Category Archives: 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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The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon by NK JemisinReview: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit, 2012)

There is trouble brewing between the city-states of Gujareeh and Kisua. Ancient rivalries, religious differences and old-fashioned greed threaten to snap the fragile thread of peace existing between them. The Prince of Gujareeh outwardly seeks peace but something is amiss. An envoy lies dead, mysterious corpses sprout everywhere and there are rumours of armies building in the north. And on top of this a deadly Reaper, previously considered a mythical bogeyman, may be on the loose.

N.K. Jemisin throws us into the heat of The Killing Moon‘s action with barely any time to orient ourselves. From the get-go we plunge into this ready-formed world, replete with vibrant history, authentic religions and all-too-familiar political machinations. The desert region she has created feels intentionally like a doppelganger of ancient Egypt, complete with a time cycle measured in ‘flood years’. Against this incredibly rendered and vivid backdrop people carry on their lives in all manner of familiar ways, familiar but for one trade: the Gatherers.

Central to The Killing Moon‘s plot is the rich religious mythos, revolving around the magic inherent in dreams which the Gatherers harvest from those on the brink of death. This mysterious cult approaches those reaching their final hours, by request or decree, and enters their minds under a cloak of secrecy. Once there they shepherd the departed towards the eternal dreamworld, eventually cutting their soul’s tether and returning to reality with a precious harvest of dreamblood. The process is part ritual offering and part shepherding souls towards their goddess but the primary focus remains the harvest.

Dreamblood is a powerful substance, capable of all manner of healing and sustenance yet turning Gatherers into addicts who cannot function without a regular personal supply. Its complement, dreambile, shares similarly potent qualities, yet such power can corrupt easily so Gatherers must remain forever vigilant. We follow two such Gatherers, the wise, experienced Ehiru and his eager apprentice and would-be lover Nijiri. At the novel’s outset Ehiru’s gathering goes badly awry, leaving him shaken and in fear of losing his control over his abilities. The incident which sparks his crisis seems intertwined with a Kisuan diplomat, the exotic Sunandi, impelling him to investigate with Nijiri in tow.

The unfolding action and plot in The Killing Moon are highly compelling, rivalling the best thrillers in the literary world but never losing the fantastic feel of its setting. As well as the cloak-and-dagger political intrigue there is the mystery of the Gujareen temple Ketawa as well as the very physical interaction of Ehiru and Nijiri with their counterparts. Did I mention Gatherers are almost ninja-like in their martial prowess? No? Well now you know. Capable of defeating all but the most elite of opponents they can also send most men to the dreamworld with a brush of their fingertips. Jemisin squeezes every ounce of mileage she can out of these warrior monks and never once does it feel tired or forced. On top of that, once the Reaper’s powers begin to manifest themselves the book takes on a sinister, apocalyptic feel which completely changes its character and refreshes the situation.

However it’s the incredible world which makes Jemisin’s book such a riveting success. You’d be forgiven for thinking that she had spent years either researching or living in a real Gujareeh, such is the authenticity n which it is steeped. Every detail is covered, from ritual and decoration to combat and caste system. The religion will seem familiar to anyone who has studied ancient Middle-eastern belief systems, although is never so close as to have been simply plagiarised. Jemisin could have been lazy and simply lifted a patchwork of elements from history and culture but instead has put in the hard hours to build an entirely believable and organic world from the threads which join our own ancient civilisations.

The first half of a duology, The Killing Moon is more than strong enough to stand on its own among the very best of its genre. What could easily have been just another fantasy novel cashing in on the Game Of Thrones market instead sets a new watermark in terms of the intermingling of imagination and authenticity. The sequel, The Shadowed Sun has already been elevated to the top of my reading list with her previous works (said to be even better by some) following close behind. If desert-based fantasy, action and political intrigue sound like your bag then you may just have found your new favourite author.

And sorry, but I couldn’t resist linking to this wonderful song…

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Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse

Wastelands by John Jospeh AdamsReview: Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade Books, 2008)

He only wanted to make the world a better place. To stop us fighting, arguing, wasting our time on petty disagreements. He thought it would help. And it did, for a while. People were kinder and gentler. They laughed with each other, they played games, they enjoyed life. But soon, that was all they did. Then the memories started to disappear, and before long they couldn’t do anything, not even take care of themselves. And by then it was too late. No-one who could have reversed the effects had the brainpower any more. Goodnight humanity.

Thus runs Stephen King’s gloriously bleak ‘The End Of The Whole Mess‘, the first tale in Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalyose, a diverse collection of post-apocalyptic short fiction from the master of the sci-fi compendium John Joseph Adams. King’s story, narrated in diary form by one Howard Fornoy, tells of how his genius younger brother Robert inadvertently brought mankind to a grinding halt. In an attempt to alleviate our more violent instincts he researches a chemical synthesised from water in the mysteriously peaceful small town of La Plata. Using a volcanic eruption to disperse the ‘cure’ around the globe he is at first elated by the effects. All too late he realises that it doesn’t stop there – the drug eventually leads to a state indistinguishable from Alzheimer’s. The final few journal entries by Howard are a respectful hat-tip to Daniel Keyes’ heartbreaking classic Flowers For Algernon as the narrator’s own mental powers slowly slip away.

Post-apocalyptic fiction usually carries a reputation for being excessively dark – grim and nihilistic are the order of the day. However by corralling 22 stories from some of today’s finest SF/Fantasy authors, John Joseph Adams has turned Wastelands into a vehicle from smashing such stereotypes into the dust. Yes, there are some ultimate downers to be found in these pages, Paulo Bagiaculpi’s ‘People Of Sand And Slag‘ being one example which may have you reaching for the Kleenex. It’s not all doom and gloom though, there is comedy to be found as well as sheer aching beauty in some of these visions of the future.

The apocalypse can take many forms, such as the one encountered Octavia Butler’s silent ‘Speech Sounds‘. She imagines a disease sweeping the world and removing the ability to communicate. To differing degrees people suddenly find themselves robbed of speech and handwriting skills but otherwise unimpaired. The paranoia instilled by a sudden total dependence on body languages and the ambiguities which lie within soon has the world in flames. The intellectually isolated population tries to get on as best as it can but find that it’s difficult to live in a world where even an apparent favour from a stranger could be fraught with danger.

An old favourite of mine, Cory Doctorow’s ‘When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth‘ makes a welcome appearance in Wastelands. By turns dark and yet comically surreal it foists an almost slapstick, accidental armageddon upon us. One freak occurrence leads to panic in another area, setting off riots which trigger a terrorist attack which leads to an overreaching response – you see where this is going. In the space of a single evening every government and terrorist group has unleashed their arsenals, carpeting the world in nuclear, biological and conventional devastation. Our hero, Felix, is called to his Toronto data center just as events are picking up. One of the first manifestations of the looming catastrophe is a worm knocking out his routers and as sysadmin he slumps out of bed, leaving his wife and daughter behind, and gets to work. It’s the last time he sees them alive. Safe inside the vault-like server storage unit, he and his other nerd friends weather the events in safety. Piecing together what they can by communicating with similar safe havens around the globe they proceed to construct an internet-based government to cope with the disaster. Unfortunately it transpires that getting geeks to agree on politics is a process similar to herding cats.

Wastelands helped to forge John Joseph Adams’s reputation as one of our finest curators of short fiction. His other anthologies such as The Mad Scientist’s Guide To World Domination demonstrate a similar eclecticism and eye for the exceptional. While not every tale in this collection is perfect the average hit rate is astoundingly high, with far too many favourites for me to list here. Fans of the post-apocalypse or just well-told sci-fi and fantasy tales in general should stop off for a while to recharge their batteries. From Dale Bailey’s sardonic ‘The End Of The World As We Know It‘ to Neal Barrett Jr’s gleefully silly ‘Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus‘ there is truly something here for everyone

Oh, and Jerry Oltion’s ‘Judgement Passed‘ may be the single finest piece of writing about The Rapture ever conceived…

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Alif The Unseen

Alif The Unseen by G. Willow WilsonReview – Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (Grove Press, 2012)

The worlds of high-tech cyberwarriors and that of ancient spirits seem at first glance unlikely bedfellows. After all cyberpunk as a literary genre is one which generally tends to eschew the supernatural in favour of the power of technology. Man’s intellect obviates the need for angels and demons, relegating our myths and legends to the back alleys of the modern world. G. Willow Wilson’s Alif The Unseen seeks to broker a peace between the two traditions, spinning a tale that weaves constantly between the motherboard and the otherworld and in doing so creates a new genre out of whole cloth.

Alif The Unseen takes as its base an imaginary yet entirely believable Middle-Eastern enclave known simply as The City, capital of an unnamed oil Sultanate. The City is strictly demarcated into economic zones, the huddled masses kept safely away from royalty and those grown fat on black gold. The titular Alif belongs in the former, spending his days huddled in his cramped room with his computers as his only friends. A talented hacker, Alif earns himself some spending money by offering online protection and anonymity to his clients around the world, a motley crew of porn barons, gamblers and activists. Chief among his concerns his evading the grasp of ‘The Hand’, another techno-wizard recently employed by the city’s rulers to crack down on online dissidents and their enablers. Alif’s comrades-in-arms engage the hand in cyberwarfare on a daily basis, an ever-escalating arms race for digital superiority.

Beyond the glare of the screen Alif was until recently besotted by the daughter of one of the city’s privileged elite, eagerly pursuing her despite their economic disparities. Eventually reality takes its toll and she breaks off their furtive relationship, spurring Alif to create a program which will detect her online presence via no more than the manner of her typing. Its noble purpose is an early warning system, to erase his tracks from her sight and spare her the heartache of any online reminders. Alif does not suspect that it’s about to turn his world upside down.

What follows next is a wonderful act of genre-mashing as Alif receives a gift from his former love – a book known as the Alf Yeom, an ancient, magical tome allegedly penned by the djinn themselves. Before he knows what is happening, Alif and his childhood friend Dina are being pursued through the city, aided and abetted by djinn and humans alike. The Hand turns his warning program into a weapon against the city’s digital rebels and pours all his resources into acquiring the Alf Yeom for himself.

Alif The Unseen manages to splice the two worlds together seamlessly with Wilson drawing on an extensive knowledge of Arabic lore as well as modern technology to infuse her tale with a surprising level of authenticity. The influences at play are numerous and eclectic, drawing on the writings of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, Islamic legends and even movies. The character of Alif seems remarkably like a more streetwise at Neo at times,while the bazaar scenes in the invisible world of the djinn sent my mind straight to the secret market of Del Toro’s Hellboy movies.

Despite drawing on such numerous sources, Alif The Unseen successfully forges and retains its own identity throughout – the book is unmistakably Wilson’s own and its unique flavour is one of the key attractions. Unlike Alif, whose skepticism initially prevents him from accepting the reality of his new circumstances, the reader is instantly drawn in. You don’t question for a second that an archaic, mystical text can somehow hold the key to insanely powerful computing. It simply does, and Wilson ensures that you’re entirely at ease with this fact. The supernatural powers of the djinn contrast well with the cyberpowers of Alif and his adversary, while the unrest in the background recalls the recent events of the ‘Arab Spring’, giving the book a very real grounding in the contemporary world.

It’s difficult to envisage any sci-fi/fantasy reader who wouldn’t find something to enjoy here. If technology isn’t your thing then focus on the djinn, and vice versa. In the meantime there’s an old-fashioned thriller story happening behind the scenes with just enough splashes of comedy and romantic interest to relieve the tension. For those with a passing interest in the history and culture of the Gulf states there is even more enjoyment to be had, though it is by no means a prerequisite to enjoying the book. Above all it’s worth picking up just to see how two such disparate threads can be combined such that their union seems the most natural thing in the world.

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