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The Holders by Julianna Scott

June 24, 2013 4 comments

The Holders by Julianna Scott

Since my wife used to work in a building almost next door to their offices in Nottingham, I’ve been following the progress being made by Angry Robot Books. Not the most pressing of reasons, I know, but Angry Robot has been publishing some interesting titles making it worth watching their list. While I looked away, there were then developments. They added a young adult line called Strange Chemistry, followed by crime and thrillers with an imprint called Exhibit A. So here I go breaking another of my house rules and, despite my usual contempt for all things YA, I’m plunging into The Holders by Julianna Scott (Strange Chemistry, 2013) to see whether a dynamic British company can do better with the urban fantasy subgenre for teens (I’ve also got two of Exhibit A’s titles and will be reviewing them in the days to come). Having already declared by prejudices, I need to offer a brief definition of YA as a starting point for this review. In theory this is content aimed at those aged between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Since people of this tender age range are supposed by book packagers (and parents) to have undeveloped tastes and to be emotionally vulnerable, their tastes have to be guided away from adult fiction in the non-pornographic sense of the word, and persuaded to read fiction that’s safe and, in many ways, educational. That said, there’s actually evidence people up to the age of twenty-five buy YA without embarrassment. It seems some people’s level of reading skills and emotional development never progress beyond, say, seventeen.

Why pick the age of seventeen? Because the lead protagonist of this first-person narrative is a seventeen-year-old girl and she’s going through the usual rite of passage or coming of age experiences required in YA mode. Because this is also urban fantasy, our young heroine is also required to fall in love but, because this is to be emotionally safe (and not give young readers the wrong idea), she must be chaste. No matter how strong the attraction, she cannot go beyond hand-holding and the occasional kiss. This is unrealistic. UNICEF estimates that more than 80% of teens have sexual intercourse in Britain and the US. The teenage pregnancy and abortion rates in the US are the highest in the developed world. For books not to reflect this statistical reality is surprising if the books are in any way intended as a constructive influence on opinions and behaviour. Yet not just YA but also the majority of books in the urban fantasy subgenre are aimed at female readers who want romance with a supernatural edge. I have no problem with a concept that ring-fences fictional behaviour for educational purposes, i.e. which represents a discussion and commentary upon the behaviour and the downsides of stepping outside the fence. But it does seem problematic when the fence is uncritically presented as a social good, i.e. it becomes propaganda addressed to young minds which are more easily influenced.

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

This leads to a secondary question of why I’m harping on about YA having an educational purpose. Well this book is playing in a well-trodden sandpit for the purposes of offering conservatively framed guidance on how children should react when their parents split up. Our heroine was celebrating the arrival of a baby brother and looking forward to a move across country. Everything went well with the packing and her mother moved. Unfortunately, the father disappeared. This left mother and daughter devastated. So this theme is the main structure on which the story is based. When his son is ten, missing Daddy sends his minions to bring the sprog to a school in Ireland where he can be “safe”. Protective sister goes with him and must therefore reach some form of accommodation with her father. It’s all about forgiveness. Yet, of course, it’s not that straightforward. It turns out that Daddy has some super powers and it’s probable his son has inherited them. He’s being brought to Ireland for testing because, gulp, he may be the Chosen One mentioned in the Prophesy. There must always be prophesies when magic is involved. In this case, we’ve got a series of different types of power. Super Daddy is like Charles Xavier with mind reading and adjusting powers. Needless to say, there’s a counterbalancing mind-adjusting elder who’s out for world domination. That’s why the Prophesy calls for a hero to save the world.

Within five pages of the start, it’s obvious what the broad plot is going to be and what the authorial choices are. The way the plot then develops telegraphs the love interest and how the hero thing is going to work out, i.e. because this is written for the YA market, there can be no real surprises and it must be obvious how everything will be resolved. That way, the young reader can sit back and just savour the steady progress to true love and beating the immediate threat to safety. In fact, the threat comes into focus almost at the end making it all rather perfunctory. This leaves plenty of time to resolve separated parent issues and to work through an allegory about how relationships are formed. Think of it this way. Here’s a young woman who’s been dominant in protecting her younger brother. She meets a slightly older man and there’s a spark. Now how does this work? Does the more experienced and more physically powerful one take the lead, or should the roles reverse when she’s got a long track record of being the dominant one in a broken family? It’s actually socially constructive to discuss the nature of love and explain the different ways in which relationships can be formed and broken. To that extent, I think the book is quite useful, particularly because the love interest also comes from a broken family where he was abandoned by his adoptive parents. As a piece of urban fantasy, it’s completely gutless and anaemic. There’s never any real sense of threat or danger. It’s serene progress to the obligatory happy ending to the first book in an intended series. Of course, the evil one may prove more of a handful when he appears in later volumes, but I suspect this series will keep everything in the safe rather than the edgy zone. As an adult, I can see all the ways in which this could have been so much better, but authors writing for this artificially constructed YA market are not allowed to write anything dangerous. So The Holders has some good supernatural ideas (which are not properly developed) and might be useful for younger readers on dealing with divorce and separation issues, and how to make new relationships. From me, that’s high praise.

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

The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll

The Shape Stealer

There are times I wish I was an expert in everything. That way, when I come across something unexpected in a work of fiction, I would know just how fictional it is. In this case, I’m happily reading an uncomfortable blend of science fiction and fantasy, and come across a plan to destabilise the world’s economy by creating a bubble in the value of gold and then puncturing it. The book describes this as a pump and dump plan but, if my understanding is correct, it would be almost impossible to apply this to a commodity such as gold. In the real world, the early months of 2009 saw the price of gold at $800 per ounce, but once we came to the autumn of 2011, it had risen to more than $1,900. This was a bubble, i.e. the price did not reflect the economic law of supply and demand. Consequently, optimistic investors were saying there was no upward limit for the price. Trying to pump a commodity trending upward is never going to have a major effect. If there’s an unexpected spike, there will be a price correction and then the underlying trend will resume. Now we’re heading back down in value, i.e. the bubble is deflating and, so far, the world’s economy has not collapsed. So it seems to me that the plan to wreck the world being advocated by the forces of evil in this book is doomed to fail without any action being required from the forces of good. They could just sit back and laugh as evil’s plan failed.

All of which brings me to this quite extraordinary collision between science fiction and fantasy. The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll (pseudonymous team of Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky) (Tor, 2013) is the third in the Black Swan Rising trilogy dealing with the “love” between Garet and Will. As in all books now posing under the urban fantasy label, this must be one of these agonising relationships. She’s one of these protector figures (save the Earth!) and he’s a vampire (save me from myself!). Obviously they are made for each other but, as is always the case, there are problems (no! really? well, do tell). This problem is certainly different.

Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky

Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky

In the last book, our happy couple travelled back in time and met up with his younger self (two vampires to love are better than one). When two returned to our time, she came back with the “young” version and not the “old” one she loves (Holy cow, Batman, that’s some mistake coming back with the lusty “young” one rather than the jaded tired “old” one). This left the “old” one the chance to carry on “living” so, for the second time of asking, he exists through the four-hundred plus years to the present so the two versions of himself can be together again with the woman they love. Notice the potential for paradox here. If the “young” one travels forward in time and so doesn’t do everything he previously did as he lived through time, that rather changes the past in a big way. Indeed, when reliving the four-hundred years, the old vampire in love dedicates his existence to good, avoiding the feasting on humans as much as possible, and generally being a nice guy (Garet has really been working her mojo on this vampire). This means absolutely everything about the past gets messed up by all that good.

Sitting in the middle of all this absurdity are different interested parties. There’s a group of temporal guardians whose job it is to keep the cause and effect sufficiently in check so that any changes to the past make only minor changes to the present (ignoring the butterfly effect for these purposes). To achieve this, they sit outside current time with exhaustive records of their “past”. Whenever anything changes, one of the ledgers drops off its shelf in the library and they can quickly see what’s changed and decide whether to fix it. This temporal limbo is also used by the fey as they pass through from Earth to their “home” land (and back which is why there’s a time loss when they take humans for a visit). There’s also a dissident group of time travellers who are called Malefactors (kinda mediaeval name for the bad guys) and generally make a nuisance of themselves by squeezing themselves through the dimensions into our time like toothpaste out of a tube. All these time guardians and warring Malefactors have some very nifty technology including some advanced weaponry (presumably brought back from the future). And, finally, there’s Dr John Dee and a shapeshifting “monster” from ancient Babylon who just want to take over the world and run it their way. So, summing this up, Dr Dee and the fairies (led by Oberon) travel through time by using magic. The chrononauts have time portals and can use clockwork devices built into watches (how original) to move through time and also space (TARDIS watches are cool).

Now there are times when absurdity is a good thing, e.g. using reductio ad absurdum in a philosophical debate or as a form of mocking mirror to reality. In electing to write about time travel, authors should be applying the established rules so, through its failure, this book is what we must politely call a time fantasy where none of it makes any sense as mathematics, physics, philosophy or logic would require. This could have been a good mechanism for mocking the trope of time travel. Once you get into the question of paradox and then have to address the possibility of paraconsistency where a proposition may be simultaneously true and false, there’s great potential for humour. But this book is plodding and dull. It’s intended as a soppy romance where our heroine gets to love two versions of her imperfect man in a world dominated by magic, i.e. a world where events are completely arbitrary and fairies can teach the vampire how to rearrange his molecules in real time to avoid being injured when bullets pass through him (sorry, I mean the vampire can rearrange his molecules so that the bullets pass through him without injuring him). Instant self-repair would be absurd, right? Particularly if he was shot in the head and had to stop thinking for a moment.

So if you’re heavily into urban fantasy and have absolutely no interest in anything that makes any sense, The Shape Stealer is for you. But if, like me, you prefer there to be an underlying logic and order to a plot, you should wave your wand in a way that will send all the copies of this book back in time so it was never written and cannot now be purchased from secondhand book dealers around the world (paradoxes rule!).

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

Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges is by Caitlin R Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney. Pausing there for a moment, you may wonder why Ms Kiernan should chose to publish the first in a new trilogy using the device of a disclosed pseudonym. The answer is she intends this project to be sufficiently different to the usual run of material that it must be presented to the world “differently”. So unlike the first Barbara Vine book which did not announce Ruth Rendell as the author on the jacket, this book uses both the author’s name and the pseudonym on the jacket. That way, random potential buyers are told it’s a Kiernan book but “different”. So those of you who enjoyed The Drowning Girl and are waiting for the next of Kiernan’s “real” books, can kill time by reading this trilogy by “Kathleen Tierney” which is “different”. My apologies for the repetitiveness of the explanation.

So exactly how is this book “different”? Well, you may think you know what urban fantasy or paranormal romance is, i.e. a largely anaemic, usually chaste, ramble round the supernatural sandbox with a female protagonist in danger but pulling through bravely and, depending on the publisher, sometimes bedding the romantic interest. But this book takes the anodyne formula and tramples all over it. I suppose the classification of the result depends on your own definitions. Some might call it a pastiche, others a parody or even satire. After a few drinks in a bar, its true nature as a general exercise in “taking the piss” would probably get the vote of approval (a British idiom meaning to ridicule or mock). As is required, we’ve got a woman as our protagonist. Except Siobhan Quinn is our unreliable narrator du jour. She’s an addict and all addicts lie about everything, including their addiction. Better still, she’s earned a reputation as a a killer of supernatural nasties except, in the classic tradition of a true klutz, the various nasties meeting their doom variously slipped or fell over with fatal consequences. It’s ever thus that legends are born. So, ironically, if she’s to live up to her own reputation, she’s actually got to learn how to kill something intentionally. Believe me when I tell you she’s not the fastest learner on the planet. As an example, take her approach to tracking down a werewolf. She goes into his kill zone and then shoot up with heroine. I mean, is she a fuck-up or what?

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

So here we go with a first-person narrative and metafictional commentary with the author cracking jokes to the reader: no really, I’m not making it up. I’m not the one being paid to make up shit like this, OK. It’s the author who’s playing with your head and generally pointing out the many absurdities in the subgenre out of which she’s taking the piss. But if that’s all the book was about, the joke would wear thin very rapidly. This forces the author to write a conventional story about a female Buffy-type screw-up who sequentially gets bitten by a werewolf and then bitten by a vampire. This makes her a werepire or vampwolf depending on your colloquial preferences. Now armed with a voracious appetite for human blood and an alarming tendency to turn into a wolf when she gets excited, she carves a dangerous furrow through Providence, doing slightly more than chewing on the furniture until she gets to the end of her adventure. Alarmingly, she fails to mate with anyone or thing during the contemporaneous action thereby holding true to the usual requirement for a chaste romance. This is probably due to her uncontrollable desire to exsanguinate or simply eat anyone or thing she encounters. The only one even vaguely approximating a mentor or sidekick spends most of the book hiding from her lest he too gets sucked into the action in the more fatal sense of the words. He’s very prudent.

Taken overall, I think the book a success in both its aims. As a narrative in the fantasy mould with supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, trolls, and so on, it satisfies all the basic requirement for adventure. As unreliable narrators go, Siobhan Quinn also proves credible. Although she starts off incredibly dim, you always feel there’s enough native wit inside that not so pretty head to enable her to join up all the dots to work out who’s pulling the strings. If I have a problem with the book, it’s in the second element of piss-taking which may go on slightly too long. There are some genuinely amusing monologuing debates about how characters are expected to act in books of this type. Indeed, I can understand why it’s taking so long to write the sequel. I think Ms Kiernan may have discovered she rather shot her bolt with Blood Oranges. Without repeating herself, it’s damn difficult to write two more in the same vein. The sequel, after some toing and froing, is called Red Delicious. I’m hopeful it will be worth reading.

For a review of other books by Caitlin R Kiernan, see Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart and The Ape’s Wife.

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

Unclean Spirits by Chuck Wendig

June 14, 2013 1 comment

unclean-spirits-chuck-wendig

As an old and physically decrepit man whose mind frequently wanders as it flirts with the idea of dementia, I find it deeply disturbing to read books like Unclean Spirits by Chuck Wendig (Abaddon Books). Now for those of you not yet clued into this publishing house, it specialises in creating series of books as shared universes for their stable of authors to write in. This is a new universe called Gods & Monsters. When I set off, I adopted my usual casual approach which is to pick the next book off the top of the pile and start reading. I never bother looking at any of the PR material sent with the books and don’t start browsing around the internet until after I’ve finished. I prefer to approach each new book with an open mind — I have enough trouble with thoughts of my own without worrying about what other people think. So picture the scene, if you can. I put on my reading glasses, plumped up the cushion in the small of my back and began to turn the pages. Those of you who know me might have noticed the creasing in my forehead growing more pronounced as the years weighed me down.

I’m now going to follow in a style of writing adjacent to that adopted by Chuck Wendig so please forgive the occasional expletive undeleted. This is the story of Cason Cole, his wife Alison and son Barney but, as the pages turn, I’ve no fucking idea what the story is about. This bitch of a wife tries to kill her husband the moment she sets eyes on him (perhaps a not unrealistic scenario). He thinks she cursed (a not unnatural reaction). There’s no knowing what she’s thinking (sexist thoughts deleted). So, fuck it, he runs away and Tundu, his new cab-driving acquaintance, carries him away to temporary safety. And I’m completely lost as we come to the quarter-way-through mark. It’s only when we get to about one-third of the way through that vague understanding begins to dawn. It shouldn’t be like this. I don’t care what the genre. You shouldn’t have to wait until you’re more than one-hundred pages into a novel to begin finding out what a book is about. When I could not understand, I was genuinely worried my mind had quit on me and the dementia had arrived.

Chuck Wendig pleased to see you

Chuck Wendig pleased to see you

I suppose I have to classify this as urban fantasy but, to put it mildly, it strikes off the scale on the weirdometer as the usual expectations are submerged in a pile of surrealist bullshit (or if it’s not from a bull, pick your own damn animal of choice). The best way to think about this situation is that, about fifty years before this story starts, all the supernatural powers-that-be got kicked out of their quiet backwater niches. Some might be considered heavens or hells, others might be Mount Olympus or the forests where Bigfoot roamed. You see all the shades and varieties of gods (whole blood, half-blood and risen from the ranks of the human), all the monsters, creatures, spirits, demons, and then the heroes and other wannabes, have been displaced to the mundane Earth we all know and love so well. In the good old days when gods could come and go as they pleased, mixing with the humans was a holiday adventure type of experience. Now they’re stuck here with diminished powers, they’re somewhat disgruntled and tend to take it out on the humans to hand. Like Eros (aka Cupid), the god of love, is one of the primordials, i.e. arrived on the scene before the humans. His power is to collect a small group of worshippers in a nice quiet place and then fuck them until he tires of them, i.e. like most of the others, he’s not a pleasant god to be around. In fact, when you come right down to it, there’s very little to chose between the gods and the monsters when it comes to pleasantness.

In the midst of all this chaos, our hero Cason is constantly propelled forward, never entirely sure where he’s going, but always convinced he’s going to get there. In a way, it’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz on steroids because whoever it is behind the curtains pulling the strings, we know our hero will finally end up in whatever passes for Kansas and pull the curtain aside. When you get to the end, you can see the plot does all hang together rather well. It’s just such an effort to get through all the confusion of the first part of the book to finally arrive at the sprint to the big reveal and the resolution of all this family’s troubles. I guess I’m slightly equivocal about the book. Conceptually it’s got tremendous scope for exploring the nature of the supernatural powers the different gods and types of being exercise which is what you want for a shared universe concept. But there are two things wrong with this result. The first is the answers end up remarkably conservative. When I finally worked out what was going on, my interest was maintained by the hope the resolution would be pretty radical. . . Sadly, it reflects the religious forms we Westerners are most familiar with. It’s a major opportunity not taken. The second problem is that the focus of the book completely ignores how this version of Earth has been affected by the sudden arrival of all these “divine” and monstrous beings. It’s inconceivable that the history of the world has remained the same. These beings have been interfering with the ordinary flow of human life and there would have been consequences. Perhaps the intention is to explore this alternate Earth in the next books.

So there you have it. I still quite like Chuck Wendig’s writing style and the concept has great potential. I just feel punches have been pulled which is a shame because, in previous books, the one thing the author has not done is to pull his punches. Assuming you’re not offended by books dealing with different religions, Unclean Spirits is interesting.

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
Blackbirds
The Cormorant
Mockingbird.

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

Blind God’s Bluff by Richard Lee Byers

Blind God's Bluff

In the simple days of my youth, there were an alarming number of fantasy stories in which the hero is suddenly made aware he or she has magical powers. This was wish fulfillment overcompensation just after the war. There we were, walking around towns and cities with major bomb damage, wondering when life would get back to normal and speculating on how much easier it would be if we were all endowed with superpowers to clear the sites, dig new foundations and get everything ready for the rebuilding. It offered hope for the future when we could read about people who could not only rebuild, but use their powers to ensure we never had to go through another war. In these stories, we were there, looking over their shoulders as they experienced shock and surprise at the discovery they could do super stuff. These “ordinary” men and women had been living routine lives in whatever settings the authors picked. Suddenly they are pitched into situations in which their very survival depends on them mastering these new skills and besting those who have spent decades (or in some cases centuries) practising and refining their powers. And all this before eating breakfast and learning the magic spell, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side”. The most annoying feature of this approach is the assumption some people are so inherently superior to others, they could always prevail because they are “good”. It’s a kind of übermenschlich approach to the traditional battle between good and evil. In this binary world, there’s a superhuman lurking in everyone, just waiting for the chance to leap into action when the chips are down and the barbarians are at the gates.

And talking of chips, here’s Blind God’s Bluff by Richard Lee Byers (Night Shade Books, 2013) an urban fantasy novel built around a poker game. I confess to being a reasonably good bridge player but poker leaves me cold. This judgement has nothing to do with the merits of the game. The blend of straight probability calculation and psychology is intriguing and, when played at a high level, it can be interesting to watch. But with only one or two exceptions like The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), the idea of making poker a central plot element has not attracted me. So, from the outset, this book is facing an uphill struggle. Now add in the human who turns out to have superpowers trope and you see why this book is never going to get anywhere in my estimation. So how does all this work?

Richard Lee Byers

Richard Lee Byers

Well, within ten seconds of our hero stopping to help an injured “man”, he’s attacked by feral fairies who try to rip out his eyes. Now you’ll understand this is not an everyday occurrence as you walk down a busy city street. Usually, the only thing assaulting your senses are the garden gnomes and their faux clay smiles. But the old “man” touches him and, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side” this awaken superpowers. In an instant, he’s able to throw up a force field. Moments later, he’s sending out his Ka (as in Gifford Hillary by Dennis Wheatley). In this form, he’s able to fetch his car, i.e. even when on the astral plane, he can manifest in the physical world to drive a car — neat trick, huh? And all this without any practice and within minutes of understanding the world of the supernatural and magic are real. This guy is a real operator in every sense of the word. As we go on, we meet the other players in the poker game. It’s the usual Friday night crowd in the backroom at the pub: the Mummy, a vampish female, a mechanical man calling himself Gimble of the Seven Soft Rebukes, a Queen Bee, and a demonlike figure called Wotan.

The other feature I found distinctly wearing on the nerves was the general lack of seriousness. This is not to say the book is a barrel of laughs. Perish the thought that any work in the urban fantasy subgenre should be a comedy. But there’s a lightness in the tone that militates against there being any sense of menace or threat to our “hero”. This does not deny that two of the dream sequences have potential in the horror zone, but you just know our hero is never seriously at risk and is always going to emerge stronger and more experienced from whatever the latest challenge is. The race at the end is overblown and the final nail in the coffin. Overall, I regret to say I found Blind God’s Bluff tiresome and, even more disconcertingly, when I finally arrived at the end, I discovered that it’s left open to become a series. If that’s the case, I will definitely not be reading it. This does indicate an acknowledgement that Richard Lee Byers is a competent author who has a good command of the craft of writing. It’s just that he’s allowed himself to be diverted from the need to write something genuinely scary by his obvious love for poker and his desire to construct an urban fantasy suitable for teens and young women to read. Definitely not recommended for anyone who likes red meat.

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

Pandaemonium by Ben Macallan

February 12, 2013 Leave a comment

pandaemonium

Authors are potentially the freest people on the planet. They get to write what they want and, if they have the common touch, what they write sells to the mass audience and they can become self-supporting professionals. Except, of course, there’s an enormous amount of hard work that goes into the process, followed by considerable anxiety that the right tone has been struck to appeal to the largest number of buyers. This continues the work of building the loyal fan base and consolidating the brand image that will hopefully make the next book a best seller before it’s actually published. If only this could be true for every author, yet financial stability for the average professional is tenuous at best. Even midlist authors with relatively well-known names can struggle to make ends meet without a day job. The confidence that should allow the words to flow can dry up. The muse departs and the impoverished but wiser author searches for alternative sources of income. All of which background makes Pandaemonium by Ben Macallan (yet another pseudonym for Chaz Brenchley) (Solaris Books, 2012) a fascinating read. This is an author at his self-confident best, not caring whether the words strictly match the expectations of the marketplace. Certain his approach to the subgenre is going to work.

So what does the jacket artwork by Vincent Chong promise us? Not trying to avoid sexual stereotypes, we see a youngish woman, appropriately shapely and dressed stylishly in black, patting the head of a spectral horse while posing in front of a gas holder and belching factory chimneys (industrialised Britain is not the most romantic of backdrops). This is signalling urban fantasy (the scope of factory fantasy was wonderfully exposed in “The Mangler” by Stephen King and then slaughtered in the Chocolate Factory by twee Oompa Loompas) but when you actually get into the text of the book you find a slightly different style.

Chaz Brenchley getting into his pose as The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

Chaz Brenchley getting into his pose as The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

While the label slapped on these books by publishers inevitably promises supernatural shenanigans, the unresolved issue is the tone. Because of the romantic element, the majority of the books avoid darkness. The evildoers and beasties are not that threatening. This makes the books accessible to the female market which tends to avoid anything too frightening. But conventional wisdom also says such books cannot be humorous or ironic. Romance is often deflated if the author makes fun of the men in the heroine’s life or of relationships in general. Indeed, this would be subversive, denying the mythology of fairy-tale romances and replacing the saccharine with real or metaphorical prat falls. What avid readers expect to read is essentially a naive heroine embarking on an adventure during which she will meet one or two men whom she may consider suitable candidates for mating purposes. There will be trials and tribulations. We may even be permitted a sympathetic smile as our heroine misjudges the situations as they arise. But we will serenely move to an ending where bliss (marital or otherwise) is achieved. There can be no grim humour which blames any of the men for failing to come up to expectations, none of the social expectations will be undermined by satire, and even a hint of pessimism is outlawed.

One of the most interesting of the characters we meet in this peripatetic novel is an angel who has suffered torture and abuse. She was held down, her pinions were slowly pulled out and, when the skin was left bleeding and bare, they cut her wings off, leaving only stumps by her shoulder blades. Being an immortal, she did not die. Now, when this angel steps out of her office, the door flings itself open, “. . .as a courtesy, an announcement like a flunkey calling out arrivals at the head of the stairs”. In other words, she has not exactly treated this mutilation as a reason to give in to self-pity and despair. She remains a warrior. You should also notice the language. It’s nicely conversational. You can hear the first-person narrator telling you this story and giving you permission to smile whenever the mood takes you. This sets up a narrative tension between sometimes quite dark fantasy elements and the lighter descriptions which I find beguiling. We’re being invited to enjoy the moment of levity before dropping back into the more serious stuff. If there’s to be humour, we smile with and not at the characters. It’s an essentially innocent enjoyment, as befits an urban fantasy.

To add further complications, she begins by running away from one ex-boyfriend because she betrayed him and is naturally worried he may be not-a-little upset. She runs to another ex and finds herself having to continue running to a third ex because his life may be in danger. As a heroine‚ she feels morally obliged to stand on her own two feet, defending herself as best she can and, when necessary, reaching out to save others. This does not mean the young men are not useful to have around. At times, they do contrive to save her but she finds this humiliating so does her best to keep them all at arms length. At some point, she may have to choose between the two more obvious candidates but that’s for another book. Until then, she’s now fully empowered as a human, having shed her supernatural protection. This makes her feel more comfortable. If she’s going to succeed, it should be on her own merits, on her terms. She stands proud, pleasingly determined and sufficiently credible to be able to carry the first-person narrative.

Frankly, I enjoy hanging out with Desi or Fay depending on how she’s feeling and who she’s with. I look forward to the next step in her development as a human being. As a result, Pandaemonium is great fun and, at times, aggressively original by leaving the city behind and going rural — a petrifying thought for those only comfortable in urban environments.

For the first in this series, see Desdaemona. For reviews of other books by Chaz Brenchley writing as Daniel Fox, see:
Dragon in Chains
Hidden Cities
Jade Man’s Skin

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

Redlaw: Red Eye by James Lovegrove

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Redlaw - Red Eye

For once, I’m going to say something good about the blurb. The catch phrase, “A bad day in the Big Apple” is actually rather appropriate in the same way that the title, Redlaw: Red Eye by James Lovegrove (Solaris Books, 2012) reflects a pleasing ambiguity. Our hero, John Redlaw has just emerged from his flight to America feeling a little under the weather, the designation of the weaponised soldiers is Red Eye One, and the vampires have spooky eyes. So kudos for a little wit from the editorial staff and/or the author. Now the the book itself. This is a direct sequel to the first Redlaw and picks up with our hero enjoying real hero status, i.e. his reputation has been shredded and he’s being pursued by the forces of law with the same enthusiasm they bring to manhunts for terrorists and traitors. Fortunately with the newly promoted Captain Khalid in command, the opportunities for evasion and escape are always good. Except John Redlaw recognises he cannot continue in London. When a friendly vampire mentions a new urban myth about attacks in America, this seems a Heaven-sent hint he should investigate.

From the moment he arrives in New York, John Redlaw finds himself immersed in a completely different culture with vampires viewed ambivalently. Whereas the Brits mix fear, loathing and indifference in equal measures, the Americans have no formalised framework for accommodating their existing population of bloodsuckers and the new immigrants. For the most part, the two populations physically avoid each other and the humans hesitate to make a judgement on whether they are welcome. At this fairly critical stage, the remnants of the international cabal that Redlaw disrupted in Britain are looking for power and influence in America. As a byproduct of testing to find a cure for a blood disorder, they have developed what may become an effective way of producing supersoldiers. The first group of seven are being field-tested in a program to eradicate vampires in New York. Obviously the vampires are aware of this and a young and inexperienced Tina “Tick” Checkley has captured the enhanced seven on video as they returned from eradicating a nest. Before she can make herself a target by posting the video on YouTube, she meets Redlaw and they set out to discover who’s behind the attacks. While visiting Father Tchaikovsky, a vampire shtriga, Red Eye One attacks and Redlaw inherits a small group of vampire survivors to protect. For this ragtag group, it doesn’t matter their new leader is human. They are interested in survival and think Redlaw is their best chance.

James Lovegrove with black and white eyes

James Lovegrove with black and white eyes

This is a fairly remarkable piece of writing from a technical point of view. As a vehicle for carrying the story forward, James Lovegrove adopts the chase. This is one of the most difficult to get right at length. Most authors chicken out and have their heroes running for the length of a short story until either death catches up with them or they triumph against the odds. In this instance, our hero attracts the attention of the superseven at an early point and, recognising their professionalism as warriors and their physical improvement, he decides running away is better than standing to fight. In other hands, this would have grown tedious but there’s consistent inventiveness in the way Redlaw leads his no-hope band of vampires. Indeed, our hero’s capacity to absorb punishment is tested to the limit in this story as he grimly moves forward to the inevitable confrontation at the end. Except, of course, he gets to decide where to make the final stand. For those of you who know Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he fights on “hemmed-in ground” and so must rely on deception to see them through.

As with the first book, there’s a lean mean approach with stripped-down language and non-stop plot development. The result is a most pleasing blend of urban fantasy and straight horror as our human hero steps into the role of shtriga, leading this band of vampires into completely new territory for them. Redlaw: Red Eye is a delight and even though our hero is left in New York, I hope to see him again. I suspect moving on to Japan might be a little too much because of the language problem, but there’s plenty of scope for building on his most recent acquisition.

For a review of the first in the series by James Lovegrove, see Redlaw.

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

Clean by Alex Hughes

December 24, 2012 1 comment

Clean by Alex Hughes

I suppose I must classify myself as having been an addict. I grew up at a time when more or less everyone smoked so, being one of the herd, I followed. Looking back, this was less than rational. I was born an asthmatic and was plagued by a wide range of allergies. To have begun smoking was a tragic error. With breathing an increasing challenge, I then recognised the only approach to quitting is abstinence. It’s the psychology of the process. If you are serious, you give it up and never go back. If you are less than serious, you switch your dependence to something supposedly less dangerous. Why? Because perpetuating addictive behaviour means you don’t want to make a full recovery. As part of the process of getting clean from the more dangerous drugs, many in the counselling industry advocate different versions of the 12 Step Programs. Obviously you should not try to beat addiction alone so regular meetings with other addicts reinforce the commitment to stay clean. It’s helpful to know others are struggling with the same problems and holding out. This package of measures may include finding a “higher power” This is often taken to mean you should pray to God, but prayer and reading the Bible are not actually necessary so long as you develop the self-discipline to avoid relapse. Feeling you have someone stronger in your corner fighting for you helps. Why are we starting in this way?

As the title, Clean by the gender-neutral Alex Hughes A Mindspace Investigation Novel (Roc, 2012), suggests, our nameless Level 8 telepath with precognitive skills is a recovering Satin addict. As a first-person narrative, we’re therefore given a ringside seat as our “hero” struggles not to relapse (again). In the general run of genre classifications, this makes the book a dystopian, noirish, urban fantasy, thriller, science fiction police procedural story about identity and redemption (assuming he can stay clean, of course). Ah, you noticed the labelling confusion. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I despair of the publisher/retailer conspiracy to categorise books. Although I concede it’s useful to know which part of a big store to visit to find books I’m likely to want to buy, it’s not constructive to label with increasing particularity. This forces authors to write to a predetermined formula so their book fit, i.e. it stifles creativity. For what it’s worth, I approve of books like this which conflate elements into the whole as needed to build a world in which the action is to take place.

Alex Hughes with a promising first novel

Alex Hughes with a promising first novel

So we have a telepath who works for the police force. There’s a serial killer on the loose so our hero and Homicide Detective Isabella Cherabino are off on the trail. The writing style is reasonably hardboiled or noir, but we’re set in a future following Tech Wars in which sentient technology tried to take over the world. Humanity was saved by those with Abilities and there are serious consequences including the abandonment of many types of technology. This has left the survivors in a very rundown city environment in which many aspects of life are unpleasant. To relieve the pervasive dystopian gloom, there are elements of romance between our hero and the Detective. Finally, the general level of threat and the need to fight to survive allows us to consider this a thriller. Thematically, if our hero stays clean, he may be considered redeemed and this will say something important about him as a person.

As a not wholly irrelevant aside, I wonder whether a part of the author’s intention is actually Edenic. Although it would be literally absurd to consider a dystopian environment anything like the Garden of Eden, we have a man who is struggling not to eat the apple. I also note that one of the 12 Steps is establishing a relationship with a higher power. In the Biblical sense, we distinguish between two types of covenant with God. Some are unconditional, i.e. God holds to His side of the bargain no matter what we do. Others, as in the Garden of Eden, are conditional, i.e. to avoid the loss of God’s bounty, Adam and Eve had to obey the covenant about the apple. What was the penalty for breaching this covenant? Instead of being able to live free off the land, Adam and Eve would have to work hard as farmers to grow their own food. Now return to one of the unconditional covenants. If you are redeemed from sin, you are allowed into Heaven. By hard work, you earn the ultimate reward.

So the essential questions are what Satin is, how and why our hero was first exposed to it, and whether he has sufficient strength to avoid relapse. In the midst of it all, there’s a serial murder case to crack and considerable personal danger to overcome. I find Clean very interesting. Although this may sound as if I’m damning the book with faint praise, this is not intended as a negative review. One reads books for many reasons and while this may not be the best science fiction book I’ve read this year and it’s certainly not the best noir thriller I’ve read, it does have a genuine willingness to explore the city and the implications of the Tech War that proved so devastating. The interaction between the Guild responsible for those with Ability and the police is intriguing. And the underlying motivation of those involved is revealed in a distinctly pleasing way. Clean is worth reading. For the record, the second book in the series is titled Sharp is due around Spring 2013 and I shall look out for it.

For a review of the second in the series, see Sharp.

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

Desdaemona by Ben Macallan

DESDAEMONA

Desdaemona by Ben Macallan (yet another pseudonym for Chaz Brenchley, this time suggesting an affinity with single malts) (Solaris, 2011) sees us kick off a new series with a new name as author (up to this point, Benedict Macallan has merely been a character in two Brenchley novels, Dead of Light and Light Errant following Edmund Cooper’s example of Richard Avery, i.e. turning a fictional character into an author). Uncharacteristically for what’s billed as urban fantasy, Chaz has bravely chosen to hide behind a male name. This runs contrary to the norm with most urban fantasy written by women for women. There was a time, of course, when Chaz was not afraid to use a female pseudonym (not moving too far over to the female side, it’s only once, not time and again). Fortunately, he recovers self-possession in titling the book with a female name and adorning the cover with her lithe figure — the marketing department would throw in the towel if it could not commission another sexy picture of a woman in black — only to completely lose the plot with a first-person narrative from Jordan, a seventeen-year-old boy (although quite how many years he’s been seventeen is not immediately clear). Has no-one whispered in Chaz’s shell-like that urban fantasy is all about female heroines hacking supernatural nasties to pieces when not agonising about their weight or fussing over a hangnail. It seems nothing is sacred when it comes to this book. It even includes sex with a demon! Although it’s all described in the best possible taste, this is not the urban fantasy we’ve been trained to expect with a virginal young woman waiting for just the right hunk to drop down on one knee and pop the question, “Do you want that roasted or fried?” referring to the dead nasty at her feet, of course.

As an aside, I admit to living in a bubble almost completely insulated from the outside world save by what I read in books. To learn of Dusty Springfield’s death therefore came as a shock. It seems only yesterday she was performing with the Pet Shop Boys — like Jordan, yet more males who will be forever young boys when in the presence of animals. Anyway, back to the book which is told in a fun way. Not outright humour, you understand. There are some laws carved in stone and “Thou shalt not crack jokes in urban fantasy” is up there with Google’s “Don’t be evil!” Yet you can see Chaz edging that way. “I can hear sirens,” says one. “I knew a siren once. She was a bitch. . . Oh, you mean the police are coming.” It’s not going to bring the house down although, if you asked her nicely, Desi would probably do that for you, but it’s symptomatic of a general wish to entertain the reader while describing various escalating levels of conflict. Or perhaps it was an undine. . . sorry, still thinking about sirens.

Chaz Brenchley demonstrating how not to do product placement

Desdaemona is not unlike a computer game with different levels of threat to contend with. Jordan and Desi are on a quest to find her missing sister. They start off by rescuing a young man who’s been asked to do lunch with a coven of vampires. This has nothing to do with finding the sister but, hey, the seaside town where they met is now a safer place save for the members of the Masonic Lodge, local councillors, bent police officers and other assorted people to avoid meeting in a dark alley. Then we do spend a few pages looking for the sister in London and find the trees are alive with the sound of music — the tree was a trap, OK! Then it’s off to Richmond where the news of Dusty’s untimely death was unceremoniously broken to me. After an exchange of view with a naiad about the problems of climate change as they affect water levels in the river, it’s back to London where things get a little rocky for a while before our lustful couple find neutral ground on which to recuperate. Once they leave this sanctuary, events take an increasingly perilous course leading to a conclusion that neither Jordan nor Desi desired (rather neat meta-alliteration at work). To that extent, the book has a pleasing edge. Too often, everything in urban fantasy turns out rosy as virginal status may be surrendered in the hormone-enhanced aftermath of assorted nasty-slaying.

This is a nicely designed puzzle book at two different levels. The first is the more obvious quest to find the missing sister before Hell’s mobsters lay their claws on her. It seems she’s literally just dropped off the face of the Earth although, at one point, it’s punily suggested she might have been turned into stone — yes, there are gorgons about. The second is to discover exactly who Jordan is and why he’s on the run. To that extent, it’s all about family and the problems teens have with their parents and each other if abstinence is not on the agenda. While admitting a predisposition to like books by Chaz Brenchley, I confirm this as a superior fantasy with a supernatural cast of hellions trying to deal with their teenage angst while fighting off increasingly dangerous supernatural threats (including the Morris Men trying to wipe them down with their handkerchiefs and whack them with their sticks). It’s great fun and you should not be put off by the urban fantasy label or the jacket artwork by Vincent Chong. Anyone, i.e. both male and female, who enjoys supernatural fantasy, particularly when told with knowing smile, should pick up Desdaemona and probably order the forthcoming Pandaemonium which threatens to be more of the same or even better.

For reviews of other books by Chaz Brenchley, see:
Dragon in Chains
Hidden Cities
Jade Man’s Skin
Pandaemonium

Left Hand Magic by Nancy A Collins

One of the problems when you write a serial is to keep the everyday events grounded in whatever passes for reality. In Britain, a classic example is the weekday serial called The Archers (BBC Radio) which is set in a farming community. Now it would no doubt be great for ratings if a flying saucer descended on to a field of wheat and the little grey occupants explained why a nice geometrical design would be left when they took off again. But this would be a one-shot audience high. Until the cylinders fired from the guns on Mars arrive, the writers would have to keep going with talk of which fields they will fertilise next and what they will do if there’s an unexpected frost after seeding. In fact, the weather patterns in the show closely follow the real world. That way, when the fictional farmers look out of their windows, they see what the listeners see. It makes them feel like the folks living next door.

I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by Right Hand Magic, the first in this Golgotham series (I wait with interest to see which part of the body is to be featured in the title of the next book). It seemed to me a rather pallid piece of romantic fiction with some vague supernatural threats to deal with. Indeed, I’ve rather consistently found these urban fantasy or paranormal romances (pick whichever label you find most appealing) less than exciting. I’ve speculated the reason is my gender. As a man, I’m more used to blood and gore following on from assorted violent mayhem. Just as gooey romance on the large and small screen tends to leave me nauseous, debates over whether hunks are hot enough to bed are not my choice of reading material. Anyway, now we come to Left Hand Magic by Nancy Collins and, while it sticks to the script of nothing too exciting, there’s a slow improvement in the overall performance.

Nancy Collins shielding her left side from possible attack

In Right Hand Magic, Nancy Collins dumped us in media res and I was critical of the failure to explain any of the background. Now we have the first book out of the way, this is evolving into an alternate reality series in which the author is applying the “what if” principle to a world in which the human exists alongside the supernatural. As in The Archers, we look out of the window and see a New York in which all manner of magical folk live in Golgotham, hopefully rubbing along without too many inter-racial or species conflicts. Except, of course, that’s always too much to hope for. So, when newspaper articles emerge praising the bohemian delights of pub crawls round Golgotham, the locals suddenly have to deal with an unwelcome flood of human rubberneckers. Inevitably, after both sides have consumed an appropriate quantity of alcohol, there can be disagreements about whether smoking should be allowed and other cultural issues. Unless nipped in the bud, this can build into a major civil disturbance. Then which policing agency should take jurisdiction and how should both sides of the community deal with the aftermath?

The answer to these questions is provided with some degree of rigor. Nancy Collins is exploring the initial premises and reaching some interesting social and political conclusions. Some of the ideas are also appealing. I like the methods for making an artist’s impression of alleged criminals and taking evidence from witnesses. We could do with such abilities in our human courts. So while I would prefer to avoid the angst over meeting the prospective mother-in-law, the ghastly sentimentality over acquiring and keeping a dog for the home, planning the wedding with Vanessa, dealing with jealousy from female magical folk, and issues over who gets to see whom naked around the home, there are emerging signs of intelligent life in this alternate reality. The argument to stir up the older magical folk is that the humans are marginalising them by developing technology. Who needs teleportation when you have a car or van? Who needs to be able to fly when you have aeroplanes? This has the right level of irrationality to appeal to the prejudices of anyone whose living depends on supplying magical services to the human community.

So Left Hand Magic is an improvement on the first volume, if only because it has begun to take itself seriously. The real test is satisfied. Nancy Collins does not feel the need to go out of her way to introduce outrageous supernatural threats. All the events feel reasonably consistent with the prevalent levels of magical abilities shown by each racial group or bloodline. Yes, there are threats to life and limb but they are not oversold. In other urban fantasies, there are citywide or, in one or two cases, state-wide effects to contend with. Here, everything is highly individual and the greater effects would come from political and not magical pressures. From my male point of view, it’s a shame I have to read through all this romantic mush but, hey, you never know. Perhaps our human heroine will turn out to have superpowers or, better still, the children of this mixed relationship will lead humans and the magical folk into a bright new future together.

For a review of the final book in the trilogy, see Magic and Loss

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

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