Archive

Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire

April 11, 2014 11 comments

Seanan McGuire Chimes at Midnight

Well, here we continue on this minor diversion from the norm. For all it’s faults, I enjoyed the Newsflesh trilogy Mira Grant and thought it would be interesting to look at the author writing under her own name. Now I appreciate this is taking a risk on two counts. The first is the reason why authors choose to write under a pseudonym. They already have a good brand name for a particular type of fiction. The new work will not fit into their existing fan base’s expectations. So it must be hidden (until someone leaks the secret identity). The second is that I’m coming into an existing series which is never a good thing.

Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire (DAW, 2013) is the seventh in the October Daye urban fantasy series. This time round, we’re into the forbidden fruit of the Goblin variety, a drug that’s addictive and ultimately deadly to changelings, but merely a pleasant high for full-blooded fae. The Queen of the Mists is the pusher. Yes, it comes over as a bit of a shocker to discover a leader can stoop so low but, as the gang boss says, she needs the money and the fact a few of the changelings die is nothing to worry about. Obviously, this lack of emotion is not terribly startling. The fae are notorious for their amorality. Only their half-breed children and a few on the margins have anything approaching a conscience. It seems October, Toby to her friends, is one of these changelings, a child of a fae and a human. When she innocently complains to the Queen that someone is pushing this deadly drug, she’s given three days to get out of Dodge (well, San Francisco actually). This provokes the natural plot response. When the Luidaeg tips her off that the Queen’s right to the throne was less than solid, the hunt is on to find the rightful heir. What’s a little treason between old enemies.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

Pausing for a moment, this is a hack plot idea. The Queen is an all-round evil person in charge of this small kingdom and, just when she really begins to go beyond the pale, our hero experiences the ultimate coincidence effect. The first person she talks to after being banished just happens to know the Queen is an unlawful usurper of the throne. Wow, is that a convenient piece of information, or what? And within a few more pages, our hero has tracked down the real heiress who’s been hidden away for years without anyone being able to find her. Wow, it that ever evidence the girl guide’s badge for tracking really does prove ability to find stuff and people? To say this is contrived and contorted would be an understatement.

So with Quentin, a teenage Daoine Sidhe courtier from Shadowed Hills, proving to have more maturity than previously suspected, and other minions in tow, it’s moderately action-packed as we build on the coincidences to get to the solution at the end. Because this is urban fantasy, there’s considerable focus on our hero’s relationship with Tybalt, King of Cats. Naturally, they go through the emotional wringer and emerge all the stronger for it. Does this mean the book is a waste of time? In part, yes. But despite the morass of detail about fairy lore and genealogy, there’s interest in this as an exploration of the nature of identity. As a changeling, Toby is powerless as a human and potentially powerful as a fae. The problem, as always in these situations, is to get the balance right between the two parts to give herself enough access to the magic without sacrificing her humanity.

The trigger for a more serious thread in the book is the decision of the Queen to expose our hero to the goblin fruit. As the crack cocaine of drugs, the effect on a changeling is to induce a shift to human where the effect is more pleasurable. Unfortunately, this loses the immortality feature that comes with the fairy genes: hence the high death rate. So our hero loses most of her powers and almost reverts to human. Not surprisingly, this undermines her confidence in herself as a partner to Tybalt. She’s not sure he’ll still love her. It also creates problems on how to stay alive and how to fight the evil Queen and her minions as a powerless human. I thought the introduction of a highly addictive drug was a brave ploy. It could have provided a real dynamic to the narrative as she goes cold turkey. Unfortunately, the whole situation is managed and then resolved just a little too easily. Yes, there has to be a big fight, but the physical and psychological stress of having to deal with the addiction is somewhat glossed over. The gritty reality of dealing with addiction would not really fit into an urban fantasy format. That said, this is not a completely awful book about fairies and the other species that interact to form the fae as a group of kingdoms or fiefdoms. The romance does deal with the uncertainties of love in a difficult situation. So, in my usual dismissive and patronising male voice, I can say Chimes at Midnight is quite good for an urban fantasy.

For reviews of the books written as Mira Grant, see:
Blackout
Deadline
Feed
Parasite
and as written by Seanan McGuire:
Discount Armageddon
Half-off Ragnarok.

Noose by Bill James

noose

Noose by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2013) is playing the identity game but with a twist. Under the usual rules, the character under review is based in contemporary times. Because we know the culture, we can understand the process to achieve the particular outcome. But this has changed the timeframe. We’re now back to a twenty year or so period from the 1930s to 1950s in Britain. To the majority of modern readers, this might just as well be science fiction. Readers are transported to a different world and have to begin learning the new behavioral constraints. As I was growing up, we were rebuilding after World War II. I listened to my grandmother telling me what it was like when Queen Victoria was on the throne. As we’ve aged, my generation has been passing on our personal experiences of the bomb damage, food rationing and austerity as it used to be. We’re a link to the past. But when it comes to the 1930s, personal knowledge is not available. It’s all secondhand. That Britain was in a transition phase. The class barriers had been breached and the frustrations of life could more clearly be seen. That was my mother and father’s time. They never seemed to have much to say about the 1930s. Coming back to this novel, the result is a slightly metafictional exploration of the life of one Ian Charteris. We watch forces shape him. We see what might have led the Government to try recruiting him as a spy. It’s a fascinating story, or portrait or life narrative.

 

We start off in the 1950s. The young woman who may be his sister from the wrong side of the sheets has just ended up in hospital. She’s an actress and he’s a journalist reluctantly invited to extract her story for publication. Perhaps there was a time when ethics formed a part of the journalist’s equipment but, in the early fifties, we’d moved to a time when morality was more flexible and permitted behaviour that focused on generating profits without worrying so much about the means. Hence, the editorial powers see Charteris as their inside track to discover why the “young thing” should have attempted suicide. And even if she didn’t make the attempt, the story can always be written up to imply she’d been unlucky in love and had tried to end it all. Charteris was good at telling stories.

Bill James

Bill James

 

When he was younger, he’d given evidence in a murder trial. The accused had hung for killing a man in a public air-raid shelter during a bombing run. Journalists often come with emotional baggage. It gives them insights into the troubles of others. It helps build bridges so that trust can be established and confidences exchanged. The storytelling had been learned at his farther’s knee. His father had been a sailor in the 1930s and switched from pleasure craft to the inshore merchant marine when hostilities began. He was a great raconteur even if prone to repeat the same stories. The story of his heroic rescue of Emily Bass had entered the mythology of the family and the area. There was even a special memorial service to mourn the loss of the brave captain who (idiotically) also dived in to try saving the young woman. That was certainly something to remember. A working class hero and a gentleman who couldn’t survive in difficult waters let alone rescue the girl.

 

I knew men like the captains of the passenger vessels who were racing each other into the harbor. They ran their ships and businesses like unaccountable barons. If anything went wrong, which it often did, they walked away from blame by virtue of their class status. That made men like Charteris Snr. very bitter. They did all the work and carried the can when things did go wrong. That’s why the father was always upset his son had involved himself in the events surrounding the murder. It brought unwanted attention to the family. The fact the boy was only eleven and had yet to perfect his understanding of how the word worked was no excuse. It soured the relationship a little. Later, of course, the son meets the rescued girl again. She’s about forty and tells her side of the story. It explains aspects of his family’s behaviour he’d not fully understood.

 

Later, as a journalist, he hears many other stories. That’s the nature of his “profession”. How far he’s prepared to go to act on these stories is another matter. It all comes down to trust. People exchange stories for different reasons. Some are laudable, others less so. That’s why I mentioned the problem of ethics earlier in the review. Just what does a journalist do with the information he gleans from all those he talks with? This book provides a fascinating answer. It may reach the end in 1956 but, as a parable, the issues still resonate with us today as Wikileaks and the activities of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden provoke debate about the covert activities of governments. Journalism always has been a difficult and sometimes dangerous role to play. Noose shows us why some people are attracted to the life and the price they sometimes have to pay. It also fairly successfully passes the history fiction test. There’s enough here to enable modern readers to get a real feel for all the main characters and their motives. It’s a clever and engaging read.

 

For the reviews of other books by Bill James, see:
Disclosures
Snatched: A British black comedy.

 

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

 

Oblivion (2013)

May 15, 2013 2 comments

Oblivion poster

I suppose Oblivion (2013) makes a change. Instead of dealing with the crash-bang defeat of an alien invasion and stopping the cameras rolling before Earth gets to do the clean-up operation, removing all the damaged and destroyed buildings and the bodies of the aliens we managed to slaughter, this film starts off with the notion that the aliens turned up and attacked the moon. Don’t you just love science fiction. Knowing they could never hope to defeat Earth’s military might, they took on the one target they knew they could beat. Oh, and of course, substantial destruction of the moon changed the gravitational effect of said moon and there were earthquakes and tsunamis down here that pretty much did in Earth’s defences. Pretty sneaky, huh? Except the military had enough nuclear firepower to defeat these pesky creatures when they did land. The price of Earth’s victory? Contamination on an epic scale.

At this point, i.e. about two minutes into the film, we get a major inconsistency in the narrative. If Earth was seriously damaged by all this, how come we could develop the technology to build this superduper space station and go into residence around Titan? This is clearly beyond our abilities, even without the odd high tide washing over cities. More importantly, if Earth didn’t beat all these scavenger beings and they hang around still attacking our hero, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), why not get more systematic to exterminate them before settling into a life in outer space to wait for the planet to heal? Failure on this front means they breed while we’re away and can build defences to stop us coming back. We’re also immediately shown that “they” are messing with our hero’s memories. He keeps getting flashbacks to the pre-invasion Earth and sees this dominant image of a woman. This must be some imperfection from the last security memory wipe which occurred almost five years ago. Except Jack is obviously an unreliable narrator and we can’t trust anything he claims to remember. His minder (and lover), Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is apparently there to keep Jack on mission and acting within the “rules” laid down by Sally (Melissa Leo), the liaison officer in command from the space station.

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in the mile high club

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in the mile high club

So we hypothesise that the aliens won and, having wiped Jack’s memories, are now using him to repair their drones while they steal our water. The images of the beached ships and odd bits of building left exposed are quite impressive and confirm destruction on an epic scale. Assuming this is replicated across the planet, it’s inconceivable humanity survived in any numbers. As you would therefore expect, this homely drone maintenance engineer and his consort believe they are the only folk left on Earth and they have one of these idyllic homes perched on top of a mountain while he completes the establishment of the drone network (except the trailer has already shown us that Beech (Morgan Freeman) is alive and well and living in semidarkness so he can see where the end of his cigar is to light it when he strikes a match). His sidekick is Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who looks difficult to kill. OK so what’s the verdict after ten minutes? It seems Earth has also developed antigravity because these drones move around without regard to little constraints like mass and momentum. There’s also this nifty flying thingamagummy for Jack to patrol his allocated quadrant which is also way beyond anything we could have developed.

For the record, not one bit of the “science” in this science fiction film makes any sense. If aliens blew up the moon, we could have a ring like Saturn which would be really cool when the sun shines on it or there could be a big dust cloud which would have substantially the same mass as the moon in solid form, i.e. have the same gravitational effect. If the moon was pushed away, the sun would take over as the dominant gravitational force and we’d get high tide at noon every day. Oh, and people would stop changing into wolves when the moon was full. The assertion Earth would have been pulled to pieces because of this sneak attack is ludicrous. The only point of this scenario is to justify the montage of CGI images that provide a context for the actors to say their lines which, for the most part, are ditchwater dull and make little sense.

Morgan Freemen and Nikolaj Coster Waldau looking stealthy

Morgan Freemen and Nikolaj Coster Waldau looking stealthy

Perhaps we can save the film by dignifying it as an SFnal examination as to the meaning of identity. You know the kind of thing. We are the sum of all we remember so, if there’s an artificial block on our memories, our character changes. Why? Because if we can no longer remember how we reacted in the past, experience stops guiding us in the present. Except all this film does is prove these damn fool aliens don’t have a mind machine to beat the mind of Tom Cruise. He’s back in the past remembering football games and this woman on top of the Empire State Building. You just can’t keep the mind of a good hero down. It bears mentioning that the main plot set-up and twist is the same as in Moon (2009) which was not unlike Eutamnesia (2000). It’s difficult to be genuinely original when there have been so many books and films on this theme. So perhaps we can say the CGI is great and the action exciting? Well, the first fight sequence is chaotic and the behaviour of the drone makes little sense. Then an old piece of technology crashes and, after forcing the drones to pull away, Jack rescues Julia (Olga Kurylenko). She’s been in suspended animation for sixty (or more) years and, yes, she’s the girl he keeps remembering. What? Earth had suspended animation technology? Perhaps they also had stealth technology as well.

At this point, lots of stuff happens and then it ends. Perhaps this would not have been too bad if it had only been a ninety minute film but, at one-hundred-and-twenty-four minutes, it feels like Purgatory. It’s an excuse to watch Tom Cruise ride his motorbike, fly this cool thingamagummy and shoot at whatever moves (and do environmentally sustainable things in a patch of jungle). Andrea Riseborough is there to look good and prove that the alien mind machine works on women. Olga Kurylenko is there as the “other woman” and to perpetuate the species. Morgan Freeman lights up the screen and his cigar for about ten minutes. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is effectively invisible. For me Oblivion is appropriately named because that’s where the film should be consigned.

Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨 (2012)

April 26, 2013 2 comments

Floating-City-2012-Movie-Poster-2

Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨 (2012) starts off with a drama at sea as a desperate mother takes a sampan across from the mainland to Hong Kong during a storm. The mythology says any child born at sea during a storm is switched to something less human. The mother is a victim of rape by a British sailor. She allows the child to be adopted by a Tanka family. The adopting mother has just suffered a miscarriage and is not sure she can have another child. A boy will help her survive when he grows up. This starts off our hero at the bottom of the heap. Not only is he half Chinese and half Caucasian, he’s a member of the Tanka class, the lowest social group that lives in the floating city of the title. At every point, therefore, he suffers discrimination.

Aaron Kwok and Charlie Yeung assert family values and scatter his mother's ashes

Aaron Kwok and Charlie Yeung assert family values and scatter his mother’s ashes

 

Structurally, the film then moves us forward fifty years to find our hero, Bo Wah Chuen (Aaron Kwok), the taipan of the British East India Company in the final years of the British colonial rule. He’s married to fellow Tanka, Tai (Charlie Yeung), who feels intimidated by the upward mobility and is uncomfortable when invited to mix with the elite of Hong Kong. When going out to network and socialise, this leaves Bo in the company of Fion (Annie Liu), a woman who’s very comfortable with the international lifestyle of Hong Kong and its ex-pat British community. We then come to the point of the film. At one such party where the Governor of Hong Kong is present, he looks in a mirror and has a mild identity crisis. Here he is, a Tanka boy who has managed to climb so high. We then get an extended flashback to see how this rise has been achieved. However, it’s perhaps appropriate to start off with a general comment about Aaron Kwok’s appearance. One of the slightly pejorative ways in which European foreigners are described is as ang mohs or 红毛. This is a reference to their characteristic “red hair”, i.e. fairer shades of colour. For this film, Aaron Kwok is supposed to be half Caucasian and have “red hair”. This is not convincing. I’m not saying this prevents the film from succeeding, but it’s a visual hurdle of credibility that the film fails to surmount.

 

As he grows up, he loses the childhood friend who persists in saying she will marry him even though he’s an adopted mixed. His mother played by Josie Ho when young and the local priest want him to get an education. His father objects but, seeing literacy as the way to get a job on land, he persists. This is a major generational clash. The father is deeply traditional and sees the only way into the future for the family through his adoptive son taking over the boat and continuing the life. When he grows older, Bo leaves the boat and meets Tai who makes a living collecting leftover food thrown away by the British Navy. Unfortunately his father is killed on the boat during a storm. This makes Bo the head of the family just as the sixth natural child is born to the family. Now played by Hee Ching Paw, his mother is forced to place four of the children in a home run by a Christian charity as she and Bo can’t afford to look after them. The two youngest are given away to couples whom they hope will care for them. This is all tragic and moving.

Aaron Kwok and Annie Liu flirt with the idea of infidelity

Aaron Kwok and Annie Liu flirt with the idea of infidelity

 

He gets a job as an office boy because he can read and write in Chinese. The East India Company pays for him to learn English. In turn, he teaches his mother to read and write in Chinese, but she can’t get through the exam to qualify as a sampan “captain” because she can’t afford the hong bao or red envelope containing bribe to the examiner. Then there’s a further crisis because the home looking after the children closes — the American Christian decides to take his charity to Vietnam. Bo tries to get company accommodation but is rejected because he’s not married. That forces the marriage to Tai. We then have a whistle-stop tour through the anti-British riots and Margaret’s Thatcher’s decision to surrender control to the mainland as the film charts his slow progress up through the ranks despite the usual British colonial bigotry represented by Dick Callahan (David Peatfield). This brings us back to the core question. What should he be? There’s no such thing as a Hong Kong citizen. Should he abandon his roots, join the Jockey Club and take British citizenship? He could embrace Fion just as easily. She moves in that circle. His wife doesn’t fit. Of course, once the mainland Chinese take over, he doesn’t fit in that culture either. He’s not merely a Tanka at the bottom of the local pile. He was a despised upstart from a colony when he went to Britain on a business trip. He’s not a communist as understood by mainlanders. He’s just a curiosity that can speak Mandarin with a funny accent.

 

Director and screenwriter Yim Ho has produced what, in many ways, is a bold film about identity and the importance of family. We need to be clear. For the relevant time, there has been an elite group making money in Hong Kong, but the focus here is on an Everyman. Hong Kong’s identity is still very much in flux as the ex-colony struggles with the practical reality of “one country, two systems”, making this film a kind of parable through which to understand the problems in reconciling the implied promise with the reality imposed. Like Bo, the mass of ordinary Hong Kong people has lifted itself up from its early days of colonial oppression where vast numbers lived in the sampans of the floating city or in poverty on land. The people were abused and then abandoned by the British, so the masses have turned their backs on much of the international life and made a home for themselves as a family on this plot of land. Sooner or later, this group of people will lose much of its original identity. This is not to say the individuals will forget their personal histories. But they will have years of life under Chinese rule giving them new history and a different set of values as the older members die off and the new children grow into adults. As a child growing into a man, Bo fought with his father, rebelled against the traditional way of life, and left the sampan to work on land. He was lucky enough to have both the ability and the humility to work with the British so he got to the top. But that was never as important as remembering that he loved his wife and had a family to take care of. His children may be citizens of the one country China and be happy. Perhaps that’s the hope for the future as the masses now work for a new elite and aim to build better lives. Aaron Kwok is impressive in the only role of substance. All the other characters are simply there to carry the broader narrative forward. It’s a performance worth seeing in a rather pleasing, slightly allegorical drama called Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨.

 

First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

First Novel A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

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

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

Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

Image by Julian Baker showing Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

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

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

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

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

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

Template by Matthew Hughes

Never one to be shy, my Grandmother’s lexicon of bon mots occasionally brought shades of dark violence into the home. As indicated in an earlier post, one of my favourites was, “The things you see when you haven’t got your gun.” She had been brought up in the houses of the well-to-do in Victorian Yorkshire. The Dales were dotted with old colonels who retreated into their smoking rooms or studies to bask under the baleful eyes of all the animals they had shot while serving abroad. No self-respecting officer could ever come home from an overseas posting without a wall full of heads. Yet, in the tradition of fishermen who always tell stories of the one that got away, so officers would tell of the fierce creatures they would have shot had they had the chance. All this came to mind the other day as my wife and I were sitting in the shade outside a local coffeeshop. A young lady walked by. She attracted attention because, in the mid-afternoon sun, her dress was almost completely transparent. She seemed not to care that every eye, male and female alike, followed her confident stride. This was a woman at peace with who she was. With no British colonels around, she was safe.

In fictional worlds, it is a somewhat tired trope that heroes, uncertain of their ancestry, should set out on a quest to determine their identity. A recent example of this is Template by Matthew Hughes who is ploughing the same furrow as Jack Vance with some success. I confess to being a major Vance fan, and a mild fan of the Hughes/Vancean style. The problem with overtly maintaining a style is that, over time, it pales by comparison with the original. Jack is always Jack even when he is past his best, which he was in the last published effort. You forgive an old man these parting gestures because of the oeuvre he leaves behind. He is original to the end. Hughes, however, grows somewhat repetitive. The early works, Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, are the best because he was so obviously having fun. Now that he is stuck in the groove, I have the sense that he is going through the motions.

So it is with this book. It adopts the peregrination or picaresque model as our somewhat roguish hero travels from one world to the next, observing the local cultures and gleaning information that may lead him to his identity. It would have been better at two-thirds the length. The idea underpinning the narrative is reasonable and the execution competent, but he doth protest too much. The message is tired by the time it is delivered and, despite some pallid satire, there is just not quite enough wit and invention to maintain the suspension of disbelief. I wanted it to be good but I was somewhat disappointed.

For reviews of other books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
Template

%d bloggers like this: