In the land before time forgot (that’s when my health and strength were good, and memory was still working properly), I could actually recall what happened yesterday. On such a day, I went out of my then home to the Andromeda Book Company in Birmingham and bought a copy of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. This proved to be a good buy both in terms of enjoyment when I read it, and in terms of investment when I later sold it along with the rest of my collection. This sad tale of a collector forced to sell his books through force of circumstance (I was relocating to a different country) is a way of introducing a new novelette called Nobody’s Home (Subterranean Press, 2014) set in the same universe.
It features a young woman from the source novel called Jacky, an ambiguous name which suggests to her that moving through London’s less salubrious quarters would be less dangerous if she was a man. So she arms herself with a false moustache, cuts her hair short, and affects a deeper voice. Somewhat surprisingly, this enables her to duck and dive her way through London in pursuit of Dog-Face Joe. Now this is a fascinating creature. It’s one of these body-hopping beings that, after the transfer, begins to sprout body hair. In one sense, this makes it somewhat like a werewolf except that the process of transformation continues regardless as to the phases of the moon. Over time, this increased hairiness becomes somewhat conspicuous, so it takes a slow-acting poison in the current body and transfers to a new body. This makes it very difficult to track. But our young Jacky is determined. Her fiancé was one of those occupied by Dog-Face Joe and, after ingesting the poison and being released by Joe, he went to the home of the young woman he loved. She saw only a monster and, as is the way of young women who feel threatened, she shot him through the heart. When she realises the terrible crime she has committed, she wants revenge. Hence her search for the Dog-Faced beast that deprived her of her life-partner.
During this pursuit, she rescues a young woman called Harriet. She’s haunted by the ghost of her husband. Under normal circumstances, this would not be too serious but, in life, he was an Indian national and now he wants her to follow him into death through sutee. The fact she’s missed out on the funeral pyre to throw herself on is not something the ghost cares about. He comes armed with his own pyrotechnic skills and aims to finish off the job himself. The rest of this elegantly atmospheric tale takes us through this dark and dangerous version of London in search of a way to rid herself of this ghost. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, nobody’s prepared to help.
It’s not actually necessary for you to know the original novel to enjoy this novelette. It reads well as a standalone. But it’s a richer experience if you can remember what happened in the source novel. So my advice, should you not have read The Anubis Gates, is to read it immediately. It was and remains a highly successful time travel novel with Gothic overtones. This will set you up to read this very enjoyable backstory element for Jacky.
For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
The Drawing of the Dark
Hide Me Among the Graves
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins auspiciously with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem, which is a magnificent piece of atmosphere writing, filled with menace. All that happens is that a mother and her son stand by a field of wheat, but it’s an unforgettable experience. “Blue Amber” by David J. Schow takes us to a place where the bridgehead has been established and answers the question of how best to spread the infection. It’s a raw adrenaline fight and flight. “The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed drops the pace slightly with a group of girl scouts that goes AWOL on a forested mountainside. Later a bus tour brings some rich men hoping they’ll be able to find some of those girls to rescue. The result is probably not what either side would have wanted. “The Good Husband” by Nathan Ballingrud flirts rather admirably with the distinction between a zombie and a vampire as a husband comes upon his wife as she’s committing suicide (again). This time, however, he decides not to save her. Except sometimes, wives don’t take being ignored lying down. “The Soul in the Bell Jar” by K. J. Kabza has a great-niece coming to visit her uncle in the Gothic splendour of the family manse while her parents go away on holiday. Here she’s not to touch anything and to avoid the vivifieds. The house cats and horses nay be safe to interact with. The result is a singularly over-the-top romp through the rotting pile, discovering secrets as she goes. “The Creature Recants” by Dale Bailey is the delightfully unexpected backstory to the shooting of the original film version of Creature from the Black Lagoon. It has a pleasing sense of humour, tinged with sadness.
Nights grow long in the Alaskan tooth in “Termination Dust” by Laird Barron. Here we’re playing in the Ripper sandbox as different versions of what might have been play out across the years. As always with this author, an intriguing game is being played. “Postcards from Abroad” by Peter Atkins succeeds because it’s completely naturalistic. The young man with a heart of gold from Liverpool puts down supernatural nasties when they get to be a nuisance. The dry wit is a delight. “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is historical horror detailing the appalling conditions in which the matchmakers worked in Victorian London. When the phosphorous got into their bones, death followed quite quickly. “A Lunar Labyrinth” by Neil Gaiman is a pleasing story that creeps up on you, as if you were walking through a maze and suddenly felt you might not be entirely alone. “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is an intriguing piece of metafiction with literary overtones as our movie critic sits through a classic piece of horror and thinks about the review she will write.
“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson is a terrific piece of classic fantasy showing the need to follow simple rules to the letter when it comes to dealing with shades. It’s a short masterclass in how to write dark fantasy. “The Plague” by Ken Liu is short science fiction at its best as the nanobots prove they know what’s best for survival. “The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning” by Joe R. Lansdale answers the simple question of what August Dupin would make of the Necronomicon should he be able to lay hands upon it and, more importantly, read from it. Watch out Old Ones, the Great Detective is barring the way! “Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella” by Brian Hodge has our first-person narrator track down a girl whose celebrity depends on a slow-motion suicide attempt. By coincidence, when he arrives and first sees her, he discovers there’s so much more to learn about her. Perhaps he’ll be endlessly fascinated. “Air, Water and the Grove” by Kaaron Warren is a very elegant science fiction story of the metamorphosis that occurs when the rocket bringing back samples from Saturn is destroyed in our atmosphere. It may all look beautiful, but living that life is a one-way trip to the grove.
“A Little of the Night” by Tanith Lee considers whether a vacuum of nothingness is comparable to a vampire, sucking the positives of life into the nothingness beyond. If such is not too poetical a fancy, how would you fight such a phenomenon? The answer here is rather beautifully explored in true mythic style. “A Collapse of Horses” by Brian Evenson is a Schrödinger’s cat story. Following an accident in which his head was injured, our hero has difficulty in distinguishing what’s real, e.g. are the fallen horses dead? This shows how you should deal with this uncertainty. “Pride” by Glen Hirshberg is an interesting story about collectors and what drives them to put the collection together. It also deals with the complex situation in which a collector loses an item from the collection. “Our Lady of Ruins” by Sarah Singleton wonders what happens when some people disappear for years after they wander into the woods. This is an intriguing take on the fey trope and asks whether love can transcend separation if memory returns. “The Marginals” by Steve Duffy finds a different way of exploring the nature of existence. Some people seem to leave our conventional society and are only visible when they stay too long in one place or are drawn to a particular place. Perhaps they are dead. “Dark Gardens” by Greg Kurzawa is a remarkably effective piece. The image of the hatch as an opening into our word and what lies beneath is managed magnificently. “Rag and Bone” by Priya Sharma is another piece of history but, this time, we’re in an alternate reality and the poor are bought by the rich for their organs. It’s always been a tough life in Liverpool. “The Slipway Gray” by Helen Marshall reflects the fact death can come in many form and, sometimes, if it’s your lucky day, it passes you by. “To Die for Moonlight” by Sarah Monette is a nicely judged story of two families, both cursed, who speculate that if they intermarry, the curses may cancel each other out. Obviously our hero knows what his curse is but what exactly troubles the young lady?
“Cuckoo” by Angela Slatter sees a body-hopping, vengeance-seeking creature find a victim and seek out the man who had killed her. Now there’s just one thing she wants or needs from him before she kills him. “Fishwife” by Carrie Vaughn draws its strength from the inexorable predicability of the outcome. People who are so desperate always pay the price. “The Dream Detective” by Lisa Tuttle is outstandingly intelligent as a man meets the detective both in the real world and in his dreams. At first, there seems to be no problem, but that’s before the dreams take a darker turn. “Event Horizon” by Sunny Moraine is such a simple idea but it’s presented with significant verve such that, just as in science fiction stories when the space ship is on the cusp of a black hole, the ship and its passengers are never able to pull free. “Moonstruck” by Karin Tidbeck indicates a collision between the metaphorical and the literal as a young girl becomes convinced the moon’s strange behaviour is somehow linked to her first period. “The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear is a classical fantasy of wizards and high magic as two “warriors” fight to prevent the sorcerer from adding to his collection of souls. It’s beautifully written with a poetic cast and an unflinching eye. “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee continues in high fantasy mode with a spy recovering a lexicon from a magician only to find the words may presage an invasion. The semiotic question, of course, is what happens to the language of magic over time and, if it does change or evolve, how would you keep track of it. The answer here is delightfully elegant. All you have to do is understand the true nature of the word “defeat”.
When looking back at this anthology, one fact stands out. Darkness can be found in any situation whether it be historical fact, fantastical or science fictional. So although the title suggests a limitation to fantasy and/or horror, we actually get a demonstration of the diverse range of situations in which the world of the rational slips away, leaving only fear and menace behind. I’m indebted to Paul Guran as editor in producing such a fine assembly of stories. Many deserve to be shortlisted for awards as recognition for their quality. Of course, I might cavil at one or two of the choices where the plot doesn’t quite cohere or the execution is overlong, but such differences in opinion are inevitable in an anthology this long. This does not prevent me from recommending this anthology as superb value for money for anyone who enjoys the darker side of fiction.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Doyle After Death by John Shirley (Witness Impulse, 2013) starts off as great fun in a metaphysical fashion and then grows slightly more serious towards the end as various characters are forced to confront the reality of their true selves. On the first page, our narrator Nick Fogg dies in Las Vegas. He’s doing his best to earn a crust as a private investigator but ends up with a big burden of guilt. No matter what your view of the afterlife (which may vary from angels strumming harps to a number of virgins waiting for you if you have killed an infidel or two), his spirit ends up in a new body beside a wine-coloured sea. Walking along the shore, he find the official greeter who duly introduces him into the local community which is called Garden Rest. As you will gather from the book’s title, one of the village’s residents is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and so begins the tale of Sherlock’s creator and a modern gumshoe who are caught up in an investigation of a murder. That’s when he’s not drinking, engaging in sex, and denying he brought any cigarettes over with him — tobacco is the one thing everyone seems to miss in this “place”.
So now you see why I said the book was metaphysical. All the people on this plane are already dead so it’s somewhat paradoxical to suggest more of more of them might be able to die again. The trick, if you can master it, is to control the elements from which the body has been constructed and deformulate it. The locals have the reverse process down to a fine art. If you want a new house, all you have to do is have a couple of experts thrust their hands into the soil on the site and, hey presto, the building is formulated out of ectoplasm drawn from the ground. Indeed, the first third of the book is a rather gentle ramble round this part of the afterlife with Nick Fogg being shown the ropes and introduced to the cast of local characters who are drawn from across time and racial divides.
This makes the book slightly uncharacteristic of Shirley who’s better known for hard-edged storytelling in the science fiction and horror genres. Although there’s a wealth of careful thinking invested in the creation of this plane of reality and the rules governing existence on it, this is more a fantasy. Yes there are moments when there are signs there may be slightly more horror underlying the operation of life after death, but this is a fairly amiable murder mystery with Doyle using some of the forensic skills he learned from Dr Bell to pick up clues. Only as we come into the final third when Doyle’s wife is kidnapped do we see something of the “larger than life” style that Shirley usually employs.
As to the mystery element, we know little of the two men who have died. It seems one was a homeless man back on Earth who didn’t change much when he crossed over. The victim found as Fogg arrives was a botanist, but we’re not given a chance to meet him or get any sense that Doyle and Fogg are engaged in seeking justice for him. It’s just a puzzle there to be solved as and when the peregrinations around this neck of the woods permit. Rather the focus of the book is the failure of both Doyle and Fogg to resolve their emotions relating to their earlier lives. In the afterlife, Doyle can have access to the two women he married when alive. So which one should he prefer? Similarly, through dreams, Fogg relives the key moments before he died and we get to see why he feels so guilty. By and large, these elements seem the strongest in the book. So as our detective duo move towards a form of redemption, they have the murders to solve and Doyle’s kidnapped wife to recover. In this, the birds and local wildlife offer words of comment and encouragement. And, in the end, there’s a reasonably fair resolution of the major plot elements. So this is a gentle book with occasional weird digressions. It’s not a Holmesian-style mystery with deductive reasoning festooning the landscape. They get the right answer because there’s no-one else left to chase. This makes Doyle After Death a fairly undemanding read with occasional fun and some interesting ideas about what an afterlife might look like.
For a review of a fiction collection by John Shirley, see In Extremis. There are two standalone novels:
and two novelisations called:
Borderlands: The Fallen
Resident Evil: Retribution.
The Hexed by Heather Graham (Harlequin Mira, 2014) is the lucky thirteenth in the Krewe of Hunters series. It starts with Craig Rockwell as a young man with his first experience of having a ghost talk to him. As a result of what she says, he finds her dead body. This diverts him from a possible career as a football player and into law enforcement. Now, thirteen years later, he’s well-established in the FBI and applying for transfer to the Krewe of Hunters because another body has turned up in his home town. It’s been laid out in exactly the same way as the body he found. Needless to say, the Krewe has done its homework on this man and his application for a transfer is accepted. This sends him back to the Salem area (and into danger of romantic entanglement). As he drives into town, he almost knocks down Devin Lyle, the joint heroine and romantic interest. Remember that no coincidence should appear on its own, so she’s just discovered another body (it’s the same signature so the couple are already on the right track) and she can see ghosts too (in magical terms, three coincidences is a charm). And, yes, this is the third body with the Pentagram Killer’s signature! With the triple stars in alignment, it can’t be long before this pair are a couple.
And what better news than this is my third book by this author! Thematically, we have this specialist group of people recruited to an FBI unit to deal with the more serious crimes where it’s difficult to get a result. They beat the usual systems for investigation because they can talk with ghosts. For this to work as a plot device, all the victims they interview must, for some reason, have failed to see their killer(s). They may be shot from a distance by a sniper, or attacked from behind, or poisoned by anyone who had access to their food out of sight, and so on. This leaves the field open for a classical police procedural with a supernatural twist. I actually like the formula because there’s little artificiality about the interaction between the sensitives and the ghosts. The relationships are almost exactly the same as human to human and, as in the real world, the ghosts are just as unreliable as human witnesses. The result is marginally more information available to the investigators than might otherwise have been the case, but there’s still a need for proper investigative skills. The second in the series, however, was overburdened with history that was dispensed in fairly indigestible lumps as spiels to tourists on a ghost walk. Indeed, this book threatens to go the same way with one dollop of information thrust at us in the same way. However, all the other history which is relevant (and a surprising amount is for the solution of this puzzle) is more carefully parcelled out as discussion, extracts from history books, and so on. It’s relatively more acceptable in this format. Because we’re in Salem, we’re deeply into the history of witchcraft and the way in which the trials were manipulated to protect the reputation of the men and dispose of women who could make their lives difficult. It’s a very interesting way to show how deeply entrenched misogyny has been in the American psyche.
From the outset, the book sets out to make Devin as talented as the formal members of the Krewe. She’s quickly talking with Aunt Mina, her recently deceased relative, and preparing to hobnob with those who died centuries ago. Once you get into the groove, all ghosts prepared to talk to you are the same. Of course, some ghosts of choosy and decide they want nothing to do with some humans. If approached by the wrong type, they just disappear. It’s a useful talent I wish I’d developed for use at social gatherings. Anyway, through a combination of dreams, discussions with the dead, and human intuition, our team narrows the pool of suspects to a relatively small number who have recently bought a weapon of the right type, have some connection to “witches” (both current and historical), and who may drive dark-coloured SUVs. Then it’s down to trying to check alibis both thirteen years ago and now. No-one is excluded as the net is thrown out across that part of Salem society which traces its roots back to the days of the original trials and may have an interest in Wiccan or other non-standard supernatural beliefs. When it comes in a dramatic climax, the answer is rather pleasing.
Although three ghosts do play a moderately important role in the solution of this serial murder case, the supernatural profile is slightly lower in this book than the other two I’ve read. Since the basis of the series is the expanding group of ghost whisperers, there have to be ghosts for them to talk to. In this instalment, I think the balance between conventional police procedural and supernatural is about right. Of course this requires a better quality of puzzle for the main players to solve and, again, this book has a good puzzle. My only gripe is not so much the romance which is within reasonable bounds, but the extent of the coincidence that Devin turns out to be not only a natural whisperer, but also an investigator who gets to the right answers. Rather than watching two relatively inexperienced whisperers solve the crime(s), it would be more interesting to see how the experienced approach the investigation of one of these crimes. I suppose this would also throw off the mandatory thriller ending when our hero suddenly finds herself in serious trouble and has to be rescued. In theory, the experienced investigators make the collar and retire to the nearest drinking establishment for several glasses of appropriate spirits. So I report The Hexed as being a good example of these romance-tinged supernatural police procedurals.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison (The Hollows 12) (Harper Collins, 2014) is what I’m supposed to label urban fantasy but, having ploughed through it, the reality is more romance than anything else. Although we’re dealing with a complex world of mixed species — supernatural and human — with different types of magic on display, I found the characters completely uninvolving and the fantasy weak and wimpy. I suppose this is a gender phenomenon. This author has been churning out books which hit the New York Bestseller lists, so I’m forced to conclude she has a loyal group of female fans who lap up this “heady” mixture of sex and magical mystery. As a mere male, it left me completely cold.
Our hero, Rachel Morgan, is a female demon. As this book begins, she’s been providing security for long-time love interest, the top elf in Cincinnati, Trent Kalamack. So far, despite all the temptation, they have only managed a kiss, but the storm signs have already been raised. Deeper sexual attraction is in the wind and likely to sweep all before it. The “problem” is the presence of Ellasbeth. There’s a political move to displace Trent from the elven ruling council because of his “association” with the demon. The price for retaining all his wealth, power and influence is marriage to Ellasbeth. If Trent were to comply, it would obviously be emotionally devastating to Rachel but, in the interests of keeping the peace, she’s preparing herself for the loss.
Except, of course, there’s a real brew of magical mayhem in the cauldron. While she’s on the golf course, she discovers the hard way that her magic is suddenly rather unexpectedly stronger than she was expecting. What’s supposed to be a simple spell to deflect an incoming golfball from the tee, explodes the ball and leaves a new sandtrap just waiting for the sand. This is the first sign of a wave of what overstimulates every spell as it’s being performed. To add to the disturbance to the force, all the master vampires fall asleep. This is going to kill them and, more importantly, leave the rank and file vampires without anyone to control them.
All this leads to opportunities for characters to build friendships and alliances while being prepared to make sacrifices if the situation requires it. When interests are threatened, it’s all going to come down to people making the best decisions they can, hoping they can trust those they work with. Needless to say, love prevails with Rachel and Trent finally coming together at the end. A bitterly frustrated Ellasbeth leaves the city with nothing (and not before time, some might say). I find myself slightly puzzled at my lack of response to this book. Objectively, the author is doing the right things. There’s a mixture of adventure situations with magic thrown in to add a little extra spice. Except despite there being opportunities for our couple to be in danger (including quite a long sequence when our couple on horseback are hunted by demons), I was bored. For some reason, the tone of the book fails to even vaguely resonate with me. When I’m looking for some excitement (any excitement), all I find is flat, functional narrative prose and characters who fail to inspire any interest. Given the vast popularity of this author, I acknowledge I’m on the losing side of this debate. So I will make my usual apologies and leave this book to the legion of women readers who obviously lap up this type of urban fantasy as if it’s the best thing since the invention of sliced bread.
This book was sent to me for review.
The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo is a reprint collection from Open Road Media, 2014. It was originally published in 1995 by Four Walls Eight Windows, and contains three novellas: “Victoria” (1991), “Hottentots” (1995) shortlisted for the 1996 Locus Award for Best Novella, and “Walt and Emily” (1993) published in two parts by Interzone and shortlisted for the 1994 Locus Award for Best Novella. Ignore the title: recognise that these novellas are not about great airships and mechanical inventiveness on a large scale. Rather this is steampunk as a state of mind. As emotionally repressed people, the Victorians feared they would lose control if their inner passions were allowed free rein. Think Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde with a beast lurking inside the sack of skin, just waiting for the chance to take over and cause mayhem. Although it may make us feel more comfortable to restrict this historical trait to sexual behaviour and the threat of men being overtaken by their lust, the reality was a more general exuberance of greed and selfishness, cruelty and ambition — build an empire before tea, exploit it to the maximum possible, and then lose it all as night falls and the downtrodden refuse to accept the continuing abuse.
We start off in the same style as The Importance of Being a Nest by Wilde Birds with The Importance of Being a Newt. Yes, this is the story of Cosmo Cowperthwait who, having expunged Letchworth from the map (those of you interested in this phenomenon should read the excellent Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald W Clark), turned his attention to genetic engineering, hoping to satisfy his scientific curiosity by scaling up a newt to human size. Coincidentally, because books like this thrive on the comic effect generated by coincidences, he names his life-sized newt Victoria so, when the Queen of the same name goes walkabout, who else should the prime minister think of putting on the throne as a temporary replacement but the newt? As you will gather from these few sentences, this novella begins with a certain level of absurdity and then elevates the absurdity to previously undreamed of levels. It’s a masterpiece as our heroic inventor and genetic manipulatist ransacks London in search of the missing queen, fighting off temptation from an early suffragette whose self-appointed task is to relieve the suffering of women at the hands of men, only to end up where he started out albeit on a more private basis. Di Filippo’s take on the half-human, half-newt is as a sex toy for the rich that may, in the long term, prove to have a mind of her own. It’s simply an ironic commentary on the science that the combination of the animal and the human produces a more naturally sexual “animal” save that the human Queen Victoria is also discovering the diversity of sexual experience in an upmarket brothel. It seems newt genes and leadership pressures make sexual champions of us all. Although some of the humour is a little “obvious”, this remains great fun to read.
“Hottentots” is high quality satire that begins by skewering some of the prejudices that would have been prevalent in Victorian times. Fortunately, in our current post-racial times, we could not possibly hold such bigoted views or, if we did, we would carefully avoid expressing them in public. From our position of enlightenment, it gives us a chance to consider the basis of the beliefs that produced ideas of Übermensch, racial supremacism, eugenics, and so on. Our hero, Louis Agassiz, for want of a better way of describing the man, is a Swiss national working to establish a scientific centre in America. Apart from the intellectually elite to be found in places of learning such as Harvard, he considers America a dire melting pot in which miscegenation has run riot, irrecoverably polluting the gene pool and producing a potentially subhuman underclass of simple-minded people. You can therefore imagine his horror when his calm progress through life is disturbed by the arrival of a white man and his Hottentot bride who are intent upon recovering a lost fetish. There’s much tooing and froing as Agassiz attempts to reconcile his desire for a rational view of the world with the somewhat irrational occurrences around him. All this would have been more successful if the character of the man had been more likeable. But, from the outset, we’re shown how ghastly he is (by modern standards) and so have no sympathy for him at all.
“Walt and Emily” is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson who are involved in that most Victorian of pastimes: the pursuit of the supernatural through the séance and other mechanisms for interacting with the spirit world. Emily’s brother, Austin, seeks a way to communicate with his two aborted children. He hopes the Spiritualist Madam Hrose Selavy is the real deal and engages Walt and Emily to investigate the medium’s claims not only to communicate with the dead, but also transport the living into the spirit world. This involves us trying to reconcile science and the supernatural as the medium discharges ideoplasm from her breasts and transports our poets to an encounter with Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound. There’s a general sense of fun as literary sensibilities are explored across the ages but, as with the other stories, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. As in the other novellas, there’s also a sexual component to the story.
Although there are monsters on display, some more Lovecraftian than others, and there are some beautifully rendered mechanical ideas to satisfy those who want their steampunk to be about machines rather than ideas, full enjoyment of these three stories is somewhat dependent on being familiar with the more general Victorian writing styles and the particular literary flourishes of the poets in the last novella. This is not to say the modern reader will not enjoy these stories, but they will deliver more enjoyment if you have some background in the history and literature of Victorian times. With that caveat, I recommend The Steampunk Trilogy as producing a nicely balanced and occasionally humorous set of alternate histories for us to explore.
For a review of another work by Paul Di Filippo, see Cosmocopia.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2014) is the fifth in the Burton and Swinburne series and it amply demonstrates the problem in having to deal with multiple parallel universes when, as an author, you have taken the strategic decision to limit yourself to a single protagonist. As an aside, the alternative approach is in the completely wonderful, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, where one man begets a multitude of himself (and, surprisingly, herself which is good for the perpetuation of themselves). Because we have a single point of view, we therefore face a slightly obscure first few chapters to this novel. In theory, each separate reality in the multiverse is a closed channel but, for our purposes, there’s a coincidence overload, i.e. because so many people in different universes do exactly the same thing at the same time, there’s an overload that breaks down some of the barriers. We first get to see the results of this at precisely 9 pm on the 15th February, 1860, as Babbage performs a critical experiment on the damaged time-travelling suit worn by Edward Oxford. Almost simultaneously in multiple time tracks, the damaged suits disappear. As the time bubble forms around them, there’s damage to Babbage. In part, this is physical with the precise removal of a limb. But it also induces a non-responsive (fugue) state. There’s no sign of life but, in an entirely mechanical being, it’s hard to tell what might have happened to the person stored inside.
In different parts of London, we also get the sudden appearance of Spring Heeled Jacks, all of whom prove to be disoriented but determined to find Burton. As a form of running joke, Burton is then serially barred from restaurants, clubs and organisations such as the Royal Geographical Society because he’s held responsible for all these Jacks turning up and disrupting normal business activities. Thanks in part to his ingestion of Saltzman’s tincture, Burton’s mind is also moving between universes and times. During these episodes, we pick up clues and pointers as to how the parallel worlds are faring and, perhaps more importantly, what happened in the future to persuade Edward Oxford to research time travel. We also have some unusual weather phenomena and, with the deposit of seeds, what seems to be a homage to H.G. Wells’ Martian red weed (the great man does show up again later in the book). However, once this excitement abates, the book becomes a slightly more conventional linear time travel exercise as our motley crew of chrononauts sets off into the future.
This has the supreme advantage that they may well be the catalyst for rewriting what happens in their future but, whenever they arrive when they are going, there should be a single timeline between their Victorian stating point and their finishing point (whatever the name of this era proves to be). In order to avoid overtaxing themselves and their machine, they plan to make the journey in a series of short hops. To pave the way, members of the Cannibal Club are told to go forth and multiply so there will be children and grandchildren waiting to greet them at each stopping point. Financial arrangements are also put in hand to ensure there will be enough money, if necessary, to rebuild their machine as they move forward in time. This gives us a series of snapshots of how the world could change. This is rather more successful than the first section of the book. It also shows us how Edward Oxford is emerging as the villain of the piece, and prepares the ground for the final battle when our heroic team arrives in the year when Edward Oxford first set off to travel to Victorian times. Needless to say, the time they find is nothing like the time Edward Oxford left. The bow wave of change has preceded them and the first version of Edward Oxford’s time has been completely overwritten.
In tone, most of the humour of the early books has disappeared to be replaced by a slightly more grim feeling as we survey the wreckage of the world as Edward Oxford and Burton’s movement through time, bends the future out of shape. Some of the ideas are interesting and we do have unintended consequences to genetic engineering albeit slightly more heavy-handed this time around to make a political point. But I have the sense this series is reaching the point it should stop. The freshness has gone out of it and there’s a slight air of repetitiveness about some of the elements we encounter. This is not to say another book would not be interesting. The inventiveness to bring this to fruition is outstanding. Indeed, I stand to applaud the sheer ingenuity to weave the preceding four books together to produce this plot. But any more than one to follow The Return of the Discontinued Man would probably kill the golden goose. Needless to say, you should not read this unless you have read the others. You will not have a clue what’s happening.
Once again, the jacket artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent.
For reviews of the first four books, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.
And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.