Saturday 14 November 2015

Planetfall by Emma Newman

I'd never heard of Emma Newman until I attended Worldcon in London last year. There, on the first day, an American lady started a conversation with me. Top topic, of course, was "which authors are you most excited about", and her instant answer was Emma Newman. She couldn't wait to sign up for a Kaffeeklatsch (small group chat with the author). She described the books and the podcast, and I was instantly intrigued.

As a result of that conversation, I attended Emma Newman's reading at that convention. She came across a little nervous and like an immensely likable, warm and quite intelligent person. The opening of Between Two Thorns was funny, intriguing and I bought it instantly. As it turned out, much as I loved the start, I did not love the book entirely. It mixed fun and magic and excitement with an undercurrent of psychological abuse, which made it hard for me to enjoy it. To put it differently, of the recent Disney movies, Tangled is the best, but its manipulative, passive aggressive villain is genuinely uncomfortable for me to watch - and Between Two Thorns had rather more of that sort of stuff than I can digest while still having a good time. (That said, if you enjoyed the second book in Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, then you're probably thick skinned enough to enjoy The Split Worlds novels)

Since then, I've seen Emma Newman at two other conventions: I attended a useful small group workshop on fear and writing which she ran, and which again showed her as a caring and intelligent woman, dealing with anxieties and trying hard to help others who are in the same boat - basically, she came across a little bit like a British Jenny Lawson, only less manic. And I also watched a live recording of the Tea & Jeopardy podcast.

So I was really hoping to love her new standalone novel Planetfall. A departure into science fiction, a different setting entirely, and perhaps, I hoped, a novel that would be more easy for me to enjoy.

Planetfall is the story of Renata, a woman living in a small colony on a new planet. The colony lives very long, easy lives: they are almost post-scarcity, careful to live entirely sustainably but assisted by biotechnology which makes this easy, and which lets them still be in their early middle age at age 70. She is different from the others - privacy is important to her, she keeps herself to herself, and as an engineer and a maker, she treasures and fixes things that other people don't bother thinking about. The rest of the colony live open lives, with a constant presence on social media and a very gossipy, nosy attitude, and not very much to do.

Renata's entire world begins to shake when a newcomer arrives at their colony: a young man who must have been born after Planetfall, the arrival of these settlers. He must be a descendant of the other people, those who arrived with them, but who had all been killed. Renata is one of only two settlers who know the terrible secrets of that disaster. The other is Mack, the inofficial leader of their colony.

Dark secrets, life on a different planet, a future that includes social media and cloud computing and 3D printing? It's a promising, well thought through, excitingly different setting for a novel. I got entirely absorbed by Planetfall. It's engrossing and tense. It's also intelligent, featuring a complex protagonist and various interesting ideas. Characterisation is excellent when it comes to Renata, Mack and several other key characters, but perhaps a little thinner for the rest of the colony.

As a literary achievement and as a scifi thriller, the book is no disappointment at all. The problem for me is that it turned me into a nervous wreck as I read it. One of its themes is mental illness, and this was handled realistically, convincingly, and, for me, gut-wrenchingly. A lot of it hit very close to home, and much of the final act was utterly devastating for me as a reader. I suspect the same may not be true for most, or even many, readers, but yeah: this book made me feel bad inside. That's not what I was hoping for, and not what I read for. If I believed in 'trigger warnings' (which I don't), then this book would need a fairly substantial one for my personal issues.

That said, as a thoughtful, clever, complex, authentic and well-written thriller, this book is an excellent achievement. It just isn't the book for me at this time.

Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday 8 November 2015

The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

The Severed Streets is the second book in a new series which began with London Falling. You could describe this series as a darker, grittier sibling to Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant novels: Paul Cornell's London is also full of magic, but bereft of humour and warmth.

Our four police officers who have been blessed / cursed with The Sight, which lets them perceive the supernatural, have just about recovered from the traumatic events of the previous novel. They work from their little portakabin and wait for a new case to arise which requires their expertise. Lo and behold, a LibDem MP gets brutally eviscerated in his locked limousine. There's no weapon in the car, the driver insists he didn't do it, and CCTV shows no one getting in or out...

Paul Cornell makes some interesting choices in the writing of this novel. For one, he instantly dates it by setting it during the Con-Dem-Nation coalition government. He creates thinly veiled replicas of real people and events: a media baron who is a thinly disguised Viscount Rothermere (called Russel Vincent in the novel), protests based on the London Riots but set in post-Olympic-Games-London, masks based on the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks made popular by Anonymous, but consistently and irritatingly described as 'Toff masks'... but then real people also appear in his book. Frankie Boyle makes a cameo. Neil Gaiman makes an appearance that seemingly starts out as cameo and then develops into a full blown story arc. I thought it's more common for age-defining authors to get fictionalised posthumously (Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen etc.), so the appearance of Neil Gaiman was a bit of a surprise, and when he got involved in the plot, well, let's just say Paul Cornell had better be a good friend of Neil Gaiman...

There is something mischievous and a little transgressive about this aspect of the book, but also just a tiny bit frustrating. Paul Cornell's Neil Gaiman talks about similar sorts of things as the real one (stories, Neverwhere, bees), but he does not quite sound like real Neil, or perhaps the opposite - perhaps he sounded a bit too matter-of-fact and authentic, and I sort of expected something a little grander.

OK, Neil Gaiman out of the way, the Severed Streets is a grim dark, horror-filled urban fantasy. The Smiling Man continues to be behind things, and the attacker eviscerates quite a few people using the riots for cover (wearing a protester's mask, rising from crowds & flying off, invisible to those without The Sight), while two of our police officers are obsessed with their own problems - getting a father out of hell, and trying to avoid going to hell, respectively. There are some betrayals, some schemes, a lot of individual actions - basically, if our team finally learnt to work as a team in book one, they are now again working quite independently and with serious obstacles to fully trusting and sharing information with each other. They keep running off without telling any of the others what they're up to.

The book may spill more blood than the first, but is a less gruelling read: this time, no children get boiled alive, and while there's plenty castrations, the horror is less emotional than it was in London Falling. There's a lot of work in creating something uncanny, but it feels a little uncanny-by-the-numbers. If it's ever turned into a movie, I think Terry Gilliam should direct it.

The Severed Streets is an engrossing read, relentlessly grim, with a few emotional gut-punches, but none that equal those surprises that made the first book so harrowing towards its finale. The series is definitely worth a look for people who like urban fantasy, but not perhaps the series of choice if you're in the mood for something cheery and light. While The Severed Streets does explain and sum up some of the key events from the first book, I doubt it works very well as a standalone - start with London Falling if you have not read that yet.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 1 November 2015

London Falling by Paul Cornell

London Falling is an urban fantasy novel set in the most fantastical city in the world - London. There is really no other city as suitable and rich for urban fantasy as London.

London Falling is also a police story, with a small squad of police at its heart. Our protagonists are two undercover agents, their supervisor and a backroom techie. The novel starts as a multi-month operation is about to come to its end, on New Year's Eve. The mob boss they've been trailing is frantically taking his crew around different houses, while the higher ups in the police have scrapped their operation's budget, so they need to make their arrest that night, irrespective of whether they have enough evidence to make prosecution viable or not. The pressure is on.

There are tensions in the team - or rather, they are really not a team at all yet. Instead, they are four people who work on the same project, but rarely together and each laden with resentments towards some or all of the others.

The mob boss, meanwhile, is coming to the end of a ten year reign of unimpeachable crimes, having taken over every other gang in his territory without ever getting into a bloody war. He's used his private room to do so, and there is an air of secrecy around his working methods. No one, not his closest allies, have any idea how he did what he did.

As it's an urban fantasy, you might guess that the supernatural is involved. Things very quickly spiral out of hand, and our crew of coppers spend the rest of the book trying to adjust to a new perspective on the world, trying to become a well-functioning team, but, most of all, trying to catch and eliminate a major baddie.

London Falling differs from Ben Aaronovitch's magical London police procedural in tone (it does not go for 'funny') and in approach (there is no wise magical mentor, just four police officers trying to learn as they go). It's very much a thriller, with heavy doses of peril, gruesome crimes, and gut-wrenching plot developments that damn near made me tear up at one point.

It does take a while to find its feet, and some of the personal histories / demons of the characters felt a smidgen by-the-numbers. The supernatural London also differed from that in other books in being almost entirely sinister - a thing to be feared. While this worked well in terms of creating an atmosphere or peril, it deprived this London of complexity. To draw comparisons: Hellboy 2 is a much superior movie to Hellboy for many reasons, but one of the big ones is that in the sequel, a very richly drawn supernatural coexists with the mundane, and we get glimpses of an otherworld that is not just full of monsters, but filled with the magical everyday, with non-human characters living independent lives, especially in the Faerie Market. It is that sort of perspective which is missing in London Falling (as it was also largely missing in the first Hellboy movie).

London Falling is a good, entertaining, thrilling read. It's a lot darker than other recent offerings of urban fantasy, with heavy elements of horror. I have high hopes for the series as it develops, but this is definitely a satisfying start.

Rating: 4/5