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The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

November 14, 2014 2 comments

The Severed Streets

There are times you read a book and you know in your bones there’s a good story in the content, but it’s buried and left unfulfilled. Well, The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell (Tor, 2014) Shadow Police 2, is just such a book. Following on from London Falling, our team of four are doing their best to adjust to the reality of their newly acquired supernatural powers. So, if you wanted a thumbnail sketch of the book, this is a dark fantasy grafted on to a police procedural. In theory, this is a good blend because stolid and, up to the moment their eyes are literally opened to the “reality” around them, reliable police officers (plus one intelligence analyst). Suddenly they have to adjust their thinking to accommodate the “impossible”.

In this case, we have a beastie on the loose which may be the original Jack the Ripper or a new incarnation of some sort that wants the world to label him or her as a modern version of Jack. Either way, this razor-wielding creature literally passes through walls and the sides of motorcars, hacking away at the white powerful men inside. Ah yes, you noticed the difference. Instead of killing prostitutes, this modern Jack has a completely different agenda. At this point, it’s appropriate to point out the have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach of the author. I don’t mind him creating characters who can see a different version of reality as an overlay on the London around them, but I strenuously reject the idea that this alternate reality could be captured by digital cameras and then viewed by our “sighted” heroes. Supernatural powers vested in an individual by an accidental exposure to a trigger give the sight. Digital cameras, no matter how advanced their design, cannot see supernatural events and, if they could record them, they would presumably then be visible to all viewers.

Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell

It’s this kind of annoying lack of logic that bedevils the book. That and the fact it’s badly overwritten in the first third so that the pace is leaden and the development of scenes interminably boring, e.g. in the pub called the Goat and Compass. There’s also one other seriously odd element. In historical mysteries, it’s relatively common for real-world characters to appear. This is the first time I can remember a living person featuring as a character. In this case, we meet Neil Gaiman who proves to have an important role to play as the plot develops. Of course, Paul Cornell asked Neil Gaiman for permission and got approval for the use of his name. For some, I suppose, this adds an extra frisson of excitement. I thought it a dissonant note. If you are writing fiction with a dark fantasy twist, including a real person as a player is crossing the line between fiction and reality. I don’t think it works at all.

That said, the basic plot is sound with a nicely balanced threat to destabilise London as an excuse for imposing a little more order — the usual right-wing conspiracy theory made real by a man able to manipulate the zeitgeist and hack into dreams to see where there may be problems to solve. Some of this works really well as we progress into the second third of the book and the pace picks up. There are stresses and strains on the group of four police officers, and one inadvertently finds a very original way of interviewing the key characters who can speak truth and out the villain of the piece. So I’m faced with a minor problem. Because it finishes strongly, I could deem the whole a success. Or I could declare the flaws to be sufficiently serious that I cannot recommend the book. On balance, with some reservations, I think there’s enough good to make The Severed Streets worth reading. Perhaps more importantly, it’s been left in a very interesting position so the next book in the series will be starting off from a good position.

For a review of the first in the series, see London Falling.

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

Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke

April 29, 2014 5 comments

longlivethequeen

Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke (one of the several pseudonyms of the suitably anonymous Kathryn Smith) (http://www.orbitbooks.net/, 2013) is the third and final in The Immortal Empire series which bills itself as dark fantasy. So, fearing nothing, I step into the life of Xandra Vardan. She’s the sixteen-year-old slip of a girl who thought she was just an ordinary kid and then discovered not only that she was a rather special supernatural being but, perhaps more importantly, the heir apparent to the Goblin throne. Yes, not only does she have to adjust her understanding of how the world works, but also learn to wear the crown. For all this to work, we have a fantasy alternate version of London. Queen Victoria is one of these rather long-lived vampires, there are werewolves and, of course, the goblins live underground in tunnels next to the London Underground. All this might have been harmonious except for the group of humans who seem to think all supernatural beasties are an abomination. They act like terrorists, killing those who can be killed, blowing up stuff and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Indeed, with the news media somewhat on the fence, there’s a risk of the majority human population rising up and attempting their version of a final solution.

 

Rather like Blade (1998), our heroine has an important mutation which enables her to walk in daylight — it seems crossbreeds can develop useful attributes. Indeed, there are secret laboratories experimenting on the supernatural creatures and also looking for a variety of the Plague that might spread fast through the human community. Think of the “one ring to rule them all” and you’ll get the idea as to what the labs are actually trying to produce. Because this is a covert romance, there’s a lively relationship between our Goblin Queen and Vex, the alpha male of the werewolves. And, supposedly to add a little spice to proceedings, the catalyst for this book’s action is the escape of one of the lab creatures. In the last book, Xandra was briefly held by one of these labs and they harvested some of her eggs. Now we have the product of artificial reproduction out of the streets looking not unlike our heroine when she chooses to (yes, a shape shifter with facial recognition software built in). It’s a not uninteresting idea that our heroine should have to relate to and occasionally fight an enhanced version of herself.

Kate Locke

Kate Locke

 

First the strange feature. This is a book written by a Canadian set in London. As you might expect, this requires a certain scattering of Britishisms to give the idea the setting might actually have something to do with Britain as one of the language centres of the world. Because the setting is somewhat ambiguous in terms of technology — genetic manipulation, cloning and other advanced techniques mixed in with occasional steampunk elements — the colloquialisms are “old”. For example, I haven’t heard anyone refer to another as His Nibs for more than fifty years. But here’s the thing. I was not at all surprised to see our heroine frequently curse by using the phrase, “Fang me!” (she’s dating a werewolf and her father is a vampre so fangs run in the family). Amongst themselves, we British folk can get quite salty if the mood takes us. Yet I then discovered most of the characters curse and swear like navvies. There may be marginally more fangs than fucks in all its grammatical forms, but it’s the presence of other Anglo Saxon expletives that intrigue me. Shag, knob and the other less obvious words appear quite regularly, but it’s relatively unusual to find a cunt (or two) in a book with romantic overtones presumably aimed at the delicate fair sex. Not that I care one way or the other. It’s language you hear everyday on the streets. I was just faintly surprised to see it in a book like this.

 

The second oddity is what’s presented to us as the mystery plot. Just who is behind this fiendish plot with the laboratories? Why has this mastermind created this heroine lookalike? What is this new plague? Well, the answers to these question are remarkably obvious. I may not have read the two earlier volumes but, if you actually care, there’s really only one person it can be.

 

So there you have it: a thin plot stretched to tedious length to comply with modern publishing standards. A few decades ago, this would have been a satisfactory half to an Ace Double. As it is, Long Live the Queen overstays its welcome as dark fantasy (it’s not that dark), as urban fantasy (too much real sex in both language and deed), as steampunk (only the names of modern devices are changed to make them sound Victorian), as mystery (which it isn’t), or anything else you might care to throw into the genre mix.

 

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

 

London Falling by Paul Cornell

LondonFallingUS

Idiomatic English is great fun because, in a colourful way, it follows its own kind of logic to communicate meaning. So, for example, we have the conventional verb “to urinate” but offer coarser alternatives like “to piss”. Hence, the past participle “pissed” means the individual has consumed sufficient alcohol that there’s an heightened need to urinate. Or to “piss someone off”. . . well you wouldn’t be very pleased if someone pissed on you, that would get your goat (which I’ve always thought should be Satanic and be associated with the preparations for conducting a ritual sacrifice). All of which brings me to the question of tone. In a review like this, it’s perfectly acceptable to use words like “piss” or “goat” because I’m being vaguely academic and, in that social context, the writer can use more explicit language. Connecting goats with the concept of sacrifice usually means we’re into the supernatural and there are certain linguistic conventions readers expect authors to apply to create the atmosphere for chills and thrills. . .

So here comes London Falling by Paul Cornell (Tor, 2013) the first in the Shadow Police series which is labelled “dark fantasy”. This does not, of course, make it “horror” although elements may have a similar effect on readers. It also could have pretension to be “urban fantasy” because it takes place in London which is, well, urban. So what we have is a police procedural which, inadvertently, happens to be investigating some supernatural events which, because the police officers have rational minds, they do not consider possible and are therefore not investigating. Note the cunning use of paradox here. No police officers worth their salt investigate something they do not consider possible. Until they are confronted by evidence of their own insanity, i.e. the evidence of their eyes suggests the impossible is all too possible. Under such circumstances, what would you do? Well you could begin by pissing on the witch’s soil. That tends to get her pissed off, i.e. it breaks the spell by contaminating the medium through which she projects her power. That was just a lucky shot, of course. Usually the scientific method requires experimenters to engage in multiple efforts at trial and error to prove the effect. It was just a lucky shot that senior police officers usually express their contempt for criminals and the laws that protect them by dropping their pants and pissing on them. Doing what comes naturally is usually the right thing to do.

Pau Cornell a writer and possible football fan

Pau Cornell a writer and possible football fan

All of which should indicate my serious dilemma about this book. At one level, there a tremendous amount of invention at work. Some of the detail is wonderful to behold and the way the plot works out is objectively pleasing. In other words, I should be hailing this as one of the best books in the dark or urban fantasy genre. What, you should be demanding of me, do you expect of a police procedural that suddenly dumps three ordinary coppers and a research analyst into a lot of supernatural shit? Of course it’s messy and they flounder around desperately trying to develop theories about how all the magic works and what they can do to protect themselves from it. That’s what you should expect and the book is actually being very realistic in exploring how rational people deal with irrationality. Except. . . Except I don’t think the tone of the book hits the mark. I find it all very interesting and not in the slightest alarming, let alone frightening. So here’s the question back at you. If an author and the publicity machine behind him broadcasts the nature of the book as supernatural fantasy tinged with horror, should the reader not feel a frisson, no matter how slight, of fear?

Perhaps I’m just getting too old. Perhaps my sensibilities have just been numbed by reading all these books. But I don’t find any of what happens in this book even faintly thrilling. I’m impressed by the skill of the narrative construction. I admire the prose Paul Cornell has produced. But, for me, it doesn’t create the advertised effect. Indeed, at times, I was faintly amused and, once or twice, annoyed by the slight jokiness of conflating the supernatural with football (not the American type). For the record, I’m even remotely a football fan. I’ve never actually been to a football match. It just doesn’t strike me as a healthy premise for a dark fantasy book to base everything on fervent support for West Ham, a London club. I understand the passions raised by the game allow the writer to explore structures of memory and myth, but such trivial interests have no resonance for me. As a final thought, those of you who prefer not to read books which have children victimised should give this a miss. Fortunately most of the animals survive (apart from a few pigs in an explanatory flashback). So London Falling may well be your cup of tea. If so, I wish you well.

For a review of the sequel, see The Severed Streets.

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

Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan

July 14, 2012 4 comments

When you look at the world of dark fantasy or horror (depending on the way you apply labels), it’s sad there are so few women who get the recognition they deserve. I suppose if we stretch the boundaries, we have to include Anne Rice among the really well-known. Of the “midlist” crowd, my personal favorites are Poppy Z Brite and Lisa Tuttle. All of which is probably not the best way to begin a review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan (Subterranean Press, 2012) but I thought I should make the point that the mass market is not given the chance to appreciate the quality of the dark fantasy or horror fiction that women write. Whereas the men are heavily promoted, women are not picked up by the mainstream publishers and so are less well-known. This denies the majority the chance to read work by Caitlin R Kiernan and others. Not only does she produce such good prose, but her work gives a fascinating insight how fiction written by a woman differs from the male version. In this collection, we also see a conscious effort made to blur the line between the “dark” and the “erotic”, i.e. to make explicit what many of the male writers tend to leave implicit. Those of you who know Caitlin R Kiernan will understand she has an insight into the spectrum of gender and so her fiction tends to approach sexuality and eroticism from less usual directions. This makes her work all the more interesting to read and, once again, we’re indebted to Subterranean Press for supporting her work.

“The Wolf Who Cried Girl” is an elegant story about the socialisation process. No matter how they first present as children, we intend to transform our young into adults we can be proud of. For the elite who are strong and the average, this works reasonably well, but when the non-standard have to contend with the prejudices of the peer group and authority figures, it’s very difficult to stay true to the inner personality. Those with gender issues are only too aware of this problem. This is the story of a wolf who’s magically transformed into a girl. Hospitals and counsellors attack her instinctive feral identity, forcing her to assume the appearance of a woman. Her decision to have sex with a man proves the final step in the magic driving the process of social change. The voluntary acceptance of the new identity is inevitably the surrender of the old. Except, of course, wolves never like to surrender and always fight to the end, particularly if they believe they have been tricked. The reverse is “Unter den Augen des Mondes” in which a female werewolf finds herself a prisoner and unable to transform into her human body. Living as a caged animal, all she can hope for is the opportunity to kill the man who taunts and abuses her.

Caitlin R Kiernan

We then have a genuinely macabre allegory. “The Bed of Appetite” makes literal the cliché that people can be consumed by love. This inevitably involves one or both parties accepting some reduction in their individuality. They give up their freedoms, accept new responsibilities. But, as the relationship moves towards termination, what will be left of each person? “Subterraneus” is a simple but powerful Lovecraftian story. “The Collector of Bones” reminds us of the idiom that some people talk you to death. These three stories also consider the difference between dominance and submissiveness depending on the gender role. “The Bed Of Appetite” is particularly interesting because the woman begins to write the story, but it ends as the man dictates. “Beautification” continues the theme of submissiveness and self-sacrifice, except it’s not at all clear what benefit will accrue to the woman from this sacrifice. “Untitled Grotesque” returns to the world of gender mutability in a story of voyeurs where it’s important to understand who’s watching whom with the greatest interest. At least, in “Flotsam”, there’s an obvious pay-off for the submission. The victim longs to give blood to a vampire because it’s an ecstatic experience. Unfortunately, the sexual high emphasises the dominant loneliness and frustration because the donation comes only when it suits the convenience of the vampire. “Concerning Attrition and Severance” completes this small section by moving us from voluntary submission to sadism for the greater enjoyment of the sadist and her watchers.

“Rappaccini’s Dragon (Murder Ballad No. 5)” shows us that, with good preplanning, revenge can achieve the desired result, while “The Melusine (1898)” demonstrates that if you live in the moment, you can suddenly find your rational defences overwhelmed as love beckons. But if you hesitate, the magic is lost and the mundane rationality of the world reasserts control. “Fecunitatem (Murder Ballad No. 6)” asks if you have a close relationship with nature, will a death of your own choosing lead to a different view of the world? Perhaps a seed might take root and prove you as fertile as the rich earth. Moving into science fiction, “I Am the Abyss, and I Am the Light” describes a process whereby a human and an alien surrender their individual personalities and merge into a single being. In so doing, the individuals become something different, neither human nor alien, but a third species. During the process, both overcome the inherent loneliness of being one individual in a body, never knowing what others around them are thinking. Through this surrender of individuality, they accept each other in a form of relationship that’s intimate and permanent. Similarly, “Lullaby of Partition and Reunion” suggests that true love implies the two people will intermingle, will fuse both physically and intellectually — even become soul partners like siamese twins albeit with different parents.

“Dancing With the Eight of Swords” thinks about a serial killer who, while alive, believes the voice of another is guiding every action. Would it not be remarkable if, upon death, the killer might find a different way of relating to that voice, perhaps even of breaking down barriers to become a single individual who can make her own choices. “Murder Ballad No. 7” raises the possibility that, if a man could see past a glamour to the fairy below, he might be considered worthy of being a mate, albeit only within the fairy ring, of course. “Derma Sutra (1891) offers a Lovecraftian potential for two coming together through the application of various tattoos and the use of words from Ancient Books, while “The Thousand-and-Third Story of Scheherazade” is a nice inversion of the original Arabian Nights to keep a different relationship going. “The Belated Burial” suggests an intermediate step in the metamorphosis from dead human to vampire. “The Bone’s Prayer” reinvents the old trope of the message in a bottle and wonders how a small piece of soapstone with signs of the Elder Gods carved on to its surface might serve the purpose. “A Canvas For Incoherent Arts” has a couple playing S&M games based on sensory deprivation. What does the submissive partner become when she’s actually afraid? “The Peril of Liberated Objects” is a powerful Lovecraftian acceptance of dreaming as a form of voyeurism, showing an unexpected price paid out of sight. “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” was reviewed in Black Wings. “At the Gate of Deeper Slumber” continues the Lovecraftian theme with a wonderful box that offers the use of a portal if only you have the courage to open it. Finally, “Fish Bride (1970)” completes the frame of the first story. A woman is slowly going through the metamorphosis to become one of the Deep Ones. Unfortunately, she falls in love with a human man. As her gills begin to show and the call grows stronger to join her mother in the city beyond the Devil Reef, she realises the loneliness that awaits her without the man she loves. Here acceptance of the process produces the mirror image result but without the option to pick up a knife and strike with any meaningful purpose.

Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is a collection of densely written stories, often with challenging content. As such, it rewards those who take their time to engage with the author and think through what underpins each story. Because of its frankness and some eroticism, it will not be to everyone’s taste. This is a shame because, regardless of the superficial descriptions, the underlying themes transcend physicality. Almost without exception, the stories are about the mind and how it relates to the world around it through the agency of the body. Yes, some of the stories are disturbing, but is one of the functions of art not to disturb, to challenge our safe view of the things around us we perceive as mundane?

My opinion on Lee Moyer‘s contribution to the cover design provoked some debate so I’ve written a more detailed critique of the artwork at Cover Design For Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart. For reviews of other work by Caitlin R Kiernan, see:
The Ape’s Wife
Blood Oranges (written as Kathleen Tierney).

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

Dark North by Paul Finch

Well here we go with another of these mashup series. This time, we’re in a shared world where different authors are invited to conflate dark fantasy with Arthurian fiction with military fiction with alternate history with horror. In this, Abaddon Books has an interesting strategy by putting together a team of house writers who are commissioned to turn out new books in one or more of the series currently being run. This time, we’re looking at Dark North by Paul Finch (Abaddon, 2012) the third in the Malory’s Knights of Albion series. The first two are The Black Chalice by Steven Savile and The Savage Knight by Paul Lewis. This makes it slightly difficult to review since I’m not sure what happened in the earlier books. All I can do is deal with what I have.

The preface announces that this series is supposedly based on a newly discovered work by Sir Thomas Malory, representing a continuation of the history described in Le Morte D’Arthur. While this book makes no effort at reproducing Malory’s style, it does borrow extensively from the catalogue of characters, placing them in a rather different situation. To that extent, the book avoids being mere pastiche. Although it allegedly draws on an original source, it’s retelling a new story in a consistent modern style for readers today. So what’s happening in this new timeline?

As in the real world, the Roman Empire has broken into what we would call the Byzantine Empire in the east, and a rump of the old Empire in the West. However, Rome has not given up and is now rebuilding its control over Gaul and into the fringes of Germania where it has an on-going conflict with the Saxons. As a symbol of its progress to reunification, the Emperor decides Rome needs a symbolic victory. The best he can devise to send a message to all those wavering is to retake control of Britannia which is now firmly under the control of King Arthur in Camelot. In this, the Emperor is covertly being encouraged by the Pope. If the Emperor succeeds, he will likely consolidate the power of the Church. If he should lose, the Pope will assume responsibility for spreading the gospel across whatever borders come into place. Either way, the Church believes it will win. Thus encouraged, the Emperor musters legions in northern Gaul and sends a diplomatic mission to King Arthur as a final gesture to resolve matters without the need to start another war. Unfortunately, one of the Roman team has obviously read the Iliad and persuades the wife of Lord Lucan — the Black Wolf of the North — to run away with him (cf Paris taking Helen from King Menelaus). Or perhaps he’d just heard the Knights of Camelot like to go on quests and thoughtfully provided someone for Lord Lucan to look for.

Paul Finch looking suitably Arthurian or patrician as you prefer

Having established a faintly credible casus belli and to start the ball rolling, the Romans have one of their vassal states invade Brittany which has a mutual defence pact with Camelot. As you would expect, King Arthur arrives from the wrong direction and more quickly than the Emperor is expecting. Nevertheless, the Emperor believes in the power of numerical superiority. It does not occur to him that he can lose. We then have a rerun of the Battle of Crécy with Arthur and his lot making the daft Romans run uphill through a narrow valley to get to them. With British archers and crossbowmen the best in Europe, the Roman cohorts never stand a chance in the initial advance. When the cavalry makes what’s intended to be a flanking attack in a confined area, the line breaks, exposing the inexperienced Emperor to a swift demise.

So what we have in the first quarter is a sketchy political feint by Rome followed by a detailed description of a military campaign and major battle. Framing this is a fight with a mythological giant worm in the north of Britain and then a quest overlaid with supernatural threats to wrap things up. It’s this final third that sets the book alight. Although I can’t say I mind a good battle with lots of folks hacking at each other with swords of different lengths, you just can’t beat a really good quest. In this case, our initial team of Lord Lucan plus a party of thirty is slowly whittled down by a series of interesting nasties conjured up by a witch with predatory maternal instincts. At this point I should explain that, contrary to your natural expectations when picking up a work of Arthurian fiction, the Dark North referred to is not Gateshead or any other mouth into the British version of Hell, but a nice mountainside villa in North Italy where the tendency to drip the blood of virgins into a convenient pit produces quite dangerous incursions into our world from the “other side”.

No matter what you might think of alternate history with battles thrown in, anyone with an interest in fantasy horror should read this book. The chase away from the battlefield and into the foothills of the Alps is a magnificently sustained piece of writing with a more satisfying human drama being played out as we approach the climactic confrontation. It addresses some very intriguing questions. In an arranged marriage where the wife has allowed lust to overcome her political duty to her husband, should the cuckolded husband be chasing her to bring her home or kill her for disloyalty? In a world where King Arthur insists on honour and integrity unless the only way to win is to fight dirty, why do knights and squires stay loyal to their lord? Can a son avoid following in his parent’s footsteps? If a prisoner gives his word not to escape, should he leave when given the chance? And finally, is everyone else expendable so long as you survive? Both in the conversations the relevant parties have and the way they act when under pressure, we get answers to these and other interesting questions. It’s a tour de force! I read Dark North as a stand-alone and would unhesitatingly recommend it to everyone.

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

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