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

Thursday, May 26, 2016

2016/30: The Jargoon Pard -- Andre Norton

Were I to so kill — yes, that deed would be but another key to lock me inside the beast. Maughus was my enemy, a threat to me — yes. But as such he must be fronted man to man. If I drew his blood with claw and fang, I trapped myself in the wilder breed. [loc. 2639]
I first read this novel at school, and adored it (though I'm not sure I realised that it was set in the Witch World universe). Reread recently after Justina Robson mentioned it in an interview. It's aged pretty well, though I now find Norton's prose rather overblown.

Kethan grows up in an isolated keep in Arvon, not knowing his father. His mother, the Lady Heloise, is ambitious and hopes to rule through him when he reaches his majority: her constant companion is the wise woman Ursilla, and neither of them is particularly fond of or affectionate towards Kethan. Nor is anybody else -- his cousin Maughus hates and fears him, and his betrothed, Thaney, shrinks from him. It's possible that one of Ursilla's rituals, performed upon a young and ignorant Kethan, is the cause of the 'barrier' he senses between him and every other living thing.

When he's fifteen, Thaney gives Kethan a fur belt with an elaborate carved clasp featuring a snarling cat. Wearing the belt transforms him into something to hunt and be hunted. Fleeing his home, he encounters a mysterious trio who use colour magic (red for the body, yellow for the mind, green for growing things, blue for emotions etc) and seem to have their hearts in the right places. But they can't permit the shadowy forces pursuing Kethan to destroy their own sanctuary ...

The Jargoon Pard is a novel about becoming oneself, I suppose: about holding to one's principles, finding one's limits and fulfilling one's potential. And it's about family, found and otherwise. Reading it now, it feels quite slight: but reading it as a teenager, it was exciting and surprising, full of reversals and feelings and the desire to belong. Or just to run free under the moonlight. Good times.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

2016/29: Glorious Angels -- Justina Robson

The cool engineer inside her was charmed, amazed, impressed, marvelling and calculating as the animal part of her lay flat and domesticated entirely in its mortal terror. The bizarre contrast of two such simultaneous experiences was exhilarating in a way she had never experienced anything before, like joy. She felt a second of immense gratitude to a universe that could contain so much wonder and power and strangeness even as she was completely at its mercy, all her pride and her sense of independence, of mattering, stripped away [loc. 5269]

Justina Robson's latest novel is a delight: elements of fantasy and science fiction, seasoned with a steampunk aesthetic and set in a complex, cultured society which has forgotten its roots.

Tralane Huntingore is Professor of Engineering at the Glimshard Academy of Sciences, the heiress to an ancient line of infomancers who doesn't understand half of the devices she unearths in the Archives. She is also mother to two daughters: the quiet, studious Isabeau and the dark, fierce Minnabar. Tralane's friend Carlyn is sent to an archaeological dig in the south, which promises untold marvels: unfortunately it's also on the edge of Karoo territory, and the Empire is at war with the Karoo -- a mysterious and unknowable race, possibly shapechangers, probably matriarchal (like the Empire), definitely unfriendly. Can it be coincidence that a single tigerish Karoo warrior, Tzaban, is visiting Glimshard as an Honoured Guest? Does the handsome spy Zharazin Mazhd know more than he's telling about the Karoo.

Both the Golden Empire and the Karoo are matriarchal societies: the Empire is ruled by an empress who is eight people in one, the Karoo by ... well, the females are definitely in charge, though it is unclear whether 'ruling' is the correct term for what they do. ('A Karoo female when faced with a Karoo male of interesting speciation could assimilate all he was by a variety of methods; copulation, symbiosis or ingestion.' [loc. 2562]) Minnabar Huntingore reflects that, as a young, well-bred woman she has more power than most. It's not simple role-reversal; Tzaban, Zharazin and General Fadurant all wield considerable power in their roles, and in their spheres of influence.

But Glimshard is clearly a society in which there are abundant opportunities available to women, including but not limited to sexual freedom. There is quite a bit of sex in this novel, and as far as I recall it's narrated exclusively from female viewpoints. (Despite an ugly 'review' I found online, all the sex is between consenting adults.)

There is so much in this novel that I'd like to see expanded: the different bloodlines with their genetically-determined talents (Zharazin's being to assay these with a single touch); the blurring of science and magic; the decadent artistic scene of Glimshard; the artifacts found at the archaeological dig, and their significance for the way the world is (hinted at by the author in an interview); the intricacies of Karoo society ... And yet I am pleased not to have more solid descriptions of these. That is the way that worlds actually are: one can't, doesn't, pay attention to absolutely everything. And Glorious Angels has plenty to hold the attention: intriguing and likeable characters, unexpected developments, and a plot that builds to a satisfactory resolution.

Monday, May 23, 2016

2016/28: Crazy Love You -- Lisa Unger

For Fatboy, she was lover, avenger, and friend. Once upon a time she was all those things for me as well. Somehow, somewhere along the line, for me the real Priss and the one on the page had kind of morphed into one. The truth was that the more I had of her in ink, the less I wanted or needed her in life. [loc. 208]
Ian is, by his own account, a successful comics writer graphic novelist. He's achieved fame through his semi-autobiographical series 'Fatboy and Priss', about an overweight teenager and his possibly-imaginary friend Priss. Three key facts about Priss: she protects and avenges Fatboy; nobody else can see her; she's based on Ian's best friend since childhood. But while Ian lives in a loft apartment in Tribeca, the 'real' Priss prefers to inhabit a series of squats.

Then Ian meets Meghan, and falls in love. Priss is unimpressed. She's not fond of change, and -- like her fictional counterpart -- she has a temper.

Ian, whose cult status allows him to indulge a fondness for recreational pharmaceuticals. Problem is, he sometimes finds the line between truth and fantasy blurring. In some ways that's a good thing: there are some traumatic events in Ian's past, including the murder of his younger sister and his mother's madness. Letting go of his past is important if Ian's relationship with Meghan is to be a success. Sometimes, though, the past comes back to haunt the present ...

Crazy Love You didn't quite hit the mark for me, though the prose is sharp and sparky, with occasional flashes of beauty. I wasn't engaged by Ian as a character, and I began to suspect that there was something odd about Priss very early in the novel. And there are a couple of episodes where I simply wasn't convinced by Ian's actions and their effects. At times the novel felt like a fictionalised account of therapy: actually, in a sense that's what it is. That said, the story unfolds tantalisingly, and very readably.

2016/27: The Messenger of Athens -- Anne Zouroudi

'There are no gods.'
'Why so certain? Look.' He gestured towards the hillsides, and at the open sea. 'This is their terrain. They're not far away. Some say when the people stopped believing in them, they ceased to exist. But this view's still what it was when Jason built the Argo and the Minotaur was eating virgins in the labyrinth. Two thousand years, and nothing's changed; and don't think they’ve gone! Orthodoxy is just a fa├žade, a veneer. If you look around, really look' – he pointed to the centre of his forehead – 'using this eye, then you start to see. They're here. They’re watching. And interfering.'
Far inside his stomach came a shot of pain, as if a spiteful finger had found and poked at the heart of its disease. [loc. 764]

A young woman's body is found at the base of a cliff on a remote Greek island. Suicide, says the new Chief of Police indifferently: but the stranger who's just arrived from Athens, a fat man who calls himself 'Hermes Diaktoros', is determined to discover the truth. In the course of his conversations with the islanders, he discovers several unexpected truths. Every life he touches is affected by his visit.

The Messenger of Athens is a slow, leisurely novel, a gradual discovery of the facts about Irini's life and death. It's also a vivid depiction of the supposedly idyllic island life: a web of honour, deception, appearances and misogyny. Love and death, loneliness and self-imposed isolation, material and emotional poverty are displayed here. Zouroudi shows, rather than telling. One could make a case for the presence of the mythological: but nothing is definite.

Measured prose, some marvellous descriptions: but I didn't much like the novel, possibly just because the lives it described seemed so lacking in satisfaction or happiness.

2016/26: Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? -- Paul Cornell

The Sight made Greenwich into somewhere that smelt of the sea, and overwhelmed you with the knowledge of time. She could feel, in this hill, the small weight of her own years, the steady decay of everything, how short a while was left to her. From the hill she could see, above London, constellations, a web of lines actually drawn in the sky, making the stars feel trapped. As they walked higher, the feeling got more and more intense, like they were inside an enormous clock, and she knew it was about to strike the hour. It felt like the grandeur above them was locked, by this hill, into the notion of Britishness, that here was somewhere that connected the eternal to Empire. This feeling was still at play in London below, but it was complicated, worrying. Here was displayed, for all to get nervous about, one of the grand certainties that nobody felt certain of anymore. [loc. 2925]

Quill's team are variously broken by the events of The Severed Streets, and it's affecting their performance. But duty calls, and when a fictional detective is apparently murdered, Quill's lot are first in line for the investigation. They already know that London perpetuates, immortalises, particular figures who are Remembered -- a kind of ethically sourced immortality. Three different versions of Sherlock Holmes are being filmed in London: could the coincidence have brought something into the real world? And are the actors themselves -- Gilbert Flamstead who plays Sherlock Holmes in a BBC production; Alice Cassell, a female version of Holmes in an American TV series; Ben Speake, the star of a series of comedy Holmes movies -- involved: or, worse, at risk?

DS Rebecca Lofthouse, Quill's nominal boss, continues to investigate the Continuing Projects Team, who trod the same beat as Quill's team but disappeared mysteriously (how else?) a few years before the events of London Falling. Turns out, though, that Lofthouse herself is being investigated: but by whom? The unwrapping of Lofthouse's history was a high point of the novel for me: she's been a mystery until this book.

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? is full of London colour -- sometimes too full, as at the denouement where it can't quite decide if it's happening in Shoreditch or in Southwark. And the plot is truly Holmesian :) Most of the characters do end up a little happier than at the beginning of the novel, and we certainly get to know quite a bit more about the entities / deities / memories that underlay this darker London. Lots of fun allusions, and interesting and credible character development. Also features the Radisson Edwardian, and something nasty happening to a character named Lassiter who is not apparently related to the Lassiter in The Severed Streets. Lassiters beware!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

2016/25: The Severed Streets -- Paul Cornell

To be part of a city was to be a cell in a bigger animal, an animal large enough to have a conversation with the sea, which the river moderated, and the sky, which the river reflected. To be part of a city was to have an index of your mortal life right in front of you: as you got older you’d start saying you remembered when it was all different around here. [loc. 2813]

Summer in London: riots, trade fairs, a masked mob, the threat of a police strike, and a series of murders that, though reminiscent in method and affect of the C19 Ripper murders, target the 1% -- politicians, bankers and the like. Male oligarchs.

Quill's team, fresh from their initiation into the supernatural in London Falling, are uniquely qualified to address the murders, and the various other magical crimes and dodgy deals that surface during their investigations. But each member of the team has an additional agenda, no two the same. Ross wants to rescue her dad from Hell: Costain wants to cheat his fate: Sefton's trying to cement his relationship with Joe and enhance his occult knowledge, and Quill ... Quill needs some help with his enquiries.

He bumps into Neil Gaiman in a pub.

I confess I was disconcerted to encounter Mr Gaiman, and more so by his role in the novel. Yes, Neil Gaiman has form with London-based urban fantasy: but he's not the only author who has explored the darker side of London. (Hmm, I wonder if I'd have been happier with China Mieville in this role?) And the intrusion of a real person into a fictional setting felt imbalanced, adding an extra dimension that made the story itself somehow shallower.

The Severed Streets is well-paced, gruesome and often genuinely scary. The revelation of the identity and history of the 'Ripper' was satisfactory, and the sacrifices made by Quill and his team were significant and unsettling. More exploration of hidden London and its myths, makers and outer boroughs, too. And the notion of 'ostension' -- seeding an idea, giving it strength -- made a lot of sense, especially in the context of mobs and riots and the madness of crowds. Though The Severed Streets didn't appeal to me quite as much as London Falling, it's packed with interesting characters, insights and developments. And the last line's a killer.

Luckily I had the next book to hand (having only got around to reading this when Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? automagically appeared on my Kindle) ...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

2016/24: Kolymsky Heights -- Lionel Davidson

He had not moved his skis as he turned, and when he started again he kept on in the same straight line, and he also kept on counting. His paces on the skis were just about a metre, so after a thousand he had done a kilometre; the air black; the blackness now all roaring. [loc.5755]

Johnny Porter is a Gitxsan Indian, a professor of anthropology with a knack for languages and the ability to adopt a plethora of identities: as a Korean seaman he infiltrates an isolated research base in the dark and frozen waste of Siberia, and as a Lapp trucker he carries out the mission requested of him -- in code, naturally -- by a former acquaintance. It is all highly dangerous and thrilling stuff, and yet curiously disappointing. There's far too much about car mechanics: far too little about the landscape, the astonishing scientific / archaeological discovery at the heart of the story, or Porter's inner life (if indeed he has one).

I found polymath Porter an improbable protagonist -- he has no discernible flaws (or indeed personality) and I find his irresistability to women (a) sordid and (b) inexplicable. (Does he have to sleep with every female he encounters? Ludmilla excepted ...) He endures hardships which would distract anyone from their quest -- with little apparent motivation. The plot is full of reversals and twists -- Philip Pullman's introduction lauds its classic quest structure and the intelligence of the storytelling -- but somehow manages to plod. Perhaps it's Porter's imperturbability that flattens the affect. Even fleeing for his life across Siberia in winter, Davidson only mentions his 'anxiety'.

Coincidentally, a couple of days after finishing the book I found this photoessay about Siberian truck routes: On Thin Ice: Guardian, 11 May. It illustrates the landscape of the novel very well.