Monday, 21 May 2018

Review: Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Pet Sematary is the first Stephen King novel I'd heard of. Its German title, "Friedhof der Kuscheltiere", lacks the child-like spelling of "sematary" and instead translates as "Cemetery of the cuddly animals" (not "pets" but actually the word used for teddy bears and other stuffed toys). Perhaps for that reason, it was a book that you'd see in a lot of kids' hands back when I went to school...

I'm not sure what kids got out of the book, to be honest. The story of Louis Creed and his family, moving into a house next to an old native burial ground somewhere in Maine, works best when it covers the sentiments and secret thoughts of a husband and father.

Louis, a doctor taking a new job as head of the campus medical service at a small university, is not exactly a protagonist that I would have had much in common with as a child, either. His children, in turn, are a toddler (Gage) and a primary school aged girl (Ellie) - both well below the age of teenagers reading this stuff. So basically, the attraction of the book is its title, and the promise of cuddly pets as a source of scares...

The book starts on the day Louis and co move into their mansion (it's one of those American houses that is clearly bigger than any normal house in Europe). Nerves are frayed, and Louis fantasizes about running away to Disneyland (Disneyland being a recurring theme in the book) and leaving his family and cat by the side of the road. Barely up the driveway, his new neighbour Judd Crandall pops over, just as the toddler got stung by a bee and the girl twisted her ankle and general mayhem reached its peak.

It's Judd who warns Louis that the road between their houses has been many a pet's undoing, and is a danger to children. And it's Judd who, some days later, takes the family on an outing to the Pet Sematary, where local children bury their beloved pets in a pattern of spiralling plots. But there is a deadfall (trees felled by a storm) at its edge, and Judd warns the family never to try and climb it...

Pet Sematary has the usual Stephen King tone, that somewhat chummy, drawling, narrative voice which lulls the reader like the movement of a slow but comfortable train on ancient railway tracks. It frequently hints at things to come, sometimes a chapter or two in advance, sometimes more than that. It keeps you reading even when not much is happening to Louis or his family. Some of the glimpses of the future don't quite fit with the ending, in my mind, so there's a bit of a sense of discontinuity.

To my mind, the novel is at its most engaging when King writes about the relationships between people, and their inner lives. It's at its most horrifying in a scene of mundane disaster. All the supernatural stuff, all the "horror" of the novel, is actually not exactly scary. Perhaps this is a failure of my imagination: I can find movies scary, and I can find myself scared at night when unidentified noises haunt the house or when walking alone in darkness, but books? Somehow, I rarely find books scary. Pet Sematary is no exception. If golf is a perfectly good walk ruined by that business with the sticks and balls, then King's horror novels are perfectly good mundane literary novels ruined by the horror bits.

It's readable enough, in that chummy Stephen King way. It's not quite the transgressive novel King seems to think it is in his introduction, but perhaps grown ups with children and families will react more strongly to it than I did.

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Book Review: One Way by S.J. Morden

One Way by S J Morden tells the story of Frank, a convict whose prison sentence long exceeds his life span. One day, a mysterious visitor makes him an offer he can't refuse: instead of spending the rest of his natural life in the prison he's in, he could be trained to go to Mars, and live out his life there, building the first Mars base. It's a one way ticket, and legally the Mars Base would count as prison, but at least his life would be filled once again with achievement...

One Way is a novel that is possibly being slightly mis-sold: the blurb sells it as a murder mystery on Mars, with a small handful of suspects. If you buy it expecting a blue collar Agatha Christie novel on Mars, you may be slightly disappointed: the bulk of the story takes place before the whodunnit begins. However, that's not a bad thing: the book earns its way to Mars, carefully building up the characters and the preparation before delivering a cracking space adventure that doesn't have to hide in the shadow of The Martian.

One Way is a great science fiction read. In fact, its science is barely fictional and mostly current, rather than futuristic. It's also a great adventure novel, a great thriller, with an all-too-believable central premise. If there is a flaw, it's that the thing it's sold for - the whodunnit - isn't all that mysterious, once that part of the plot kicks in.

It's hard not to compare One Way with The Martian, as it features the same phraseology (talk about "the hab", hydrazine, air locks) and some of the basic premise (staged deliveries to the surface of the planet before the astronauts arrive, a botanist growing food inside the hab, Mars rovers, small nuclear reactors, and sand storms), and a comparable sense of peril as Mars is a more hostile environment than our characters are quite ready for. However, One Way doesn't go down the humorous route in the way The Martian did, focusing instead on a tense interplay between characters who don't have much reason to trust or like each other. The Martian is a fundamentally optimistic novel about people working together against all odds, and a hero never losing his sense of humour as he faces one challenge at a time. The Martian has no villain. One Way is a much more grim-faced look at how Mars might be explored by the likes of Jeff Bezos, written in a time where optimism is thin on the ground and moral bankruptcy and corruption are dominating global news. In One Way, everyone is a villain and there are no heroes. It's the Trump era's answer to The Martian of the Obama era...

A cracking thriller, compelling and convincing.

Rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Tiger and the Wolf is one of those books that's hard to miss in book shops, with its gorgeous, striking cover and metallic glinting patterns. Even so, the back cover text never appealed to me, so I only picked up the book after reading something else by Adrian Tchaikovsky which convinced me that he is a good writer.

Maniye, daughter of a clan chieftain of the wolf tribe, is on the cusp of passing into adulthood. But passing the rite might not go well: the tribe's shaman has a special, hostile interest in her, and she has a secret that none of her peers must find out. In her live two souls, for she is not just of the Wolf, but also of the Tiger, whose tribe has been at war with the wolf tribe since before she was born. If her other soul is revealed, her life will be forfeit.

To make things worse, she is a bit of a runt of the pack - small, without friends, and utterly alone. When her father returns from an annual rite having taken prisoner a stranger, a priest from the snake tribe, foreign to these lands, Maniye finds a mind she cannot help but be intrigued by - even though her father intends to sacrifice the Snake to his god...

The Tiger and the Wolf is set in The Crown (far North) of a world where all humans have totem animals, whose souls they share, and whose shapes they can "Step" into, which comes in  handy in combat. It's a striking setting, and one which is likely to make for a very visually satisfying TV show one day. The plot lives up to the setting: Maniye's adventures never get boring. Relentless pursuits, a merciless winter, friends and foes - the book is richly seeded with chances for Maniye to prove her worth, run away with her tail between her legs, or suffer a grim fate.

It's not just Maniye's story, however. We do get other viewpoint characters, and other plot lines which intersect with hers. It took me a while to realise that The Tiger and the Wolf was building up, in its own way, a panorama of a world which is no less detailed, nor less epic, than the Song of Ice and Fire series. Similarly, there is a ruthlessness infused in the tale - characters have motivations and limitations and survival is never a given. There is also great cruelty - albeit fortunately the book never becomes as seedy and filled with sexual violence as GRRM's magnum opus. Still, if you are squeamish about brutality, Tiger and the Wolf is likely to make you very uncomfortable indeed.

Aside from being less seedy, Tiger and the Wolf also sets itself apart from Song of Ice and Fire (and the many books that try to emulate its style) by having fewer villains and more characters who try to be decent human beings, even if their world is a harsh and unforgiving one. No, it's not a kindness-fest of people being nice at each other. Instead, it's a novel where ruthlessness is balanced by a degree of human decency, and where evil is more often the result of necessity or tradition than a choice actively sought out. This makes the book much less unpleasant than Song of Ice and Fire - you don't feel as if you've just soiled your brain in grimy muck when you finish reading.

There are some relatively superficial flaws. Maniye spends a lot of the book being chased, but as a runt, I often struggled to see how she escaped from the jaws of her pursuers. Furthermore, there are some stylistic devices which are a little overused. Perhaps the latter is unavoidable in a 600-page epic.

On the whole, anyone who enjoys their fantasy novels big, epic, harsh and tense will appreciate The Tiger and the Wolf. It's not just a case of Song of Ice and Fire mimicry, but a book which is truly a peer of that other epic, matching its grandeur and, for my taste, frequently exceeding SoIaF's quality. It's a cracking read.

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Hugo Nominations

So, these are the Hugo nominations I have just submitted, with bold on the ones I want to win the Hugo:

Your nominations for Best Novel:

  • La Belle Sauvage / Philip Pullman 
  • Clockwork Boys / T Kingfisher 
  • The Ninth Rain / Jen Williams 
  • Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook / Christina Henry 

Your nominations for Best Series:
  • The Memoirs of Lady Trent / Marie Brennan 

Your nominations for Award for Best Young Adult Book (not a Hugo):
  • La Belle Sauvage / Philip Pullman
  • Shadowblack / Sebastien de Castell
  • A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars / Yaba Badoe
  • The Girl with the Red Balloon / Katherine Locke
  • Spellslinger / Sebastien de Castell

Your nominations for Award for Best Related Work
  • Worldbuilders 2017 / Patrick Rothfuss

Your nominations for The John W. Campbell Award (not a Hugo):
  • G. V. Anderson: Das Steingeschöpf (published in Strange Horizons, December 2016)
  • Stephanie Garber: Caraval

Monday, 5 March 2018

Review: The Komarovs by Chico Kidd

The Komarovs is a short novel in the style of mid-twentieth-century pulp fiction. The story takes place in a travelling circus / fairground in Lisbon, where a ship's crew and a bunch of carnies are about to find themselves embroiled in an adventure with zombies, murderers, ghosts and villains...

There's a lot to enjoy about The Komarovs. A fast pace, a larger-than-life plot, and a strong affection for pulp fiction style and substance all make this a fun, quick read. I was never quite sure when the story is set - it could be any time from 1850 to 1990 as far as I can tell - before mobile phones, but after the rise of freak shows and such entertainments.

While it's fun, the story does run into the limits of its medium and length: as a short ensemble piece, we never spend enough time with any of the characters to really get to know them. The most central character is Captain da Silva, who can see ghosts and perform necromancy, but even he barely gets enough time to grumble "I'm getting too old for this shit" (with a few Portuguese expressions thrown in for flavour) before he is embroiled in one action scene after another. It's obvious that there is more back story - this is not the first story about da Silva and his crew - but as a standalone story, the characters are not quite as fleshed out as one would like.

Aside from da Silva, each of the other viewpoint characters is a bit one dimensional. So we have Harris; the werewolf; Sabrina, the he-she (androgynous person); the Komarovs, the evil Siamese twins; Benjamin, the Negro; Zriny, the metre man and circus director, etc.

So, you may have noticed words like "he-she" and "Negro" in the previous paragraph...

The image in my mind when I read "the Negro"
I must admit, it's been a while since I read a book which used the word "Negro". I'm guessing this means the story is set a bit further in the past (early 20th century rather than late), and it almost certainly is meant to place the writerly voice in that time, too, adding to the flavour of the text. It does, however, grate a little bit when about 80% of the references to a character aren't by his name, but simple "the Negro". This sort of referencing is not purely limited to Benjamin - the dwarf circus director is largely referred to as "the metre man", but poor Benjamin certainly gets the brunt of it. I ended up imagining Benjamin as Duplicatha / Flaturtha from the Asterix comics, and it felt like a clumsy writerly choice to me, because it was uncomfortable to read.

So, as long as you can ignore a somewhat un-PC narrative voice, and if you like 1940s style pulp fiction, The Komarovs is a pleasant enough diversion. I would, however, recommend finding the first of the da Silva stories and starting there, rather than starting with the Komarovs, which is apparently a sequel...

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Review: Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher / Ursula Vernon

So I've been a bit quiet on this blog for the past few months. There have been a few changes in my life, which affected my ability to concentrate on books while reading (or, to be honest, to concentrate on any one thing in general). I've kept at it, but without succeeding at getting absorbed in the books -  even ones where I could sense the quality of writing and plot. I felt it would have been unfair to write reviews under those conditions.

One theme that has developed is that I rather like the books and stories of Ursula Vernon / T Kingfisher. I loved Digger when I read it. I also read her short stories (one of which won the Hugo last year) and have been reading her other novels, novellas and novelettes. It's been immensely frustrating to read something as good as A Summer in Orcus while lacking the ability to concentrate. I could tell, while reading it, that it was just the sort of story I love, and yet, my brain felt as if the gas of narrative was flowing but the pilot light had gone out and the igniter wouldn't spark and fire up the imagination. I could tell that the problem was in my brain and not in the story. I'm not sure how else to describe it. A very alienating sensation indeed.

The Clockwork Boys stood out because it was the first book in quite a while where even my hard-to-ignite brain finally caught, and stayed properly engrossed. It's the story of Slate, a woman forger, and the band of not-terribly-merry men she leads on a quest of espionage and subterfuge. There's no-longer-Lord Caliban, a paladin / magical knight who used to fight demons until he himself got unlucky enough to be possessed by one, with utterly devastating consequences. There's Brenner, a professional assassin and Slate's Ex, who adds a sense of bemused menace to every scene he is in. And there's Learned Edmund, a teenage monk who is worried his genitals will fall off and his bowels will liquify if he has to suffer the presence of a woman - which poses a bit of a challenge on a mission led by one. Their mission is to steal the secret of the "Clockwork Boys" - ambulatory war machines that devastate anything in their path. But first, they have to get to the enemy heartland, which is a challenge all in itself...

Clockwork Boys works wonderfully because of the way our questing group is thrown (forced) together, and the way they interact. The best comparison I can think of is Jen Williams's equally superb The Ninth Rain, where trust and friendship between protagonists are also slowly built and earned, while a charismatic female leader drives the mission onwards. However, The Clockwork Boys is a little more light-footed: it's an adventure romp first and foremost, never stopping to be fun. (The Ninth Rain is a bit more serious, with complex character traumas and serious themes weaved into the book).

T Kingfisher / Ursula Vernon has a wry sense of humour. Her books often feel a bit like the Terry Pratchett novels featuring Granny Weatherwax or Tiffany Aching, because the way female characters navigate their worlds and problems reminds me very much of Granny or Tiffany. The writing doesn't chase laughs with the same frequency and persistence as Pratchett, but there's bound to be a chuckle or a smile on almost every page, which makes the book a joy to read. Clockwork Boys is especially funny when our little group first has to ride horses - which neither Slate nor Brenner are used to, to say the least.

The only problem is that this is the first book in a serialised story, so it feels like reading an actually enjoyable "Fellowship of the Ring" and then having to wait for the next instalment. It doesn't quite feel like a standalone novel.

That said, it's fun, pacey, funny, absorbing, full of enjoyable characters to be around and a group dynamic that has chemistry and intrigue and the best time I've had with a book in months. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Book Review: Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing is a novel set in 1949 in an alternative history version of England. The war with Germany is over. After the British humiliation at Dunkirk, Rudolf Hess' flight to the UK ended not in his lifelong imprisonment, but in a negotiated "Peace with Honour" along the lines that Hess proposed: the two nations no longer fought each other, leaving Germany free to concentrate on Hitler's campaign in Russia and Britain free to keep an iron grip on its Empire. Germany is still at war, but Britain is at peace, and the war never really turned into a World War...

Lucy, our protagonist, is the daughter of two of the aristocrats involved in arranging this outcome. Known as "the Farthing set", these aristocrats and conservative politicians have faded from the political mainstream after successfully outmanoeuvring Churchill and making peace with Hitler.

When Lucy married a Jewish banker working on microloans to help disadvantaged people, her mother was horrified. A Jew in her family - such an outrage! So it is a surprise when Lucy and her husband are invited to a weekend party in her parents' countryside manor.

An even bigger surprise is revealed in the morning, when one of the key Farthing Set politicians is found dead, with a yellow felt star stabbed into his chest. So begins a murder mystery unlike any other I've read. A smart inspector, supported by his earnest constable, is investigating the case. Immense pressure rides on its outcome - and keeping a bunch of very rich and powerful people restricted to a manor house quickly turns out to  be half the challenge.

Meanwhile, Lucy's husband quickly finds himself the prime suspect. Over the next few days, secrets, intrigue, and a growing number of bodies turn the investigation into an ever-more-complex mystery.

Farthing is not just outstanding because the mystery at the heart of the plot is a well-executed homage to Agatha Christie style crime fiction. Nor is it the alternative history that makes the novel remarkable. Instead, it is the cast of worryingly authentic characters. Lucy, a former socialite whose motive for loving her husband is at least in part a rebellion against her unpleasant mother, is a flighty, shallow heroine to begin with. A homosexual inspector who, like most of British society, is antisemitic, but who does not let his prejudices colour his investigation. Antisemitism and prejudice (and people's responses to both) are handled very authentically in the novel. The plot progresses very smoothly from pure crime mystery to something much more thoughtful.

To be honest, I didn't expect to like Farthing. While I generally very much enjoy Jo Walton's work, I also happen to have a dislike of fiction set in WW2 / Nazi times, and a dislike of period fiction about aristocrats flouncing about in period dress. Farthing was thus a novel that I bought (due to being a fan of Jo Walton) and then ignored on my Kindle for years (due to its subject matter & cover). I'm glad that I eventually gave it a try. It's a smart, tense, compelling novel, worthy of praise for its originality, its pace, and especially for its authenticity.

Rating: 5/5