. Reading the main body of the text in order, our narrator instructs his class to write a piece about a recent experience. After hearing the readings, he may independently verify the substance of one or two pieces written. This intertextual story, set in a different font, may be about one of these students visiting his house except the protagonist does not mention it or comment on it. This may be evidence of his unreliability as a narrator. He’s protective of his privacy, particularly when it comes to his own first novel. If one of his students read this story out in class, he would not fail to mention it. So it may be the student who wrote it did not hand it to another to read in or no-one read it out in class, or it may prove to be something else entirely like a story written by Helen, one of his MA students, and taken out of context.

Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

Image by Julian Baker showing Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

This signals the novel as a work of intertextuality. As one very obvious example, the text of one of Nicholas Royle’s short stories, “Very Low-Flying Aircraft”, which was first published in Exotic Gothic 3 and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One is scattered through the first sections of this novel. The authorship is later attributed to Grace. In other words, the format of this novel is like a jigsaw and, as the title suggests, it’s for the reader to reassemble pieces like a puzzle and, thereby, to solve the mystery of who this protagonist is. Nicholas Royle is reflecting on the craft of the novelist which is usually to take his or her own experiences and to recast them as fiction. This is not to say the writing of fiction is essentially autobiographical. But we readers expect events to match our own experiences of the world. The test of credibility is whether we’ve seen the same thing ourselves. To fictionalise and get the best results, it may be necessary for the author to change the point of view so the readers get a different understanding of the events described. So if a wife and children leave home in one version, they may be killed in another. Either way the marriage ends. The fact of its ending will feel emotionally credible. We’ve all known marriages that fail, often because of infidelity. The surviving husband will be devastated, particularly if he’s to lose custody of the children. So for the readers, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth of what happened. All that maters is whether the fictional version reads as if it is true. It may also benefit to switch from first- to third-person. After all, omniscient authors know what’s happening.

The implicit question posed in the title of this book is, I suppose, why some authors only write one novel or later deny it. That singular excursion into text can be wonderful yet it’s never followed up, or the author does keep writing, but every time a new novel appears and the backlist is mined for titles to rerelease, the first novel never seems to reappear. It’s as if the author or the publisher is somehow embarrassed by it. An example of a brilliant first novel would be The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt which is a study in female identity suggesting that our culture objectifies and denigrates women. Initially the female protagonist is lost and confused as if trying to navigate social relationships while wearing a blindfold. Then she experiments by assuming the role of a young man. In the end, her fragile ego is overwhelmed by the stronger men around her. There’s no happy ending. In this novel, we have multiple views of a male character who’s fundamentally uncertain who he wants to be or where he wants his life to go. Were it not for the odd episodes of sex in cars, you might think him entirely passive, living helplessly if not arbitrarily on the basis of binary decisions: to do or not to do, that is the question.

Taken overall, First Novel: A Mystery is a fascinating piece of writing, exploring the nature of identity and how to capture it on the page. As in the real world, we can often only build up an idea of who a person is by assembling facts and impressions from multiple sources spread over time. Not everyone can afford a private inquiry agent to put together a comprehensive dossier on a person with everything neatly set out in chronological order. So Nicholas Royle here reflects the fractured nature of a personality. We might see different aspects of a character at different times in different circumstances. Only in retrospect can we piece together the most coherent view of the person, lifting the blindfold and looking back with more perfect vision. Sadly, it’s often the case that the most chameleon-like of individuals have something to hide.

For a review of another novel by Nicholas Royle, see Regicide.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Empty Space: A Haunting by M John Harrison

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Empty Space - A Haunting by-M John Harrison-hardback

Let’s start with a simple question. What do you understand by the idea of “unthought known”? Suppose you brush your teeth, do you think about the build-up of the froth of the toothpaste at the edges of your mouth? No. The process of teeth cleansing is performed at an automatic level within the mind and, unless you have a particular reason to look in the mirror, it would never occur to you that an outside observer might mistakenly diagnose a manic episode with you frothing saliva in a fit. The only reason we survive as individuals is that we retain our own point of view. It may shift like a butterfly or become immovably focused on a single detail until we’re suddenly distracted. But one thing is always certain. If we lose our point of view, the thought processes becomes chaotic. We lose our understanding of the world. Another way of seeing the outcome might be that we become untethered from our world and can fall into a different place or dimension. Or we can fall from power, or from grace, or head over heels. Falling is one of these indisciplined activities. It’s safer to be controlling where you fall. That way, when you arrive, you’re in one piece. Of course, if you could manipulate your DNA structure, you might grow wings while you fell, or your thoughts could take wing and steer you to a new place.

This might all sound a little confusing but, as a metaphor, how would you capture the idea of the mind controlling space flight? It would have to assimilate the maths, perform the calculations to navigate and then implement the solutions. That way, the pilot of the ship might fall to another planet in another star system. Once experience is acquired, the process becomes autonomic. The pilots might not even be aware of how they do it unless they specifically stop to think about it. This would be the ultimate unthought known. Before the technology enhances the mind and enables the controlled falling, how might someone achieve the right frame of mind? It would require the mind to engage in a routine task to the exclusion of everything else. This might be a thoughtless wandering from street to street or a swim in the river. It would be an untethering process where the essential self is left behind and a purely directional instinct is put in its place. You might not know or remember how you arrived at a particular place. All you could say is that when you stopped walking, you’d arrived, even though you might not know where you were. That could make the form of transport a matter of blind luck, a literal throw of the dice.

M John Harrison wondering where he is

M John Harrison wondering where he is

Empty Space: A Haunting by M John Harrison is the third in the Kefahuchi Tract series. It’s probably the last, the equivalent of someone throwing two threes on a roll of the dice and calling it a night (or day depending on the time the dice where thrown and the atmospheric pressure). Except, of course, the same person could return and pick up the dice again or another might stand in his or her place. The first book, Light, introduced us to Michael Kearney, a physicist who worked with Tate, his assistant, to formulate the maths that will eventually take humanity to the stars. Unfortunately, Michael steals a set of dice from the Shrander and the only way he can keep it away, is by becoming a murderer. This reflects the fact that basic cause and effect is distorted in the Tract itself. It’s a kind of unthinking shield. The second was Nova Swing, set almost exclusively in the future city of Saudade where everything is still as dirty and broken down as in our time, and the space fleet is piloted by less than human children who have no real idea how they get to where they arrive.

This book brings us back to a near-future London where sequential recessions have left the British impoverished. Michael is long missing, presumed dead, while his “widow” Anna struggles through therapy with Helen Alpert and her daughter worries she may have cancer. In Saudade, an unhappy trio of wheeler-dealers begins to collect artifacts called mortsafes. They are not convinced this will turn out well. Then there are a couple of murders where the corpses float into the air and start to fade away, and a voice that insists, “My name is Pearlant and I come from the future.” except, like everyone else in this book, Pearlant is having some difficulty in finding the way. Indeed both metaphorically and literally, almost all the characters are lost.

So where does this leave us? As a way of linking the two rather different books that went before, Empty Space: A Haunting is a brilliant piece of writing, elegantly crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s to reconcile the opposites and arrive where it’s supposed to. Indeed, in its own right, the prose is worth reading. It’s quintessentially British in spirit and execution, showing M John Harrison as a long-term craftsman at his best. That said, this is not a book to read as a standalone. If you have not at least read Light, I would seriously advise you not to start here. Of course, you could take this as an excuse to read all three of the Kefahuchi Tract so far — of course there may be more or not depending on the author’s atmospheric pressure — which, while something of a challenge, does repay the effort with real interest.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

February 26, 2013 Leave a comment

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2013) starts with a particularly amusing introductory piece by another of my favourite authors. Norman Partridge subversively plays with the commission and introduces the author and this collection with obvious enthusiasm. This is a collection that forces me to think about why I so like fiction that sits on the divide between horror and fantasy. To understand, we have to revisit the impressionable young reader growing up in the 1950s. Early on, he discovered novels, collections and anthologies of Victorian and Edwardian horror stories. He found some of them scary. There were the merely unknown sources of danger like “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant and “Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as one of many by M R James. But it was writers like Bram Stoker with The Jewel of the Seven Stars and The Lady of the Shroud, and William Hope Hodgson with The House on the Borderland and the Carnacki stories that clinched the deal with their blends of the supernatural, fantasy and horror. I suppose I’m still reading in the hope of finding new texts to invoke that same sense of goose-pimpled wonder. Among the modern writers, Laird Barron is one of the few who can still hit the sweet spot for my tastes, infusing Lovecratian Mythos with modern sensibilities.

“Blackwood’s Baby” was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four edited by Ellen Datlow and is a wonderful example of how to use a hunt as a vehicle for suspense and excitement. Written in a pleasingly period style of prose, it begins by setting the scene and highlighting the differences in class that have so bedevilled our past as a species. Not content with finding distinctions in size, racial characteristics and gender, we had to go and invent an entirely new social classification system and assign people to its various grades. When men in a group are supposed to depend on each other for support and, if necessary, defence, the last thing you want are stresses and strains in the relationships. So when this group set off on the annual hunt for the fabled stag, we should not be surprised that not all will return. But the reason for each injury or death might be considered surprising unless the idea of an annual sacrifice to the woods and the creatures that live within is too weird for you to accept. “The Renfield Girls” switches genders as a different group goes off for a short break by a lake with an odd reputation. In theory, this is a more harmonious group of people who work together, but the dynamic is slightly thrown a curve ball by the unexpected arrival of a niece who adds one more to the number. Whereas the first story is more show and tell, this is an exercise in the manipulation of atmosphere. The lake itself, a little of its history and a few unsettling dreams are enough to start us off. What actually happens could just be accidents. People read too much into coincidences and talk themselves into believing all kinds of superstitious rubbish. It’s a very clever piece of writing.

Laird Barron with a monocular view of the world

Laird Barron with a monocular view of the world

Then we have “Hand of Glory” which turns out to be a classic hitman story of a young man following in his father’s footsteps and making a name for himself as an enforcer and killer for a local gang boss. Everything would have been wonderful except for his lack of self-discipline which leads him in self-destructive directions. Then a couple of freelancers try to take him out. He’s sober enough to be able to defend himself but this is all a little too much for his boss. Things need to be set right. So our “hero” must deal with the man who ordered the hit. Even without the supernatural elements, this is a tremendous read. Add in a little black magic and general spookiness and you have an outstanding story.

“The Carrion Gods in their Heaven” by Laird Barron describes the plight of a battered wife on the run with the emotional support of her lover. They take up residence in a remote cabin in the woods. Naturally, there are tales about an earlier occupant, but it’s only slowly the couple realise how believable old tales can be. This is a story firmly rooted in the reality of a fear so great and enduring that it destroys the self-confidence of the victim. The question it asks is whether flight or fight is better. The cabin can only be a temporary hiding place. Indeed, they may already have been discovered. So how far might one run if the opportunity presented itself? Laird Barron offers a nice answer because we can’t be entirely certain where the battered wife ends up. This first appeared in Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow.

In “The Siphon” we get to ask whether psychopaths are merely human or have connections to creatures living in the cracks between the worlds. In this case, a man with secrets is eventually recruited by the NSA and finds himself at the centre of an operation to track a spy who might want to “come in from the cold”. Unfortunately, this spy is also of interest to other people of power which leads to some tension between the different groups and the sense our hero’s secrets may no longer be safe. This first appeared in Blood and Other Cravings edited by Ellen Datlow.

“The Jaws of Saturn” takes us back to the same milieu as “Hand of Glory” with the same character manipulating people for his own purposes. This time, a hitman finds his girlfriend acting strangely and rashly decides to discuss the changes with the man apparently responsible. “Vastation” is a surreal jaunt through time as the only real human becomes, in his own way (if not only in his own mind) as ineradicable as the Old Ones. The question posed is existential. What would happen to a being who could transcend time and become whatever he wanted to be? Being godlike, it would be possible to make and unmake the world. But what would be the point? You could wipe out all the humans, then repopulate and watch them make the same mistakes all over again. It’s all potentially futile and not a little boring as the millennia pass. So why bother? Even the Old Ones spend their time sleeping, or go off and do other things, or simply exist without thinking about anything. Any of those might be better than hanging out on Earth with no real friends. Perhaps real cosmic horror is realising you’re alone and stuck with yourself so long as you can stand the pain.

“The Men From Porlock” is playing the prequel game to “Mysterium Tremendum”, “The Broadsword” and The Croning, his first novel. All are set in or related to the Pacific Northwest as an area where events of cosmic significance are likely to occur. This takes us back to the time when the Slango logging camp was still functioning and in need of fresh meat. The small group sent out to shoot some of the game running through the forest encounters unexpected problems. In all things, who’s to say where the effects from the cause will stop? Finally “More Dark” plays the name-dropping metafictional game as an author discusses whether life’s worth living, particularly after witnessing a performance by another cultish horror author who never speaks in public but has a puppet to do it for him. Of course, the appearance of the puppet and what it has to say could be evidence of a cosmic intent to spread fear and disharmony, or it might just be an extravagant coup de théâtre designed to appeal to the horror cognoscenti. Let’s all take a shot at deciding which is true.

Put all this together and Laird Barron offers a particularly diverse range of tone in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (to understand the significance of the title, you have to read “More Dark”). We have everything from “traditional” adventure style horror to more explicitly Lovecraftian cosmic horror and the occasional burst of slightly comic horror. It’s a terrific read for anyone who enjoys writing that sits on the cusp between fantasy and horror.

For reviews of other books by Laird Barron, see:
The Croning
The Light is the Darkness
Occultation

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

I’ve also interviewed him here.

This collection won the 2013 Bram Stoker Awards® for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection.

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two. (2013)

February 25, 2013 16 comments

Elementary poster

There are slightly more spoilers than usual in this review. You may prefer to watch the episode before reading this review.

Well it seems we now have a new game to play and, to be honest, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a positive development. To understand the scriptwriters’ problem, we need to go back to the beginning. Arthur Conan Doyle prescribed that, for most of the series, there be a single household containing Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Dr John Watson (although he did get married and find other reasons not to be around all the time). Hence, in strict canonical conformity, we’ve now arrived at a point in our subversive modern version with Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) formally enrolled as a member of the team. The only feature we’re missing in this New York brownstone is a Mrs Hudson (although presumably we have a turtle named Clyde lurking comfortably somewhere in a drawer — see The Red Team). So the first sixteen episodes have played with our expectations as to how this unlikely pairing will seal the deal. Now that’s all behind us, the scriptwriters must decide how to fill the time gap. They could produce more interesting and complicated crimes for Holmes to solve with Watson’s help. That would be a major statement of intent and reassure us that, in the final analysis, the program makers are interested in a Rolls Royce series of high-class investigations. The second possibility (sic) would be to keep on with modest mysteries and find something else which which to distract us — a much less desirable option.

In Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two. (2013) we have a client referred by [Reginald] Musgrave (he of Ritual fame in the Memoirs). He’s been diagnosed with an hereditary condition except there’s no history of the condition in his family. Perhaps surprisingly, one of his delusions is that, “someone has done this to him”. OK so this is the science fiction episode. We’ve moved into a new technological age where scientists can design molecules that, when ingested by humans, give them [the symptoms of] an incredibly rare genetic disorder. There’s another marginally more likely scientific development thrown in later, but the damage has already been done. If you remember the famous quote, “When you have eliminated the impossible. . .” Sadly, the scriptwriters decided to introduce the impossible and let Holmes deduce the existence of stuff that doesn’t exist. Worse, the entire murder plot is actually complicated. Perhaps I lost concentration but I’m still not sure who killed the chauffeur. I suppose it must have been the demented client who just didn’t remember. I think it would have made for a better ending if the dynamic duo had been to see him, even if only to hold his hand while telling his uncomprehending body they had worked out who killed his mind. Then there was the whistle-blowing geneticist. We cracked that case. What happened to the Norwegian who had bought the royal estate he could not afford? And all this stuff about the family of the client came to nothing. I could go on but you should get the message that there was enough in there for at least two episodes but it all flashed by with such speed, we were not supposed to see how weak it was in the telling. There are red herrings and clues that go nowhere with everything stitched up at the end.

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) now formally a partnership

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) now formally a partnership

The rest of the time, we had Holmes encouraging Watson to develop her own deductive skills. In strict terms, this is anti-canonical. Every attempt the original Watson made to think his way out of a paper bag ended in misunderstandings and confusion. The only thing he could do efficiently was accurately report what people said to him. Holmes would then interpret this in his unique way. We have to remember that this Watson is presented as a highly professional surgeon with an above-average level of technical skill. Yet to encourage her to compete with Holmes is a little daring. Indeed, in this episode, she does conduct her own investigation and gets a result. Perhaps this series will have to be retitled Holmes and Watson Investigate. Personally I’m not sure I want to see Watson endlessly humiliated, i.e. every time she gives an incorrect or only half-right analysis, Holmes publicly explains what she’s missed and where she’s gone wrong. In the earlier episodes, part of the fun was Watson inadvertently helping either by a casual remark based on her specialised knowledge or by being herself. Frankly I can’t think of anyone less well suited to be a teacher than this Holmes. He’s a deeply sexist, patronising, intellectual bully. The only virtue is that his inability to relate successfully with those around him gives him a position of isolated objectivity from which to assess the world. Trying to force this Watson into a new worldview threatens to be painful to watch as she will almost certainly fail to measure up to his high standards. The test case was faintly ludicrous as two men lay dead with a gun between them. The answer featured some tortured thinking in the style that reminds me of the old riddles, e.g. a man is found hanging from the ceiling in a room locked from the inside with no furniture, etc.

In the usual slightly jokey way, we have Holmes seduced by a solitary bee and Watson struggling with the need to hit the dummy with a big stick. As a final thought, there was absolutely no reference to addiction or meetings in this episode. Now that Holmes has his Watson, is he cured? Worse, there was little or no emotional development in the relationship between the new partners. They seemed exactly the same as in previous episodes. I was hoping they might be more comfortable together. Inspector Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) put in their usual token appearances. Put all this together and Elementary: Possibility Two was a poor episode.

For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episodes 23 & 24. The Woman and Heroine. (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 1. Step Nine. (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 2. Solve For X (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 3. We Are Everyone (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 5. Ancient History (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 6. An Unnatural Arrangement (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 7. The Marchioness (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 8. Blood Is Thicker (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 9. On the Line (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 10. Tremors (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 11. Internal Audit (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 12. The Diabolical Kind (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 13. All in the Family (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 14. Dead Clade Walking (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 15. Corps de Ballet (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 16. One Percent Solution (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 17. Ears to You (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 18. The Hound of the Cancer Cells (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 19. The Many Mouths of Andrew Colville (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20. No Lack of Void (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 21. The Man With the Twisted Lip (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 22. Paint It Black (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 23. Art in the Blood (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 24. The Great Experiment (2014).

Night & Demons by David Drake

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Night & Demons

Night & Demons by David Drake (Baen, 2012) has some of the most interesting introductions I’ve read for a long time. Too often authors throw us an occasional crumb from their tables. Putting all these pages together gives a real autobiographical insight into how the stories came to be written and what their significance is.

“The Red Leer” is a classic piece of writing, nicely setting up the situation and elegantly arriving at the not unexpected conclusion. This is not to undervalue the story in any way. Once you begin with two men breaking into a Red Indian burial site, you know the likely outcomes. This is as good as it gets with this type of story. “A Land of Romance” is one of these pleasingly humorous fantasy stories in the style of Sprague de Camp. As is required we have a bright young man who, when presented with an opportunity, particularly one involving a pretty young girl, manages to come out smelling of roses (or some other appropriate flower). “Smokie Joe” is a nice long-spoon story in which the Devil gently muscles into organised crime and pushes sins to the corruptible for the rewards they bring. It displays a slightly unsual sense of humour about the entire operation which means some may find the descriptions of sexual disease a little daunting. But that’s the point of “horror” stories, isn’t it? “Awakening” is a very short piece that speculates on how far you can take denial. “Denkirch” is the first story he published. It’s a direct invocation of the Lovecraft formula with obsessed scientist driven to use himself as the test subject in his latest experiment. Who needs books and spells when you have the advantages of modern science. It almost certainly wouldn’t sell today but, in its time, it was passable. “Dragon, the Book” is another elegant fantasy which reruns the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. “The False Prophet” takes us into the classical realm where Drake is particularly comfortable with a fine story of a charlatan who isn’t quite what his loyal followers take him to be. It’s another of these stories where “adventure” and “mystery” shade into an atmosphere piece with fantasy, supernatural and, perhaps, even science fictional possibilities. One or two moments made me smile which is unusual in stories of this type. “Black Iron continues with the same characters in a story with different tempo as the merchant member of the duo explains how he came into possession of an interesting sword. The final contribution to this mini trilogy is “The Shortest Way” which suggests a reason for civility when asking for directions. We then get back into vaguely Lovecraftian territory with a nod and a wink to the worship of large tentacled underwater creatures.

David Drake still enjoying the little things in life

David Drake still enjoying the little things in life

“The Land Toward Sunset” is a story of mighty heroism as a character out of Karl Wagner’s universe is given a whistle-stop tour of the remnant of Atlantis. I suppose it’s quite good as an example of the older style of high fantasy sword and sorcery writing but it goes on too long for my taste. “Children of the Forest” is one of these wise fantasies that sets out to tell the reader about the choices we make as humans. Necessity, real or imagined, often forces decisions we later regret. Sometimes, when we have only instinct to rely on, we run home — a choice that can bring disaster following close behind. “The Barrow Troll” is an old idea but very elegantly told in this story of a Northern berserker’s quest for the gold reputedly guarded by a troll. The casual brutality of the man contrasts sharply with the “soft” German priest whose involuntary role is, perhaps surprisingly, to bless the venture. “Than Curse the Darkness” is a excellent Lovecraftian Mythos story in which a very determined and knowledgeable woman steps up when the threat is maturing and speaks the words of power before the full awakening. It’s very nicely done in a period style with lots of interesting background information on how life used to be in the Congo. Moving back up North, “The Song of the Bone” is nicely unexpected as, with the right music, you wake like a bear with a sore head. “The Master of Demons” is magnificently ironic as, in the shortest of stories, a reckless magician comes to understand the magnitude of his error.

“The Dancer in the Flames” is a fascinating fusion as a conventional war story set in Vietnam becomes a supernatural communion with a woman in a tricky situation. “Codex” is another highly original variation on an old theme, this time using the information from an old book for arranging a trading opportunity with a not wholly unpredictable outcome. The fun comes in the nature of the book and in guessing what will happen. “Firefight” is a taut and exciting page ripped from Vietnam’s bloody history books and converted into a confrontation between a battle-hardened US unit and a supernatural threat. This is one of the best stories in the collection. Almost as good, “Best of Luck” has an enemy within the troop so, when the Viet Cong appears, the soldiers are between a rock and a hard place. “Arclight” continues the absorption of military experience into a supernatural context. This time the troop discovers a small temple with big trouble written all over it. Perhaps the idol represents a power that can follow them wherever they go. Perhaps there are other powers that might have a say in that. Then comes “Something Had to be Done” which is the best of the lot. It’s a thankless task to visit the homes of those who’ve been killed on active duty to report the circumstances of each son’s death. This time, the sergeant who was with the soldier on his last mission draws the short straw.

“The Waiting Bullet” gets us back into conventional supernatural territory with a pleasing ghost story. It’s beautifully set up with a nice plot to unwind as the first sight of the ghost triggers the slow release of the backstory to the cabin where the hero is staying. “The Elf House” is a rather fey fantasy that lacks an edge. It moves along very professionally but has no real sense of danger. This contrasts sharply with “The Hunting Ground” which is another of these Vets under pressure stories. This time, two men recently returned from combat find an unexpected threat in their neighbourhood. Fortunately, they are able to give as good as they get. “The Automatic Rifleman” beat me. I had it back-to-front when I was reading it so the ending caught me by surprise. It’s very clever, taking a simple story of an assassination and turning it into something altogether more strange. “Blood Debt” deals with a slightly awkward social question. What exactly do we owe a family member who dies? Must we take revenge? If so, what price must we pay? This is a very effective story of witchcraft in a modern setting but with traditional results. Finally, “Men Like Us” takes us into a post-apocalyptic future where a dedicated team ensures no-one will continue the use of nuclear power. Overall this makes for a remarkably eclectic collection with the majority of the earlier stories holding up extremely well. Those with a military background are particularly effective as David Drake mines his past for backgrounds and characters. Definitely a book to savour.

For reviews of other books by David Drake, see:
The Heretic with Tony Daniel
Monsters of the Earth
Out of the Waters
The Road of Danger

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Boss: Season 2 or シーズン (2011)

February 23, 2013 Leave a comment

BOSS_Season_2-p1

Well here we are with Season 2 of Boss シーズン (2011) and we kick off with a flashback showing how the Black Moon terrorist leader escaped, and snipers killed key members of their organisation under arrest. The only minor success was due to Eriko Osawa (Yuki Amami) and her team who saved the Police Chief from assassination. Although the team was distracted by a fake bomb, the Boss pulled the Chief down and saved him from “certain death”. He was merely wounded. But with the Japanese press looking on, this “success” was branded a highly embarrassing failure by the Police so the team was disbanded and Boss returned to America. Having allowed two years to pass, Shinjiro Nodate (Yutaka Takenouchi) decides it’s time to pull the team back together except there are two issues to resolve. As the one perceived to be most at fault, Mami Kimoto (Erika Toda) has been banished to the wilderness and seems reluctant to rejoin the team. Reiko Narahashi (Michiko Kichise) is leaving to get married so someone new has to be found to run the CSI department. As an informal new recruit Rika Kurohara (Riko Narumi), the Police Chief’s slightly wayward daughter and a powerful computer white hat, is drafted in to help the team.

We now have a kind of rerun of episode 4 in the first series. An extremely well-informed criminal kidnaps Mami Kimoto and sets up a slow-motion death scenario. Frankly this is absurd. The kidnapper shoots the victim in the chest but the bullet only slowly moves towards the heart. Yet again, it’s down to the team to work out who the criminal must be and find their team member before she expires. The solution wins a prize as the most contrived so far. I don’t mind an occasional episode where our heroine has a flash of inspiration, gives secret instructions, catches the criminal and then explains exactly how the “trick” was done. But this is in a class of its own. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s actually rather impressive as a piece of plotting. Someone very clever sat down to reverse engineer the capture. But the result is completely divorced from reality. This is like one of the episodes from the original television series of Mission Impossible where the team comes through against the odds to convince the dictator of Mickleagua he’s been abducted by aliens and the only way to get back from the Moon is to spill the beans about his American spy network. Obviously Mami Kimoto survives and is able to look the Boss in the eye and say, “I knew you would find me.” She sobs with relief and pain as the bullet moves one millimetre closer to her heart and hospital staff whisk her away for surgery. The guest star is Yumiko Shaku who rather wickedly sends up Yuki Amami’s mannerisms as the Boss. It’s quite good fun as a mirror image. Also entering the action is Hiroshi Morioka (Nao Omori). He was originally a police officer working with Eriko Osawa and Shinjiro Nodate, but now works in a political capacity. He’s obviously introduced to look suspicious.

The team gathered for a briefing

The team gathered for a briefing

The next episode is equally silly. Well that needs a word of qualification. The psychology of the mastermind is interesting and put together in a clever way, but the process of investigation and the manner in which the evidence of guilt is elicited are unconvincing. Even with our wise-after-the-event approach to revealing how Boss deduced X was the killer, this ranks as pretty pathetic. However, Episode 4 proves to be a good balance between characters and plot. Although the set-up is hopelessly contrived, the emerging relationship between Ikko Furuya and our heroine is first class. This is a really pleasing story of revenge which should have all viewers firmly on the side of the killer and his helpers. Indeed, the way the description of the killer emerges is great fun and the reason they are able to entrap him is a moment of sadness. It wins a prize for ingenuity in the cause of the sympathy vote.

Episode 5 is another example of the Boss deciding she knows who has done it upon their first meeting. The problem therefore is to elicit sufficient evidence. Having watched with my usual concentration, I admit to being completely baffled as to how the team knew where the bodies were buried. Although there are some nice jokes about blogging and how to live a frugal lifestyle, the scientific analysis of soil samples makes no sense. The only triumphant moment comes in a particularly nice irony about one of the victims. The motive for killing her was jealousy of the lifestyle but, in reality, the victim was almost penniless and putting on an act.

Episode 6 is the first sign of life with what looks like a bank robbery. At least one armed man takes hostages and begins to negotiate with the Boss. However, there are shots fired, smoke is suddenly detected and the hostages come running out. When the police enter, one of the hostages is dead but there’s no sign of the robber(s). When the bank counts its cash, no money is missing. This is a genuinely good bait-and-switch story with the chance given to new recruit Sachiko Tadokoro (Kyoko Hasegawa) to earn a little self-confidence both in the job and at home.

Episode 7 is interesting on two levels. First, it gives substantial backstory on all the main characters and explains more precisely why each of the team was selected. Ippei Hanagata (Junpei Mizobata) was completely honest and naive. Keisuke Yamamura (Yoichi Nukumizu) was twice married and addicted to hostesses, but still offered balance to Hanagata’s inexperience. Zenji Iwai (Kendo Kobayashi) was not only gay but also violent, having attacked a senior officer. Except that officer was corrupt and our man was refusing to be involved. Similarly, Takuma Katagiri (Tetsuji Tamayama) was a man adrift who needed a new boss to give him a new sense of self-worth after the shooting incident. The actual plot involves a form of revenge attack on the Team itself and Hanagata in particular. It works because it explains the relationship between the Boss and Shinjiro Nodate, referring back to the Black Moon case in the last series and to earlier incidents in which they came to trust each other and devised secret signals to indicate danger. The actual plot is even more than usually unbelievable.

Keisuke Yamamura (Yoichi Nukumizu) and Takuma Katagiri (Tetsuji Tamayama)

Keisuke Yamamura (Yoichi Nukumizu) and Takuma Katagiri (Tetsuji Tamayama)

Episode 8 is a serial killer who resumes after a five year gap or are the new killings the work of a copy cat? If this was the case, it would have to be someone with inside knowledge. The subplot is rather silly with the Boss sent on a blind date. Episode 9 is a fairly straightforward story as a police procedural. It’s simply a case of catching the known man, but it does manage to hit the right emotional notes with the girl being the pivotal figure and having a relationship both with the killer and, later, with Zenji Iwai who feels he may have a mothering side to him.

Episode 10 starts the end run with the return of Mami Kimoto. She’s been working out-of-sight to identify who was behind the Black Moon two years ago. But before we finally reveal who the mastermind has been from the first series, Takuma Katagiri must finally get up enough courage to propose marriage to the woman he has not been talking with throughout this season. It should be a moment of rare happiness but the potential father-in-law turns out to have aided and abetted two murders. In a straight choice between continuing in his career as a detective and giving it up to marry, he naturally chooses career which leaves him in place to thwart the terrorists plan to assassinate the Prime Minister, assuming that’s what they actually intend. As a plot from the last episode of the first season to the end of the second, this is actually rather good. If the scriptwriters had taken just a little more care to build the narrative arc and then avoided the illogicalities in the final few minutes, I would be cheering. As it is, I was left with a sense of what might have been. There’s too much attempted humour at the expense of the individual members of the team. This distracts from the seriousness of the individual investigations. The series should either have aimed for stronger individual police procedural episodes or made a real effort to produce a series leading up to the big climax at the end with incidental investigations along the way.

For a review of the first season, see Boss.

Bronze Summer by Stephen Baxter

February 22, 2013 Leave a comment

bronze-summer-the-northland-trilogy

Bronze Summer by Stephen Baxter (Roc, 2012) is the second in The Northland Trilogy and we’ve moved on from the primitive days of the first brick built dykes. Now more than a thousand years nearer our time in this alternate history saga, we’ve got a major civil engineering project using concrete to keep the sea at bay. Yes these clever primitives have cracked the code on concrete. Cement has been around for several million years but, in our timeline, it was the Romans who developed “proper” concrete, using it for all their major structures from around 300 BC onwards. These eager beavers have completely excluded the sea from what is currently the bed of the North Sea. The “wall” now effectively creates a continuous land mass from Wales through to Europe and beyond leaving the current British Government with serious immigration problems as anyone who wants can just walk in (even from Romania if they want to walk that far). For those who have boating experience, a short sail north brings them to Iceland (then known as Kirke’s Land) where there’s a pivotal volcano that decides to make its mark on the world. You have to sympathise with these volcanos. For centuries they sit on their holes into the mantle, each one claiming they are the real-deal supervolcano and they just can’t agree. So periodically, one gets the bit between its teeth and, to prove it’s the biggest and baddest supervolcano, it erupts chucking out local lava but, more seriously, ash which triggers a small ice age featuring nut-obsessed saber-toothed squirrels if you’re lucky, a major ice age featuring species extinction and mass death in the human community if you’re less lucky. Fortunately, for now, the ice is only a gleam in the eye of the epilogue.

My apologies, I’m wandering around here (like many of the characters in this book) and not getting to the point of the review (many of the characters never end up in an ideal position either). So here we have this supermassive concrete structure that runs from here to there. It has a dual function. Obviously it keeps out the sea but, more importantly, it’s also a home to the people. Gone are the days when these primitives lived in caves. Now they’ve got their own continuous high-rise apartment block with major communities at regular intervals along its length. For this to work as a society, what you have to imagine is an amazing belief in the availability of free food. Most of our civilisations have developed with an agricultural base. Once there’s a food surplus, people can urbanise. Not in this book! Here we have an urban community in a ribbon strip development that creates a significant amount of unoccupied land. Quite why no other people invade this free land is left unexplained. The Brits, the French and the Germanic tribes know to stay out of Northland. This allows a hunter-gatherer society to prosper (with fish and sea food as a supplement). Obviously this also depends on there being little or no population growth so that natural sources of food are not exhausted.

Stephen Baxter with centuries flashing by

Stephen Baxter with centuries flashing by

So when the ash cloud screws up the already unstable weather systems, the fragile economies in the rest of the region collapse and conflict over access to increasingly scarce resources is inevitable. We start off in Northland with what I expected to become a murder mystery but the lead character, Milaqa, encouraged by her uncle Teel, is no investigator. In fact, for most of the book, she’s rather a diffident individual who shows little enthusiasm and not a lot of intelligence. The one immediately responsible for the death actually admits it about one-third of the way through and we get on with other matters. We also have two characters starting off in Troy. Qirum is a Trojan wheeler-dealer who “buys” Kilushepa, the deposed queen of the Hatti — the alternate history version of the Hittites living in the region we call Anatolia, now part of Turkey. Coming from even further away is Caxa who’s from a culture modelled on the Toltecs. Initially, everyone converges on the Northlands, but after a grand bargain is struck, Qirum, Kilushepa, Milaqa and Teel set off for the long journey to Hattusa, the capital of the Hittites. We then have minor skirmishes, larger scale conflict, quite a lot of brutality and an outbreak of disease.

The problem with all this is that the narrative structure lacks a clear focus. We have incidents and events dotted around the landscape and along the timeline as people travel hither and thither, with set pieces at the key locations as in a kind of historical drama with military overtones. Although there’s a chance for some character development, the primary protagonists are really plot devices to say and do the things necessary to show the development of the environmental disasters as the years pass by. This is not to say the broad flow of history is uninteresting, but I confess it failed to stave off boredom. I gave up caring who anyone was and just read it to the end to see what happened. It’s a shame really because there’s much inventiveness on display and significant rigour in the development of the climatic shifts and cultural consequences. But for me Bronze Summer proved rather tedious. I say this despite the introduction of combat and war which, in other hands, often enlivens proceedings. In this case, it was brutality and cruelty by the numbers with little emotional significance. I can’t honestly say this is worth reading unless you want to bridge from Stone Spring which was much better to the hopefully equally good concluding volume.

For a review of the first in the trilogy, see Stone Spring.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.