Category Archives: Urban Fantasy

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.

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

Sequel City Part 1 – Sandman Slim

The Getaway God by Richard KadreyReview: The Getaway God by Richard Kadrey (Harper Voyager, 2014)

Okay, so the next three or possibly four reviews I write are going to be sequels, conclusions or in some way connected with books I’ve previously reviewed. This may be boring for some readers but I’ll try to keep them brief and get them out of the way quickly. First up (well, second if you count The Rhesus Chart) is Richard Kadrey’s sixth in the stunning and almost unbearably cool Sandman Slim series.

The last time we met John Stark aka Sandman Slim he was fighting off fragments of gods from before time, the Angra, under an abandoned beachfront mall known as Kill City. Stark isn’t your regular guy you see, he’s a Nephilim, an Abomination. Imagine an angel who gives less than a flying fuck about most of the world, carries grudges like dogs carry fleas and smokes and drinks enough to put the whole of Russia in an early grave. That’s kind of on the right tracks.

Having been sent to Hell while he still assumed he was a regular mortal, forced to fight in their arenas, returned to avenge those who sent him there, made pals with the five fragments of God (they don’t get on), become Lucifer for a while, fought off plagues of zombies and hideous proto-angels from other dimensions, Slim is finally settling down. Now he’s working for the Golden Vigil, a government department charged with all things supernatural. His remit is to discover the workings of the Magic 8-Ball aka the Godeater, a rather potent device with an obvious purpose. Unfortunately it seems the world is ending. Los Angeles is being drenched by a Biblical deluge; Hell is being drenched by the blood raining down from the latest war in Heaven; and the Angra are looking to take their universe back for the sole purpose of ending it. One part of God is dead, another crazy, one neurotic and the other two, well, just kinda mopey. It seems a tad hopeless. Time for Sandman to step up to the plate again.

This latest installment represents a new, more mature Stark. Always previously the darkest of anti-heroes he now begins to show his human side a little more. He actually… cares! No seriously, this is a big thing. While unrepentantly nihilistic pseudo-Angels can be fun to follow for a while, Sandman Slim was in danger of becoming too one-dimensional, a one-trick pony. In The Getaway God, Richard Kadrey has finally opened him up and turned him into a far more rounded character. This courtesy has been extended to a number of the major players as well, with significant depth added to Mr Muninn, Samael, Candy and others.

It’s a pretty no-holds-barred romp too with Kadrey pulling no punches. The stakes have been raised pretty high in this episode with the future of all reality in the balance so it seems as good a time as any to go all George RR Martin on the cast and scenery. He’s done this in the past of course but for some reason the major events in The Getaway God seem to carry more weight, elevating it above its pulpy noir origins and giving it some serious heft.

I don’t know how well The Getaway God will appeal to new readers, given the serious amount of background which has gone before, but I’m pretty sure you could just jump in here and still love it. For anyone who has read and loved the first five books (if you’ve read them and didn’t love them then get the hell off my blog), you’re in for the best ride yet. Oh, and can I just add that the new pulp cinema-style covers are freakin’ awesome…

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Filed under Noir, Urban Fantasy

The Waking Engine by David Edison

The Waking Engine by David EdisonReview: The Waking Engine by David Edison (Tor, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Tor Books for providing the Advance Reading Copy of this title

First off, apologies to the kind folks at Tor who sent me this ebook gratis, only for it to languish in my virtual bookpile while real life took precedence. A few gigs for my band and, more importantly, a burgeoning relationship with a wonderful girl, got in the way. So my best-laid plans to have this finished, reviewed and posted before the February 11th publication date went awry. However it’s finally done, so without further ado…

The Waking Engine follows Cooper, an average New Yorker who awakens one day to find himself in a completely alien city and being investigated by two strangers. The mysterious pair, Asher and Sesstri, take Cooper back to their lodgings to help him recuperate and continue their probing. Having ascertained that he is not the man they’re looking for they toss him into the unfamiliar streets to fend for himself.

Cooper stumbles around his new surroundings in a disoriented daze, trying to make sense of the new world in which he’s been unceremoniously dumped. After run-ins with undying prostitutes and beer-soaked soldiers he recruits a young Richard Nixon to help him find the two miscreants who first stumbled upon him. Nixon is only too happy to offer his services in exchange for a Danzig t-shirt. On returning to their abode, Asher and Sesstri explain the situation.

He is now a citizen of the City Unspoken. Death, it transpires, is not the end. We all live countless lives, floating from one universe to another in a near-endless series of rebirths. However, we all must experience True Death eventually, and when our time is up we arrive at the City Unspoken for our final journey. But there’s a problem. An occurrence known as the svarning is under way. People are no longer dying and the city is becoming choked with souls who can no longer move on. Bound to their bodies, the populace can die over and over again in any fashion imaginable, only to find themselves back in the same old flesh, same old city. Stranger still, the former lords of the City Unspoken have been enclosed in the Dome at the heart of the misshapen metropolis. Aristocratic insanity reigns within, exacerbated that one of their number has found a weapon which allows its victims to experience True Death and is using it to trim the ranks of their peers.

No sooner is this exposition out of the way than Cooper is kidnapped, forcing Asher and Sesstri into action. They must recover their newfound friend whom it transpires may after all have been the one they are looking for. And then there is the matter of the svarning to deal with. What is it, what caused it and how can they reverse it before the world they know is destroyed by the overflowing legions of undying?

The Waking Engine is David Edison’s debut novel and it’s a very impressive one for that. It’s a dense, intricate read which crams you full of new information on every turn of the page, but despite that it’s a beautifully crafted, flowing novel. The world-building put me in mind of a bastard hybrid of China Mieville and JG Ballard and the very tone of the story is reminiscent of the same pair. It has a sparse and bleak but urgent quality to it, apparent in the plot as well as the prose itself. Edison seems to be a fiend for detail and takes great pleasure in fleshing out every aspect of the universe he has created, using a true talent for words to perfectly sculpt his world.

Admittedly the very weight of the text can start dragging. It took me a long time to really get into the swing of things, having to wade through detailed descriptions of a scenario in which I wasn’t yet fully invested. The first fifty pages or so were a slog to be honest. It pays off though and before long I was steaming through the pages at full speed, even having to remind myself to slow down and appreciate the writing instead of wolfing it down. Another slight downside was the character of the protagonist, Cooper. He seemed a little flat for a starring role and I found it difficult to connect with him in any meaningful way most of the time. Asher and Sesstri are another story though, much better written and easier to identify with their motivation.

There’s a lot to recommend The Waking Engine. Okay, it may not be the best title to go for if you’re looking for something to while away a long plane journey. However if you want a slice of urban fantasy/sci-fi that you can really sink your teeth into, or if you just want to enjoy some extremely accomplished writing for its own sake, then it’s well worth a read.

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Filed under Science Fiction, Urban Fantasy

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

Hang Wire by Adam Christopher

Hang Wire by Adam ChristopherReview: Hang Wire by Adam Christopher (Angry Robot, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Angry Robot for providing the Advance Reading Copy of this title.

Something is rotten in the city of San Francisco. A serial killer stalks the streets, selecting his victims under cover of night and garroting them with high tensile steel. The nickname bestowed upon him by the media? The Hang Wire Killer. An organisation of news bloggers covering current events in the city is out celebrating when a booby-trapped fortune cookie blows the roof off their party. During all this the circus has come to town but something sinister is lurking within. Trouble is brewing and the only hope for the city, and indeed the world, may be the ancient gods lurking unknown among us since time immemorial.

Well, if that isn’t a set-up for a gloriously silly and enjoyable book I don’t know what is…

Hang Wire hangs together through a series of flashbacks, slowly filling in the gaps telling us how the state of affairs came to be. A trail of murders and a quest for power provide the background, while in the present things get ever stranger. Ted, the blogger injured in the cookie attack, is recovering quickly with seemingly no ill effects. Not until he starts sporadically losing consciousness and awakening with no memory of what happened. His co-workers are worried, particularly his partner Alison, but there seems to be nothing they can do. But then Benny starts acting strange, and who invited Bob the beach bum dance instructor to the party?

And then there’s the circus. Little by little the camaraderie which binds the workers together seems to be unravelling. Fistfights are breaking out and tensions are high. The ringleader is acting strangely and the star attraction, tightrope walker High Wire, refuses to practice with his crew and disappears at night. Exacerbating matters are the Celtic dance troupe, taking their fire rituals a little more seriously than would be comfortable.

Hang Wire tells a number of tales all at once. It’s a detective story, a horror, a little bit of science fiction and a lot of urban fantasy. It’s a heady mix and throwing all these elements together means Adam Christopher is able to keep things rolling along at a hell of a pace. Just when you think you’ve got one thread untangled, bam! He hits you with a new murderer, superhero or plain old deity. Weaving all this together requires a lot of moving around, not only in space but also time, yet the story never really loses its way. Somehow coherence is maintained while you’re reeling from one supremely confusing (or confused) viewpoint to another.

Which brings me to another of Hang Wire‘s strong points. An intricate plot like this requires a large cast and this is where many similar novels fall down. By sacrificing quantity for quality, many authors wind up with an ensemble of paper-thin caricatures, leaving the entire book without any weight. Adam Christopher in comparison manages to imbue each of his lead characters with distinct personalities and motivations, lending his story an unexpected heft. Even minor players have their important roles in the story and he handles each as an individual, not merely as disposable plot elements. More of this in contemporary storytelling please.

Unfortunately the diversity of elements at play, while being one of Hang Wire‘s strengths, was also for me one of its weaknesses. At points it just gets a little too much. In the beginning everything seems fine and the story develops with just the right amount of novelty and surprise but somewhere around the halfway point you start thinking, “Are you kidding? Now there’s a samurai? And a magic monkey?”. Maybe it’s just me but I felt he could maybe have reined in the craziness a little and saved some of it for a sequel. However as I said earlier the book never loses its cohesion despite everything which is going on. Something of a miracle if you ask me.

Son on the whole Hang Wire gets a big thumbs up. The urban fantasy genre may have become a little saturated of late but this is certainly a fresh addition to the shelf. From psychotic gods to ancient forces lurking beneath, from living ferris wheels to evil Riverdance, Adam Christopher packs it all in. Just remember to suspend your disbelief for the duration, or send it to the pub for the evening…

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Filed under Detective, Noir, Urban Fantasy

Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey

Kill City Blues - Richard KadreyReview: Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey (Harper Voyager, 2013)

The story so far: James Stark, an aspiring young magician – and we’re talking real magic here, not card tricks – is sent to Hell by a ruthlessly ambitious colleague who goes on to murder Stark’s girlfriend. For eleven years Stark is forced to compete in Hell’s arenas. During this time it comes to his attention that he is somewhat hard to kill, becoming impervious to any attacks unsuccessfully used against him. This brings him to the attention of Samael who turns him into a personal assassin, earning him the nickname Sandman Slim and a special place in Hellion nightmares.

On clawing his way out of the Underworld he exacts his revenge against those who destroyed his life, cavorting around Los Angeles to highly destructive effect. Cue entanglements with Homeland Security’s paranormal division (The Vigil), a vicious and disillusioned angel (Aelita), violent creatures from before the dawn of time (the Kissi) and of course vampires, zombies and neo-Nazis. Did I mention he also becomes Lucifer for a period, reigning over the chaos that is Hell? Oh, and that he’s a Nephilim, half angel, having been sired by Uriel? Or that he’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, sarcastic and foul-mouthed son-of-a-bitch? Well, there you go, you’re up to speed.

Kill City Blues, fifth installment in the adventures of Sandman Slim and his merry band, carries off directly from where Devil Said Bang left off. Back in LA, Stark is still reeling from his time as Lucifer. Unfortunately the universe never takes a break. You see, it transpires that God didn’t create the universe, rather he tricked its creators, the Angra, out of it. These Elder Gods are displeased and beginning to find holes in reality large enough to allow them through to our domain.

Sandman was entrusted with a weapon, the only of its kind, which is capable of destroying gods – the Qomrama Om Ya – but he, erm, misplaced it. To further complicate matters, the God who did the original tricking had something of a nervous breakdown and shattered into five separate beings, none of which particularly like the others. One of these aspects is dead, one (Mr Munnin, the most reasonable) currently rules over Hell while the most unhinged still sits on the throne of Heaven. Against this background Stark must relocate the Qomrama Om Ya while pursued by several other factions with the same intent, all of whom are convinced he must know where it is.

Kill City Blues, given such a premise, should have been a surefire hit. Indeed, I’d been awaiting this book for some time. So why doesn’t it quite hit the spot? Well despite the potential-laden plot, Kadrey spends the first half off the novel rehashing old ground. It feels at times as though this was written specifically for those who hadn’t bothered to read the first four novels in the series. This is where Stark’s from. This is how he got here. This is how he met X, Y and Z. This is what in-jokes A, B and C refer to. And so on. Don’t get me wrong, Sandman’s caustic wit, the expert use of ridiculous metaphor and the beautifully sleazy images of an LA alive with magic are all there. It’s just that all the foot-dragging starts to grate after a while.

And then there’s the action itself. In a book entitled Kill City Blues you’d expect the city in question to make an appearance early on, right? But no, we have to wait until past the halfway mark to discover what it is, why it’s important and whether anyone is ever going to get there. And once we do arrive it feels as though you’ve gone into a store at five minutes to closing time, rushed through by the clerks and unceremoniously ejected before the shutters come down.

Now it may sound like I didn’t like the book. That’s not true. I smashed through Kill City Blues in record time, barely stopping for breath. In a page-by-page sense it’s a pulpy, delicious slice of fun pie. It’s when you take it as a whole that the cracks appear. Instead of devoting half of the book to rehashing the background and running a couple of wild goose chases, this could have been handled in a couple of chapters and left more space for what should have been an epic journey through Kill City. There would have been more opportunity to develop some of the characters within – more Grays please! – and it would have felt more complete and less like the first half of a larger book.

So it’s a mixed bag. If you’re already a Sandman Slim devotee then Kill City Blues will certainly keep you on the level till the next fix appears. However it’s not going to reach the heights of previous outings so lower expectations accordingly. Hopefully part six will provide the apocalyptic bang promised but not delivered here.

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Filed under Noir, Urban Fantasy

Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

Mockingbird by Chuck WendigReview: Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2012)

Mockingbird is the second in the Miriam Black series by Chuck Wendig, following on the heels of 2010’s Blackbird (reviewed here at Mountains Of Instead). Miriam is a loner, an angry and twisted dropout with a healthy disrespect for authority and a venomous tongue. Since her teens she has drifted around the highways of the US, hitching rides and picking up what little money she can to get by. What sets her apart is the fact that any skin-to-skin contact with another person allows her to see, in graphic details and down to the minute, the manner of their eventual death.

The first novel set the background to the tale, describing how Miriam used her power to follow the soon-to-be deceased, looting their corpses when they drop. Having long ago had it demonstrated to her that she could never change the inevitable she discarded any sense of morality and resigned herself to a life alone. Until a certain trucker stepped into her life, causing her to rethink. Cue a kindling romance, an escalating conflict with a sinister criminal and an eventual reason that the future may not be as fixed as she once believed, just so long as the scales remain in balance.

At the start of Mockingbird, Miriam has settled down to life with Louis and is realising what happens when a bird is caged. The monotony of a nine-to-five job, the constant vigilance to ensure she never so much as brushes against another human and the fact of Louis’s job keeping him from her for weeks at a time are wearing her down. Something is about to snap in her when she is saved by a job, suited to her particular talents. …, a friend of Louis working at a school for troubled orphan girls, believes her life is soon to be cut short by cancer and wants to know for sure, freeing herself from the uncertainty and stress. The lure of a cash reward and a chance to use her power is too much to resist and the pair set off. Of course, things are never going to be as straightforward as they seem.

The remainder of Mockingbird turns into a game of cat and mouse with Miriam pitting her wits against a twisted serial killer targeting the charges at …’s school. What should be a routine thriller is given more mileage by the unique nature both of Miriam’s talents, not to mention her tenacious nature, and the depravity of the killer she finds herself squaring off against. Wendig’s characterisation is as strong as ever, giving life to what could easily have been a two-dimensional cast in another author’s hands. Dependable Louis, neurotic … and the slippery PE coach head up a cast of believable characters with plenty potential for interesting interaction.

However, Mockingbird stumbles a bit when it comes to keeping the fires stoked under the plot. In the first novel the balance between Miriam’s inner turmoil and the events unfolding around her was spot-on, allowing the reader inside her head while still keeping thing moving. This second installment spends far too much time wrestling with Miriam’s angst though. What should have just been a secondary plot driver instead takes centre stage and moves Miriam from sympathetic anti-heroine to whining brat. The first half suffers particularly from this, leaving me thinking “Okay, I get it, you feel suffocated and conflicted – just do something about it!” I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to secretly want bad things to happen to your protagonist…

So Mockingbird still ends up with a passing mark. It’s a good read, mindless fodder for holiday time if you prefer your fiction with a darker tinge and some sarcastic bite to it. It’s not perfect and it fails to live up to Wendig’s potential but it still sits head and shoulders above the majority of titles in the genre. One for reading when one requires a guilty pleasure heavy on entertainment and light on substance.

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Filed under Thriller, Urban Fantasy