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Night Terrors by Tim Waggoner

April 19, 2014 2 comments

Night Terrors by Tim Waggoner

Having read and enjoyed some of this author’s short stories, I thought it time to have a look at one of his novels. This is convenient because Night Terrors by Tim Waggoner (Angry Robot, 2014) is the first in the new Shadow Watch series. Audra Hawthorne and her ideation Jinx are the headline pair. OK so here we go with the set-up. Out there (somewhere that’s not outer space because this is not SFnal interplanetary material), there’s the Maelstrom (not the Scandinavian whirlpool but a cache of uncontrolled energy). This can bleed through into both our world and the Land of Nod, the world of sleep and dreams. The result can be chaotic as what was ordered and predictable becomes less so. Humans can ideate, i.e. create creatures out of their dreams by drawing on the Maelstrom. If they do this, they don’t need to sleep. In turn, this messes with their heads and leads to them making mistakes unless they do the R&R thing. Anyway, Audra has dreamed up Jinx and, together, they are a team committed to keeping both worlds free from attack by other creatures formed out of Maelstrom stuff. We start off with our duo in Chicago chasing after Quietus, an assassin who’s already killed three humans. They capture him but, when they go through the door into the Land of Nod, they are mugged by a local and a mercenary, and lose their prisoner. This is embarrassing and the boss of this trans-dimensional law enforcement organisation may take this as a symptom of less than the peak efficiency expected of all his teams.

Tim Waggoner

Tim Waggoner

On the face of it, this is a very interesting concept. Ignoring the far past, humans can interact with the energy field and create incubi out of the Maelstrom. These beings now populate the Land of Nod which has separated itself out as a dimensional home for them. However, some can pass between our world and Nod. This gives them separate daytime and nighttime bodies. Their personalities may also change on transition. Their two “halves” are not mirror images, but there’s a tendency to polarise as opposites. So the incubi are created by humans but, for the most part, are not dependent on them for continued existence. This leads to interesting quasi-religious questions about the process of creation among the incubi. However, some humans ideate specific beings and there’s a much higher degree of interdependence. As a child, Audra had a number of “unresolved issues” which led to her having an increasingly specific fear of a clown. Over time, this “clown” took on substance and became the being now called Jinx. Because he was born out of her fear, she’s never completely bonded with him. A small part of her continues to fear him. Consequently, their relationship as a law enforcement team is not as effective as it might be — I should mention that humans are teamed with incubi so they can police both inhabited dimensions.

Whether by accident or design, most books sit comfortably in an obvious genre class. But this book rather playfully blurs the line between science fiction and urban fantasy. Let’s put the question of creationism to one side and focus on the “as is”. We have two parallel dimensions, one populated predominantly by humans, the other by incubi. But there are portals or doorways which enable beings to pass from one dimension to the other (there’s a feature not unlike the Bajoran wormhole phenomenon in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine connected with these doorways). Mostly due to the humans, a considerable amount of science has been devoted to researching the Maelstrom itself and the systems enabling different features to manifest. This has led to the development of real technology to exploit Maelstrom energy as weapons and otherwise to exploit the way in which incubi can manipulate dimensional space. The older incubi were initially not interested in science and so were, with one exception, marginalised. This book sees the self-proclaimed Lords of Misrule showing off the results of some of their more recent research. That said, the plot itself largely conforms to the urban fantasy model. Young girl with supernatural clown buddy have the job of keeping the city of Chicago safe from incubi (that’s demons if you want it in more obvious fantasy terms). They face a number of threats, are thought less than effective, and are replaced by more senior operatives. This leads to our duo teaming up with a young man and his pet dog to take on all-comers. There’s the whiff of romance in the air, and lots of fighting with none of the “good guys” seriously threatened. Indeed, one of the problems with this plot is the ease with which the incubi repair their bodies and avoid what should be certain death. It leads to a certain lack of suspense as they get into trouble and escape with only a scratch that’s healing rapidly as they walk away. Even though a human, Audra is feisty and also manages not to be too serious injured — it’s a gift most heroines enjoy in a series where romance is in the air.

Put all this together and you have a very professional package based on an interesting idea. Anyone who wants to see a slightly different version of urban fantasy will find this highly readable. For them as likes this type of book, Night Terrors is a very good buy.

For a review of another book by Tim Waggoner, see The Last Mile.

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

Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock

November 27, 2012 2 comments

Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock (Subterranean Press, 2012) takes me back to the world of my childhood where I cut my reading teeth on adventure books by Enid Blyton. As a word of explanation to those not lucky enough to have discovered series like the Famous Five when young, the books are about children in danger: the titular five are Julian, Dick, Anne and Georgina (George) and their dog Timothy. They were always having adventures and catching criminals, hopefully always being back home in time for tea. To get this current team changed around so they can participate in this homage to Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Charles Fort and others, picture yourself standing on a sprung wooden floor in a thick fog — I know it’s a challenge to imagine adverse weather conditions inside a building, but bear with me. This is the game being played in this book. You can hear the movements of anyone in the room but cannot see them. You now hear ten pairs of footsteps so, naturally, you assume five people are approaching you. Imagine your surprise when it proves to be three children and a dog. It’s this kind of intensely logical and utterly convincing analysis that appeals to both young and old readers who want to experience a kind of affectionate nostalgia. A view of a past full of gentle wonder as filtered through fantasy rose-tinted spectacles.

James P Blaylock aka Perkins

 

So let’s meet the cast of characters. This is a first-person narrative by Katherine Perkins. She’s twelve and already an expert in everything but most especially in cryptozoology. She has two younger cousins, Brendan and Perry. The dog is called Hasbro (which is presumably a reference to his love of games with the kids or the Langdon St Ives’ valet — your choice). With mother missing in acton, Katherine is in the care of John Toliver Hedgepeth. He’s a genius, a member of the Order of St. George, and an inventor in the Heath Robinson style, being able to make a radio out of the junk laying around in his attic. In distant LA, Aunt Ricketts is convinced this is an unsuitable arrangement: a nutty eccentric man in charge of three children. So she gets Child Services on the job to see whether she can bring the children to a safer, more caring environment. To that end, Ms Henrietta Peckworthy appears on the scene to investigate the quality of care the children are receiving. Unfortunately, her arrival coincides with unusual weirdness so the whole issue of custody has to be shelved while the adventures move into high gear as one or more villains kidnap a mermaid (well, that’s not quite right but close enough for these purposes) and make demands. That gets our team on to the SS Clematis and off through the fog to the rendezvous with one or more of the bad guys. Yes, I know this is confusing but half the fun of all this is not knowing who’s on which side and what their motives are. After all, when you’re observing the world through the eyes of a twelve-year-old cryptozoologist in the making, you can’t expect her to know everything (including how fog gets out of glass jars so quickly even though you put the lids on as fast as you can). So think of her as an unreliable narrator or as a reliable narrator in an unreliable world. In such a story, lacking one for a Blyton full house, we’re off to Morecambe Bay and nearby Lake Windermere (which has a big fan installed to keep the fog away).

 

As a novel, Zeuglodon fits into the same story cycle as The Digging Leviathan with a shared villain Hilario Frosticos, and we’re ultimately in ERB land. As a pair, it fits into a broader set of novels which are called the Narbondo series, featuring Ignatio Narbondo and Langdon St Ives in a steampunk version of history rewriting Victorian events for comic effect. The essence of these stories is that much of what Verne, ERB, Fort and others described is actually real and, using new technology, hero and villain fight over Earth’s future, even travelling through time when necessary. Because of its point of view, Zeuglodon is actually a rather ingenious way of adding to the mythology and showing a different view of how the Victorian inspired future is working out. It’s not quite as steampunkish as earlier books but compensates by trespassing into fantasy dreamscapes where the zeuglodon or basilosaurus might put in an appearance should you be able to penetrate through to the hollow Earth. James Blaylock has managed something rather clever, maintaining a childlike point of view which, by implication, deals with some rather adult issues about relationships and responsibilities, about the difference between the real and the places we see in our dreams, and whether it would ever be right to disturb the world’s understanding of itself by collecting evidence of a different reality.

 

For a review of another book by James P Blaylock, see The Aylesford Skull.

 

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

 

The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon

October 15, 2012 1 comment

With The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon (Solaris Books, 2011), I’m breaking one of my house rules. Usually I start from the first book in a series, but this comes to me out of sequence. I was caught out by the serendipity of reviewing the second in a series by an author unknown to me. So here’s me catching up on the first, all the better to enjoy the third when it arrives on my doorstep (hopefully later this month). You should read the review of Silent Voices first because it discusses my thoughts both on how to classify the series as fantasy or horror, and on a series set more or less on my home turf. As a Geordie, I admit to having some passing acquaintance with Northumberland — it’s a kind of vassal state to Newcastle.

 

So here I find myself back on this strange sink housing estate, supposedly set somewhere between Newcastle and Morpeth, this time with a different cast of characters but with the same theme. Namely, that in and around the Needle — an abandoned tower block — there’s a link to a locus through which human dreams can be externalised and an ancient power persists. Let’s pause for a moment. When do we consider a living area a sink estate? It’s not simply a loss of physical integrity with buildings dilapidated and covered with graffiti. It’s also a kind of moral blight where the residents have given up hope for a better life and no longer respect themselves or their environment. The first signs are fly tipping and regular fires where the rubbish is torched by bored kids. There’s vandalism, drug abuse and muggings, and even the authorities think the best way forward would be to pull it down and start again from scratch — a kind of redemption through destruction. Put another way, the police think it too dangerous to enter unless in numbers and the residents cannot act in their own defence: that would require something to galvanise them, to unite them so that common action became possible. In most cases, the place sinks into despair and often violent lawlessness.

Gary McMahon ready to follow in Hadrian’s footsteps

 

Why focus on this? As a metaphor, think of the rechargeable battery. It absorbs energy and then gives it out according to need. So let’s hypothesise a supernatural phenomenon that exists in a geographical location. In early tribal times, a few individuals might pass by and sense the potential power. One or two might not affect the power significantly because, individually, they do not have much to add to the “battery”. Then along comes the Roman army and, with a ruthless directness, the soldiers take action to suppress local beliefs and any signs of local power. In building the Wall, they plough sacred groves and other sites of worship into the ground. But, as time passes, people begin to live in this one place and their lives pass with the usual balance of happiness and sadness. Such is the human condition. But with the recent accumulation of people in this estate, the “battery” has a larger group from which to charge itself. This should not be a problem except for the balance of negative energy. Now let’s suppose the “battery” is not passive, that it’s capable of directing the process to some extent. Since it experiences both positive and negative emotions, suppose it prefers neutrality if not a positive charge. Might it not decide to interfere in human affairs to collect more of the energy it prefers. The question would therefore become how such an intervention might be made and what price, if any, would be paid by the humans involved.

 

The core of the story is strong without the need for a supernatural element. Structurally, there are two strands. The first concerns a man who feels trapped as a carer. He didn’t ask for his wife to be injured in an accident, yet he now finds himself emotionally locked into the role of a practical nurse for a paraplegic woman. The second concerns a woman and her daughter aged fourteen. She didn’t ask for her husband to get involved in crime and, when it all went wrong, kill himself. When his creditors had finished, she had nothing and was forced to accept a flat in this sink estate. Because she was desperate for money, she borrowed from a loan shark and is now unable to repay. Both are sets of lives full of tragedy yet, perhaps, if the door to access the supernatural power could be opened, even just a touch, they might be saved. After all, life can be beautiful. People don’t have to live in pain. All they need is just a gentle push in the right direction.

 

Perhaps I’m just battle-hardened but I don’t find The Concrete Grove overly violent nor that horrific in the supernatural sense of the word. There’s a reasonably well-developed fantasy rationale which continues into Silent Voices (at least I now have a better understanding of the role of the hummingbirds) but it’s really only a counterpoint to the essentially human drama. As to the prose, this is a fine piece of writing, emotionally involving the reader in the problems of the key characters. There only a minor problem in the repetitiveness in explanation towards the end. Thematically, if you had to capture the question the book answers in a single sentence, it would look this this, “If the only way you could redeem a sink estate is by pulling it down, what would a person have to do to find redemption?” The answer is intriguing and well worth reading. The final book is called Beyond Here Lies Nothing — my copy is on the way.

 

The jacket artwork by Vincent Chong is pleasingly evocative.

 

For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
Dead Bad Things
Reaping the Dark
Silent Voices

 

The Shadowed Sun by N K Jemisin

August 18, 2012 1 comment

Imagine a world in which any system of magic is proven real. Magic is, by definition, the application of supernatural power with practical results in the real world. Obviously, it can take many different forms and manifest in many different ways, but each of these forms and ways is a means to access and wield power. Those with more limited abilities will only be able to influence outcomes in their immediate vicinity. Some of the top exponents will be able to produce results over wide areas. One or two may even approach god-like powers which can affect the entire world. Once the reality of the power is demonstrated, there will be people who plan to control it. In the first instance, the magicians will be bribed or intimidated into doing what they’re told. But there will always come a point when the individually powered magicians assert their own independence and decide their own fates. Quite how this works out will depend on whether the magicians feel the need to take revenge for the way they’ve been treated and whether they remain personally vulnerable.

 

The Dreamblood duology by N K Jemisin which began with The Killing Moon, continues with The Shadowed Sun (Orbit Books, 2012). As before, the book focuses on the path from temptation to corruption and its results. In every culture, people respect and revere those of ability who can contribute to the society’s greatness. In most cases, these will be people with positive abilities but, when there’s internal strife or external threats, people with negative and violent abilities must also be accorded a place for they are the means of practical control and defence. In the world created by this author, there have been two cultures based on a form of dream magic. Among the Kisuati, the magic evolved into a dangerous form and the non-talented naturally protected themselves by killing all the magicians. Among the Gujaareh, there was a benign veneer spread over the use of magic. It offered the people free benefits and bribed the wealthy. However, in this peaceful coexistence, there was a deeper purpose at work. In order to advance the evolutionary power of those able to wield the magic, a selective breeding program was secretly put in place.

 

What makes the breeding program particularly intriguing is the way in which it differentiated between the sexes. The gatekeepers positively vetted all the men for ability. When boys were found, wherever possible, they were taken into training. One element in the regime was to persuade those found most powerful to accept celibacy. The intention was to prevent their genetic lines from developing through the generations. But the women were not vetted. Women were simply encouraged to assume they had no magical abilities. In fact, there was no reason in principle why men and women should not equally come into power. Significantly, although this was never admitted, the failure to train the most talented women to control their talent often led to mental instability — something that would be passed of without comment. In the midst of this controlled culling and manipulation, one or two families were allowed latitude because their genes seemed to promise personal benefits. These men were encouraged to take multiple wives and/or concubines. This group produced a lot of talented people, some of whom have very dangerous abilities.

N K Jemisin awaiting three more rings for Olympic success

 

At the end of The Killing Moon, the plan to attack the Kisuati has been thwarted and we’re now into the period of military occupation as the Kisuati decide what they are going to do about the paradox of Gujaareh society. At a superficial level, the entire culture is one of peace yet it has produced a leadership bent on war and destruction for personal gain. Wise heads on both sides have produced some degree of stability. It was not the fault of the people that their leaders were corrupt. Punishing them for the sins of the few benefits no-one. Equally, the new leadership of the Hetawa in the worship of Hananja has purged the old corrupt leaders and now keeps the people in check, thereby avoiding heavy-handed repression from the occupying troops. Yet it’s obvious this situation cannot continue as the political temperature in Kisuati shifts to policies of more naked exploitation. The remaining wealthy nobles and merchants plan their own rebellion while out in the desert, Wanahomen, the surviving son of the Gujaareh king, rallies support among the tribes. The crisis comes to a head when the Hetawa chooses sides and places a powerful but inexperienced healer, Hanani, in the desert tribes.

 

The book’s study of culture is significantly enriched by the exploration of the desert tribal community which is not unlike the Tuareg. Wanahomen has to some extent been accepted into one of the tribes, but his position is not completely secure. The arrival of Hanani is an opportunity for all sides to review their relationships. She has broken the mould by being the first woman accepted into the Hetawa. Not surprisingly, she has been the victim of considerable discrimination. To then find herself unceremoniously dumped into a radically different social system is disorienting, particularly when, at an early stage, she’s forced to defend herself against a rape attack. While she struggles at a physical level, a different form of threat emerges on to the dream scene. In the end, a positive political and social balance is struck with the immediate dream threat defused, a rapprochement reached between the desert tribes and the rebellious wealthy, and the Kisuati accepting the invitation to leave. This is easily the best and most emotionally satisfying book N K Jemisin has written so far. Whereas The Inheritance Trilogy was somewhat mechanical, The Shadowed Sun manages a significantly better blend between the world-building and the characters, and reinforces my view that this author is well worth watching for the future.

 

For reviews of other books by N K Jemisin, see
The Broken Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Killing Moon
The Kingdom of Gods

 

Silent Voices by Gary McMahon

June 22, 2012 1 comment

 

I need to start by confessing another of my deeply held prejudices. As one born on the north bank and within sight of the Tyne, I’m a Geordie and therefore deeply protective of the way life in that neck of the woods is portrayed in the media. Which brings me to Silent Voices by Gary McMahon (Solaris, 2012) the second book describing events on this housing estate, the first being Concrete Grove. These books are set just north of Newcastle, close to Morpeth, i.e. in spirit they are intended to be Northumbrian and not Geordie so we can approach them with slightly greater latitude. That said, significant parts of this story do take place in Newcastle itself and, depressingly, in Gateshead. This is what you expect of southerners who tend to lump all the north together as if it’s somehow all the same. I see this author is from one of the north London suburbs called West Yorkshire — only joking.

 

This is a fascinating book if you’re into the art of taxonomising. What is it? Perhaps it’s fantasy and, since it takes place in a built-up area, urban fantasy or because bad things happen, dark fantasy. Or maybe it’s horror, whether supernatural or urban. Those of you who are of a more pedantic frame of mind have my permission to retreat into a darkened room. When you’ve reached a decision, feel free to light a fire and put out white smoke to show a consensus and alert the fire brigade of the need for a rescue.

 

Ignoring the label issue, the important thing to note is the name of this estate. Although this is Concrete Grove in the sense that, like many old council estates, most of the housing units are made of the hard stuff and regimented into a circular formation to avoid the creation of inconvenient cul de sacs, this is actually a reference to the trees that have existing on this loculus since the beginning of time (and then some). Unlike Yggdrasil which props up whole worlds, these trees bridge the gulf between reality and dreams. In this, we’re occupying the same literary territory as the wonderful Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock where the line between fact and myth blurs. Except Gary McMahon takes a more ironic view.

Gary McMahon, prisoner 63

 

Under normal circumstances, the process of urbanisation overlays the natural world, replanting the forests with structures for occupation by humans. To those of us with a sentimental streak, this is inherently melancholic as we destroy the old order in the name of modern civilisation. Robert Holdstock uses his trees as a way of remembering the past, as if they can somehow capture and hold racial memories of fantasy and myth. Yet this magic only works so long as the trees are physically preserved. As in many fantasy novels, the destruction of the trees would signal the final triumph of modernity over the old ways, the sacrifice of the reverence we used to have for nature in the name of progress. There’s only one place where everything can stay the same and that’s in our memories. Yet Gary McMahon demonstrates that real power is never defeated by changes to superficial reality. In this book, the trees are always a part of the landscape whether it’s in the physical world or our dreamscapes. If you were to uproot them and build a small tower block on the site, you could still experience the trees in half-waking, day-dreaming moments just by walking through the doors into the cool, dark concrete interior. At other times, the trees will reach out to those who are more sensitive or of potential use to them. Celtic Druids used wells, sacred trees and sacrificial fires to open the gates to otherworlds. Who knows what sacrifices these trees might demand for maintaining this gateway into dreams.

 

Silent Voices is a wonderfully sustained piece of writing. It creates three memorable individuals. As children, they had the brash courage of innocence that fires the belief nothing bad can ever happen. This leads to recklessness and a missing period of time. They disappear over a weekend, emerging from the empty building in the centre of the grove bearing evidence of physical abuse. They cannot remember what happened. No-one can explain it. Twenty years later, they are drawn back together again — the Three Amigos in their long-awaited sequel. Brendan has spent his entire life on the estate. He’s not exactly a loser because he’s married happily and has two children. He’s still one of the community. Marty has moved into Newcastle’s world of fixers who service the needs of the demimonde. He’s a prize fighter, prepared to dish out punishment beatings when required and offer security services to those with the right connections. Simon breaches the barrier of the Tyne and makes it into the south where he’s a pusher of his own abilities and builds a highly profitable business. Like Marty, he’s never able to settle into stable relationships. They have no real friends. All three have been damaged by their experiences.

 

In terms of narrative construction, there’s a good balance between the development of the characters as they are, and a reconstruction of what they were like when young. Gary McMahon also demonstrates a good insight into the culture of Northumbrian estates. He captures the sense of desperation and crushed hopes among the younger people who remain. Only the older ones still stand for the values that made the North East so strong. Fortunately, they are respected. They retain their dignity. South of the Tyne, the older and more vulnerable members of the community often become targets for abuse by the disaffected young. Many are grateful to give up and die to get some peace. The only thing wrong with this book is the language. Although time has eroded the dialects of my youth and left us with pale remnants of accents, there’a almost no attempt to capture the distinctive speech rhythms of either Northumbrian or Geordie. I can forgive the decision to avoid local vocabulary. Even at the best of time, glossaries are inconvenient additions at the end of books. But this could have been anywhere in the United Kingdom — probably a good idea if this book is to sold into the British and foreign markets. Having tendered my completely unfair criticism, I’m left with the sense of having read a delightful book. This is a remarkable piece of dark fantasy with some elements that draw on horror tropes. Although not everything is original and the significance of one factor is not explained (perhaps that’s in the first book in the series which I have not yet read), none of this matters. As put together, Silent Voices is quite clearly one of the best books of its genre or subgenre, no matter what you may decide that is. If you take my advice that this author is definitely worth following, the third novel set in Concrete Grove is titled Beyond Here Lies Nothing.

 

For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
The Concrete Grove
Dead Bad Things
Reaping the Dark.

 

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

 

The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin

 

Once again, I’m obliged to remind the readers of these reviews that I’m an atheist. This disclosure will allow you an opportunity to judge the fairness of the opinions offered. Let’s start by considering a man who puts his life completely in service to others. He lives in the community and does everything in his power to improve the lot of the individuals he meets. Obviously such altruism is difficult to maintain without belief in a divine mission. Indeed, this person becomes an inspiration to those who believe God works though him to bring comfort to society. For him, the giving is not conditional on belief. Everyone is entitled to God’s love, even atheists who deny his God’s existence.

 

Unfortunately this man is unworldly. He may deliver practical care, but he’s probably unaware of the political situation among those he does not meet. Were he to get an overview, he might find his good works are completely misrepresented by those with a different agenda. So, for example, it may suit the rich that the poor are marginalised and exploited. If some do-gooder relieves their suffering and encourages others to follow his example, the poor may rise up against those that exploit them. So our saint must be diverted on to a different path. Corruption can easily interfere with the actions of the innocent and, because they are innocent, they will never understand how their good works are being subverted until they are forced to confront the evil that has befallen them. Once the veil is lifted from their eyes, however, they must have the chance to defeat the evil even though some may call this revenge.

N K Jemisin waiting for the trained bird to land on her ear ring

 

The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin Book One of the Dreamblood (Orbit, 2012) asks us to consider a culture that uses the psychic energy drawn from dreams to heal those who are injured or sick. The same energy can also grant a calm and peaceful death to anyone who asks for it. Is it compassionate to enable death with dignity? Or is this a culture that believes in murdering people? For the record, voluntarily ending a person’s life is a homicide even though it may relieve suffering. As a dramatic example, suppose a hunter comes across a driver trapped in a burning car. The door cannot be opened. The driver will burn to death in a few minutes. It will be a painful death. As the law stands, shooting the driver is murder. Hence, the decision of states like Holland, Switzerland and Oregon to permit physician-assisted dying creates a formal exception to the general law of homicide. So, in this fantasy world, Gujaareh worships Hananja, and her Gatherers and Sharers work for the benefit of the country. Across the border, the Kisuati long ago rejected narcomancy and the government currently prohibits any use of this form of magic on its lands. This is but one of several tensions that threaten the peace between the two countries. Leaders plot and plan. Spies ply their trade. In this delicate political situation, the most experienced Gatherer takes a new apprentice. This would usually be a smooth process but, from the outset, there are problems. Fortunately, the young Nijiri is fiercely loyal to Ehiru. Indeed, it may be more than loyalty.

 

What of love? A son may love his father before he understands the meaning of the word, a servant may move past obedience, through respect, to love his master. Except, of course, when these boys grow up and experience the world, they have the chance to choose how the relationship will develop. What was love can turn to hate. Or it can change from an unthinking, instinctive love into something broader and deeper as two adults acknowledge each other as equals. Then we take this new love and treasure it for as long as we have it, for uncomplicated love always ends, sooner or later. It’s the same between Nijiri and Ehiru as it was between the apprentice Ehiru and his master Una-une — a relationship that saved Ehiru from the danger posed by his brother, Prince Eninket.

 

In pre-industrial societies, the route to rulership is often bloody. The heirs must fight each other for the right to take the throne. The strongest candidate may even help his father to step down. In such cultures, the ruler will project a reputation to inspire fear in all the followers. This is a man who was not afraid to kill his brothers. He will therefore have no hesitation in killing anyone else who displeases him. Yet there are some who, having come into positions of leadership, decide the overt use of fear and death no longer achieves the most desirable results. It may suit them to project a more caring and loving image. The more gullible in society may believe such a transformation of character is possible.

 

The Killing Moon creates a completely fascinating world with a beautifully realised system of magic. It avoids all the simple-minded tropes and dives into a complicated religious and political situation where the innocent Gatherers suddenly discover their organisation has been corrupted. Not unnaturally, they are outraged and set out to purge the corruption. Except the obstacles prove difficult to overcome. This forces Ehiru and Nijiri on the run, and inadvertently into the business of trying to stop a full-scale war from becoming more likely. This book says interesting things about the uses and abuses of power, the nature of leadership and, at an individual level, how relationships form and potentially grow stronger. As the first in a duology, this is a major step forward for N K Jemisin. Although the Inheritance Trilogy was good, this is far better, leaving me waiting impatiently for the second book to complete the story, titled The Shadowed Sun.

 

For reviews of other books by N K Jemisin, see
The Broken Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Kingdom of Gods
The Shadowed Sun

 

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Nebula Award and the 2013 Locus Award.

 

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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