Monday, 29 September 2014

Book Review | Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


Darcy Patel has put college on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. With a contract in hand, she arrives in New York City with no apartment, no friends, and all the wrong clothes. But lucky for Darcy, she’s taken under the wings of other seasoned and fledgling writers who help her navigate the city and the world of writing and publishing. Over the course of a year, Darcy finishes her book, faces critique, and falls in love.

Woven into Darcy’s personal story is her novel, Afterworlds, a suspenseful thriller about a teen who slips into the “Afterworld” to survive a terrorist attack. The Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead, and where many unsolved—and terrifying—stories need to be reconciled. Like Darcy, Lizzie too falls in love... until a new threat resurfaces, and her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she cares about most.

***

As someone somewhen almost certainly said, the story is the thing... and it is, isn't it? Most readers read in order to know what happens next—to these characters or that narrative—rather than out of interest in much of anything outwith a given fiction; assuredly not the particular process of authors, though after Afterworlds, I've begun to wonder whether we mightn't be missing a trick.

A twofold story about storytelling, Scott Westerfeld's insightful new novel alternates between a pair of coming of age tales. In one, we meet Lizzie: a typical teenager, to begin with, who's too busy texting to notice the start of a terrorist attack:
I'd never heard an automatic weapon in real life before. It was somehow too loud for my ears to register, not so much a sound as the air ripping around me, a shudder I could feel in my bones and in the liquid of my eyes. I looked up from my phone and stared. 
The gunmen didn't look human. They wore horror movie masks, and smoke flowed around them as they swung their aim across the crowd. [...] I didn't hear the screams until the terrorists paused to reload. (pp.5-6)
Luckily, Lizzie comes to her senses eventually. As quietly as she can, she calls 911 as the bullets fly by. The operator on the other end of the telephone tells Lizzie her best bet is to play dead, and in lieu of a safer location, she does exactly that.

A touch too well, in truth, because she faints, and awakens in another world. There, in the land of the no longer living—a grayscale place where "the air [tastes] flat and metallic" (p.20)—she promptly falls for a foxy psychopomp:
These terrorists had tried to kill me but I'd gone to the land of the dead and now could see ghosts and apparently had acquired dangerous new powers and this boy, this boy had touched my fingertips—and they still tingled. (p.76)
In the aftermath of the attack, it beggars belief, a bit, that this boy is Lizzie's priority. Not the loss of so much life. Not her own nearness to nothing. Not even the realisation that she can move between worlds at will. Rather, Yamaraj, "a hot Vedic death god" (p.77) "modeled [...] on a Bollywood star" (p.121) by his faithless creator, debutant Darcy Patel.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Book Review | The Relic Guild by Edward Cox


It was said the Labyrinth had once been the great meeting place, a sprawling city at the heart of an endless maze where a million humans hosted the Houses of the Aelfir. The Aelfir who had brought trade and riches, and a future full of promise. But when the Thaumaturgists, overlords of human and Aelfir alike, went to war, everything was ruined and the Labyrinth became an abandoned forbidden zone, where humans were trapped behind boundary walls 100 feet high.



Now the Aelfir are a distant memory and the Thaumaturgists have faded into myth. Young Clara struggles to survive in a dangerous and dysfunctional city, where eyes are keen, nights are long, and the use of magic is punishable by death. She hides in the shadows, fearful that someone will discover she is touched by magic. She knows her days are numbered. But when a strange man named Fabian Moor returns to the Labyrinth, Clara learns that magic serves a higher purpose and that some myths are much more deadly in the flesh.

The only people Clara can trust are the Relic Guild, a secret band of magickers sworn to protect the Labyrinth. But the Relic Guild are now too few. To truly defeat their old nemesis Moor, mightier help will be required. To save the Labyrinth—and the lives of one million humans—Clara and the Relic Guild must find a way to contact the worlds beyond their walls.


***

The end result of more than a decade of obsessive endeavour, The Relic Guild by Edward Cox is the first part of a fine fantasy saga mixing gods and monsters that promises a lot, but delivers on too little to linger long after its last page.

Be that as it may, it's engrossing in the early-going, as the author thrusts us into the midst of a magical battle between Marney, an out-of-practice empath; a goodly number of golems in service of someone called Fabian Moor: an evil Genii determined to bring his banished master back from the blackest corners of beyond; and Old Man Sam, a bounty hunter unburdened by the little things in life, like what's right.

The good, the bad and the ugly are all searching for the same thing, in this instance: a girl called Peppercorn Clara. "Barely eighteen, she was a whore rumoured to have a libido as spicy as it was insatiable. The story was that [she] had killed a client halfway through a job." (p.7) Needless to say, this is a fabrication. Clara's only crime is that she's different from most of the million mere mortals who live in Labrys Town, being the first magical being born within its walls in a generation.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Book Review | The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey


How do you rid the Earth of seven billion humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.

Surviving the first four waves was nearly impossible. Now Cassie Sullivan finds herself in a new world, a world in which the fundamental trust that binds us together is gone. As the 5th Wave rolls across the landscape, Cassie, Ben, and Ringer are forced to confront the Others’ ultimate goal: the extermination of the human race.

Cassie and her friends haven’t seen the depths to which the Others will sink, nor have the Others seen the heights to which humanity will rise, in the ultimate battle between life and death, hope and despair, love and hate.

***

Following the first phases of the invasion revealed in Rick Yancey's breakthrough book, the world of The 5th Wave "is a clock winding down," (p.1) with each tick of which, and every tock, what little hope there is left is lost.

No one knows exactly how long the last remnants of humanity have, but they're looking at a matter of months, at most... unless someone, somewhere, can conceive of a means of driving the aliens away—aliens who, as the big bad of the series says, have nowhere else to go.

"You've lost your home," Vosch asks The Infinite Sea's central character—not Cassie, as it happens—to imagine. "And the lovely one—the only one—that you've found to replace it is infested with vermin. What can you do? What are your choices? Resign yourself to live peaceably with the destructive pests or exterminate them before they can destroy your new home?" (p.201)

Friday, 19 September 2014

Book Review | The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell


One drowsy summer's day in 1984, teenage runaway Holly Sykes encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for asylum. Decades will pass before Holly understands exactly what sort of asylum the woman was seeking...

The Bone Clocks follows the twists and turns of Holly's life from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to old age on Ireland's Atlantic coast as Europe's oil supply dries up—a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality. For Holly Sykes—daughter, sister, mother, guardian—is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon.

***

An exquisite exploration of the beauty and the tragedy of mortality, The Bone Clocks is a soaring supernatural sextet split into sections carefully arranged around the novel's initial narrator.

A baby-faced runaway when we meet in the mid-eighties, Holly Sykes has become a wistful old woman by the book's conclusion in the year 2043. Between times David Mitchell depicts her diversely: as a friend and a lover; a wife and a mother; a victim and a survivor; and more, of course, as the decades prance past. The Bone Clocks is, in short, the story of Holly Sykes' life: a life less ordinary that leads her—as if by the whims of some Script—into the midst of a macabre conflict between eternal enemies fought in the farthest fringes of existence.

But that doesn't happen until the last act. In the beginning, Holly is no more and no less than a normal girl in a normal world with normal problems—like the backstabbing boyfriend she left the nest to take up with. Too proud to crawl back to her family after a screaming match with her Mam, Holly hightails it as far away from home as her aching feet can take her—pretty much to prove a point:
Six days should do it. The police only get interested in missing teenagers once a week's up. Six days'll show Mam I can look after myself in the big bad world. I'll be in a stronger, whatchercallit, a stronger negotiating position. And I'll do it on my own, without a Brubeck to get all boyfriendish on me. (p.40)
Even as a teenager, Holly's pretty together, so she manages to make ends meet in the interim. Furthermore, she finds a few ways to extend her experimental independence... if not indefinitely, since the Script we learn about later has other plans for our protagonist.

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.