Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Book Review | The Gradual by Christopher Priest


In the latest novel from one of the UK's greatest writers we return to the Dream Archipelago, a string of islands that no one can map or explain.

Alesandro Sussken is a composer, and we see his life as he grows up in a fascist state constantly at war with another equally faceless opponent. His brother is sent off to fight; his family is destroyed by grief. Occasionally Alesandro catches glimpses of islands in the far distance from the shore, and they feed into his music—music for which he is feted.

But all knowledge of the other islands is forbidden by the junta, until he is unexpectedly sent on a cultural tour. And what he discovers on his journey will change his perceptions of his country, his music and the ways of the islands themselves.

Playing with the lot of the creative mind, the rigours of living under war and the nature of time itself, this is Christopher Priest at his absolute best.

***

Pro tip, folks: never, ever, ever ask artists where they get their ideas from. It's not a trade secret or anything so sensational—it's just a silly question in the eyes of the aforementioned, and at best, silly questions beget silly answers, such as the bit about the Bognor Regis-based ideas dealer Neil Gaiman used to use. The fact of the matter is that art is inherently personal, and people, whatever their superficial similarities, are completely unique, so what inspires one person in one way isn't likely to inspire another, and if it does, it'll be differently.

That's just one of the lessons the eventually-fĂȘted composer Alesandro Sussken learns in The Gradual: a dreamlike diatribe on the source of song and scene and story and so on, arranged, somewhat like a literary symphony, around one man's lifelong journey through the tides of time.

Like The Islanders and The Adjacent and a bunch of other Christopher Priest books before it, The Gradual takes place in the Dream Archipelago, which is to say "the largest geographical feature in the world, comprising literally millions of islands." The Susskens—a family of musicians, mostly—live on Glaund, which is at war with Faiandland, and has been for as long as anyone can remember, for reasons no one can rightly recall. This sort of thing is not uncommon in the Dream Archipelago, so Alesandro doesn't take it too personally... that is, until his older brother Jacj is enlisted.

Years pass. Indeed, decades do:
Jacj's absence was eternally in the background of everything I did. Whatever had happened to him gave me feelings of dread, misery, horror, helplessness, but you cannot work up these emotions every day, every hour. I feared for him, was terrified of the news that I felt would come inevitably: he was dead, he had gone missing in action, he was horrifically wounded, he had deserted and been shot by officers. All these I pondered.
Yet the time went by... 
As time tends to. Inevitably, Alesandro has to direct his energies elsewhere, and perhaps it's the fact that Jacj may yet be out there somewhere that leads to our hero's first fascination with the world outwith his.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Book Review | Revenger by Alastair Reynolds


The galaxy has seen great empires rise and fall. Planets have shattered and been remade. Amongst the ruins of alien civilisations, building our own from the rubble, humanity still thrives. And there are vast fortunes to be made, if you know where to find them...

Captain Rackamore and his crew do. It's their business to find the tiny, enigmatic worlds which have been hidden away, booby-trapped, surrounded with layers of protection—and to crack them open for the ancient relics and barely-remembered technologies inside. But while they ply their risky trade with integrity, not everyone is so scrupulous.

Adrana and Fura Ness are the newest members of Rackamore's crew, signed on to save their family from bankruptcy. Only Rackamore has enemies, and there might be more waiting for them in space than adventure and fortune: the fabled and feared Bosa Sennen in particular.

Revenger is a science fiction adventure story set in the rubble of our solar system in the dark, distant future—a tale of space pirates, buried treasure and phantom weapons, of unspeakable hazards and single-minded heroism... and of vengeance.

***

Fresh off of finishing the magnificently ambitious Poseidon's Children trilogy and collaborating with fellow science fiction superstar Stephen Baxter on the rather marvellous Medusa Chronicles, Alastair Reynolds returns with a stirring story about a pair of sisters who enlist on a spaceship and set about looting the rubble of a ruined universe. Featuring dollops of derring-do and not a few space battles too, Revenger might be Reynold's most accessible solo effort yet, but there's no dearth of darkness in this light-looking bite of a book.

The universe has seen better days, I dare say. Aeons on from the forging, so many civilisations have risen and fallen that the current population of the Congregation live every day as if it's apt to be their last. Piracy is inevitably prevalent, but rather than stealing from one another, most pirates plunder the remnants of ancient races from the hundreds of thousands of dead worlds distributed in the distance.

Most pirates, but not all. Not Bosa Sennen, who has carved out a terrible legend for herself in the blood and the bodies of those unfortunate enough to have found themselves near the nightmarish Nightjammer: a sneaky little spaceship with black sails, according to the tales, the better to board you before you know it.

Pol Rackamore is one of the scant few souls to have come face to face with Bosa Sennen and survived, though not without paying a perilous price: the loss of his dear daughter. He'll see her again before Revenger is at an end, however—as will Adrana and Arafura Ness, the well-to-do young women at the centre of Reynolds' enticing text.

When said sisters, so long under the thumb of their failed businessman of a father, hear that Captain Rack is hiring, they jump at the chance to crew the Monetta's Mourn for a couple of months. They hope to "go out, just for a while [...] then come back home, and share what we've made." (p.15) Needless to say, dear daddy doesn't agree, but then, he can't stop them, can he?


Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Book Review | The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell


Luke Arnold is a successful stage comedian who, with his partner Sophie Drew, is about to have their first child. Their life seems ideal and Luke feels that true happiness is finally within his grasp.

This wasn't always the case. Growing up in a loving but dysfunctional family, Luke was a lonely little boy who never felt that he belonged. While his parents adored him, the whole family knew that due to a mix-up at the hospital, Luke wasn't their biological child. His parents did the best they could to make the lad feel special. But it was his beloved uncle Terence who Luke felt most close to, a man who enchanted (and frightened) the lad with tales of the other—eldritch beings, hedge folks, and other fables of Celtic myth.

When Terence dies in a freak accident, Luke suddenly begins to learn how little he really knew his uncle. How serious was Terence about the magic in his tales? Why did he travel so widely by himself after Luke was born, and what was he looking for? Soon Luke will have to confront forces that may be older than the world in order to save his unborn child.

***

In everything we do, every decision we make and every action we undertake, our identities define us... yet we never really know who we are. We know who we were—we tell ourselves we do, to be sure—but like all memories, these recollections lose their sharpness with time, and, invariably, some of their truth, too. And while we think we know who we will be, these are projections at best; messy guesses subject to sudden and surprising changes in circumstance.

Take Luke Arnold, the central perspective of The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell. He thought he was the only son of Maurice and Freda Arnold, but as a DNA test taken on television demonstrates, he's not; the hospital must have given the couple he calls mum and dad the wrong baby. "He still has all his memories; nothing has changed them or what he is, let alone the people who are still his parents in surely every way that counts." (p.19) Nevertheless, this sensational revelation alters Luke's perception of his past, and that, in turn, has huge ramifications on his future.

Who, then, is the man caught in the middle?

Not who—or what—you might imagine, actually...

A father-to-be, in the first, because Luke's wife, the singer/songwriter Sophie Drew, is expecting. And although the doctors at the hospital give clean bills of health to both of the prospective parents, they take Luke to one side to say that it would be "in the interest of your child to discover what you can about your origins." (p.73) Origins that, try as he might to divine them in the subsequent months, don't seem to be entirely natural in nature.

It just so happens he already has an inkling as to where else he could conceivably have come from, because as a boy, he was haunted by bad dreams, imaginary companions and a compulsion to twist the fingers of his hands into shapes seen by some as satanic. The child psychologist little Luke saw all those years ago thought this was the fault of Luke's beloved uncle, Terence, and his tales of the Kind Folk.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Book Review | Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton


Leandra Weal has a bad habit of getting herself into dangerous situations.

While hunting neodemons in her role as Warden of Ixos, Leandra obtains a prophetic spell that provides a glimpse one day into her future. She discovers that she is doomed to murder someone she loves, soon, but not who. That's a pretty big problem for a woman who has a shark god for a lover, a hostile empress for an aunt, a rogue misspelling wizard for a father, and a mother who—especially when arguing with her daughter—can be a real dragon.

Leandra's quest to unravel the mystery of the murder-she-will-commit becomes more urgent when her chronic disease flares up and the Ixonian Archipelago is plagued by natural disasters, demon worshiping cults and fierce political infighting. Everywhere she turns, Leandra finds herself amid intrigue and conflict. It seems her bad habit for getting into dangerous situations is turning into a full blown addiction.

As chaos spreads across Ixos, Leandra and her troubled family must race to uncover the shocking truth about a prophesied demonic invasion, human language, and their own identities... if they don't kill each other first.

***

Although it was a small novel, both in size and in scope, Spellwright made a sizeable splash in the speculative fiction scene when it was released six years or so ago. First-time author Blake Charlton brought his own experiences as "a proud dyslexic" to bear brilliantly by exploring the place of a young man who misspells everything in a world in which magic is literally written.

Spellbound was bigger than Spellwright in the same several senses. It expanded the overarching narrative from the magical academy where Nicodemus Weal came of age and learned of something called the Disjunction to take in a distant city and a second central character. Again like the author, a medical school student by day and a writer by night at the time, Francesca DeVega was a physician poised to use her powers to heal the needy, but when she too became aware of the coming catastrophe, she had to put her pursuits on the back-burner to help Nico defeat the demons—demons that meant to destroy the lifeblood of the living: language.

But the demons were not defeated by our heroes... only delayed. And now, in Spellbreaker—not the longest volume of Charlton's inventive trilogy but unequivocally the most ambitious—the Disjunction is at last at hand.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Book Review | The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin


The season of endings grows darker, as civilisation fades into the long cold night.

Essun—once Damaya, once Syenite, now avenger—has found shelter, but not her daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request. But if Essun does what he asks, it would seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

Far away, her daughter Nassun is growing in power—and her choices will break the world.

***

Middle volume syndrome sets in in the surprisingly circumspect sequel to one of the best and bravest books of 2015. Though the world remains remarkable, and the characters at the heart of the narrative are as rich and resonant as ever, The Obelisk Gate sacrifices The Fifth Season's substance and sense of momentum for a far slighter and slower story.

In the Stillness, a perpetually apocalyptic landscape which may or may not be our planet many generations hence, purpose is a pre-requisite. A use-caste, it's called. There are strongbacks and breeders and cutters and hunters, to name just a few, all of whom are defined by what they do; by what they can contribute to the communities, or comms, that they call home.

This is a hard world, however, replete with hard people. Season after Season—of widespread death by choking, boiling and breathlessness among other, equally unpleasant ends—has seen to that, so no comm will carry you if you're not prepared to pull your weight in some way. In the Stillness, there's just no place for waste.

No place for orogenes like our heroes, either. Able as they are to manipulate thermal and kinetic energy, orogenes, or roggas, have huge power, and with it, responsibility. That they could choose to behave irresponsibly, or behave in that fashion by accident, represents a risk most of the men and women of this world aren't willing to take. To wit, orogenes are either slaughtered as soon as they start exhibiting abilities, or sent to the Fulcrum, to be trained; some might say tamed.

Dear little Damaya, The Fifth Season's first perspective, was one such soul, summarily taken from her parents simply because she was different. At the Fulcrum, she was shaped—through pain and the promise of gain—into Syenite, said text's second perspective, but when, years later, she discovered the depths of the depravity underpinning this facility, she escaped, and again changed her name. As Essun, the third of The Fifth Season's three POVs, she met a man and had a family, all while hiding what she was, as well as what her children were... just as N. K. Jemisin hid the fact that her novel's seemingly separate narrators were one and the same.

That discovery packed a proper punch, but it's a known quantity now—as indeed is Essun's deception.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Book Review | I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas


For fans of legendary pulp author H. P. Lovecraft, there is nothing bigger than the annual Providence-based convention the Summer Tentacular. Horror writer Colleen Danzig doesn’t know what to expect when she arrives, but is unsettled to find that among the hobnobbing between scholars and literary critics are a group of real freaks: book collectors looking for volumes bound in human skin, and true believers claiming the power to summon the Elder God Cthulhu, one of their idol’s most horrific fictional creations, before the weekend is out.

Colleen’s trip spirals into a nightmare when her roommate for the weekend, an obnoxious novelist known as Panossian, turns up dead, his face neatly removed. What’s more unsettling is that, in the aftermath of the murder, there is little concern among the convention goers. The Summer Tentacular continues uninterrupted, except by a few bumbling police.

Everyone at the convention is a possible suspect, but only Colleen seems to show any interest in solving the murder. So she delves deep into the darkness, where occult truths have been lurking since the beginning of time. A darkness where Panossian is waiting, spending a lot of time thinking about Colleen, narrating a new Lovecraftian tale that could very well spell her doom.

***

Ahead of Ian McEwan's literary nasty Nutshell, a fable of infidelity readers will only be able to experience from the perspective of a foetus, I Am Providence proffers a murder mystery narrated in no small part by the victim of that very vicious killing in the moments before his failing brain cracks and crumbles like "a sponge drying in the sun." (p.162)

Panos Panossian is an utterly insufferable author of Lovecraftian lore, so it's either fitting or simply suspicious that he meets his maker on the first day of the annual Summer Tentacular. "Providence's premiere literary conference about pulp-writer, racist, and weirdo Howard Phillips Lovecraft" (p.1) features, funnily enough, "a veritable 'Who's That?' of horror fiction," (p.30) including one Colleen Danzig. A newcomer to mythos mania with just a few short stories to her name, she was set to share a room with Panossian, but when the con goes on despite his death, Colleen decides to determine just whodunnit. After all, "if anything is possible, then yes, an untrained writer could find a murderer." (p.173)

Not just a murderer, but a mutilator too, because to add insult to injury, the killer, whoever he or she may be, purloined poor Panossian's face in addition to his future...

Singularly sickening as the murder this mystery revolves around is, if the truth be told, there's no shortage of suspects in Nick Mamatas' scathing portrayal of Lovecraftian fandom:
The Tentacular was a strangely aggressive environment—writers jockeying for position, people bellowing at one another, men sneering at women out of some abject simultaneous attraction and repulsion. It was high school all over again, except that all the kids with a measure of social intelligence were at the homecoming dance and the kids left behind were the meatheads, glue-sniffers, nerds, and minor league bullies. Geeks who liked to show off their knowledge of esoteric subjects, the more repulsive, the better. (p.74)
That last—"the more repulsive, the better"—may well have been Mamatas' mantra whilst working on I Am Providence, because it is, if not a horrid novel, then a novel of horridness. Almost all of its characters are creeps, not least Colleen, who is so cavalier and careless in her pursuit of the truth that she points the finger at pretty much everyone she meets, such that it's no wonder she hasn't made a great many friends by the end.