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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Filed under Fairytale, Fantasy

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

The Republic Of Thieves by Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves by Scott LynchReview: The Republic Of Thieves by Scott Lynch (Random House, TBR October 2013)

Seven long years ago, short on reading material and desperate for something new, I picked up a book entitled The Lies Of Locke Lamora. Pitched as a tale of thieves and con-men set in a dirty fantasy world it was far from my usual bag but by the end of the first chapter I was hooked. I burned through the book in record time, duly raved about it to anyone who would listen. The tales of the Gentleman Bastards lit a fire in me and I consumed the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, with equal vigour as soon as it appeared the following year. The saga of Locke Lamora was scheduled to run for seven installments so I waited with baited breath for part three. And… nothing. Scott Lynch seemed to vanish from the face of the earth.

Were the Gentleman Bastards abandoned? Had their creator vanished into some hole, fallen foul of an insurmountable case of writer’s block or some debilitating affliction or addiction? To be honest I’d written off any chance of seeing the third in the series until, a full six years later, a chance visit to NetGalley knocked me sideways – there, in front of me, was an uncorrected proof of The Republic Of Thieves, waiting for request and subsequent download! I’ll admit it was concerning as well as exhilarating; what caused the long absence, and would it result in a lesser work, a disappointing continuation? Well here’s the tl;dr – The Republic Of Thieves is probably the most enjoyable book I have read all year, raising it above some incredible competition.

To avoid spoilers for those of you unfamiliar with the Gentleman Bastards I’ll keep the background information light. Locke Lamora is an orphaned child raised in a society of thieves to become the most accomplished trickster in all Camorr. Slight in form, he makes up for any physical disadvantage with an extraordinary intellect and cunning tempered with an impetuous streak and a knack for the most colourful of insults. Accompanied by his childhood friend Jean Tannen, Chewbacca to Locke’s Han Solo, they lie, cheat and steal their way through life in a vaguely honourable fashion along with their trusted gang, the aforementioned bastards.

The Republic Of Thieves picks up where Red Seas Under Red Skies left off with Locke at death’s door due to a wicked poisoning, Jean caring for him and grieving for his own loss and the rest of the Gentleman Bastards long gone. Things look grim until a Bondsmagi appears and makes them an offer they can’t refuse. The mysterious and deadly Bondsmagi reside in the town of Karthain and, for reasons best known to them, make a game of the five-yearly elections held by the ‘normal’ residents. Two factions of the mages play off against each other, trying to influence the outcome in favour of their own candidate through the use of imported pawns whose remit is to use any means necessary (short of outright murder) to gain victory. In exchange for a cure – not to mention a pardon for killing one of the Bondsmagi in a previous adventure – Jean and Tannen are to fight in the corner of Patience, one of the highest standing mages. Little known to them their opponent has already been selected – Sabetha, Locke’s lifelong crush whose whereabouts have been unknown or the past five years.

The result is a beautiful tale, an epic battle of wits as Locke and Sabetha run rings around each other while Locke struggles to contain his feelings for his old flame. Running parallel to the main plot is a secondary story told in flashbacks, a theatrical escapade from the Gentleman Bastards’ formative years, in which we witness the feelings between Locke and Sabetha beginning to unfold. It seems that six years away has managed to hone Lynch’s storytelling chops. Throughout the entire, and considerable, length of The Republic Of Thieves he barely puts a foot wrong. The pacing is perfect, alternating between plots at exactly the right points. His dialogue is a joy to read, particularly Locke’s biting sarcasm and Jean’s earthy retorts which I’m unfortunately not allowed to quote just yet. The tricks themselves are worth the price of admission, with the constant one-upmanship being reminiscent of Caine and Olivier’s shenanigans in Sleuth, albeit on a grander scale. And finally, I don’t know how he did it but there’s a moreishness to every chapter which actually had me disappointed when I reached the 500-page mark and realised that the end was in sight.

There’s not much left to say really, this book was all set to disappoint me but instead it blew me away. I already want to go back and re-read the first two installments just to keep me afloat until part four (The Thorn Of Emberlain) arrives. Will this book have the same effect on you? Well, if you have any love for devious tricks, creative cursing, theatre and performances and well-written fantasy with a great deal of heart then there’s a good chance it will. Get acquainted with the Gentleman Bastards from the beginning then catch up with The Republic Of Thieves. You’ll be fantasising about your alternate life as the king (or queen) of the con artists in no time.

(Thanks to Random House for providing the advance reading copy of this book.)

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The Antipope by Robert Rankin

Review: The Antipope by Robert Rankin (Pan, 1981)

The Antipope by Robert RankinLife is far from dull for the regulars of the Lucky Swan, a stereotypical old English boozer in the heart of London’s Brentford, yet it’s not exactly abnormal. The locals come and go about their business – unlikely gambling schemes, peccadilloes with their neighbours’ wives and such like – punctuating their activities with several lagers and embellishing tales of their latest exploits with the necessary bells and whistles. In fact the scenes playing out at the Swan could be re-enacted without a second glance at any other pub up and down the country without anyone batting an eyelid. Then the tramp comes to town…

Shambling barely perceptibly up the street, the itinerant starts to make casual contact with the locals. An unassuming request for help here, a tall tale there, imparting information and soaking it up at the same time. Yet as soon as he appears he soon vanishes, disappearing in mid-conversation and leaving only the vaguest notion of his presence in the first place. For Jim Pooley and John Omally, two layabouts who are more or less part of the Swan’s furniture, the vagrant’s comings and goings assume a sinister and they find themselves naturally compelled to investigate – for who knows, perhaps their efforts may yield fame or fortune?

Before they know it they find themselves wrapped up in series of adventures and misadventures quite beyond their booze-addled comprehension. Aided by the local professor, a reclusive genius (also skilled in the ancient martial arts of Dimac), they uncover the secret of the magic beans, reveal a growing army of miniature demons and stumble upon a plot to turn Brentford into a new Vatican, hatched by none other than a malevolent reincarnation of Pope Alexander IV, last of the infamous Borgias.

And that, in a nutshell, is The Antipope, first instalment in Robert Rankin’s Brentford trilogy. On the surface it seems like yet another absurdist slice of, erm, horror? Urban fantasy? Gothic? And therein lies the joy of The Antipope – jumping merrily among genres it happily defies categorisation and carves out its own little niche. The settings and characterisation are straight out of Wodehouse while the general humour are cut from the same cloth as Pratchett, Adams and their ilk – thoroughly English without ever becoming twee or lapsing into patronising stereotype. There’s a great warmth with which Rankin portrays his protagonists, painting them as neither heroes nor anti-heroes but simple everymen who, upon finding the odds stacked against them, rely purely on whisky and chance to get them out of a scrape. The Swan and its patrons strikes an immediate chord with anyone who has spent a few hours in a genuine old British pub, the sounds and smells filling your senses as you read – for better or worse…;

Around this shell is wrapped a tale which is irresistible in its lunacy and yet which, thanks to the grounding in its characters and locale, almost manages to pass as a description of normal life in Brentford. Encompassing everything from demons to zombies, from kung-fu adepts to satanic midnight masses, there’s no let-up in the action from start to finish. The build-up to and execution of the cowboy party scene in the Swan is absolutely beautiful, a crescendo of every brand of craziness known to man, encompassing page 3 girls, and army of Lone Rangers and a neon-lit (and poorly grounded) king of the open plains. No description can do this section justice, just go and read it right now.

Finally, no review of The Antipope would be complete without a mention of the alcohol. To my recollection I have never seen, heard or read of such Herculean acts of consumption. Hunter Thompson doesn’t get a look in while Withnail and I look on in goggle-eyed awe. It seems that every single act committed by the denizens of Brentford must be accompanied by a bottle or two of Scotch if it’s to stand any chance of success. In fact, such is the constancy of the liquor’s flow that I can’t even recall mention of a single hangover – the effects are never given a chance to wear off before they are refreshed. Perhaps a re-read and an actual bottle count is in order.

By virtue of Robert Rankin’s aptitude for genre-hopping  would feel at home on a diverse range of bookshelves. Classified by the author himself as ‘far-fetched fiction’, there’s an appeal to those of a fantastical, science-fictional or horrific bent as well as those who simply fancy a taste of pre-Information Age England. The locale and literary style are firmly fixed but the humour is universal, making this one for lovers of a well-spun yarn anywhere.

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The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart

The Sad Tale of the Brothers GrossbartReview: The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington (Orbit, 2009)

So, having finished reading and reviewing Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark And Grimm for Mountains Of Instead I found myself in the mood for something in a similar vein (fairytales wrenched from their recently sanitised moorings and draped in darker attire) I picked up the only remotely suitable book in my collection – The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart, debut novel of Jesse Bullington. Admittedly the cover alone was enough to tempt me, apparently even more impressive in dead-tree format, but nothing could have prepared me for what lay between the pages. Where Gidwitz took the beloved tales of the Brothers Grimm and wrapped them in robes of humour and Hammer-style blood and guts, Bullington has travelled down an altogether darker route. Drawing on no particular tales he has crafted his own medieval Gothic Illiad, taking several well-worn archetypes and bonding them together with a paste of blood, entrails, vomit and foul language. Suffice to say it was right up my alley.

The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart starts as it means to continue, with murder most foul. The self-orphaned twins Hegel and Manfried and, descended from a proud line of violent, illiterate grave robbers, run afoul of a rural farmer, Heinrich, in their Germanic homeland. In a staggeringly cruel and vicious opening act they massacre his young family by blade and fire, leaving him alive as an act of either mercy or torture, it’s hard to say which. Following their rampage they embark upon a quest to seek out one of their more eccentric ancestors in ‘Gyptland, rumoured to contain tombs the like of which they have never clapped eyes on, all ripe for the plunder. Armed with brute strength, Hegel’s uncanny ability to sense impending danger and a conviction that the Virgin Mary (not her pathetic molly-coddled offspring) is looking out for them they pursue their goal with a religious zeal which will suffer no obstacles.

Of course this is the real world and crimes as grotesque as theirs cannot be seen to go unpunished. Soon they find themselves pursued by Heinrich’s townsfolk, sparking yet another bloody slaughter. Retreating into the woods to lick their wounds following their hard-won victory things take a turn for the strange. From nowhere a manticore – part man, part beast – attacks, mortally wounding Manfried before they can dispatch it. Stumbling through the snow they finally find a cottage inhabited by a twisted crone of a witch who can cure Manfried – for a price. Having feasted on her previous litters of children she is in need of more offspring, a task for which she requires Hegel’s, erm, assistance in one of the more stomach-churning scenes of modern literature. With Manfried recovered the brothers set upon the vile harpy, leaving her for dead but little realising that their failure to complete the deed will result in Hell being unleashed to follow them.

The ensuing odyssey seems like the result of an absinthe-drenched drinking session comprising the Marquis de Sade, Comte de Lautreamont, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. No taboo is left inviolate and there is no recess of the human spirit too dark to explore. The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart is an exercise in gleeful malevolence, happily mocking the idea of just desserts and nice guys finishing first. As the scope of the novel expands to take in demonic possession, pirates, sirens, false Popes and fallen priests you soon find you have discarded any sense of disbelief and – shockingly – may sometimes actually sympathise with these two magnificently warped creations. Having the imagination and literary knowledge to tell such a familiar yet undeniably original tale is talent enough but to have it suck the reader in to quite this degree.

Aside from the gore it is easy to overlook the fact that Bullington must be something of a Gothic scholar, so wonderfully detailed is the world he’s created. Dirt and disease line every single page and you can almost smell the decay and waste in even the most opulent of the book’s settings. The tattered clothes of the villagers, the drunken fellow travellers, the crooks and swindler, princes and (mostly) paupers and above all the sense of living in an era which the gods forgot, they’re all perfectly rendered here. At one point I actually couldn’t get Monty Python and the Holy Grail out of my head while reading – “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!” – the levels of squalor and insanity being roughly parallel.

Being James Bullington’s first full-length attempt it is no surprise that The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart (damn, even typing that name makes me wish Nick Cave and t’other Warren Ellis would write a score for it) isn’t quite perfect. Despite an utterly unrelenting and exhausting opening the book unfortunately loses its way around the halfway mark. On reaching a speedbump in their quest the storytelling itself seems to stumble and you can’t help wishing Bullington would just move to the next chapter – instead there is an overly long period of stagnation and political manoeuvring where you are craving more profanity, flying limbs and spurting fluids. Thankfully it doesn’t last forever and we’re eventually treated to something of a double climax and a bizarrely abrupt ending which is rendered all the more humorous and poignant for its brevity.

Should you read this book? It’s a good question. There’s no doubt that the content may be regarded or puerile by some and simply offensive by others. If child murder, drugged-up witch-fucking, extreme blasphemy, torture, maiming, murder and many-mouthed, plague-ridden hellspawns born of hatred and babyteeth give you the heebie-jeebies then by all means stay away. If however you are made of sterner stuff, don’t take your literature too seriously or felt that all de Sade needed was a few more dick jokes then seriously, this is the book for you.

Oh, and their beards are amazing.

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