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on 4 November 2017
Such a lovely book, dark and complex, great characters and loyal imagery, lovely use of language and a really original story, poignant, and charming.
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on 17 May 2014
So I’ve just read Neil Williamson’s debut novel, The Moon King. As quite often happens when I read great stuff I feel under-qualified to comment on it as he is (probably) cleverer than me and (definitely) a better writer than me. But that’s never stopped me before from spouting opinions so what the hell.

There is an island city ruled by immortal benevolent dictator The Lunane. When he founded the city he captured the moon and set it permanently above the city – a symbol of the city’s greatness and of his own power.

As a consequence, the moon is the dominant factor in the life of Glassholm (It’s essentially Glasgow and the Glassholmers are Glaswegians). At full moon, everybody is happy and Glassholm is one big party; as the moon wanes architecture crumbles, mechanical things fail and the mood of the populace sinks until at full dark all the lights go out and there is depression and violence.

This is how things have been for centuries, but suddenly things start to go awry: there is a murder at full; the luck monkeys deliver only bad luck; children made of water haunt the city, and the moon’s behaviour no longer correlates with the palace mathematicians’ calculations.

I won’t go into any more details of the story because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone intending to read the book. And everyone should read this book. It’s a rip-roaring adventure, a pacy crime thriller, an inventive alternate reality fantasy, and most of all a modern fable. The prose is sweet enough to be almost invisible and the characters all genuinely breathe.

All of that is enough to make it a worthwhile read, but where it gets really interesting, and where this reviewer starts to feel out of his depth, is in the subtext.

The city, in order to cope with the monthly cycle of decay and repair, is sturdy and solid, the people pragmatic and stoical, surviving the dark days with a mix of bleak humour and bloody-mindedness. They are exactly like Glaswegians, and perhaps because of that I kept feeling correlations, noticing the other ways it reflected the city that spawned me.

A major theme of the novel is the cyclical nature of life, though in The Moon King the only cycle that counts is the lunar one. His description of the full moon revels sound not much different from Sauchiehall street on a Saturday night: lots of loud drunk happy people, uninhibited and doing and saying things they’ll regret tomorrow. And the undercurrent of unease in this party atmosphere, the feeling that failing to join in might mark you as an outsider or a target, is portrayed perfectly in the novel. Glasgow on a Tuesday night is a very different place.

The cycle of decay and repair happens in Glasgow too, but over a year rather than a month. Our winters are harsh, but not so cold that the temperature stays below freezing for weeks at a time. Water seeps into cracks in walls or roads, freezes and widens them, again and again over the winter. Then the January storms come and roof tiles, trees and trampolines fly around causing more damage. With the spring sunshine come the workies repairing potholes and rebuilding architecture.

Another major theme is conservatism, linked with complacency and fear of change, even when the status quo is deeply flawed and a bit sinister. In a way it could be taken as a comment on the current Scottish independence debate, if he hadn’t told me he’d started writing it nine years ago.

And finally, perhaps its most blatantly fabulist theme is the danger of trying to interfere with nature. We might think we’re in charge but she will have her way in the end – even a thousand years of the illusion of control can crumble when nature retakes the reins.

Some of it is still spinning around in my head and I’ll quite possibly change my mind about everything I just wrote in the coming weeks.

Overall, this is a highly rewarding reading experience that works on as many levels as you want it to. He leaves a lot of the details vague, giving us room to fill in our own ideas, showing the reader some respect. Extra marks just for that Neil.
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on 2 November 2017
It is not often that I read a book as gorgeously infectious as The Moon King.
I will try to explain it without giving away any spoilers!
Glassholm is an urban island society that is wildly sensitive to the waxing and waning of the moon. The moon has been trapped by Glassholm’s sage leader, Lunane, who is able to infiltrate and command minds. A series of murders and the pulling away of the moon send the city into a kind of bipolar riot that becomes an uprising. The book follows the lives of three people who are caught up in this revolution to a life and death degree: A retired policeman who suffers from a trauma induced amnesia. An artist who is the daughter of a cult leader and has been raised praising her menstrual blood. And an engineer who is trying to repair the machine that keeps the moon imprisoned, as well as searching the palace for his lost wife. Glassholm is a place that feels as familiar and as strange as an alter ego. The story beautifully tightropes between the natural and the supernatural, allowing all manner of dark, mystical and devious happenings to take place inside a recognisably human habitat. The writing is visually stunning and falls off the page and into your mind like an earworm – like reading a poem with brilliant description and dialogue. Nothing about the plot is transparent or obvious, yet you still connect deeply with each of the characters because their emotions and relationships are so perfectly drawn. It is the type of book that subtly becomes a part of you, like living close to the moon changes your physiology in surprising and meaningful ways.
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on 20 June 2017
I didn't enjoy this as much as Neil's short story collection, as it lacks the lyrical edge that made his writing so compelling in the shorts. However, the ideas are in full force - the world reminds me of China Mieville's New Weird style, tilting over the edge into strangeness but weaving enough human characteristics and reactions in to keep it understandable. The plot is interesting, weaving three different characters into each other, without revealing the connections until towards the end. I loved some of the details - the luck monkeys, Darkday and Full,  the machines and the history. But I wasn't as sucked in as I would have liked to be...a flaw as a reader, rather than the writer, I think. It's certainly a weird, unusual, odd book - and all the better for it.
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on 10 May 2014
An exceptional read that didn't disappoint. A carefully constructed world that engaged me from the first chapter and held my attention until the final pages, featuring a core of characters that I believed, even in their unusual setting. "The Moon King" didn't easily slot into an specifically definable genre, with the core fantasy concept very subtly underlying a storyline that felt in places more like a crime novel. Sometimes when I read fantasy, depending on the "depth" of it, if you will, I almost forget the unusual setting and concentrate solely on the people - Terry Pratchett's Discworld books are a good example of what I mean."The Moon King" never really let me totally forget the world - the setting, the world, all of it was intrinsically linked to the people who lived the story. In that sense, it was far more reminiscent of China Mieville's "Railsea", or something by K.J. Parker - a story that lives inside a particular setting and seems almost more precious and engaging because of it.

The unexpected familiarity of Williamson's style was a pleasure, helped immeasurably by the little delights of finding an occasional Scottish turn of phrase peppering a character's speech. It gave me a queer sort of pride, like seeing your hometown as the setting for a film, but it was neither overused nor gratuitous - if anything, I'd expect that anyone who couldn't glean the meaning of a word as juicy as "wersh" from the surrounding context would probably head to Google and emerge richer having searched it out.

The plot broadly concerns a city to which the seemingly-immortal Moon King has harnessed the Moon - this affects the behaviour of the inhabitants on the lunar cycle, with happy, carefree, somewhat hedonistic traits at full moon being balanced out at the dark days of the new moon, when the citizens find themselves depressed and despairing. Part of the story follows Anton, who we find recovering from a crippling Full Moon hangover only to realise that he has apparently assumed the position of the Moon King, the Lunane. Other storylines weave into Anton's path and intersect, and paint a broader picture of a society having trouble with its own identity. A place of uncontrollable (though totally predictable) moodswings, a place where the status quo might seem better than any possible alternative, where the populace either agitate for total change, or hope for the best based on their current situation. It would sell the book short to imply that it's simply a story of two ways, two choices, light or dark, good or bad, easy or hard - Williamson uses the framework to show us the variety of experience instead of just the extremes.
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on 5 May 2014
Back in 2010, in my review of Tim Powers stunning espionage novel 'Declare', I said that -

"For me the best writers are the ones who mix it up: who wants 'a' horror novel, or 'a' science fiction novel, or 'a' crime novel? Nah, let's just throw a bunch of stuff in a pot and see what comes out. And some of the results in recent years have been fantastic, from Neal Stephenson's 'Baroque Cycle' (a HUGE historical fantasy/alternate history grand slam) to Charles Stross's giddy 'Laundry files' (a supernatural detective science fiction series). People like Dan Simmons and Joe R. Lansdale and China Mieville -"

- and now Neil Williamson.

In fact, many writers now are blissfully ignoring genre definitions to create something China Mieville termed New Weird. Indeed last year, on the Strange Horizons review website, Martin Lewis commented that it "now seems all the best new writers take this hybridity for granted. Quietly, without any fuss, the New Weird has won."

But, you know, it doesn't matter what you call it: nominally, the publisher of 'The Moon King' has classified it as fantasy. It's speculative fiction, it is the fantastique; it's what great writers want it to be. The upshot of all this genre shuffling is that readers are reaping the rewards with some terrifically entertaining and inventive novels.

Although this is his debut novel, Williamson has previously been nominated for a British Fantasy Award for his short story collection 'The Ephemera' (currently available as a eBook) and a World Fantasy Award nomination for the anthology 'Nova Scotia' he co-edited with Andrew Wilson.

And this debut is frankly so good that nominations for best novel in next year's award lists is almost a given.

So what is 'The Moon King'? It tells of the City Under the Moon...

Legend has it that when the kingdom of Abergaard was destroyed in a flood the shipwrecked survivors washed up on an island. Alive in body, they were dead in spirit; they had lost everything. One man decided the people needed a symbol, something to rouse them and urge them to carry on, so he set sail and returned with the rising moon and tethered it to the island and the moon never again set and the people built a great city permanently bathed beneath its brilliance. And the people declared the man The Moon King.

Fantasy, right? Well, yes, except the rich inhabitants of the king's palace have electricity whilst the rest of the city makes do with candles and torches. Ah, so its steampunk then? Like I said, it's New Weird, it specualtive fiction at its best. It's whatever the heck Williamson wants it to be.

For instance, the notion of a moon permanently positioned above a city is not just a one-trick-pony how-cool-is-that idea: the lives of the inhabitants are intrinsically intertwined with the moon's cycle, experiencing euphoria during Full Day and crushing despair during Dark Day. And it's not just psychological, for there are physical affects upon the land too, with food and wood and paper most things decaying or crumbling or becoming tarnished during Dark Day. Only food is permanently lost, but everything else is subtly changed: think of seasoned wood - soaked, dried out, soaked again.

The story centres around the true nature of the Moon King - the Lunane - who, so the people have been led to believe, is immortal and has been around since the island city's founding 500 years ago. This novel is a fantasy, but even that idea is too fantastic for some of the city's more cynical inhabitants to swallow.

Anton Dunn awakens after Full Day and finds himself in the palace and being addressed as the Lunane.

Dark Days are a time of unrest, of pub brawls and petty violence, but this past Dark Day has palace sergeant and retired cop John Mortlock worried: a cop has been murdered and, moreover, it happened after they visited the palace.

Artist Lottie Blake finds herself involved with a young man named Hendrik, a young man who says he was recently the Lunane.

And there is a church for women, who's leader - Lottie's mother - says there is a prophecy, that a Queen will be born to usurper the King.

There is always a danger when a short story speculative fiction writer finally breaks out into novel form that the result will be overly-earnest to the point of being pretentious in the writer's attempt to create A Serious Work.

Well, no danger of that here. Oh, it's incredibly heartfelt, but it's also incredibly great fun, brimming over giddily with wonderfully engaging characters and ideas, with the city itself a fully realised character, its lived-in winding streets and alleys and its docks and pubs and tenements. You can see the city, you can smell it and taste it. Williamson is a Scottish writer and, like Iain Banks, gleefully lets his Scottishness and wry humour permeate every page.

A delight from beginning to end and - hopefully - the start of a long reign.

All hail the New King!
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on 14 December 2015
I just loved this book. It was totally immersing and fascinating. I loved the richly drawn characters and the intensely claustrophobic, dysfunctional, but also very seductive world of the Moon King
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on 20 August 2014
I can't recommend this book highly enough. Williamson has an existing reputation as a terrific short story writer - I loved his collection, 'The Ephemera - but with 'The Moon King', he has written one of the most original and striking fantasies I've seen for several years.

The beauty of 'The Moon King' is that the simplicity of the idea at its heart - a city whose fabric and people waxes and wanes with the lunar cycle - should produce such an elegant, complex novel about the tug of war between change and stasis in individual lives as much as the fate of nations. Williamson plays out the ideas across the multiple stories in the novel with extraordinary subtlety, never letting the fantastic idea simplify the characters and conspiracies that unfold across the epic month in Glassholm's history. It is a fantasy grounded by strong character observation and deft characterization of the politics of a city veering between transformation, revolution and disaster. On first glance, Williamson appears to be working in a similar territory to peers such as China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer, but his fantasy is neither as gaudy as the former's or as cerebral as the latter's. A uniquely rich humanity pervades Williamson's writing, so as readers' imaginations are seduced by the thorough and dazzling unpicking of the central metaphor through the day-to-day workings of Glassholm as a city, we are swept along by the compelling stories of the main characters. Fascinated with detailing how we are dominated by the rhythms of our lives - and by how we fight to change or preserve them - the book is never so simplistic as to draw easy conclusions, only to chronicle how these tensions both frees and warps us.

Moreover, the book exudes a Scottishness that harks back in a tradition through Iain Banks and Alasdair Gray, but Williamson remains a distinctive voice. It is rare to read a novel that has such a clear feeling of Scottish culture and values, and does so without the trappings of Scottish history or its literary tropes. In a year in which Scotland faces such big choices, it's great to see the country so clearly through such an unexpected lens as the fantastic world of the Lunane.

An impressive debut!
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on 17 August 2016
A beautiful tale skillfully told my a master storyteller
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on 8 August 2014
A mixture (which I hope the author appreciates) of The Sweeney and The Dark Tower on acid; a heady soup of coshes, magic and lunacy.

I won't give away any detail like some of the other reviews but, I will say that you won't ever convince yourself that you know where this book is going. A few chapters in you'll think one thing... Forget that. Half-way you'll think something else... Forget that too. Just settle in, turn the pages, and let the teller tell his tale.

There are social undertones and layers reflecting on our own world and some of you will get them, some will dismiss them, and some of you won't even notice them while you try to keep track of the characters and twists. So, just take what you get from the story. One thing you all will take is a great tale, wonderfully told.

As this lunar body sets it heralds the rise of a stellar talent. Hope the next one is soon, Mr Williamson.
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