Monday, 2 May 2016

Book Review | Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt


Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth-century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Blind and silenced, she walks the streets and enters homes at will. She stands next to children's beds for nights on end. So accustomed to her have the townsfolk become that they often forget she's there. Or what a threat she poses. Because if the stitches are ever cut open, the story goes, the whole town will die.

The curse must not be allowed to spread. The elders of Black Spring have used high-tech surveillance to quarantine the town. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town's teenagers decide to break the strict regulations and go viral with the haunting. But, in so doing, they send the town spiraling into a dark nightmare.

***

An ancient, archetypal evil meets a miscellany of modern motfis—such as surveillance and social media—in HEX, the first of Dutch wunderkind Thomas Olde Heuvelt's five genre novels (of which this is the fifth) to be translated into the English language.

You may well have heard of the aforementioned author already; after all, he won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 2015, and was nominated for another unsettling short story, 'The Boy Who Cast No Shadow,' two years previously. HEX is long-form horror, however, and long-form horror is hard, not least because the unknowable, on the back of which so much such fiction is built, can only remain so for so long before folks get sick and tired of not knowing.

Yet in HEX, we know what would be unknowable in most horror novels from the get-go: the cause and the consequences of the ghost that has haunted the heart of the Hudson Valley for hundreds of years. We know her name and approximate age:
"It was in Black Spring that [Katherine van Wyler] was sentenced to death for witchcraft in 1664—although they didn't call it Black Spring back then; it was a Dutch trappers' colony known as New Beeck—and it's here in Black Spring that she's remained." (p.63)
It's even worse than that, though. This too we know; that before the noose was wrapped around her neck—as "an act of mercy," (p68) if you can credit it—Katherine was made to murder her own son in order to save her dearest daughter. Little wonder, then, that she's been making life difficult for the residents of Black Spring since; so difficult that an infrastructure unlike any other has had to be erected around her.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Book Review | Long Dark Dusk by J. P. Smythe


The moment she learned the horrible truth about her life on Australia, the derelict ship overrun with violent gangs, Chan Aitch made it her mission to save everyone she could from their fate worse than death. But her efforts were in vain. Now, everyone she cares about is dead or in prison, and Chan is more alone than ever before.

As the only person to have escaped Australia's terrible crash-landing back to Earth, Chan is now living in poverty on the fringes of a huge city. She believes Mae, the little girl she once rescued on the Australia, is still alive—but she has no idea where Mae is, or how to find her. Everything on Earth is strange and new, and Chan has never felt more lost.

But she'll do whatever it takes to find Mae, even if it means going to prison herself. She's broken out of prison before. How hard could it be to do it again?

***

Having horrified and amazed readers in equal measure across the first two volumes of The Anomaly Quartet, and doubled down on darkly character-focused dystopia in The Testament, The Machine and latterly No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, James P. Smythe has gone from strength to strength since his underrated debut in 2010. In so doing, he's demonstrated that he's not just a jack but a master of all the trades he's tried—a mastery that, on the back of last year's Way Down Dark, evidently extends to the young adult market.

Book the first of The Australia Trilogy read, as I said, "like a lesson in how to bring your fiction to a more sensitive sector without sacrificing the parts that made it remarkable." It didn't talk down to its audience. It didn't diminish the darker parts of its narrative. It didn't hold back in any measurable sense.

To discuss Long Dark Dusk, nor can I. I have to hit on what happened in the last act of Way Down Dark. I have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the Australia.

The thousand-some souls aboard the Australia believed it to be a generation ship blazing a trail through space in search of a world where humanity, having bled Earth dead, might put down renewed roots. They were wrong. In actual fact, the Australia was a prison ship in stationary orbit around the very planet its inhabitants thought they'd left so long ago; a planet, ravaged but not ruined by environmental catastrophe, whose people, roughly a hundred years hence, see that positively apocalyptic period as little more than a bump in the road. As an embarrassment, even.

To wit, when Way Down Dark's central character Chan managed to crash-land the ailing Australia just outside of walled-off Washington, she and the scant other survivors of the disaster weren't exactly welcomed:
I was meant to step off the ship, having saved the lives of the people I cared about, the good people who did nothing wrong, who didn't deserve the fate—the curse—that had been put upon them. I was meant to look back at everything I had lost—my mother; my childhood; even Agatha, so recently departed—and still see something resembling the future I had dreamt of. Mae would be there and we would be a family. Family is what you make it; that's something I learned. It's not blood. It runs deeper than that, and stronger.
That's how it was meant to go.
But it didn't. (p.105)

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Book Review | The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley


The trilogy that began with The Emperor's Blades and continued in The Providence of Fire reaches its epic conclusion, as war engulfs the Annurian Empire in Brian Staveley's The Last Mortal Bond.

The ancient csestriim are back to finish their purge of humanity; armies march against the capital; leaches, solitary beings who draw power from the natural world to fuel their extraordinary abilities, maneuver on all sides to affect the outcome of the war; and capricious gods walk the earth in human guise with agendas of their own.

But the three imperial siblings at the heart of it all—Valyn, Adare, and Kaden—come to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future.

One one thing is certain: the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne will end as shockingly as it began.

***

The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne has been a bunch of fun from word one, but just as the by-the-numbers beginning of the trilogy belied a book both longer and leaps and bounds more likeable than The Emperor's Blades, my problems with The Providence of Fire led me to believe that The Last Mortal Bond would be, at best, a good conclusion.

And it is that... for a start. The conflict between Annur and the Urghul, which has so long stalked the fringes of the fiction, finally takes centre stage, and it plays out exactly as impactfully as I had hoped; the setting, so boldly embiggened by Brian Staveley in book two, continues to sing; meanwhile most, if not all, of the central characters' arcs are resolved in reasonable and rewarding ways.

This much, and more, I expected from The Last Mortal Bond. What I didn't expect was that it would take my breath away. But it did.

This is the end, my friends, so spoilers about the previous novels are unavoidable.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Book Review | Those Below by Daniel Polansky


For centuries beyond counting, humanity has served the Others, god-like Eternals who rule from their cloud-capped mountain-city, building a civilization of unimaginable beauty and unchecked viciousness. But all that is about to change.

Bas Alyates, grizzled general of a thousand battles, has assembled a vast army with which to contend with the might of Those Above. Eudokia, Machiavellian matriarch and the power behind the Empty Throne, travels to the Roost, nominally to play peacemaker... but in fact to inspire the human population toward revolt. Deep in the dark byways of the mountain's lower tiers, the urchin Pyre leads a band of fanatical revolutionaries in acts of terrorism against their inhuman oppressors. 

Against them, Calla, handmaiden of the Eternals' king, fights desperately to stave off the rising tide of violence which threatens to destroy her beloved city.

***

The conflict between the privileged and the impoverished comes to a hell of a head in the concluding volume of Daniel Polansky's deterministic duology: an inconceivably bleak book about the inevitable effects of generations of oppression that makes the most of the fastidious foundation laid in the flat first half of The Empty Throne as a whole.

Happily, because the bulk of the busywork is behind us, Those Below is a far more satisfying work of fantasy than Those Above. Its world of bird-beings and the human beasts bound to them has been built, the backstories of its expansive cast of characters established, and as regards its narrative, all the pieces of Polansky's game are plainly in play. Be that as it may, some rearranging remains...

A handful of years have passed since the Aubade overpowered the previous Prime in single combat. Now, Calla's meditative master really does rule the Roost—the highest rung of the hollowed-out mountain Those Above call home—but his people are still struggling to accept that the Aelerian Commonwealth, under the Revered Mother and her infamous man-at-arms Bas, represents a real threat.

As one of the Eternal's pet people puts it to Pyre, a misbegotten boy become a symbol of the unrest rising from among the lower rungs, "the mote of grime you scrub from your eye in the morning is of more concern to you than you and all your people are to them." (p.126) The absolute arrogance of the Eternal could be their ultimate undoing, to be sure; equally, their unequivocal conviction that they are "superior in every fashion that one creature might be to another" (ibid.) could be something of a saving grace at the end of the day. Who can say?

One way or the other, war is coming.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Book Review | Those Above by Daniel Polansky


They enslaved humanity three thousand years ago. Tall, strong, perfect, superhuman and near immortal, they rule from their glittering palaces in the eternal city in the centre of the world. They are called Those Above by their subjects. They enforce their will with fire and sword.

Twenty five years ago mankind mustered an army and rose up against them, only to be slaughtered in a terrible battle. Hope died that day, but hatred survived...

Now, whispers of another revolt are beginning to stir in the hearts of the oppressed: a woman, widowed in the war, who has dedicated her life to revenge; the general, the only man to ever defeat one of Those Above in single combat, summoned forth to raise a new legion; and a boy killer who rises from the gutter to lead an uprising in the capital.


***

They say money makes the world go round, and maybe it does—but for who? For me and for you, or only the few?

According to Oxfam, the wealthiest one percent of the people on planet Earth now have more moolah than the rest of the population put together. Redistributing said wealth would certainly solve a lot of problems; it would save a lot of lives, and set right a lot of wrongs. Sadly, it simply isn't in the one percent's interests to do what needs doing, basically because it would make money meaningless, and money is what gives the the moneyed meaning.

The bottom line is that to have haves, you have to have have-nots. Just as darkness makes daylight distinct, and summer would be insignificant without winter, the poor are a prerequisite of the existence of the rich, thus the latter need to keep the former at their feet—financially in the first instance, and factually in Daniel Polansky's devastating new duology.

Those Above, or else the Eternal, are the one percent of this manifestly metaphorical milieu, and they make their eminence altogether evident by literally lording it over the impoverished populace of the lower rungs of the Roost:
Since the Founding, when Those Above had forsworn the wandering of their ancestors to create and populate the Roost, to leave the summit of the City was considered, if not quite blasphemous, at the very least extremely distasteful. The Eternal lived in the sky, or as close to it as they could reach, and in general left the First Rung only to make war. (p.165)
The advantages of living on First Rung are near enough numberless. There, Those Above—and the few mere mortals who wait on them without question—are tended to with an excess of tenderness. Every meal is a feast, medical care means most mortal wounds are mere inconveniences, and advances in technologies unknown to Those Below have taken every difficulty out of the day-to-day. Theirs is a world, in a word, of wonder; such wonder that even indentured servants like Calla—one of the overarching narrative's four protagonists—cannot imagine anything eclipsing it.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Book Review | Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente


Severin Unck's father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father's films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.

But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony's last survivor, Severin will never return.

Told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.

***

Is seeing the same as believing?

It used to be, for me. I can't tell you how many nights I spent lying in the long grass of the family garden, staring at stars as they twinked like fairylights hung from the heavens, wondering what in the world was out there. And wonder was the word, because whatever was out there—and I was sure there was something—it was awesome, obviously.

I absolutely believed that, then. These days, damn it all, I don't know that I do. My fantasies are much more mundane in nature now. I get a nasty neck when I look up for too long; lying in long grass leads, as like as not, to another load of washing to manhandle in the morning; and on those increasingly rare occasions when I am given to ask what more there might be, I think: maybe this is it.

But readers? Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente—"a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller [...] with space whales," according to the author—had me stargazing again.

The events Radiance revolves around take place in 1944, but not the 1944 we know, folks. This world is not at war—in part, perhaps, because its people have been exploring space for almost a century already, and colonising every scrap of land they can. "You weren't anybody at the imperial picnic if you didn't have a planet," (p.118) one of the many and various mums of our missing main character has it:
By the time I made my entrance, all the planets had their bustling baby shantytowns, each and every one with a flag slapped on it. [...] Moons, though lovely, just lovely, are consolation prizes. Sino-Russian Mars. Saturn split between Germany and Austria-Hungary. French Neptune. American Pluto. Spanish Mercury. Ottoman Jupiter. All present and accounted for—except Venus. Nobody owns that Bessie because everyone needs her. (p.118)
"Why, mummy? Why does everyone need Venus?" I imagine a young Severin Unck asking the latest lady on the arm of her famous filmmaker father.

"Because that's where the Callowhales are at!" she, whoever she may be, would answer.

"And Callowhales—what are they?"

"Well, they're these great big sleeping beasts whose milk we drink to stay strong in space!"

"But why do they make milk, mummy? And do you think they mind us drinking it?" Severin, even then, would need to know.

"Oh, my lovely little Rinny, you ask so many questions!" mummy number seven or eight would say. That, and only that, because even after using these creatures for so many years, nobody knows exactly what the Callowhales are, or why they produce the nutrient-rich fluid that's been a key part of humanity's expansion into the stars. Nobody's asked the questions because, at bottom, they're afraid of what the answers might mean for the species. Severin has no such vested interests. She's only interested in the truth, however embarrassing or hard-to-believe or indeed dangerous it may be.