Archive for August, 2013

Southside by Michael Krikorian


Too often authors fail to realise there’s something more to writing than putting one word after another. They tend to think they have the craft all nailed down when they manage whole sentences and then learn about paragraphs. The natural storytelling kicks in and off they go with this all-singing-all-dancing plot that all fits together (usually with not a little help from coincidence) and gets them to the end they foresaw when they set off (or at least that’s what they will claim if asked). So picking up a book like this is a pleasure because you get to read someone who understands the range of options available to a skillful writer. Let’s take a not-uncommon possibility: that you have a first person narrator but fit this inside a framework made up with both third-person point of view and omniscient author sections. This means the reader is passed from pillar to post as the story unwinds, each section having the best view of the action available. From a technical perspective, this is also challenging because the author has to balance tone and avoid knowledge bleeding from one section to another unless characters overlap or are seen talking with each other.

However, I’m delighted to say that the tool box has been thoroughly exploited by the addition of two further devices into the text. The first is a transcript of a conversation that was taped in rather ironic circumstances. Usually, journalists carry concealed recorders in the hope of catching the interviewee in a revealing admission. In this case, it’s the interviewee who’s recording the conversation with the journalist. I’ve only seen the ARC so I hope the typesetting is adjusted for the final print run. I prefer to see either a different font or italicised text with different tab settings.

Michael Kirkorian

Michael Krikorian

The second device is a series of narrative digressions where the author dives off into explanations or descriptions of relevant background. It has been illuminating to read this and pick up insights both into the practice of journalism and the gang cultures of Los Angeles. To understand the function of digression, consider the nature of this blog. There are currently 1051 digressions, i.e. with this post, 1052 pages which have different content but are thematically related in that they are all reviews or talking about books, films or television shows. So a narrative is a primary discourse, but the author deviates from the strict process of telling the story to talk about other things only tangentially relevant to the development of the plot. When done crudely, we’re offended and term the interruption to the flow an infodump. A digression is rather more subtle and reads more as an embellishment to the flow of the plot. It’s not intended as teleological, i.e. to help us arrive at the culmination of the actions described in the plot. It’s the author suddenly deciding to break off and tell us something interesting, just for the fun of it.

Anyway, enough of the technical stuff, Southside by Michael Krikorian (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) is a rather pleasing first novel from a journalist who’s adding fiction to his writing bow. It’s not in any sense autobiographical. It just happens to be about Mike Lyons who’s a crime reporter on the LA Times — always write about what you know advised some old hack with a typewriter. Here we have a protagonist with a spotty early life, in and out of trouble, but eventually finding a niche for himself writing about life on the mean streets of LA. Given his background, he’s able to talk with active gang members and pick up good stories. The editorial staff are less than enthusiastic about his habit of drinking on duty, but they like the steady stream of stories he’s able to deliver. Insofar as anything can be with a man who lives life on the fringes of a culture that never hesitates to shoot first (asking question before, during or after never arises), his life is at a good point, including love with a beautiful woman. That’s why it’s such a shock when someone shoots him on the street. Now begins a trial of strength. Who from among all the gang members he’s upset would be most likely to attempt killing him? Worried the attacker may return for a second bite of the cherry, our hero is chasing around for leads when a tape recording surfaces. It’s nicely ambiguous, but read the way the mayor and senior police officers direct, it shreds his reputation. Now there’s everything to play for as we canvass all points of view, including that of the “killer”, so we can understand the motives of those involved and all the shades from pale grey to absolute black on the moral scale.

In all this, no-one has superhuman investigative or deductive powers. Everyone bumbles along, doing their best as a team effort of journalist, police officers and, eventually, gang members. It’s good to see everyone finally ending up on the same side for once. With all the information pooled, the killer can be identified and his motive confirmed. It feels credible and, in a thriller with observed police procedural, you can’t ask for more than that. As a package, Southside is very readable and, with the compass points in mind, three more volumes are planned. I shall be watching to see if Michael Krikorian can maintain this high standard.

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

The Stranger You Know by Andrea Kane

August 30, 2013 2 comments

The Stranger You Know by Andrea Kane

This is my first look at Andrea Kane who comes with quite a reputation. Let’s start with the prose which is elegantly stripped down. Personally, I have no preference on where an author should locate the prose on the dense to minimalist scale. All I’m interested in is the quality of the product as it appears on the page. This is one of the times when a more elliptical approach fits the thriller genre and gives us a fast, page-turning pace. It has moments tending towards melodrama but that’s largely kept under control. So at a craft level, this author proves her worth with a piece of writing that’s technically very proficient.

So now on to The Stranger You Know (Harlequin Mira, 2013) which is the third in the Forensic Instinct series. Please forgive me for getting the characters straight before discussing the nature of the book. In alphabetical order we have Marc Deveraux, ex-Seal, Claire Hedgleigh, a psychic, Hero, a dog, Kyle Hutchinson, current FBI agent, Patrick Lynch, retired FBI agent, Ryan McKay, IT wizard, Casey Woods, a forensic psychologist and leader of the titular Forensic Instinct team, and Yoda, the primitive AI. For the avoidance of doubt, sexually, the pairings are between Casey and Kyle, Claire and Ryan. This author cut her teeth on writing romance and, to some extent, it shows in this thriller. That’s not to say this is any less thrilling. The author subjects a series of women sharing the same physical features to kidnap, rape and murder. This is an interesting choice of plot by a female author. Central to events is a convicted rapist/murderer who sits in jail and manipulates events though a proxy. This felon’s wife shows all the features of abuse and continues to be dominated by her physically absent husband. Taken as a whole, I have the sense the book is portraying women as essentially weak and prone to be stalked and victimised.

Let’s take one step back. One view of the world is that women are consistently humiliated and abused. Patriarchal cultures objectify females, encouraging the view that dominance by males is the norm. Indeed, until laws were changed over the last one-hundred-and-fifty years in Western societies, women were the property of their fathers until married, when the right of custody was handed over to husbands. The right of women to own their own property and to vote are relatively modern developments, not necessarily resulting in realignments in the average man’s view of the women he meets. Fairly recent American research shows about 18% of women are the victims of attempted or full rape at some point during their lives. This is not necessarily reported because the reality of law enforcement tends not to support women who complain of non-consensual sexual activity. Without rape shield laws to protect women who are themselves put on trial when a rape case comes to court, the number of complaints will continue to be low. So when a modern female author writes about a serial rapist and murderer, she’s simply reflecting the risks a significant proportion of women run during their everyday lives. When a female author describes an abused wife whose personality has been beaten into submission by a controlling partner, she’s describing the experience of perhaps a majority of women in relationships.

Andrea Kane

Andrea Kane

Back to this book, I always have a problem with books purporting to be “real” yet portraying supernatural powers as effective law enforcement tools. Claire has a psychic hotline to women being raped. She can literally pick up the telephone and direct the police to the area in which they will find the bodies. When she fails to have a vision, say because she’s distracting herself by having sex, she beats herself up. This is not to say she can ever stop the attacks from occurring. Obviously, she only responds to the emotional output as the attack is underway. But she nevertheless feels guilt. Well, regretfully, this entire plot thread leaves me absolutely cold. If an author decides to use characters with supernatural abilities, she’s working with systems of magic that fit into the fantasy milieu. Magic doesn’t fit into a milieu in which we’re supposed to be dealing the the brutal reality that about 18% of American women are at risk of being raped during their lives.

Now treading carefully to avoid spoilers, towards the end of the book, the malevolent males have come to the critical point in their fiendish plan. For this plan to work, it requires one of the women to act in a way that can only be described as completely irrational. So this female author has the relevant female character, dare I say it, act like an irrational woman. Perhaps I’m not the right person to be reviewing this book. As a man, I’m deeply offended that this author should force her characters to act with stereotypical stupidity. Why can an author not portray women as having intelligence and emotional fortitude? It’s so frustrating to reach a pivotal moment in the plot and find the author deciding to create a completely fake tension when the inherent situation was already tense enough. The method adopted to resolve the situation would have worked just as well without the absurd decision. Indeed, it would have allowed a woman to show her strength and lead the charge against the malevolent men and kick their butts — an outcome that could have been inspiring to women everywhere. Having to leave it to the men in the team to rescue the situation is just reinforcing the gender stereotype of male superiority.

So The Stranger You Know is successful in the first half, using the inverted crime device to introduce the jailed psychopath, and leading up to a tense and and interesting situation. Indeed, some of the detail of the plot is excellent. But the book drops off the cliff in the second half and is a tragedy for this time. A book like this would have fitted comfortably into the publication lists of the pre-feminist 1950s, but publishing it today strikes me as sending entirely the wrong message to women readers. Andrea Kane can write great prose but has written a book without any feminist sensibilities to help shape the discourse in a direction more positive for gender equality.

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

The Light is the Darkness by Laird Barron


I need to begin this review of The Light is the Darkness by Laird Barron (Infernal House, 2011) by clarifying my thoughts on the relationship between the work of Laird Barron and what we may properly call pulp fiction — the stories I used to read when young rather than the film bearing that name. I suppose this form of writing got started in the penny dreadful/dime novel style of the late Victorian era and then really took off as the reading opiate of the masses when cheap wood pulp paper became available for use on efficient printing presses. During their heyday in the 1920s and 30s, it was not unusual for each magazine issue to sell one-million copies. Once austerity kicked in because of WWII, the pulp magazine era was in decline and more seriously began to peter out some time in the 1950s. Of course pulp-style novels in volume persisted into the 1960s but, then, for better or worse, the era of modern publishing was upon us. I start with this brief history because pulp represents a vast legacy of ideas and writing talent. No matter what we may choose to think of the bulk of the output, some authors produced work that deserves to be remembered. Relevant to this particular book, we have H P Lovecraft and those who have sustained the Mythos over the generations, and the hard-boiled or noir approach to crime fiction.

Putting the supernatural to one side for a moment, the essence of pulp has always been the struggles of the laconic tough guy. Whether we’re dealing with a PI or just someone with an axe to grind, there’s usually a quest of some kind. Our hero is sent off to find the girl or recover lost property. On the way, he encounters various dangers which he survives with stoic resolution. When the dust has settled, there’s not always a “happy ending”. Our hero usually avoids being locked up for the mayhem and death that have attended his progress towards whatever grail he was seeking. Sometimes he buys his freedom by giving enough information to the police to arrest some of the criminals who deserve punishment. Whatever the outcome, there’s a rough kind of justice in operation which, perhaps surprisingly when the future of the human race is at stake, does not involve the hero getting the girl. Romance and procreation were never an element in those rather more cynical days. The upshot of this approach to plot creation is to give readers an introduction to a lifestyle which has danger built in. At every point, our hero is likely to find himself in a fight — if he’s unlucky, the first he knows is a blow to the head with a sap. As compared to the lives of ordinary citizens, nothing matches their normal expectations, e.g. the people he meets are somehow more exotic. Often they come with wealth oozing out of every pore, but that’s just a symptom of a malaise hanging over each family. There are always black sheep who leave the patriarchs helpless. These kin groups may think the money has bought them happiness, but that nearly always proves an illusion.

Laird Barron celebrating a piratical ancestry

Laird Barron celebrating a piratical ancestry

So in The Light is the Darkness, we have a young man who, from an early age, has been trained as a kind of modern day gladiator by an unusually rich man. His parents died in unusual circumstances. His mother committed suicide. His father died in a mental hospital. When we first encounter him, he’s trying to find his sister. She’s actually on a quest of her own and has gone missing. Her trail is confusing and, were it not for her habit of leaving him small caches of information to find, he would have given up the search a long time ago. Now he has new information, he’s more confident of making progress. All he needs is the money to fund his pursuit. This means another high stakes fight. Up to this point, this could all be a modern recreation of some standard pulp tropes. Substitute a boxer who’s worried about his missing sister and you have a hundred magazine stories to compare this with. Except, of course, that’s a fundamentally unfair thing to do. Most pulp is unreadable by modern standards. Laird Barron writes rather beautiful prose which delivers nicely complex puzzles for us to solve. In this novel, we want to know more clearly what his parents were doing, how and why his older brother died, what gives our hero his rather curious physical abilities, and why his sister is so obsessed by tracking down the doctor who treated their brother.

The answer to these and other questions means we cross over into supernatural territory. The world inhabited by our hero was never safe. It’s just he never quite realised how unsafe it was nor what the source of the danger actually would prove to be. All such noirish heroes can ever do is push ahead and hope for the best. When hope is wearing thin, he still keeps going because that’s what loyal brothers do when searching for their lost sisters. This answers when they come sidestep the more obvious Lovecraftian tropes but still retain a cosmic element. This proves to be a very elegant riff on an old theme but it’s so cunningly reconstructed, it comes across as pleasingly original. To paraphrase the old idiom, it never occurred to me revenge could be a dish taking quite so long to cool. Taken all together, this is Laird Barron at the top of his game with a delightfully constructed noir supernatural tale of a sometimes punchy hero struggling against the odds to find his lost sister.

For reviews of other books by Laird Barron, see:
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
The Croning

I’ve also interviewed him here.

New Taboos by John Shirley

August 28, 2013 1 comment

new taboos cover

When you’re born and bred in a country, you’re tuned into the social and political system and develop radar on meanings. For example, after only a few sentences, whether written or spoken, it’s often possible to tell which part of the country the person comes from, which class he or she belongs to, what political affiliation he or she has, and so on. But, as an outsider, it’s significantly more difficult to read the runes and decide how to interpret the available information. Of course, in fiction, it tends to be easier because although the characters will be showing off their beliefs, the plot is usually dominant. Except when you come to a chap book like this. When I buy an author’s work, I buy the next title without bothering to research what the publisher has to say about it. When this small offering arrived, I confess to being puzzled. So with great trepidation, I set off into the quagmire which is American politics. Anticipating the worst, I ask all American readers to have a little patience for this old man who knows nothing and understands even less. New Taboos by John Shirley (PM Press, 2013) Outspoken Authors is a collection of a novelette, two nonfiction pieces, an interview and an incomplete bibliography.

“A State of Imprisonment” is what, I suppose, I have to classify as political science fiction with horror overtones. Although, in the traditional sense, moderately horrific things happen in this near future scenario, the main thrust of the novelette is a discussion of the direction in which America’s policy towards the punishment of criminals may progress. It’s set in Arizona. The entire state has been taken over by a large corporation which has converted some 80% of the land into a single continuous prison with the occasional population enclave at strategic locations for prison personnel. By virtue of this specialisation, Arizona has become the lock-up capital of the world. Every state in the union and from around the world now outsources its prisoners to Arizona. Naturally, because this is a for-profit corporation, very few of said prisoners ever see the light of day again. Once you have your inmate population and begin receiving the per diem rate for keeping them, there’s no incentive to let them go unless the corporation can develop more profitable ways of exploiting those behind bars.

John Shirley with an interesting view of the world

John Shirley with an interesting view of the world

Of course, the selection of Arizona is inherently significant not only because of immigration and the somewhat notorious SB1070, but also because of the reputation of the Arizona Department of Corrections in the way it runs the Lewis complex in Buckeye and other max units. So when our heroine journalist is allowed through the gates at the border crossing and starts her guided tour of one unit, she gets invited to see what really goes on. The rest of the story flows naturally from her decision to accept the invitation. Although I find this type of fiction not uninteresting as a window into how opinion-shapers think about social issues like the use of prisons as punishment, this is rather clunky and, by my standards, incoherent. America already has some privatised prison units and there have been a couple of cases in which judges have been convicted of fraud for sentencing people to those units. Judges should not be allowed to hold shares in companies running local prisons. As a capitalist country, it should not be shocking that corporations are allowed to run prison facilities. It’s equally foreseeable that the system is open to manipulation and corruption with the maximisation of profits leading to the poor treatment of the prison population. Naturally, a private corporation would react aggressively if a journalist came into possession of embarrassing information. So, like Walter Mondale, I’m not quite sure where the beef is. Everything in this novelette is a reasonable extrapolation on what we have now. Although it’s unlikely a prison corporation could ever take over an entire state, it’s certainly not unreasonable to speculate that a major chain of prison service assets will be established around the world, offering a menu of everything the local state needs from standard cells to à la carte items like torture to match local customs and beliefs. It’s obvious this is a business opportunity no self-respecting capitalist corporation could resist.

Then the publisher takes me by the hand with “New Taboos” which is a political manifesto calling for the creation and enforcement of a system for social judgement and penalties for those found wanting. This clarifies and expands upon the subtext to the novelette. Intellectually, I empathise with the wish-list of practices to “abhor”. Unfortunately, no matter how desirable the implementation of the social system as proposed, the list is never going to gain sufficient acceptance to become a workable mechanism for modifying behaviour. It’s a shame but these features of human behaviour have become the accepted norms for achieving positions of dominance in our society and no matter how much we may resent the victimisation and oppression that follows, the average citizen remains powerless to make any difference. “Why We Need Forty Years of Hell” is a much more realistic discussion of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, recognising things will get a lot worse before they can begin get better, i.e. there will hopefully come a time when even the most dimwitted of superrich power-brokers admits the need for a little restraint. We finish off with “Pro Is For Professional” an interview between Terry Bisson and John Shirley which shows the lead author in a favorable light.

Taken as a whole, this is a pleasing exercise in political pamphleteering. As an outsider, I find myself saddened by the label attached to the series. The featured authors are considered “outspoken” as if that’s somehow a “bad thing” in the land protected by the First Amendment. While it may not be mainstream in American, the centrism on display in New Taboos would be considered very uncontroversial in Europe. Perhaps this a radical socialism according to the right in America which is why this independent small press feels to give such views a platform. I can’t say, but I understand the philosophy on display and, as a European, would defend John Shirley’s right to say it.

For a review of a new fiction collection by John Shirley, see In Extremis. There are two standalone novels:
Bleak History
Doyle After Death
and two novelisations called:
Borderlands: The Fallen
Resident Evil: Retribution.

The Greenland Breach by Bernard Besson

August 27, 2013 2 comments

Greenland Breach by Bernard Besson

This book is rather like one of these slightly more upmarket chocolates. It has a thick outer layer and something completely different as a filling. As to the wrapping, it’s always interesting to watch the wheel turn. When I was younger, I cut my teeth on books like The Drowned World by J G Ballard with an increase in solar radiation melting the polar ice caps and flooding the low-lying ground. In those heady days of excited speculation, global catastrophe or apocalypse science fiction was in vogue with everything from alien invasions to our own nuclear wars sending us back to the Stone Age with a flick of the author’s pen. If we move across the Channel and into more modern times, we have books like Le Monde Enfin by Jean-Pierre Andrevon with a pandemic striking humanity down, and the spectacularly long series titled La Compagnie des Glaces by Georges-Jean Arnaud with climate change caused by the destruction of the moon to the fore — first we freeze in ninety-eight volumes then, in a mere twenty-four volumes, we melt — if you missed the books, there’s a chance to catch up with the video games, graphic novels, French-Canadienne television adaptation and a different but parallel Japanese anime series, Overmanキングゲイナー, which also explores the problems caused by monopoly control of the transport system.

Why, you ask, should people in different cultures be so interested in actual or potential extinction events? The answer, I suppose, is because they operate high up on the scale of awesomeness (in the American sense of shock and awe). We pass rapidly beyond one or two people finding it a problem to survive, say, an increase in wind velocity, and wipe out countries no matter what their political allegiance. Or, along strictly nationalist lines, we can give payback for past slights. I’m reminded of US criticism of France under the government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin for failing to prevent more people from dying in a heat wave. It’s therefore understandable the US should be the first country to feel the wrath of nature in The Greenland Breach by Bernard Besson (Le French Book, 2013) originally titled Groenland and translated by Julie Rose. Serves those climate sceptics right, says I.

Bernard Besson

Bernard Besson

In the best Gallic tradition, this section of the book is magnificently melodramatic. Even in translation, you can feel the enthusiasm of the author shining through as he channels the emotion of the moments as global warming causes a major slippage of ice and land into the sea. Yes, Greenland is less than it was before it cracked in half. Dumping that amount of solid and meltable material into the sea at high velocity causes a tsunami to die for (sorry, the preposition should be from) and before you can say Jacques Robinson, water levels are rising fast. These damn oceans are just so interconnected in this internet age. If you fill up one, the water must find its own level. Because this is a Francocentric book, we’re really only interested in what the French oil and minerals industry was doing before the crack appeared, and what the various official spy agencies and unofficial operatives do afterwards. À bas les autres pays. Quel domage! — which, loosely translated means other low-lying countries get flooded first, ha ha!

So as an extrapolation, we have the polar region melting and throwing out an increasing volume of methane which could cause a major shift in climate, i.e. the warmer bits of the Earth go cool and the polar regions heat up. As this area melts, it could uncover large deposits of rare earths. That would have major strategic importance, breaking the market dominance of the Chinese. As this novel unwinds, Canada is claiming these deposits using the Continental Shelf Doctrine. And that’s where the espionage filling comes in. Once we have the context, we’re swept up into a mystery style investigation built around the unfolding catastrophe. The action moves through the death of a key executives of one of the companies exploring for natural resources on the icepack, to excitement in France, on to a ship that barely survived the tsunami, and back on to the ice as lakes start to form and methane bubbles up to the surface. Tension builds as life and death struggles occur and the identity of those behind the looming conspiracy is slowly revealed.

The Greenland Breach is a novel of considerable flair and panache which starts with a major environmental event and then skillfully switches focus to the ravages of human greed as plots are laid and manipulations executed (in every sense of the word). With this combination of flavours, the novel hits the sweet spot of enjoyment.

The Greenland Breach was published in paperback on April 30, 2014.

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

The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley

The Osiris Curse

The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley (Pyr, 2013) Tweed & Nightingale Adventure 2 should have a young adult health warning on the cover. In all innocence, I pick up the next book from the pile and discover myself cast adrift in a dumbed down science fantasy, patronisingly aimed at the young. This is Sherlock Holmes meets Hyperborean lizards from a Pellucidar underworld who threaten to destroy the human world because we have inadvertently been destroying the underground environment in our search for additional energy sources. Ah ha, another version of Sherlock Holmes and a story somewhat adjacent to the ingenious manga, anime and film series Dectective Conan by Gosho Aoyama (because someone thought this might be confused with that barbarian fellow, the series was renamed Case Closed to avoid distressing Robert E Howard fans who might not be able to understand the jacket artwork on the manga or the words used to describe the television and cinema versions). The hook for the Japanese story is that our brilliant amateur detective is forced to take an experimental poison but, instead of killing him, it reverts him to childhood stature which is actually a convenient “disguise” because it enables him to access places and talk to people who underestimate him. Note his dependence on Rachel Moore and, to some extent, Amy Yoshida — females of the species. In this book series, the mind of Sherlock Holmes is salvaged after his demise at Reichenbach Falls and relocated to a cloned body, then nine months old in chronological age. At that point in cranial development, the cloned body was not able to absorb Holmes’ memories, just most of his intellect, so the emergent young man is an erratic detective genius. He’s “adopted” by Barnaby Tweed, is christened Sebastian Tweed and partnered with Octavia Nightingale.

Paul Crilley

Paul Crilley

So our young detective with female sidekick takes on the role of defender of the British Empire which is full of stupid adults with the possible exception of Queen Victoria who puts in a cameo appearance at the end. The setting is very strongly located in a steampunk era. Under Queen Victoria’s benign rule, Babbage has perfected the difference engine, Tesla has done just wonderful things with electricity, and so on. Looking around the streets, we have both steam- and electric-powered conveyances. Large robots are slowly finding acceptance in heavy industry and on the docks to do the heavy dirty work, while “android” robots act as house servants. And in the air, ornithopters and hydrogen airships with electric engines driving turbines rule. There’s also a grey area in which spiritualism and a more general interest in the practical side of the medium’s experience has led to the capture and manipulation of “souls”. In Tweed’s case, the mind was placed into a cloned body, but they can also be placed in bottles and inserted into machinery. That gets around the programming problem since oral instructions can then be given. Even H G Wells comes into play as the inventor of an invisibility cloak (and time machine). There’s not a single original element on display nor, in the world building, is there any any sign of a unique version of Victorian steampunk emerging. It’s all very generic (as you might expect from a YA title — teen readers are not expected to know what else has been written in this field, nor to care for any particular logic in its execution).

There’s some minor angst from our young hero. He’s feeling like a cuckoo in the nest, like someone who doesn’t quite fit into this world (and who can blame him for that assessment of his situation). Naturally, there are romantic twinges in the relationship between our two heroes and some experimental osculation at the end as acceptance of the consequences of the male/female thing is completed. As to the plot, it’s a mishmash of espionage adventure tropes being forced into Edgar Rice Burroughs directions with a vague attempt at Sherlock Holmesian detective analysis thrown into the works. It’s all rather embarrassingly bad for someone like me to read. I suppose it might be acceptable for ten to twelve year-olds who have never read anything intelligent in the steampunk subgenre to start off their reading careers but, to be honest, I suspect The Osiris Curse is more likely to drive them away.

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

White Ginger by Thatcher Robinson

White Ginger

White Ginger by Thatcher Robinson (Seventh Street Books, 2013) is a book I want to like, but I’m not quite sure it’s good enough. Yes, sadly, it’s another of these first novels that’s promising and making moves in all the right directions but, somehow, just doesn’t quite stand up when you look back at the experience. For you to understand without my getting heavily into spoiler territory is a problem, so I’ll go with a kind of introduction to the set-up and then take one or two scenes out of context to illustrate the problems.

The book revolves around Chinatown and the life of a young woman whose father was a very senior member of a Triad. She has the brains, if not quite the temperament, to follow in her father’s footsteps, but Triads are not exactly into gender equality. This leaves her with the status of Princess, i.e. she’s financially independent and protected, but not allowed any role in organised wrongdoing. This has not prevented the police, FBI and other law enforcement agencies with letters rather than names, from taking an interest in her. Many have tried to link her to crime or to encourage her to get into crime so she can inform on everyone. The result has been pain on all sides and a kind of armed truce now prevails. To pass the time, she sets herself up as a “retrieval artist”, i.e. she finds people who have disappeared.

Now did you notice I offered you a term you might not be familiar with and then immediately translated it for you. That was pretty patronising of me, wasn’t it. After all, everyone has read the Rusch series with that name or could guess what it meant. Now suppose I decided to write a book involving lots of people speaking a foreign language. If I wanted to, I could fill the dialogue with lots of vocabulary from that language (with an extensive appendix offering translations), or I could use foreign terms (immediately followed by a translation and/or explanation of cultural implications), or I could just announce that all my Triad members and their immediate circle were speaking in Cantonese (or Mandarin if they have been infiltrated by mainlanders) and write the book in English.

Thatcher Robinson

Thatcher Robinson

So our heroine and her gay minder/friend are sitting in their office when a young girl enters to report her fifteen-year-old BFF has been sold into slavery (or worse). This starts us off on the journey and, to show us how serious it all is, we have several bodies in fairly short order and a professional assassin tries to kill her (airports these days have just the most terrible security, darling, you can’t go anywhere without someone trying to strangle you with a diamond-studded garrotte). You should now be getting a feel for this. It’s fairly bloodthirsty with the girl she’s chasing severely beaten, but the tone is slightly surreal. The chapter titles are like Chinese idioms and some are faintly amusing. And then there are these odd episodes.

Let’s say you’re on the twentieth floor of an upmarket hotel. It’s the early hours of the morning and you’re a little stressed so you decide to walk down. As you step out on to the staircase, you hear a door closing below you. There are voices, one of which you recognise. The first exchange these men have confirms it perfectly safe to talk without whispering because no-one ever uses the stairs at this hour of the night. Now I could be charitable and say this is an author playing with the conventions of thrillers and producing a moment of gentle humour. Moving on. We all know Triads traditionally used axes so our heroine purloins an axe and hefting said weapon for the first time, stands exactly the right distance in front of lift doors (she knows instinctively which lift to stand in front of). As the doors open, she throws the axe which, in the distance available, executes a delicate 360 degree rotation and buries itself between the eyes of the local bad man. Thank whichever deity you want that it was the right man, standing in exactly the right position, without anyone else in the lift to witness this murder. Yes, our retrieval artist is a killer when the mood takes her that way. She would make a good member of the Triads if only they could get their heads around sex discrimination legislation and admit her to their male-only club. As a fully-paid-up member of the cack-handed family, I know any attempt I made to throw an axe at someone would most likely hit the lift door, miss the person altogether, hit the henchperson on the foot, or cause the handle to hit my intended victim on the arm. We’re supposed to accept this supernatural strike because, earlier in the book, she demonstrated knife-tossing skills.

You might wonder why I’m bother to continue writing. The answer lies in the plot. Although the final climax is a terrible cliché — deserted airport, convoys of armed people approaching from opposite sides of the runways, and so on — the main thrust of events is very cleverly put together. This leads me back to the dilemma. For all everything depends on a shrewd intervention that’s not properly explained, I liked the ideas on display. As a first novel, the translation into words on the page was somewhat amateurish. No real surprise. With better editorial input, Wild Ginger could have been great. Shame really.

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

Harbinger by Philippa Ballantine


Harbinger by Philppa Ballantine (Ace, 2013) Books of the Order 4 deals with the continuing problems in the Empire of Arkaym. Put simply, what we might consider the boundary line between the worlds of the living and the dead have partially broken down. Individual spirits and more powerful elemental beings have either managed to pass through the barrier or to gain an influence in the human realms. Standing against them is an essentially practical Order of Deacons. Although they have adopted vocabulary suggesting the practice of a faith, the need to be able to exorcise spirits is considered more important than what they might believe while fighting to protect of the people. This is intended as the final book in the series (for now) and, as is required in such books, all the interested parties have to arrive in the same place at the same time for the debate on whether the big and destructive supernatural beasties should be allowed into the human world.

Philippa Ballantine

Philippa Ballantine

What makes this slightly better than the average fantasy novel is the rather equivocal nature of the different characters and their motivation for wanting to prevent the most dangerous of the supernatural beings from entering Arkaym. Sorcha Faris and Raed Syndar Rossin are, for different reasons, significantly flawed. Although Merrick Chambers seems to have his heart in the right place, there’s the question of his blood line and whether that has any significance. Fensena is a relatively low level Geistlord who’s been over in the human realm for some time. Then there’s the pretty much human Zolfiya. She’s the sister of the nutty Emperor Kaleva. And finally, there’s Derodak, the big mover and shaker who’s engineering the breakthrough in the arrogant belief he’ll be able to control the outcome. This is inherently more interesting than the usual fare of brave magicians or reasonably heroic humans defending their realm against attack. This Empire has humans fit for slaughter with only a few beings capable of standing against the enemy. But when you’re not sure the source of their powers will ultimately be helpful, there’s a pleasing edge to the proceedings.

That said on the positive side, there’s a problem to bring down the quality of the series. One of the reasons I enjoy books which have a system of magic in place, is the chance to watch the author work through the rule book. What’s the source of the power? How does it work? What are its strengths and weaknesses? How many different applications does it have? There’s no better test of an author’s world-building creative powers than a well-developed and coherent sword and sorcery plot. Perhaps one word of qualification. Given the airships and other “machinery” powered by the weirstones, it’s verging on sword, steampunk and sorcery. Indeed, this focuses our attention on the problem. I was waiting for some explanation of the relationship between the Tinkers and the Deacons. Although there’s a throw-away line explaining where the weirstones came from and the motive for their arrival, there’s nothing to explain what process the different people go through to achieve the given effects. All we have are a list of the runes and a note of their “power”. Perhaps the source of the “power” is like manna lying gratuitously in the environment just waiting for someone with the right runes to come along and say the magic words. Or is it a more physical energy field? Is it perhaps drawing supernatural energy from the “other” side? It’s deeply frustrating that there’s no effort made to explain how it all works. We’re simply presented with people and creatures doing magical things on a take-or-leave-it basis. So, for example, when “were” creatures transform into human or vice versa, where does the additional body mass come from or go to? I know it looks good on a page when a human man can change into a “lion” (both on land and at sea) but this is virtually an instantaneous event. One minute wimpy man, next roaring beast of impressive size and occasional underwater abilities.

As a final word, there’s a romantic element as different pairings emerge but Harbinger manages to avoid the excesses of sentimentality that can afflict the fantasy field. It’s good way of finishing off this series with the door left open for more if the publishers make the right commercial noises.

For reviews of other books by Philippa Ballantine, see:
Hunter and Fox
Kindred and Wings
Phoenix Rising (written as a team with Tee Morris)

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

A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré

A Delicate Truth John Le Carre

As authors who construct elegant plots like to remind us, “There’s no such thing as a coincidence.” And having reminded us of this fact, they proceed to bombard the reader with contemporaneous events that just happen to occur with some degree of synchronicity. Of course, those predisposed to see conspiracies, would no doubt be delighted to read more meaning into such accidents of occurrence. I prefer the view that even authors who live with their heads in a bucket do occasionally look up long enough to see something of the world before retreating back into their craft of writing. So when reading this book, I’m mindful the trial of Bradley Manning has just reached the predictable verdict of guilty and Edward Snowden is lurking out of sight, but not out of mind, in Russia. These are our whistleblowers du jour. Not forgetting Julian Assange, of course, the facilitator who prefers de facto imprisonment in a room in central London to investigation for alleged sexual offences in Scandinavia. Such individuals risk much in the name of freedom of information. Whenever governments or the powerful would prefer the truth be concealed in favour of whatever lies they have presented to the world, we embrace the courage of the few brave men who prefer to do something to ensure the world becomes better informed. That they take this action in the knowledge the powerful will attempt to shut down their leaks and take some measure of revenge for being prepared to leak “secrets”, confirms their reckless disregard for their own interests. They sacrifice themselves for the greater good as they see it.

Sadly, the majority are prepared to do nothing even though their consciences may be severely tested. This reflects the power of socialisation. As children, we’re taught it’s more important to fit in, to run with the herd, than to stand out against the tide and rebel. Deference to authority figures is the dominant motif in the education system. References to more abstract norms of morality are footnotes most children fail to investigate. The Kantian notion there might be imperatives not to accept the prevailing norms when universal principles are at stake is left to rot of the shelf of history. Only the victorious side in any battle can claim the losers were wrong in blindly following orders. During the battle, people are disciplined or executed for failing to follow orders — pour encourager les autres as Admiral Byng learned to his cost after the Battle of Minorca.

So it is we come to A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré (Viking, 2013) — a remarkably convenient book to appear at this time because it should help to promote a discussion of how people in government should react when they become aware of improper behaviour and an attempt to cover up the consequences. We’re interested in three individuals. Toby Bell is the young man of talent in the Foreign Office who’s being groomed for advancement by an older and supposedly wiser Giles Oakley. In a low flying position, we have Christopher Probyn, a civil servant in British Intelligence. Bell works for Fergus Quinn, an ambitious junior minister, and comes to understand “his” Minister is breaking a raft of government rules and, probably, international laws by staging Operation Wildfire on the Rock of Gibraltar. He understands he cannot simply walk in and stop the Minister. The problem is how to protect himself should there be any blowback. He therefore “acquires” evidence and hides it away.

John Le Carre — the old master back to his best

John Le Carre — the old master back to his best

Three years later, Giles Oakley has moved into a senior position with a British bank, Probyn has been knighted and has retired to the countryside, and Bell has been promoted. It’s at this moment, a soldier who had been involved in Operation Wildfire contacts Probyn. This shakes up the man’s quiet world of retirement into countryside squiredom and pricks his conscience. Except he has only personal experience and no objective evidence. In a world which has pitched this operation as a great success, how can he suggest a government cover-up? Desperate to “do something”, he contacts Bell and herein lies the rub. Bell has a career stretching in front of him so long as he does nothing to rock the boat. Until Probyn contacted him, he had nothing at stake. Now if Probyn was to be indiscrete, he might be forced to use his evidence as a shield. But in moments of quiet reflection, he has to acknowledge this may not be enough. Of course, Oakley is out of the direct firing line now. He might know enough to be helpful, but why should he care when he’s not at risk?

It was Edmund Burke who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In a world increasingly subject to government surveillance, it’s now necessary for society to discuss just how far states should be allowed to intrude on our privacy. Although there’s some degree of threat from terrorism, the need to offer protection to citizens has to be balanced against the basic human right to privacy. With newspapers like the Guardian threatened by the British government for publishing information leaked by Snowden, and Lader Levison feeling he should shut down Lavabit rather than hand over the data demanded by the US government, we need to decide more precisely what our values are. Expanding our vision, there are also questions over the morality of extraordinary rendition (kidnapping suspects), enhanced interrogation techniques (and then torturing them), and such prisoners being characterised as enemy combatants (to justify their torture and indefinite detention). The degree of secrecy surrounding government activities makes the role of whistleblowers more important if society is to understand what states are actually doing in the name of their citizens. A Delicate Truth takes a steady look at the dilemmas facing people who know something “dangerous” to the state’s reputation. Their socialisation should predispose them to remain silent. If socialisation fails, fear may achieve the same objective. Although there are slight elements of preachiness and some obvious hostility towards America, this is a terrific book and the best from the old master for a few years. You should read it.

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

On the Razor’s Edge by Michael Flynn

On the Razor’s Edge by Michael Flynn

On the Razor’s Edge by Michael Flynn (Tor, 2013) Spiral Arm 4, continues the story of the dispute between the Confederacy of Central Worlds, a dictatorship run by Those of the Names, and the United League of the Periphery. What could have been a galactic conflict is scaled down to a form of conflict between groups of agents. On the side of light, well the less dark side, are the Hounds. Opposing them are the Shadows of the Names. For our immediate purposes, we’re concerned with Gidula, one of the rebel Shadows, who holds as a “prisoner” the multifaceted Donovan aka The Fudir aka The Scarred Man aka The Teller of Tales or Geshler Padaborn before he was fragmented. To engineer his rescue, his daughter Mearana arranges for Ravn Olafsdotter to kidnap her. She believes this will persuade her mother, Bridget-ban, to call together some of the Hounds to rescue Donovan. I should explain that Donovan and Bridget-ban are going through an extended “not-speaking-to-each-other” period in their relationship and Bridget-ban is highly resistant to the idea of rescuing her “ex”. So with that as the set-up, the novel meanders gently through initial manoeuvres and then launches into the build-up to the “big climax”.

In theory, this series is interesting. It takes place a long way into the future. Humanity has made it to the stars and then replicated its usual factionalism. Initially this drives technological development forward. The tendency to militarism always does that. But, after a century or two, quite a lot of the technology falls into disuse. People forget. Politics establishes different ways in which order can be maintained or the balance between forces adjusted. Inertia becomes more acceptable although, on the periphery, there’s much scrabbling for advantage. Hence the need for the Hounds to suppress piracy and generally keep the peace in what would otherwise be an anarchic environment. Also exerting an influence are relics of technology from pre-human times. Humanity is alone (probably), but there was a former silicon-based civilisation and it may have been exerting an influence.

Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn

At this point, I feel the need for a brief digression. One of the constant unresolved issues for me is the question of how, if at all, a writer should replicate accents and different speaking rhythms in dialogue. I confess that I tend to “hear” characters talking and, to some extent, try to capture that in the dialogue I report. It gives me a peg on which to hang the characterisation. A is from a particular place, speaks in a particular way, dresses in styles appropriate to that place, and so on. But there comes a point when I draw back from a full realisation of an accent. What feels right to my ear is not so easy for others to read when they don’t have my background and may find my notation difficult to translate into sounds for the inner ear to hear. So I try to avoid it for fiction but go some way in that direction for a documentary or journalistic style where accuracy can be more important than immediate comprehensibility. My sensibilities are therefore on full alert when reading this series. Its primary and many walk-on characters are given very distinctive verbal styles. The predominant feel is Celtic, i.e. as a generalised Irish, Scottish accent with occasional vocabulary suggesting Gaelic roots. Other speech patterns suggesting Chinese and Indian roots also appear. Personally, I think this overdone but, if you are happy to plough through all this approximated Celticism, the plot improves from poor to acceptable as the book progresses.

At issue here are two simple questions. If you have a culture that, over the centuries, has been an oligarchy with the ruling minority of wolves oppressing the sheep, what would it take to make the leadership fall? Second, even if it were to fall, what could replace it since leadership qualities have been bred out of the sheep? I suppose, after a while, anything will fall under its own weight, much as we might imagine a space elevator will rust and weaken until it breaks at an intermediate point and falls to the ground. Through the eyes of Donovan, we’re therefore allowed to watch the implosion of this dictatorship. The Hounds push it a little out of self-defence but, in a sense, it’s like watching a major structure collapse under its own weight. By my standards, the language in which this is delivered has some moments of interest but a lot of depressing dialogue to wade through. As language, there’s also a role in decoding old meanings in current corrupted usages. The distortion of language and history is quite well managed. But the whole flounders under its own weight. The opening third is ponderous and slow with little happening apart from different people “talking in funny accents” to each other. Yes, there’s some espionage and low level space opera fighting, but not enough to save the whole from being immensely tedious to read. Surprisingly the door is left open for a further book in the series. I definitely will not be lining up to read any more. If you’re a fan, On the Razor’s Edge will delight you. Otherwise, don’t bother.

More impressive artwork from Sparth.

For a review of the second in this series, see Up Jim River.

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

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