Thursday, 19 January 2017

Book Review | Defender by G. X. Todd


In a world where long drinks are in short supply, a stranger listens to the voice in his head telling him to buy a lemonade from the girl sitting on a dusty road.

The moment locks them together.

Here and now it's dangerous to listen to your inner voice. Those who do, keep it quiet.

These voices have purpose.

And when Pilgrim meets Lacey, there is a reason. He just doesn't know it yet.

***

Long seen though they've been as the preserve of the precocious, or the last hope of the lonely, imaginary friends are ten-a-penny in Defender.

G. X. Todd's remarkably readable dystopian debut posits a planet Earth ravaged by unfathomable cataclysm. On the one hand, survivors are scant; on the other, theories about how it happened aren't. "To get it over and done with, he quickly ticked off the points on his fingers as he listed them. 'Biological attack, poisoning, after-effects of dementia vaccines, aliens, subliminal and/or psychological warfare, chemical agents in the water supply, the mystical forces of sea tides and the moon. And, my personal favourite, some kind of Rapture-type event.'" (p.101)

But the cause of this apocalypse isn't the point of Todd's text—the first of four in a series starting here. Instead, she's interested in the effect: namely the voices people started hearing in their heads. Defender's protagonist Pilgrim has one; he calls it, of all things, Voice. That said, he's a rarity these days, because most of the folks who ended up with imaginary friends are dead.

Whether they're symptomatic of a mass auditory hallucination or something more... well. "That's the million-dollar question," (p.254) one Todd isn't inclined to answer—at least, not in this novel—but it's safe today to say that these imaginary friends mightn't be entirely made up. Nor, indeed, are they terribly friendly. Many pushed the people who heard them into murder and suicide, hence the paltry population of Defender's North America. Pilgrim, for his part, has come to something of an understanding with the who-knows-what he hosts:
Any sense of peace he ever hoped to achieve would only be an illusion, for Voice was always with him and always would be. He was demon and angel and conscience wrapped up in one, and there was no escaping him. (p.10)
To wit, when Voice urges Pilgrim to offer the girl selling lemonade from a stand by the side of the road a ride, it's easier for our hero to hear her out than to start a subconscious squabble there'd be no stopping.

Lacey seems harmless enough in any event. Sixteen years old, she's been raised in blissful ignorance in a farm off the beaten track by her Gran, but now that her Gran is gone, the farm has fallen fallow, and she knows she needs to move on. What she wants is to get to her sister's in Vicksburg. It's been years since they saw one another, but Lacey believes her sister is a survivor; that together, they could turn their little lives into something worthwhile.

Taking on a passenger goes against everything that's kept Pilgrim alive—if not well—since everything went to hell, but for some mysterious reason, Voice won't take no for an answer, so Lacey packs a rucksack, sit in the pillion position, and off they pop.

That's how the adventures of Lacey and Pilgrim begin—and that might well be how they end as well, because unbeknownst to them, they're on a collision course with a monster of a man called Charles Dumont: a creepy country bumpkin who's tasked his gun-toting gang to round up any and all of the survivors they come across—especially those that have been "blessed" with imaginary friends.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book Review | Babylon's Ashes by James S. A. Corey


A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood.

The Free Navy—a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships—has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinantefor a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network.

But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny and betrayal may be the least of the Rocinante's problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity.

***

The Expanse made a tremendous first impression, and the next novels in the blockbuster space opera Leviathan Wakes started went from strength to strength, knocking the overarching first contact narrative out of the park at the same time as remaining satisfyingly self-contained. But then there was a wobble—a wobble of opportunity squandered that nearly drove this reader from the series. It fell, finally, to Nemesis Games to right not a sinking ship, but one that was at least listing.

I was delighted that it did. By contracting as opposed to expanding—by firmly and finely focusing on the characters that had been at its heart from the start—Nemesis Games recaptured the intimate magic that The Expanse's latter chapters lacked, and although it didn't address the presence of the protomolecule, something dramatic did actually happen in book five: something that completely changed the state of play across the Milky Way.
The Belt had finally shrugged off the yoke of the inner planets. They had Medina Station at the heart of the ring gates, they had the only functioning navy in the solar system, and they had the gratitude of millions of Belters. In the long term, it was the greatest statement of independence and freedom the human race had ever made. (p.18)
Said statement came at a cost, of course. You don't just get to declare that you're done with the people who've been keeping you and run off with their resources—not now and not in this near-future milieu. If no one's listening, you have to force the issue. You might even have to fight for that right.

Unfortunately for a huge hunk of humanity—for the folks who've made their homes on Earth and Mars and the Moon—the Free Navy didn't care about collateral damage when they conspired to fire asteroid fragments at the planet their oppressors were arranged around:
There had been thirty billion people on the overcrowded Earth, dependent on a vast network of machinery to keep them fed and hydrated and not drowning in their own waste. A third of those, by the more pessimistic estimates, had already died. Holden had seen a few seconds of a report discussing how the death count in Western Europe was being done by assaying atmospheric changes. How much methane and cadaverine were in the air let them guess how many people were rotting in the ruined streets and cities. That was the scale of the disaster. (p.33)
Essentially, it's the end of the world as we know it, and Marcos Inaros, the man behind it, feels fine.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Book Review | Five Stories High ed. by Jonathan Oliver


Irongrove Lodge—a building with history; the very bricks and grounds imbued with the stories of those who have walked these corridors, lived in these rooms. These are the tales of an extraordinary house, a place that straddles our world and whatever lies beyond; a place that some are desperate to discover, and others to flee. At one time an asylum, at another a care home, sometimes simply a home.

The residents of Irongrove Lodge will learn that this house will change them, that the stories told here never go away. Of all who enter, only some will leave.

Multi-award-winning editor Jonathan Oliver has brought together five extraordinary writers to open the doors, revealing ghosts both past and present in a collection as intriguing as it is terrifying. Along with a linking narrative, this collection features five novellas by Nina Allan, Tade Thompson, K. J. Parker, Robert Shearman and Sarah Lotz.

***

The latest in a lengthening line of excellent collections edited by Jonathan Oliver, Five Stories High finds several of speculative fiction's best and brightest riffing on the same literary instrument: the haunted house. Not just any old haunted house, either, but one—Irongrove Lodge—shared by every player:
The house, like its surroundings, seemed quietly respectable, the largest and most prominent among a number of Georgian properties in the vicinity, flanked on one side by a ruddy-faced Victorian terrace, on the other by a 1930s mansion block built from the familiar yellow-grey London stock. [...] I could not rid myself of the idea that the house had, in some peculiar way, itself created the ramshackle and disparate landscape that now surrounded it, drawn the cloak of modern London securely about itself, to conceal its true purpose.
The particulars of its true purpose differ dramatically depending on which of the five authors involved in Five Stories High you ask, but although Nina Allan, K. J. Parker, Tade Thompson, Robert Shearman and Sarah Lotz diverge on the details, all agree that Irongrove Lodge is a home most hellish.

The aforementioned anthology puts its best foot forward by way of Nina Allan's 'Maggots,' the longest of the five works of fiction featured, and the least traditional. Herein, the writer of The Race follows a boy who becomes convinced that one of his relatives has been replaced:
On the 23rd October 1992, my aunt, Claire Bounsell, nee Wilton, briefly went missing in York during a weekend anniversary trip with her husband David. She reappeared again just minutes later, apparently unharmed. My aunt and uncle came home to Knutsford and went on with their lives. The incident has been mainly forgotten, but the person living as Claire Bounsell is not my aunt. She looks like my aunt, she speaks like my aunt. She has my aunt's memories and to any outside observer it would be impossible to tell the difference between my aunt and her replacement. No one, including her husband, family and twin children, appears to have noticed that anything is wrong. And yet there is no doubt in my mind that my aunt has been replaced by an impostor.
Whether Willy's conviction that Claire isn't herself—that she is, in fact, no more than a maggot—is symptomatic of a sickness of sorts or not, it dogs our narrator for ages. It ruins his first real relationship; it makes a decade of Christmases difficult; and going forward, it's foundation of a fascination that hounds him from the family home into the workplace and leads him, at the last, to Irongrove Lodge, where he'll have answers, if he wants them—albeit at an awful cost.

Sensitive yet unsettling, Allan's superlative story of simulation, of someone pretending to be someone else, is seamlessly succeeded by K. J. Parker's 'Priest Hole,' in which a shapeshifter living in Irongrove Lodge does whatever he can to get by following the loss of the lady he loved.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Book Review | Normal by Warren Ellis


There are two types of people who think professionally about the future: foresight strategists are civil futurists who think about geoengineering and smart cities and ways to evade Our Coming Doom; strategic forecasters are spook futurists, who think about geopolitical upheaval and drone warfare and ways to prepare clients for Our Coming Doom. The former are paid by nonprofits and charities, the latter by global security groups and corporate think tanks.

For both types, if you're good at it, and you spend your days and nights doing it, then it's something you can't do for long. Depression sets in. Mental illness festers. And if the abyss gaze takes hold there's only one place to recover: Normal Head, in the wilds of Oregon, within the secure perimeter of an experimental forest.

When Adam Dearden, a foresight strategist, arrives at Normal Head, he is desperate to unplug and be immersed in sylvan silence. But then a patient goes missing from his locked bedroom, leaving nothing but a pile of insects in his wake. A staff investigation ensues; surveillance becomes total. As the mystery of the disappeared man unravels in Warren Ellis's Normal, Adam uncovers a conspiracy that calls into question the core principles of how and why we think about the future--and the past, and thenow.

***

For all our whistle-blowing and brainstorming, for all our back-slapping and activist hacking, for all the awareness we've raised and for all the progress we've made—for all that, it's not going well, the world.

That, at least, is what Adam Dearden believes, and, as a futurist who's resided on both sides of the aisle, he should know. Knowing what he knows, though, doesn't mean he can do a damn thing about it. That frustration recently reached fever-pitch for him when, whilst working in Windhoek, he saw something he shouldn't have seen; something that sent him over the proverbial edge.
He was a futurist. [He] gazed into the abyss for a living. Do it long enough, and the abyss would gaze back into you. If the abyss did that for long enough, the people who paid you for your eyes would send you to Normal Head. The place was paid for by foundations and multinationals alike, together. Most of their human probes needed it, one way or another, in the end. His first thought, in fact, that night in Windhoek, was that he was going to end up in Normal if he couldn't keep his shit together. (p.16)
He couldn't, of course.

Built "on the bones of a town founded by a madman whose last recorded words were about its terrible lights," (p.12) Normal Head Research Station is a sanctuary of sorts for screwed-up spooks and strategists and such. There, anything that could coax out their crazy is contained: mobile phones are a no-no, social media is strictly prohibited, and you can only access the internet if you've demonstrated yourself relatively sensible.

Which leaves... what? Well, there are a few DVD box-sets to watch, a bundle of board games to play, I dare say, and acres of ancient forest to get lost in. Your only real responsibility, when you've been sent to Normal Head, is to get better—if only so you can go back to gazing into that infinite abyss. And Adam Dearden does want to get better. Alas, within hours of his arrival, he witnesses something that beggars belief; something so unsettling that it puts him in mind of the riot that was his ruination rather than the road to recovery.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Book Review | Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson


Union has come. The Community is now the largest nation in Europe; trains run there from as far afield as London and Prague. It is an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

So what is the reason for a huge terrorist outrage? Why do the Community and Europe meet in secret, exchanging hostages? And who are Les Coureurs des Bois?

Along with a motley crew of strays and mafiosi and sleeper agents, Rudi sets out to answer these questions – only to discover that the truth lies both closer to home and farther away than anyone could possibly imagine.

***

Both in Britain and abroad, so much has changed in the years since the release of Dave Hutchinson's Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Europe in Autumn that the mind positively boggles. In 2014 I described its depiction of a Europe decimated by division "as plausible as it is novel," but I'll be damned if it isn't beginning to look visionary.

What shape the differences democracy has recently wrought will take is, as yet, anyone's guess. Everything's up for grabs, not least the ideals we hold nearest and dearest—just as they are in the world of the Fractured Europe sequence: a manic mosaic of "nations and polities and duchies and sanjaks and earldoms and principalities and communes." (p.12)
The situation was, if anything, even worse the further East you went. Beyond Rus—European Russia—and Sibir was a patchwork of republics and statelets and nations and kingdoms and khanates and 'stans which had been crushed out of existence by History, reconstituted, fragmented, reinvented, fragmented again, absorbed, reabsorbed and recreated." (p.43)
But that's not all—hell, that's not even the half of it—as readers of Europe at Midnight will recall. That "mad story about a family of wizards and a map" elaborated brilliantly on the existence of a place called the Community: an impossible plane of space modelled on idyllic little England. Next to no one knew about it till now, but having kept its distance for decades, the Community is finally making its presence felt by way of a revolutionary railway.

The Line is being laid all across the continent, connecting the Community to the real world in a real sense, and although most folks don't mind, there are, of course, those—now more than ever there are those—who want to keep the outsiders out, and are willing to do whatever it takes to make their isolationist case. To wit, Europe in Winter opens on an awful atrocity, as a train packed with passengers travelling along that mathemagical track is attacked.

You'd think the authorities would come a-running with such loss of life rife, but Europe is so splintered that no one of its gaggle of governments wants anything to do with it. Even the innumerable NGOs are steering out of fear, such that solving the problem, if it's going to be solved at all, falls, finally, to the Coureur and erstwhile cook Hutchinson introduced us to in Europe in Autumn.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Book Review | The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood


Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth—but was she really a changeling, as her husband insists? Albie Mirralls met his cousin only once, in 1851, within the grand glass arches of the Crystal Palace, but unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak, a village steeped in superstition.

Albie begins to look into Lizzie's death, but in this place where the old tales hold sway and the hidden people supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away...

***

In the beginning, a bang: a promising and potentially explosive prologue, or a scene that's suggestive of all the fun to come. That's a fine way for a story—especially a scary story—to start. But you've got to be smart. You don't want to give yourself nowhere to go by starting the show with the showstopper, and I dare say that's exactly what Alison Littlewood did with her debut.

Chilling and thrilling in equal measure, and at once creepy and weepy, A Cold Season was a hell of a hard act to follow, and although both Path of Needles and The Unquiet House were reasonably well received, nothing Littlewood has written since said has surpassed its macabre mastery. Certainly not last year's tedious sequel. Happily, her newest novel rights almost every one of A Cold Silence's throng of wrongs. I'd go farther than that, in fact; I'd assert that The Hidden People is the aforementioned author's most accomplished effort yet—if not necessarily her most accessible.

Albert Mirralls—Albie to his nearest and dearest—only met his lovely cousin once, at the Great Exhibition of 1851 that saw the unveiling of that transparent marvel, the Crystal Palace, but little Lizzie Higgs, with her sweet songs and her sure steps, made such an impression on our man in those moments that when he hears of her murder more than a decade later, he immediately leaves the life he's built behind in order to address her death.

In Halfoak, a superstitious village arranged around a great, twisted tree, Albie is told the whole of the sordid story his sophisticated father had only hinted at. Little Lizzie had gone on to marry James Higgs, a shoemaker, and though they had been happy in their house on the hill, their inability to bear children became the talk of the town in time. Higgs, for his part, had an unusual idea why: he thought his wonderful wife had been replaced by a changeling. As the local publican puts it:
"The good folk, as they call them—mainly from fear, I think—the quiet ones, the hidden people—they're fading, you see? [...] Their race is weak. And so they take changelings—human children, or women who can bear them, to strengthen their lines. And in their place they leave one of their own, worn-out and old, bewitched to look like the one they're meant to replace, though of course they do not thrive; they soon sicken or die. Or they leave a stock of wood, similarly enchanted, and with similar outcome. These changelings can be identified by their weaknesses, or some disfigurement, or by a sweet temper turning of a sudden into querulous and unnatural ways. They might refuse to speak or eat. A child might become a milksop or a squalling affliction. A good wife may be transformed into a shrew. There are many ways of telling." (p.89)
Tragically, the recent disappearance of a wooden broom and the entirely understandable turning of Lizzie's temper was all it took to convince Higgs that his wife was not the woman he married. To wit, he tried to drive the fairy from his home. He tried iron; he tried herbs; and, all else having failed, he tried fire. "And she was consumed by it." (p.13)