No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, March 04, 2017

2017/24: City of Blades -- Robert Jackson Bennett

Mulaghesh stops and looks up into the face of Voortya. The world goes still. There is someone in the statue. It’s the strangest of sensations, but it’s undeniable: there is a mind there, an agency, watching.

It's five years since the events of City of Stairs. Turyan Mulaghesh has kept her promise and retired to a (rather squalid) beach house in Javrat. A request comes from Shara Komayd, who is now Prime Minister. Could Mulaghesh investigate the disappearance of an agent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who vanished from the city of Voortyashtan -- formerly the stronghold of the Divinity in charge of war and death -- whilst investigating reports of a marvellous substance.

Of course it's not as simple as that. For one thing, the regional governor of Voortyashtan is Mulaghesh's old CO: while serving under him as a teenager, Mulaghesh did some things that she still has nightmares about. For another thing, the harbour of Voortyashtan is being dredged by the Southern Dreyling Company, whose Chief Technology Officer is the daughter of Shara Komayd's secretary and factotum, Sigrud je Harkvaldsson. The 'marvellous substance', which seems to conduct more electricity than should be possible, comes from mines which have been destroyed. There have been some suspicious, almost ritualistic murders. And somebody may be trying to resurrect the feared Voortyashtani sentinels, with their living armour and the swords that always return to the hand that wields them.

I didn't love this quite as much as City of Stairs: but that may just be because it's a darker book, or that the protagonist is less appealing to me than Shara Komayd was. Mulaghesh is haunted by her past -- we might diagnose PTSD -- and by the injury she sustained in the Battle of Bulikov. Voortya, the Divinity who was worshipped in Voortyashtan, is a Kali-esque figure, a warrior goddess (how apt for Mulaghesh) whose major innovation seems to have been the creation of an afterlife for her followers. And there are dark deeds afoot, and old feuds burning new, and a ritual that opens a way to Voortya's City of Blades.

But there are also -- as before -- strong female characters and intriguing world-building. I did begin to wonder, though, if the trilogy's arc is going to turn out to be focussed on Sigrud: I do find him fascinating, but I would hate to discover that Shara and Mulaghesh and Signe are peripheral to his story. And I'm not wholly convinced by Mulaghesh as a character -- or possibly as a female character. How different would the character be, would the novel be, if Mulaghesh were a man? ... I suspect these are captious and bloody-minded criticisms, and they may well stem from the slump after finishing City of Blades and realising I have to wait until May for the final volume of the trilogy.

Friday, March 03, 2017

2017/23: City of Stairs -- Robert Jackson Bennett

while no Saypuri can go a day without thinking of how their ancestors lived in abysmal slavery, neither can they go an hour without wondering – Why? Why were they denied a god? Why was the Continent blessed with protectors, with power, with tools and privileges that were never extended to Saypur? How could such a tremendous inequality be allowed?

The Continent used to be powerful, magical, and blessed by the Divinities. Now it's occupied by the Saypuri, who used to be the Continentals' slaves. City of Stairs is set a generation or so after the Blink -- a moment in which, after a Divinity was killed by a Saypuri rebel (the Kaj), the works of all six Divinities were ... unmade, causing devastation across the Continent as the things that they built and maintained crumble away. Some miracles still persist: there are smooth opaque walls around the city of Bulikov, which nevertheless allow the inhabitants to see the sunrise. But the Worldly Regulations prohibit the Continentals from any public mention of the Divine, and stray miraculous artifacts are kept locked away in a secret repository.

Governer Turyin Mulaghesh is overseeing a Worldly Regulations trial when she receives news that a Saypuri scholar has been found murdered. Shortly thereafter, the new Saypuri Cultural Ambassador arrives: a woman calling herself Shara Komayd, accompanied by her 'secretary', the taciturn and violent Sigrud. Shara's aunt Vinya is Minister of Foreign Affairs: Shara and Sigrud have spent years cleaning up traces of the Divine in the half-ruined cities of the Continent. Shara is more than just a Cultural Ambasador, and she and Mulaghesh set out to solve the mystery of Dr Efrem Pangyui's death. The situation is complicated by the rise to power of Vohannes Votrov, who happens to be Shara's ex-boyfriend; the Restorationists, who resent the Saypuri occupation and are very interested in the production of steel; an assassin who disappears mid-leap; a fearsome mythical monster in the river; and the glimpses of a gleaming cityscape of white and gold. Perhaps the Divinities are not as dead as the Saypuri would like them to be.

I'm glad this is the first of a trilogy, because I'm eager to find out more about the world. The Saypuri, quite aside from mourning and raging over centuries of slavery, are still arguing about why it was the Continent which got the Divinities, and not them. And why did the Divinities need the Saypuri to provide labour and produce resources? Why not just work a miracle or two?

It's worth noting that the Saypuri are dark-skinned, the Continentals pale; also that the two main characters are both middle-aged women. (In this world, it is unremarkable that women occupy positions of power.) Continental society is considerably more conservative than Saypuri society. Bennett has plenty to say about colonialism and post-colonialism, and it's refreshing to have a setting that feels less European than Indian. I'm not wholly convinced by the technological level, which seems inconsistent (railways but very little steel?) and there were moments where the characterisation seemed to falter. Also, I was unhappy with the off-stage fate of a homosexual character. Overall, though, I enjoyed this so very much that I immediately bought and read the second book. Review tomorrow :)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

2017/22: Occupy Me -- Tricia Sullivan

With clever beaks and wingtips the beings who made me compile masks made of human skin, made of feathers, made of biological circuits: mitochondrial turbine engines and electron pumps. Their masks are made of darkness pregnant with radio, the slow deep turning of long wavelength light. They wear these masks and they hop around a ragged fire that drinks up the foreign atmosphere.

Pearl is a flight attendant: also, an angel, though her wings are usually hidden in a higher dimension. She doesn't need to eat or to sleep, but she does need to move heavy things: the heavier the better. She works for the Resistance, a shadowy movement that tries to advance humanity by tiny, targetted acts of kindness. Pearl had another mission once, but she can't recall what it is. She's lost something, or something's been stolen from her.

Dr Kiri Sorle is a respected orthopaedic surgeon who's currently employed as personal physician to Austen Stevens, a dying oil tycoon. Sorle grew up in -- and was 'rescued' from -- one of the African states most severely affected by the oil trade: he hates Stevens. But he has other problems: for instance, the sudden appearance of a briefcase he can't open, which he doesn't remember acquiring. And the sense of someone stepping into him from deep within, as though he's 'no more than an extra set of clothes'.

Sorle's story is part of Pearl's, or vice versa: also involved are an extinct pterosaur and a rather charming Scottish vet. The story swoops from a plane over the Atlantic, to the deep past, to a junk yard, to a North Sea oil rig: from colonialism and exploitation to higher dimensions and hypercivilisations. Sullivan's imagery is striking, and I was impressed by her use of first-, second- and third-person narratives.

Occupy Me is clever and funny and moving (and needs Muse as a soundtrack: 'Love is our resistance ...') And it's splendidly, vividly inventive. But I have to admit I didn't fully engage with it -- possibly due to illness -- and finished it with a sense that the multiple plot strands hadn't quite woven together.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

2017/21: An Unseen Attraction --KJ Charles

Clem had listened with fascination the other week as Gregory and Polish Mark and the journalist Nathaniel had discussed how “you could just tell” about men’s tastes, or their guilt, or if they were hiding something that could make a good story. Clem didn’t seem to have whatever ability it was that let other people “just tell,” and it felt as if there was an entire world of communication going on at a pitch he couldn’t hear.

London, 1874. Clem Tallyfer, son of an English father and an Indian mother, runs a lodging house in Clerkenwell: the role suits him, because he's not that good with crowds or noise or thinking in a straight line. His brother (well, half-brother) Edmund owns the house, and insists that Clem tolerate one particular drunken, ill-mannered lodger, Lugtrout by name.

Clem gets along well with his other lodgers -- especially the taxidermist, Rowley Green, who Clem takes tea with in the evenings -- and relies on the redoubtable housekeeper Polly to manage what he can't. But when Lugtrout goes missing, and Edmund shows up to berate Clem for his lack of care, matters become more complicated, and far more dangerous.

I particularly admire the way Charles shows, rather than telling: she doesn't explain too much, but her descriptions and observations are more than sufficient to give insight and understanding into her characters. There's some excellent pacing in this novel, too: the gradual revelations of Rowley's and Clem's secrets.

Clem's friends, too, are a delight: 'Polish Mark' is a South Londoner whose mother's an anarchist; Nathaniel is a journalist, and Gregory's a stage manager. And Rowley Green's devotion to the art and practice of taxidermy -- he aspires 'to snatch something from the wreckage, to keep something back from the worms', and loathes the kind of set piece exemplified by dead kittens in suits playing cards -- is fascinatingly and eloquently described.

Looking forward to the next in this series, which should expand on the dark deeds and betrayals that Clem and Rowley discover during An Unseen Attraction.

Oh, and it's also a slow-burning romance between 'two such odd-shaped men, [who] fit together so naturally'.

2017/20: Murder Must Advertise -- Dorothy L Sayers

Unlike the majority of clients who, though all tiresome in their degree, exercised their tiresomeness by post from a reasonable distance and at reasonable intervals, Messrs Toule & Jollop descended upon Pym’s every Tuesday for a weekly conference. While there, they reviewed the advertising for the coming week, rescinding any decisions taken at the previous week’s conference, springing new schemes unexpectedly upon Mr Pym and Mr Armstrong, keeping those two important men shut up in the Conference Room for hours on end, to the interruption of office-business, and generally making nuisances of themselves.
Ah, plus ├ža change ... First published in 1933, this novel depicts middle-class life in London -- work and play -- in familiar terms. Though Sayers' characters (most of them employed at an advertising agency, as was Sayers for seven years) live in a very different time, their concerns are eminently relatable. Work-life balance, the risks of falling into bad company, where to eat at lunchtime, the paradox of the poor spending money they can't afford on 'luxury' items ... Sayers' observations on the advertising industry are acute, witty and cynical.

The plot, in brief: an advertising executive suffers a fatal fall in the office, leaving an unfinished letter detailing his suspicions of wrongdoing in the firm. A new copywriter appears, one 'Death Bredon', and proceeds to ask a great many probing questions while projecting an aura of harmless frivolity. Why yes, it is Lord Peter Wimsey; and yes, that fatal fall was not the accident it appeared to be.

Reread, for the first time in about 20 years: I remembered how secret messages were passed in advertisements, but didn't recall much of the rest of the plot. This time round, though, I was reminded strongly of Francis Crawford of Lymond circa Queen's Play: perhaps it was the Harlequin costume, the frenetic and somewhat decadent nightlife, the sense that he is constantly in disguise (and that we're introduced to his disguise before his identity is revealed). And, like Lymond, Wimsey ends up giving himself away due to his inability to do a thing badly.

Also, though this novel does not feature Harriet, it does have some of the most delightful interactions between Parker and Wimsey:
‘Your narrative style,’ said Parker, ‘though racy, is a little elliptical. Could you not begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end, and then, if you are able to, stop?’

Sunday, February 19, 2017

2017/19: Black Dog -- Neil Gaiman

It’s daylight, said Shadow to the dog, with his mind, not with his voice. Run away. Whatever you are, run away. Run back to your gibbet, run back to your grave, little wish hound. All you can do is depress us, fill the world with shadows and illusions.

This novella is a sequel to American Gods: it's set in the Peak District, where Shadow Moon takes shelter in the village pub during a rainstorm. He encounters a cheerful couple, Moira and Oliver, who recount some jolly episodes from local folklore. There's also a woman, Cassie, who Shadow meets next morning on the hillside. She points out the Gateway to Hell. A number of cats arrive ...

This is a simple tale, with a sense of mythic -- or perhaps fairytale -- justice: kindness repaid, wrongs avenged, ancient stories coming full circle. Shadow's equanimity balances Moira and Ollie's brittle cheer, and makes the story less gloomy than it might have been.

2017/19a: The Monarch of the Glen --Neil Gaiman

‘Well, I don’t think you’re a monster, Shadow. I think you’re a hero.’ No, thought Shadow. You think I’m a monster. But you think I’m your monster.
Another American Gods novella (it and Black Dog, both sold as standalone Kindle books, are so short that I am counting the two of them as one 'read', and that's pushing it, frankly.) Shadow Moon's wanderings take him to the Scottish Highlands, where he is asked to work as security for a rich man's annual party. The party is an institution: it's goes back 'almost a thousand years'. And it soon becomes apparent that Shadow's role is more than just that of a security guard.

The construction of this story -- Shadow's encounters with the people who will become significant, before he understands his part in the story; the constant questioning of whether he is a monster -- is like a jigsaw: Gaiman fits a great deal into The Monarch of the Glen, and also sets Shadow up for a return to the States and a greater understanding of his own nature and destiny. (I don't know whether Gaiman is still working on the sequel to American Gods. I do hope so.)

2017/18: Dark Matter: A Ghost Story -- Michelle Paver

I’ve also flicked through this journal, which was a mistake. I’m shocked at how my handwriting’s changed. I used to write a neat copperplate hand, but since I’ve been alone, it’s degenerated into a spidery scrawl. Without reading a word, you can see the fear.
The novel begins in London in 1937. Jack Miller has a chip on his shoulder, a physics degree from UCL, and a job he hates. When a group of wealthy young men advertise for a radio operator to form part of an expedition to the Arctic, Jack jumps at the chance: he has nobody to leave behind, nothing -- apparently -- to lose.

The expedition is beset by trouble from the start. One man drops out after the death of his father: another breaks a leg and has to return to England before ever setting foot on the beach at Gruhuken. Maybe he's the lucky one: the skipper of the boat that takes them there is keen to dissuade them from setting up base in that particular location. It's bad luck, he tells them. Things happen there.

The little expedition is now down to three men (Jack himself, the 'golden boy' Gus, and Algie, who is beginning to display some unsettling behaviour) and a number of huskies. Jack doesn't like the dogs: he isn't very keen on the traces of previous human occupation at Gruhuken -- a half-ruined trappers' hut, a 'bear post' where food would be hung away from the sleeping quarters. And he doesn't feel at ease with his companions.

The Arctic night is coming --months of darkness -- and Gus falls ill: he and Algie head for civilisation, leaving Jack alone. Or ... not alone. From time to time he glimpses another figure: he smells paraffin: the dogs are nervy.

The meat of Dark Matter is Jack's journals. We see, as Jack does not, that the darkness and solitude are affecting him: that he is making errors of judgement, and that his determination to put on a brave face, in his infrequent radio conversations with Algie and Gus ("JACK YOU ARE SO BRAVE! EXPEDITION OWES ALL TO YOU!"), is ... unhealthy.

With only the dogs for company -- well, he's visited by a trapper, who tries to convince him to leave Gruhuken -- Jack becomes increasingly aware of his environment. He bonds with Isaak, the most intelligent and loyal of the dogs: but Isaak is scared too.

Dark Matter builds slowly and chillingly. I found myself startling at shadows while I read: Jack's unease, sharpening to fear, was simply and effectively told. He's not, to be honest, an especially likeable character (that chip on his shoulder, his desperate need for approval, an underlying bitterness at the iniquities of life) but his solitary terror does evoke a very human response of compassion. And the climax of the novel is genuinely terrifying: words on a page, first person past tense, yet it terrifies.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

2017/17: The Hanging Tree -- Ben Aaronovitch

We’d been reluctant to employ a forensic psychologist because of the well-founded fear that they might section us for believing in fairies.
Following the events of Foxglove Summer, Peter Grant has returned to London. Lady Tyburn (one of the river goddesses of London) calls in a favour: her daughter Olivia was at a party where a young woman died in suspicious circumstances, and Lady Ty wants Peter to ensure that Olivia is not implicated in the investigation.

Turns out the dead girl has traces of magic about her: which might, thinks Peter, be another lead in his ongoing investigation of the Faceless Man. Working with DI Sahra Guleed, he uncovers some troubling connections that date back to the 'Tyburn Tree' executions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and to the lost ledger of 'Thief-Taker General' Jonathan Wild. Reynard the Fox pops up again: so does Lesley: there is more Nightingale. And there is progress, at last, on the mystery of the Faceless Man.

The Hanging Tree addresses the institutionalised sexism of British magic, and introduces more female characters. There's more sense of the wider world, too, with discussion of American practitioners and their views on European matters.

I'm not sure that reading four Aaronovitch novels back to back was the best way to appreciate them, but it distracted me from illness and kept me entertained and intrigued. And I'm looking forward to The Furthest Station, due in September ...

Friday, February 17, 2017

2017/16: Foxglove Summer -- Ben Aaronovitch

Nightingale calls them the fae but that's a catch-all term like the way the Greeks used the word 'barbarian' or the Daily Mail uses 'Europe'. [loc. 260]
Foxglove Summer is quite a departure from the previous novels in the series. After the traumatic events at the end of Broken Homes, Peter Grant is sent to rural Herefordshire to investigate whether a local wizard (retired) is involved in the disappearance of two young girls. Nightingale -- who barely appears in this novel, boo -- may also be giving Peter a break from 'the usual' for compassionate reasons; and there are new threats facing the Folly, which Peter may not be ready to deal with.

So off Peter goes to the surprisingly unmagical countryside. He speaks to the parents of Nicole Lacey (who had an imaginary friend, Princess Luna) and Hannah Marstowe: he encounters some of the local watercourses: he talks to the retired wizard (who provides more backstory on Nightingale's past) and to his granddaughter, who has a way with bees. He's joined by Beverley Brook, who encourages him to face up to the grief and rage he's been suppressing. And he solves the case -- for values of 'solves' that include 'works out what happened'. We don't get to find out why it happened.

As a Rivers of London book I think I'd find this slightly disappointing: two of my major interests (Nightingale and London itself) are absent. But as an admirer of Tana French's In the Woods, I was fascinated: this novel, in some respects, was the inverse of that one, and though it has a happier ending and a great deal more overt magic, the same sense of brooding fear is there.

Also, Princess Luna? Yay!