Archive for March, 2014

Dakota by Gwen Florio


This is a book about the interstitial spaces between cultural subgroups. . . Sorry: a burst of excessive exuberance there. Every now and then I’m tempted to write an academic review, not so much to show off, but rather to use some of the more precise language to express the ideas. Yet to do so in this context would be wrong. This is a site where I allow a continuous stream of consciousness to flow through my fingers to the screen, followed by editing to ensure it’s vaguely comprehensible and not too intimidating for those I know read these reviews. The interface with the readers must be properly managed.


Dakota by Gwen Florio (The Permanent Press, 2014) is a fascinating book because, at every turn of the page, you confront an interface or overlaps both between different individuals, and between groups. At a personal level, our protagonist, Lola Wicks, she who was ousted from the journalistic front line in Afghanistan, has now settled down in rural America. Yes, it’s Magpie, Montana and the snow drifts are as high as an elephant’s eye. At the first blush of her encounter with the editor of the local paper, she was forced to admit she’d begun to date the local sheriff. Well, perhaps ”date” is something of an understatement given he’s quite a useful foot-warmer in bed when there’s snow on the ground (not in the bedroom itself, you understand). So that induces a conflict of interest and debars her from reporting on anything connected with the crimes the sheriff investigates — these ethical lines are punctiliously maintained in small-town Montana.


I should mention Charlie Laurendeau, the sheriff, is a part-blood member of the Blackfeet Nation with jurisdiction over the area outside the reservation. That means he’s on a hiding to nothing. If he fails to keep order when members of the tribe make trouble in town, he gets instant criticism from the angry white folk. If he goes into the reservation, he’s viewed as the equivalent of an Uncle Tom, and faces suspicion and resentment.


At a group level, there are the general tensions between the local communities, which is not helped by the difference between the townies and the cattlemen (I hesitate to call them cowboys). There’s little work for many of the men — creating haves and have-nots — so the North Dakota oil fields at Bakken draw roughnecks both from the local communities and further afield. That’s where the fracking occurs — that’s a fracturing of the rock to create a new interface between the ground and the oil. When a young American Indian girl is found dead just outside the reservation, there’s a possibility it was an accident. The snow was deep, the windchill factor severe, and she was inappropriately dressed. Slightly further on, a truck had gone off the road. The driver’s neck was broken, but that looked less like an accident. Naturally, the sheriff begins the investigation and Lola does not ask. However, she’s making new friends on the reservation and keeps her ears open. She discovers this was not the first Blackfeet girl to disappear but, self-evidently, she’s the first one to turn up dead.

Gwen Florio

Gwen Florio


The trigger for more serious action comes when the photograph of the dead girl is published in the local paper. One of the men passing through town claims she was working as a prostitute at the shantytown used by the roughnecks. This is not a complete surprise. Both men and women need work. The men work on the rigs, while the women collect a proportion of their pay in the “special” trailers. The one interesting feature is the brand on the dead girl. Perhaps this signals a more predatory tone to the girl’s working conditions. When the funeral comes, many of the Blackfeet who work on the rigs come home, but don’t talk, even a little, about the conditions there.


Following on from the first in the series, Lola then fails to get the balance right between prudence and recklessness, and decides to visit the oil field. It’s at this point we get to perhaps the most fundamental cultural divide. The Bakken rigs draw desperate men from all over America. Cut off from their families and crammed together in poor accommodation, they need relief. Whether the tiny number of women should be expected to tolerate the men’s behaviour is not the issue. Gender roles count for less when the sex ratio is so skewed at somewhere between 50:1 and 100:1. Of course when the Blackfeet workers come back to the reservation and their families, they have more money than everyone else and hold their heads up, protesting they never touch any of the women. This is not a pretty picture, particularly when they lose those jobs and have nothing but debts they cannot now pay off.


Confronted by a reality far worse than she could have imagined, Lola nevertheless survives the investigation and gets her big story. This only leaves the final two interfaces to negotiate. The first is the tricky relationship between a journalist and the people she would write about. Have they not already been through enough without headlines splashing the details all over the front page? On the one side is the public good of better information for all about the condition in these camps. On the other is the pain and humiliation some individuals have endured. How should the decision-to-publish circle be squared? And then there’s the equally challenging space between two people who may just love each other, but have not yet made the commitment. Perhaps that’s the most difficult to bridge. The laconically named Dakota is written in a pleasing prose, crammed with incident and excitement that, at times, is slightly over the top, but I forgive the excess of the thriller because there’s much social observation to chew on and the description of Blackfeet culture is fascinating.


For a review of the first in the series, see Montana.


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


The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

March 30, 2014 5 comments

Another magnificent piece of jacket artwork from Michael Whelan

Another magnificent piece of jacket artwork from Michael Whelan

The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, 2014) produces mixed emotions. This is the second of a projected ten volumes in a fantasy epic called The Stormlight Archive. There’s just one problem. At slightly under eleven-hundred pages in length, the author has already delivered enough material for five ordinary fantasy books and yet this is only book two. To call this excessive or sprawling would not be an exaggeration. We meet up with characters from the first volume as expected. They are spread around the environment and, in the first instance, not really interacting. Again, I suppose this is to be expected. If everyone got together for a meeting over beer and sandwiches, the series might be over before it has a chance to get epic. So everything that happens in this book is just edging us further forward in our understanding of the world and how the individuals from the different races relate to each other. With eight more books to go, we’re looking at a vista of fantasy unrolling across thousands of pages. It will take years to write and, from a reader’s point of view, endless patience. Indeed, without wishing to be unduly pessimistic about my life expectancy, I will probably die before the series is finished.

At this level, the world building is spectacular in its detail and internal consistency. However you choose to place a value on the craft of writing, Sanderson continues to deliver a world of incredible complexity, both in the flora and fauna, and in the various races that inhabit it. Taking the physical environment which is constantly at risk from the storms, the idea of plants that can withdraw into the ground or surrounding rocks is but one of hundreds of similarly pleasing examples of Darwinism at work. It would be a natural adaptation for the survival of all the different species. Animals also come with shells that can protect them from the wind. There must also be gills because some areas experience flash floods of considerable force and an amphibious adaptation would help them survive. I could go on, but not only are the words themselves ingenious in delivering a picture in the mind’s eye, the publisher has also commissioned internal illustrations from Dan Dos Santos, Ben McSweeney and Isaac Stewart to illustrate the qualities of the different plants, animals, sword fighting stances, and so on. The whole book package is a work of some beauty including the jacket artwork by Michael Whelan which I have set out above so you can appreciate its quality. I only wish it was less heavy to hold.

Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson

The political situation also progresses with the human kingdom still riven by warring family disputes. Since the assassination of the old king, the replacement has been struggling. It’s not that he doesn’t have some of the right instincts. Rather that he’s petulant and easily led by the wrong people. This forces his son to assume a de facto position of power. His is a heavy burden. Not only does he have to compensate for his father the king, but also try to bring the families together again. Unfortunately, the politics is clouded by an anticipated change in the world. The history shows there have been previous civilisations which have fallen. So far, enough people have survived to rebuild. But this time it may be different. All of which brings us to the central fantasy which powers the narrative. There’s a form of magic available to some people. Essentially, this works when “spirits” called spren from an adjacent dimension bleed through and begin interacting with the humans that can see them. Over time, this produces a bonding and delivers significant powers to the individuals. They become the Radiants. However, this power depends on the continuing relationship between the Radiant and the spren. If the human does not keep his oath, the sprem will die and the radiance will be lost.

This book is largely taken up with two characters as their relationships with their spren begins to deepen. Both characters are broken. They have suffered extreme emotional pain. One finds it difficult not to give into anger, bitterness and nihilism. His is the more difficult journey because he has blinded himself to his potential and does not understand what form his oath must take and how it can be kept when difficult choices have to be made. The other has considerable insight into the practicality of some aspects of the magic, but doesn’t believe strongly enough in her ability to develop full powers. She’s content to approach the matter with the detached interest of an academic. Except, of course, she finds herself stripped of the opportunity to hide, becoming embroiled in an emerging subplot which introduces a group who first seem little more than a band of assassins, but are later shown to be something more important. So the enduring theme of the book is the process of personal transformation. Just as the other races, plants and wildlife have had to adapt, the rare humans with the potential for growth must also adapt to the opportunity to bond with their spren. Needless to say, a series of this length has a cast of hundreds and, to a greater or lesser extent, they are all given their few pages in the sun. So we meet with everyone from the lowest slaves to the king and high lords. All have their own problems to solve and a wish list for improvements in their quality of life. It proves to be a fascinating read and, because it’s an epic fantasy, it builds to a major climax in which there are some issues resolved, and other plot threads left dangling for future books.

I suppose you could read this as a standalone. It will take you longer to work out who everyone is and what their relationships are, but the narrative drive will keep you going. A lot of interesting things happen. The better route is to read The Way of Kings first. That will give you essential background, enable you to pick up the story more quickly, and enrich the reading experience as The Words of Radiance takes you deeper into this strange world.


Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
The Way of Kings
Well of Ascension.

Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2


This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this episode, it may be better to delay reading this.

Well here we go with Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) episode 2, which has our time-travelling Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun) and his pack of three fugitives from Joseon, materialise in front of Park Ha (Han Ji-Min), our modern heroine, and when they go out on to the roof, they realise they are no longer in Kansas. Naturally they assume she’s a witch who has brought them into the netherworld. Eventually realising they want to “return to the palace”, she loads them into the back of her open truck, and drives them through the city. This is a disconcerting experience to people only used to horses. Dropping them off outside the palace (now only open to the public during daylight hours), they are completely lost when the police chase them away. Unable to relate to people and without money, they find themselves starving. Fortunately they get themselves properly arrested and this creates the possibility of food if only they can say who they are. Eventually, the clever one with a photographic memory is able to remember the licence plate of our heroine’s truck which lands them back at her house.

All colour-coded and ready to earn a living

All colour-coded and ready to earn a living

Out of charity, she feeds them vegetable omelette but, when she leaves them alone, they reward her by being totally freaked out by all her gadgets which speak to them (including a teddy bear). They also accidentally set the place on fire. This is not an auspicious beginning to their relationship. So because they now owe her the cost of all the kitchen equipment, teddy bear and other items destroyed (boy is that swordsman good with his weapon), she has them working in her fruit and vegetable business to pay it off. Except, of course, the Crown Prince refuses to lift a finger and the eunuch has no strength. The most interesting cultural aspect to this is the inversion of expectation about how females are supposed to act. Even in modern Korea, there’s an expectation of deference when women relate to men. But she not only dresses them in colour-coded track suits, but then treats with with the same tender loving care as a drill sergeant major. Even the Crown Price finds himself momentarily cowed before his massive ego gets him back on Crown Price track. He does, however, fantasise about killing her and all the generations of her family he can find. Which is, when you think about it, the proper response in this situation.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi), the elder sister-in-law, is seeing Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung), the evil cousin. Now isn’t that a surprise, bringing all the players together into the plot. Yes, the evil sister works for the rich granny who’s lost her beloved heir — almost like a fairy story instead of a time travel adventure. It gets worse when our heroine takes the four to the hospital. The Crown Price gets to see the evil stepsister who’s the “dead” Crown Princess, and Granny sees the Crown Prince but doubts her eyesight.

The Men in Black from Joseon when allowed to lose their track suits

The Men in Black from Joseon when allowed to lose their track suits

So now the combined brain power of the four has worked out they have travelled three-hundred years into their future. Since they entered this time through the rooftop apartment, they feel they have to stay there and wait for the portal to open again. Soon our temporally mismatched couple are drinking on the roof and spraying each other with cream (it’s an erotic experience when you come from the morally hidebound Joseon period). The morning ritual of teeth brushing and gargling is endearing. Once she accepts they have slipped through time, the teaching of getting on a bus, etc. is fun. Their reaction to discovering the King, his father, is on a banknote, is a delight. Their confusion about escalators is understandable and their failure to realise the lift (that’s elevator for my American readers) is actually travelling between floors gives rise to an embarrassing consequence. The effort at the car wash is an unfortunate misunderstanding, and so on. We run a good race at very gently making fun of them. I had assumed they would be shown as far more intimidated for longer.

Of course the Crown Prince must finally meet rich Granny and confront the evil cousin who thinks he’s a successful murderer. This precipitates the standard plot with the evil cousin taking action just in case this newcomer is actually the lost heir and the evil sister sticking the financial knife into her stepsister. What makes this all the more unbearable is that this is turning into the worst kind of fantasy where everything possible is done to drag out the running time. For example, Park Ha’s friend visits from America on her honeymoon and hands over a box. No matter how distressed she is, any sensible person opens the box. But this script has our heroine flirting with opening it. She has it here, she has it there. But there’s no opening. This is just annoying and tiresome as are the extended sequence of the Crown Prince dancing in a panda costume (and our heroine not recognising this is a male not a female, even when sitting next to him and holding his hand — we can pass over her not noticing the smell of the sweat), the evil cousin going through gyrations over the cellphone found in America, and so on.

In other words, this series has one again insulted all the conventions of time travel, and devolved into an increasingly banal rerun of all the other romantic comedies that Korean television inflicts on the unsuspecting world. My patience is already at breaking point.

For those who want to know what they missed, here’s Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) the set-up and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) final thoughts

An interview with Max Kinnings

March 28, 2014 8 comments

Welcome to Thinking about books. By way of introduction, Max Kinnings is the author of five books, the most recent being Baptism and Sacrifice which feature the character Ed Mallory as a hostage negotiator.

Perhaps I should begin with an apology that I’m very interested in the craft of writing and so, with your indulgence, I’d like to talk a little about how you came to draw up the plot of this, so far, latest duology. Hopefully as one who teaches creative writing, you’ll share some aspects of the process of creating this character. I’m curious about the choice of a disabled protagonist. He seems a paradox. His blindness excludes him from the routine of social interaction which so often depends on the ability to interpret visual signals, e.g. choice of clothing, facial expressions, body language, etc. yet his profession requires him to empathise with others under pressure. I suppose the mechanism of communication with hostage takers levels the playing field — he “hears” more than his sighted colleagues — but it also remains a barrier to his integration into the team. So why pick someone with “limitations”?

Originally, the Ed Mallory character was very different from the one that appears in the published version of Baptism. Firstly, he wasn’t blind. Secondly, he was an alcoholic with relationship issues. This version of Ed Mallory actually appeared in the first published version of Baptism in Holland in 2009. However, when my agent had shopped the manuscript around publishers in the UK, they were lukewarm in their feelings towards the character. My agent suggested that the Ed character was possibly a little too derivative. The big drinking cop with relationship issues is someone that we’ve encountered many times before in crime fiction. He suggested that I revisit the character with a view to changing him possibly quite drastically.

Much of the day-to-day writing of Baptism was carried out at the British Library on Euston Road in central London. I love the learned atmosphere of what is one of the world’s great libraries. I would take the Tube up from my home in south London to Kings Cross station. Very close to the library is the Royal National Institute for the Blind and quite often I would offer an arm to blind people who were leaving the Tube train at Kings Cross to make their way to the RNIB as the escalators and steps up from the station can be quite awkward. Whether there was some subconscious connection between this and my decision to make Ed Mallory blind, I can’t say for certain but almost as soon as I started to rethink Ed’s character, I knew that I wanted to make him blind – and scarred, not just physically but emotionally too. His loss of a sense would make his other senses stronger and for a negotiator who spends the vast majority of his time speaking to people on the other end of a phone line, this might be a very useful attribute. One of the key skills of hostage negotiation is what is known as active listening. To create a character whose abilities as an active listener were sharpened and enhanced appealed to me.

Max Kinnings

Max Kinnings

However, when I started to rewrite the book with the new Ed character, I realised that I had created all sorts of complications for myself. So much of what a writer describes from the point of view of a character is visual. But gradually, I came to inhabit Ed’s mindset and enjoyed the challenge of describing the sounds, the smells and the tactile sensations that he experiences. The fiction editors in London certainly shared my enthusiasm for the new character and whereas the original story had been rejected by a number of publishers on its first round of submissions; the new Ed Mallory character proved to be much more popular and Quercus finally bought the rights.

With hindsight, I’m really glad that I made Ed a blind character. While it excludes him from much in terms of the visual signals and body language of his colleagues and the negotiating team in which he operates, when it comes to the negotiation which forms so much of the drama of the book (and its sequel) it makes for some much more intriguing drama. My decision to make him blind brought him alive for me and I found I could inhabit his character much more effectively.

In Bushi no Ichibun (武士の一分), Love and Honor (2006), the samurai warrior loses his sight but, when his honour is at stake, he learns to fight again. This film offers a fairly realistic portrayal of supervening blindness, unlike Daredevil which makes as much sense as you expect from a comic book hero. Have you been tempted to allow your protagonist to learn new physical skills, or to give him the chance to experiment with new technology like screen readers or refreshable Braille displays to give him internet access, or some of the new sensory substitution systems for giving greater mobility?

My reason for asking is my slight uncertainty whether your hero has come to terms with the blindness. While he’s adapted that’s not the same as accepting and moving on.

Other than the enhancement of his listening abilities which his blindness gives him and which he uses to good effect during his  hostage negotiations, I didn’t want Ed to come to terms with his blindness, certainly not in the first two books in the series. Much of his alienation from society stems from his refusal to accept his visual impairment. He doesn’t use a dog to help him in his everyday life and wouldn’t ever consider using a white cane. His singularity as a character comes from the fact that despite having been blinded some thirteen years prior to the events that take place in Baptism, he has still not come to terms with his blindness. His job as a police hostage negotiator and subsequently a negotiator-for-hire in Sacrifice, provides him with some validation as a blind person but this doesn’t mean that he is in any way ready to achieve acceptance of his disability. However, in the event that I do write further books in the series, I think it would be interesting to see Ed change his outlook with regards to his condition and start to explore sensory substitution systems, especially if this can form an integral part of the plot.

You also hew to the Aristotelian unities of time and, to a lesser extent, action. This is a further challenge. In addition to a protagonist with physical limitations, you impose the limit of having everything happen in just a few hours.

As far as my decision to impose the limit of having everything happen in just a few hours is concerned, this was something that had been my intention right from the very first notes that I made about the story. Many thrillers employ the ticking clock concept as a means of ratcheting up the tension. I wanted to place that at the heart of the novel by having the train tunnel flooding over the space of a few hours so there is a very specific deadline for the authorities to adhere to.

I’m a firm believer in the benefits that creative limitations can bring to a story. As a teacher of creative writing, I’ve seen many writers struggle with the ultimate freedom that fiction writing provides. Often this can cause writer’s block. But as soon as some creative limitations are imposed, often the imagination reacts to them and a story is born. A blind protagonist and a narrative of interconnecting story-lines that plays out over the space of just a few hours are two creative limitations that caused all sorts of problems for me in many respects but were also really quite inspiring. Hopefully Baptism is all the better for them.

Many thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. It has been illuminating. For those who want to know a little more, here are my reviews of the two books:

Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) — the set-up


This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this series, it may be better to delay reading this.

Well here we go with Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012). With some trepidation, I’ve decided to start watching another Korean time-travel drama (not Queen In-hyun’s Man or Hyeon-wanghu-ui Namja (2012) which is more seriously romantic). After Dr Jin, we’re reversing the process and instead of some metaphorical Connecticut Yankee turning up at King Arthur’s court, we’ve got some Josean bright sparks brought forward to modern Korea with predictable opportunities for mocking their complete inability to understand what’s going on. The set-up requires us to establish two parallel situations, peopled by the same cast of characters three-hundred years apart. So first of all, we’re back in the past with Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun) stirring in his sleep. He knows in his bones something really bad in going to happen and, moments later, a flunky comes waddling down the corridor (he may be walking funny because he’s a eunuch) to announce the body of his wife has been found floating in a nearby pool. Yes, the Crown Princess Hwa-Yong (Jung Yoo-Mi) is a goner and now he’s all in a lather to find out whodunnit. This is all dramatic stuff. Now the flashback to show the process of marrying off the young Crown Prince which involves introducing the rivalry between two sisters. Their father prefers to submit the name of the younger Boo-Yong (Han Ji-Min) because she’s more age appropriate. Naturally, the older one finds a way to scar the face of the younger, so she gets to marry the prince. This leaves the disappointed sister masked and in the background, but the Crown Price does notice she’s more intelligent than the shallow sister he married.

Boo Yong (Han Ji Mon)

Boo Yong (Han Ji Mon)

In modern Korea, we have two step sisters whose ages match the earlier versions. Se-Na (also played by Jung Yoo-Mi) the older deeply resents the arrival of the younger and goes out of her way to dispose of her “rival” for her mother’s affection. Now the clock winds forward and we have Yong Tae-Yong, a modern version of the Crown Prince (also played by Micky Yoochun) eyeing a version of his sister-in-law now called Park Ha (and also played by Han Ji-Min). This is “engineered” by the device of an embroidered butterfly leaving the work “she” did in Joean time, travelling forward and landing on her shoulder while she’s selling fruit at an open market in New York. We can skip over the embarrassing attempt to fit our heroine into the American setting. Anyway the plot is that Yong Tae-Yong is heir to a Korean fortune and inline to take over the running of the family business. Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung) his cousin, was sent to America to persuade him to return, but they end up fighting while in the harbour. One swift and unexpected punch sends our hero into the water where he starts to sink, lost without a hope of rescue. The evil cousin wipes all his prints off the boat and swims to shore. When he returns to Korea, he reports a complete failure to find his cousin. That puts him inline to succeed to the fortune.

Se-naa (Jung Yoo-Mi)

Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi)

When our heroine returns to Korea, expecting to find her long-lost father, she discovers he’s just died. Obviously a lot is happening between these flashbacks. For Park Ha it seems there was a traffic accident, long hospital stay, loss of memory, that type of thing. Which is a good thing when the stepsisters meet at the funeral — at least I assume she’s telling the truth and doesn’t know how she came to be lost. Meanwhile back in Josean times, the court officials cover up the murder as an accidental death. To get round the problem, the Crown Prince puts together a top undercover team to find out the truth. This is Song Man-Bo (Lee Min-Ho), Do Chi-San (Choi Woo-Sik), and Woo Yong-Sool (Jung Suk-Won) a bodyguard, a “savant” and a eunuch with hidden talents. They are making real progress, eliciting evidence of poisoning by arsenic, when they are called to a night meeting. It’s a trap. As they try to escape, there’s an eclipse powerful enough to send them into the future. They had strong eclipses back them! What makes this an appallingly lazy piece of writing is that the four have been separated in the fighting, but all four travel together and end up in the same place in the future. Three of those are on horseback, but no horses appear in the future. The probable explanation is that all four were killed, but have been reincarnated as their future selves.

The four travellers

The four travellers

Before they arrive, two years more have passed in the future (I hope you’re following this). The good, younger daughter from America has fitted back in with the step mother and they are selling fruit and vegetables in the market, while the older one is into spending the family’s money on fashion to give herself the right appearance while swanning around with the evil cousin. When our modern heroine goes to her apartment, it’s on the top floor (not surprisingly, there’s a rooftop patio area with potted plants).

Well I’m relieved we have this first episode out of the way. I can almost tell the series is not going to be worth watching because we have temporal slippage thanks to an eclipse with older characters having parallel lives in modern times, i.e. it’s a fantasy fairy story with none of the rigour that’s supposed to accompany time travel. All I can hope for is that the humour of our four characters acting like fish out of water will strike a rich seam of comedy to carry us through a few episodes.

For a brief consideration of what happens next, see:
Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2 and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) final thoughts.

The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

The Chosen Seed

The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough (Ace, 2013) The Forgotten Gods: Book Three starts off with Cassius Jones still in hiding. He’s been framed for murder and, even in the best run countries, he would find it difficult to avoid conviction. That we find ourselves in a dystopian alternate history version of London compounds the problem. In this timeline, the corruption has been institutionalised and police in key positions tend to get the results they decide are necessary. Because Jones has become inconvenient in two different contexts. . . Well, when it comes to Mr Bright, the ostensible antagonist, the relationship with Jones is more equivocal. Indeed, it might be better to characterise the relationship as a form of gaming. Mr Bright, of course, has been playing a long time. He has the experience and the perspective. But Jones has proved to be a fast-learner. He’s also angry to find himself a victim of an organisation he does not understand. In the rational world, he cannot bring himself to define the relationship between Mr Bright and his family as Faustian. This was a form of breeding program. In return for unspecified rewards, two sons were born. Then the first-born son of the younger son was swapped on birth. This is the central mystery of the trilogy. What was the point of this program?

Jones is driven by the need to find his nephew Luke. It’s just grown more challenging now he’s on the run. Fortunately, some of the criminal bosses he’s dealt with in the past see a possible benefit in helping him now. As a wanted man, he starts as not quite a prisoner. Meanwhile, back in the police procedural part of the book, there are still those who believe Jones to be innocent. Their problem is the same as that experienced by Jones. The prevailing culture is hostile to those who do not toe the party line. If these “good” detectives and the expert profiler are seen to be challenging the orthodoxy of Jones’ guilt, they will be in serious trouble. In a way, they are also prisoners of circumstances. Yet, unless the official and unofficial parties can co-ordinate their activities, this is not going to turn out well.

Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough

The problem is compounded by the dissension in the ranks of the “organisation” and the network it supports. In the old days, the First had provided a coherent approach to running affairs on Earth. When Mr Bright became the leader, not everyone thought he was the right choice. Now the First has woken up again, the factionalism becomes more overt. Aggravating the situation, one more of the organisation’s membership is dying and decides to take a few locals with him. This gives the Government the task of dealing with what may turn into a major epidemic. People are dying already.

What makes this trilogy interesting is the deliberate overlaying of genre elements. In the first book, we begin with what seems exclusively a police procedural but it rapidly acquires what may be a supernatural overlay in the killing of various students. Some of the events may be considered by some to trespass into horror. Looking back, this is actually slightly more science fiction than fantasy with those who had involuntarily participated in a scientific experiment being terminated. Indeed, the way the ending shapes up is almost pure science fiction but embedded in a form of fantasy context. It’s a context that skates over various myths or reinterpretations of events fitting into an Abrahamic tradition. In the final pages, there’s a coherent explanation for all the events described in the three books which blends the supernatural and science fiction together. If you’ve reached this far, the author has won. It no longer matters whether the explanation resonates with you as an individual. You’ve invested in the life of Jones as he struggles to rescue his nephew, and then deal with the increasingly dangerous situation he discovers.

This book didn’t come up for review so I spent my own money to find out how the trilogy ended. That says a lot about the quality of the series. I wanted to see how the plot was resolved even though I strongly suspected it might be straying towards a less interesting plot resolution (by my standards). In fact, I was more or less right about what was happening and, because it’s cast as science fiction, thought it marginally less silly than I might otherwise have done. To get there, we have rather more character than plot development. Of course, a lot of “stuff” happens, but events give us a better opportunity to watch all interested parties respond and show more about themselves. This makes The Chosen Seed a pleasing read. There’s a lot of craft involved in building this particular scenario and then making it not wholly incredible in its own terms. In no small way, this is due to the fact Jones and those helping him must ultimately rely on basic skills like historical research and hacking to get their results. If you like a blend of horror, supernatural and science fiction delivering a police procedural outcome, this is a very good trilogy to read.

For reviews of other books by Sarah Pinborough, see:
A Matter of Blood
The Shadow of the Soul.

The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

March 25, 2014 6 comments


In the beginning, so the story goes, we were all free to choose: to apple or not to apple. And, of course, being of a perverse disposition, we chose the latest model from the tree and got kicked out of the Garden. Since then, our track record as a species has been on a steady downward trend as more and more of us make bad decisions and have to live and die with the consequences. Except (there’s always an exception in these stories) some like to rewrite history. The way it goes it that this omniscience thing God has going for Him enabled Him to foresee we would eat the apple otherwise God’s knowledge would be imperfect and we can’t have that blot on the escutcheon of our deity. So, when He put us in there, he already knew we were going to fail the test. He just wanted to rub our noses in knowledge of how sinful we were. So predestination trumps free will. Well perhaps only on the big issues like good person/bad person. Yet even that’s controversial. Omniscience means He already knows whether we’re good or bad, and how we’re always more likely to make the wrong decisions when given the choice. That means some are doomed to perdition from the moment of their birth.

So perhaps the big picture is that we are bound by fate as to how we will end our days, but while living our lives, we have free will on little things like whether to wear a crash helmet while riding a bicycle. Of course, all but one or two individual humans have absolutely no insight into this philosophical conundrum that would have such profound consequences if it turns out God exists. They live their lives according to whatever beliefs and principles seem appropriate. The cautious choose to believe in a deity. The reckless deny it. But what about someone like Miriam Black? The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2014) sees Miriam caught in a very difficult position. It seems not only that someone knows exactly how her power of foresight works, but also how to use it against her.

Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig

For those of you not familiar with this powerful series, Miriam had a serious moment when she was a young woman. There was a tragedy. She might have died. But when she recovered, she discovered she had the power to see when and how people would die. All it takes is a touch, skin to skin, and she knows. In the first two books, she tries to work “within the system”. She may not understand all the rules, but she can at least experiment to see just how strong the shackles of fate can be. However, at the start of this book, she may have crossed a line drawn in the supernatural sand. Having foreseen a man is going to be shot, she follows him in the hours before the due time. She tries to talk him out of going to that particular place to use the cash machine. He, of course, won’t listen. It’s his fate to be shot by a mugger. So Miriam waits close by the machine, and when the mugger appears, she shoots the mugger dead. This is a radical departure. This is not just a minor intervention in the mechanism we call predestination. This is a full-scale monkey wrench thrown into the works. The powers-that-be cannot simply sit back spinning their threads and cutting them off when they think it right. They could be endlessly frustrated by this Miriam. She has to be disciplined in a way ensuring she will no longer interfere. Another figure is brought back from the edge of death. He knew Miriam. He can be persuaded to deal with her. He can be given a power of foresight that will enable him to beat her into submission — assuming that’s what fate has in store for her, of course. You see, that’s the big imponderable in all this. If the notion of free will is correct, then someone like Miriam can work outside the system fate dictates. In the final analysis, she would not be accountable. The only problem is that others around her, perhaps those she may have some feelings for, may not be so lucky. When fate fights back, there’s almost bound to be collateral damage.

Now you would be wrong to read this review as suggesting a philosophical tone for this book. In fact, it’s completely the reverse with a robust use of language and imagery throughout. Wendig is not an author who pulls punches. He’s developing a fine voice for delivering interesting ideas wrapped up in the mantle of violent supernatural horror. This makes him one of the most challenging of all the younger writers. Rather than drawing inspiration from some of the more established tropes and frames, he’s charged off into relatively uncharted territory. Obviously, there have been many who play with the idea that no-one can fight fate, or only The One (chosen or otherwise) can win the battle. Perhaps one of the more subversive books on this theme is Un Lun Dun by China Miéville in which the ostensible Chosen One is killed off early and the side kick has to take over when everyone else gets disheartened. This book breaks with convention through the character of Miriam whose defensive mechanisms make her extremely unsociable. Indeed, she’s arguably an anti-hero. This makes The Cormorant a very successful way of continuing the series and it’s recommended for all who enjoy supernatural books that push the boundaries of taste.

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
Unclean Spirits.

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Broken Homes 1

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch (Daw, 2014) is the fourth outing for Peter Grant and a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for some time. The old saying is that “things” tend to come in sets of three and, more often than not, the third time is the best. Which means, of course, that the first in the new set of three is not necessarily going to be better. We’re following on from the events in Whispers Underground with Lesley May struggling to come to terms with her facial disfigurement as more information about the Faceless Man’s activity surface. The first sign comes through a body dump. Jaget Kumar then quietly passes on a very suspicious suicide on the London Underground. This leads to an interest in the now deceased Erik Stromberg, a German architect who may have built something interesting near the Elephant and Castle. As constructed, the book provides a very elegant trail of breadcrumbs which leads up to a final confrontation and the big surprise to lead into the next in the series. So far so good.

It would also be fair to say that the general standard of gentle humour is maintained with some pleasing repartee between Grant and May. But the overall effect is less satisfying this time round. Perhaps I just had to wait too long before reading this. Perhaps I’m beginning to find the ideas just a little repetitive. It’s hard to put my finger precisely on the spot so I’ll scratch around and see what comes out.

Ben Aaronovitch

Ben Aaronovitch

The first three books have built themselves around the magic woven into the bricks and mortar of London. Making the whole scene work are the fey who live in and around the rivers of the metropolitan area. Given their power, a treaty has been put in place which requires the local police force to maintain a buffer unit that can respond to wrongdoing on both sides of the magical divide. This is the Folly, currently run by the appropriately named Detective Inspector Nightingale who actually gets more prominence in this book. Think of him as the White Wizard of London with Peter Grant and Lesley May as his apprentices. This leads to two major narrative strands. The young Grant and the now injured May must learn their trade as wizards. This is not a rerun of the Hogwarts experience because the lives of this pair are rooted in the reality of London and they are often in real danger. The second element is the relationship between different figures among the fey and the humans responsible for maintaining a workable interface with the magically challenged police. Not unnaturally, the average coppers on the beat tend to be less than enthusiastic if something wicked their way comes. While not exactly considering Nightingale to be one of the wicked, they prefer conventional cases. This is one of the less well explained features of this version of London. A large number of the police and their support staff are aware of the magical infrastructure of their city, but there’s little or no sign of general public awareness. In our world, it would be impossible to keep this from the news media.

The problem for the author is one of thematic repetition. So Aaronovitch has tackled the problem head on with the increasingly important battle for power between the Folly and the cohorts of the Faceless Man, this time reinforced by the redoubtable Varona Sidorovna. This adopts the more formal tradition of protagonist and antagonist in adventure and thriller novels, and gives more scope for crimes to be committed which would require the Folly’s intervention. In this book, there’s a remarkably spectacular crime which would certainly interest the news media to the exclusion of most other stories. However, this shift of emphasis brings its own challenge. The success of the first two books lay clearly in exploring the relationship with the fey. Now we’re looking at a criminal wizard, Aaronovitch must decide what balance to strike. In this instance, there’s a major set-piece as the magical beings come on-shore for their annual bash. Although some of what happens may be setting plot lines in place for the next novel, there’s little obvious contribution to the forward progress of this book’s plot. Indeed, you feel some of the characters are just being given walk-on moments to remind us they are still around.

So there’s some interesting discussion of urban planning and the politics of redevelopment. There are also one or two illuminating developments from Nightingale who’s beginning to emerge as a more rounded figure. But the feel is less coherent and I have the sense newcomers to the series might find this book less easy to follow. This leaves me recommending the first three books in the series and suggesting new readers might read Midnight Riot aka Rivers of London, the first book, before setting off on this. I found Broken Homes slightly disappointing.

For my review of two other books in the series, see:
Midnight Riot or Rivers of London and
Whispers Underground.

Veronica Mars (2014)

March 23, 2014 4 comments

Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars (2014) is a most curious example of wish-fulfillment. Those of us with memories like an elephant — sorry that simile doesn’t quite work in this instance because elephants don’t watch television shows. Those of us who can remember back to 2004. “Hey man, that’s like ten years and so passé. Who’d want to remember something from way back when?” Well, this is Rob Thomas and here’s a Kickstarter riposte to those executives in the movie-making business who don’t think there’s mileage in a cult television show for a sequel, but are prepared to spend millions of dollars in remaking The A-Team or, worse, Dukes of Hazzard, Land of the Lost, etc. Personally, I’d like to see a film based on Pushing Daisies but my eccentricity in matters of taste is notorious.


So, after a brief moment watching our heroine being interviewed by a top New York law firm and living with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell) here we are back in Neptune, California with Kristen Bell as she slips seamlessly back into the character of the obsessive investigator who got her full PI licence when she was still at school. She’s responding to a call from Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who’s now a member of JAG — obviously a man who knows where he’s going so long as it’s by sea. He’s accused of murdering Carrie Bishop who had made a name for herself as a pop diva calling herself “Bonnie DeVille” (ah, what’s in a name). As with most people accused of murder, he needs some help. Naturally, Veronica opts out of the whirlwind of job interviews to fly out to renew acquaintance with her father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), and the other stalwarts from her youth.

Veronica and Logan back together again

Veronica and Logan back together again


Insofar as this is a film made using fans’ money, the question we have to answer is whether the film is better than the average bear, or something that will only appeal to the diehards. Writing this at the end of the first week in the cinemas, the answer would seem to be limited appeal in the general marketplace. The gross take is edging up to $2.5 million. But the wrinkle we can’t get beyond is the number of people who opted for home viewing. The whisper is fairly positive and Rob Thomas says the early signs for a second film sequel are encouraging. It may well be this turns into a franchise despite the apathy of the power-brokers in Hollywood.


To achieve this no doubt worthy aim, the appeal must satisfy two completely different demographics. When it was being broadcast, it routinely picked up around 2.5 million viewers across three seasons. Whatever sequel is made must satisfy the natural desire of the fans to catch up with as many characters from the series as possible. To that extent the film succeeds as an exercise in nostalgia. Nine years have passed and people may have aged, but the high school reunion brings all the cast back together and provides a vital photographic clue from the past as to the motive for the most recent death. Indeed, as we wander through Neptune, interesting faces resurface, often saying “significant” things for the fans (and for solving the murder).

Dick, Weevil, Logan, Wallace, and Piz showing how reunions end

Dick, Weevil, Logan, Wallace, and Piz showing how reunions end


As to the mystery plot, it’s faintly amusing to see Veronica pull out her old box of PI stuff and have to make do with out-of-date tech. Indeed, her general lack of awareness about the cultural life of the city and its radio stations, is almost the death of her. But the mystery element is a little thin. There’s remarkably little set-up for the murder itself. We don’t get to walk through the scene of the crime or to have someone explain the gatehouse system which suggests Logan was the only one who could have committed the crime. Although this comes out as we get into the second half of the film, it’s always better when we viewers have a clear view of the problem to be solved from the get-go. As one of the attorneys says when Logan is looking for someone to represent him, he needs a viable alternative explanation of who could have done it. This is difficult to formulate without a proper set-up. Even when we have a reconstruction flashback, Veronica’s guess is actually wrong. At the end when we know whodunnit, we’re still left guessing whether her suggested method is correct.


Indeed, the ending sequence is a little undercooked. There’s a confrontation, admissions are made, there’s a chase and a fight. Yes, the classic elements are present but, somehow, they lack a true thriller quality. It has a made-for-television feel to it. I know the film was made on a tight budget so not as much time could be taken to get a full cinematic quality to it, but shambling around in the dark is not my idea of getting the job done. Putting all this together, I’m left moderately satisfied. It was good to see flashes of the old Veronica Mars spirit in some of the characters and situations — it’s slightly disappointing there’s not very much character development outside the core players. Summing up, the final evaluation can’t depend on past familiarity. The current mystery element must be strong enough and, somehow, I don’t think this is well enough put together to “hit the spot”. With a little more care, this could have been excellent. As it is, Veronica Mars is only slightly better than average.


The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 9 and 10

March 22, 2014 2 comments

The After Dinner Mysteries

The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 9 and 10 completes this run of the show. Cultural differences can sometimes get in the way of appreciating the quality of the work to be reviewed. When a Japanese television company sets out to write a “comedy” mystery series, mere Westerners like myself should not expect to laugh. Not born and brought up in Japan, their humour is likely to remain obscure. Yet here’s a show that borrows heavily from a manga (that’s like comics or graphic novels only more interesting) style to produce a more accessible vehicle for entertaining the viewer. This time, there are two murders, so the show spreads their solution over two episodes. We’re playing in the well-established frame of a group of mystery writers all called together for a social event at the home of one of the most successful but most reclusive of all mystery writers. This is playing the same game as Murder By Death (1976) which managed to strand a number of famous detectives in a country house and let them fight out who was the most absurdly gifted of all. This gang of mystery writers contains the loopy one, the angry one, the older one, and two women who, as Sapper and others have opined, are more deadly than the male. In the house where these writers assemble, we have the author and her young daughter, her editor, and a housekeeper. None of them seem to be expecting this gaggle of writers to appear, but in shows like this, you can never take anything at face value.

The writers invite themselves to stay overnight and are awoken by someone throwing a baseball trophy though a second storey window from outside the house. When they look around the open rooms, they find one of the women visitors had been bludgeoned. Beside the body is a pool of ink. Before dying, the victim had apparently written an X on the floor, thus following in the tradition of Ellery Queen’s The Scarlett Letters. How can you fail with a house full of eccentrics as suspects? Except the real question is which of the most common red herrings have been included and/or omitted? Obviously, it can’t be the angry one who threatens to bash anyone over the head who disagrees with him. Or the weird one who may be able to lift objects to balance on his head but not with homicidal intent. Or the old one who should have too much wisdom to want to kill anyone. Or the author who owns the house and is bedridden. Or the housekeeper because she’s short, well-covered, and cute. The young girl is too short to hit anyone over the head with a heavy object. The editor seriously damaged is shoulder when he was a pitcher at school and could not throw the trophy through the window from the garden or strike a blow to the head.

Yes, some do celebrate Christmas in Japan

Yes, some do celebrate Christmas in Japan

So why throw the trophy through the window and what’s the significance of the X? Well Kageyama (Sho Sakurai) comes up with a very convincing explanation of who committed the murder. Later that night, when Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa) comes downstairs, she not only finds another woman stabbed, but Kageyama is in the kitchen with a cake knife in his hand. The fact the knife has no blood on it and he would not have had time or motive to kill this woman, does not stop Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina) from arresting him and interrogating him. Obviously this is just a chance for some light relief and to give us a chance to consider where Kageyama slipped up in his analysis. After all, he’s been infallible so far in the series. Put food on the table, give answers afterwards. It’s been like clockwork.

The interesting thing about this pair of episodes is that the two murders flow as natural consequences from one fateful decision. As an outside observer to Japanese culture, this particular decision strikes me as completely absurd. It also seems impractical. For all the flair of the script in presenting this fait accompli, I don’t believe it even begins to meet standards of credibility. So how does this affect the outcome? Well, once you accept this premise, there’s a certain logic to the rest. Why should we even begin to accept it? Well, it’s a comedy mystery show, this is their Christmas special, and the Japanese equivalent of Christmas cakes are relevant to the solution of the mystery (these sponge cakes are covered in strawberries and cream). Although it’s not a national holiday, people do exchange gifts and families gather. As part of the build-up to New Year, it’s become an important time. Yet here comes the cultural incongruity. The West tends to produce saccharine sentimentality in celebration of this commercialised feast day. This episode does produce what’s actually described as a present for one of the characters, but it’s wrapped up in a terrible tragedy, a tragedy of epic proportions because it was all avoidable. People with talent should have been allowed to prosper in their own right. The natural cycle of life and death should have prevailed. Love once acknowledged, should have been celebrated. Lies would have been unnecessary and we could have had a happy ending. As it is, the lives of the criminals and those around them are wrecked. The only pair who emerge with a better relationship are Kageyama and Reiko. He because we get to see more of the man behind the mask and she because there are faint signs of emerging intelligence and a better attitude. And the depths of Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri’s idiocy are truly explored. Although these two episodes have been slightly less accessible to an outsider, the overall quality of The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 has been impressive. The plots have been ingenious and sufficiently intricate to demand a full hour to explore them. The format has also been varied and avoided boring us through repeating the same jokes. If you have the chance, this series is well worth watching.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011) Episodes 1 and 2
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 3 and 4
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 5 and 6
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 7 and 8.

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