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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

2015/25: Slade House -- David Mitchell

"If you're smart enough to discover immortality, you're smart enough to ensure your own supply and keep very very very shtum indeed." [loc. 2125]

The door to Slade House is small and made of iron: it's down an alleyway in a nameless town -- likely Reading, from various clues -- and it isn't easy to find. (Indeed, few people know where it is, even locals who've lived in the area all their lives.) Every nine years, on the last Saturday in October, a visitor is summoned to Slade House.

In 1979, thirteen-year-old Nathan Bishop and his mother are invited to a musical soiree. They have difficulty finding the house, but after that all seems well, until Nathan notices that the garden is melting. He has just taken a Valium to suppress the more exuberant aspects of his behaviour: perhaps that would explain it?

In 1988, windowcleaner Fred Pink wakes up after being in a coma for nine years. He was the last person to see the Bishops alive, and his account reopens their case. Disagreeable DI Gordon Edmonds, who fancies himself as the new Columbo or Bergerac, arrives at Slade House to investigate.

Come 1997, a group of students from the university's Paranormal Society (organised by Fred's nephew Axel) show up for a Halloween party and a horror-movie ambience. The Slade House disappearances are notorious, and each student has a reason for attending. Sally Timms (who has a crush on Todd, another member of the group) is among their number.

2006, and Sally's journalist sister Freya is determined to discover Sally's fate. She meets up with Fred Pink in the local pub, and is spun an incredible tale of immortality and vampirism. Hard to believe ('it's all a bit Da Vinci Code'), except ...

And in 2015, conspiracy theorist 'Bombadil' and a mysterious psychiatrist (who's written a paper on the case of Fred Pink) join forces to investigate the mysteries of Slade House. (I have only just discovered, with glee, that Bombadil has a Twitter account: if I were you I would resist reading until you've finished Slade House, though it's not exactly spoilery.)

Slade House interweaves its narrative, and its characters, with Mitchell's earlier work. It's directly connected with The Bone Clocks (my review), but I also spotted references to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas and [possibly] Black Swan Green. In structure, too, it's a continuation of earlier work: the interlinked stories which resolve into a greater whole.

What I enjoyed most about this short novel was Mitchell's characterisation. Nathan, who's probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum, was a delight ("Mr Moody our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter"); Edmonds thoroughly sleazy in a very 80s way; Sally and Freya both strong and fragile in different ways; Slade House's inhabitants bright and brittle, cruel and carefree; and Iris? Iris rocks.

Monday, October 19, 2015

2015/24: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps -- Kai Ashante Wilson

A number of petty miracles lay within Demane's power. His reflexes, his strength, were rather better than even the most gifted of athletes; and his sense of sight and smell, and so on, could wax exceedingly keen at times. But the blood of TSIMtsoa ran thin in him, and it seemed he could not manage the metamorphosis into great power. Even so, provoke him enough, and the provoker would catch a glimpse -- radiant, dark -- of the stormbird.[loc. 502]

The blurb made this short novel sound like fantasy, but it's very much towards the sfnal end of that genre. Demane is an 'earthbound demigod', I suppose: or, to put it another way, he's somewhat more evolved (or engineered?) than most of the people he encounters on the road through the Wildeeps.

The plot of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is slight: Demane is engaged as 'Sorcerer' to a travelling caravan composed of wealthy merchants and the brothers who protect them from the perils of the road. The brothers speak colloquially, are strong and violent; the merchants keep themselves to themselves, speaking a different language (in which Demane is not fluent). And then there's the Captain, who Demane loves, who is a heliovore and a fearsome warrior and speaks mostly in musical tones.

Demane and the Captain are both outsiders, set apart by their heritage. Their ancestors have left Earth, abandoning them: 'the gods could only carry away Homo celestialis with them... because the angels had already learned to make their bodies light. When a magical predator (a jukiere, or wizard-cat) menaces travellers on the road through the Wildeeps -- where 'all the worlds .. touch and overlap' -- it's up to Demane and the Captain to defeat it.

So much for plot: what stands out in The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is language, from Demane's inability to express himself to anyone save the Captain, to the rich patois of the brothers, to Wilson's lush, vivid, idiosyncratic prose. At times his style reminded me of Zelazny or Wolfe: he really is that good. Plus, the relationship between Demane and the Captain is wholly credible: they love one another but they don't always understand, or agree with, or have the same beliefs as one another.

In some ways this novel is a disappointment: it's too short, it stops rather than ending (there is an ending, but it's abrupt and I don't like it: though I'm all in favour of brevity over verbosity, I feel Wilson could have written just a little more. But I am extremely keen to read more of his work.

Here's a great article on 'Language and Code Switching in Kai Ashante Wilson's The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps' -- Leah Schnelbach.