Monday, 15 September 2014

Book Review | The Revolutions by Felix Gilman


In 1893, young journalist Arthur Shaw is at work in the British Museum Reading Room when the Great Storm hits London, wreaking unprecedented damage. In its aftermath, Arthur’s newspaper closes, owing him money, and all his debts come due at once. His fiancé Josephine takes a job as a stenographer for some of the fashionable spiritualist and occult societies of fin de siècle London society. At one of her meetings, Arthur is given a job lead for what seems to be accounting work, but at a salary many times what any clerk could expect. The work is long and peculiar, as the workers spend all day performing unnerving calculations that make them hallucinate or even go mad, but the money is compelling.

Things are beginning to look up when the perils of dabbling in the esoteric suddenly come to a head: A war breaks out between competing magical societies. Josephine joins one of them for a hazardous occult exploration—an experiment which threatens to leave her stranded at the outer limits of consciousness, among the celestial spheres. 

Arthur won’t give up his great love so easily, and hunts for a way to save her, as Josephine fights for survival... somewhere in the vicinity of Mars.

***

John Carter from Mars meets Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in Felix Gilman's boisterous new novel, in which a man of fact finds himself face to face with the stuff of fantasy.

The tale takes place in London in the late 1800s: a dark and dirty and dangerous place. Jack the Ripper has finished his grisly business, though the murders attributed to this almost mythical figure remain in recent memory, so when the Great Storm strikes, some see it as the world's way of cleansing the city of its sins.

Other individuals, thinking this wishful, seek escape via more mystical means—among them the members of the Ordo V.V. 341, which fashionable fraternity Arthur Shaw attends at the outset of The Revolutions, with the apple of his eye, Josephine Bradman, on his arm. A science writer for The Monthly Mammoth, recently made redundant, he has precious little interest in spiritualism, however it's her bread and butter, as a typist and translator specialising in the supernatural.

The couple don't expect much out of the meeting, but there they're introduced to Atwood, the Lord and leader of another order. Seeing something in Josephine, he invites her to join his more serious circle, and offers Arthur an inordinately profitable job that he's not allowed to talk about.

Josephine doesn't trust this fellow for a second, and cautions Arthur accordingly, but with a wedding to pay for, they put aside their misgivings for the sake of their relationship. Thus, in the name of love, they are undone. Momentarily, our man is driven mad by Atwood's sinister business, which is wreathed in "secrecy, codes [and] conspiratorial oaths." (p.71) In the depths of her despair, his other half's only option is to ask Atwood to intervene.

He will, on one condition... that Josephine joins his order: a secret society dedicated to astral travel.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Book Review | Gleam by Tom Fletcher


The gargantuan Factory of Gleam is an ancient, hulking edifice of stone, metal and glass ruled over by chaste alchemists and astronomer priests.

As millennia have passed, the population has decreased, and now only the central district is fully inhabited and operational; the outskirts have been left for the wilderness to reclaim. This decaying, lawless zone is the Discard: the home of Wild Alan.

Clever, arrogant, and perpetually angry, Wild Alan is both loved and loathed by the Discard's misfits. He's convinced that the Gleam authorities were behind the disaster that killed his parents and his ambition is to prove it. But he's about to uncover more than he bargained for.

***

Hot on the heels of three deeply discomfiting horror novels, Gleam marks the starts of a fantasy saga that's never better than when it harks back to Tom Fletcher's first fictions. It's burdened by a bland protagonist and a lacking opening act, but besides that, The Factory Trilogy is off to a tantalising start.

In large part that's due to the darkly wonderful world it introduces us to. Gleam is a devastated landscape equal parts Ambergris and Fallout 3, arranged around a truly hellish edifice:
From the centre rises the one structure that is not tarnished with extraneous growth, or overwhelmed with moss, or just rounded and worn by erosion. It's a vast, black, six-sided pyramid, separated from the rest of the chaos by a ring of ashen wasteland. The wasteland is the top of a hill, which slopes down into a darkness from which all the rest of the chaos emerges. This is the only visible ground in the whole place, and it's grey and dusty and somehow creepy. The pyramid itself, though, looks clean and new, and its edges are all sharp. (p.3)
Alan has lived in this "knot of lies and rituals that referenced only each other and combined to mean less than nothing" (p.211) for twelve tedious years—long enough to meet and marry his wife, Marion, and father a boy by the name of Billy with her—but he doesn't belong here any more now than he did on the devastating day he was made welcome within its walls. "He'd never been a Pyramidder and he never would be. He still dreamed about Modest Mills; being able to run around outside. And not in some courtyard or garden, but the real outside—the Discard." (p.12)

His dreams of freedom come true too soon, in truth. In short order Alan offends an Assistant Alchemical Co-ordinator, who sends heavies to his house to remind our protagonist of his place in the Pyramid. In the aftermath, Marion asks Alan to leave—not because she no longer loves him, but for the sake of their son's safety.

She doesn't have to ask him twice. He packs a bag and skedaddles, to find that though life in the Discard is difficult, it's not as awful as the Pyramidders insist.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Guest Post | "Many Worlds" by Tom Fletcher

I didn’t really think about genre when I started writing The Leaping, which was my first novel. I thought a lot about theme, about narrative voice, about character, about story. (Not necessarily in that order). I knew I wanted to write something about what it meant to be human, fear of death, about paranoia and paralysis in the face of a confusing and hostile world. About how late-stage capitalism insulates us from the consequences of our consumerist actions and choices. Nothing too ambitious, then.

In the end the book was about people objectifying and then frantically dismembering each other in some kind of desperate search for a soul, or meaning, and finding—this isn’t much of a spoiler—very little. I showed it to a friend and mentor, Nicholas Royle, who sent it to an editor, who made an offer for the book. I was delighted, obviously. They said they saw it as a horror novel. Well, I thought; yes. Perfect. It is a horror novel. I didn’t know much about horror fiction, having grown up mostly on fantasy, science-fiction and mainstream stuff, but The Leaping had a supernatural aspect—more than an aspect—and plenty of blood, so it made sense to me. And I was happy with that. 

Second and third novels followed—The Thing on the Shore and The Ravenglass Eye, respectively. Standalones, but set in the same collapsing universe as The Leaping. They were horror novels too, I think, though I was trying not to let any ideas about genre shape what I wrote. I tried to resist neat conclusions and anything approaching redemption or morality, but I didn’t know if this approach was making my books more horror, or less horror. What I wanted was a sense of nightmare, which—for me, then meant creating a sense of wrongness (though not badness) on every level. These books ended up quite cold, and jagged. I was committed to honesty, and that meant not shying away from themes or scenes that were unpleasant to contemplate, and it also meant writing instinctively—following a logic (a nightmarish logic) that operated at a deeper level than the plots, arcs and plans I’d spent a lot of time on.

These books, and a fourth horror novel called The Dead Fool, which is under contract but not yet published [ooh!—Ed], are—and I say this with pride—strange, bleak, and alienating. And they were strange, bleak, and alienating to write, too. After writing The Dead Fool, I was exhausted, and wanted a change. I wanted to write something expansive, and not intensely introspective. I wanted to write something a bit pacier, and a bit more structured. I wanted to write something a bit more fun.

Yes, I wanted to write something different. But this wasn’t a case of jumping one ship for another; abandoning horror for fantasy. I could have written a horror novel that was pacey, rigorously planned, and fun. And fantasy can be extremely disconcerting and uncomfortable. The truth is, I’d always wanted to write fantasy, as well as everything else. When I decided I wanted to be a writer—way, way back at secondary school—I was devouring writers like Pratchett, Peake, and Hobb, and I’d envisaged myself writing fantasy and sci-fi. When writing my first few novels, I was also noting down ideas for mainstream fiction, and writing SF shorts. Yes, my published novels were horror, but that didn’t mean I was a horror writer exclusively.

Pitching a fantasy trilogy to Jo Fletcher Books—of which Gleam is the first book—was the realisation of a long-held idea, and it coincided with my desire to try a different approach to writing for a while. And I’m having a blast. Creating a whole other world is a new challenge, but it’s incredibly liberating, as is working across the larger canvas of a trilogy. 

None of which is to say that Gleam is all sweetness and light, of course. It’s not all colourful moons and campfires and magic crystals. There are ruins, bandits, bloodletters, drugs, giant slugs, and other monsters. There’s darkness, and there’s despair, and there’s violence. But in Gleam, as opposed to in my horror novels, the characters are not completely overwhelmed by the threat, and so the narrative has room for humour and warmth. Wild Alan, Bloody Nora, The Mushroom Queen, Churr, Spider Kurt—they’re all equipped to cope with the world they inhabit, which my horror novel characters are not.

The worlds are very, very different. ButI fully intend to return to the brutal, nihilistic world of The Leaping et al in future, and I’ve got plans for another trilogy set in the weird, magical Factory of Gleam too. I’ve grown deeply attached to it (and I hope you’ll all grow as attached to it as I have). 

I can’t imagine working in only one genre for my entire career. I don’t know any writer who can. And yet you hear of ‘horror writers’ and ‘fantasy authors’. These are reductive terms. Books might (might) have genres; writers don’t.

***

Tom Fletcher was born in 1984 and lives in Manchester with his wife and son. He's published a number of short stories alongside three loosely connected horror novels, namely The Leaping, The Thing on the Shore and The Ravenglass Eye. His new book, Gleam, is the first part of The Factory Trilogy. Find out more about it and its author at The Endist.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Book Review | Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer


It is winter in Area X. A new team embarks across the border on a mission to find a member of a previous expedition who may have been left behind. As they press deeper into the unknown—navigating new terrain and new challenges—the threat to the outside world becomes more daunting. 

In Acceptance, the last installment of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the mysteries of Area X may have been solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profound—or terrifying.

***

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was... well. That'd be telling.

Because the Word was whatever you wanted it to be. The Word was possibility. The Word was promise. For in the Word was the beginning, to boot, and beginnings are simple. They're questions, essentially. It follows, then, that endings are answers. And it is far harder to answer questions satisfactorily than it is to ask 'em.

Acceptance is the end of the Southern Reach series, which began with Annihilation—with its countless cosmic questions. What is Area X? Where did it come from? Who—or what—created it? Not to mention: when? And why?

Readers are apt to approach Acceptance expecting answers, and they'll find a fair few, to be sure; Jeff VanderMeer does indeed complete the sinister circle of the Southern Reach series here. But when all is said and done, much of the mystery remains. Area X is, in the end, as unknowable as it was when we breached its impossible border at the very beginning of the trilogy. It has lost none of its promise. Possibilities still spring from its fantastical firmament. In the final summation, I can't conceive of a finale more fitting.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Book Review | J by Howard Jacobson


Two people fall in love, not yet knowing where they have come from or where they are going. Kevern doesn't know why his father always drew two fingers across his lips when he said a world starting with a J. It wasn't then, and isn't now, the time or place to be asking questions.

Ailinn too has grown up in the dark about who she was or where she came from. On their first date Kevern kisses the bruises under her eyes. He doesn't ask who hurt her. Brutality has grown commonplace. They aren't sure if they have fallen in love of their own accord, or whether they've been pushed into each other's arms. But who would have pushed them, and why?

Hanging over the lives of all the characters in this novel is a momentous catastrophe—a past event shrouded in suspicion, denial and apology, now referred to as What Happened, If It Happened.

J is a novel to be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, thought-provoking and life-changing. It is like no other novel that Howard Jacobson has written.

***

Alongside Us, The Bone Clocks, and How To Be Both, J by Howard Jacobson was one of a number of novels longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in advance of its publication date. A source of frustration for some, I'm sure—though this has ever been the panel's habit—but for others it represents a reason to update reading radars.

This year, I found myself amongst the others above, because if not for the nod, I doubt I'd have looked twice at this book. When I did, additionally, it was with some scepticism; after all, Jacobson has won the Booker before, for The Finkler Question in 2010—the first comic novel to take the trophy home in 25 years—and pointedly acknowledging former nominees is another of the panel's practices.

Not today. J, I'm pleased to say, is in every sense deserving of its spot on the longlist. It's a literary revelation wrapped in understated dystopian clothing; a wonder of wit and whimsy that takes in the chilling and the ridiculous—the hilarious and the horrific. That said, it's a novel that requires rereading to appreciate completely.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Book Review | Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew


Julienne’s aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They teach her that there’s more to the city of her birth than meets the eye—that beneath the modern chrome and glass of Hong Kong there are demons, gods, and the seethe of ancient feuds. As a mortal Julienne is to give them a wide berth, for unlike her divine aunts she is painfully vulnerable, and choice prey for any demon.

Until one day, she comes across a bleeding, wounded woman no one else can see, and is drawn into an old, old story of love, snake women, and the deathless monk who hunts them.

***

World Fantasy Award winner Lavie Tidhar has it that Benjanun Sriduangkaew may be "the most exciting new voice in speculative fiction today," and on the basis of Scale-Bright, he might be right. A love story set in heaven and Hong Kong arranged around a troubled young woman's belated coming of age, it's the longest and most involved tale Sriduangkaew has told to date, and considered alongside The Sun-Moon Cycle, it represents an achievement without equal.

"An orphan who spent seven years hating equally the parents that died and the extended family that did not," Julienne, when we join her, lives what you might describe as a quiet life with her adoptive aunts, Hau Ngai and Seung Ngo. The fact that they're myths in mortal form complicates things a little, admittedly.

Julienne adores them both, though. They've given her everything—not least love—and their greatness is an inspiration:
She can't stop thinking about them. To adore each other so much after so long, for all the complications neither will voice. Julienne hopes that by the time she looks their age she'll have fixed herself. All her neuroses will be gone, as amusing and harmless as baby pictures. She doesn't want to think it's taken Hau Ngai and Seung Ngo centuries to become who they are. They have forever, and she has only a handful of decades. It doesn't seem right that at twenty-four she still finds herself with problems that should've been shed with adolescence, like bad hair and acne.
"To be well, to know confidence, to have someone like Hau Ngai—just a little like, more human and less legend—for her own." These are her humble hopes. Alas, when your aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon, all is not so straightforward.