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Today's featured book is Kameron Hurley's engaging essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. Originally a series of articles and blog posts, a number of which have taken on a life of their own, the collection draws them together and puts them alongside other pieces which address similar issues. The tone is impassioned and polemical, rather than dry, closely argued philosophy, Hurley focuses on the person and political, challenging the reader to examine their own preconceptions and privileges.

The book starts with an excellent overview of the nature of writing and eviscerates some of the most common myths — such as the notion that talent is a sufficient condition for success; hell, in some cases, it doesn't even seem to be a necessary one! The second part delves into culture — mostly geek culture — and skilfully takes it apart, often from a feminist perspective, to show its inbuilt assumptions and biases. Hurley's essay on the first series of True Detective, focusing not on the supernatural but on what makes the lead characters monsters, is particularly good — and particularly disturbing, given that much of the perspective comes from first hand experience.

The last two sections of the book deal with the wider world — the justifiably famous and deeply horrifying The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance should be required reading for politicians of every stripe. The final section, which focuses on revolution and change picks apart moments in history and, although the ideas may not be original — the notion that default views are not apolitical reminds me of, I think, Felix Holt where being a Tory is considered to be apolitical! — they're expressed with clarity and an enjoyable sense of brio.

If the collection has a weakness, it is that all the pieces were originally written as standalone articles. Thus they include slightly more throat-clearing than usual, with Hurley setting out various facts that we've just read about in the previous essay. But that's a minor quibble with a easy solution: simple spread out the essays rather than reading them in one sitting, or dip into them out of order.

(As an aside, I particularly like the llama on the cover which, amusingly, appears to be a slightly modified version of the one the cover Schwartz and Christiansen's Learning Perl. My copy, now 20+ years old, notes that this particular llama comes from a 19th century engraving in the Dover Pictorial Archive, perhaps explaining how it came feature on both covers)
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Seamlessly blending fact and fiction, Andrew Wilson's A Talent for Murder takes Agatha Christie's notorious disappearance in December 1926 and turns it into something rather more sinister.

Struggling with The Mystery of Blue Train and with her marriage to Archie in trouble, Agatha Christie finds herself targeted by a particularly unpleasant and intelligent blackmailer. The man, a keen fan of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, uses the threat of publicity to force Agatha to engineer her own disappearance. He has her drive to Newlands Corner, where he forces her to abandon her car, before arranging for her to travel to Harrogate. Here he plans to have Agatha use her cunning writer's mind to come up with a foolproof way to murder his estranged wife.

Meanwhile, back in Surrey, the disappearance of Agatha Christie has caught the attention of the local police, with Superintendent William Kenward, the Deputy Chief Constable, taking charge of the search. From the first, Kenward comes across as an old school copper sadly out of his depth. He devotes increasing amounts of time and effort to having the surroundings of Newlands Corner and the Silent Pool search, taking the edge off his doubts with nips from the bottle of scotch he keeps in his bottom draw.

Rather more successful is Una Crowe, daughter of the diplomate Sir Eyre Crowe, who takes it into her head to use the Christie Mystery to build a journalistic reputation for herself. Aided somewhat by her great friend John Davison, who is something spooking in the Foreign Office, Crowe throws herself into events, taking to Archie Christie, Nancy Neele, Superintendent Kenward, anyone who has the slightest inking of the case. Unfortunately, her persistance starts to pay off, putting her in terrible danger when she starts to close in on the puppetmaster.

A Talent for Murder pulls off the neat trick of taking a set of lightly sketched historical events and building a full-on psychological mystery out of them.

Wilson's fictional Agatha is an engaging lead, whose detailed knowledge of poisons and ability to plot are highly prized by her blackmailer; as notes on a couple of occasions: there's something slightly odd about someone who seems so outwardly normal but whose mind can imagine one involved murder after another. Una Crowe also comes across well; an ingenious young woman, finally coming out of the depression that has captured her following the death of her father, with a tendency to sail to close to the wind. Her friendship with Davison — Una drops plenty of hints that Davison is gay in an era when it was illegal — is nicely done, with Wilson resisting the temptation to make Davison the Spy a deus ex machina.

Enjoyable stuff and best still, the book ends with an extract from the next novel in the series which presumably follows Agatha Christie as she travels to Las Palmas in January 1927...
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A fun one, in the form of Sarah Gailey's River of Teeth. Gailey takes a quirk of history — a tight vote on whether to introduce hippopotami to the Mississippi River — and turns it the other way, imagining an alternate version of Louisiana — complete with a large man-made lake called the Harriet — were breeding hippos for meat is quite the thing. But even the best plans have flaws and now the Harriet is bung full of dangerous feral megafauna, making it well past time the government hired a group of outlaws and assassins and hoppers to deal with the problem once and for all. And if the solution comes with a solid side-order of revenge, so much the better.

Winslow Remmington Houndstooth can't believe his luck when the government hires him to carry out an operation to clear the Harriet. Along with the money, comes a list of people to hire for the caper: Regina Archambault, con-artiste extraordinaire, and her albino hippo Rosa; Hero Shackleby, a retired explosives expert willing to take on one last job, and Abigail, their Standard Grey; the deadly Adelia Reyes, the best headhunter in the country, and Zahra and Stacia, her pair of hops; and last and least, Cal Hotchkiss, fast with his pistols but prone to cheating at cards, and his Betsy, his Tuscan Brown.

Houndstooth's plan is simple. The crew are to travel up river and through the Gate into the Harriet, using their federal papers to get them past the guards. Once in the lake, they'll use a carefully tailored chain of explosives laid out by Hero to herd the feral hops towards the Gate, which they'll have opened, allowing the ferals through into the gulf and thus fulfilling their contract in on simple operation. Trouble is, practically everything about the caper goes wrong from the get-go, and Houndstooth and his people find themselves far too close to the villain of the piece.

If River of Teeth sounds a bit like a Western with hippos instead of horses, that ain't too far from the truth. The cast is to die for, with both the humans and the hippos feeling like well-rounded and complicated characters, while the setting is well-imagined and vivid, with a wonderful sense of detail — if you overlook the craziness of people riding through swamps on hippos!
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Something quick and easy in the shape of The Big Four by Agatha Christie. Essentially a set of linked short stories set in the late 1920s, the overarching narrative follows Poirot and Hastings as they pit their wits and strength against the titular group of international criminal masterminds. Of the group, the member most often encountered is the fourth; nicknamed the destroyer, he is a ruthless assassin with a chameleon-like ability to take almost any role without risk of detection.

The early stories involve Poirot and Hastings trying to ferret out information about the different members of the group. Although they sometime fall into the traps set for them by the gang, each time Poirot emerges with more information about the people behind the Big Four. Eventually the group start to take more serious measures, culminating in a bombing which appears to leave Poirot dead. (It's not much of a spoiler to say that he isn't dead: after all, Christie carried on publishing books about him well into the 1960s and 70s) Finally, with Hastings help, Poirot — and his brother Achille — start to tighten the noose around the Big Four.

The episodes are more like a spy thriller than a detective story, with Poirot taking an uncharacteristically active role in events. Perhaps this explains why he makes quite so many errors of judgement! Hastings is as dimly charming as ever. When the duo turn up a briefing note the Big Four have prepared about them, Hastings completely fails to see their accuracy: despite having just fallen into a trap baited with a pretty young woman with red hair, he claims to Poirot that there isn't the slightest bit of truth in set of documents which detail precisely this weakness!

Entertaining, if undemanding, stuff...

Final Girls

Jul. 2nd, 2017 10:45 am
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Another modest sized piece of dark fiction from Seanan McGuire, this time writing as her alter-ego Mira Grant. Final Girls follows science journalist Esther Hoffman as she takes a close look at Dr Jennifer Webb's clinic which claims to be able to cure all types of trauma. Hoffman has a reputation as a sceptic and debunker of pseudo-science, but this is precisely why Dr Webb is so interested in converting her: if she can publicly convert someone as critical as Esther, she can convince the rest of the world.

The opening section of the story makes light work of the scene setting. After being treated to a classic horror scenario, a pair of siblings fleeing from a halloween monster, we drop back into reality and make our first acquaintance with both Hoffman and Webb. Dr Webb is polished and convincing, although Hoffman is wise enough to recognise that she's clearly been coached. Meeting the sisters who underwent the horror story simulation and recognising that their relationship has changed fundamentally, Hoffman agrees to try out the therapy system for herself.

Suddenly Esther finds herself 13 years old again and attending a new school after her father moved them from California to Massachusetts following her mother's death. Esther is worried that she doesn't know anyone, but she immediately meets one of her neighbours, a girl called Jennifer, and two strike up an immediate and friendship. Time jumps along and the pair are 16 and inseparable friends, making their own way through life, standing together against the bullies of the school's in-crowd. So far, so in keeping with the scenario that Dr Jennifer Webb has devised to help generate a bond between herself and Esther Hoffman.

But this being Mira Grant, the story twists and events suddenly rush out of control, careering off into something much darker than the original scenario. Given that the VR system is intended to tap into the users' subconscious, drawing on their dream states in a way that can be guided by the technicians and therapists monitoring the session, and given that Webb's core idea is that patients benefit most from horror story survival narratives, it's pretty obvious that things aren't exactly going to go well for the duo currently caught up in a shared nightmare.

Despite its relative brevity, Final Girls is an extremely successful, focused piece of horror fiction which features a couple of nice turns which put events on a new path. The lead characters are extremely well done and although Jennifer Webb has more than a touch of mad scientist about her, it's implied that it is more a consequence of her extreme drive than any active desire to cause harm, and maybe the shared therapy session is exactly what she needs. Esther, though damaged by what happened to her father, is clear-sighted enough to understand how it affects her and to use it to drive her highly successful career, despite seeing herself as the only layperson on her publication.

The minor characters are very much sketches but this is something that Grant is clearly aware of, given that Esther notices — but is encouraged by the drugs to disregard — much the same thing during her VR session, with none of her other classmates seeming to burn as brightly as Jennifer and herself. Even the motivations of the ultimate antagonist remain hazy, but this actually feels like a strength: the story isn't about them and allowing them to remain hidden allows the reader to ascribe their own motivations, making them as villainous or venal as they choose to believe.

Also intriguing is the way the story juxtaposes the notion of recovered memory with Dr Webb's more scientific method of reprogramming. In Esther's early encounter with the Nappe sisters, she identifies what she thinks are deep-seated flashes of doubt in the sister's expressions; because, however much they've chosen to change themselves, there's no denying they are no longer, post-therapy, the people they were before, regardless of whether the change has been for better or worse. And the fact that the sisters have gone through such a radical chance underscores Esther's concern that the system could be used for full-on brainwashing; something underscored by Dr Webb's extremely ethically dubious decision to use her treatment system to make Esther like her — a decision that is somewhat tempered by the doctor's own presence in the VR system, her acknowledgement that the influence is only going to be slight, and the fact that it will be mutual, with both participants being changed by it.

In summary, then, Final Girls is a dark delight: a clever central conceit, a pair of excellent lead characters, and a strong setting underpinned by some intriguing ideas. Excellent stuff.
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I was always going to love Seanan McGuire's Down Among the Sticks and Bones; what I didn't realise was quite how spectacularly good it was going and quite how much I was going to love it. Sharing a continuity with Every Heart a Doorway, which really ought to be read first, McGuire's latest has a very, very different tone, channelling the spirit of every horror movie and gothic novel into a pitch-perfect but deeply subversive take on the genre.

When Chester and Serena Wolcott decide to have children, they know in advance exactly how their offspring are going to turn out: practically perfect in every way. So determined are they that the force their poor little twins, Jacqueline and Jillian — never to be referred to as Jack and Jill — into neat little straightjackets: Jacqueline is put in over-the-top dresses and admonished to keep herself clean, the better to impress Serena's friends; while Jillian is converted into a tomboy, all short hair and soccer practice, to help Chester win kudos with colleagues in his law firm.

Events take a turn when the girls discover stairs in a case of dressing-up things left behind by Chester's mother — the woman who babysat the two girls for the first years of their lives before being unceremoniously booted out by Chester, and who has now become a mere ghost of a memory of happiness to the twins. After talking each other into an adventure, the pair descend the stairs, finally finding themselves facing a door with an inscription carved above it: Be Sure. Despite being anything but sure, the two open the door and step through, only for it to vanish behind them.

Finding themselves in the brooding, menacing world of the Moors, they find a walled village where the local lord takes them in. After mentioning something about giving them sanctuary for three days — Jacqueline is astute enough to spot the tactic premise — the Master invites the twins to dinner where Jillian makes an apparently fateful choice of main course. Of such terrible, casual choices are the trajectories of lives forever altered in the world of the gothic and the girls find themselves parted: Jacqueline choosing to go and work with Dr Bleak, with Jillian remaining at the right hand of the Master.

The rest of the story follows the two twins as they grow up, one in a vampire's castle and the other in a mad scientist's laboratory, switching their outward roles, with Jack putting her dresses aside for men's clothes and heavy gloves and resurrections while Jill becomes a creature of swirly dresses and chokers and blood lettings.

The tone is, as already mentioned, absolutely spot-on — not all that surprising given Seanan McGuire's seemly boundless talents and vast knowledge of faery stories and gothic horror — combining a pinch of The Nightmare Before Christmas with a smidgen of The Corpse Bride and a whole host of imagination to produce something truly wonderful. The story is self-aware enough that Dr Bleak knows that he is only the hero because, as second villain to the Master, he is not a ravening monster.

Jack and Jill — and Jacqueline and Jillian — are beautifully drawn characters, damaged by their early life experiences at the hands of their appalling, emotionally abusive parents, who, when given the chance at freedom, seize it with both hands, even when their notions of freedom involve entail doing unspeakable things to corpses or joining the undead. It's also fascinating to the see the way the two, when freed from the expectations of their parents, more or less completely switch their gender presentation, but in way that never loses the true core elements of each of their personalities.

I've rather raved about Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but it really is that good. It's every bit as good as Every Heart a Doorway and that just won the 2017 Locus Award for best novella.

Although I'd imagine it'd work as a standalone story, it's probably best to read Every Heart first for an introduction to the characters — and to get familiar with the territory and to enjoy every slight slip the twins make in the first book when talking about their time in the Moors — and then wolf down the very different second story immediately after.
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As already mentioned, I was in the departure lounge at Heathrow when I suddenly decided to buy a proper, dead tree book in order to save the battery on my iPad for the journey. Looking around the little outlet for something decent, I saw Sylvain Neuvel's Waking Giants and seized it with both hands.

We begins with the events of Rose Franklin's eleventh birthday. Out late, riding her new bike, she heard a noise and woke up hours later in a pit surrounded by walls covered in glowing glyphs and lying in the palm of a giant metal hand. Seventeen years later, after previous attempts to understand the hand and its associated glyphs have come to nothing, Dr Rose Franklin is in charge of the team tasked with cracking the mystery of the hand.

The story unfolds through a series of conversations between an unnamed official and the various different members of the research team. Firstly we have Rose, who claims to have drifted into her position through chance; she had demonstrated a talent for science before the events of her birthday and ascribes her academic success to a desire to impress her father. Nonetheless, Rose is responsible for the breakthrough that allows the team to locate the giant's remaining body parts.

Secondly we have Kara Resnick, brilliant helicopter pilot and dysfunctional human being, who gets seconded by the backer to fly the missions needed to recover the body parts. Thirdly, because every pilot needs a good co-pilot, Kara's colleague Ryan Mitchell, a straight up guy with a terrible crush on his team mate, is recruited to fly with her. Fourthly, because no-one has yet to crack the mystery of the glyphs, we have Vincent Couture, a brilliant young Canadian linguist with a vast ego and unshakable sense of self-belief.

And ultimately, masterminding it all, we have the official, the backer, the person who remains so anonymous that I'm not sure we even get a gender. The most we ever learn about them is that they were an English literature major — a fact they, perhaps jokingly, claim that not even the president knows. Always a full five steps ahead of everyone else, the backer has plans within plans within plans, always seeming to know precisely what stimulus, what promise, what threat, is required to get the answer they need from their current interlocutor.

Sleeping Giants starts as an intriguing first contact story moving through something a bit more like a political thriller — albeit one where the stakes are deeply personal to the people involved — and ends up with something that wouldn't be out of place in Pacific Rim. But what really makes it work, I think, is the inscrutability of the backer: they manage something close to omnipotence through the clever deployment of soft power; and while we have the advantage of seeing the limits to their knowlege at a couple of points, the other characters frequently see them as close to omniscient.

Ultimately, though, Sleeping Giants did everything I asked of it: it greatly eased my time at Heathrow and smoothed me through the first part of my flight, preventing me from having to resource to the horrors of the entertainment system. I'm already looking forward to the sequel...
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And so to Infinity Engine, the final novel in Neal Asher's Transformation series. Given the density of the plot — one of Asher's principals is a god-like AI able to predict and manipulate all the other characters' actions — I wasn't sure whether the book would stick the dismount. But it turns out I needn't have worried: the elegant way Asher resolves his outstanding plot threads is a wonder to behold.

The action begins where War Factory left off, with all the main characters trapped in Room 101, a vast space manufactory created during the Polity-Prador. Cvorn, the immediate antagonist of the first two books, is dead, as, apparently, is his fellow prador Sverl. But that doesn't mean that Room 101 is safe for Thorvald Spear and his companions: the station's left-over drones and artificial intelligences have abandoned sanity to engage in a struggle for survival against one-another.

Meanwhile, across space, a group of scavengers find the remains of a small ship washed up in a strange region that attracts debris from U-space. The ship appears to contain a survivor: a human in an antique space suit. Being unpleasant sorts, the scavengers take the survivor back to their space station where they plan to enter them in an illegal death match against their current champion, the prador Sfolk, one of Cvorn's children, who was washed up on the wrack when his father's dreadnought was destroyed. But all is not what it seems and what should have been a simple gladiatorial match ends up going badly for the scavengers, leaving Sfolk and the survivor free to investigate an ancient alien spacecraft at the heart of the wrack.

Elsewhere, in another significant strand to the plot, a forensic AI called the Brockle has escaped his confinement in the prison hulk Tyburn and set out in pursuit of Penny Royal. Driven by a warped sense of justice, the Brockle is perfectly willing to torture and maim to discover what he needs to know, but he retains a squeamishness about murder, reasoning to himself that if he doesn't kill anyone who doesn't deserve it, he will remain morally blameless in the eyes of the Polity. During his dogged pursuit of his quarry the Brockle picks up Captain Blight and his crewmate Greer, both of whom were former play-things of Penny Royal, and encounters another the rogue AI's creatures, a gangster called Mr Pace who seems to be locked in a Faustian agreement which has granted him a costly form of invulnerability.

To say much more about the plot would be to spoil it, but suffice to say that everything pulls together an extremely effective and satisfying way. The characters are classic Asher: a group of deeply advanced post-humans — or post-prador — who, for all their vast intelligence, find themselves struggling to survive and to find something to give meaning and shape to their lives. Penny Royal, perhaps the ultimate protagonist of the series, rarely appears in person, limiting itself to cryptic comments and occasional savage interventions; a wise decision that helps retain the mystery of the god-like entity at the heart of the plot. This results in the main characters' existential doubts being intermittently interrupted by clear and unequivocal evidence that, however free they think they are, their actions have been precisely predicted by something greater than themselves in furtherance of its own goals.

As I've already said, Infinity Engine brings the Transformation trilogy to a sound, satisfactory, and enjoyable conclusion ending on a note that more than slightly nods to Asimov and Clarke. It obviously doesn't work as a standalone novel — Asher assumes that the reader is up to speed with the events and cast of the previous novels, and has a more than passing familiarity with the technology, poltics, and setting of his Polity universe — but this is entirely fair given that it's the final book in a tightly coupled series. I think it's fair to say that if you liked the first two books in the series, you're going to enjoy this an awful lot.
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I'd pre-ordered the latest in Seanan McGuire's InCrypted series such a long time ago, that I was slightly startled when Magic for Nothing dropped through my letterbox on Monday. The series, set in a world full of mythical creatures, follows the youngest members of the Price-Healy family as they protect the more unusual members of the ecosystem from both each other and the Covenant of St George, a para-military organisation dedicated to wiping out every creature that wasn't on Noah's Ark. Where previous books have focused on Verity and Alexander, the two older Price siblings, Magic for Nothing follows the youngest, Antimony Timpani Price, as she shoulders the burden placed on her by her family.

The story starts just as Chaos Choreography ends, with Verity fighting a giant snake on live television before issuing an ultimatum to the Covenant of St George: stay out of the US or face the wrath of the Price family. Faced with a need for drastic measures, the older members of the family decide to trade on Antimony's lack of resemblance to her sister — Annie is tall and dark where Verity and most of the others are short and blonde — by sending her to infiltrate the Covenant and to learn their plans for North America. After cautiously making her way to England, Annie, now calling herself Timpani Brown, appears on the doorstep of a Covenant safe house and sells them a sob story: she's the only surviving daughter of a carnival troupe killed by a swarm of telepathic wasps.

Luckily the Covenant's current Minister, Reginald Cunningham, buys what Antimony is selling and accepts her into the fold. But as his bookish grandson Leo explains, the Covenant has been drawing on the same family lines for generations and needs new blood, especially if it comes from the New World. Thanks to her upbringing, Annie flourishes in the Covenant's training program — currently under the care of her distant cousin Margaret Price — although she suffers rather from having to share a room with Leo's sister Chloe, who snores like a thunderstorm. After a mere couple of months, Minister Cunningham decides to send his new trainee on an uncover mission: to infiltrate a carnival that has been associated with a series of disappearances. Returning to the US, Annie travels to Wisconsin where Margaret, now her handler, and Robert Bullard, head of security at the training school, are on hand to keep a watchful eye on her.

Despite a rocky start when she hits things off the wrong way with the boss's grandson, Annie soon settles into live as a carnival girl, drawing on skill acquired when she lived with the Campbell Family Carnival to prove her worth. Once the initial mystery of the disappearances is resolved, Annie is able to settle her differences with Sam, the afore-mentioned grandson, sufficiently for the two of them to start running a trapeze act. Everything from this point on ought to be idyllic, but for the constant threat of the Covenant and their plans to purge the carnival by murdering everyone involved with it.

Magic for Nothing marks the first real appearance of Antimony Price, previously only seen through the eyes of her older siblings, and the character we see from our close third person view is very different to the one we might expect. Where Verity has only ever see a hyper-violent brat, Annie has actually been forced to behave as she has to survive as the youngest in a family where training starts at birth, where her older brother and sister have already formed a close bond, and where the risk of being discovered and destroyed by the Covenant of St George always looms large. Antimony also has a sharply contrasting view of Verity, seeing her as shallow and vain, willing to risk the entire family's safety just so that she can dance on a reality TV show — something that is almost as jaundiced as Verity's view of her. As she says herself, Antimony is actually the good daughter pretending to be the bad one; something that really snaps into focus at the end of the book where she has to make a series of painful sacrifices for the greater good of her mission.

The pacing of the story is more sonata form than three act, with a shortish opening that introduces Annie and the Covenant. Here Leo does much of the heavy lifting, explaining the organisation's backstory, bantering with Antimony in a way that makes him feel human and well rounded. The fact that he and Chloe are then largely absent from the narrative suggests to me that we're likely to see them both reappear in a more significant role. The second act set in the carnival is far more leisurely, with McGuire characteristically good on little details that really sell a setting. That I preferred the carnival to Verity's world of ballroom dance and reality TV probably says more about me than anything else.

Inevitably the finale changes everything irrevocably; something that McGuire signals by having Antimony anticipate the easy delights of an evening at a roller derby. And while the ending is bleak, it is true to Annie's character: a willingness to sacrifice everything for her family and her friends, even though she suspects they may not appreciate it.

We're also left with a few intriguing clues about the future: where will Antimony's magical abilities and pyrokinesis take her? Will her Healy blood draw back to the Covenant as some have predicted or will nurture will out over breeding? I think this is probably the key takeaway difference between the Healy-Price family and the organisation they rejected: the family have adopted members from everywhere including the likes of Sarah Zellaby, who may not be human but who is just as much a member of the family as anyone else; whereas the Covenant is all about breeding bloodlines — they differentiate between arranged marriages and love matches — to such a degree that they constantly treat Margaret Healy as a potential traitor because her grandparents decided to leave the organisation.

If it's not clear by this point, I loved Magic for Nothing: it was just the book I needed at this point in time. It features a cracking setting, effortless world-building, and an engaging and involving lead character. The slightly less frenetic pacing in the middle section really worked for me — I feel it gives the finale more punch — and I particularly like the dark ending that left me worried about someone I've really come to like. And no, it certainly didn't hurt that it featured a slightly misanthropic but ultimately rather charming character called Sam...
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The ever wonderful Emma Newman has a excellent new gaslamp fantasy novella out. Brother's Ruin, which takes place in a version of Victorian London where the industrial revolution is powered by magic rather than steam. The story is clearly a curtain-raiser for a series but that doesn't mean it is isn't a delightfully fun read which more than serves its purpose of leaving me eager for more.

Charlotte Gunn has two significant secrets. Firstly, despite being Victorian and female, she has managed to carve out a successful career as an illustrator. Secondly, in a world where people with magical talents have to join the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts for the greater good of the British Empire, she has concealed her abilities because she wants to get married and live a normal life. Whilst in town to show off her book to the her brother Ben, the pair see an innocent child forcibly acquired by the Royal Society's Enforcers for the crime of being an undeclared latent magus; something that stresses the danger that Charlie is in and the risk she poses to those around her should she be discovered.

With these few quick sketches, Newman establishes her world with admirable clarity. We see how the familiar rules of Victorian morality confine the sexes to their appointed roles, but we also see the differences: the way the Royal Society can step outside those boundaries and make anyone they recruit into a figure of public adulation. We also get an immediate feel Charlie, who offers to help the baker after her son is taken away and who is carefully solicitous of her brother's frail health, but who remains determined to set her own course through life.

Arriving home to find a money-lender on the family doorstep, Charlie is distraught and immediately sets off for Whitechapel to investigate Anchor Financial Services. Upon discovering the office in a slum dwelling, Charlie learns from a neighbour that the place is notorious: people go in alive and come out in coffins. A quick visit to her fiance George, a registrar of births, marriages, and deaths, confirms the cluster of deaths, all of which have been signed off by the same doctor. Her mind in a whirl, Charlie returns home only to be faced with yet another shock: her father has called in the Royal Society because he suspects they have a latent magus in the family.

The Gunns, a solidly lower middle-class family, are classic members of the Victorian precariat, living without a safety net of savings, forcing Charlie's father to take out a secret loan to cover the unexpected expenses of Ben's time at university and his sudden illness and return home. Consequently, it is not hard to see why her father might see the Royal Society as providing a means of salvation: latents undergo testing to determine the area of their abilities, with their families receiving compensation from the college that agrees to take them on; should the latent show talent in more than one area, the colleges may attempt to outbid each other for the new apprentice, paying more than enough to wipe out the Gunn family's debts.

Fortunately for Charlie, she discovers that her father believes that Ben is the magus and has brought him to the Society's attention. Ben, determined to do his bit to support the family despite his weak health, has convinced himself that his limited abilities — he can increase the size of a candle flame — are sufficient to join the Society. Acutely aware of the need for money, Charlie offers to help Ben ace the tests to get more money out of the Society and to draw their attention away from her.

We then get the arrival of three magi and a neutral referee in charge of the testing. The three each represent a college of magic: William Ledbetter, a bluff northern industrialist, of the College of Dynamics is concerned with heavy lifting; Lillian Ainsworth, sympathetic and pleasant, is head of the College of Thermaturgy and specialises in the management of heat and energy; and finally Thomas Hopkins, of the College Fine Kinetics, whose interests are in delicate mechanics and clockwork and fine magics, and who is also something of a polished, dandified flirt. Needless to say, with Charlie's help, Ben more than impresses all three of the testers, even going so far as a damage Ledbetter's equipment — something which delights the magus, both because he believes that it shows Ben's prodigious ability but also because it means they've caught him before he loses control of his powers; something the Society constantly stress as a reason why all latent magi are required to join their organisation.

The rest of the story follows Charlie as she helps Ben and tries to come up with a way to keep her father out of the clutches of Anchor Financials. Thomas Hopkins, who possesses a wily intelligence and ability to see to the heart of things, seems to see through Charlie and her deceptions but choses to do nothing about it. Despite being clearly opposed to whatever is going in Whitechapel, Hopkins refuses to act — implying at couple of points that he isn't nearly as free to act as Charlie believes he ought to be as a member of the top tier of the Royal Society — but instead offers Charlie just enough knowledge to solve things for herself.

Brother's Ruin is a fine book with an good setting and a finely drawn cast of characters. Charlie makes an intriguing lead and Hopkins proves to be a good foil for her. Of the rest of the cast, Ben is particularly interesting. After acing his tests, he becomes convinced that he can live up to the standard set with Charlie's help and accepts the highest financial offer despite it being a poor match for his true specialism. It's also possible to suspect from the title that while Brother's Ruin may mark the start of a new and positive phase of Charlie's life, it puts Ben on the path to bad things given his almost certain inability to live up to his promise.

Having very much enjoyed the opener in the series, I'm really hoping for more set in the world of Industrial Magic.
sawyl: (A self portrait)
I've been looking forward to Kameron Hurley's The Stars are Legion for a while and I've not been disappointed. A wide-screen baroque space opera of the first order, the story is set among a cluster of vast semi-organic worldships — the titular Legion — where are long-running fight for control of a rogue world called the Mokshi, which promises a way to leave the fleet of ships, is finally seems to be coming to a head.

We begin with Zan, the first of our narrators, awaking with a single memory: that of throwing away a child. Unable to remember the rest of her past, she finds herself dependent on those around her, mostly especially a woman called Jayd who insists that she is Zan's sister. Zan learns that she is on a worldship called Katazyrna, that she has recently returned from an attack on the Mokshi, and that of all the armies sent by Lord Katazyrna against the Mokshi, Zan is the only one who always returns alive, albeit without her memory. Before she knows it, Zan is ordered to lead assault against the rogue ship only to be intercepted by the forces of the world of Bhavaja and its lord, Rasida.

Jayd, meanwhile, finds herself treading carefully around Zan and her amnesia. The pair have a long and complicated history, but every time Zan manages to finally get aboard the Mokshi, she loses her memory and returns as a blank slate. Then, as time passes and she interacts with Jayd and with Anat, Katazyrna's lord, more fragments of her past come back to her until she experiences a mental collapse triggered by the events of her shared past with Jayd. Despite all this, it is clear that the pair have a shared agenda and that Zan, for all that she can't remember her role, is critical to the success of their plan.

Furious at Zan's latest failure Anat comes up with a scheme to cement peace between Katazyrna and Bhavaja: she offers Jayd's to Lord Bhavaja in marriage; a deal sweetened by the unnamed contents of Jayd's womb, currently held in stasis by a drug regime. But Anat, psychotic and controlling, has underestimated her opponent and almost before the blood used to seal the union has cooled, Katazyrna finds itself betrayed. This leaves Jayd a prisoner in all but name and results in Zan being cast down a recycling chute that leads to the heart of Katazyrna where hideous creatures breakdown organic matter, allowing it to be reused by the world.

From this point the two narratives separate. Jayd, now a member of Rasida's court on Bhavaja, tries to further her plan without doing anything that might get herself killed. Zan, meanwhile, finds herself on the long and hard way that leads out of hell and into light. Along the way she picks up companions who start as wary strangers and gradually transform into friends as their long trek back to the surface progresses.

The Stars are Legion is very unlike anything else, with its strange organic worlds full of peculiar grotesqueries. Although it goes completely unremarked in the narrative, everyone in the Legion is female — a feature which makes sense when you discover that each of them is somehow controlled by the ship into giving birth to the various creatures and components it requires in order to sustain its existence.

The central theme of the book is the voyage to self-discovery. Zan starts as a tabula rasa — a useful narrative feature which allows Hurley to build her world without too much awkwardness — only to form herself through her Dantean journey back up from the centre of Katazyrna, before eventually being forced to make a choice about who she truly wants to be: does she want to recover her lost memories and become the person she was before, the person who seems to be stuck in a perpetual loop, or does she want to embrace the new self she has created for herself from the cloth of her trials.

Jayd, meanwhile, knows the entirety of the joint plan, but finds herself required to suppress her knowledge in order to convince Rasida that her loyalty has truly shifted from Katazyrna to Bhavaja. But as Jayd throws herself into her role as a submissive wife, she realises that she has been so successful that she is in danger of losing her autonomy entirely. And when push finally comes to shove, Jayd must decide what to make of her troubled relationship with Zan and how the pair can build a future together.

Despite having some minor issues with the pacing of the opening sections — the build-up to Zan's first assault on the Mokshi feels a bit rushed — I absolutely adored The Stars are Legion when it settled into its stride. I liked its spiky characters — hyper-talkative engineer Casimir was a particular favourite — the visceral nature of the setting — especially in the hellish recycling pit — and the way Hurley stuck the dismount at the end.

Highly recommended.
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Following up on a recent review in the Guardian, I read James Lovegrove's Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows. The book opens with a framing prologue from Lovegrove himself: in 2016, out of the blue, he received a manscript from an American lawyer dealing with the estate of a distant relative of HP Lovecraft; despite concerns about the veracity of the narrative, Lovegrove agreed to edit it for publication. The resulting tale, The Shadwell Shadows, rewrites much of the accepted history of the man who is surely England's greatest detective: Sherlock Holmes.

The book proper opens with a second prologue, this time from the manuscript itself. Writing in the 1920s, towards the end of his life, Dr John H. Watson states that he has decided to write the truth about his time with Sherlock Holmes and to describe three episodes, set a decade apart, which go to the heart of the terrible things they dealt with together. But in order to do so, Watson confesses, he must set aside many of the accepted truths about the Great Detective's life and about his own.

Having lately from Afghanistan and indeed been injured, although not by a rifle bullet, John Watson is at a low ebb. One night, having sunk so far as to play nap in a dingy pub, Watson encounters a person from his past: Stamford, a fellow medico, attempting to buy a teenage girl from a pair of Lascars. Appalled Watson tries to draw his former friend back from the brink, only for the man to flee. As Dr Stamford runs, a second man, apparently an alcoholic middle-aged Yorkshireman, enters the fray and dispatches the two pimps with an elegant, eastern martial art. The man is, of course, Holmes, in one of his many disguises.

Lovegrove's re-writing of Watson's return is skilfully done, taking many of the established facts and putting them into a new perspective. Even Watson's conscious efforts to re-write his past make sense of the Holmes canon's inability to remember quite where he was shot: was it in the leg or the shoulder? The book is also clearly aware of and dialogue with Neil Gaiman's A Study in Emerald, right down to a deliberate reference to Holmes' mother's maiden name being Vernet. We also get plenty of atmosphere, from a London Particular to a run-down boozer complete with sinister foreigners engaged in the sex trafficking — a staple of British detetive fiction of a certain era.

Despite giving chase to Stamford, the man gives them the slip and the pair retire to Holmes' lodgings in Baker Street. There Holmes informs his new friend that he has been investigating a series of mysterious murders that occur around time of the new moon which have seen desiccated victim with a look of acute horror embossed on their features abandoned in Shadwell. When Stamford eventually turns up in a police cell, he is out of his mind and raving nonsensically. When he kills himself in a highly gruesome fashion, the duo follow up their only remaining lead: an opium den in Limehouse known to be frequented by the fallen doctor. Here they cause a scene, during which Holmes loudly mentions the name of the owner, Gong-Fen Shou. Sure enough, the feint works and the pair find themselves subject to a late night visit from the impeccably mannered crime lord.

What appears at first to be a fallen London doctor engaged in attempted child abduction turns into something else as Holmes introduces a series of apparently impossible murders, with the first hints of the supernatural introduced through a series of animate shadows. With the re-appearance of Stamford, Lovegrove immediately signals that we're in Lovecraft Country by having him come out with some classic phrases of worship associated with Cthulhu and, by having Watson react to them, uses it to impart something about Watson's buried past. The opium den, which might seem like a hackneyed location, is instead shown to be a sophisticated setup, a place frequented by the highest in the land, and whose existence owes as much to political resentment as to profit.

Gong-Fen, who seems genuinely intrigued by Holmes, holds out a hand offering enlightenment. Holmes accepts and the pair depart, leaving Watson to count the anxious hours until his new friend's return. When Holmes reappears, he is a changed man. Courtesy of Gong-Fen, he has been on a dream quest and seen the horrifying forms of the Outer Gods, barely returning with his sanity intact. This prompts Watson into his own confession: during his time in Afghanistan, he and some of his fellows slipped away from their regiment to search for a lost city; here he earned the terrible wound in his shoulder and first heard the ancient words that so shocked him when he heard them repeated by the deranged Dr Stamford.

In introducing the first full-on Lovecraftian elements, Lovegrove pays homage to a established technique: having the characters relate their events in flashback part-way through the narrative. Not for them the cosy safety of a Club Story; instead, through their mutual retellings, one recent and one older, the pair now finally begin to see what they may be up against, and that it might be more terrible than they can possibly having imagined.

Following their mutually reinforcing revelations, the pair realise that Gong-Fen was right: the world is far older than they supposed and its ancient gods far more real and more inimical to humanity than they had ever dreamed. The pair dedicate themselves to the study of esoteric texts, hoping to learn the secrets of the eldritch world, only to chance upon a lead which promises to help resolve the Shadwell murders.

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows is highly entertaining and extremely enjoyable, mixing Lovecraftian horrors with a very fine take on Conan Doyle. Lovegrove's Watson is appropriately gruff and bluff and good-hearted; his Holmes cerebral and febrile by turns. Victorian London, with its fogs and cabs and low dens, comes across well. Lovegrove clearly possesses a detailed knowledge of Holmesiana which he skilfully uses to re-write much of Holmes and Watson's shared history to incorporate the fantastic, using the excuse that Watson found it necessary to alter the truth in his previous writings in order to avoid horrifying his unprepared public.

Given that Watson's framing preface explicitly mentions that he is going to relate three events, each a decade apart, which formed the key points in Holmes' shadow career, I think I've got a lot to look forward to...
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Another book from last year in the form of Paul Cornell's Lost Child of Lychford. Set a few months after The Witches of Lychford, it follows the three main characters in the run up to Lizzie Blackmore's first Christmas as vicar of the small Cotswold village of Lychford.

While Lizzy is busy preparing for her first Christmas, she sees the ghost of a child in her church. When she takes the problem to Judith Mawson, the village's wise woman, Lizzie discovers that the spectre is a doppleganger; the spirit of a child in trouble, whose presence may indicate the presence of a curse. As Judith investigates further, the group's enemy strikes at her directly, neutralising its most dangerous adversary and leaving Lizzie and Autumn Blunstone, the dippy proprietrix of the village's magic shop, to sort things out for themselves.

As with the first book in the series, Lost Child of Lychford begins as a comedy only to rapidly turn into something much darker. The main characters are all beautifully drawn, making their decent into madness seem all the more harrowing. And although the madness is magically induced, it has all the hallmarks of mental illness: the characters' self-harming actions and odd behaviours seem normal to their own minds, although they have brief moments of lucidity when they realise that something is very wrong; but from the outside perpective of the reader, it is painfully apparent just badly how they've lost contact with reality.

The details of the village feel spot on and, as might be expected from someone whose wife is a parish priest, Cornell is particularly good on the stresses of being a vicar at Christmas. For no matter how stressful things might be for the rest of us not only is Christmas the busiest moment in the church calendar, but they also have to deal with rampant commercialism of one of their high festivals and the the associated problem that everyone seems to have their own platonic ideal of a proper Christmas church service which often doesn't match the Anglican Church's idea — after the Advent carol service, one of Lizzie's flock, having struggled their way through the music, remarks, "I like Silent Night, but perhaps that's a bit too popular for you." Ouch.

Lost Child is a delightful from start to finish: it has humour, horror, and victory over evil; it's short, punchy, and wonderfully observed. It's very much a sequel to the first book and probably shouldn't be read first — familiarity with the characters and their circumstances is needed to maximise the emotional punch — but Witches isn't long, so there aren't any good excuses for starting here.

Highly recommended.

After Atlas

Jan. 3rd, 2017 07:54 pm
sawyl: (A self portrait)
I read Emma Newman's After Atlas a couple of months ago and I've been meaning to write it up every since. The story, which forms a loose companion to Planetfall, is set on Earth after the departure of the Atlas mission to the stars and follows some of the people left behind. The book combines a distinctly dystopian setting with a noirish tone, employing a plot that centres around a murder in an old-fashioned, isolated Devon hotel.

In a fully connected world, most crimes can be solved with a cursory database trawl; when they can't, the Ministry of Justice calls in Carlos Moreno. Having grown up in a cultish anti-technology commune called the Circle, Moreno is perfectly placed to investigate when its founder, Alejandro Casales, turns up dead in a luxury hotel with little in the way of monitoring. Moreno's personal circumstances also make him ideal, should a cover-up be required: in his teens he was sold to the Ministry of Justice by a group of corporate people traffickers and he remains their property, subject to psychological re-adjustment should he ever step out of line.

The mystery plot unfolds as these things do, with Moreno uncovering inconsistencies which suggest that the case is far from the open-and-shut one it first seemed to be. Then, just when things look like they might be settled, the plot abruptly pivots and Carlos realises that there are things far worse than being a Ministry-owned slave.

The second part of the book sees Moreno travelling to the US to attend Alejandro's funeral. Here he meets his father again for the first time in years, forcing him to confront his anger at the way he was treated while a child. With his investigator's eye, Carlos realises that nothing within the Circle is quite what it seems and what there is may offer him a way to escape his current circumstances.

As befits a noir detective, Carlos Moreno is deeply troubled and angry. Almost as soon as we meet him, he is in the process of pushing his only friend away. Later we realise the source of his anger and his abandonment issues, the extent to which he has been warped by the corporate hot-housing program designed to program him to be perfect for his role, and the degree to which he has internalised his state of slavery.

The world around Carlos is detailed and well imagined with an intriguing cast of minor characters — I particularly like the shrew, motorbike-riding pathologist who knows exactly how to exploit the rules to ensure that Carlos knows things he is not supposed to know without tipping off his implanted artificially intelligent personal assistant. The hotel feels authentic with the attention of the staff to detail reminds me of time I saw an oligarch on his yacht in Greece, where his servants were so carefully prepped to attend to his needs that they were standing ready to take his bike and offer him with a glass of orange juice when he and his bodyguards returned from a ride, so that he seemed to move frictionless through his life. The implant technology, which can be either be the perfect observer, perfect assistant or perfect oppressor at the flip of a bit, seems disturbingly convincing and the data analysis convincingly imagined.

In summary, After Atlas is a enjoyable, disturbing, dystopian story that seems to close off the world of the Pathfinder from Planetfall. And while it isn't necessary to have read the first book to enjoy After Atlas, it may be helpful if only because it explains many of references to external events. Definitely recommended.
sawyl: (A self portrait)
An unexpected Christmas present in the form of a previously enjoyed copy of Gretchen Reynolds' The First 20 Minutes. A pop science book about exercise — principally running because, as Reynolds notes, it's hard to get laboratory animals to use stationary bicycles — it runs over the latest ideas in the field of sports science.

Reynolds begins at the beginning, examining the questions of stretching and warming-up. As someone who has never stretched before exercise, I was pleased to discover that static stretches are no longer recommended. There are some hints that dynamic stretching may help, but at lot of it seems to boil down to warming up gently before starting exercise in earnest.

The discussion moves on to a discussion of sports nutrition; an area where there seems to be a great deal more heat than light. Consulting various experts, Reynolds concludes that although exercise isn't sufficient to lose weight, it is an necessary precursor and for all the folk messages about the benefits of high protein foods and exotic sports drinks, eating a normal, proper diet and drinking water — or possibly milky tea! — work well and there is no evidence that slurping down large quantities of water during exercise helps and quite a lot to show that it is actively harmful.

The two chapters on strength and endurance are interesting, particularly as they apply to running. These indicate that core strength is not everything; that strength and endurance are not opposite ends of the scale but instead complement each other; and that a great deal of endurance is actually mental.

One of the experts, talking about the evolution of ideas about exhaustion notes that it was originally thought that exhaustion was a purely physical consequence of stored reserves running low until they examined evidence which showed that most people sped up at the end of an period of exercise — something that should be impossible if the physical theory was true — forcing them to conclude that much of the decline was caused by the brain telling the muscles to reduce their output. According to this model, interval training is no longer about boosting the strength of the muscles but rather about training the brain to realise that it is safe to exceed what it perceives to be its limits. Sadly, Reynolds notes, for interval training to really work, it really has to hurt!

Following a chapter on injuries and their prevention, we get a quick tour of some the ideas about ageing and exercise. Intriguingly, these suggest that a great deal of what we think of as inexorable age-related decline and infirmity is actually simply general unfitness and that living actively and healthily helps to combat a lot of the signs of ageing. The book concludes with a quick examination of the ever changing field of sports genetics — the conclusion of which is that genes are definitely a factor in sporting success, but only one factor among many — and some helpful suggestions on what to do next.

What makes the book particularly interesting, besides the overview of the current state of sport science, are the closing sections of each chapter. These feature an enumerated list of strategies to address the some of the problems raised by chapter, providing an easy and positive summary of where to go next.

The First 20 Minutes is a good mix of the informative and the inspiring. In fact it is just the thing to read over the new year, when thoughts naturally turn to goals for the next 12 months and a general feeling that one ought to be trying harder, training more, and finding strategies to get out of one's comfort zone and start improving again.


Jan. 1st, 2017 07:58 pm
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Having done very little reading over the last couple of months, I wanted to ease my way back in with something gentle. Happily John Scalzi's Miniatures, a collection of very short, comic stories proved just the thing.

One of the principal sources of the humour is the idea of taking the exotic — aliens, superheros, Star Trek — and turning it into yet another source of everyday annoyance. Thus the aliens are viewed through the filter of a newspaper advice column or a set of supermarket guidelines intended to improve customer experience. The superheroes are treated like celebrities, with their own bookers and with amoral analysts at financial institutions analysing their impact on the markets.

The dialogue To Sue the World is a funny extension of the basic premise of Redshirts where Scalzi imagines a lawyer seeking to take a thinly-disguised United Federation of Planets to court to obtain compensation for all the low-level crew killed in preventable lapses of health and safety culture aboard the organisation's starships. What makes this even funnier is that during Scalzi's tour to promote Redshirts, he performed the piece with Wil Wheaton, giving extra depth to the lawyer's critical comments about one particular starship captain putting a 13 year-old in charge of various things.

While obviously not an earth-shatteringly profound read, Miniatures is good fun while the brevity of the stories makes it easy to dip in and out. Plus, as a bonus, each of the stories is prefaced by an adorably little drawing by Natalie Metzger. What's not to like?
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Looking for something a bit different, I've spent the last week reading the first season Bookburners, a Serialbox story about a group of Vatican investigators who deal with outbreaks of magic. The story is fashioned from a set of episodes, intended to mirror the form of a television series, which mix an overarching plot with a weekly one, with the writing team taking it turns to helm an episode.

The series begins when Sally Brooks' brother Perry pitches up, unexpectedly, on her doorstep late one evening. Sal, a detective with NYPD, doesn't exactly approve of her brother's semi-legal interests and his obsession with obscure manuscripts, but when a group of people arrive hot on her brother's heels and start issuing threats, Sal is determined to protect her brother. The group — Perry calls them Bookburners — blow through Sal's apartment like a hurricane but don't manage to prevent Perry from escaping.

Determine to find out what is going on, Sal recognises the Bookburners' van and forcibly introduces herself. The leader of the group, Father Arturo Menchu, tries to explain that Sal's brother has become involved with a demon trapped in a book and that he and his team — including Grace Chen, an deeply intense, one woman wrecking crew; and Liam a troubled, tattooed, reformed hacker — are trying to save him. Sal is sceptical, right up until she finds Perry's friends acting as though they were hypnotised and sees her brother transform into something else entirely. Only partially able to resolve the case, the first episode concludes with Sal reluctantly agreeing to move to Rome to join the Bookburners team.

As the season unfolds, we come to know a little more about the main characters and the things in their pasts that drew them into their current roles. We also meet Asanti, the team's archivist and notional head, whose interest in the more practical aspects of magic put her at odds with Father Menchu and, most especially, with Liam, whose past experiences have left him extremely wary of anything supernatural.

We also discover that Sal's team isn't unique and the Vatican actually fields three groups against the occult. The first is composed of group of elite soldiers who, beefed up with various supernatural artefacts, are occasionally brought in to sterilise outbreaks which can't otherwise be contained. The second are more diplomatic and, under the notional leadership of Hilary Sansone, apply the necessary PR to smooth over the consequences of the other teams' behaviours, although some of the members appear to be scarily zealous and seem to believe the ends justify the means. Sal's group compose the third team, tasked with investigating outbreaks of magic and/or demonic activity and bring them back under control. The was, once, a fourth team who specialised in the research of and practical applications of magic, but they were disbanded ago and their members excommunicated, although the precise circumstances for this remain obscure.

The overarching story of the series involves the recovery of demonic books and a mysterious billionaire called Mr Norse who seems willing to go to huge lengths to recover occult artefacts. Unfolding in parallel to this, Sal becomes increasingly concerned with the fate of her brother, whom she discovers has been infected by a demon called The Hand, and begins to wonder about the involvement of a man who calls himself Aaron and who seems to know far more than he should about everything.

Bookburners is an extremely effective series whose pacing is never feels less than perfect. The premise, which takes something from Warehouse 13 and something from every story ever to feature the Vatican as gatekeepers of ancient knowledge, works extremely well, largely because it takes its initial ideas seriously and doesn't use the archive as a trivial source of dei ex machina. The world building is excellent and the setting feels deep and detailed, with episodes like The Market Arcanum revealing an extra dimension of the magical world that has nothing to do with the Bookburners or their mission but which exists in an uneasy truce with it. None of this is terribly surprising given the calibre of the writers involved — Max Gladstone, Brian Francis Slattery, Mur Lafferty, Margaret Dunlap — but it needs to be said.

Highly recommended, especially if you're after something where each individual element comes in a small package but which builds up into an impressive whole.


Oct. 9th, 2016 09:06 pm
sawyl: (A self portrait)
I've managed to get my hands on Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff's Gemina, the sequel to their innovative Illuminae. Set on Jump Station Heimdall, the destination of the evacuation fleet in the first book, the story follows BeiTech's attempts to cover up their attack on the mining colony on Kerenza IV. Once again, we have two star-crossed lead characters in the forms of Hanna Donnelly, the Station Commander's daughter, and Nik Malikov, a lieutenant in the House of Knives crime syndicate who also happens to be Hanner's drug dealer. And once again the action is told through a series of found documents, this time including Hanna's journal, with the added entertainment of being able, post-Illuminae, of being able to make a pretty good guess at which of the characters is responsible for narrating the sections composed of surveillance footage.

We begin with the calm before the storm, with everyone on Jump Station Heimdall preparing to celebrate Terra Day. For Hanna Donnelly, this involves wheedling a designer outfit out of her father and negotiating with Nik for a bumper supply of dust to keep her friends happy through the celebrations. For Nik and the other members of the House of Knives, Terra Day means raising a new batch of lanima, a parasitic lamprey-like alien species which feed on brainwaves, using a herd of cattle concealed beneath the station's reactor. Why would anyone want to raise such Lovecraftian horrors? Because the psycho-active secretions lanima give off provide the raw materials for dust, everyone's favourite party favour.

With the setting established, we know an awful lot about our principal characters and what we can expect from them. Nik is obviously keen on Hanna, Hanna is a bit less keen; she may have broken Nik's arm in an earlier encounter — something Nik insists on calling a sprain — and she's obviously not entirely indifferent to his bad-boy charms, but Hanna isn't about to throw over her current boyfriend for Nik's flirtatious banter. We also know that, despite his prison tattoos, Nik isn't half the criminal he's inked out to be and his badinage with his cousin Ella, an elite hacker who isn't quite as mobile as she used to be, is very nicely done.

We also get a chance to see some of the more minor characters, including Hanna Donnelly's father and Chief Engineer Isaac Grant, Kady's father from Illuminae. Grant and Donnelly provide some useful exposition, with Grant explaining the need to take the wormhole junction down for a week over the holidays to carry out some delicate adjustments and Donnelly trying to chivvy him along. Refusing to be rushed, Grant explains that screwing up the maintenance could result in horrible damage to spacetime and the disappearance of the entire station. Thanks for that cheery bit of info-dumpage Chief!

On Terra Day Nik, whose decision to supply Hanna on sly leaves him open to blackmail, reluctantly agrees to smuggle a large biotainer aboard the station. Leaving a key moment to go and meet Hanna, Nik misses the moment when the 'tainer opens to reveal a group of BeiTech mercenaries who promptly wipe out the rest of Heimdall's branch of the House of Knives. For the same reason Hanna, who is supposed to be present at her father's Terra Day party in the station's atrium, escapes the moment when the mercs kill a few key members of the station's skeleton staff before placing the atrium in lockdown. After hunting down the remaining crew, who can be tracked through their implanted transponders, the invaders start bringing up the wormhole to allow a fleet of warships to travel to Kerenza to wipe out survivors of the Illuminae attack.

All of this sounds pretty serious for our heroes. Thankfully, they've got a couple of aces up their sleeves: Hanna, who has spent many a happy hour bonding with her father over warfare simulations and games, is a skilled strategist and an accomplished martial artist; while Nik is a crack shot who, with the help of his cousin Ella, a brilliant hacker, knows how to reach the parts of the station others don't even know exist — like lanima breeding bay, where, even now, the nasty little brain suckers are in the process of erupting out of their oblivious bovine hosts.

While some of the mercenaries don't get to be much more than codenames and horrible fates, the major antagonists are pretty clearly drawn. The team commander, Travis "Cerberus" Falk, is clearly a ruthless force to be reckoned with; a man whose quite voice and controlled manners bely a vast capacity for violence. His deputy, Fleur "Kali" Russo is a bit more obvious: a classic psychopathic warrior who is so unhinged that she even unsettles her colleagues, but whose skills are extremely well suited to tracking down a handful of missing station personel and woe betide anyone who crosses her.

Gemina is every bit as a fun as its predecessor. Although it's plot isn't particularly innovative, the narrative is well executed and the found-footage method of telling the story works extremely well — the mix of third person descriptions with transcripts and snarky comments from the analyst is particularly effective. There are a couple of plot twists but they're solidly foreshadowed — although I have to admit that one of them completely blindsided me! — so they don't feel like too much like cheating!

The characters are well drawn and enjoyable — I particularly like Ella's sharp sarcasm and her acute awareness of the objective unpleasantness of the House of Knives versus her own experiences of her father's patience and kindness towards her — although their trajectories are pretty clear from early on. The book deals with the characters' experience realistically — Nik's dubious past, Hanna's drug taking, Ella Malikova's health — but without allowing these to define them.

From the framing narrative, it is clear that the stakes have risen for BeiTech Executive Director Leanne Frobisher. Where, in Illuminae, she was the one who'd commissioned the after action report on the Kerenza IV incident, Gemina opens with Frobisher facing a United Terran Authority tribunal where the Illuminae Group's transcripts appear to form the basis of the evidence against her. And I'm looking forward to the third book in the series, which, I'm sure, will find Director Frobisher fighting with everything she can to escape the closing trap set for her by the Illuminaes...
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Read the second of Jeffrey Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme novels, The Coffin Dancer, which I started while I was travelling and only just finished. I'm not sure if it's me or the book, but it really didn't work for me.

The story opens with a plane crash: pilot Ed Carney's Learjet 35 is blown out of the sky while he is on the phone to his wife. It turns out he, his wife, and another of the Hudson Air Charter's pilots witnessed a mobster flying off late one night to dump some inconvenient evidence, and now someone has hired the Coffin Dancer, a notorious assassin, to deal with the problem. When Lincoln Rhyme is called in to consult on the case, he immediately tries to put Percey Clay, Carney's wife, into protective custody. But being feisty and determined to save her company from bankruptcy, Percey talks the police into taking her to the airfield instead. The Dancer attacks but the day is saved by Amelia Sachs — who, regardless, believes that she's blown it by failing to take on a distant sniper armed only with a handgun.

With evidence gathered from the airfield by Sachs, Rhyme sets about predicting the Dancer's next moves. With his two targets still alive, Rhyme reasons that the assassin's next move with be an assault on the FBI's safe house. Using his uncanny ability to predict the Dancer's next moves, Rhyme attempts to lure him into a series of traps. In each case, he comes close, but fails to snare his prey.

I'm no quite sure why, but the book really didn't gel with me. Rhyme felt more abrasive than in the first book, although I guess that's a major part of his personality, and I really couldn't understand why either Sachs or Percey were willing to put up with him. I thought the assassin plot stretched things a too far and found the multiple attempts at snaring the assassin a little repetative and laboured. And it didn't help that I wasn't particularly interested in the aeroplane jargon or the mechanics of air freight.

So, while your milage may vary, I really didn't get on with this. I can't promise not to dip into the series again, but I think I'm going to go for something very different for my next book...
sawyl: (A self portrait)
While with my folks, they mentioned that one of their guests had persuaded them to read Jeffery Deaver's The Bone Collector. Not wanting to lag behind the curve, I read it this afternoon.

Lincoln Rhyme was New York's best forensic scientist until an accident left him quadriplegic and suicidal. But when a former colleague arrives with a juicy case, Rhyme reluctantly allows himself to become involved. Recognising that the only person who attempted to protect the evidence of the crime scene was patrol cop Amelia Sachs, Rhyme recruits Sachs to be his eyes and ears on the case.

Following clues left at the scene of the first two murders, Rhyme and Sachs race to decode the evidence to locate the murderer's next victims before it is too late. Despite some close calls, the police manage to save most of the other victims, but struggle when a fire in a church causes the next set of clues to be lost. Eventually, the murderer starts to become frustrated when his actions are thwarted one to many times and turns his attention to the police.

Despite the absurd conclusion, Deaver does a nice job of capturing the mind of psychology both of the increasingly unhinged murderer and of Rhymes, who has lost all enthusiasm for life following his accident. There are a few errors in the science — obvious enough that I was able to pick them up without recourse to wikipedia — but otherwise the details seem pretty well done.


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