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

Thursday, May 31, 2012

2012/25: Runelight -- Joanne Harris

There's an old Northlands saying that goes like this: When lies don’t help, try telling the truth. Loki knew it well, of course, but much preferred his own version, which was: When lies don’t help, tell better lies. [location 8600]

It's three years after the (second) End of the World(s) (as recorded in Runemarks, the first in what I profoundly hope is an ongoing series riffing on Norse myth), and the repercussions of that apocalypse -- or, as Old Nan's rhyme has it, 'pucker-lips' -- are still rippling out across the world.

In the idyllic village of Malbry, Maddy Smith is still living with her father -- except that now it's her true father, the god Thor, who (like the other reincarnated Æsir gods) is struggling to adapt to mundane life. Thor is not wholly happy with the discovery that his prophesied son 'Modi' has turned out to be a female, Maddy. Little does he realise that the second son of the prophecy is not going to turn out entirely as hoped either.

Family matters aren't exactly working out for Loki, either: the Trickster finds himself embroiled once more in a steamy family saga, with ex-lovers refusing to accept perfectly reasonable explanations for his absence ("Be fair. I was dead --" "Being dead is no excuse!" (loc. 1185)), and children who are all too happy to acknowledge their parentage. "Dude. We're the Devourers." (loc 1144).

It is (as usual) a time of omens and portents. Old Nan's nonsense lullaby features three apocalyptic riders (Carnage, Treachery and Lunacy) and a nursery-rhyme muddling of myth and legend. Odin, old One-Eye, is dead, but his ravens (who appear, at least in Hugin's case, to have acquired broad Glaswegian accents) are still bright-eyed, curious, and prone to interfering in the affairs of mortals. It's the End of the bloody Worlds again, and Æsir and Vanir are ready to fight shoulder to shoulder -- assisted, this time, by the forces of Chaos. It's up to Loki to come up with a way to get them all to the battleground: to World's End, six hundred miles from Marbry, where Maggie Rede is living hand-to-mouth in the catacombs beneath the Universal City, hoarding the Book that is her most precious discovery, about to meet the man she'll marry.

What could possibly go wrong?

Runelight wouldn't be half as entertaining without a working knowledge of Norse myth and some idea of what happened in Runemarks. Armed with these, I found myself charmed, amused and full of admiration. Loki's tricks ring true: or possibly -- given how loaded a concept 'truth' is -- it's more accurate to say that they're in character, and would fit as easily into mythic canon as into the road-trip adventures of a motley crew of incarnated deities. Odin's long game is as carefully constructed as anything in American Gods, let alone in the original sagas. Maddy's conflicting loyalties (remember, she's not just half-god; she's a teenager, with all the emotional turmoil that can involve) are painfully familiar and have far-reaching consequences.

There are some likeable new characters (not least the short guy, Jolly, who is most definitely not a dwarf) and some interesting viewpoints -- for instance, the use of the word 'grooming' to describe Odin's role in Maddy's childhood. Though the term's commonly used now to describe paedophilia, it does have overtones of manipulation and hidden agendas, which are entirely apt. Harris doesn't deal in black and white: none of her characters are wholly good or wholly evil, and most of them -- god or mortal -- grow, or at least change, over the course of the novel.

It is also immensely, joyously funny, despite the odd apocalypse and the usual betrayals, misunderstandings, family feuds and nasty scraps of myth. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

2012/24: Our Tragic Universe -- Scarlett Thomas

Problems with this novel (again). The items on it were: It is boring; it has no focus; it is self-indulgent; I hate the central character; it’s too depressing; no one wants anything; no one does anything; there are no questions to be resolved; there is too much narration. Then I thought this would make a nice opening to Notebook, so I pasted the whole list onto the first page. I smiled at my own audacity. Surely no one, not even the most metafictional and post-modern of writers, had ever begun a novel with a list of its own faults? (p. 170)
Meg, a blocked novelist, is trying to review a book for a national newspaper. The book is about postmortality, with the central premise that everyone is 'currently living, and re-living, in what I will term the Second World, which has been created by the Omega Point as a place where you prepare for the rest of eternity' (p. 40). Meg has plenty of time to spin notions from this theory (another excellent way of avoiding writing her Great Novel) while trying to avoid the rather more pressing issues of her dysfunctional relationship with Christopher ("if I could kiss someone else, then I could never kiss Christopher again. In the last five months he hadn’t really noticed this." (p.20)), her friend Libby's inability to choose between her lover and her partner, and Meg's own directionless life.

This is a storyless story, a rambling exploration of the esoteric and the eccentric (Chekhov's Letters, the Cottingley Fairies, a beast that may or may not be roaming Dartmoor, a prophecy made when Meg was younger ("'You will never finish what you start ... You will not overcome the monster. And in the end, you will come to nothing" (p.70)) and the mystery of the book she reviewed, which turns out not to have been sent by her editor at all.

It's a couple of weeks since I read Our Tragic Universe (mea culpa, am behind on my blog: hey ho) and more than any of the events that occur (more or less at random) in its pages, I recall a profound irritation with the ending, which felt too romantic to fit the rest of the novel.

But I do love the immediacy of Thomas' descriptions of the south Devon coast in winter, quiet and faded after the summer rush of the tourist season. I was charmed by Meg's dog Bess (possibly the most likeable character in the book). And I am amused by Meg's fascination with her own failure to write, which oozes verisimilitude:
I was always trying to make the novel catch up with my life, and then deleting the bits that got too close, wiping them out like videogame aliens in a space-station corridor. I still didn’t know what to do about it. I’d invented a writer character from New York who deletes a whole book until it’s a haiku and then deletes that, but then I deleted him too. (p. 35)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

2012/23: The Hammer -- K J Parker

Gignomai picked up his book, but he’d lost interest in it long ago. He’d stolen it for Furio last year, because Furio liked books with knights and tournaments and castles and dragons. But most of the characters in it were just like his family, though the author didn’t seem to have realised that, or he wouldn’t have made them out to be heroes. (p.88)

Gignomai met'Oc is the youngest son of a noble family, living in splendid (and squalid) isolation in a nameless colony. The met'Oc family home is on the Tabletop, an easily-defended upland: the family's power, though somewhat in decline since their exile from Home, is maintained by their possession of the only firearms in the whole of the colony. The rest of the colonists eke out a hand-to-mouth existence, trading with Home for the manufactured goods that can't be acquired in any other way.

(The colony, by the way, occupies a small corner of the land formerly inhabited by the so-called Savages: as becomes clear later in the novel, the Savages couldn't give a damn about the colonists, because they don't believe the colonists are real in any significant sense.)

The novel opens with young Gignomai using a sledgehammer to crack a nut -- or, rather, solving the problem of a chicken-thieving wolf by overly drastic means. "Next time, he decided, I'll make sure I think things through." (p.7) Next time ... but next time is fourteen years later, and the collateral damage is proportionately higher.

The Hammer is a novel of three parts: 'Seven Years Before', 'The Year When' and 'Seven Years After'. It should come as no surprise that we don't learn what happened in that pivotal year until quite late in the book. Whatever it was, though (and it's not quite as grim as the linchpin of The Belly of the Bow), it's the straw that breaks Gig's back, sends him sneaking out past his father's sentries into the colony, with a stolen heirloom and a massive grudge against his whole family.

Gignomai is a likeable character, with friends who seem fond of him (some of the narrative is from their viewpoints). He's hard-working and surprisingly humble, though apparently unable to let go of a certain sense of noblesse oblige. He's not a typical met'Oc, though: instead of wanting to rule the colony, he comes up with a plan to make it independent. "The colony gets rid of Home, everybody gets the stuff they need – even the savages, so they’re doing well out of it. Everybody gains, nobody gets hurt. What could be better than that?" (p.131) Unfortunately, he doesn't realise -- or perhaps doesn't care -- that he's in a K J Parker novel, that nothing is ever that simple, and that no good will come of it.

There's rather more tidying-up, fewer loose ends, at the end of this novel than in some of Parker's earlier works: one might almost say that the motivations and morals are hammered home. (ahahaha). I've remarked before on Parker's tendency to use pronouns instead of names, and the inevitable confusions and misreadings that ensure: this is much less noticeable in The Hammer than in, for instance, The Company. And though the action, the scheming, the grand plan are necessarily at a smaller scale in Parker's standalone novels than in the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies, there are advantages to this: The Hammer is a well-structured book that brings us closer to its protagonist than we ever were to Bardas, Poldarn or Vaatzes.

2012/22: The Kingdom of Gods -- N K Jemisin

"...you liked to kill people, back when you lived here. You would do tricks on them, sometimes funny tricks ... but sometimes people would die."
Still funny, I thought, but perhaps this was not the time to say such things aloud. (p.25)

The Kingdom of Gods opens with the words "There will be no tricks in this tale. I tell you this so that you can relax." (p.5). Are you convinced by this? The narrator of this novel is Sieh, the eternal child, the Trickster, and he turns an irreverent eye on the Three: Bright Itempas, Nahadoth the Nightlord, and Yeine, the Grey Lady, whose role is to provide balance.

Sieh has had millennia to come to terms with wanting what he cannot have. The Three are his parents, and the parent-child relationship is especially rocky when the parents are deities with their own conflicts and concerns. Oh, Sieh's tried growing up, assuming a more adult role ("I had grown up before, hundreds of times; I knew the pattern that my body normally followed" (117)). But something is happening to him that he cannot control -- something that may be connected with Shahar and her brother Dekarta, two mortal children of royal blood whom Sieh has befriended (or, perhaps, corrupted).

Sieh's unique status -- a god, but not one of the Three; a child, but not one who will ever grow up in any real sense -- makes him an informed, albeit biased, observer of a world in flux. The Arameri are not as powerful as they were when Yeine came to Sky as her grandfather's heir, in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Bright Itempas is no longer the sole deity, but one of Three -- and an outcast, trying to redeem himself by righting all the wrongs committed in his name. Shahar (named after her ancestor, the Arameri ruler who helped Itempas overthrow Nahadoth and murder Enefa) is destined to rule, but wants to be more temperate and democratic than any Arameri before her. And on the streets of Shadow, the terrestrial city above which the Arameri palace Sky still hangs, there's a groundswell of atheism.

Atheism is a tricky concept when gods, godlings, demons and mortals interact on a daily basis. Not believing in the gods doesn't make them any less real; doesn't make sense. One character describes himself as a 'primortalist':
It means 'mortals first' — neither an accurate nor complete representation of our philosophy, but as I implied, there are worse terms. We believe in the gods, naturally ... But as the Bright has shown us, the gods function perfectly well whether we believe in them or not, so why devote all that energy to a pointless purpose? Why not believe most fervently in mortalkind and its potential? (p.111)

It's another thing for Sieh to take into account in his altered state. Worship is nice ("Even gods need encouragement sometimes") but not essential. Trust is more important, but can he truly trust anyone? Even his mother Enefa deceived him, though Sieh has forgotten (been made to forget) the details of that deception. Shahar (and, to a lesser extent, her brother Dekarta) love Sieh but have their own intrigues to play out. There are gods whom Sieh does not know: there is the Maelstrom, an inchoate swirl of chaos from which the Three were born, with which he somehow resonates.

There are aspects of this novel that didn't quite convince me: there's a thin, razor-sharp line separating the sublime from the ridiculous, and a couple of climactic scenes teetered precariously thereon. Sieh, though, is a delight: a cynical trickster who nevertheless is determined to remain true to his nature. ("You’re careful to act impulsively — even though you’re experienced and wise enough to know better." (p. 324)) Of course, the trickster can be tricked: but there's always another card up his sleeve. Remember that opening assurance? Yeah, right.

Friday, May 18, 2012

2012/21: The Broken Kingdoms -- N K Jemisin

I am, you see, a woman plagued by gods. It was worse once. Sometimes it felt as if they were everywhere: underfoot, overhead, peering around corners, and lurking under bushes. They left glowing footprints on the sidewalks. (I could see that they had their own favorite paths for sightseeing.) They urinated on the white walls. They didn’t have to do that, urinate I mean; they just found it amusing to imitate us. I found their names written in splattery light, usually in sacred places. I learned to read in this way. (p.15)

Oree Shoth lives in Shadow, the city that was once Sky but is now shaded by the impossibly huge World Tree that sprang into existence at the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It's ten years since the fall of the Arameri, and Shadow is swarming with godlings, the lesser children of the gods. Ten years ago, of course, there was only one god worth the name: Bright Itempas, the Skyfather. But Itempas, demoted to Dayfather, is now one-third of a trinity, the other gods being the Nightlord and the Grey Lady.

The Three don't much concern Oree. Blind (though always able to see magic) she makes a living selling statues and trinkets, and -- unlike Yeine, the protagonist of the previous book -- is firmly rooted in a network of close relationships. Her lover, Madding, is a godling; some of her best friends carry the blood of gods. And the mute, reckless house guest she rescued from a rubbish bin is definitely a god ...

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, despite its title, was claustrophobically focussed on the politics and power-plays in Sky, the city in the clouds. The Broken Kingdoms pans out to show the lives of ordinary folk in the terrestrial city -- though Oree is not exactly ordinary, and her house guest attracts attention from unexpected quarters. (It's interesting to see Oree's gradual recognition of characters who are already familiar to the reader: this second book does stand alone, but is greatly enriched by knowledge of the first.)

Oree is a delight. She's self-reliant and grounded (metaphorically, as well as literally!) in a way that wasn't an option for Yeine: she has a sense of humour, which was a luxury Yeine couldn't afford: she's a single woman who neither wants nor needs protection, and she's comfortable in her skin, her city, her difference.

Of course, gods and comfort go together like electricity and water.

Oree's heritage holds secrets, and she realises that she's a danger to those she cares for: worse, she is being used as a weapon. But she also learns that the gods are to be pitied as well as feared, and that she has the power to heal, as well as to harm. The focus of The Broken Kingdoms may be on Oree, and perhaps on the wider social transformations brought about by the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: but the arc of the Inheritance trilogy concerns the Three, and this middle book progresses their story as well as Oree's own. It works on multiple levels: likeable and / or intriguing characters, a fascinating world, a murder mystery and an exploration of Big Themes (race, class, colonialism, gender, slavery, oppression) that doesn't detract from a damn good read.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

2012/20: Secret Harmonies -- Andrea Barrett

All of them cast as pyjama-clad primitives, setting fires in the woods and bound in a dark web; herself cast as dreamy and dim as Emma Bovary, her lost children trailing her like cats. That was her, humming Italian music while she chased a bubble of romance through the sordid farms. ... as she read she saw why Dory had questioned her so closely. He was an only child, with no children of his own and no sense of a family except what he'd been able to steal from her. He'd taken the fine, everyday web of history that linked her to everyone in her life, and he'd distorted it to make connections so obvious, she'd never thought to put them into words. (225)
Reba grows up in a complex web of family and friendship, in the grinding poverty of small-town America in the 1970s. Family and friends have depths that Reba doesn't acknowledge even to herself, but are clear to the careful reader (and to Dory, who steals her stories and puts them in his poems). Reba is a romantic born in the wrong time, a musically-gifted child who never has the chance to use her talents, a passionate woman who paradoxically craves a detached life of 'clear cool order... her family eating a roast chicken sprinkled with herbs while she played Bach in another room.' (p. 161)

Or perhaps that's simply the best that Reba can hope for, the best of the options open to her. She'll never have the privileged life enjoyed by her married lovers, or the cerebral pleasures of academia, or the freedom to be herself.

This is an almost excessively subtle novel. A lot of events -- pregnancies, marriages, separations, escapes -- are recounted: but what actually happens, the meat of the novel, happens within Reba herself, and pulses out through the strands of that 'fine everday web of history' binding her to the people she loves.

Secret Harmonies is not, for me, the best of Andrea Barrett's novels: it's certainly not the most cheerful or uplifting. Yet there is quiet joy and beauty folded inside the ugliness of the mundane, within the hopes and dreams of the characters.

2012/19: Osama -- Lavie Tidhar

‘Anything to declare?’ The girl was pretty in her uniform. Joe wasn’t sure what to say. He wanted to declare he was here to investigate a global conspiracy of mass murder; or say, perhaps, that he was trying to understand a war no one seemed to understand, not even those who were fighting it the hardest; or to explain about the ghosts that kept flickering at the corner of his eyes when they thought he weren’t looking. He said, ‘No, nothing,’ and gave her an apologetic smile, and she waved him through. (location 2421)

Joe (no last name given, I believe) is a private detective, hired by a femme fatale to find one 'Mike Longshott', author of a series of pulp novels featuring Osama Bin Laden, Vigilante, who --

At which point it is obvious that this is not our world.

Longshott (an alibi, you say?) writes of terrorist attacks in a way that Joe dismisses as wildly improbable. The reader may recognise some of those attacks, some of those names. ("[Joe] stared at the paperbacks. Assignment: Africa. Sinai Bombings. World Trade Centre. What the hell was a world trade centre?" (location 287)). Joe is ignorant of them, of the world in which such atrocities can occur.

Joe's world, on the other hand, may seem familiar. ("He had never been there before, and yet it felt as if he had. The knowledge of a memory, rather than the memory itself, nagged at him." (786)) This is a world where de Gaulle died in 1944, where Saint-Exupery was president of France, resonant with echoes of Astrid Lindgren and Woody Allen and Rick's Bar in Casablanca. Where everyone smokes, everywhere. Whisky and cigarettes, unrumpled sheets, £100 notes. Osamaverse fan-fiction. Then Joe tracks Longshott to London, and realises that his world is slowly unravelling.

My sympathies are with Joe here, lost and disoriented, wanting more than anything to solve the case and close the book on all the atrocities in Longshott's novels. Osama is full of wit, allusion and layered realities. It doesn't glorify terrorism, nor demonise the terrorists. And while I'm not entirely convinced by the finale, the novel as a whole will remain with me.

2012/18: The End Specialist -- Drew Magary

At the Church of Man we believe that God and Man are one and the same. We believe that we can become better people if we recognise that the forces of good in this world -- kindness, forgiveness, generosity, love -- are inherently within us, within our control. The old religious dogmas have outlived their usefulness in a world where people can now live hundreds and thousands of years ... We do not believe in preparing for an afterlife. We believe this life is the afterlife. (p. 148)

America, the near future: a cure for death (well, for natural ageing) has been developed. At the outset of The End Specialist, the cure isn't legal, but that doesn't stop lawyer John Farrell paying his $7,000 and getting his three injections. His 'digital journal' supplies a narrative viewpoint over the next sixty years, interspersed with news reports and anecdata. Farrell develops the cycle marriage, a forty-year contract designed to fix the problem of "no one told me forever would be this long!" (p. 39). He attends 'cure parties' at the Fountain of Youth Resort and Casino ("Do all the things Ponce de Leon always dreamed of doing!" (p. 98). And he records the social changes brought about by the cure: the excommunication of those who've taken fate into their own hands; the legislation preventing anyone who's Cured from claiming social security or Medicare benefits; the Thai trade in underage girls who'll be underage forever; the mothers who won't let their perfect babies grow up; the forty-year-olds who are sick of acting the age they look; and the Church of Man, which believes that God and Man are one and the same.

Not everyone wants the cure. Farrell's father is 'at peace with the idea' of death: "I've had a good life" (171). Farrell's sister is doubtful, a late adopter: "I'm guessing there'll be a point where everyone has it and I feel obligated to get it too. I was like that with cell phones." (68). At first Farrell can't understand why anyone would turn down what might as well be immortality (if you're careful, if you're rich). As the novel progresses, he starts to understand the difference between life and mere existence. And it's death that prompts his change of career, from lawyer to End Specialist -- "half angel of death, half event planner" (207).

There's a lot in this novel (which was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award) but it doesn't quite come together. A messianic figure, an epiphany, a saboteur; love, death, the prospect of endless tedium; a soft apocalypse of overpopulation and exciting new diseases. And yet -- perhaps because Farrell's really not a very likeable character? -- it falls flat somehow.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

2012/17: Servant of the Underworld -- Aliette de Bodard

This wasn't, had never been about me. This was about the dead Jaguar warriors and the dying Emperor; about the peasants in their flooded fields; about the myriad small priests who didn't engage in politics, but sought the well-being of their flock. "You have seen the rain," I said softly. "There is a child in Tenochtitlan: a child who is no more a child, but the living embodiment of Tlaloc's will. He seeks to remake the Fifth World in His image." (p. 308)

Year One-Knife, in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Acatl, High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli (the God of Death), is asked to investigate the disappearance (and presumed murder) of an aristocratic priestess. The prime suspect is his own brother, the Jaguar Knight Neutemoc, with whom he has a complicated relationship. And, to aid his investigations, he is given an apprentice: the arrogant young warrior Teomitl, of whom Acatl knows nothing.

Servant of the Underworld immerses the reader from the first page in a culture that is rich, strange and cruel. Magic -- well, religion -- is real, and it is powered by blood. We first encounter Acatl casting a spell: when interrupted by a summons from Ceyaxochitl, the Guardian of the Sacred Precinct, his first thought is to 'quench the flow of blood from my earlobes before the atmosphere of Mictlan [the kingdom of the dead] could overwhelm the shrine. With the disappearance of the living blood, the spell was broken' (p.2).

Acatl is a powerful magician, but rather less adept at the political games that his role demands. He has been promoted suddenly from a minor provincial role to the High Priest of the God of Death, and he's neither comfortable nor happy with the temporal power bestowed upon him. Part of Teomitl's role in the novel is to make Acatl more aware of the walls he's built around himself. Some of the stones in those walls are his drowned father; his warrior brother and his brother's family; his former apprentice, who died attempting a rite beyond his power; the gods who draw him into their machinations and conflicts, old gods against new; his sense of inadequacy, as a man and as a priest.

Servant of the Underworld is the first in a trilogy featuring Acatl, and I'm intrigued to see where the series takes him. There's nothing in the novel that places it in a historical timeline: the author's afterword indicates that it's set around 1480, forty years before the arrival of Cortez and his conquistadors. Yet the world that de Bodard describes has a definite history of its own, with failed harvests, flooding, war; with flower-garlands, feather cloaks, and the constant sacrifices (human and animal) without which the world would end.

It's a culture as alien and unfathomable as anything in SF: an excellent setting for a complex murder mystery, because most readers will be unable to map the characters or their motives -- religious, social, political -- to more familiar tropes. Acatl may be a priest, but he is not comparable to Cadfael or John the Eunuch or Matthew Shardlake (or, haha, Father Brown). The missing priestess had an agenda that would be inconceivable (pun intended) in most historical settings. And the gods are at once unknowable and strangely human -- or, perhaps, so familiar to Acatl that his perception humanises their strangenesses.

Friday, May 04, 2012

2012/16: Rule 34 -- Charles Stross

Because if you turn it on its head and start looking at the net.porn, sooner or later you have to ask, Is whatever is depicted here happening on my beat? ICIU isn’t about porn (the war on porn is long since lost, though none dare admit it) so much as it’s about Internet memes— random clumps of bad headmeat that have climbed out of their skulls to go walkabout on the web. Often they’re harmless—a craze for silly captions on cute cat photographs—but sometimes they’re horrendous (p. 44)

Rule 34 is set in near-future Edinburgh: it's a loose sequel to Halting State, and is told, like the earlier novel, in three distinct second-person narrative streams. Inspector Liz Kavanaugh is investigating the latest in a series of improbable deaths which involve domestic appliances; Anwar Hussein is an identity thief (retired) who finds part-time legitimate work as the honorary Scottish consul for the Independent Republic of Issyk-Kulistan; The Toymaker is an enforcer for the Operation, much given to reveries concerning rape machines and lizards in designer suits. Together they fight crime. Together, the three narratives converge on the identity of a serial killer and the nature of the organisation(s) trying to prevent further murders.

As usual with Stross's novels, there's a hell of a lot crammed in: meditations on identity theft, virtuoso riffs on the theme of 'if this goes on', sharp images of a very credible future, sly asides. Stross gives us 'the obligatory state-owned Tesco Local'; suburban cannibalism made possible by medical tissue incubator tanks (cannibalism's not illegal in Scotland: gosh, I never knew that); mutant ninja genetically engineered superyeast. The second-person narratives offer ample opportunity for infodumps, opinion and polemic, without these feeling too much like authorial intrusion.

One aspect of this novel that I particularly admired is that, while nobody's defined by their gender or sexuality, the usual tropes are turned around. There are few heterosexual characters -- Dorothy Straight, Liz Kavanaugh's on-again-off-again ex, is not an example of nominative determinism -- and at least one of those is completely batshit. (Technical term.)

Very readable, pacy and funny: also thought-provoking, dark and packed with well-reasoned speculation.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

2012/15: Pirate King -- Laurie R King

'...I will not feed my men off the suffering of women.’ Good God: The subversive sentiments of W.S. Gilbert had converted this hereditary Moroccan cut-throat into a Frederic of morality. I had never before thought of the Savoy operas as a tool of Anarchic philosophy. (p. 290)

The eleventh novel featuring the redoubtable Mary Russell (and her husband Sherlock Holmes), Pirate King doesn't live up to previous novels in the sequence. The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive [my review here] were almost mythic in their scope and resonance: Pirate King is a light-hearted romp, set in the nascent film industry of England in the 1920s. Randolph Fflytte is making a movie version of Gilbert and Sullivan's opera The Pirates of Penzance -- with thirteen blonde, blue-eyed, romantically-inclined English actresses, and a supporting cast of real pirates. (Arrrr!) Fflytte's film company has been at the centre of some criminal activity, so Mary Russell attaches herself to the project and heads first to Lisbon, and then to Morocco. The criminal intentions she uncovers are not exactly what she expected ...

There are a lot of things to like in Pirate King. Mary Russell is intelligent, quick-witted and free from sentimentality. Some of the 'actresses' are acting more than their roles as the Major-General's daughters. There is swashbuckling, crossdressing, and Fernando Pessoa, a poet who finds pirates enormously (and erotically) exciting. (Pessoa is not a fiction.) Also a parrot given to proclaiming Anarchist slogans.

But Russell and Holmes are apart for more than half the book, which means we miss out on the interplay between them. There's plenty of farce, and a lot of stupid pirates, but Pirate King lacks the meat and complexity of previous Russell novels. It also lacks context: after reading the previous two novels back-to-back, I wrote "The story told in The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive ends on something of a minor key. Things will never be the same -- in good ways and bad. I want to see how Holmes and Russell work through that situation." But we don't see that. The events of the previous books are barely mentioned.

I wonder if the change of key is intentional on King's part? Apparently she's keen to write 'a non-Russell book' but her fans and publishers keep pushing for more Russell. After The God of the Hive, this is completely understandable. Perhaps Pirate King will turn down the heat a bit.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

2012/14: Last Movement -- Joan Aiken

Imagine you thought you were living in a house ... doing your normal job, pursuing your ordinary life, peaceful and unobserved -- and suddenly you found that all the time you had really been a kind of exhibit at a zoo, with people studying everything you had done through a glass wall, laughing at you and everything connected with you, because it was so grotesque and peculiar. (p.182)
Priscilla Meiklejohn -- known as Mike -- has never really connected with her mother, even after the deaths of her father and elder sister thirteen years ago. When she's summoned to an emergency ward where her mother lies gravely injured, she has little to say. But in her mother's desk there's a letter addressed to Mike, to be opened only in the event of her mother's death.

Of course she opens it.

Turns out her father's not dead after all: 'the way in which he is still alive may be a terrible shock to you'. (p. 43). And while Mike is still coming to terms with this news, her mother makes enough of a recovery to contemplate a convalescent journey to warmer climes: to Greece, where Mike spent her formative adolescent years while her sister (as she's lately discovered from her mother's friend) committed suicide and her mother locked everything away.

Mike's narrative is first-person: the story of the other protagonist, Julia, is told in the third person. Julia, a well-known playwright, has been through an acrimonious and very public divorce (she was formerly Lady Julia) and is honeymooning with her new husband, the mysterious Dikran, on the Greek isle of Dendros. When Dikran suffers an amnesiac episode and begins to behave strangely, a local doctor invites the couple to spend some time at Helikon, the music centre and clinic which he runs.

Mike and her mother also find themselves at Helikon, under the care of Dr Adnan, who Mike recalls fondly from her teenage years. Other visitors include an aged composer who's set on producing his opera, Les Mysteres d'Elsinore despite the apparent 'curse' that blights any singer who takes the role of Hamlet; a sociology professor from Baton Rouge who insists on photographing everybody; and Kerry Farrell, a mezzo-soprano who's soared to stardom in the last few years.

Then there's a murder, and a revelation, and a high-speed chase on precipitous mountain roads ...

While it's pretty straightforward to identify the villain of this novel, it's never that simple with Joan Aiken. Dr Adnan is given to plain speaking, and refuses to collude in his patients' pretences. The smallest details -- sunflower seeds, a masseur who recognises the signs of plastic surgery, letters as plot devices in the novels of Jane Austen, a pianist improvising behind a closed door -- are weighted with significance. Mike is a likeable character, as is Julia (though because of that third-person narrative we don't get as close to Julia as to Mike). And the twist, the discovery that Mike makes about her father, came as a complete surprise to me -- though, with hindsight, the whole novel leads up to it. After that revelation, the romantic denouement felt trivial (and, to be honest, rather less convincing).

Several of the characters in Last Movement are deliberately, authentically bigotted; the novel was written and is set in the late 1970s, when prejudice and bigotry were more acceptable than they are now. One of the characters, in particular, holds views I find extraordinarily repugnant: just as though I'd encountered her in real life, I couldn't think of her the same way after she'd made those views known.

Despite the cover -- mine has good-looking people in evening dress, a Greek temple, a dead body and a full moon -- this is not a 'novel of romantic suspense' [sic], though those elements are present. It focusses more on Mike and the changes that bring her true maturity. And perhaps it's a novel about deceit, about the lie in plain view, about what we let ourselves see and recognise.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

2012/13: Malvolio's Revenge -- Sophie Masson

When I'm acting I can be someone else. And somehow, you know, acting's domesticated and sweetened the pain of the gift, so that I can be fully a part of the human world, as well as slip into other skins, and cast other shadows on the stage. (p.155)
Toby's Uncle Theo, director and manager of the Trentham Troupe of Players, is determined to revive his faded West End hit Malvolio's Revenge. But as night falls on New Year's Eve, 1909, in rainy Louisiana, they're still on the road, an arrangement fallen through and no particular destination ahead.

Then a house looms out of the darkness, and they're welcomed in by Isabelle de Castelon, "last owner of Illyria", and her devoted nurse Marie Laroche. Through Toby's eyes we see Isabelle's excitement as the troupe perform highlights from Uncle Theo's play, a sequel to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in which fortunes are reversed and cross-gartered Malvolio thrives as advisor to the king of a neighbouring country. Once the performance is over, Isabelle declares her intention to join the troupe. But she's not driven by art alone: she's determined to find the man who murdered her father and broke her mother's heart.

In New Orleans, the somewhat infatuated Toby helps Isabelle locate half-blood crimelords Tombstone and Klondike, and makes some discoveries of his own; Gabriel Harvey, the leading man; Tom Nashe, the mysterious fiddler; the troupe's millionaire benefactor Mr Wilson; Wilson's dodgy-looking secretary Follett; and Marie Laroche, Isabelle's nurse and confidante, who's more than she seems.

Underlying and structuring the Gothic romance and the murder mystery is an exploration of racism, both the institutional variety (the 'Jim Crow' laws that segregate whites and coloured in New Orleans' bars and theatres) and the insidious prejudices that affect every character. Sophie Masson writes clearly and evocatively, and presents a cast of intriguing and (mostly) likeable characters. Toby, the viewpoint character, is especially well-drawn: he's an English teenager in a culture and country that's completely alien to him, and he has some hard lessons to learn.