Category Archives: Fantasy

The Girl Who Would Be King

The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly ThomsonReview: The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly Thomson (1979 Semi-Finalist Inc, 2012)

This review has been languishing in the ‘must-write’ pie for months and it’s a damn disgrace. The delay that is, not The Girl Who Would Be King which is bloody splendid. Kicking myself now for not having spread the word sooner. I think I heard about this one over at io9 and ended up downloading it as a spot of light reading for my summer holiday back to Scotland. Good choice yet bad choice – it had me utterly rapt from beginning to end but unfortunately was over in a flash as I devoured the majority of the pages on one sleepless flight. But anyway, before the praise I’d best go through the formalities.

Bonnie Braverman was orphaned by a fatal car accident, leaving her to spend much of her youth in a group home and pining for the return of her long-lost brother. Always the shy and retiring type it comes as something of a surprise when she finds herself rescuing one of her fellow inmates (for want of a better word) from the clutches of an imposing bully and her gang. Surely people aren’t normally able to hit that hard? And did she really just jump onto the roof of that building? Something has awoken inside Bonnie and it begins drawing her inexorably towards her ultimate fate.

The other half of that fate is Lola LeFever, a girl of similar years and verging on adulthood. Lola shares Bonnie’s orphanhood but with a slight difference – she murdered her mother herself in pursuit of a power she believed her to possess. A power which was Lola’s birthright and squandered by her useless, drug-addled mother. Before long she too is feeling the draw of the force inside her, leading her towards her opposite number, her nemesis.

The Girl Who Would Be King pitches a fairly classic good-vs-evil story put dresses it up with two post-adolescent American girls donning superhero costumes and trying to figure out just what they’re capable of. Woah, holy coming-of-age metaphor. You might guess from the subject matter that Kelly Thomson doesn’t take things too seriously but the book does actually have a fair amount of emotional heft and depth to it. While Lola’s story does provide some wonderfully over-the-top supervillain shenanigans there’s a whole lot more darkness and gravitas with Bonnie as she struggles to do the right thing while the world’s deck of cards seems stacked against her.

Actually, halfway through the novel I kind of expected a ground-shaking plot twist as a result of Bonnie’s trial by fire. I could smell it coming, it seemed like such a perfect way to throw expectations out of the window. When it didn’t happen I almost wanted to hunt down Thomson’s email address and just ask, “Why??? Why didn’t you go this way???” But in the end it didn’t matter because the way things unfold is just fine. Sometimes it’s okay to just play it straight and keep piling up the tension until the grand finale and that’s the way it happens with The Girl Who Would Be King.

So yeah, maybe it missed a fantastic switcheroo but there’s still plenty to recommend this novel. An original plot despite borrowing heavily from the usual superhero tropes; two very strong characters in the form of Lola and Bonnie; and some action so ridiculously fun that Amazon had to print a disclaimer on their site that this is a prose novel, not a comic. It’s lightweight for sure but no less fun for that and noteworthy for the fact that its creation was funded by Kickstarter. Definitely one with which to while away the incoming winter nights.

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The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev GrossmanReview: The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Viking Press, 2009)

Okay, let me get this off my chest first – and trust me, the reference is almost obligatory when reviewing this book. It’s not that I dislike JK Rowling and Harry Potter per se. Despite her opposition to Scottish independence I’m sure she deserves some credit for enticing legions of kids to pick up books. And I’ve been assured that the later books in the series are rather ‘dark’, although having seen the final movies I can only assume this means dark in the same sense as a particularly upsetting episode of Scooby Doo. It’s just that something really irritated me about seeing hordes of adults with their noses buried in the latest of the Hogwarts chronicles, all buoyed up and pretending to be part of some kind of reliving-our-childhood club. Just stop. They’re kid’s books. Young Adult I can handle, and even enjoy, but these are for children. Little ‘uns. Proto-humans. By wasting weeks on them (yes, it boggles my mind that it could take so long), people blocked themselves off forever from works far more fulfilling, squandering time which would never be given back.

And I was a little jealous.

Because I loved magic. I grew up immersed in everything from Pratchett’s Discworld series to the futuristic scientific magic of Asimov. Secretly I wanted in on the act but my principles, better known to others as stubbornness, got in the way. The only direction was forward, I could not risk regress in my tastes for fear of missing something new, something shiny. The urge to be part of the water-cooler conversation wasn’t strong enough to overcome my literary snobbishness until, thankfully, Lev Grossman happened.

The Magicians has garnered a lot of praise and that has inevitably been garnished with generous helpings of Potter references. It’s easy to see why. The first act of the story follows a group of unassuming yet precociously intelligent teenagers who, upon applying to various universities, find themselves spirited away to Brakebills Academy, a hidden school of magic lurking behind alchemical camouflage in the Maine countryside. Quentin Coldwater is a withdrawn prodigy, previously unaware of the very real existence of magic and wrestling with an unfortunate combination of bewilderment at his new circumstances and the general malaise toted by every discerning late teen.

Soon Quentin allies himself with a cadre of fellow gifted rejects and they begin their rigorous training in the ways of the wand (although such relics are looked upon with condescending mirth by mystical sophisticates). What follows is a warm coming of age story as Quentin comes to terms with his abilities and failings while those around him struggle to do the same and, y’know, quests happen. The usual puberty stuff.

Key to the success of The Magicians is the fiction-within-a-fiction series of Fillory novels, a Narnia-esque children’s series with which all characters in the book are intimately familiar.  At first I found the books, a tale of children wandering through the looking glass to become kings and queens of a far-away realm, to be something of an irritatingly twee concept but as the plot progresses it becomes more tightly wound up with events and eventually part of The Magicians itself. Meta-fictions when done correctly can really add flavour to a story and this one is no exception, despite its saccharine ultra-Englishness feeling markedly out of step with the real novel’s more gritty consistency.

The writing itself is handled particularly well. Lev Grossman has a pretty wicked with and a wonderful way with language. His description of a “single malt Scotch that tasted like it had been decanted through the stump of an oak tree that had been killed by lightning” had me salivating at my work desk and desperately trying to identify the particular dram he was talking about. Another great surprise in The Magicians is the manner in which it effortlessly switches styles between sections. One minute you’re in pseudo-Hogwarts and the next it’s gone all Bret Easton Ellis meets Hubert Selby Jr in a magic shop. Then suddenly you’re playing D&D with Alsan. While this kind of transformation might unsettle some, I found it kept the pace up and made sure the story stayed fresh even during its inevitable periods of downtime.

With the following two books in the trilogy already loaded onto my ereader I’m totally sold on Grossman’s series. It’s the Harry Potter I never allowed myself to have but it’s also so much more. It’s a darker look at the fantasy kid-takes-on-the-world trope with the added bonus of containing an exceedingly honest, no-holds-barred look at the incredible rush and harsh dangers of young love. Whether you’re a Potter/Narnia fan, can’t stand them or just love good story-telling, go grab this one. Now.

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Sequel City Part 3 – The Southern Reach Trilogy

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeerReview: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals, 2014)

Dammit, all good things have to come to an end. First it was the brooding yet uplifting Last Policeman series and now, I am sorry to say, Jeff VanderMeer’s dark, unsettling and gleefully weird Southern Reach trilogy. A prolific anthologist of strange tales and accomplished author in his own right, VanderMeer has a knack for knowing exactly what is going to send shivers up your spine and have you not quite reaching for the light switch so much as wondering what potential consequences such a seemingly innocent act might entail. The first two books of the series seemed to distill this ability into the crafting of a wonderfully original mythos, one which lurks in the most primitive parts of your brain long after the book is consigned to the freezer. A swift recap is in order…

In Annihilation we were introduced to Area X, a mysterious stretch of coastland on America’s eastern seaboard. Cut off from the surrounding world by an invisible barrier with only one entrance, the zone is the subject of intense study. Groups of explorers are sent to chart the disturbance but few return. Those who do are not the same, suffering from memory loss, personality changes and incurable tumours. Their reports, where they exist at all, are patchy at best and edging towards hallucinatory. We join the action as the twelfth expedition begins their journey. Known only by their job titles the group enters Area X and finds themselves in a thoroughly twisted world full of abandoned dwellings, a ghostly lighthouse, strange noises and an unearthly creature, the crawler. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Part two, Authority, took us back outside Area X to the Southern Reach, a government agency charged with investigating the anomaly. Despite the bizarre disturbance being left behind the weirdness is ratcheted up a few notches both by the impersonal and paranoid aspect of the Southern Reach and by the thoroughly transformed biologist from the ill-fated twelfth expedition. Under interrogation by the agency and now calling herself Ghost Bird, she is a link to Area X which seems to draw its warping influence ever closer to the outside world.

And so to Acceptance. Once more VanderMeer manages to pull on seemingly inexhaustible reserves of imagination and pushes the unease factor to maximum levels. We’re now caught jumping between times as we are filled in on the back story of the lighthouse keeper and the Southern Reach’s former director who, it transpires, was one of the twelfth expedition’s members. In present day we find ourselves following Control (the current director), Ghost Bird and Grace, the former director’s assistant as they make a final journey into Area X. By cutting up the narrative between five widely varying viewpoints and three distinct times we are never given a chance to settle down and recover our nerves. As the fractured narrative unfolds revelation is piled upon revelation, always threatening to throw some light on exactly what is going on, but only teasing and then shrouding everything in yet more darkness.

It’s impossible to read these books out of sequence, it’s best to get that straight right away. However, when consumed as intended they add up to a transcendent literary experience. You learn to trust nothing you are being told and to expect anything. In this receptive state of mind VanderMeer has a ball restructuring your psyche and twisting your thoughts back on themselves. Each installment has its own distinct flavour and is terrifying and unnerving in an entirely different way, but they roll together utterly seamlessly. Storytelling like this doesn’t happen very often. I can only urge you in the strongest terms to get on board right now.

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Filed under Bizarro, Fantasy, First Contact, Science Fiction

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

The Rhesus Chart by Charles StrossReview: The Rhesus Chart (Laundry Files Book 5) by Charles Stross (Ace, 2014)

Oh mama, sometimes there’s a perfect storm of books all landing at once, a cosmic alignment which compels all of your favourite authors to complete their latest offerings within days of each other. Right now is one such blue moon occasion. Right after discovering that Ben H. Winters had completed his Last Policeman trilogy I discover there’s a new Laundry Files novel available (the one I’m reviewing here), followed immediately by the latest in Richard Kadrey’s insanely fun Sandman Slim series and the concluding chapter of Jeff VanderMeer’s thoroughly unsettling Southern Reach trilogy. Not to mention Robin Sloan sneaking in a prequel to one of my favourite books of last year, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Happy is me. First up is Charlie Stross because, well, he’s just overall awesome and this may be the finest Laundry Files novel to date.

So, to bring you up to speed in case you’re unfamiliar with this particular universe, Bob Howard was just a lonely computing science geek pottering around with algorithms in his flat. Unbeknownst to Bob it turns out that maths just happens to hold the key to accessing other dimensions and inviting their many-toothed and -tentacled denizens for dinner in our neck of the woods. Having been saved from unleashing screaming terror on suburban England he is inducted into The Laundry, a beyond-top-secret government organisation tasked with protecting the realm from threats unknowable, unnameable and indescribable. Think MI5 meets HP Lovecraft.

Many (mis)adventures and near-death incidents later, Bob finds himself discreetly climbing the organisation’s ladder, secretly enlisted as the apprentice to the Eater Of Souls and attempting to maintain a steady relationship with his wife Mo, a one-woman supernatural heavy-weapons unit armed with a cursed violin. For all Bob’s dealings with terrors from beyond the imagination it is the laundry’s stultifying and suffocating bureaucratic culture which causes him most nightmares this time around. The powers that be have decided to encourage motivation and creativity through the time-honoured tradition of whip-cracking, forcing employees to devote and extra 10% of their time to personal projects, selected from a pre-approved list of course. Unfortunately Bob’s colleague Andy succeeds in summoning a rather large and peckish entity into his office, requiring the intervention of his boss Angleton (current Eater Of Souls) and very nearly causing a departmental collapse. This sets Bob off on his own course and before you know it there’s a pack of mathemagically-created vampires roaming London, pawns in a deadly game which will soon have The Laundry at its knees.

The Rhesus Chart, despite being the fifth full-length novel in the series, is an excellent jumping-off point for new readers. It seems Charlie wrote it with accessibility in mind, providing plenty backstory to established characters and concepts without ever coming across as dull or repetitive for seasoned fans. Not to get too spoilery but the plot leads to some dark places and the story ends with events which leave the series open to an almost fresh start and with the ever-approaching Case Nightmare Green as an increasingly palpable destination. If you don’t know what to expect already then you’re going to find nerdy references, horror, humour, fantasy, sci-fi and a healthy dose of well-read snark on display. Stross revels in his contempt for the excesses of the banking institutions which recently caused so much hardship for so many millions as well as his distaste for corporate and bureaucratic culture in general. The barbs he sends that way are always well-aimed, never excessive and invariably having you involuntarily chuckling on the bus as you read.

If you’re already familiar with The Laundry Files then you need to read The Rhesus Chart as soon as possible. The characters and settings are that bit more fleshed-out and you can feel that Charles Stross is much more comfortable in creating the stories. There’s just such a natural feel about the whole thing and everything feels more substantial. What started as a jokey ‘Lovecraft-meets-the-civil-service’ tale has matured into a genuinely accomplished series and this is without a doubt the cream of the crop. If you’re a newb and don’t fancy trawling through the four previous installments (although you should) then you can happily pick up here without feeling you’re missing out. Given the almost Empire Strikes Back feeling to the ending I hope to the Elder Gods that Charlie’s already writing number six.
(An addendum here. I would have copied and pasted some choice quotes from my legally purchased ebook version but I couldn’t because, well, Amazon are a pack of bastards. Evil bastards who hate consumers and content creators in equal measure. I use a Kobo ebook reader but their store is inevitably less well stocked and more pricey than their behemoth of a competitor. So I occasionally resort to Amazon for new titles. However, Amazon only want you to be able to read their releases on their own Kindle devices so they format them and seal them with DRM intended to make them as inaccessible and user-unfriendly as possible. No problem, I can use ebook management tool Calibre to strip the protection and reformat the titles, breaking the law in the process just to access the book I purchased (although don’t ‘own’ because under Amacunt’s T’s & C’s you only license content from them). Normally this proceeds without a hitch but on converting The Rhesus Chart to an epub it decided to interpret every line break as a page break. Every single one. Reading a 2,500 page book was not my plan. So I converted to a mobi instead and while it started fine it also inserted a few characters of random gibberish every page or so and rendered the last half of the book in italics – very distracting and for some reason preventing me from highlighting or annotating. It just so happens that Charlie delivered a couple of small anti-Amazon rants during the course of The Rhesus Chart, helping to make up my mind never to ever use Amazon again. I urge you to do the same. Support authors and support the future of digital reading and publishing by buying direct from the publisher when possible and from alternative outlets when not. End PSA.)

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Filed under Fantasy, Horror, Mathematics, Science Fiction, Supernatural

Last God Standing by Michael Boatman

Last God Standing by Michael BoatmanReview: Last God Standing by Michael Boatman (Angry Robot, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Angry Robot for providing the ARC of this title

It must be tough being a god. No, seriously! I mean all day long you’ve got those prayers coming in from every corner of the globe, not to mention the fact that everyone’s a critic and they keep cursing your name. Then there are those sickeningly sycophantic angels crawling up your ass at every opportunity (for Jahweh at least). And the real kicker – if you let your guard down and people start following some other deity then you’re out on the spiritual street, resigned to the dustbin of theological history. So it’s no wonder that Jahweh decided to pack it in for a while and take a vacation in human form.

Last God Standing introduces us to Lando Calrissian Darnell Cooper (yeah, seriously), the very human incarnation of the Christian version of the Big Man Upstairs. Son of an unhinged, homophobic car salesman father and a similarly eccentric mother it was little wonder that Lando found himself treading the boards as a stand-up comic, playing the Chicago circuit and holding out for his big break. Between that and courting his girlfriend, a British-American martial arts aficionado, his life is relatively uncomplicated. Well, except for the whole being-God thing.

You see his absence has been noted by the representatives of various vanquished pantheons from Norse to Greek to Native American. They’re a tad upset that the current pretender to the throne is slacking on the job and are looking for some payback for their previous embarrassments at his ends. To that end Lando finds himself tapping into his reserves of divine power to clean up them mess when the likes of Thor decide a holy fistfight in the streets of Chicago is in order. And to make matters worse his extended vacation has left a gulf, one which is just begging to be filled by something or someone altogether more malevolent. Hey, what happened to Lucifer while God was kicking back…?

Last God Standing takes a very original premise and proceeds to have a hell of a lot of fun with it. Boatman has a sharp tongue and has no qualms about causing offence to the thin-skinned, which makes for hilarious reading at times. However he never crosses the line into being offensive for the sake of it (although I ‘m aware that other readers disagree here). Instead it puts me in mind of some of my favourite stand-ups, from George Carlin – who is repeatedly namechecked – to Jim Jeffries. Caustic but always well-meaning.

The divine smackdown scenes are ridiculously overblown and all the better for it. After all if you’re going to run with an idea like inter-deity warfare in city streets then why half-ass it? There’s a very visual element to the way these sequences play out, like I was watching them unfold on an Imax screen in my cranium. In fact the same could be said for much of the book, the natural flow of the story lending to a cinematic quality.

Of course the book isn’t without its flaws, naturally so for a debut full-length work. About half to two-thirds through the story takes a sudden leap away from what passes for its reality. In retrospect it doesn’t seem so bad but at the time of reading it was so jarring that it seriously derailed the plot and caused a temporary but sharp drop in my enjoyment. You ever watch Fringe? You know when they put Pacey in the machine and everything went weird and you kinda stopped watching after that? Yeah, that feeling. But thankfully the effect was short-lived and Boatman pulled things back together for a fitting finale.

One other quibble, and this has nothing to do with the content of the book itself. Angry Robot marketing team, what the hell are you doing? For starters, Last God Standing has been saddled with the worst cover I’ve seen since… well, I can’t even remember. If I still owned dead-tree books it’d be the worst cover in my extensive collection, the kind only found on Facebook groups dedicated to bad self-published fiction. Seriously. And another thing, the blurb the cover and even the title focus on the concept of God as a human stand-up comedian. In the book? Not so much. The whole stand-up thing isn’t even a MacGuffin, it’s entirely irrelevant. Lando could have been a street sweeper and things would have played out exactly the same. No big deal, just I was kinda looking forward to some actual stand-up being involved in the book itself beyond the two token passages we’re given.

But meh, that’s just splitting hairs. Stand-up or no stand-up, Last God Standing is a fun read and one which has inspired me to track down it’s author’s previous short works. Hopefully with a little more work he’s going to develop into a serious talent and I’ll be watching while it happens. Oh, and this book will probably really piss off your obnoxiously religious friends, which is always a good thing.

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The Twelve-Fingered Boy by John Hornor Jacobs

The Twelve-Fingered Boy by John Hornor JacobsReview: The Twelve-Fingered Boy by John Hornor Jacobs (Carolrhoda Books, 2013)

Shreve Cannon got the short end of life’s stick. Life in a trailer park caring for a younger brother and an alcoholic mother made his path all but inevitable. When we meet him at 15 years old he’s the kingpin of the candy-smuggling racket in juvie, keeping his wits sharp by outsmarting the ever-present warden Booth. Shreve made is mistakes but he’s no idiot; street smarts and sharp thinking keep him a few steps ahead of his fellow inmates. Enter Jack, an introverted and painfully shy 12-year old who is thrust into Shreve’s cell and life from nowhere. Jack is different, and the six fingers he sports on each hand are only the beginning. When he feels threatened, things get dangerous – explosively so. And his tendency towards blowing his top has attracted the attention of the sinister Quincrux, a menacing figure with an uncanny ability to get right inside your head.

Before long Shreve and Jack are on the run, having busted out of their detention centre in flight from Quincrux and his malevolent German sidekick, the nurse. What follows is classic comic-book material as the pair soon learn to explore and control their powers, that which has been with Jack as long as he can remember as well as the talent acquired by Shreve during an altercation with Quincrux. They soon realise they can’t run forever though and must face the terror which is dogging their every step. In doing so they’ll uncover the answers to key questions: where did these powers come from? Who or what is Quincrux? And what on earth happened in Maryland to cause him to be so terrified of that place?

The Twelve-Fingered Boy is a perfect example of why I’ve been so enamoured of YA fiction in recent years. It’s incredibly fresh, fast-moving and original. Most importantly it never once talks down to its audience, instead taking great pains to pull no punches. At times it is brutal in its treatment of characters and while John Hornor Jacobs is no George RR Martin you get the feeling that it’s best not to get too attached to any characters, no matter how prominently they may feature. This is a fantastical science-fiction universe to be sure but it’s one in which consequences certainly exist, and in which they are not necessarily equal and opposite to the actions which invoke them. Behind the relentless action there is a story of confusion, hurt and trauma, tapping right into the adolescent psyche of the teens who really should be reading this book.

Propping up the thrilling yet gritty storyline is a cast of characters so strongly portrayed they really do jump out of the pages at you. Shreve is a classic anti-hero, thoroughly likeable and roguish yet gloriously flawed and unashamedly so. He knows he has his rough edges and while he makes no apologies for them he does strive to improve. Jack’s fear is almost palpable, a lost child thrust into a chaotic world he doesn’t even begin to understand. And Quincrux – wow. So demonic is his nature that I couldn’t help but picture him as some kind of demented chimaera of ghost, scarecrow and those gangly Area-51 style bad guys from recent Dr Who episodes. Anything but human in other words, a personification of evil. The meat provided by the key players is more than enough to let Jacobs get away with occasionally taking liberties with plausibility elsewhere.

The Twelve-Fingered Boy is only the first in a planned trilogy of books – awful lot of that going around these days. My recommendation is to get into the action now before someone snaps up the movie rights and ruins it for everyone. It’s far too short a read but every second is hugely enjoyable.

 

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Filed under Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult

The Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tegillis

Bitter Seeds by Ian TregillisReview: The Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis (Tor Fantasy, 2010-2013)

An admission first: half of the books I have read since become an ebook convert have been chosen on the recommendation of a single source, Boing Boing. Their chief reviewer and hugely talented author in his own right, Cory Doctorow, has tastes so perfectly in alignment with my own that I barely even bother to read the details, I just dive right in. So obviously when he highlighted the closing chapter in a trilogy based around an alternate history of World War Two, one in which the Axis had access to superpowered Ubermenschen while the Allies pinned their hopes on more traditional warlocks, I was all in. The vision in my head was of a ludicrous, action-packed piece of sci-fi/fantasy nonsense, utterly lightweight and throwaway yet enjoyable. Next time I’ll read the review…

The Milkweed Triptych, comprised of Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War and Necessary Evil, begins shortly before the opening stages of the Second World War. The prologue introduces us to the key players on opposing sides, firstly a tough, opportunistic London orphan known as Raybould Marsh who is taken under the wing of government operative John Stephenson. On the other side are a pair of gypsy siblings, Gretel and Klaus, delivered into the hands of mad Nazi scientist Dr von Westarp by an unscrupulous farmer.

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis

Fast forward a decade or so and Europe is on the verge of breaking out into war. Von Westarp’s brood have developed remarkable powers, variously able to become invisible, or even totally incorporeal, to start infernos, to crush tanks like paper models with thought alone or even, in Gretel’s case, to view all the potential twisting strands which the future might take and select the one with the most favourable outcome to follow. Marsh, now a spy moving up the ranks of the secret service, becomes aware of Germany’s new secret weapon through a bizarre and fatal encounter with a potential defector. The situation soon escalates and Stephenson, compelled by Marsh’s revelations, creates Project Milkweed, tasked with countering Germany’s now unstoppable advances using a force of warlocks rounded up by Marsh’s unlikely best friend, the aristocratic Will Beauclerk.

With a set-up like this we should be en route to mindless carnage, no? Surprisingly Ian Tregillis takes an altogether different tack with The Milkweed Triptych – it is a dark, bleak and thoughtful exploration of the lengths people will go to to fulfill their desires and the consequences thereof. Key to this is the mechanics of the warlocks’ particular skillset. Rather than typical magic they utilise a proto-language known as Enochian to communicate with the Eidolons, creatures who know no spatial or temporal limitations and whose abilities to warp the fabric of reality is matched only by their hatred of humanity. Unable to locate us (Will likens their efforts to trying to pinpoint one particular ant which could be anywhere on the globe), they demand blood prices for their favours, blood which forms a map leading to the human realm. Two things follow inevitably from this premise: the blood prices escalate the more we demand of them, and with each blood map they come closer to finding us. A recipe for disaster indeed.

Necessary Evil by Ian TregillisFurther complicating matters, and crucial to the entire plot of the series, is Gretel and her ability to divine and manipulate the future. Her ability, one employed, is apparently infallible and raises an important question – if the future is set, or at least chosen by Gretel, then do we have any free will? Marsh steadfastly rails against this, saying “I refuse to live in a clockwork universe”, a thought I’m sure we all instinctively cling to no matter that all scientific evidence is stacked against it. Will shares his conviction but Gretel’s wonderful response is simply “Of course you’re free little rabbit. Now hop along. Hop, hop, hop.” No matter your own personal position on the determinism vs free will debate you will still be entranced by the slow, disturbing development of Gretel’s character and the extent of the webs she weaves.which could be anywhere on the globe), they demand blood prices for their favours, blood which forms a map leading to the human realm. Two things follow inevitably from this premise: the blood prices escalate the more we demand of them, and with each blood map they come closer to finding us. A recipe for disaster indeed.

So, The Milkweed Triptych is far from the brain candy which I had anticipated and is an altogether more heavyweight and thought-provoking work. I have one major bone to pick with Ian Tregillis though and that’s the language employed in the dialogue throughout the book. Yes, I realise we’re dealing with a certain historical period and that anachronisms should lend it more authenticity but it tends to sound more like something out of a movie than actual conversation. Did anyone ever really say “Bloody hop”? And as for the character of the Scotsman, Lorimer, and his penchant for calling the apparently handsome Klaus a ‘minger’? ‘Minger’ is a Scots word specifically referring to an ugly person, certainly not a general derogatory term. Not a huge criticism and one which the majority of the book’s readers will be blissfully unaware of but it rankled with me enough to distract from the flow of the book. Thankfully his historical research is far better than his forays into Scots vernacular.

On the whole though The Milkweed Triptych, once I adjusted to the unexpected darkness of the tone, was a very enjoyable read and one which I steamed through quickly. History buffs will get a lot of mileage out of the attention paid to the details of WW2 and beyond, fantasy fans will love the concept of the Eidolons and their blood prices, while sci-fi (and probably comic) aficionados will find plenty to keep them occupied in Von Westarp’s lab-created superhumans and their insanely destructive powers. For the general fiction reader there’s a story of love, desperation, fall and redemption hidden behind the window dressing. Something for everyone in other words.

 

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Filed under Alternate History, Fantasy