Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Crossing Midnight v1 – Cut Here

Mike Carey, Jim Fern, Mark Pennington
Vertigo (

Crossing Midnight is built from the folk tales of a culture not often explored in Western literature – the old Shinto belief system of Japan. While Japanese culture is hardly ignored by the West, particularly in the anime-loving fringes of geekdom, it’s rare to see a work of fiction by a western author attempting to explore Japan on its own merits rather than re-casting the narrative in a more western-friendly context.

Cut Here, the first of three volumes, begins elegantly. We open on its young heroes – Toshi and Kai Hara, twin brother and sister – as they await the coming of some sinister figure. Then we rewind to 1945, and the bomb which fell on Nagasaki; leap forward, to the twins’ bomb-scarred grandmother and her insistence that her son pray to the Kami for a healthy birth.

From the birth onwards the narrative progresses in a more linear fashion, but such chronological hopscotch in the first four pages of the comic rattles you, puts you on the defensive from the off. Even without the twins’ dread, you can’t help but feel there’s something out of sorts here. It’s a clever piece of writing, planting the seeds of unease without giving the reader a focus on which to project their fears – there’s only ‘him’, who is coming for Toshi. It’s clever writing, foregrounding the theme of cause and consequence which winds through Crossing Midnight; it’s also storytelling which leans heavily on the strength of the art.

Thankfully that aspect of the novel is more than adequate – the imagery is rich and distinct, painting the city in monochrome cloud and overlaying the dark, organic shape of the mushroom cloud with the unnatural lines and bright colours of the Kami’s shrine. Elsewhere in the volume, the lamp-cast shadow of a hand stretches up and curls over into the threatening form of a dragon. Such effects are beautifully scripted, and the bold colouring gives the shadows an inky menace.

The art also provides an effective sense of time and place. Flashbacks to feudal Japan and the origins of the Hara family are stylised and sketchy, perfectly accompanying the imprecision of the oral tradition through which they’re related. There’s innovation, too – watch as a dreamer in hospital is threatened by demons, which break the fourth wall to rip and crumple the comic’s framing of those idyllic dreamscapes.

If the art of Cut Here is excellent, the writing comes close to matching it. The relatively untapped well of Japanese mythology gives the story an imaginative freshness, while the narrative itself it constructed with meticulous care. All this is raised higher by a supporting cast of top-rate characters, given a depth of personality which both makes them memorable and adds to the richness of the setting. Take, for example, the blind, wizened leader of the gangsters which threaten Toshi and his father towards the end of the book; he is accompanied by the human equivalent of a seeing-eye dog, who answers his master’s cries of ‘Nicholas, describe’ with blandly-delivered commentary which nonetheless seems obscene in its penetrative clarity. Then consider the moment when Nicholas’ voice fails him, a silence which presents the reader with an unexpected flash of humanity: the sense that this, too, is a man, with all the complexity such a label brings. Cut Here seems to delight in such complexity, in the murky greys which lie between clear-cut good and evil.

If the book has a flaw, it is that there seems little effort to craft a story which stands along in its own right. While a final narration pays lip service to the idea of closure, there’s no attempt to disguise the fact that this is merely the first act of a larger story. As such, even as the dazed narrator struggles to comprehend what’s occurred over the course of the preceding pages, his fevered dreams present the reader with tantalising images of what is yet to come. And yet, for all that the narrative is only just beginning to kick into gear, there seems a certain thematic completeness to Cut Here. As the book ends Toshi and Kai are casting off the mundane world of the everyday, stepping out into an uncertain world their  parents can do – and have done – little to prepare them for. As they leave their parents behind, it’s hard not to see the twins’ embrace of the supernatural world as some kind of metaphor for growing up. Whether that’s a reading which will stand up once the story has run its course remains to be seen, but either way Cut Here is a fresh and powerful opening – one which makes me eager to return to Crossing Midnight.

This review was originally written for

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Fuller Memorandum

Charles Stross
Orbit (

In an alternative reality where fantasy and SF fiction were a little more mainstream, it’s not hard to imagine Charles Stross’ latest offering piled up on the tables of an airport WH Smith. The Fuller Memorandum is the sort of title you’d expect to find on a Frederick Forsyth novel, and the novel shares much of the fast-paced action and meticulous plotting common to the thrillers of Forsyth, Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton.

We’ve met the novel’s hero, Bob ‘this is not my real name’ Howard, before – in The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, which adhere to the spirit if not the letter of spy thriller naming conventions. And the same attitude persists throughout; despite having been cross-bred with H P Lovecraft, these novels are spy thrillers through and through. The set dressing may land them firmly in cthulhoid horror territory, but the meat of the plot and the stylistic flourishes which characterise said plot are those of a spy thriller doing its level best to keep a fantastical story from floating away. As such the Laundry, that branch of the British intelligence services which concerns itself with occult threats (and employs our Bob), is riddled not only with sorcerers and the sort of artefacts which turn strong minds to fromage frais, but also with the daily hazards more familiar to white-collar workers or civil servants: the looming threat of internal auditors; oversight by Dilbertian middle management; and the ever-watchful eye of Human Resources.

The Fuller Memorandum’s blend of everyday and eldritch horrors works, for the most part: by keeping its feet firmly grounded, the novel builds an effective contrast which highlights the otherworldly nature of its action and keeps it feeling, well, otherworldly. Walking the tightrope of the uncanny is no easy feat, though, and Stross slips from time to time.

Ostensibly written as Bob’s memoirs, The Fuller Memorandum is first-person and bears its narrator’s trademark wisecrackery on every page. The pleasure Stross takes in scribing Whedonesque witticisms is obvious, and he does it well – but horror is a fragile thing, and comes out a firm second in this clash of tones. Even though it’s clear Bob’s inability to let an opportunity pass un–joked-upon is a defence mechanism against a world which terrifies him, the novel never quite recovers from the damage done by its uneven tone. Which is unfortunate, because where The Fuller Memorandum holds to its convictions it paints a picture which is frighteningly bleak; where its happily-married heroes refuse to bring children into a world with no future but that of the book of Revelations. In Bob’s own words:
I wish I was still an atheist. Believing I was born into a harsh, uncaring cosmos – in which my existence was a random roll of the dice and I was destined to die and rot and then be gone forever – was infinitely more comforting than the truth.
Because the truth is that my God is coming back.
When he arrives I’ll be waiting for him with a shotgun.
And I’m keeping the last shell for myself.
Contrasted with the naming of a shiny new Apple phone as ‘the NecronomiPod’, or reference to Lovecraft as a ‘giant mutant gossip squid’, it’s easy to see the warring sides to The Fuller Memorandum at work. And you can’t really have it both ways.

Where Stross more successfully blends his genres is in the novel’s innovative take on magic. Taking literally Arthur C Clarke’s comment that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, The Fuller Memorandum binds the two together quite explicitly. If a spell – shorn of all its ritual paraphernalia – is an applied mathematical function designed to breach the walls between this realm and the odd, non-euclidean dimensions where other things lie sleeping, well, then, consider the fact that computers are very good at number-crunching. Most of the Laundry’s operatives are computer science graduates, snapped up by the department before they accidentally open a gateway to the nether hells during an attempt to recreate Pac-Man in ActionScript 3. Stross’ own background in computer science stands him in good stead, here – the details of Bob’s computational demonology have the ring of authenticity, and the rapid-fire deployment of arcane and technological jargon builds a healthy sense of urgency. Bob’s narration gives the impression of a man trying to convince himself, as much as his reader, that whatever hastily calculated sorcery he’s just knocked up on his smartphone really will keep life, limb and sanity intact. And there’s some great juxtapositional humour, as the sort of minor technological and bureaucratic annoyances we deal with every day in our wired world have repercussions far beyond the everyday: here’s Bob roundly cursing the iPhone’s battery life as it dies halfway through a protective  invocation; there’s the departmental auditors scrupulously tracking paper-clip useage because the things tend to pick up a sympathetic resonance of the classified documents they hold together.

Characterisation is strong, too; Bob’s everyman desperation makes him a richly sympathetic protagonist, and his wife Mo is a capable foil. (More than capable, in fact; one of the more memorable images of The Fuller Memorandum is of Mo relating the traumatising details of an earlier mission where she quite literally wades into the mouth of hell). She also plays the spy better than Bob, whose internal monologue reveals him to be more Clouseau than le Carre. Bob’s boss Angleton, on the other hand, could have stepped straight out of Smiley’s People – he’s a spy of the (very) old school, where backroom deals in gentlemen’s clubs were the order of the day. And the shady Russian , Panin, who seems to be playing a game all of his own as the Laundry struggle with cultists and conspiracies, is of a similarly traditional ilk. Stock thriller characters they may appear, but there’s an economically sketched humanity  to each which gives them room to evolve beyond the stereotype.

While the mix of horror, humour and intrigue might not succeed on all levels, then, there’s a generous enough helping of the latter two ingredients that the weakness of the horror doesn’t cripple The Fuller Memorandum. Stross has scribed an effective, page-turning thriller, with enough wit to elevate it above the usual airport fare. The well-realised setting and depth of characterisation are only gilding the Lovecraftian lily.

This review was originally written for

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Sixty-One Nails

Mike Shevdon
Angry Robot (

However you spell them, there are essentially two types of fairy. There are the fey, the fair folk, the seelie or sidhe: unpredictable, alien things from the nastier side of mythology, counting goblins and malevolent tricksters among their number. Then there are the fairy fairies: creatures with butterfly wings and names likes Peaseblossom (I'm looking at you, Bill Shakespeare), flighty and sweet-natured and with the edge taken off their whimsy. If their games cause problems for humankind, it's usually through no real ill-will but simply down to misunderstanding.

Sixty-One Nails so desperately wants its 'feyre' to belong to the former category, but the novel just doesn't have the stomach for it. To start, it persists in referring to its inhabitants by that absurd mangling of a word for which there are already a dozen more legitimate derivations, an idiot neologism I can't help but think of as being pronounced 'fair'. Far more importantly than my phonetic pedantry, Shevdon's fairies simply lack any real sense of menace, of alien other-hood; they're humans dressed up in funny costumes, and their customs and culture are a predictably derivative mix of stock mythological and tribal ingredients.

Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, which is mentioned no fewer than three times on the cover of Sixty-One Nails and which this novel apes with an unwholesome desperation, builds a surreal and symbolically rich otherworld beneath London, pieced together from the scraps and discarded metaphors of the society it hides behind. Sixty-One Nails, on the other hand, seems on occasion to forget which city it's based in; this could be New York, or Paris, or any other major western metropolis, for all the attention which is paid to evoking an authentic sense of place. Shevdon has done his research when it comes to the novel's interpretation of history, and the logic behind the titular ritual binding human and 'feyre' worlds together is cleverly constructed, but much of the time it seems like the London within these pages could actually be a small rural settlement or commuter town rather than a bustling capital teeming with countless millions of souls (and at least twice that many actual people, to plagiarise Terry Pratchett). The characters drift from scene to scene and location to location with no real sense of the intervening space, or the practicalities of city life. At one point the hero escapes from police pursuit -- including helicopter, no less -- by getting a taxi to Heathrow. His journey is smooth, unbarred by traffic, and the police are swiftly left far behind.

If this is London, I wish I lived there.

The problem, I think, is that Shevdon tries too hard to emphasise the other-ness of the new world his hero Niall has fallen into. Police, taxis, and the ticket barriers on the tube are all hazards of the real world, the real London; Niall is of the (through gritted teeth) 'feyre' now, and such mundane concerns are no longer really his concern. What Shevdon seems to have overlooked is that by consigning the banality of the everyday to the novel's outskirts, he hasn't strengthened the mystical setting he's trying to evoke but has rather reduced it. Magic seems all the more magical in a world of inconvenient traffic jams and stubborn security guards; being able to hand-wave your way past all worldly barriers somehow cheapens the experience.

I suppose having rambled and ranted for four paragraphs already, it'd be good form to provide some kind of plot synopsis so you can get some sense of the narrative geography I'm complaining about. Niall Petersen is a middle-aged businessman, divorced, one child, hurrying to navigate the labyrinth of the London tube in order to get to work, when he unfortunately catches a heart attack and dies. When he wakes up, and wake he must or this would be a very short novel and an even shorter review, a funny old woman is kneeling over him and tells him he has finally come into his birthright -- he is of the 'feyre' (sigh), six Courts of halfbreed fairies who live in the hidden spaces of London and fear the return of the 'Untainted' Seventh Court, who refused to dilute their purity with the blood of humanity and were sealed away from the world to keep them from devouring it in a fir of pique and racial bigotry. Occasionally one of the Untainted slips through the barrier, and attempts to possess a living body in order to hunt down its impure cousins. That wasn't just a heart attack, Niall's saviour tells him, and it has the scent of him now...

Of course there's more at stake than Niall's mere survival, and of course he'll become embroiled in a desperate race to keep the barrier from falling and the world from being eaten by hungry fairies, and of course Niall will discover his nifty magical powers during the course of his quest. Not just regular magic, either; apparently finding out you're one of the fair folk isn't fantastical enough, and Niall's bloodline is unique this side of the barrier, giving him powers no other 'feyre' possesses. This is verging uncomfortably close to the sort of authorial-insertion wish fulfillment which gives fantasy fiction a bad name -- all there need be now is a gratuitous sex scene with an impossibly attractive fairy woman who seems implausibly attracted to a man who seems to possess all the wit and personality of a baked potato...

Blackbird, the shape-changing, not-necessarily-as-old-as-she-looks lady who rescued Niall from possession, is about as close as Sixty-One Nails comes to effective characterisation. While she does bear the brunt of providing most of the expository dialogue to her hapless companion, and her motivation for continuing to accompany him can be most readily summed up as 'it says so in the script', she nonetheless manages on occasion to overcome these weighty impediments and show a glimpse of personality. On those rare occasions she isn't fulfilling vital narrative duties, a flash of something surprisingly complex shows through. It's just a shame Shevdon didn't let her follow these flashes of individuality through to their logical conclusion, but instead rides iron-shod over the top of them whenever he needs the plot to move along a little bit.
Aside from Blackbird, it's all but deserted on planet personality. Niall himself is a blank slate, all the better for readers to self-insert atop; he shows a streak of gutlessness near the beginning of the novel which is almost admirable in a protagonist, but before too long he's blasting monsters with gay abandon (and gallowfyre, apparently). As for the supporting characters, they're far between and few in number, with a tendency to have their narrative function branded on their forehead in fox-fire neon. The female villain has a pantomime malevolence to her, as if compensating for the lack of a mustache to twirl, while her brother is all Victorian formality and about as threatening as an embroidered pocket-square.

It's mostly down to him that the novel's climatic face-off is so appallingly free of any kind of suspense. As when watching a James Bond film, it's a safe assumption when reading this kind of book that the protagonist can overcome any challenge where he isn't actively opposed by the primary villain; with that trope in mind, a formal trial by water where all other parties are honour-bound not to interfere (and, critically, are the sort which keep their word) is as close to a foregone conclusion as it's possible to get.

More emotionally engaging than the novel's main narrative is its romantic sub-plot, if only due to the aforementioned ease of self-insertion in place of Captain Cardboard and the relative attractiveness of the only character in the book with more than a single dimension. Which is where Sixty-One Nails' rather uncomfortable sexual politics kicks in. Blackbird's overwhelming dominance in the relationship might seem a victory for feminism, in a genre with a reputation for sexual inequality which was earned in post-war pulp and unfairly maintained despite the last twenty years'-worth of feminist and post-feminist writers strewing their fantasy with strong female characters. But the 'feyre' are dying out, their numbers dwindling. A child is a rare thing, and Niall? He has a daughter by his ex-wife, thereby proving himself fertile. Suddenly Blackbird's attraction to the lumpen fool starts to make makes an unpleasant kind of sense, given that she's several hundred years old and has never had a child of her own. In the morning after there's a long and painfully conservative conversation about the possibility that Blackbird is now pregnant, and what do you know...?

What I know is that the pregnancy -- all 24 hours of it -- is enough to render Blackbird weak and ineffectual as it saps her magic powers. This assertion of inherent female weakness, and of the concept that the primary drive of even the strongest woman is procreation, sits uneasily on the page. Perhaps I'm judging Sixty-One Nails unfairly -- despite her incapacity Blackbird does find the strength to strike out at a key moment, again saving Niall's life -- but it's a reading reinforced by the presentation of the female villain as yet another unstable, unreliable madwoman who ought to be kept in the attic. And in the aftermath of the novel's climax, the villain's brother -- the Victorian gentleman with the overdeveloped sense of propriety -- resembles no one so much as Jane Eyre's Richard Mason.

Even leaving the possibility of sexual conservatism aside, Sixty-One Nails has the usual problems you might expect from a debut novel. Its pacing is glacial, and it struggles to maintain any real sense of urgency or menace even in those scenes you might expect to be urgent slash menacing. A firmer hand on the editorial rudder could have trimmed some of the fat from a novel spilling over its five-hundred page waistband; there are scenes which seem to serve no purpose besides letting you know time has passed, which could have easily have been summed up by a single line of summary prose. 'Show don't tell' might be the party line first-time novelists do their best to toe, but as with all things it's a case of exercising moderation. Judicial summary has its place, and its place is vacant in Sixty-One Nails.

This review was originally written for

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


David Barnett
Immanion Press (www.immanion-press .com)

Eastern Europe seems to be a popular destination for awakening amnesiacs, these days. I’ve complained about novelists’ fondness for mindwiped protagonists fairly recently on this site, so I won’t do it again – other than to express a hope that I’ve filled my tabula rasa quotient for the coming decade.

This time, in this novel, our nameless hero wakes up in modern-day Prague – nice place to find yourself, not that he’d know – and falls in with a close-knit gang of environmentally active ex-pats. Then he wakes up again – or someone very much like him does – in a medieval Prague ruled over by the eccentric Rudolph II, head of the Holy Roman Empire and enthusiast of the scientific and supernatural arts. In the silver city where angels drift, meanwhile, one of their number is dabbling in affairs denied to him by heavenly law…

In both past and present Prague, David Barnett’s hero falls swiftly and with improbably good fortune under the protective wing of benevolent strangers. This might seem clumsy contrivance on the author’s part, taken at face value, but the mirroring of one time with another makes it quickly apparent that there’s something out of the ordinary at work here. He’s christened Poutnik by new-found friends in both times: wanderer, it means, or pilgrim. And there is something of Bunyan’s Pilgrim about this foundling, an innocence to his passage through the world. In medieval and modern times he finds himself caught up in events of great significance, accompanying eco-warrior flatmates as they make plans to protest a huge oil symposium, and adopted by mad Rudolph as an augur of truth while vested interests in the royal court push and pull the emperor in all directions.

Yet for all the turbulence around him, Poutnik seems to remain undisturbed. Such a passive protagonist – always watching, rarely speaking except when spoken to – is a substantial hurdle to reader engagement. There’s nothing in there to sympathise with, no real thoughts and feelings beyond those reflected in his polished surface – emotions drawn from his surroundings, not from any core of being. And that, again, is clearly a conscious choice on Barnett’s part, as it can be no accident Rudolph names his new pet the ‘Mirror of Prague’.

Instead Barnett’s supporting characters are made to do all the heavy lifting, driving the plot along and pulling the observers – Poutnik and reader both – along in their wake. This is effective in the modern world, where the inhabitants of the ‘Prague House’ are deftly painted with an economy of stroke which balances pace and personality. In Rudolph’s capital, meanwhile, the characterisation is more hurried and less plausible, as factions and their pawns scuttle on and off the stage with much fanfare and little overall effect. The result is a sense of watching a period performance, rather than some living, breathing world; scratch the surface, the reader feels, and you’ll find canvas and papier mache underneath.

The one area in which the old-world Prague breaks this tendency towards the superficial is in Barnett’s description of the Jewish ghetto. There’s a sense of appalling squalor and pointless persecution to the circumstances of Angelglass’ Jews, which goes no small way towards a realist depiction of the anti-semitism so prevalent in historic Europe and provides some of the novel’s most emotionally powerful scenes. Indeed, the tribalism and endemic racism of the period are likewise effectively conveyed, and Barnett does well to avoid painting a sanitised or romantic version of European culture.

This realism is undermined, however, by the appearance of real magic; near-indestructible mercenaries and Rabbi Loeb’s Golem rise to threaten both the city itself and the internal logic of the book in which it rests. If this is a world where magic exists – or existed, in the past – so overtly, why is nobody in Barnett’s present-day Prague aware of it? To point to legend as an adequate alibi for such explicit supernatural events seems to give little credit to humanity’s tendency towards relentless dissection of its own history.

In the modern world, the housemates are instead more preoccupied with their forthcoming protests and the secrets among their fellow environmentalists. Some are more fanatical than others, and two absent figures cast long shadows over the Prague House – local ringleader John, and legendary super-activist Deva. Barnett builds an effective sense of dread as the oil symposium draws ever closer, and his characters swap stories of both men which only add to the reader’s certainty that whatever happens, this is not going to end well…

When the climax comes, though, it’s a rushed affair which manages to dispel all that carefully hoarded suspense with the clumsy equivalent of a Poirot parlour scene or James Bond villainous monologue. Everyone stands around listening to the one with the gun (or historical equivalent) talk at endless length; accusations and insults are traded; there’s some quick double- and triple-crossing; violence inevitably ensues. Through this all Poutnik effectively sits quiet and ineffective, ever the observer – although in historic Prague he at least gives the impression of giving a damn. As the cutting between the two time periods becomes quicker and more abrupt – a narrative device for building energy which is rather clumsily employed here – the impression you get most is that Barnett was coming up too fast on some self-imposed page limit and decided to cut the novel short in the most expedient manner possible.

The novel’s dénouement goes some way to explaining – or at least attempting to justify – this sudden explosion of incident, but to the reader it feels like too little too late. These closing revelations could possibly be enough for some, casting all that well-laid foreshadowing in a different light as what appeared to be one thing is revealed as something else – but I at least found myself thinking ‘That’s the big surprise? Seriously?’
In the end, Angelglass is a moderately well-handled display of sound and fury, but when the lights come up they reveal only a hollow, posturing shell where the story should be. There’s no doubt David Barnett’s got some talent as a stylist, but next time he might want to spend a little more effort on the plot.

This review was originally written for

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Company

K. J. Parker
Orbit (

The inside of K. J. Parker’s head must be a lovely place, filled with sweetness, warmth and fuzzy bunnies. I assume as such, because it seems that any bad thought which might arise there is swiftly plucked out and pinned to the page, where it lays down dark and wizened roots which suck all the goodness out of its surroundings. So it is we’ve been presented with such bleak horrors as a man who constructs a bow from the bones and tendons of his nephew, a wanderer who brings plague following in his wake, and an engineer who designs a war to depopulate entire continents for the sole purpose of being reunited with his wife and child.

So when I say that The Company is Parker’s bleakest and most horrific work yet, you know I’m not messing about. It may also be her greatest, but there’s no doubt at all that it’s her most inaccessible. Part of what sets it apart is that for the first time Parker’s focus is not solely on a single character, but on the five surviving men of A company, living legends who survived not only because of their lethal competence but because, it sometimes seems, they simply don’t know how to die.

But they don’t know how to live, either; the back-cover subtitle of The Company reads ‘the war is never over’, and for these men there is no greater truth. Their attitude pervades the entire book, as every encounter, every scene is couched in military terminology and the metaphors of the battlefield - no matter how ill-fitting, or inappropriate, or banal.
‘After the visitor had left, she asked him, “Who was that?”
Inevitably. He marshalled his face and mustered his words. “Old army friend of mine,” he said, picking up an empty cup and taking it over to the washstand. It was a valiant effort but tactically unsound; he never washed up dirty crockery.’
Parker’s great strength as a writer has always been the way in which she layers metaphor over her plots, blending form and function with a singularity of purpose which makes her novels almost transcendental, and again she shows herself a master of the unorthodox point of view. Yet in The Company the multiplicity of protagonists blur and blend into one in a way which reduces them to components of the greater whole, curiously interchangeable. Is it Aidi or Alces who ran a fencing school after the war, Muri or Kudei who ended up working in the tannery among the filth and stench? Is that the point – that these men whose only achievement is destruction are somehow one? That all they are is weapons, stamped out on the production line? Only Kunessin, who first proposes that the group abandon their hollow post-war existences and colonise an uninhabited island somewhere off the coast, truly stands out to any extent – and that only because we are invited early on to share his secrets, to become complicit in the systematic betrayal of his fellow veterans.

Normally such blurred characterisation would make it difficult to identify with and sympathise with a novel’s characters, but that isn’t a problem here – I suspect because it’s not intended we should sympathise with them at all. Parker has always taken her reader deep inside the heads of her characters, but it’s a one-sided sort of focalisation in which only the grubbier kind of insights float to the surface. There is no happiness, no empathy, none of the pleasure that comes of a job well done. Only misunderstanding and incomprehension, stripping the leaves from the trees and the colour from the sky and earth. Parker’s world is a cold, grey, dead one, where trust and human kindness are alien concepts. The lyrical abstractions with which she paints her scene prevent the reader from forming a firm image of the world, just as it keeps the reader from forming a firm image of the characters which inhabit it. This deeply stylised form holds the reader at a distance from the world inside the novel, but that sometimes seems to be the very point. By painting in abstract Parker forces the reader’s imagination into active engagement with the novel out of sheer desperation, and the world we build in our heads is as much ours as it is hers – making us, again, wholly complicit in its brutality. Barthes would have been thrilled to see the wall between reader and author so eroded.

Yet there’s a grim humour to Parker’s writing, and the way even the most competent of characters seem to never set foot inside their comfort zone but instead go through life in a state of mild confusion might even have been endearing if it weren’t for the novel’s uncompromising nihilism. They aren’t bad people, as such, but the damage they inflict on one another through sheer lack of empathy is horrific. Again, the critical point is that those point-of-view characters who do show themselves competent are never shared with us while they do so – they are only looked upon by others, and by association by the reader, as if looking at alien and unknowable gods. Yet when the point of view switches to that character and he looks upon the previous focal point with the same unease at their effortless competence, the logic is inescapable: nobody knows anything. Skill, intelligence, wit: all are meaningless in the face of a hostile universe.

The flawed assumption that someone, somewhere must know what’s going on is a theme The Company shares with that other great novel of wartime anarchy, Catch-22. But where Joseph Heller approaches his subject in prose dancing lightly through a hail of absurdities, Parker is hauling her wounded theme through the cloying mud of no-man’s land. Shit happens, and traditional concepts of narrative would tell us it has to happen for a reason – we need to complete the circle, feel a sense of closure. But sometimes shit just… happens. There’s no hope, no sense of justice or closure. Postmodern it may be, but the utter pointlessness of The Company’s violence seems as close as art’s ever likely to get to holding a mirror up to life. That war is hell is the oldest cliché of military fiction, but that doesn’t rob it of its truth – and in The Company it’s a hell which will last for ever and ever, world without end, amen. Don’t expect to come up smiling; be thankful if you come up at all.

This review was originally written for

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Ninth Circle

Alex Bell
Gollancz (

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man wakes up in an apartment in a pool of his own blood, with no memory of his life before that moment. He has to piece together his existence from clues around the house, from the cryptic hints of new (or are they old?) acquaintances who might not be what they seem, and from mysterious letters posted beneath his door which suggest his past may hold secrets so dark he’d rather not remember them…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man wakes up with no memory of his life before. The only hint as to his identity, to his past, is an incoherent book review smeared onto the wall in blood. No More Amnesiac Protagonists!!, it reads, over and over again…

Stop me… or rather, stop publishers. The preponderance of books feeding off the same old premise isn’t Alex Bell’s fault, although she could possibly have considered taking up residence in a slightly less crowded literary niche. Cliché it may be, but the amnesiac protagonist needn’t be the death of a well-written novel.

Unfortunately, The Ninth Circle isn’t a particularly well-written novel. There’s a certain energy to its prose, but it suffers from many of the same flaws that have plagued other debut novels. Bell keeps things rattling on at some pace, thanks mostly to a stream-of-consciousness narration which never lets the book become bogged down in detail. But this isn’t stream of consciousness like Virginia Woolf employs, with meaning layered into the broken thoughts and half-completed imagery which the human mind throws up; it’s more like a running commentary for the hard of thinking, wherein every event or emotional cue is accompanied by high-energy explication of exactly what’s going on inside the narrator’s head. There’s no opportunity for interpretation of the depths of meaning here, because there are no depths – it’s all dragged straight to the surface in a frenzy of italicised overemphasis.

The reason behind this onslaught of angst is that Gabriel Antaeus, its narrator and the recipient of that unfortunate lack of backstory, makes up for his existential uncertainty with a hysterical mania which really begins to grate after a hundred pages or so. He’s like an idiot child, filled with a driving need to understand everything right now and lacking the emotional filters which most adults develop as a way of keeping the world at arms’ length. In a way this makes sense, considering his memory loss as a kind of rebirth, and there is a touching innocence to the way he latches desperately onto every snatch of human contact or hint of his past. There’s a running ‘fish food’ joke through the first quarter of the novel which is at once funny and pathetically exemplary of his tendency to make staggeringly unsubstantiated assumptions and cling to them no matter what. But it’s a trait which endures throughout the entire novel, even after the inevitable revelation of Gabriel’s past, and there’s only so much sympathy one can sustain for a protagonist who is clearly, inescapably moronic. Gabriel persists in seeing the world in terms of clear-cut absolutes, despite the regularity with which Alex Bell goes out of her way to paint it in shades of grey. Touches of irony encouraging the reader to laugh at Gabriel’s sheer wrongheadedness do provide some respite from his parade of idiocies, but it’s an irony so heavily telegraphed as to suggest Bell lacks faith in her reader’s intelligence:
‘Besides, I’m okay on my own. I’m certainly not one of those people who are for ever needing others to boost their sense of self-worth. For ever needing to be surrounded by friends and loved ones to tell them how wonderful they are all the time. That would be pathetic.’ (p.33)

While its narrator remains The Ninth Circle’s biggest flaw, there are a number of other problems which plague it. The voluminous superficiality of Gabriel’s emotional outpourings leaks into other areas, and Bell’s description often veers into the overwritten. Her sense of action, meanwhile, is somewhat lacking – a battle between angelic and demonic forces in the sky over Budapest should be an action highlight, but has so little impact that you barely remember it’s going on. Long, complex descriptive sentences do a poor job of conveying movement or intensity. Having the supernatural combatants take to the air, meanwhile, seems transparently contrived in order to move the action out of the foreground and save Bell from having to juggle it with other events.

Not that the reader is given much incentive to become particularly invested in those goings on, nor in the characters whose ons are going. When they’re not suffering the absurd compulsion to shout their current emotional state from the rooftops, Bell’s characters all too often throw out painfully self-conscious Tarantino-esque pop culture references, regardless of whether it’s appropriate to the moment, the character or the novel as a whole. What seems like it’s intended to make The Ninth Circle seem cool and hip and down with the kids instead come across as trying too hard.
“It’s because I don’t have a costume, isn’t it?” I wept. “You can’t be a real superhero without the spandex suit and the mask and the fucking cape!” …
“You mustn’t do that, you know. After all, superheroes only ever fought super-villains, not angels.”
Hearing a demon nitpick like the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy does somewhat squash any sense of drama, and doesn’t exactly help stabilise a novel so uneven in tone it’s practically capsized. Bell’s writing lacks the requisite wit to pull this off, and to add insult to inanity her aping of superior stylists also makes The Ninth Circle’s dialogue rather generic. Any sense of individuality is sacrificed on the altar of the achingly cool, smeared across multiple speakers with a broad-headed brush until you can only tell them apart by their nametags.

I haven’t really talked about the actual plot yet, you’ll notice. Mostly this is because the nature of the amnesiac protagonist makes it rather hard to talk about anything without giving too much away. It’s not awful, but there’s nothing there you haven’t seen before – no surprises, and not much in the way of original thought. This sort of book requires a light touch in foreshadowing its revelations, and what foreshadowing The Ninth Circle displays is either as subtle as a choir of  sign-waving angels or so abstruse as to foreshadow anything from to the Second Coming to the title of Dan Brown’s inevitable next moneyspinner.

‘Neil Gaiman meets the Bourne Identity’, The Ninth Circle’s back-cover blurb tells me, but that’s doing a disservice to them both. A reference to the Bourne series in particular is the kind of cultural shorthand which seems at both staggeringly lazy and somewhat spoileriffic, in the same way that mentioning ‘Fight Club’ alerts you to the probability of imaginary friends. And The Ninth Circle does seem to be the sort of cynically calculated novel which always tends to come in the wake of awakening public perception, riding the coattails of one or another runaway success. It’s the X-Factor of fantasy fiction, more interested in marketing than the quality of the product. Even the back of my reviewer’s copy notes Alex Bell as ‘massively promotable’ and ‘sure to gain extensive publicity coverage’, as if writing the words can make them true. Self-fulfilling prophecies don’t just self-fulfil, after all - you have to work at them. And Gollancz’s marketing department would probably be better off investing their hard work in something a little more assured.

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Monday, 1 March 2010


Lauren Beukes
Angry Robot Books

2018, in some unnamed South African city. Not that you’d know it was South Africa; apart from the occasional African flavour to the name of a character or location, everything in 'Moxyland' is so homogenised that this could be London, or Singapore, or Chicago. Everyone speaks the same, too – blending casual technobabble with casual profanity and teenage skaz, as they talk their way around the bleeding edge of popular culture and anti-establishment politics in a city where the former is trying too hard to shock and the latter is dangerous indeed. This is what the world looks like, once the internet has smeared any kind of cultural identity across all corners of the world and technology has infiltrated our lives to such an extent that to separate oneself from it is to separate oneself from society. Advertising is omnipresent, and intrusive on a level far beyond the webpage pop-ups and data-mined Facebook ads which niggle us today. Giant corporations exist on a separate plane from ’civilians’, their employees treated as a cut above the masses, while corporate executives hold complete control over every aspect of their workers’ lives – the feudal lords of a new world.

The most unsettling thing about 'Moxyland' is that this is a world clearly recognisable as a descendant of our own, the near-future setting making every erosion of civil liberties or cultural landslide all the more shocking for their proximity to events we read about in the news. This is a novel of horror and social realism as much as science fiction, taking the familiar and showing how easily it could turn on us. Our modern world is one in a state of tremendous flux, as the exponential curve of technological development clashes again and again with a social system no longer able to cope with it and too slow to adapt. 'Moxyland' is one way the world could develop, one frightening in its imminent possibility. Technology is integral here – your phone is housekey, communicator and bank card all rolled into one, and disconnection is a penalty more crippling than any physical punishment or prison sentence. The more centralised and automated the systems which govern your day to day life, the easier it is to control; 'Moxyland' is an examination of what happens when society forges its own chains, examining the balance between the technology of convenience and the surrender of freedom.

It’s also a chilling, effectively written novel. Its protagonists are an unlikeable group, for the most part: a self-centred celebrity wannabe, a short-tempered anarchist, a naïve artist who’s sold out, and a ruthless security programmer on the corporate fast track. They might not generate much early sympathy with the reader, and the slow burn of plot development can make the novel difficult to get into. The depth and pace of the society Lauren Beukes’ characters inhabit, however, and the sheer intricacy of the world she has built, are enough to pull you in. This is a place where corporate advertising departments put their brand – quite literally – on up-and-coming athletes, musicians and artists; where the fluffy, cartoon aesthetics of online gaming for the pre-teens does nothing to disguise the violence of the behaviour they propagate; where advertising hoardings squat unassailable in a sea of viciously intelligent barbed-wire; and the publicity-starved broadcast every moment of their lives on the internet in a hope of getting that one big break. In this teeming, dynamic city - so like the world we know, but yet so alien – subtle, back-seat character building lets those characters slide quietly under your skin. You might not like them, but by the time the novel builds to its climax you’ll certainly care what happens to them.

And 'Moxyland' isn’t a novel which lets its characters off light. Actions have repercussions, good guys don’t always win, and there are no easy answers. This uncertainty builds real tension as the novel progresses towards its climax, as the various strands of reality weave around each other and the relentless minimalism of Beukes’ style evokes an oppressive atmosphere to match that hanging over the city – a tension leading to an utterly terrifying scene in which the police deploy biological weapons as a crowd-control measure.

Worse than the moment when electric-shock devices built into the protesters’ phones are activated, worse than seeing the faceless riot police turn as one and march away, is the sugar-sweet recorded announcement as bio-agents fill the air, listing the progression of symptoms with merciless compassion and ending with the following:
‘South African Police Services strongly advises citizens exposed to the M7N1 Marburg variation for their protection to report to an immunity centre immediately. Should you be too weak to report to an immunity centre, please call the South African Police Services and we will dispatch a mobile service to collect you. Again, this service is free, provided in the interests of public health and safety. The South African Police Services are dedicated to serve. How can we help you?’ (p.219)
The disbelief of the protesters – and those simply caught in the wrong place and time – is something shared by the reader. Surely no government, no matter how divorced from its citizens, could travel so far down that path? But humanity has willingly placed the tools of fascism in the hands of those with the motive and the will to use them, men and women who care only for power - as one says, ‘any action is justified in a state under terrorist threat.’ (p.293). It doesn’t take much effort to recognise the parallels with recent history, or even with current affairs – the uncomfortable question Moxyland raises is whether it’s truly terrorist to oppose a system which no longer recognises the rights of its individual citizens. There is a line between terrorist and freedom fighter, that much is clear – but when does it get drawn, and who gets to do the drawing?

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Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Automatic Detective

A. Lee Martinez
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1834-3

Imagine you were a seven-hundred pound engine of destruction, built to enforce your master’s diabolical will and bring the world to its knees. If you developed a conscience, some essential spark of free will which led you to break free of evil henchrobot-hood, what would you do with it?

Mack Megaton drives a taxi. At least to start with, that is; destiny seems to have other plans, and events seem to be conspiring to fit him for an existential niche roughly the shape of Sam Spade. Before too long he’s snappily dressed in trenchcoat and fedora, searching for the lowlife who abducted his neighbours, and getting caught up in circumstances far above his pay grade. From the dazzling heights of Proton Towers to the radioactive depths of Venom Park, he’ll leave no cliché soft-boiled…

Everything about ‘The Automatic Detective’ is as familiar as well-worn shoes, from the tropes of Chandler-esque PI fiction to the setting itself. Mack lives in one of those Cities of the Future! (exclamation mark compulsory) we’ve seen on the covers of pulp SF magazines since the thirties, where flying cars zip through the street-space and robots mix with mutants, psychics and talking gorillas. Mad science isn’t just a hobby in Empire City, it’s a way of life. The Learned Council runs the place in their own special way, apparently by inventing every last lunatic technology that sparks their imagination and then dumping it on the streets when the next mad concept leaps to mind. As Mack himself says, when faced with one of their experimental vehicles blocking traffic:
‘Nothing got perfected in Empire before it was replaced by something better. The Big Brains loved science for science’s sake.’ (p.25)

Unfortunately, considering ‘The Automatic Detective’s aspirations to noir, A. Lee Martinez must have only got halfway through The Big Sleep, and skim-read over the best bits. This isn’t hardboiled so much as half-baked, aping the forms Chandler and Hammett made famous but failing to really understand what makes good noir tick. It’s not enough just to dress your protagonist up in pinstripes and hat; he has to walk the walk and talk the talk, too. Mack Megaton doesn’t have much of a talent for snappy dialogue, nor much of a taste for the bottle or a sleazy dame. Neither are much use to him, after all.

The lack of a femme fatale in particular damages ‘The Automatic Detective’s noir credentials; while the novel does have one strong female role, it’s not giving anything away to point out the tragic waste of a good opportunity in Lucia Napier. But much like Mack, she only looks the part. Instead she seems to fulfil that irritating narrative function labelled ‘deus ex machina’, i.e. to bail the protagonist out of trouble or provide whatever techno-whatsit he needs to overcome the problem of the moment.

But even more fatal a flaw is Mack’s sheer indestructibility, swiftly killing any sense of suspense before it can get up to speed. For all he might play the hard man, the appeal of any good hardboiled hero is in his fragility – both physical and emotional. Mack takes a knock or two, but by the climax of the novel he’s carving a swathe through the villains with an easy nonchalance that even an eighties action hero would envy.

As for the emotional side, Martinez deserves a little more credit here. Mack’s first-person narrative is detached, machine-like, with only little sparks of warmth – it’s an effective portrayal of how a robot on the cusp of true sapience might view his world, but it leaves the reader standing on the outside looking in. And the deeply formal language in which Mack describes his encounters with various science thugs can make even the most desperate situation seem tame, even ludicrous:
‘No matter how the variables shifted, my difference engine put the odds of escape at 0 percent in the current situation.’ (p.194)

For all that it damages ‘The Automatic Detective’ as a novel, the style of Mack’s narration does make for an interesting character study; those flashes of warmth, of humanity amidst the unfeeling drone, gives Mack a personality not unlike that of a child, learning to understand the world and how to respond to its complexities. The occasional chilling reversion to ‘engine of destruction’ amorality, meanwhile, does much to paint a picture of a character struggling to overcome the worst demons of his own nature:
‘Napier was right. I didn’t have mercy. Not that I wanted to hurt Ringo. His bones snapped too easily to give me much satisfaction.’ (p.119)
This nature/nature war going on inside its protagonist provides the novel with an interest the narrative itself seems to lack, and shows a level of thoughtfulness usually lacking in pulp.

While ‘The Automatic Detective’ isn’t much of a noir detective story, it might have been forgiven had Martinez dazzled his reader with science! (there’s that exclamation mark again) and wonder. But Empire City has none of the presence and evocative sense of place a novel like this needs; it’s a crayon sketch of a city, superficially effective until you get up close. Then you start to see the white bits in between the hypercolour whizz, and the bits where they’ve scrawled over the line. There’s no sense of how it all fits together, how it functions. Like the endlessly repeating backdrop in a scrolling cartoon chase sequence, Empire City doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Terry Pratchett said that an author ‘had to start out by wondering how the fresh water got in and the sewage got out’ (The Discworld Companion, p.475), and it’s advice A. Lee Martinez might want to take under advisement.

‘The Automatic Detective’ seems to be aiming to blend pulp detective and pulp sci-fi, but ends up doing a fairly half-arsed job of both. It’s a pleasant read, diverting enough and undemanding despite some unexpected depth to its protagonist. But if Mack Megaton’s still looming large in the back alleys of your brain a week after you’re done reading, I’ll eat my fedora.

This review was originally written for

Saturday, 2 January 2010


Adam Roberts

This is an odd one. Adam Roberts’ Swiftly announces itself as a 280-year-delayed sequel to Gulliver’s Travels, that immortal satire which aims its scattershot wit at every aspect of human society from academic hubris to the absurdities of economic inequality. It seems reasonable therefore to expect a similar brand of overt satire from Roberts, but while Swiftly has a lot to say, it unfortunately forgets to keep its reader entertained.

Set a hundred and twenty years after Gulliver’s last journey, Swiftly posits a world where the great European powers have done precisely what they did so well, when presented with an alien culture: moved in and exploited its resources for everything they’re worth. Tiny Lilliputian and Blefuscan slaves produce fine embroidery and clockwork, while regiments of berserker Yahoos and ‘sapient cavalry’ serve in the armies of France and England.

The hero of the novel, Abraham Bates, makes his first appearance as an advocate of rights for these ‘Pacificans’, as the varied inhabitants of Gulliver’s travelogue are collectively known. Yet Roberts immediately goes out of his way to deny Bates the moral high ground; it isn’t with slavery as a whole that Bates disagrees, but that the tiny workers are white. ‘God has allotted slavery to one portion of his creation, and marked that portion by blackening their skins…’ (p.11) he tells an owner of Blefuscan slaves, before being ejected from the premises. Bates’ is a pompous, moralising twit, whose attack-dog religiousness disguises a deep-seated self loathing. So disgusted is he by his own sinful thoughts and deeds that he wields his religion against others in a kind of masochism by proxy.

This first chapter, pitting Bates against the factory owner Jonathan Burton and detailing Swiftly’s England, is superbly written. The characterisation, as described above, is excellent, and Roberts does a decent job of extrapolating a functional world from the fantastical elements of Gulliver’s Travels while deftly satirising the moral elasticity of Bates’ Christianity. Even as the man betrays his country and French-allied Brobdignagian giants march on London, he’s convincing himself with every thought that his actions are righteous.

Then the focus moves away from Bates, skipping back in time and introducing another main character: Eleanor Davis, soon to marry the industrialist Burton, whose Blefuscan slaves Bates objected to. As with Bates, Eleanor is a fascinating and flawed character who draws and keeps the interest, reminding us in her naivety of nineteenth-century heroines from Eliot through to Austen, but bucking the trend with a streak of cold, clinical curiosity quite at odds with the usual Victorian stereotypes of the emotional, unreasoning woman. As with Bates, the reader’s sympathy is tested by her calculating coldness, as she resolves to ‘pin one down and bring an enlarging glass over them and have a proper look’ (p.72).

Roberts continues in the same vein, building on the undercurrent of sly satire winding through these two lengthy character studies, but the strong realist grounding of the first half gives way to a stream of metamorphoses in the second; now a war story, now a twisted love story, now farce.

All this tonal fluctuation weakens the sense of narrative and lessens the sense of consequence felt from the characters actions. Bates in particular seems a different man every time we meet him, as Roberts refuses both hero and reader the time between dramatic, life-changing events they require in order to reflect upon and internalise the lessons learned. As such Bates’ character arc seems jagged and broken, developing arbitrarily from tightly-wound moraliser to coprophiliac adulterer to war hero (of a sort) with little more than token gestures towards introspection.

Instead, as Roberts’ careful character-building falls by the wayside, we hurry through something of a grand tour of nineteenth century fiction. Brobdignagian giants striding up the Thames evoke the alien tripods of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (or the artwork of Jeff Wayne’s musical version, at least to me); Eleanor’s conflicting attitudes towards her husband remind the reader of Middlemarch’s naïve Dorothea, while her mother’s venal attitudes towards the same evoke Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs Bennet; even Jules Verne’s moon-shooting cannon makes an appearance.

Yet this isn’t just a series of throwaway references, but thoughtful intertextuality which brings an additional dimension to the work. Mrs Davis, for example, might seem superficially similar to Mrs Bennet, an object of gentle (or not so gentle) mockery, but just as in Pride and Prejudice that surface layer is deceptive; both women understand the harsh realities of the world far better than their families. As a widow raising her daughter alone on the fringes of nineteenth-century London society, the lengths Mrs Davis is forced to in order to provide for both her daughter and herself are a logical extension of Mrs Bennet’s compulsive desire to ensure her daughters’ financial stability; a powerful condemnation of the way rigid societal structures force individuals to debase themselves. Yet while Swift condemns with satire, and Austen with irony, Roberts plays it more or less straight.

The result, unfortunately, is that Swiftly isn’t really very funny. Gulliver’s Travels wore its learning lightly, and however biting its satire it never ceased to raise a smile. Swiftly, by comparison, is heavy going and frequently drenched in gloom. Bates self-loathing permeates those chapters he dominates, while Eleanor’s detachment casts a chill over hers. Roberts’ Lilliputians and Blefuscans are inscrutable, cruel and alien; his giant Brobdingnagians are similarly alien, viewing the workings of mankind with a ponderous, philosophical melancholy. Only the cocaine-addled Dean of York, who accompanies Bates and Eleanor thorough an England increasingly resembling something from the book of Revelations, provides a streak of broad humour (at the expense of the church).

Despite the meandering second act, things pick up again towards the end of the novel, particularly in a stunning sequence where Eleanor watches a battle between French and British troops as if from the viewpoint of God. There’s also much to admire in Roberts’ world-building, as he extrapolates a fully-functional reality from the tools of satire. He extends the implications of Swift’s creations with precise, sometimes terrifying logic, and the philosophical arguments regarding man’s place in the grander scheme of things are thought-provoking. The novel simply seems to lack any real pleasure in the reading.

Perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way, analysing Roberts’ work in terms of its illustrious predecessor, but a book calling itself Swiftly creates certain expectations of social comment and knife-edged wit. The former is present, but the latter? Perhaps it’s just too tiny to detect.

All page references are taken from an uncorrected manuscript proof.

This review was originally written for