Saturday, 24 December 2011


Jennifer Fallon
Orbit (

So this is Wolfblade, then: the first in a fantasy prequel trilogy to the unpromisingly-named The Demon Child. Let’s run through the reviewer’s checklist. Wolfblade’s style is somewhat pedestrian, and the world-building sketchy, although that might be blamed on the assumption that returning readers would remember their way around; characterisation is solid, with a hint of stock fantasy archetypes given a fresh coat of paint.

I’ve made the novel sound like just another lost soul, damned to wander the blighted wastelands of generic purgatory. But there’s a lack of sentimentality to Wolfblade which lets it squeeze through the gates of belaboured metaphor and enter the kingdom of heaven.

Not that heaven would likely take it, were there any choice in the matter. That same unsentimentality makes this a brutal read, whose characters – protagonists and antagonists alike – are morally compromised even before the usual backstabbing and treachery begins. The nominal heroine is Marla Wolfblade, a naïve young beauty and the sister of Hythria’s grotesquely debauched ruler; her arrival in the capital upon reaching marryin’ age signals the start of not just the novel proper but of a rapid education in the fate usually reserved for eligible princesses in a rigidly patriarchal society.

Wolfblade’s portrayal of a deeply misogynistic system is one of the things which makes it a little bit special. Modern novels too often opt for heavy-handed moralism, and one can almost sense the author wringing their hands as they write (no mean feat). It’s as though they’re terrified of being condemned for political incorrectness by those incapable of understanding that writing about something is not the same as condoning it. Jennifer Fallon manages a far more difficult trick, however: instead of bludgeoning her reader with that kind of intrusive narratorial censure, she lets the subject matter – and her characters – condemn themselves.

It’s not just institutional misogyny, either, which makes Fallon’s world such a jewel of progressive enlightenment; Hythrian society, like that of neighbouring Fardohnya, is built on the backs of its slaves. This again is presented without overt comment, the injustices of the system allowed to speak for themselves. Even Elezaar, the cunning, intelligent slave whose grasp of intrigue gives Marla the tools she needs to survive – and thrive – in politics, shows no particular inclination to fight the system; he’s too busy carving out a niche for himself as Marla’s indispensible adviser. Everything he does is directed towards a single goal – survival.

It’s this preference for pragmatism over romance which sets the novel apart from its peers. There’s a breathtakingly revelatory moment about halfway through the novel when one of the nicer characters, universally adored by the rogues gallery surrounding them, is in terrible danger; despite early hints at the novel’s willingness to plumb dark places, genre savvy tells you they’ll somehow scramble to safety through a combination of pluck, spunk and tedious plot contrivance. But… hang on… no, surely they wouldn’t… whoah. Didn’t see that coming. Why didn’t I see that coming?

It’s a delightful fake-out, swiftly followed by another shock – albeit one tempered with comedy as the guilty parties flail about in desperation – as staggeringly unromantic pragmatism overrules the expected declaration of bloody vengeance. Fallon’s willingness to twist against dramatic convention is as sharp and refreshing as a bite of lemon, and I haven’t seen an author so eager to brutalise or bump off her characters since George RR Martin – although I suspect a reader familiar with The Demon Child might find the fate of Wolfblade’s cast-list a little less surprising.

If the novel has one principal weakness, though, it’s in the character of Wrayan Lightfinger. Apprentice in the Sorcerers’ Collective – an organisation which seems vastly more concerned with power of the political sort than that of the arcane – he’s one of a tiny handful of humans who’re able to wield even the feeblest magics. He’s also a walking plot device, whose only seems to exist as a way for the author to write herself out of the occasional corner.

He’s one of the novel’s few really likeable characters, which earns him a lot of slack, but also creates a problem when he casually mind-rapes another character for little more purpose than to attract their master’s attention – the sorcerous equivalent of a slap with a duellist’s glove. Few of Wolfblade’s ensemble are exactly saintly, but the careless way he violates another’s mind doesn’t seem to mesh well with the character who in the very scene before expressed his abhorrence at the behaviour of Marla’s loathsome brother, Hythria’s crown prince:

  “DO you know how often they carry slaves out of his room in sacks? This is a man who thinks drinking the milk of new mothers and the blood of young boys will make him more virile, for pity’s sake!”(p.258)

It isn’t just his shaky characterisation, either, as the main sub-plot surrounding Wrayan and the semi-divine Harshini (a gaggle of low-rent elves-without-the-pointy-ears) feel like they belong to a different book. As established, I haven’t read The Demon Child, but certainly there’s a by-the-numbers feeling to Wrayan’s sub-plot which suggests Fallon’s primary focus here isn’ton telling an interesting story but on laying the groundwork for tales already told. Whether Wrayan’s story can develop a bit of substance in the second and third chapters of the Wolfblade trilogy remains to be seen, but the first book alone does a fairly poor job of integrating him with the far more interesting political wrangling going on elsewhere.

A solid work with a refreshing subversive streak, Wolfblade yanks itself up out of the bloated ranks of fantasy fiction through a wicked willingness to follow its flawed characters’ decisions through to the logical, often-disastrous conclusions. It wouldn’t mean much if the basics weren’t there, but they are; the result is a worthwhile read. 

This review was originally written for

Monday, 19 September 2011

Crossing Midnight v3 – the Sword in the Soul

Mike Carey, Jim Fern, José Villarrubia
Vertigo (

The Sword in the Soul completes the story of Toshi and Kai Hara, twins born either side of midnight and worlds apart. Toshi, who no blade can harm, robbed of her past and future and pressed into the service of the sword-kami Aratsu; Kai, immune to all magics, just trying to find his sister and bring her home. But as he closes in on Toshi, Kai doesn’t realise she is hunting him in turn. Aratsu has promised the return of her lost memories should she slay her forgotten brother, and so they spiral round and round one another, drawing inevitably closer to one final climactic confrontation.

The Sword in the Soul is a perfect climax to the story, ramping up the action and hounding the overarching themes to their logical conclusion. Everything which occurs in this novel is a natural progression of what came before, generated in the hearts and minds of its characters rather than being imposed upon them by the needs of the plot. It’s a masterly demonstration of narrative control from writer Mike Carey, and it gives the fates of the Haras – and the supporting cast around them – serious emotional punch.

But I’m probably making this sound more Lost in Translation than it actually is. The novel’s underlying substance is its greatest strength, but what it underlies is a story packed to the rafters with action and wonder. The previous instalments in Crossing Midnight have shown a fairly measured progression from the everyday into the supernatural world, from the shocking intrusion of the kami into modern Japan through the surreal, neon strangeness of a night in mythic Tokyo. The Sword in the Soul cranks it several notches higher, throwing the Haras headlong into a full-blown war between supernatural factions – a magical, profoundly strange conflict which is superbly realised in the faint surrealism of Jim Fern’s linework and Jose Villarrubia’s lush, almost hallucinatory colours.

If the art excels, Carey demonstrates that he knows how to make the best of it – playing with the strengths inherent to the visual form. Take, for example, the way Carey cuts away from an incipient sex scene to show the childish joy of Saburo – a boy lost in Mythic Japan, who never grew up – as he plays with the ghost of the Haras’ childhood pet (p.112); the juxtaposition of innocence and experience is handled with admirable restraint, and provides a touching reminder of just what the Haras have left behind in their journey.

If the first two volumes of Crossing Midnight were concerned with the often painful transition from child- to adulthood, The Sword in the Soul drives the lesson home with uncompromising ruthlessness. Toshi Hara was always the more grown up of the twins, the five minutes she has on her brother seeming to grant wisdom far out of proportion to the length of her head start. But in The Sword in the Soul it’s Kai who’s growing up fast while his sister strips away her humanity, turning herself into a weapon in the single-minded desire to reclaim her lost past – even as she flees from the consequences of her ever-more-monstrous actions.
 “This isn’t about strength. You think to remove the hurt by removing your own knowledge of it. But those memories are rooted in your soul.”
 “My soul is a blade, Uso-Tsuki. A blade must narrow to its point. To its edge. Make me--- ---as sharp as you can.”


Without her memories and the opportunity to learn from her mistakes, Toshi reverts to something like childishness – albeit a child with alarming power, as demonstrated when a tantrum costs her valuable allies. This book is like a lesson in consequences, and learning to understand – and deal with – the fallout from your own decisions; something Kai can manage, growing into a man able to make sacrifices and take responsibility as he comes to term with who – and what – he is.

 “Life folds each of us into many curious shapes before we finally become what we are meant to be.”

As you might expect from a work so interested in matters of responsibility and consequences, The Sword in the Soul doesn’t pull any punches. The stakes climb higher and higher as the book winds towards its conclusion, and the depth of its characterisation, both here and throughout the series as a whole, invests every confrontation and loss with serious weight. Toshi might be a monster by the time she faces her brother, little more than a weapon in the hands of her master Aratsu, but you remember the decisions which forged her. And if Kai’s story is one of growing into an adult, Toshi’s regression towards childhood – and eventual, inevitable rebirth – mirrors her brother’s journey beautifully.

 Forgetfulness armours you against almost every pain there is.
 And makes every morning like another birth.

For all that I’ve gushed so far, The Sword in the Soul isn’t perfect. Its bittersweet, open-ended conclusion, while dramatically apt, has just a whiff of sequel-bait about it – probably not Carey’s intention, given the lack of loose ends at the close of the tale, but inescapable nonetheless. And the pace of the novel sags a little towards the middle, as a jaunt into rural Japan turns up a key ‘missing persons’ with eyebrow-raising ease – subsequent to which, half the supernatural world seems to descend upon them. If he was that easy to find in the first place, why hadn’t those so hungry to locate him already done so? An explanation is supplied, but while Carey handles his magic with a light touch and avoids the sort of overt exposition which can bring a narrative grinding to a halt, the mythological framework he’s built from traditional Japanese fairy tales occasionally feels a little too hand-wavy to bear the weight of the story.

What criticisms of The Sword in the Soul I can muster, though, are a little half-baked themselves; certainly they pale into insignificance when measured against the novel’s effortless characterisation and tense, intricate storytelling. This is essential reading, matching the brilliance of the Sandman series at its best. If you haven’t found yourself a copy already, what are you waiting for?

This review was originally written for

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Crossing Midnight v2 – A Map of Midnight

Mike Carey, Jim Fern, Eric Nguyen, Mark Pennington
Vertigo (

The second volume of Mike Carey’s Crossing Midnight is much like any other middle volume of a trilogy – hampered by its lack of a concrete beginning, frustrated by the need for unresolved tensions to roll over into the third and final act. Yet for all that, A Map of Midnight is excellently realised, rich in style and character, and about as self-contained as it’s possible to get under the circumstances.

The twins Toshi and Kai Hara, born either side of midnight and each possessed of their own strange destinies, left their parents’ home at the end of Crossing Midnight’s first volume: Toshi, whom no blade can harm, pressed into the service of the Kami Aratsu, Lord of Knives; her brother Kai, immune to magic, to find his sister and break Aratsu’s hold on her.

The first of two stories told in A Map of Midnight, and the one from which the volume takes its name, focuses on Toshi as she learns her place in the Kami’s palace… and learns that even a girl immune to blades has something to fear from the strange and supernatural creatures which populate mythic Tokyo. Not that she’s really Toshi Hara; Aratsu has cut her past and future away from her, leaving only a creature of the present which he calls Hasharito. With no memory of her brother or her parents, she walks the streets of Tokyo on her master’s business, collecting ‘impressions’ cut from the fabric of sleeping mortals’ dreams.

Hasharito isn’t the only power to be plying their trade in the neon darkness, though. When her ignorance and temper blend, she attacks a servant of the Gleaner, one of the five faces of Death, and has to learn that her actions can bear terrible consequences.

It’s in the volume’s second tale, Bedtime Stories, that Carey really excels himself. Dragged to Tokyo on his sister’s trail, Kai finds himself caught up in a series of grisly murders. Someone or something is killing off the enjokosai girls – teenagers whose youthfulness and innocence fulfil a popular fetish in Japanese culture. They offer their company – and sometimes more – in exchange for the designer clothes and high-tech goods they could never otherwise afford.

Bedtime Stories is dark, mature and beautiful – both in terms of the art and of the story. It benefits greatly from the addition of Loretta, one of the aforementioned enjokosai girls Kai encounters. While Kai himself is neither as strongly characterised nor as fundamentally interesting as his sister, Loretta is a spiky, vibrant bundle of contradictions and the way the two of them strike sparks off one another makes for fun and fascinating reading. The narrative they inhabit is equally engaging, deftly treading the line between full-on detective fable and a sensitive, often disturbing examination of innocence. It’s a story not just supported but actively enhanced by Eric Nguyen’s expressive, nuanced art; images filled with cinematic tricks. Off-kilter angles and unexpected framings put an unheimlich spin on conventional scenes, granting them an implicit wrongness far more effective than the overt supernaturalism of this volume’s first tale, A Map of Midnight. And it has its humour, too; Nguyen seems to poke fun at the conventions of Manga art by sneaking the reader up-skirt shots of Loretta every chance he gets, even as the narrative considers the moral implications of Japan’s cultural obsession with school-age girls. Funnier still is a marvellously surreal collaboration between writer and artist in which Loretta’s eerie, nursery rhyme-esque dream is invaded by ‘generic detectives from [her] left hind brain’ in full noir get-up, who arrest her for spoileriffic crimes.

If Bedtime Stories concerns itself with matters of sex and sexuality, the theme running through A Map of Midnight is equally mature. Toshi Hara’s jaunt through the weird night of mythic Tokyo could be interpreted as a crash-course in taking responsibility for your actions, as her rash hot-bloodedness lands her in one scrape after another. If this tale is less fulfilling than its companion, that’s mostly due to the inherent structural weakness of the narrative. A Map of Midnight feels more like a loosely connected series of anecdotes than a proper story, as Toshi drifts through the supernatural world in the service of her new master and blunders her way through one strange encounter after another. The world Carey is building here is a wonderful and surreal one, aided by inker Mark Pennington’s lush, even lurid colouring, but for a narrative primarily concerned with questions of responsibility A Map of Midnight seems to take the easy way out on more than one occasion. The blades of Aratsu’s court are intelligent, magical beings in their own right, and the scissors Toshi chooses – or more accurately which seem to choose her – are the smooth-talking definition of a deus ex machina. They provide the means or the magic to get Toshi out of one difficult situation after another, rather diluting the effectiveness of the ‘cause and consequence’ theme which seems such a central part of the tale.

Jim Fern’s pencilwork doesn’t help matters much either, sketching the city in clean, simplistic lines which fail to do its complexity justice. While Toshi does admittedly work during the darkest hours of night, the sheer emptiness of the streets – no cars, no people, no life – seems unlikely in any major city, never mind one with Tokyo’s neon reputation, and prevents the reader from feeling anything like an authentic sense of place.  Or a sense of time, come to that; despite the midnight of the story’s title, much of the action could be occurring on a sunny mid-afternoon. Given the effort Pennington spends on bringing such surreal lushness to the city’s supernatural denizens, this bland, almost greyscale rendering of night-time Tokyo seems a peculiar choice.

Failures of the artwork aside, the story does at the climax at least allow Toshi to deal with the consequences of her decisions without supernatural aid. That climax is well handled, coming across as exciting and tense as the seriousness of the challenge – and the consequences of further failure – give the narrative greater emotional weight. It’s short lived, however, as the story’s resolution again feels as if Toshi has been given too many chances; together with the hand-holding she received earlier, this cop-out undermines the apparent severity of her situation.

A Map of Midnight isn’t bad; it’s merely mediocre, and suffers from the pairing with such an excellent work as Bedtime Stories. Nonetheless this second volume of Crossing Midnight is worth picking up just for the latter tale, and to further the narrative begun in volume one’s strong opening. Second acts are often the weakest part of any story, redeemed by the third; hopefully volume three can deliver on that promise.

This review was originally written for

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Folding Knife

K J Parker
Orbit (

If K J Parker were a film director, you’d call them an auteur. Critics being an argumentative lot, there’s little in the way of consensus on the meaning of the word, but the general gist is that all of the director’s works share some common tendency, whether it be of theme, of style, or of something less easily defined.

So with Parker. From early works to The Folding Knife, the author has presented a series of variations on the same theme – and what’s kept these novels from ever feeling repetitive isn’t only the superb quality and idiosyncratic style of the writing, but the sheer difficulty of answering the questions it poses – or even nailing down the precise nature of said questions. Parker is a student of the banality of evil, fascinated by its range and complexity.

Before I dive off into cod philosophy and a comparative reading of the author’s whole back catalogue, however, there’s a review to be getting on with. So, The Folding Knife.

Bleak. Funny. Troubling.

That’s clearly not enough, but within those three words can be found the whole of the novel. The world inhabited by Parker’s characters is an extraordinarily dark one – you’d call it nihilistic, if not for the subtle, unshakeable sense that the universe is not so much indifferent to the sufferings of human beings as actively hostile to their interests. No good deed goes unpunished; no error comes without its consequences. This is a world where every life describes a tragedy.

The life in question here is that of Bassianus Severus, First Citizen of the Vesani Republic and financier extraordinaire. The tragedy is watching Basso face all manner of crises, whether personal, professional or political, and generally overcome. Where’s the tragedy in that, do I hear you ask? But The Folding Knife is all about the journey, not the destination; whether a lifetime of public service – which just as an aside happens to make one absurdly rich – is enough to offset a single act of evil. ‘In a lifetime of crucial decisions’, the back-cover blurb tells us, Basso has ‘only ever made one mistake’. But it’s a mistake which haunts him, which taints every success, and which he’s spent everything he is trying to make up for.

Heavy stuff. But balanced against the novel’s weighty theme and vindictive universe is Parker’s trademark style. Without the writing’s utter lack of pomposity, its blissful lightness of touch and fierce wit, the novel would be just about unreadable. Instead we’re privy to Basso’s internal processes, or at least a slice of them somewhere between a Woolfian stream-of-consciousness and the deliberate opacity of surface movements; in lesser hands this could prove maddeningly incomprehensible, but Parker’s control of voice is utterly assured.

  “We’ll do our best,” Festo said.
  “Of course you will,” he replied, and something prompted him to add, “and if you make a good job of it, I’ll let you go to Badava for the summer. Well? Is that a good deal?”
  They were grinning at him, and he thought: they assume I’d planned that all along, the reward, the incentive. It’s how a good father would have structured it; first the bluster and the stern eye, then the special treat, whipped out of the sack at the end. But Badava was just an afterthought, because I was feeling guilty.

Basso is a man who lies to everyone, even (especially?) himself; even when he’s telling the truth, he’s lying as to why. The ambiguity this builds is refreshing, and rare; the only way to even come close to understanding what drives him is to view his actions in terms of the bigger picture. And the way in which Parker handles dramatic scale, smoothly changing gear between personal tragedy and geopolitical intrigue, is a pleasure in itself.

Basso himself would say that there’s little difference between the two. In his early training in financial sleight of hand, Basso learns how something as apparently simple as a shortage of barrel staves at the perfect moment can bring about the capitulation of a mighty empire. While he proves adept at applying this mastery of connectivity – of minimal action for maximum gain – for political and business success, he seems incapable of applying the same logic to his own life. And all the while he builds a house of cards, as if unsure himself how the whole thing doesn’t just tumble down around him…

So: the potential for utter social, political and economic ruin, brought about by the manipulations of devious bankers? The novel’s rather pointed comment on the real world financial crisis is unusually broad for Parker, but no less pertinent for its lack of subtlety. For all Basso’s cleverness, his successes effectively stem from luck – something he accepts but doesn’t seem to accommodate: “I’ve always got the impression luck gets stronger with use, like a muscle” (p.119), he tells his old teacher. When things go wrong, though, he simply has no idea what to do – as demonstrated in the peculiar moment when the normally assured, commanding  Basso becomes utterly passive in the face of terrible news, while a nameless military courier lays out the various bad-case scenarios before the floundering First Citizen and guides him to the least-appalling conclusion (pp.434-438). What at first seems wildly out-of-character is simply the reaction of a man ill-equipped to deal with unpleasant surprises.

With the exception of The Company, Parker’s novels tend to focus almost exclusively on a single central figure, and The Folding Knife continues the usual trend. This is the Basso show, a one-man tour de force which inevitably leaves the rest of the cast little room to manoeuvre. But while the supporting cast have little in the way of page time, Parker works wonders with the little they’re granted and sketches out a handful of well-rounded characters with admirable economy. Where the characterisation comes across a little sparse, as with Basso’s two sons, you get the impression this is less a flaw than a deliberate decision. To Basso the boys are of no interest; when they figure in the novel it’s inevitably as either a distraction or an afterthought, and their lack of distinctiveness to the reader is simply a reflection of Basso’s overwhelming indifference.

A similar lack of interest is generated in The Folding Knife’s few female characters, but it’s one less easily rationalised. The novel’s women are ciphers, usually referred to as ‘she’ without even a name to place them in the scene; it’s possible that Parker judged their rarity made something so trifling as a name redundant, but the lack leaves a nasty taste in the mouth when responsibility for the majority of the novel’s many ills can be laid at their feet. While the author’s gender has never been made public – hopefully explaining the convoluted sentence-mangling to which I’ve had to resort in order to avoid personal pronouns during the course of this review – The Folding Knife bears the fingerprints of what seems at best an uncomfortable distain for the worth and motivations of its female characters.

Perhaps it seems unfair to celebrate the novel’s ambiguity with regard to Basso and his fellow men, while complaining about the same trait with regard to the women. There’s a critical difference of tone, however: Basso’s inscrutability feels like the result of carefully sculpted characterisation; that of his sister and wives feels more like authorial indifference.

Uncertain gender politics aside, The Folding Knife is another solid effort from Parker. If it’s not up to the quality of, say, The Company, that’s scant criticism. Fiction with this depth of intelligence is a rarity in any genre, and if nothing else the novel deserves some kind of medal for making the details of budget-balancing and deal-making so utterly fascinating.

This review was originally written for

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Left Hand of God

Paul Hoffman
Penguin (

There seems to be a bit of a fuss surrounding The Left Hand of God, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I bought it on a whim before I’d heard a whisper of the massive spend Penguin seem to have poured into the marketing, intrigued by the nihilistic back-cover blurb and a catchy opening line. The book was liberally drenched in glowing praise from capable authors, Conn Iggulden and Eoin Colfer among them, and numerous reputable papers also appeared to hold it in high esteem. But by the fiftieth page I’d already paused to look up the newspapers in question, to see if the publishers were perhaps taking review snippets out of context*; by the hundredth, I was beginning to doubt I was reading the same book as Iggulden and co.

So we’ve established that I think The Left Hand of God is bad. In an effort to retain the literary high ground, I should probably explain why.

Let’s start with the plot. Thomas Cale is a teenage orphan inhabitant of The Sanctuary, institutionally brutalised by the fanatical Redeemers who run the place in an effort to prepare them for service in the church’s armies. But Cale, being the protagonist of a fantasy novel which treats the genre clichés like some kind of tick-list, is special; possessed of a cold competence which sets him aside from his fellow children.

The novel dwells on the daily drudgery of life in the Sanctuary for a while, before Cale discovers one of his pious masters’ dirty little secrets and is forced to flee in the company of two almost-friends. If that seems to be a spoiler, you’ve never read a book before. But then The Left Hand of God in general seems to have a peculiar attitude towards suspense. It takes the entire novel to build up to a shocking revelation which will shock precisely no one who has noted the title and can put two and two together to get four, or even five. I wonder if perhaps Paul Hoffman is carrying out some cutting-edge literary experiment to prove the existence of anti-drama?

Along the way to this damp squib of a climax, Cale and co wander in the wilderness, outwit their pursuers through a variety of time-worn tactics (including, at one point, slipping out of a facility noted for its inescapability by donning hooded robes and joining the back of a long line of departing monks), discover the wonders of the big city and participate in a fiercely fought battle which bears an uncanny resemblance to Agincourt.

The entire setting of the novel, in fact, bears an air of the familiar. If some Dali-esque deity were to screw the fabric of our world into a ball and smear dark, unpleasant substances into the cloth, before cutting it into strips and sewing the thing back together at random, this is what he’d end up with. References to real-world places, peoples and names abound, each one of them seemingly perfectly pitched to shatter any sense of immersion the reader might have built up. Like an operatic high-C in a glassblower’s workshop, this haphazard recycling of reality is an utter disaster. Any hope of investing in the world Cale inhabits, in its authenticity and the causality of the events which occur within, simply fall apart every time you stumble over a posse of Norwegians, a St Stephen of Hungary, a city named Memphis or a leaden Biblical malapropism:
“That boy is a menace. He’s a jinx, like that fellow in the belly of the whale.”
“Jesus of Nazareth?”
“Yes, him.” (p.403)

What on earth is the rationale behind this? The only assumption I can make is that it’s either an attempt to indicate a far-future, lost-knowledge, back-to-the-dark-ages setting... or a massively backfiring attempt at a joke. Certainly if it’s the former, there’s nothing in the way of lost technology or buried history to back it up.

A stable of hard-ridden fantasy clichés and the ham-handed recycling of the world building aren’t the only places Hoffman’s originality seems to have failed him, but in the hands of a skilled stylist there’s no reason a decent story couldn’t have been constructed from these base materials. Alas! Alack! Hoffman’s prose is a wincingly awful combination of the bland, the bizarre and the childish. An urgent, engaging opening line (‘Listen. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers on Shotover Scarp is named after a damned lie, for there is no redemption that goes on there and less sanctuary.’ – p.1) gives way to a landscape of prosaic, flatly functional prose, in which abominations lie buried like anti-personnel mines. Behold:

Who could blame her if a quietly suppressed shudder did not make its way into the deepest recesses of her heart, there to be locked away. (p.409)

In the days after the terrible events of the Red Opera she had spent lascivious nights with Cale, passionately devouring every inch of him... (p.409)

...he lay wrapped in her elegant arms and endless legs... (p.411)

In addition to its occasional baffling turn of phrase, The Left Hand of God sustains a peculiarly immature attitude throughout, from the naming of such characters as Vague Henri, Kitty the Hare and IdrisPukke (who stands alone in his defiant rejection of normal word-spacing conventions) to a way in which the novel seems to stand arm-in-arm with its juvenile protagonists to point and laugh at an array of targets ranging from the childish (he’s got no trousers on, hur hur!) to the insensitive (fat girls, hur hur!) and on to the outright distasteful:
“They burnt him.”
“They burnt who?”
“Redeemer Navratil. They roasted him over a griddle for touching boys.”
“Sorry about that. He was decent enough, all said and done,” said Cale.
“As long as you kept your back to the wall,” said Kleist... “Poor old Redeemer Bumfeel.” (pp.394-5)

The immaturity of the style might be an outgrowth of the novel’s unwritten but obvious targeting at the YA market, but somebody should tell Paul Hoffman that writing for young adults doesn’t mean you have to write down to them.

It’s clear that The Left Hand of God is intended as the opening chapter in the latest ‘epic fantasy’ series, but the foreshadowing is clumsy and often bungled, leaving you with less a sense of anticipation than a feeling the author’s simply forgotten about that teasing treat dangled in front of you a few hundred pages back. This isn’t helped by the peculiarly unfocused narration, which often meanders away from its hero as if bored of talking about him, in order to delve into the backstory of some third-string supporting character whose fate is to die unpleasantly without affecting the flow of the narrative one jot.

I came to welcome these diversions, after a while. Each of these speedbumps Cale glides over on his passage through life was substantially more interesting than the hero himself, and made me wonder why Hoffman hadn’t put a similar sort of effort into the characters we spend most of our time with. Perhaps Cale’s blandness is an attempt to create a Twilight-esque void at the centre of the novel, into which the teenage reader can insert himself with the minimum of difficulty? Certainly Cale has little else to recommend him, practically embodying the done-to-death archetype of the surly, badass loner. There’s no genuine feeling in him, nothing which grows out of the character himself; even on those rare occasions when a glimpse of emotion shines through Cale’s unfeeling exterior (occasions which may as well come with a sign on which the cry ‘OH, I’M SO CONFLICTED!’ blazes in ten-foot letters of fire) it’s impossible to understand what internal process might have produced it. The plot merely required he become angry, or scared, or ‘in love’ - and so he did.

The result is a boy who seems sometimes to be gripped by a particularly convenient form of multiple-personality disorder, and whose attitude oscillates wildly between sociopathically aloof and staggeringly petulant:
“...Someone give me a sword.”
The guard commander signalled one of his men to hand over his weapon. “How about some trousers as well?” he added, to much amusement from the other soldiers.
“When I come back,” said Cale, “you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face.” (p.388)

It might be different if he showed any kind of character growth. But the Cale you meet at the beginning of the book is the same as he who departs at the end of it - only his situation has changed, and that but barely. In every story there’s the instigating character, the one whose actions propel the plot into motion. They tend to be fairly static in terms of character development, and the interest lies in watching the other characters scramble to deal with the consequences of their actions. Cale is one of them, and he makes a lousy protagonist because of it.

Perhaps the second book in the series will be more interesting? The Left Hand of God reads like a tiresomely extended prologue, and I wonder if the series would have lost anything important had it begun where this book ended. The novel recovers a little bit of form in the dying pages, which makes me think Hoffman began writing with the opening and the denouement firmly fixed in his mind, but little idea how to join the dots. As shamelessly baiting as the cliffhanger is, however, I won’t be sticking around to read the next instalment. A handful of decent paragraphs at either end of the novel simply cannot tip the scales against 480-odd pages so devoid of humour, style or imagination.

*The Telegraph’s ‘tremendous’ turned out to have been excerpted from ‘tremendous momentum’, and is preceded by a lament of the novel’s ‘workmanlike prose’. Take from that what you will.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Rivers of London

Ben Aaronovitch
Orion Books (

From Harry Potter through the vampire-romancing heroines of Twilight, Anita Blake and Sookie Stackhouse and on to the eponymous wizard PI of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, novels (and films, and TV) blending the mundane world with the supernatural seem to have flooded the market since the turn of the century.

Rivers of London is the latest addition to an overcrowded genre, but well-written enough to rise a little above the crowd. It pays to tweak the usual formula and build yourself a niche, if you’re looking to differentiate yourself from the competition, and author Ben Aaronovitch fulfils that obligation by making his hero not an outcast orphan or private detective but British (gasp!) – and a probationary constable in the Metropolitan Police Service.

It’s a pleasant change to see a protagonist not just uninterested in rebelling against the system but in fact firmly embedded in it, and Aaronovitch handles the procedural aspects of everyday coppering convincingly. Rivers of London’s Met is a living, breathing police force, riddled with bureaucracy but populated by smart, competent officers, albeit human ones who still occasionally give into the temptation to go get a kebab.

It helps that Peter Grant, apprentice wizard to Chief Inspector Nightingale, similarly defies the cliché. If not exactly enthusiastic, he’s hardly an unwilling recruit to the cause of policing London’s supernatural denizens – anything’s better than ending up in the paper-pushing Case Progression Unit. He’s a fairly fresh and well-rounded character, too: engaged with the world around him, rather than single-minded in his pursuit of evildoers; carrying the weight of a troubled past without any of the usual melodrama that usually accompanies such; occasionally blokey in his distractions, with a special mention going to the charms of WPC Lesley May; and topping it all off with a nice line in deadpan delivery.

  “Are you telling me ghosts are real?”
  Nightingale carefully wiped his lips with a napkin.
  “You’ve spoken to one,” he said. “What do you think?”
  “I’m awaiting confirmation from a senior officer,” I said.

Rivers of London has a gentle wit which makes it a pleasure to read, and it’s at its strongest when Grant is bantering with fellow officers or trying to game the Met’s unwieldy system for the necessary results. Where it falls down, or at least stumbles drunkenly, is in its handling of the supernatural. The magic in which Nightingale begins to school our hero is bland and uninspired, veering a little too close to the pig-Latin spellcasting of Harry Potter and lacking either the grounded intricacies of low fantasy or the otherworldly wonder of the higher sort. Instead it floats somewhere in the middle, doing little to hook the reader’s interest.

The various supernaturals inhabiting London fare little better. While it’s a nice touch to lay the emphasis on the old gods of Britain and how they’ve adapted to modern life, rather than the usual modern fantasy trifecta of vampires, werewolves and ghosts, the spirits personifying the eponymous rivers of London lack the requisite sense of otherworldliness. You could argue their scrutability makes sense, given that most were human at some point in their existence, but for the gods of the Thames to walk and talk – and behave, for the most part – like any other Londoner denudes them of any real mystique. Aaronovitch again deserves credit for avoiding cliché in the person of both the Old Man of the River and Mother Thames, but it’s not enough to make up for their disappointing mundanity of character.

Grant’s scientific approach to the supernatural is more engaging, as his desire to understand how it all works causes headaches for the more laissez faire Nightingale. It’s absorbing – and not a little amusing – to watch as an enquiring mind tries to apply the scientific method (Observation, hypothesis, experiment and something else I could look up when I got back to my laptop – pp.35-36) to something as traditionally unquantifiable as magic. Yet one of the more intriguing hints at the history of Rivers of London tells us Isaac Newton was originally responsible for codifying magic’s basic principles, presumably in between defining gravity and keeping England’s economy afloat. Nightingale’s dismissal of scientific curiosity seems particularly jarring, then, given the propensities of his order’s founding father, but the contrast between the chief inspector’s ludditism and Grant’s technical savvy does provide regular comic touches as the novel proceeds.

Unfortunately it proceeds in the best traditions of the Old Bill: flat-footed. The narrative lurches unevenly from the urgent pursuit of the supernatural threat menacing London to Grant’s training instruction – less of a brutal drop into the deep end than a rather leisurely settling-in – and away again to negotiate peace between the feuding Rivers. The utter lack of any tension as Grant learns to work magic and moves into the Folly, the headquarters of the old order of magicians Newton founded and of which Nightingale is the last surviving member, is fatal to the maintaining of urgency or suspense. He even has time to install a plasma TV in the garage and have a few mates around to watch the footy.

That Grant has so much free time is partially the fault of the novel’s main storyline. While the pursuit of a spirit of violence which gets its kicks forcing Londoners into brutal conflict is interesting enough and solidly plotted, it involves a lot of waiting around for the villain to strike again; that might be an accurate reflection of real policework’s lack of glamour, but from a narrative perspective there ought to be something to fill the gaps and keep the magpie of audience attention from flitting off after the next shiny new trinket. Grant’s insipid training montage just doesn’t cut it, and though the river-wrangling subplot is more diverting it has problems of its own. Grant’s relationship with two of Mama Thames’ daughters – one of whom fills the essential love-interest–shaped hole, while another’s attitude towards him could be best described as arbitrarily antagonistic – is straight out of the textbook. And textbooks aren’t noted for their entertainment value.

Perhaps a firmer hand on the editorial scalpel could have cut some of the flab away and left Rivers of London both leaner and meaner, but for whatever reason the novel hasn’t had that blessing. Editorial quality is a little low throughout, in fact. Minor errors, such as Grant referring to Nightingale’s magical ball of light as a ‘werelight’ a page before he’s given the technical term (pp.92-3), seem to have slipped through the drafting process: unnecessary speed bumps which test the suspension of disbelief.

For all my quibbling, Rivers of London is far from a bad novel. It’s got a decent premise and a well-assembled protagonist, and Aaronovitch is a solid if unexceptional stylist. If he can learn to balance the demands of pace and plot, he could be onto a winner.

This review was originally written for

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Zoo City

Lauren Beukes
Angry Robot (

I misjudged Zoo City on first reading. It may have been my own high expectations, after the stripped-down clarity of Moxyland, Lauren Beukes’ debut novel. Or perhaps it was the glib ease with which Zoo City’s pop culture references flow off the page? It seemed to come a little too smoothly, a little too freely, as if hoping to dazzle you with a fast-paced plot and the trappings of urban grit; like a middle-class gangster wannabe flashing gang signs learned off TV.

But beneath the polished darkness of the novel’s surface, in the murky current of the undertow, there’s a depth which might catch you by surprise. It took me a second reading – maybe it’ll grab you first time. Watch your step.

The plot is a familiar one to anybody who’s ever read Chandler or seen Humphrey Bogart strut his stuff on the black and white. A private detective of sorts, Zinzi December, who specialises in finding lost things, takes what begins as a simple job but finds herself floundering rapidly out of her depth as the twists unfurl and the body count rises. It’s been done before, of course, but noir’s never about the story so much as the style. The plot need only get you from A to B as convolutedly as possible; along the way it serves as canvas for rich flourishes of setting and dialogue, and as a framework from which interesting characters can hang themselves.

The setting for Zoo City is an alt-Johannesburg which Beukes, a native, builds with all the power of the familiar and with lashings of style t’boot. It’s a city filled with dirt and life and culture of all kinds, of all levels, and the reader is quickly up to their eyeballs in Africana. The local slang seems to draw heavily on native languages, while much of the plot revolves around the South African music scene and provides a secondary bombardment of peculiar band names, technical jargon and industry cant. The richness of the language approaches Clockwork Orange levels at times, and while the inattentive reader might find such an assault of unfamiliar words somewhat off-putting, it’s an effective method of immersion in an alien culture.

And Zoo City’s Jo’burg is an alien culture, there can be no doubt about that. For a reader unfamiliar with South Africa, it always wears a cloak of menace; for a local, I can only imagine the combination of the familiar and the outright eerie makes for an uncanny, unsettling read. Because the novel isn’t just a hard-boiled noir – it’s an urban fantasy, albeit one far removed from the overtly fantastical end of the spectrum. Zoo City approaches its magic with a skeptic’s inherent distrust, exemplified in the director of a rehab clinic as she answers Zinzi’s questions about her methods:

  “I like good old-fashioned medicine. Methadone is a very good thing. Although a lot of medication is based on herbal remedies. And you shouldn’t discount the placebo effect.”
  “There haven’t been enough studies to ease my mind about the efficacy.”


While Beukes’ magic is for the most part unobtrusive, its implications stretch into every corner of society. It’s always in the background, in casual asides and happenings which wrongfoot you, remind you this isn’t your world. Reinforcing this, Zoo City is littered with Watchmen-like supporting texts which provide intriguing snapshots of the world outside Johannesburg. Newspaper clippings, prisoner interviews, the abstract from a psychology paper and a movie summary from an website – including a handful of comments complete with all the off-topic rants and porn spamming you’d expect to find on the real thing – all add depth to the world Beukes is building here. These interludes allow the reader’s imagination to explore beyond the mean streets Zinzi December walks, and many of those texts pull double duty, laying out with exemplary lightness of touch the ways in which magic has changed the world.

The central conceit, that Zinzi and other criminals receive – from some dark and terrifying place – an animal companion akin to the daemons of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, is thoroughly explored in sociological terms. Nobody in the novel seems to dare speak the word ‘apartheid’, but the shadow of South Africa’s not-too-distant history hangs heavy over Zoo City. The animalled bear an indelible mark of pariah-hood which sees them reduced to second-class citizens – the buildings they live in are condemned and disintegrating, the neighbourhoods they inhabit are abandoned by the authorities, and persecution by mainstream ‘civilised’ society is widespread:

  “Where are you?”
  “Downstairs. Can I come up?”
  “No. Wait. I’ll come down. Meet me at Reputation. It’s the hotel bar across the road.”
  “I think they have a policy,” I say, leaving it hanging.
  “Oh. Oh right,” he says.


In the novel’s lighter moments Beukes has fun with the counter-culture implications of this prejudice, as teenage outcasts express their unthinking rebellion through reactionary solidarity with the animalled, while rappers desperate to appear ‘street’ pose with snarling beasts in their music videos. For the most part, though, Zoo City paints its animalled as a despised underclass struggling just to get from day to day. While apartheid is the obvious parallel given the setting, Johannesburg’s zoo-infested neighbourhoods – all but unpoliced and abandoned by society – bear striking similarities with the drug-ravaged inner-city ghettoes of The Wire. This is a culture which has written an entire swath of its population off as a bad job.

Just as the National Party didn’t exactly have a worldwide monopoly on institutionalised racism, however, Beukes’ South Africa is hardly alone in mistreating its zoos. One of the more chilling inserted texts includes an interview with a fourteen-year-old in a Pakistani prison, where the animals are bundled together to fight and die, drawing down the rolling shadows of ‘the Undertow‘ to claim their partnered humans. The animalled live with that shadow hanging over their existence like the Sword of Daedelus, and it drains their existence of hope:

  “A good cop doesn’t need to shoot to kill.”
  “Is that what you are? A good cop?”
She spread her hands. “You see a furry companion at my side?”
  “Maybe your conscience is on the fritz. There have been studies: sociopaths, psychopaths-“
  “The difference between you and me?” she interrupts… “The Undertow isn’t coming for me.”


The treatment of the animalled is one of the more fascinating aspects of Zoo City, and provides the driving force for much of its action. You could argue that society’s response to the zoos isn’t a baseless prejudice; having an animal isn’t a neutral quality like the colour of your skin, after all, but a permanent, inescapable mark of guilt. Yet the way the animalled are ostracised rejects any notion of rehabilitation or redemption, of second chances. Zinzi refers to her pre-sloth existence as ‘FL’ – Former Life – and when she toys with the idea of returning to journalism, it is with the daydream optimism of a child announcing their attention to become an astronaut.

Zoo City isn’t perfect; it’s a little too fond of the pop culture reference, and though the style of the writing is a suitable blend of wit and grit its relentless hipness begins to grate after a while. The twisty plot is for the most part solid, but there’s a little flab around the middle which could have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. Zinzi seems to lose her way, running out of threads to follow and leading the reader aimlessly around the neighbourhoods and nightspots like some kind of seedy tourist guide, while the novel’s pace flags accordingly.

It’s not long, though, before Zinzi remembers she’s a noir protagonist and develops an almost supernatural intuition, linking A to B on the most tenuous of connections – as if she’d managed to sneak a look at the author’s notes. In fact it’s Beukes’ deft foreshadowing which leads her protagonist on; hindsight reveals just how many pieces of the puzzle are subtly buried in the stream of narrative, and there’s no doubt it’s cleverly done. But it’s a technique which punishes any lapse of attention in the reader, and could leave them floundering in the story’s wake as it accelerates into the climax as if making up for its earlier lapse.

While it has its flaws, Zoo City is a stylishly told noir in a bleak, intriguing universe which casts a dark reflection of our own. At its best moments it leaves you unsure whether that darkness is a property of the mirror itself, or of the subject standing before it.

This review was originally written for It was also written before Zoo City won this year's Arthur C Clarke Award.