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

Thursday, August 29, 2013

2013/30: Rituals: Rhapsody of Blood vol 1 -- Roz Kaveney

The sort of godhood that comes from the Rituals of Blood is usually, but not always, something people do to themselves; they eat the flesh of innocence and drink its blood and they fix the mask of monster on their face and their face rots away until mask is all there is. But there is something worse: the cunning monster who takes innocence and forces it to eat until there is a puppet that dances for him, dances the deaths of thousands more innocents while a saint or a child screams inside it. [loc.1059]

Mara is incredibly ancient and effectively immortal, but absolutely not a goddess: she strongly discourages anyone who describes her as divine. No, her longevity and strength and magic are all for 'the work' -- and Mara's job is to prevent people becoming deities.

The fact that Mara reveals this whilst drinking with Aleister Crowley in a bar in Sicily gives some idea of the flavour of Rituals, the first in the Rhapsody of Blood sequence. It's an immensely eclectic (and erudite) (and occasionally plain rude, in a good way) novel, packed with references to myth, literature, classical music, theology and world history. And if Mara can occasionally seem somewhat ... intimidating, Emma -- the other protagonist, whom we first encounter as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1980s -- is entirely down to earth. Which is more than can be said for her girlfriend Caroline. ("'I am immaterial girl'. 'Ouch,' said Emma." [loc 350])

There is a heck of a lot of plot in this novel, and I'm not going to attempt to encapsulate it here. Suffice to say that there are gods and goddesses, as well as (including?) elves and vampires and drag queens and Marilyn Monroe and Morgan le Fay. There are unflinching examinations of the extremes of cruelty to which greed and hubris can drive human beings; there are comic set-pieces, tender love scenes, and the annual Festival of Lost Opera. And there are moments of casual lyricism ("one of those gorgeous Brahms cello and viola meanders, the music of rivers thinking to themselves" [loc.2047]) and more snark, banter and irreverence than you can shake a spear at.

It would not be a proper review if I did not gripe about something, even though the author is a friend: there are occasional clunky bits, and a couple of typos / inconsistencies. Nothing that got in my way.

Did I mention? I liked this book very much: its exuberance, its invention, and its pacing. (And I have an advance copy of the next in the sequence, mwa ha ha ha ha...)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

2013/29: Rivers of London -- Ben Aaronovitch

'Are they really gods?'
'I never worry about the theological questions,' said Nightingale. 'They exist, they have power and they can breach the Queen's peace – that makes them a police matter.' [loc.1523]
A cold night in Covent Garden. PC Peter Grant, still wet behind the ears from police college, has been left to guard a murder scene. A stroke of luck, perhaps, because it's the ever-curious, open-minded Grant who encounters a ghost who claims to have witnessed the crime.

He quickly finds himself seconded to a branch of the Met that specialises in magical matters. Apparently this branch is a bit of an embarrassment to the Establishment, who had been led to believe that This Sort of Thing was 'in decline'. Nope, apparently magic has been on the rise since the mid-Sixties, and now PC Grant is one-half of the department tasked with dealing with magical disruptions. His magical training takes place under the watchful eye of Nightingale, who is older than he seems and has a very peculiar housekeeper. I was pleased to find that Grant has a hard time learning even simple spells: it's not just about chanting pig-Latin and waving wands.

Rivers of London has a marvellous sense of place. (I was amused, during a recent conversation, to note that friends less familiar with Covent Garden took longer to work out the, er, mythic aspect of the initial crimes.)
Aaronovitch evokes the ceaseless mad rush and babble of Cambridge Circus; the leafy exclusivity of Hampstead; the guttural stockbroker accents of operagoers on Drury Lane, where an evening of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd (how many other operas have a hanging scene? okay probably plenty) has been supernaturally disrupted. Oh, and "'We think he's hiding in Walthamstow,' she said. Many would say that was punishment enough." [loc.2958]

I was drawn in by the ambience, the local detail and the depth of London lore: I was also most taken with Grant's attempts to apply the scientific method to his new skills. And the rivers! The two Thameses, with their boundary at Teddington (a liminal zone where the river's flow meets the tide), London Bridge, Effra (who which flows past the bottom of a friend's garden), the 'murdering bastard' Bazalgette who diverted so many rivers underground, into the new sewer system.

Aaronovitch blends police procedural and magic in a way that's reminiscent of, but not really similar to, Paul Cornell's London Falling. I like his humour, and his characterisation. Grant's a bit sexist, has a chip on his shoulder, and is far from being a Chosen One. Nightingale is fascinating, but Grant's steadfast refusal to simply accept all this new information sets him head and shoulders above many urban fantasy protagonists.

I read this novel whilst sitting on a beach just east of Southend, occasionally pausing to swim in the Thames ... by the end of the book I felt as though I should perhaps ask permission, or make propitiation.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

2013/28: The Silence -- Alison Bruce

The word 'murder' sounds so extreme that I hesitated before using it. Could that really have happened? I sat on the fence a bit with my reply: 'Someone made it happen,' I said.
'Someone made them kill themselves?'
... 'Someone killed them.' [loc.1531]

Another in Alison Bruce's DC Goodhew series, set in Cambridge. Opening with an apparently-random murder in the car park of the Carlton Arms, the story picks up some years later, and is told from multiple viewpoints. Libby is an A-level student, writing long emails to a Facebook friend in which she tries to make sense of the suicides of her older siblings; her best friend Matt still blames his father for his mother's death from cancer; Matt's older sister Charlotte has adopted the role of the sensible housewife. Then one of Libby and Matt's housemates, American student Shanie, apparently commits suicide, and the police are brought in. Gary Goodhew quickly decides that there's something odd about Shanie's death. None of the other occupants of the house on King Street are telling the whole truth, including Libby and Matt. And without knowing the truth, how can anyone predict whether there'll be another death?

I have a couple of minor quibbles: a key plot item is not named until Goodhew figures it out; a typo in the name of Libby's childhood home obfuscates a clue. But I really liked the pacing, the connections that gradually became clear, the sense of a group of people who've grown up together and share secrets. Good local colour, and some interesting insights on Goodhew, Kincaide and Gully.

Monday, August 26, 2013

2013/27: The Gift of Stones -- Jim Crace

Why tell the truth when lies are more amusing, when lies can make the listener shake her head and laugh -- and cough -- and roll her eyes? People are like stones. You strike them right, they open up like shells. [p. 48]
The Gift of Stones is one of Crace's shorter novels, but -- as in the quotation above -- he packs a great deal into a small space. (Rereading that quotation, I realise that the two words 'and cough' reveal more about one of the characters in the novel than I'd noticed when I first read it.)

It is the late Stone Age. In a nameless village of flint-knappers, a nameless child is shot by strangers. The arrow is poisoned: after half a day's agony while a suitably sharp knife is crafted, the boy loses his arm. Unable to work stone (the sole trade, and sole pride, of the village) he turns to story-telling. Hunting far afield for new tales, he encounters the woman nicknamed 'Doe', whose husband and sons have been slaughtered by strangers, leaving her to barter sex for food. The storyteller takes her and her infant daughter back to his village, and watches as she learns to mine flint -- and then to not mine flint.

Anyway, the flint trade is dying, though nobody can work out why. The mongers, who sell worked flint artefacts to strangers who pass through, can't explain it. Nor can the stoners, the folk who work the stone. The storyteller cannot say why trade is falling off, but he can tell of what he's seen. Change is coming.

Economic oppression, craftsmanship, art and inequality: also, a deceptively simple style, a rhythm that calls to mind oral tradition (much, though not all, of it breaks nicely into iambic pentameter), and a vividness of image that adds immediacy to the ancient past. It's easy to believe that these people -- ignoble, quarrelsome, pragmatic, cruel -- were our ancestors.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

2013/26: The Alchemist of Souls -- Anne Lyle

One more thing that Walsingham would never hear from his own lips. Perhaps he should make a list, as Cecil was reputedly so fond of doing:
Item: one treasonous letter from the Spanish.
Item: one initiation into an illegal secret society.
Item: one murder of a skrayling, witness to. [p.176]
London, 1593: Kit Marlowe is dead (and warrants only a passing mention in this novel); Queen Elizabeth is mourning the death of her husband Robert Dudley; their son, Robert, is looking forward to the birth of his own second son; as ever, the clandestine business of politics and preference continues apace.

Maliverny Catlyn is the son of a diplomat, down on his luck and reduced to sharing lodgings with scrivener Ned Faulkner. Mal's twin brother, Sandy, is in Bedlam, and any money Mal makes goes to the warders there, in the hope of making his brother more comfortable. The two share a frightful secret concerning the skraylings, whose ambassador has arrived in London.

'Skraeling' is the term used in the Norse sagas to refer to the original inhabitants of Greenland, more commonly known as Inuit. In Anne Lyle's alternate history they're non-humans, fanged and blue-skinned and considerably more advanced than any European society. Mal, who has reason to avoid the skraylings, finds himself employed (for an immense wage) as bodyguard to Kiiren, the Skrayling ambassador. Little by little it becomes clear that this career opportunity is not as random as it first appears.

Meanwhile Ned Faulkner is pining after gorgeous actor Gabriel Parrish, and aggravating the third viewpoint character: Coby Hendricks, tireman to player-troupe Suffolk's Men. Coby has successfully concealed, for five years, the fact that she is actually a girl, rather than the shy youth she appears to be.

The three are drawn into a spidery, treasonous plot. There are masks (and masques) everywhere -- obvious enough in the theatre that is Coby's and Ned's livelihood, but there are plenty of deceptions in the upper echelons of society. Mal isn't the only gentleman down on his luck, nor the only one keeping a Frightful Secret concerning the skraylings ...

The Alchemist of Souls is richly detailed, with a complex layered plot and some real surprises. I liked the skraylings, and the (mundane, unexceptional) xenophobia they elicit from the English. Lyle does an excellent job at portraying a race who are not only non-human (they can't 'see' the colour red; they are fanged; they have mysterious powers) but individuated: Kiiren, the ambassador, is markedly different to other skrayling characters, and a likeable person to boot. His developing friendship with Mal is one of the highlights of the book.

The more I think about this novel, the keener I am to read the sequel, which is now out.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

2013/25: The Ocean at the End of the Lane -- Neil Gaiman

'...Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.’ [loc. 1580]
The Ocean at the end of the Lane is much darker, on reflection, than its surface suggests. Our nameless first-person narrator, returning to the place where he grew up, recalls his childhood, and his friendship with Lettie Hempstock and her 'mother' and 'grandmother'. (It's probable that the relationships here are rather more complex than the narrator's interpretation of them.) The Hempstock women mention their previous home ('the old country') in passing, but the narrator isn't able to form a coherent impression. The reader, though, might end up suspecting that they're mcuh, much older than they seem. Maiden, mother, crone? These aren't moon goddesses -- vice versa, if anything.

The plot? A hole in Forever is torn: something, uninvited, comes through: it must be banished. There is always a price to pay.

There is much more to it than that, of course. Gaiman's writing is so emotionally authentic that it's easy to slip into reading it as autobiography. ("I make art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them." [loc. 91]) This is a layered novel, the child-narrator's memories overlaid by the adult-narrator's sense of loss. Much has been forgotten -- but the realisation that he has forgotten a great deal already, more than once, is no comfort.

Part of what makes this chilling, melancholy story so effective is Gaiman's evocation of the joy and powerlessness of childhood. Children have no agency: things happen to them. Children can take pleasure in small, ephemeral things while the world around them crumbles. Children think that one day they'll be all grown up and confident and different. Adults -- at least the adults who still remember what it was really like to be a child -- know that isn't true.

"How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time..." [loc. 1948]