Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Book Review | New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson


As the sea levels rose, every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island. For the residents of one apartment building in Madison Square, however, New York in the year 2140 is far from a drowned city.

There is the market trader, who finds opportunities where others find trouble. There is the detective, whose work will never disappear—along with the lawyers, of course.

There is the internet star, beloved by millions for her airship adventures, and the building's manager, quietly respected for his attention to detail. Then there are two boys who don't live there, but have no other home-- and who are more important to its future than anyone might imagine.

Lastly there are the coders, temporary residents on the roof, whose disappearance triggers a sequence of events that threatens the existence of all—and even the long-hidden foundations on which the city rests.

***

Not for the first time, and not, I can only hope, for the last, Kim Stanley Robinson takes aim at climate change in New York 2140, an immensely necessary novel as absorbing as it is sprawling about how that city among cities, so close to so many hearts, moves forward following floods that raise the seas fifty feet.

The Big Apple has been blighted. Uptown, being uptown both figuratively and literally, came through the crises brought on by humanity's hard-to-kick carbon habit relatively well, but downtown, everything is different. Submerged, the streets between buildings are cast now as canals. Nobody has a car anymore, but boats are mainstays on the waterways. Pedestrians must make do with jetties, or walk the dizzying bridges between those skyscrapers that haven't already collapsed after losing the ongoing fight to stay watertight.

Needless to say, New York as we know it is no more. But New Yorkers? Why, for good or for ill, they're New Yorkers still!
There is a certain stubbornness in a New Yorker, cliche though it is to say so, and actually many of them had been living in such shitholes before the floods that being immersed in the drink mattered little. Not a few experienced an upgrade in both material circumstances and quality of life. For sure rents went down, often to zero. So a lot of people stayed. 
Squatters. The dispossessed. The water rats. Denizens of the deep, citizens of the shallows. And a lot of them were interested in trying something different, including which authorities they gave their consent to be governed by. Hegemony had drowned, so in the years after the flooding there was a proliferation of cooperatives, neighbourhood associations, communes, squats [and such]. (p.209) 
Robinson's novel is arranged around a fitting for instance of this. The old Met Life tower on the drowned remains of Madison Square is home, now, to several thousand souls: a collective of individuals who all contribute to their cooperative's pot—be it financially or by bartering man-hours or goods for common use.

Among the many are Ralph Muttchopf and Jeff Rosen, a couple of old coders, or quants, who live in "a hotello on the open-walled farm floor [...] from which vantage point lower Manhattan lies flooded below them like a super-Venice, majestic, watery, superb. Their town." (p.6) But there are elements of their town that they deeply dislike, particularly the financial sector that has started gambling on what's become known as "the intertidal zone," (p.118) and down-on-their-luck as they are, with as little left to lose as you like, Mutt and Jeff do something they shouldn't: they hack the stock market.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Book Review | The Erstwhile by Brian Catling


In London and Germany, strange beings are reanimating themselves. They are the Erstwhile, the angels that failed to protect the Tree of Knowledge, and their reawakening will have major consequences.

In Africa, the colonial town of Essenwald has fallen into disarray because the timber workforce has disappeared into the Vorrh. Now a team of specialists are dispatched to find them. Led by Ishmael, the former cyclops, they enter the forest, but the Vorrh will not give them back so easily. To make matters worse, an ancient guardian of the forest has plans for Ishmael and his crew. 

Meanwhile a child of mixed race has been found abandoned in a remote cottage. Her origins are unknown, but she has powers beyond her own understanding. Conflict is coming, as the old and new, human and inhuman are set on a collision course. 

Once again blending the real and the imagined, The Erstwhile brings historical figures such as William Blake and places such as the Bedlam Asylum, as well as ingenious creations such as The Kin (a family of robots) together to create unforgettable novel of births and burials, excavations and disappearances.

***

More than four years on from The Vorrh, professor and performance artist Brian Catling is back with a book that explodes the exceptional premise of its predecessor at the same time as falling short of fulfilling its awesome promise.

The Erstwhile shifts the focus of the darkly fantastic fiction from the forest around which the first volume revolved to one of its many denizens. "No one quite knew what they were. But they had been given a name, which translated into 'of Before' or 'the Previous' and finally settled as "the Erstwhile.' Some said they were 'undead, angels, spirits embodied in flesh.' All that was known was they were as ancient as the forest itself." And the vast Vorrh, held close to the heart of Africa like an unspeakable secret, is at least as old as us. Indeed, "there is a deep belief that this land is sacred and may be the physical geographic location of the biblical Eden."

What business, then, does man have messing with it?

None, n'est-ce pas? But where there's wood, there's timber, and where there's timber, there's industry—a truism even in this alternate history. That industry animates the settlement of Essenwald, where the majority of the events of The Erstwhile occur. Truth be told, though, the Timber Guild has been having a tough time of it since the Vorrh started screwing with its various visitors:
The forest had a malign influence at its very core. Some said it was an unknown toxicology of plant and oxygen. Others said it was a disturbance in its magnetic resonance. A few said it was haunted and that its evil nature was responsible. In fact, nobody knew why prolonged exposure to the trees caused distressing symptoms of amnesia and mental disintegration. No matter what or who they tried, all was in vain. Nobody could work for more than two days in the Vorrh without contamination.
Nobody, that is, other than the Limboia. "They were hollow humans" whose lack of humanity left little for the forces of the forest to fuck with. And yet even the Limboia have been lost. As of the outset of The Erstwhile, they've been missing for some months, and without them, Essenwald's singular industry has stuttered to a costly stop. Alas and alack that the Powers That Be in that precarious place are prepared to do whatever it takes to get these beings back.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Book Review | Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames


Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best—the meanest, dirtiest, most feared and admired crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.

But their glory days are long past; the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk - or a combination of the three. Then a former bandmate turns up at Clay's door with a plea for help: his daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy horde one hundred thousand strong and hungry for blood. Rescuing Rose is the kind of impossible mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.

It's time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld.

***

There's nothing that lifts my soul quite like a night of rock and roll. But rock and roll, as I'm sure we can agree, just ain't what it used to be. 

Back in the day, bands weren't manufactured—they just happened, like a strike of lightning. And while a litter of mewling kittens can be made to sound terrific with the tools producers have to play with today, in the past, each and every member of a musical group had to be a master of their particular instrument. They didn't have to be attractive, either. They didn't have to dance or mug or mime. And they didn't need goddamn gimmicks. All they needed to do was rock your socks off.

In the world of Kings of the Wyld, the funniest and the finest fantasy debut in ages, bands like Saga—the legendary mercenaries at the heart of Nicholas Eames' finely-formed first novel—don't make music... they make war. Their instruments are their weapons; their axes and swords and shields. Their arena? Why, the whole wide world! Where they're needed most, though, is the Heartwyld: a vast and vicious forest between Grandual, where humanity has its home, and Endland, where the monsters of the Dominion lay in wait.

Alas, rock and roll ain't what it used to be hereabouts, either—because as vital and exciting as the band business was, it was also insanely dangerous. That's why "most bands today never go anywhere near the forest. They just tour from city to city and fight whatever the local wranglers have on hand," (p.159) namely tame, home-made monsters in purpose-built arenas that allow bookers to protect their percentages and managers to maximise their profits.

Percentages and profits—pah! That's not why Saga fought. Saga fought for the great and the good. Saga fought to make Grandual habitable. Saga fought for guts, but mostly for glory. Yet it's been decades since any of its members lifted an instrument. They've grown old and fat and happy. They've settled down, gotten jobs, and started families. But when Gabriel's daughter Rose, the leader of a band of her own, gets trapped in the distant city of Castia just as the Dominion chooses to make its monstrous move, Saga's frontman sets about arranging a reunion tour.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Book Review | Caraval by Stephanie Garber


Scarlett has never left the tiny isle of Trisda, pining from afar for the wonder of Caraval, a once-a-year week-long performance where the audience participates in the show.

Caraval is Magic. Mystery. Adventure. And for Scarlett and her beloved sister Tella it represents freedom and an escape from their ruthless, abusive father.

When the sisters' long-awaited invitations to Caraval finally arrive, it seems their dreams have come true. But no sooner have they arrived than Tella vanishes, kidnapped by the show's mastermind organiser, Legend.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But nonetheless she quickly becomes enmeshed in a dangerous game of love, magic and heartbreak. And real or not, she must find Tella before the game is over, and her sister disappears forever.

***

The circus been the subject of some remarking writing in recent years, from the marvellously moving Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti to The Night Circus' unbridled delight, so I came to Caraval—a book about which there has much such buzz—with hope of happiness in my heart. Sadly, Stephanie Garber's debut is more like a watered-down Water For Elephants than either of the efforts aforementioned.

"It took seven years to get the letter right." (p.3) Seven years of begging and pleading. Seven years of congratulations and salutations. Scarlett tried asking the master of Caraval for tickets to the greatest show the world has known on her own behalf—alas, he didn't answer. She tried intimating that it would be her darling little sister's wish to play the planet's greatest game—but no dice were ever delivered. Perversely, then, it was only when Scarlett wrote to tell Legend that her imminent marriage meant she'd no longer be able to attend in any event that an invitation finally came in the mail.

Three invitations arrive, actually: one for her, one for her mysterious husband-to-be, and one for her no longer so little sister Tella. When that latter sees Legend's letter, she does her utmost to convince Scarlett to take him up on his offer:
Nothing we do is safe. But this is worth the risk. You've waited your whole life for this, wished on every fallen star, prayed as every ship came into port that it would be that magical one carrying the mysterious Caraval performers. You want this more than I do. (pp.18-19)
She does, to be sure. But Scarlett is deeply afraid of her father. She's afraid of what he would do, to her and to Tella too, if she leaves the conquered island of Trisda. You see, she's tried to, in the past. She's tried, and failed, and a good man died at her hateful father's hands because of the mistake she made. She's simply not willing to make another, especially because attending Caraval for the week it takes to complete would mean missing the wedding ceremony her father has gone out of his way to arrange. It might be to a man Scarlett has not yet met, and he might also be a monster, but at least she and her sister will be out of harm's way after her big day.

So it's a no. A no Tella disregards entirely. She has her own suitor, a sultry sailor name Julian, subdue Scarlett and spirit her off to la Isla de los SueƱos—"the island of dreams" (p.46) where Caraval is poised to take place. When she comes to a couple of days later, Scarlett wants nothing more than to turn back to Trisda, but she can't countenance leaving her sister, and Tella has already traded in her ticket. To wit, to find her, Scarlett—and Julian as her fake fiance—have no choice but to follow in her footsteps. Thus the game begins!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Book Review | Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough


Since her husband walked out, Louise has made her son her world, supporting them both with her part-time job. But all that changes when she meets David.

Young, successful and charming—Louise cannot believe a man like him would look at her twice, let alone be attracted to her. But that all comes to a grinding halt when she meets his wife, Adele.

Beautiful, elegant and sweet, Louise's new friend seems perfect in every way. As she becomes obsessed by this flawless couple, entangled in the intricate web of their marriage, they each, in turn, reach out to her.

But only when she gets to know them both does she begin to see the cracks. Is David really is the man she thought she knew? Is Adele as vulnerable as she appears? Just what terrible secrets are they both hiding—and how far will they go to keep them?

***

"Whatever you do, don't give away that ending," demands the marketing materials attached to review copies of Sarah Pinborough's new book. And I won't—I wouldn't have even in lieu of the publisher's playful plea—but it won't be easy, because the best thing about Behind Her Eyes is that surprise.

A work of fiction twined around a twist that is, shall we say, entangled with something supernatural, Behind Her Eyes is likely to elicit a few screams of "Don't cross the streams!" And understandably so, I suppose. Early on, it gives every impression of being a harmless bit of grip-lit, and if you haven't read any Pinborough in the past, you'd be right to be wrong-footed by the surprisingly speculative turn her latest tale takes. That said, this—this willingness to futz with the formula of both genres—was precisely what made it such a satisfying read for me.

Like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl before it, Behind Her Eyes is a book that you don't so much read as ride. It's a little slow for a rollercoaster, though. The first act, in fact, is all superficial setup. We meet Louise, a thirtysomething who loves her little boy more than life itself; a lovely lady, but oh so lonely. As she says to her much more settled best friend, "Being a single mum in London eking out a living as a psychiatrist's part-time secretary doesn't exactly give me a huge number of opportunities to throw caution to the wind and go out every night in the hope of meeting anyone, let alone 'Mr Right.'" (pp.12-13) But then she does. She meets him, in a bar after a few beers, and makes out with him. His name is David, and—damn it all!—he's married.

Louise doesn't want to be a home-breaker, not least because her own ex-husband cheated on her with another woman, so she calls time on their potential affair. And it would have ended there—it would have, she's sure—if David, as she discovers the next day, didn't happen to be her new boss.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Book Review | The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter


It has been 14 years since the Martians invaded England. The world has moved on, always watching the skies but content that we know how to defeat the Martian menace. Machinery looted from the abandoned capsules and war-machines has led to technological leaps forward. The Martians are vulnerable to earth germs. The Army is prepared.

So when the signs of launches on Mars are seen, there seems little reason to worry. Unless you listen to one man, Walter Jenkins, the narrator of Wells' book. He is sure that the Martians have learned, adapted, understood their defeat.

He is right.

Thrust into the chaos of a new invasion, a journalist—sister-in-law to Walter Jenkins—must survive, escape and report on the war, for the massacre of mankind has begun.

***

The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one, but still, in The War of the Worlds, they came: they came, in aluminium cylinders the size of ships; they conquered, with their towering tripods and hellish heat rays; and then, believe it or not, they were beaten—by bacteria!

So the story goes. But the story's not over—not now that the estate of H. G. Wells has authorised a superb sequel by science fiction stalwart Stephen Baxter which, while overlong, turns the terrific tale Wells told in his time into the foundation of something greater.

The Massacre of Mankind takes place a decade and change since the aliens' initial invasion, and though the Martians may have been beaten, it would be foolishness in the first to conclude that they're completely defeated. As Baxter has it, all we did was knock out the scouts. And it seems that those scouts served their purpose perfectly, because when the bad guys come back, they come back bigger, and better. Add to that the fact that they've adapted; I dare say no mere microbe is going to be their undoing on this day.

We puny humans have learned a few lessons too. From studying the artifacts abandoned by the Martians in the aftermath of the First War, we've developed better weapons, and managed to manufacture a few meatier materials. Alas, our advancement has made us arrogant. We've begun to believe we have the beating of our technological betters, when in truth the shoe's on the other foot:
Many had believed that England would not be subject to a second Martian attack, but enough had believed it possible, and enough more had feared it, that the authorities had been compelled to prepare. The result had been a reconfiguring of our military and economy, of our international relationships, and a coarsening of the fabric of our society. All this had delivered a much more effective home army, and when the attack had finally come, the mobilisation, after years of planning and preparation, had been fast and effective. 
But as a result of that promptness of mobilisation a little less than half the new British Army, as measured in numbers of regular troops and front-line materiel, was destroyed in the first minutes of the assault—most of the lost troops leaving no trace. (p.67)
So it begins—again: another war that brings people as a species to its knees. But Baxter's is a wider and worldlier war than Wells'. No deus ex machina "like the bacteria which had slain the Martians in '07" (p.402) nips this narrative in the bud, thus The Massacre of Mankind occurs over a period of years; nor is the carnage confined this time to Surrey and its surroundings. In the fast-escalating last act, we're treated to chapters set in Melbourne and Manhattan, among others, as the menace from Mars eventually spreads—though why it takes our interstellar oppressors so long to look beyond the borders of little Britain is perhaps the plot's most conspicuous contrivance.