Saturday 19 September 2015

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Witches of Lychford is a novella. It's one of the first in Tor's new effort to re-popularize a near-forgotten format, now that e-readers make it less expensive to take risks.

It is, however, much more than that: it's a real gem.

Despite a cover that looks unappealing (and very, very literary), this is a story which has more richness and flavour than you'd expect from its sepia cover.

Judith, a cranky old woman with a viciously belligerent, bed-ridden husband, is Lychford's last remaining witch. On a rare excursion out of her home, a sinister force attacks her. She fends it off, but wonders whether thinking about the controversy about a proposed supermarket has triggered the attack - and what exactly those plans might entail.

Lizzie is a pastor, going through the motions after having lost her faith when a playful act resulted in the death of her boyfriend a year ago. She's returned to Lychford in the hope of reconnecting with her faith surrounded by the community she grew up in. She does not care either way about the supermarket. Her main concern is that the controversy is tearing her community apart. When the executive sent out by the company puts a giant wad of cash in her collection plate, she has an irrational and overwhelmingly powerful aversion to touching the money. Soon, she finds herself drawn into the battle.

Autumn grew up with Lizzie, but their friendship fell apart when Lizzie was at university studying theology. A rationalist and atheist, Autumn wasn't keen on her best friend's choice. But there was something else, something that happened to her, which has turned her into the woman running a herbal magic shop while resisting the beliefs she is making her living on.

Three complex women, drawn in detail, end up in an adventure together, in a small English town that's struggling with modern times. Some of the blurbs made the novella sound like a funny romp, but actually, it is a more complex beast. There are moments of humour, but they are biting, more often than not. The evil our heroes are up against manages to be simultaneoulsy epic and utterly mundane in a way that you usually see in only the very best urban fantasy novels, except this is not an urban setting at all. Lychford is a village a bit like Wall in Stardust, except the places it borders are much more dangerous to the unprepared.

Every detail in this novella is interesting and authentic. If Hollywood producers (or the BBC) have any sense, they'll buy the rights immediately: there is enough depth and richness here for a superb movie, with just enough plot to fill a perfect movie length without the risk of losing anything. The novella is a beautiful gem that has more depth than many a novel, while being entertaining, fun and well-paced. It's not a word too long, not a word too short: it's practically perfect in every way.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday 5 September 2015

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a post-modern suburban-fantasy teen novel. Set in a world where, every generation or so, some big supernatural events occur which happen to be solved by teenagers, the book focuses on the regular teens instead.

The 'indie kids' are the ones who have the grand, world-saving adventures with zombies or vampires or Gods or aliens or multidimensional whatsits. Everyone knows who they are - the ones who keep themselves apart and whose names are pretentious and hipster-y. The ones who go through life-or-death stuff a lot, while forming their little Scooby Gangs, staying off the internet and Twitter and not really telling anyone else what's going on.

Meanwhile, Mikey, Mel, Henna, Jared, Meredith and Nathan are having their own problems. The final year of high school, the change in their lives that's imminent with most of them moving to different colleges, and the heartbreak, sexualities, attractions, anxieties and confusing matter of being teenagers. Not to mention their parents, who are bizarre and flawed and in some cases quite dysfunctional. Oh, and there's also OCD and anorexia in the mix...

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a much more serious teen novel than it sounds like from the blurbs. Each chapter starts with a one-paragraph summary of the 'indie kid' story that happens simultaneous to whatever Mikey's experiences are, but it's Mikey's everyday problems that the novel is built on. Occasionally, Mikey's path intersects with indie kid events, and his friends speculate about what this year's big hoo-hah might involve, but mostly, they try to avoid being caught up in those things. After all, who wants to be collateral damage?

Really, it's a novel about the transition that takes place at the end of school. These teens are about to have one of the biggest changes of their lives - from living at home with their parents and being surrounded by kids they grew up with to being thrown into a mix with strangers and living on their own - and they are half-excited, two-thirds-terrified. Some of them are damaged (Mikey has OCD episodes, his sister Mel once had a heart attack due to anorexia and malnourishment), and the relationships they have with each other don't fit the fairy tale stereotypes. There've been sexual experiments, there's been flirtations with polyamory, there is jealousy and awkwardness.

It's also a novel about anxiety and self-loathing and trying to deal with those. Mikey's jealous, often passive-aggressive or outright hostile, and self-consciously needy. He feels like he is always at the edges of his group of friends, the least necessary one, the one all the others could do without.

I found this book a hard read. The prose is easy, and the characterisation is spot on, but that's what makes it hard. It resonates. I remember that time all-too vividly. Mikey's view of himself resonates all the more, even now.

Meanwhile, the indie kid events are told with a certain amount of spite. This does not feel like the affectionate satire that stories like Redshirts and Galaxy Quest have mastered. This parody seems to resent the Buffys and Harry Potters and Twilights and Veronica Marses of the universe. Whenever they sit around to ponder events they do so with mocking extra corny adverbs in the description. They have the life-and-death adventures, they do their teenage moping and they keep themselves apart. They're walking talking parodies. No one minds much that so many of them die: it's expected.

Patrick Ness is a hugely talented author, and this book does exhibit truckloads of writerly craftsmanship, with spot-on characterisation, authentic dialogue, and a terribly smart understanding of teenagers. All of which makes this a literary achievement - but my desire to have fun and be entertained was disappointed by the novel. It's too serious for its premise.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

You can read an excerpt of Sorcerer to the Crown online.

Zacharias Whyte has just inherited the position of Sorcerer Royal from his mentor and adoptive father. Already, there are many who would like to see him fail, some who conspire against him. Mysteries surround the death of his mentor: how did he die, and where did his familiar, a small dragon, disappear to? What secrets is Zacharias keeping?

Prunella Gentleman is a young woman living in a school of magically gifted girls from high society. There, they are being taught means to keep their magic in check and repress their unnatural natures. But what if conventional wisdom is wrong - what if women are not too frail to be competent at sorcery?

Sorcerer to the Crown is one of the most eagerly anticipated fantasy debut novels this year. Only Aliette de Bodard's House of Shattered Wings is getting (slightly) more word of mouth in booky e-circles. So I've been keen to get my mitts on a copy for a while now.

Inevitably, the first comparison that springs to mind once you start reading is Susanna Clarke's classic Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Readers could be forgiven for thinking Sorcerer to the Crown is a sort of Strange & Norrell light. The setting is all-too similar: during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, English magic has been floundering and is in need of revival. Magic is governed by a society of stuffy noble men, as a sort of alternative to politics and priesthood for surplus younger sons. In comes a burst of magical talent from an unexpected direction, and the society of magicians gets flustered and alienated by the changes foisted upon it. Meanwhile, politicians want magic to solve foreign policy problems and assist in war and empire building efforts, while sorcerers need magic to remain aloof and respected, distanced from the grime of politics.

There are some key differences between Sorcerer and Strange & Norrell. Sorcerer to the Crown is a lot more light hearted in its narrative, and most of its characters are actually pleasant individuals. The writing voice isn't quite as infused with dry wit, but the story moves along at a brisker pace and with a lighter touch.

The other key difference is the very conscious decision to make this not yet another book about white men. Jonathan Strange had the outstanding semi-tragic black hero of Stephen Black as one of the minor characters. Sorcerer to the Crown puts a black male sorcerer (Zacharias Whyte) and a half-Indian female magical person (Prunella Gentleman) in the protagonists' chairs, and of the side characters, it's a South Asian witch who steals the show. Zacharias and Prunella are both outstandingly gifted, both adopted and mentored by well-meaning but quite patronising white noble people, and both used to repressing themselves in order to please their adoptive parental figures. Until things change, through death or betrayal of trust.

Of the two, it is Prunella who is more strong willed, single minded and proud. Zacharias is a scholar, with a tendency to isolate himself and keep aloof. Prunella is a social butterfly, outgoing and a force of nature.

If the novel were told through Zacharias' eyes, Prunella would be a manic pixie dream girl. But the book gives them equal space, which means we get a lot more Prunella (and insight into her) than Zacharias does. This de-pixies her and serves the novel well.

While it's light-hearted and fun, I did not love the novel entirely. Zacharias does not take the danger to his person seriously, so neither could I, which softens the drama. When the grand finale happens, the big confrontation is handled with a lightness that reminds me more of mid-season Doctor Who battles: it's a very tongue in cheek finale, and very very safe. It feels more like a story for children than young adults or adults at that point.

This lightness does not really work for me, in the context of a novel about disadvantaged people flourishing and succeeding against all odds. The novel does not have to get all po-faced and worthy, but when there are conspiracies to murder and do blood sacrifice, the intended victim should probably not shrug those things off. When there is a real risk of people being burnt alive, the people in question should probably not laugh at their persecutors.

Sorcerer to the Crown is a novel about girl power, attitude and inherited superpowers overcoming persecution, oppression and conspiracies. It makes the book fun and light, but it sells short the challenges involved, and it's lazy. It's very much like Doctor Who in that regard - The Doctor often beats his opponents with attitude and gobbledigook and a huge (sense of) superiority. This is why I dislike many episodes of Doctor Who. I like it no better when the character beating their opponents with attitude and surprises and a huge (sense of) superiority are ethnic minority sorcerers in Regency Britain. They never act like people who perceive themselves to be in genuine peril, and so their successes end up looking too easy, not earned.

Despite those criticisms, I enjoyed Sorcerer to the Crown. I will want to read the sequels when they come out: it's a promising start to a series, even if it errs a little on the sight of lightness.

Rating: 4/5