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)

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Book Review | Thin Air by Michelle Paver


The Himalayas, 1935.

Kangchenjunga. Third-highest peak on earth. Greatest killer of them all.

Five Englishmen set off from Darjeeling, determined to conquer the sacred summit. But courage can only take them so far—and the mountain is not their only foe.

As the wind dies, the dread grows. Mountain sickness. The horrors of extreme altitude. A past that will not stay buried.

And sometimes, the truth does not set you free.

***

It was on the back of the award-winning, six-part Chronicles of Ancient Darkness that Michelle Paver put out Dark Matter. A ghost story inspired by her lifelong love of the Arctic, it attracted flattering comparisons to the work of such giants of the genre as M. R. James and Susan Hill, and became, before long, a bona fide bestseller.

That the author has now turned her hand to another tale in the same vise-like vein can hardly be seen as surprising; what can is the fact that it's taken her six years and another complete children's series, namely the Gods and Warriors novels. But given the strength of Thin Air, a short, stirring and altogether masterful narrative set on the sheer slopes of the world's third-highest hill, if it takes another decade for Paver to perfect its successor, that's a decade I'll be willing to wait.

It's 1935, and mountaineering has the nation by the nape. Our protagonist Stephen Pearce has always been a keen climber, but he certainly wasn't supposed to be conquering Kangchenjunga this spring. He was meant to be getting married and starting a family, but something about the life he could see stretched out ahead of him—and the death, yes—didn't feel quite right, so when his big brother Kits basically begged him to follow in the footsteps of Edmund Lyell on an expedition up one of the Himalaya's highest peaks, Stephen said yes.

Yet Kits' request wasn't exactly selfless. He needed a medic for the expedition to go ahead, and if securing one meant upending his younger sibling's entire existence, then that was a price Kits was only too happy to pay to win the day. As Stephen reasons:
I know my brother. A couple of years ago, someone came upon Irvine's ice axe on Everest's north-west ridge, and Kits sulked for weeks. Why wasn't he the one to find it and get all the glory? That's what he's after now: relics of the Lyell Expedition; and a chance to complete what the great man began, by being the first in the world to conquer an eight thousand-metre peak—with the added lustre of planting the Union Jack on the summit, and beating the bloody Germans. (p.19)
Brothers they may be, but Stephen and Kits haven't always—or even often—gotten on, and for all that they're on their best behaviour at the outset of the trek, as the weather closes in and things threaten to get grim, the tension between them fairly flares.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Book Review | A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers


Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She's never felt so alone.

But she's not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it's anything but empty.

***

Life is a lot of things. It's intense and it's tedious; it's exhausting as often as it's exhilarating. Sometimes it's kind of delightful; sometimes it's quite, quite terrifying. "None of us have a rule book," as Pepper puts it. "None of us know what we're doing here." (p.317) But we each have our own ideas, don't we? We all have our aspirations, our particular purposes. Some of us want to start families. Some of us want to make successes of ourselves. Some of us want to see the world. Some of us want to pave the way for change.

Insofar as she ever wanted anything, Lovelace—the AI formerly installed on the spaceship which went The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in Becky Chambers' radiant debut—Lovelace wanted to make the humans in her hull happy. That's why she opted to be installed in a body kit:
At the time, it had seemed like the best course, the cleanest option. She had come into existence where another mind should have been. She wasn't what the Wayfarer crew was expecting, or hoping for. Her presence upset them, and that meant she had to go. That was why she'd left—not because she'd wanted to, not because she'd truly understood what it would mean, but because the crew was upset, and she was the reason for it. [...] She'd left because it was in her design to be accommodating, to put others first, to make everyone else comfortable, no matter what. (p.112)
But what of her comfort?

That's the question at the centre of A Closed and Common Orbit, the sensitive sequel of sorts to the novel that was nominated for any number of awards and accolades, including the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, the Tiptree Award, the Kitschies Golden Tentacle and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I say "sequel of sorts" because Chambers' new book only features a few of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet's characters, and isn't in the least bit interested the fate of the Wayfarer. It is, in other words, entirely standalone—unlike so many of the struggling sequels that insist on this—although a passing familiarity with the larger canvas of said series is sure to prove a plus.

In any case, Lovelace. Just imagine, for a moment: if life, despite its heights, is still sometimes too much for us—we who have been here, trying and failing and feeling for years—then what must it be like for someone such as she, someone who has never even been called upon to pretend to be more than a program?

Monday, 24 October 2016

Book Review | Dark Made Dawn by J. P. Smythe


There was one truth on Australia, the derelict ship on which Chan was born and raised: you fight or you die. Usually both.

But everything on Australia was a lie. Abandoned and alone, Chan was forced to live a terrible existence on the fringes of society, Australia's only survivor after a terrible crash-landing on Earth.

But Chan discovered she was not alone. Together with the unlikeliest of allies, Chan carved out a place for herself on Earth. And now the time has come: she's finally found a reason to keep going. But friends have become enemies, and enemies have become something worse. It's time for Chan to create her own truths, and discover a life beyond fighting and death: a life beyond Australia.

***

The Girl Who Fell to Earth finds her feet in Dark Made Dawn, the vital concluding volume of the Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Australia Trilogy by J. P. Smythe.

It's been a long road for Chan, who murdered her mother mere moments after we met her, crash-landed the prison ship she'd lived on her whole life a little later, and has had to do a whole host of other awful things simply to survive since—but her hellish journey is almost at an end. She's been reunited with her former frenemy, Rex; they've found employment, of a sort, amongst the automatons of walled-off Washington; and the nearby nomads have offered them a home away from home. In short, Chan's dreamed-of destination—a world in which she can be with Mae, come what may—is finally in sight, and I'll be damned if it doesn't look bright!

Then again, it's always darkest before the dawn, and as liveable as her life has been of late, Chan hasn't forgotten how horrible it was as of the offing. She remembers, especially, losing everything after she gave so much of herself to get off the Australia:
I was scared, living in a hovel, subsisting on whatever I could find or whatever Ziegler gave me. I had nothing. Now I can bury those memories, mostly. Those feelings. I've got something that feels like control over my life these days. I have a place in this city. A job. A role. A purpose. 
And so does Rex. 
It doesn't matter that our job is doing what they don't want others to do, or what the others won't. It's still ours. (pp.28-29)
Through their heavily-augmented handler, Hoyle—who just so happens to be sleeping with Chan—she and Rex have blackmailed and intimidated their way through the worst that Washington has to offer.

The job has hardly been a joy, obviously, but it has been a necessary evil. It's helped our poor pair fit in in a city that values obedience over everything else. Chan, for her part, has needed the leeway that being a good citizen has allowed her in order to find some trace of Mae, who was almost a daughter to her on the Australia. But when she and Rex are asked to outright assassinate their next target, they both know that the time has come to either poop or get off the pot...

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Book Review | A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky


M is a drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and limited magical ability, who would prefer drinking artisanal beer to involving himself in the politics of the city. Alas, in the infinite nexus of the universe which is New York, trouble is a hard thing to avoid, and now a rivalry between the city's two queens threatens to make the Big Apple go the way of Atlantis. To stop it, M will have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he's ever acquired - he might even have to get out of bed before noon.

Enter a world of wall street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steam-punk universes, and hipster zombies. Because the city never sleeps, but is always dreaming.

***

He gave grimdark fantasy a knee in the rear with the wickedly witty Low Town trilogy. He tackled epic fantasy to tremendous effect across Those Above and Those Below. Now, as he turns his attention to urban fantasy by way of his brilliantly bold new book, one wonders: can Daniel Polansky no wrong?

That remains to be seen, I suppose, but he's certainly never done anything as resoundingly right as A City Dreaming. An assemblage of loosely-connected vignettes as opposed to a work of longform fiction—although it's also that, at the last—A City Dreaming takes some getting into, but once you're in, it's a win-win. Hand on heart, I haven't read anything like it in my life.

The first couple of chapters serve to introduce M, a rogueish reprobate who straddles "the line between curmudgeonly cute and outright prickish" (p.246) and can do magic, as it happens. "It would help if you did not think of it as magic," however, as our "incandescently arrogant" (p.149) narrator notes:
M had certainly long since ceased to do so. He thought of it as being in good with the Management, like a regular at a neighborhood bar. You come to a place long enough, talk up the chick behind the counter, after a while she'll look the other way if you have a smoke inside, let you run up your tab, maybe even send over some free nuts on occasion. Magic was like that, except the bar was existence and the laws being bent regarded thermodynamics and weak nuclear force. (p.1)
When M is finally called upon to pay the tab that he's run up (and up and up) in the pub that is the entirety of Paris, he decides, after some serious soul-searching over several such snacks, that "it might be time to toddle off" (p.6) to his old stomping ground in the States, because he believes he's been gone for long enough that the many enemies he made there have probably forgotten him.

He's wrong on that count, of course. But M's enemies aren't his most immediate problem. On the contrary, his most immediate problem, as he sees it, is how popular he seems to be.