Category Archives: Supernatural

Maplecroft

Maplecroft by Cherie PriestReview: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Roc Trade, 2014)

Apparently Lizzie Borden took an ax (it was missing an ‘e’, I’m trying to track it down) and gave her mother forty whacks. Really? Whacks with an axe (hey, the ‘e’ came back!)? Surely one chops with an axe? You whack someone with a blunt instrument like a club or the lid of a piano. Or did she do it with the axe handle? Or the flat of the blade? Anyway, she went on to give her dad much the same treatment, with an extra whack/chop for measure. Daddy issues. To be honest that was about the extent of my knowledge of Miss Lizzie Andrew Borden and her alleged pursuits. While a staple of American legend it always seemed a bit ho-hum to a European. I mean, who needs the Bordens when you already have the Borgias? Well thankfully Cherie Priest’s latest novel, Maplecroft, has set me straight on the history of America’s most notoriously (allegedly) wayward woman.

Well, only for exceedingly twisted values of ‘straight’. The story opens with Lizzie (hereon known as Lisbeth) caring for her sickly sister Emma in Maplecroft, the mansion they procured for themselves following the deaths of their parents. Being mostly unaware of the details behind the Borden story I did a little research into the affair prior to reading. Priest has done an amazing job of gathering up all the strands of the real-life incident and investigation and weaving them into her re-telling: a violent sickness had befallen the household for a few days; the maid was alerted by cries from Lisbeth; the bodies of the parents, Abby and Andrew were discovered, bearing 19 and 11 axe wounds respectively (40 and 41? Pfft…). Lizzie was the chief suspect but later acquitted by a jury, the real killer remaining undiscovered.

And it’s here that Maplecroft begins its delightful divergence from reality. For you see, Lisbeth did indeed take the axe to her parents. But she did it to protect not only herself and frail Emma but to save her town and perhaps the world.  Dark, nameless horrors lurk in the shadows of Fall River, slimy boneless fiends, denizens of the deep and disciples of the dark gods which lurk beneath the roiling waves. Yes folks, we’re deep in Lovecraft territory here and it’s one of the most enjoyable excursions I’ve had there in a good long time. Starting with an innocent mailing of a slime mold sample to a distant professor, Maplecroft slowly builds the tension until all and sundry are losing their minds and their lives and the world is on the brink of disaster.

On the one hand we have an awakening god making its murderous way across America to find the woman who unwittingly brought him to life. And back at the ranch we have Lisbeth struggling to contain her wildly intelligent sibling while dealing with her increasingly curious girlfriend and the unwanted attentions of a private investigator. Juggling these two strands together, Cherie Priest turns Maplecroft into an unexpected winner on a number of levels. The narrative voice she adopts is utterly beautiful, telling the story primarily through the eyes of Lisbeth and Emma yet doing so in a manner very firmly rooted in the period. Such is the thickness of the nineteenth century atmosphere that you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were indeed reading an undiscovered Lovecraft novel. Priest has had plenty of practice with her forays into steampunk and now it just feels so natural, not at all forced, unlike the caricatures of older literary styles which usually crop up when an author attempts to imitate literature of an earlier era.

But it’s the attention to detail which really grabbed me. There’s not a single element of Lisbeth’s world which goes unexamined and it serves to pull you right in and keep a hold of you, immersing you in the antiquated horror all around. From the trusty axe with which she dispatches her unwordly foes to the wonderful acid bath under the floorboards of her basement, this is a world painted in deep, rich colours. You’re going to hear the creatures scratching against the door, you’ll see the stress take its toll on beleaguered Lisbeth and you will smell, the unimaginable stench of the elder gods at work. In marked contrast to the master whose works inspired Maplecroft, Cherie Priest has no qualms at all when it comes to describing the indescribable and it simply works.

I’d venture so far as to say that if you have no experience of HP Lovecraft then Maplecroft would actually be a wonderful place to commence your addiction. It’s not truly related to his works but the similarities in tone and subject are simply incredible and Priest’s work is a great deal more accessible. If you’re already a fan of unnameable horrors then you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s Lovecraft for a new generation, written with an obvious love for the source material and doesn’t sully the name in the slightest. Cthulhu would be proud.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alternate History, Gothic, Horror, Supernatural

Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters by Lauren BeukesReview: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (Harper Collins, 2014)

It’s easy to gush praise for Lauren Beukes. Sounds sycophantic but it’s just plain true. First she gave us the wonderfully grim and gritty broken slab of cyberpunk that was Moxyland. Then she went all weird animal spirit and missing persons with Zoo City. Then, just to show off, she went and wrote Shining Girls, one of my favourite urban fantasy/horror/crime stories ever. In fact my girlfriend just finished reading the Mandarin translation, taking a good while to complete it due to it being “too exciting to read before sleeping”. So when I heard her latest, Broken Monsters, had hit the bookshelves I was into the virtual library like a shot and racing to my ebook reader with a brand new bundle of 1s and 0s.

And my first thought was, “Why am I reading a police procedural novel?”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of crime fiction done well. It’s just that based on past form I was expecting something altogether more fantastic than what seemed to be on offer here. Broken Monsters kicks off in heavy disguise, looking for all the world like a more artistic Silence Of The Lambs. A twisted killer with a penchant for animals and art is stalking the streets of abandoned and broken Detroit. Earnestly trying to both track down the culprit while caring for an increasingly wayward teenage daughter is Detective Versado and a wonderfully fleshed-out assortment of Detroit’s finest.

If there was nothing more to Broken Monsters than a cat-and-mouse then there would be little to lift it above the ranks of airport crime novels but this is Lauren Beukes. The narrative is fragmented into a handful of different viewpoints. Not only do we get to ride along with Versado, her daughter and the killer but we get to experience the viewpoint of some other spanners in the works. First there is the washed-up journalist/author trying to get his career back on track after burning every bridge he could lay his hands on. Thanks to his newly-acquired and ever-so-hip and young DJ girlfriend he’s soon tuned into ‘new media’ and the horde of eyeballs waiting on the other side of a YouTube channel. And then there is the human wreckage of Detroit, represented by a band of homeless friends scraping a living by scouring abandoned buildings for anything salvageable. Inevitably their paths collide in a rather spectacular manner.

One of the key thread in Broken Monsters, alongside the ode to Detroit and the countless other magnificent living ruins in our midst, is the exploration of media sensationalism and the potential for our fascination and hunger to fuel the darker sides of our natures. This isn’t meant in the sense of the patently ridiculous ‘video games and horror movies will turn your children psycho’ trope. Rather it’s about the very real violence we gorge ourselves on every time we turn on the news or open a paper. Living in Taiwan this strikes a very real chord, being surrounded by news stories of teens and young adults going on knife-wielding rampages. Every murder is pored over in sickening detail by every news channel. The pictures run constantly: the bodies; the wailing family; the scornful politicians; the shocked friends. And yet the carnage continues at an ever greater pace. Makes you think…

And of course it wouldn’t be Lauren Beukes unless there was something going on behind the scenes. As soon as you get the sense that this is no ordinary killer, not just a man with a simple screw loose, the novel is elevated from a particularly gripping thriller to an unnerving almost-ghost story, one which refuses to allow simple categories to pin it down. It’s tempting to label it as horror but it is so much more because the horror comes from revealing what is worst about the world around us rather than relying on the unreal elements to bring the dread. Elements from her previous two books are very obvious here (indeed she admitted that she was originally worried that she was just re-writing Shining Girls) but they are melded together with crucial new strands which make this book a logical progression from what she has accomplished before. Shining Girls managed to gather her a pretty sizeable following but hopefully this will be the title which will lead to the acclaim she deserves.

Leave a comment

Filed under Crime, Horror, Supernatural, Thriller, Urban Fantasy

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.)

1 Comment

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Fantasy, Humour, Supernatural

Snowblind by Christopher Golden

Snowblind by Christopher GoldenReview: Snowblind by Christopher Golden (St Martin’s Press, 2014)

Note: Thanks to St Martin’s Press for providing an Advance Reading Copy of this title.

Twelve years ago, a blizzard descended on the town of Coventry, New England. Nothing special there, but this storm was different. By the time the snows had cleared, the town was torn apart. People had simply disappeared, vanished into the drifts leaving not a trace behind. Worse, others simply did not survive the night at all, falling prey to the weather as well as forces unexplained. In its wake the disaster deposited desperation and emptiness, changing the lives of those left behind forever. Now the storm is returning and people are acting more than a little strange.

I’ll get this out of the way right off the bat – Snowblind is receiving a snowplow-load of comparisons to early Stephen King and I can’t help but agree. It has all of the ingredients: north-eastern US setting; down-to-earth characters; supernatural forces. Hell, the man himself even gave it a spot of cover blurb. Does it live up to the hype? And does Golden have a distinct enough voice to wrestle free of his obvious inspiration? Well, the answers are both resoundingly positive.

Snowblind features without a doubt one of the most gripping and fraught opening acts I’ve read in years. Comprising of a flashback to the original devastating storm it proceeds to set up a believable and intriguing cast of characters before suddenly turning on them and putting them through hell. By the time I had caught up to the present day I had forgotten that this was just a taster, that the meat of the story was yet to come. There were no guts, no gore, not my usual horror fare at all. Nothing but a creeping sense of unease which reached an eventual crescendo, leaving me glancing at the windows to make sure no unwelcome faces lurked there.

And then… silence. Like the calm following the storm Golden then surveys the damage he has wreaked, taking in the shattered lives, the broken families, the loss of hope. Without lingering too long on the scene you’re left in no doubt about the scale of the emotional damage caused to adult and child alike. But there’s only a short time to catch your breath before Snowblind pulls you back into the eye of the storm for an intense final act.

Christopher Golden does indeed have some stylistic similarities with the master of horror but where King’s older works can occasionally seem dated and a little twee these days, Golden is sharp and thoroughly contemporary. I’ll admit it hurt to see him use the word ‘hipster’ so often, as if it were some kind of virtue, but I’ll let that slide. His words pull you along effortlessly into the story, so much so that it feels more like the book is simply happening to you, rather than you actively reading it. Even though the eventual explanation of the storm’s terrible power seems a bit stretched in hindsight it doesn’t detract from the power of the story at all.

It’s been a long time since I read a good old-fashioned horror yarn and Snowblind has instilled in me a fresh hunger for more. This is exactly the fare I cut my reading teeth on (King, Herbert, Barker, etc) but updated for a modern age, a potent mix of the old and the new. If Christopher Golden has any more like this left in him then I’ll be waiting in line. One to read while curled up in front of a real fire on a cold, windy day, with the curtains closed and door locked of course…

Leave a comment

Filed under Horror, Supernatural

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…

Leave a comment

Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fantasy, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Tech