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D. Harris (Oxford, UK)
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The Race
The Race
by Nina Allan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Intricate and haunting, 21 July 2016
This review is from: The Race (Paperback)
I'm grateful for an advance copy kindly sent to me by the publisher.

Oh, but this book is good. How to review it though? I'm not sure I really know where to begin. I do know that saying too much about the structure would spoil things - there are things here that the reader needs to work out for herself. I also know that this is a book that is hard to pin down, and I may have drawn the wrong conclusions on some of it. For both these reasons I will have to be a bit vague in what follows, and I apologise in advance for that.

So, In The Race there are essentially five stories. In the first, we learn about Jenna, growing up in a crummy town called Sapphire. Sapphire is close to the Romney Marshes, long polluted by fracking, only it is not in England: Sapphire is in a place called Crimond. The town's tenuous prosperity is based on racing smartdogs - greyhounds genetically modified to communicate with their human "runners". Jenna's brother Del is involved in managing the dogs.

In what is clearly an alternate reality, Allan develops a narrative that is gripping and sulpherous, a kind of warped Brighton Rock. She dwells on the tawdry glamour of the dog track, the business of making hand sewn "gants" for the runners (this is Jenna's trade), drug dealing, kidnapping and the grim fate of superannuated dogs. At the same time we also learn the background of this world, the migrant race of "Hools' that both Jenna and Del come from and its language.

The following two stories step back from fantasy and focus on, respectively, Christy and Alex. Christy, first, grows up in Hastings. Like Jenna she has a missing mother and a dominant, unpredictable brother - though Derek is a terror compared to Del: again I thought of Pinky in Brighton Rock: "So long as Dad was in the house, I felt safe, only never quite" writes Christy. And indeed, Derek does terrible things, one related so matter of factly that it might break your heart. Much of this story is occupied with Christy's fears about just what he may have done, or be about to.

Alex is mentioned in that second story but comes into his own more in the third, named for him. His childhood - again, in Hastings - is marked by bullying and racism: "No-one in college called him n***** but there were still dozens of ways he felt he stood out, not because of the colour of his skin but because of the insults he'd been subjected to because of it." With both Alex's and Christy's stories Allan skewers, I think, the sense of being marginalised, made a victim, part of somebody else's story rather than writing one's own. And also - and how prescient is this? - the desperately think ice on which decent behaviour skates: "...he knew also that things could change around you in an instant, and that when they did it was always those who were different that were made to suffer."

Alex and, especially, Christy in these stories have a connection to Sapphire and Jenna's world. In some ways their situations and lives echo each other, despite Sapphire being part of a fantasy world (towards the end of her story Jenna travels to a London which is perfectly ordinary in some ways but with craters, caused by explosions in "the war" - a war also mentioned when veterans weep on hearing it mentioned). For the reasons given above, I won't say just what the connection is: as Allan explores it, more and more echoes arise between the two worlds until, by the end, I honestly wasn't sure which themes originated with who.

The final two stories ("Maree" and "Brock Island") essentially fit together as two episodes, decades apart, in the life of a woman, Maree. She clearly lives in Jenna's world, and we learn more about that war, which seems to have been against a South American country, Thalia: though the details are sparse and we seem to be at peace again, the experience weighs heavy on everyone. Terrible details are given almost casually: smartdogs were created to carry weapons through enemy lines - including nuclear weapons. Maree, who has been trained from an early age to use her rare talents in the service of a mysterious "programme", is on a voyage to Thalia - could it be that "Crimond" lost the war against Thalia? It hardly matters. Allan scatters enough uncertainty about the locations and names of her fictional countries to make it pointless to try and work out exactly what happened - as well as thinly disguised versions of France and Spain we also have England and Scotland mentioned here alongside "Crimond". And whales - great, island sized Atlantic whales, which are a danger to shipping rather than a hunted species. In these stories, one moment you think you understand the fictional world - say where the Internet is mentioned, it must be close to ours? - then the next we have steamships and tribes following the "old orthodoxy" which means human sacrifice to the whales.

And through it all, Maree on her voyage. If "Jenna" played on Graham Greene, "Maree" feels like a story by Conrad or Stephenson: an ill assorted collection of Western passengers on their by slow boat to the tropics, with rivalries, friendships and slightly bored, saloon-bound politics that you get - or got - in such cases.

The final story, while still rooted in Maree's life, also becomes more philosophical. "Words are what humans are, even more than flesh" she muses as she reviews her life - and as we learn what she has really been doing and what depends on it. At the same time, the structure I thought I'd worked out that tied all the stories together seemed I real doubt: as I read the last page I simply didn't know whether or not I'd been wrong all along - or whether it even mattered.

This book is simply breathtaking. Not only does Allan have deep it insight into her characters and their lives, she writes beautiful prose, and leaves the reader needing to think very deeply and very hard about her story.

Really, really good, certainly the best book I've read this year so far. Just superb.


Drowned Worlds
Drowned Worlds
by Robinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars Beauty and loss, 14 July 2016
This review is from: Drowned Worlds (Paperback)
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy via NetGalley

Reminding us that science fiction should confront the big ideas and issues (as well as doing lots of other stuff, obviously) this new anthology from Jonathan Strahan explores climate change, in particular, rising sea levels and the loss of land under water. Strahan notes in his introduction that the city where he lives, Perth, is slated for abandonment in a few decades due to the stresses of climate change.

With this in mind he presents 15 stories meditating on the process, impacts and potential outcomes. This is not a book about heroic scientists finding solutions: it's about what happens next (in some cases, for very long values of "next"). The stories are uniformly excellent: like scenarios drafted by a crack team of futurologists, they help to make real the threat that we are under. Predictions of so many degree warming or so many metres sea level rise, of x hundred million displaced people or y square kilometres land gone, are much harder to understand than these dramatisations of the human impact.

That said, these aren't worth stories by any means and they are not without a degree of solace - whether it's the weird beauty of flooded Boston, tribute paid in Antarctica to what has been lost, or the possibilities of science to change us in order to preserve something of the old world.

This is strong and serious stuff, but they are great stories and as ever Strahan's themed anthologies are an excellent way to sample works by all those super authors you may not have tried yet! It's invidious to pick favourites, but the stories I enjoyed most were Brownsville Station by Christopher Rowe and Who Do You Love? by Kathleen Ann Goonan.

In Brownsville Station, set in a linear, cylindrical city hundreds of miles long somewhere on the Florida coast. We meet a Senior Engineer and a Junior (train) Conductor. Both are caught up in a sudden disaster which brings their settled lives to a juddering halt. Is the city in the far future, post inundation, and the catastrophe just the last stage in mankind's fall? Or is it a different reality experiencing its first calamity? "I don't think it was fast - I think there were signs" says one character - which could stand for everything in this book. As in our world, the protagonists find that the rulebooks and procedures don't cover the scenario they're facing. But there is still hope, in a story which reminded me of EM Forster's The Machine Stops.

Who Do You Love? is a strange, haunting story, of generations living on the Florida Keys as they are submerged and destroyed by ever more violent storms. Aphrodite and her (husband? lover?) Emile have a plan to preserve the dying coral communities, but Emile can't face what it means for them. As in other stories in this book, something is saved but utterly transformed at the same time.

Full fathom five thy mother lies;
Of her bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were her eyes;
Nothing of her that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange...
The others also range widely across the world and explore many different situations. In Elves of Antarctica (Paul McAuley) Mike is employed as a helicopter pilot working on the burgeoning Antarctic eco-projects. The story describes his encounters with enigmatic monuments, carved in a mysterious script. What do they mean? What's special about their locations? In placing these markers across the Antarctic wilderness, McAuley catches perfectly the tension between the desire to restore what has been lost to the rising floodwaters and the promise of creating something new on an ever changing planet - a dilemma that Mike has to confront himself.

In Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit – Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts (Ken Liu) Asa, a wealthy former trader, has retired, Thoreau style, to a little cabin but it's not in the woods: there are no woods any more: she's living in a spherical refuge craft afloat over old Boston (so not that far from Walden Pond). Here she's bothered by crass tourists coming to dive the beauties of drowned Harvard - and they are beauties: rare corals which transmute the poisons left behind by industry into vibrant colours, shoals of fish slitting through abandoned libraries. The question is posed: can good, beauty, life survive and come out of this apocalypse?

Venice Drowned (Kim Stanley Robinson) follows two days in the life of Carlo, a boatman making a living despite everything by ferrying tourists - Japanese tourists - around the ruins of Venice. Again we see beauty from destruction and marvel at the human spirit that keeps trying in the face of ruin and destruction. Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy (Charlie Jane Anders) is the story of Pris, who runs away to join the Wrong Headed commune. This is in many respects a familiar story of a well intentioned West Coast alternative community and the tensions and conflicts under the idyllic surface.

The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known (Nina Allan) is a mysterious story. Why was the narrator sent away to live with "the Severins in Strasbourg", with only faint memories of her parents - but an obsession with her uncle, living in his abandoned cottage, and why is she so upset at the mess it was in? There's a hint that the story of her and her friend being in Helston to observe fish is just a cover - for what? Against all that the ravaged of climate change seem almost secondary. Allan's name caught my eye as I'm currently reading her book The Race which is itself set in a poisened and ruined world (though less of a drowned one). What Is (Jeffrey Ford) moves away from the watery margins to the hot, dusty inland of Oklahoma where a small community survives among the second dustbowl. Here a tragedy is played out that, in miniature, echoes the ruin of the world as a whole. This story is one of only a couple that describe the parched inner lands rather than the drowned coasts

In Destroyed by the Waters (Rachel Swirsky) Zack and Derek are mourning the loss of their son Noah in one of the catastrophes of the 21st century and decide to revisit flooded New Orleans, where they took their honeymoon decades before. The story personalises the grief of climate change, focussing on a very specific loss but also on the love that may help us to survive and continue. The New Venusians (Sean Williams) is a story of a time far in the future, when rebellious young Natasha is teleported to her eccentric uncle's laboratory / shed floating high above Venus. She is meant to learn a lesson, and she does, but it's more about change, responsibility and the future than about not being rude to island diasporas.

Inselberg (Nalo Hopkinson) is a bizarre and chilling story in which a tourguide in future Nigeria, accompanying a load of visitors to see a Mr Fish, takes them to a very dark place indeed. Only Ten More Shopping Days Left Till Ragnarök (James Morrow) is a bizarre story of how the feedback loop promoting cynicism about climate change might be broken with the help of a narwhal, copious amounts of peat lager and a mystical chant. In Last Gods (Sam J. Miller) a girl with no arms serves as shaman in a primitive community, post apocalypse. Why were her arms removed? Do the "Gods" who are seen at play have real power or do the taboos they represent simply protect humanity from further foolishness? We never really learn.

Drowned (Lavie Tidhar) is a lyrical, almost fairytale account of coming to a Land, in contested alternate versions, speculations and contradictions. A young girl is killed in a rock pool: or kills herself, and releases something that may in time evolve and grow. The Future is Blue (Catherynne M. Valente) is a sad and haunting story of a girl who lives on a floating mat of rubbish. Subject to unending abuse she has apparently saved her community yet only gets blame. Perhaps this is the global warming prophet's role in microcosm...

I'd strongly recommend reading this book, as a warning, as an example of FS doing just what it should - and as a cracking example of storytelling.


The High Ground: 1 (Imperials)
The High Ground: 1 (Imperials)
by Melinda Snodgrass
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Space! Swords! Aliens!, 5 July 2016
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Six hundred years in the future, enabled by the discovery of how to fold space, humanity has spread out across the Galaxy. Old Earth is abandoned, a violent, inhospitable place, its climate ruined, and of interest only to eccentrics and romantics.

Progress.

In other ways things have gone backwards - the Galaxy is ruled by the Emperor of the Solar League under whom an extensive aristocracy flourishes.

Like aristocracies everywhere, they are arrogant, entitled and more ornamental then useful (for certain values of "ornamental"). But they do have power.

Women are treated as breeding units, forbidden any autonomy and tyrannised by the Church. Aliens whose planets have been conquered by the human race are mistrusted and kept down (in a sly vignette Snodgrass shows us how under this hierarchical model even the lowest class humans have somebody to look down on: a perfect illustration of colonialism and racism).

If that makes the book sound rather worthy, it's not. I mean, it is (what's wrong with being worthy?) but it is first and foremost a story, and a well-told one. In a blend of SF, YA, school story and even fairytale ("the Princess and the Tailor's son") Snodgrass drives the plot though two enthralling - if often very annoying - protagonists, Tracy (the tailor's son - and a pretty mean stitcher himself) and Mercedes (the daughter of the Emperor). Of course, they fall in love, despite their different status and of course, this causes problems (a princess and a dirty intitulado?) But there's more going on here. There is the whole dynamic of an able, but poor, man who has an opportunity to make his mark when he wins a scholarship to the elite Academy, the High ground of the title but who is forced to defer to a bunch of often incompetent toffs. Even when he saves the day he risks being blamed for whatever has gone wrong, and can't take any credit.

Similarly for Mercedes - ostensibly a pampered, privileged daughter of power, she has no autonomy, no say over her life - she never wanted to join the High Ground, but is forced to, the first woman ever, yes, but not of her choice: it's all for for reasons of politics. yet she wants to make a success of it, not to be a token woman, to graduate: but that seems to mean having to be twice as good as the boys (while hobbled by impractical clothing). The same as the men but backwards and in high heels, as it were. There is a hilarious scene where Mercedes beats the male cadets hands down in a space fighter simulator. They're furious. It must be rigged, mustn't it? One can't help thinking of the recent tedious sulking by male gamers (so, OK, perhaps this future isn't so far from our present as you'd think...)

It's an enjoyable read. Through all their trials and setbacks, Tracy and Mercedes remain vivid, real characters, teenagers learning about life in a world they don't control and can't (much) influence (not even the all mighty Princess). This is the first volume of a series and rightly it concentrates on establishing the world and drawing the characters. There are some hints of wider things going on (in the prologue, in the mentions of Hidden Worlds and missing ships, and in the closing part of the book, where feudal politics suddenly and violently intrudes into the lives of the pair) but this is largely a character study: think Romeo and Juliet in space, with a dash of Hogwarts mixed in.

Finally, for a book that takes a swords-and-honour culture (unless you're one of the peasants, who can't afford honour) the culture was (for me) refreshingly different as the chivalric titles and general ambience are Spanish rather than Anglo. Not only did that add a dash of the exotic (again, there's humour when it's explained what the titles are derived form!), but it also avoids the impression, whenever a new character appears with a resounding title, that he (it's generally he) is clothed in furs and has just come in from a snowstorm.

The only slight drawback for me was the sheer numbers of aristocratic characters with florid titles: it's hard at times to keep up with who everyone is and whether or not they are Tracy's allies or enemies (actually that's not so hard, he has few friends). Aristocrats - what use are they?


New Pompeii
New Pompeii
by Daniel Godfrey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Empire strikes back?, 21 Jun. 2016
This review is from: New Pompeii (Paperback)
I'm grateful for an advance copy of this book from the publisher

I honestly don't know how to categorise this book. SF? Fantasy? Historical? It's probably all three but above all it's a rollicking good adventure.

Godfrey plays with the ideas of alternate timelines, of changing history. Here, that's done through mysterious technology owned by the sinister firm Novus Particles. NovusPart has found a way to transport matter - including people - from the past. There are limits to this. They can't fetch anything from less than 30 years ago, and they're forbidden from retrieving humans unless they are about to die (to preserve the timeline). But within those boundaries they can do a lot - for example, saving the population of ancient Pompeii and installing them in a replica city for study (and exploitation).

Nick Houghton is a down-on-his-luck Classical scholar hired to advise on the project. But transported to the fake Pompeii, he finds that all isn't well: you don't try top boss the Romans around without facing consequences...

In parallel with Nick's story, we also follow Kirsten, a young woman who apparently disappeared from a Cambridge college. She sees a different side of NovusPart from Nick. One of things I enjoyed most about the book was the contrast between Kirsten's rather horrible plight in her relatively brief episodes - which give the book some drive, especially at the start before the Pompeii stuff really gets going - and Nick's immersion in the reality of Roman life. The two strands don't seem to be coming together until an event which transforms the way you see the whole story. That left me wanting to read more about both and I do hope that Godfrey follows this book up with a sequel.

The book is also good on devious plotting. It has interlocked machinations by NovusPart and its founding triumvirate, by Roman leader Barbatus, and by a mysterious anti-NovusPart faction, tangled timelines, imposters and missing information which taken together mean there is a surprise on almost every page. While not perfect - there are a few characters Godfrey could have done more with (Felix, for example, and Maggie) - it's a gripping read, laced with genuinely thought provoking ideas and narrative twists. And the encounter between ancient Pompeii and the modern world is well realised, a great "What if..." full of dramatic potential which is fully exploited.

I don't enough to say how accurate the history is, but as an enjoyable yarn, this is definitely recommended.


Warlock Holmes - A Study in Brimstone
Warlock Holmes - A Study in Brimstone
by G. S. Denning
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The game's afoot, 15 Jun. 2016
It's not that I'm on a Sherlock Holmes binge or anything but in the past few weeks I've read three books with very different takes on the Great Detective. I would like to compare and contrast them and to ask what exactly it is about Holmes that so captivates the imagination, but that's for another day, perhaps...

Warlock Holmes is in some respects the most radical reinterpretation - not only in making Holmes a warlock who holds conversations with demons but in having him very much secondary to Watson in the business of detection. Here it's the good doctor who displays feats of deduction, inferring a chain of thought from a few glances or spotting the sequence of events comprising a crime. That actually makes a lot of sense: in the classic stories, Watson is using his medical training to do what Conan Doyle saw demonstrated as a medical student at Edinburgh. It's time Watson stepped out of the shadows, but still perhaps a bit of a shock - especially as Holmes is portrayed here as, well, a bit dim.

Of course, in this world, there's no reason for Holmes to painfully deduce what's been going on. He can just speak to the spirits and indeed this method means he's often still ahead of everyone else (several days, on one occasion). So to make the stories interesting it's pretty much a necessity to rob Holmes of his brilliance, or none of the stories would last very long.

That may sound unpromising and I'm sure that Holmes purists will cringe, but Denning actually manages to riff off the classic stories well well - while subtly twisting everything. The cases are pretty faithful to "real" ones, not only in general structure and in the way the crimes are revealed - the anxious client appearing at 221b to explain their problem, with plenty of misdirection and the real crime only gradually emerging thanks to razor sharp deduction (here, by Watson) - but in tone, too: it's a world of hansoms, mansions set in walled gardens, wild backstories from the California goldrush or the outposts of Empire. But they are a bit... different. Familiar characters appear - Gr(o)gson and Lestrade, a strageely warped version of the Baker Street Irregulars, Colonel Sebastian Moran, Mrs Hudson, Charles Augustus Milverton - but they all play slightly warped roles in this alternate universe.

The idea works a lot better than I'd expected, producing something much fresher than those endless, exact Holmes pastiches that deliver the familiar form yet without any vital spark. You have to recalibrate to a slightly different Holmes, and to a general comic tone which as I have said may alienate some purists (but come on, purists, lighten up!) but it's well worth doing that. It's also refreshing that the cases are pretty much standalone, as in the original stories: while there is a darker threat building, Denning doesn't impose too much of an arc on the separate chapters, allowing each its own beginning, middle and end rather than making it just a building block in something else.

The tour de force is a reimagining of The Speckled Band, in many ways the Sherlock Holmes story, one which was turned into an enormously successful play during Conan Doyle's lifetime. Denning gives it new life: of course if you have read the original story you'll know who the villain is yet there are still surprises and the story really grips as an episode in itself. There are also some nice illustrations by Sean Patella-Buckley complementing the text just as in those original Strand magazine stories.

Overall, then, a nice take on a perhaps overfamiliar character and one that ended - of course - with a cliffhanger to encourage me to pick up the next volume, due out next year.


Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children)
Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children)
by Seanan McGuire
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.82

5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect, 15 Jun. 2016
This a brilliant book which I enjoyed immensely (as well as being very moved by it, both saddened and uplifted).

It is also I think the weirdest book I've read in a long time. (Which is great. Weird is good: long live the Weird!)

But - and I often find this with books I really loved - it's hard to know where to start in writing the review.

The plot is easy to summarise. Eleanor West runs a boarding school for survivors, children (mostly women and girls) who've come back after straying into other worlds - many of them Wonderlands of various types, some more... gothic. On return, of course, nobody will believe them and each pines for the life she enjoyed in a place attuned precisely to here.

Eleanor picks up the pieces.

To this school comes Nancy, lately returned from service to the Lord of the Dead. As if it wasn't already hard enough having parent who think she's off her head and having to fit in with girls who (mostly) seemed to have visited sparkly rainbow fantasy worlds, nasty things begin to happen after her arrival...

Yes, this book has plot, it has super plot. But the story isn't really about the plot. The heart of this book is very much the characters McGuire sketches and this is where I fear I won't be able to do justice to the book. It's a short book, but she makes each believable, rounded and - in their own way - both tragic and hopeful. There's Jack and Jill, the two girls who visited the achingly bleak Moors, inhabited by vampires and mad scientists. There's Kade, one of the few boys, who everyone used to think was a girl. he was exiled from his adopted world because that broke a rule: the others may hope to return, he never can. Sumi became accustomed in her world to high Nonsense and is really having trouble fitting in. Loriel found a home in a world of spiders.

It gradually becomes clear that all of these young people are traumatised, scarred by exile from places where they felt uniquely at home - many of them refer to their other worlds as "home" and most have been rejected pretty much by their families. Indeed, I think that they may have been alienated from their families before the strayed through those doorways to find refuge in a different place.

That is a pretty obvious metaphorical point here about people who are exploring their own identity, trying to find a life, a world, that suits them and cutting ties with family and home. It's emphasised by the presence of those who are different in other ways - the minority here who have a gothic outlook, longing for sweet darkness, stillness and quiet, those whose gender identity makes them different, those who are, simply, odd - and spelling it out perhaps makes it seem laboured. But in the book it's not. McGuire has whatever the writers' equivalent of green fingers is (inky hands?), displaying a sure touch with her characters and she makes this extended metaphor come alive, celebrating the glory of difference at the same time as she evokes the pain of knowing there is somewhere you fit in but not being able to get there.

While I don't think the idea of an "aftermath" for adults who experienced other worlds as children is a a new one - I'd point to Joe Hill's NOS4R2 or Alan Garner's Boneland as other examples and I'm sure there are more - Every Heart a Doorway is distinct in focussing on the phenomenon as though it applied to multiple young people, so enabling interaction between them, exploring the group dynamics of the situation, as it were. And it does so very well, touching on some fascinating issues (isn't it a bit, well, creepy for a teenager to want to go and serve as a living statue in the Halls of the Dead? Is she actually capable of making that choice? What would you be prepared to do to get back to that other place? How will you live if, like most of us, you know you can never reach it?)

I've rambled on enough. Read this. It will introduce you to some terrific characters and take you to very dark places. Parts are almost tear jerkingly sad. But, as I said above, it is also uplifting. Above all it is a real experience of a read. Strongly recommended.


Epiphany Jones
Epiphany Jones
by Michael Grothaus
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Grim in places but compelling, 15 Jun. 2016
This review is from: Epiphany Jones (Paperback)
I'm grateful for a copy of this book form the publisher

At the heart of this book is a quest for redemption and atonement. It also confronts head on a real sense of darkness in our culture. There is no denying though that it is a tough book. I don't normally attach trigger warnings in reviews but for this book, I should say that there are themes of sexual abuse and violence.

There's intermittent controversy amongst readers and online reviewers about "likeable characters" in books. One sees, for example, reviews on Amazon where books are downvoted "because I couldn't like the characters". My view is that this is an over naive approach to literature - but if that is your outlook you may not get on with this book.

The two main characters in Epiphany Jones are Jerry, a young man who has the mother of all Internet porn addictions, and Epiphany, a young woman with a dark and troubled past. Epiphany has a goal and is ruthless in her pursuit of it: Jerry seems to be he chosen means of achieving the goal.

The shark picture on the book's cover alludes to Jerry's role in the book, explained by a story quotes early on - hoiked out of its natural environment and flung onto land to be assaulted and destroyed in an alien world. That's Jerry's (who tells the story) point of view from the start, right from the moment he finds himself under suspicion of theft and murder. The reader (well, this reader) doesn't sympathise with him much. He's a bit of a slacker. While it's clear early on that he has "issues" - a dead sister and father - his way of coping with those (a library of pictures in which the faces of well known actresses are photoshopped onto the bodies of porn stars) is, if perhaps true to life, also pretty squalid. It is a sad subculture he's part of, a fact which Grothaus conveys in ways both amusing - as in this online exchange:

'Just this person' I type, not knowing how much I should say.
'OMFG!!!' he types 'IT'S A GIRL ISN'T IT?!?!?!?!?!?!'
And I don't type back.
'Where did you meet one?' he types.

- and also downright repellent. On a couple of occasions, Jerry's anger at a woman seems to be expressed by him considering sexual violence towards her.

Jerry is mixed up in other respects as well, seeing "figments", people who aren't there, both of real people he's met and wholly imaginary ones and making up girlfriends (a fiction his work colleagues and mother see through immediately). In particular he's haunted by a dream of a young girl - a girl he begins to think he sees, though older, in real life...

Anyone less suited to go on the run from both the police and a people trafficking mafia - sans money, sans meds, sans everything, aided only by a woman who talks to God - would be hard to imagine.

Epiphany seems more straightforward, if more driven and indeed more driving of the plot. She is working towards a definite end (although she won't share what it is). Jerry's mother is an expert on Joan of Arc, and there's a clear comparison between Epiphany - with her voices, her suffering - and Joan, as women who, despite enveloping male violence, set out to achieve their goals. It's a mystery for most of the story exactly what those aims are and perhaps even more why she would want anything to do with Jerry at all much less see him as the means to those ends.

Grothaus produces a compelling story out of these tensions. Saying much more about the detail of the plot would spoil it, but it's essentially an international chase to an uncertain end and once things really get going, you simply have to keep turning the page to see what will happen next. The writing, which is excellent, simply keeps things moving on. Grothaus uses a loosely noirish style, written in the present tense:
'Listen,' I say, 'I'm going with you to Ensenada, right? So you need to start being open with me. Who were you talking to?'
She says nothing.
'And, I mean, what's in Mexico?'
Again, nothing.
'And, why Ensenada?'
And Epiphany says, '...'
In particular he has a way of introducing Epiphany's, and other characters' but mainly her, speech, with variations on "And Epiphany, she says..." which have the effect of making it sound sound natural, inevitable, almost Biblical, underscoring the drivenness of this story and of course the supernatural voices she claims are leading here and Jerry to their uncertain end.

We gradually learn more about Epiphany's shocking background, the wrongs she has suffered, and what she will do to save others from what happened to her. The tragic events in Jerry's life also become clear bit by bit (although I have to say, I had guessed the very final revelation some time before it came). There are some extremely dark aspersions cast at the reality of the Hollywood film industry: both about what actors may be forced to do to get that big break, and how wealth and power are used and abused by the men at the top.

Greater knowledge may not mean you like Epiphany or Jerry more - she does some terrible things, he adds to his flaws an unpleasant strain of cowardice and indecision - but you will I think come to care about them and indeed to cheer them on to success (though in the shabby world portrayed here, just what that might mean isn't always clear).

Grothaus deserves credit for tackling some traumatic themes head on (and Orenda for publishing the book) and doing so with verve and humour. This will though be a hard book for some to read and isn't for everyone, but ultimately, will be rewarding for those who do (as well as frequently funny: one death towards the end is almost laugh out loud funny and had me shouting "YES" as I read it).


The Malice
The Malice
by Peter Newman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Vagrant: the Next Generation, 15 Jun. 2016
This review is from: The Malice (Hardcover)
Full disclosure: I bought my copy at the launch where I met both Peter and his wife Emma, who are both wonderful, hard working, delightful people. So this review has a firm pro Newmans bias and I won't pretend otherwise.

That out of the way, what do you get from The Malice?

This is a sequel to The Vagrant, which was published last year. In that book, a long feared plague of demons had burst from the Breach.

Long feared - but over the centuries, the readiness of the Empire of the Winged Eye to face them had rusted, so that when the infernal threat crystallised, the response was half hearted, and the demons won. The Empire withdrew to lick its wounds, while humanity suffered under a demon taint that warped things in grotesque ways.

So far, perhaps, so epic fantasy. What was really different, though, was what Newman then did with the setup. Of course, we need a Hero and a Sword and we got them. But the Sword was sulky and the Hero (the Vagrant) was without speech. (My daughter can't talk either: she could be a Hero!)

Also, the Vagrant was accompanied by a baby. So the battles and escapes were complicated by childcare. And to provide milk for the baby, the Vagrant he procured a goat - who was as much a character as any of the others. These four crossed the tainted wilderness, looking for safety, which they found with the remnant of the Empire. But it was a shifty, equivocal sort of safety and the Empire itself scarcely inspired confidence.

So it's not a surprise that, twelve years later, it is still losing ground. The Seven didn't see the return of the Sword (the Malice, as the demons call it) as a sign to ride forth in conquest: can it be that having already lost one of their number they're actually a little bit... scared?

So begins The Malice. The baby of the previous book has grown up and is the (rather awesome) hero of this one, the young woman Vesper. The goat has grown old (but still packs a vicious kick) and given birth to many, many kids, one of whom shoulders his way into this narrative. (It's in the genes).

(A small part of) the signing queue
The sword is stirring, yet its master, the Vagrant, hides the fact. He doesn't want any more adventures. He wants to keep his daughter safe. The Winged Eye sends for him and the sword - they are willing that it fight their battles for them - but it is Vesper who answers, of course. This begins another grim journey by an innocent abroad across the tainted wasteland towards great peril.

Interspersed, we are given some background, explaining how the demon threat arose and how the Empire of the Winged Eye was founded to oppose it. From the beginning, it was established upon slaughter and treachery: from the beginning, flaws (rigidities, a lack of empathy, a certain arrogance) were built in that we see bearing dubious fruit a millennium later. One of the great jolts this book gives is the realisation that, perhaps, good and evil are not so distinct here as everyone thinks. This is masked by the language of supernatural evil used of the invading horde - "demon", "taint" and "infernal" - and they are certainly a grim brood. Yet as Vesper crosses their domain it becomes clear that humans can live alongside demons, despite the fury of the Sword (which wants to scorch the taint away wherever it finds it: tricky when Vesper has found herself tainted allies). The demons don't all want to fight - the sinister First always offers bargains and others want Vesper's support against the Yearning, the latest wave of invasion coming form the Breach.

In short, the world may more complicated than the Sword, the Seven and the Winged Eye in general believe. So Vesper comes to believe, and accordingly she employs compromise, trickery and guile as much as, or more than, the burning magic of the Sword. Though she is prepared to use that where necessary - and compromise, trickery and guile have their own cost, sometimes paid by loyal supporters.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between Vesper and the soldier Duet, a woman formed as one of a pair and sworn to defend Vesper to the end. The two travel to meet the Yearning, with the younger, less experienced woman forced to depend on Duet's survival skills and fighting instinct. It's an uneasy relationship at times - from Duet's point of view Vesper should get with the programme, draw that bloody sword and begin scorching away demonic taint. (And eat the wretched goat before it lands them in trouble). Duet has all the focus - and obsession - of a fanatic, showcasing both the strengths and weaknesses of the Winged Eye: its dedication and devotion always apt to cross over into rigidity and fanaticism.

Newman introduces or reintroduces a wealth of gripping characters: not only the demons (the Man Shape, the Backward Child, Gutterface, the First) but also the hard pressed humans and tainted beings of New Horizon (Tough Call, the Usurperkin Max and Maxi, Doctor Grains..) who are trying to build free lived amidst the ruins. Neither the purity of the Winged Eye nor the "corruption' and slavedriving of the demons, make a comfortable life for those at the bottom, but it seems as though neither can, in the end, defeat the other. What is to be done?

Maybe Vesper has another way. Maybe. But while she's heard the stories, from her Uncle Harm, of her father's previous journey, she seems desperately naive and inexperienced to be straying among demons, mutants and warped humans. Duet wants her to be ruthless, but it's far from clear whether she will, in the end, be able to do what it takes to destroy the Breach and free humanity from the demons.

It's an enjoyable, and enjoyably different, book that is written with the same fizz and sly humour as the previous one. More political, less of a chase perhaps than The Vagrant, there are many loose ends left to unravel in the situation that Vesper leaves behind as she crosses the continent. I assume and hope there will be a further book where some chickens (or perhaps goats) come home to roost, exploring those ambiguities further.

Definitely recommended.


Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge
Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge
by Paul Krueger
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

4.0 out of 5 stars UF with bartender heroes!, 15 Jun. 2016
Though I love Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks and his other depictions of nighttime urban life, you won't generally find me out late. (The place I live is so rural it is proud of having no streetlights). So I wasn't sure how I'd take to a book whose premise is the secret history of Chicago's late night cocktail bars. I'm pleased to say though that I enjoyed it immensely.

Placing expert bartenders in the front line of humanity's struggle against the unseen horrors may seen unlikely, but pour yourself another drink and think about it. What are these modern mixologists but wizards, alchemists, brewing up potions based on lore painfully discovered and preserved over the ages? Moreover, they preside over the strange rites of the night that Hopper painted, visible in the corner (or just out of shot) tending the lost, the sad - and those mainly out to get off their faces. Who better to slip out into the dark and face the fearsome tremens which feed on the inebriated who are staggering home? (And yes, a pack of tremens really is a delirium. The book has humour. Deal with it).

It all works rather neatly - buoyed by the way Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge never takes itself too seriously. Bailey Chen is newly graduated, looking for a job in a whizzy tech startup that will take her to fame and fortune rapidly. Instead, she's stuck cleaning up in the Nightshade Lounge, courtesy of Zane. Though he gave her a job, there's awkward history between Zane and Bailey - history that becomes even more awkward when his girlfriend Mona shows up. So perhaps drinking the wrong drink late one evening in the Nightshade wasn't the best thing to do... but how could Bailey know that?

Once Bailey's introduction to the secret world is effected, this book moves at great pace. Monsters appear and are dealt with: more monsters appear and challenge our heroes: cracks begin to appear in the bartenders' world suggesting something very nasty is afoot. In a way the details don't matter, what's special here is the richness of the setting, the dash of humour (it's a bit of a send-up of the whole genre - but not too much of one) and the way that Krueger shakes things up. There may also be a little something in the mix that he's not telling about - hopefully future books will make that clear. The result is refreshing, slightly bitter and definitely leaves the reader wanting to place another order.

A particularly fun feature was the cocktail recipes throughout the book, taken from The Devil's Water Dictionary. The equivalent of those battered tomes of lore detailing spells or nameless rituals which you see through UF and horror, these mundane cocktail recipes apparently have special results when the ingredients and preparation are just right - whether that's the ability to punch a demon's lights out, read minds, fire lightning or even become invisible. Yet they're ordinary recipes as well and if you ever wanted to make an Old Fashioned or a Mai Tai to accompany you on your way through a book, here's the perfect excuse. Just don't read it before driving.

This is apparently Krueger's first novel, but he carries it off with great aplomb and I hope that it's the first of many. I'm sure there are more cocktails to be demonstrated, further hidden depths to nighttime Chicago that can menace, and a lot more to find out about Bailey, Zane, Bucket and - especially - Mona.

Funny, atmospheric, creepy at times - a perfect evening read.


The Many
The Many
by Wyl Menmuir
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stranger comes to town..., 15 Jun. 2016
This review is from: The Many (Paperback)
I'm grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this book.

This book is powerfully written and haunting. Always teetering on the edge of the gothic, Menmuir describes a coastal community that is dreamlike, slightly out of focus, with its own rules that Timothy never grasps. At the same time, it is rooted in the real world: remote bureaucracy, plummeting fish stocks and maritime pollution have blighted the lives of the fishermen.

What are the mysterious ships moored out at sea, setting a limit to how far the village fishermen may go? Why are the fish absent, or when caught, strange, malformed and suffering? Who are the smartly dressed business types with the new van who buy up all of the catch (but who must have every last fish)? What is the source of the contaminants that make the seawater unsafe for swimming?

Many questions, few answers. The most central mystery: - who was Perran, owner of the house Timothy has bought? He had a mysterious background but seems to have been a dominating presence in village life, judging by the villagers' reactions when Timothy begins to ask questions. With more than a whiff of the Wicker Man, and hints of strange rituals up on the headland, one feels this village (never named) is the sort of place it's best to get out of quickly. But Timothy seems to have a reason for staying. We never learn much about him either but there's no sense, for example, that he's keen to get back to his wife Lauren (nor her to join him).

He does, though, seem fixated on the dead Perran. And in turn, the villagers seem fixated on him, something Menmuir conveys in uneasy prose:

"Timothy's car disappears sometimes for days at a time and the village counts the hours until it returns, usually late at night. sometimes with lengths of wood strapped to the roof, with boxes in the boot, and always fuller than when it left."

Can't you sense the curtains twitching, the pub gossip? "He's got a trailer this time. Brought himself a table, wardrobes, a bookcase, the lot."

There's a tension here, a feeling of inevitable confrontation with the village. In some ways it's not a new thing. In a flashback, we gather that Lauren did in fact visit the village with Timothy ten years earlier: they came for a holiday but, even then, ran into the mystery of the place when the owner of the local pub only let them have a room on condition they would sneak in - nobody must know they are staying. Why, or what might happen if they did, is never explained. "They are trespassers in a strange place".

It went through my mind at one point that all of this was somehow Timothy's dream, but we do also see things from the point of view of Ethan, one of the fishermen (only 4 boats still work out of the village). He, too, seems to have had some affinity with Perran and recalls the latter's death, but Ethan also remains mysterious - at the start of the book he has quarrelled with his "wheelman": we never learn why, or much else.

In fact, we don't "learn" a great deal. Much is left unsaid, scarcely even implied. Yet as the prose flows in like a rising tide, it has its effect, gently, but increasingly, disturbing things, shifting them around, reaching places you thought were going to be safe and dry, leaving the reader, like Timothy and Lauren, wondering just how far the water will come.

While a short book, this is not one to be read in a hurry. The prose is twisty and rich and it needs to be savoured and thought about. There are secrets here, and perhaps answers, but they don't come easily and you - perhaps - need to break the rules to find them.

A deeply satisfying read and strongly recommended (though not, perhaps, one to take on a visit to a remote fishing village...)


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