Thursday, 25 August 2016

Book Review | The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin


The season of endings grows darker, as civilisation fades into the long cold night.

Essun—once Damaya, once Syenite, now avenger—has found shelter, but not her daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request. But if Essun does what he asks, it would seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

Far away, her daughter Nassun is growing in power—and her choices will break the world.

***

Middle volume syndrome sets in in the surprisingly circumspect sequel to one of the best and bravest books of 2015. Though the world remains remarkable, and the characters at the heart of the narrative are as rich and resonant as ever, The Obelisk Gate sacrifices The Fifth Season's substance and sense of momentum for a far slighter and slower story.

In the Stillness, a perpetually apocalyptic landscape which may or may not be our planet many generations hence, purpose is a pre-requisite. A use-caste, it's called. There are strongbacks and breeders and cutters and hunters, to name just a few, all of whom are defined by what they do; by what they can contribute to the communities, or comms, that they call home.

This is a hard world, however, replete with hard people. Season after Season—of widespread death by choking, boiling and breathlessness among other, equally unpleasant ends—has seen to that, so no comm will carry you if you're not prepared to pull your weight in some way. In the Stillness, there's just no place for waste.

No place for orogenes like our heroes, either. Able as they are to manipulate thermal and kinetic energy, orogenes, or roggas, have huge power, and with it, responsibility. That they could choose to behave irresponsibly, or behave in that fashion by accident, represents a risk most of the men and women of this world aren't willing to take. To wit, orogenes are either slaughtered as soon as they start exhibiting abilities, or sent to the Fulcrum, to be trained; some might say tamed.

Dear little Damaya, The Fifth Season's first perspective, was one such soul, summarily taken from her parents simply because she was different. At the Fulcrum, she was shaped—through pain and the promise of gain—into Syenite, said text's second perspective, but when, years later, she discovered the depths of the depravity underpinning this facility, she escaped, and again changed her name. As Essun, the third of The Fifth Season's three POVs, she met a man and had a family, all while hiding what she was, as well as what her children were... just as N. K. Jemisin hid the fact that her novel's seemingly separate narrators were one and the same.

That discovery packed a proper punch, but it's a known quantity now—as indeed is Essun's deception.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Book Review | I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas


For fans of legendary pulp author H. P. Lovecraft, there is nothing bigger than the annual Providence-based convention the Summer Tentacular. Horror writer Colleen Danzig doesn’t know what to expect when she arrives, but is unsettled to find that among the hobnobbing between scholars and literary critics are a group of real freaks: book collectors looking for volumes bound in human skin, and true believers claiming the power to summon the Elder God Cthulhu, one of their idol’s most horrific fictional creations, before the weekend is out.

Colleen’s trip spirals into a nightmare when her roommate for the weekend, an obnoxious novelist known as Panossian, turns up dead, his face neatly removed. What’s more unsettling is that, in the aftermath of the murder, there is little concern among the convention goers. The Summer Tentacular continues uninterrupted, except by a few bumbling police.

Everyone at the convention is a possible suspect, but only Colleen seems to show any interest in solving the murder. So she delves deep into the darkness, where occult truths have been lurking since the beginning of time. A darkness where Panossian is waiting, spending a lot of time thinking about Colleen, narrating a new Lovecraftian tale that could very well spell her doom.

***

Ahead of Ian McEwan's literary nasty Nutshell, a fable of infidelity readers will only be able to experience from the perspective of a foetus, I Am Providence proffers a murder mystery narrated in no small part by the victim of that very vicious killing in the moments before his failing brain cracks and crumbles like "a sponge drying in the sun." (p.162)

Panos Panossian is an utterly insufferable author of Lovecraftian lore, so it's either fitting or simply suspicious that he meets his maker on the first day of the annual Summer Tentacular. "Providence's premiere literary conference about pulp-writer, racist, and weirdo Howard Phillips Lovecraft" (p.1) features, funnily enough, "a veritable 'Who's That?' of horror fiction," (p.30) including one Colleen Danzig. A newcomer to mythos mania with just a few short stories to her name, she was set to share a room with Panossian, but when the con goes on despite his death, Colleen decides to determine just whodunnit. After all, "if anything is possible, then yes, an untrained writer could find a murderer." (p.173)

Not just a murderer, but a mutilator too, because to add insult to injury, the killer, whoever he or she may be, purloined poor Panossian's face in addition to his future...

Singularly sickening as the murder this mystery revolves around is, if the truth be told, there's no shortage of suspects in Nick Mamatas' scathing portrayal of Lovecraftian fandom:
The Tentacular was a strangely aggressive environment—writers jockeying for position, people bellowing at one another, men sneering at women out of some abject simultaneous attraction and repulsion. It was high school all over again, except that all the kids with a measure of social intelligence were at the homecoming dance and the kids left behind were the meatheads, glue-sniffers, nerds, and minor league bullies. Geeks who liked to show off their knowledge of esoteric subjects, the more repulsive, the better. (p.74)
That last—"the more repulsive, the better"—may well have been Mamatas' mantra whilst working on I Am Providence, because it is, if not a horrid novel, then a novel of horridness. Almost all of its characters are creeps, not least Colleen, who is so cavalier and careless in her pursuit of the truth that she points the finger at pretty much everyone she meets, such that it's no wonder she hasn't made a great many friends by the end.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Book Review | The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp


Jack Sparks died while writing this book.

It was no secret that journalist Jack Sparks had been researching the occult for his new book. No stranger to controversy, he'd already triggered a furious Twitter storm by mocking an exorcism he witnessed. Then there was that video: forty seconds of chilling footage that Jack repeatedly claimed was not of his making, yet was posted from his own YouTube account. 

Nobody knew what happened to Jack in the days that followed—until now.

***

If Hunter S. Thompson had written a Blair Witch tie-in, it might have looked a little something like this. A gonzo ghost story that trades in unreliable narration and drug-fuelled devastation, The Last Days of Jack Sparks marks the original fiction debut of music journalist and now novelist Jason Arnopp, and has as its central character a man who made his name writing for the NME before properly letting loose in a few bestselling books.

That's where the similarities between the author and the authored end, however. I have reason to believe that Jason Arnopp is a genuinely decent human being, whereas Jack Sparks is an egotistical twit who, for his first trick, travelled the length and breadth of Great Britain on a pogo stick, offending everyone he encountered equally. Since then, he's gobbled up gang culture and gotten close to a couple of Class A chemical concoctions, with similarly repugnant results.

Now, for his new novel, he's set his sights on a Halloween theme. Could ghosts really be real? Our intrepid reporter wants to know. So much so that Jack Sparks on the Supernatural will be his last book, because he died, quite violently, while writing it.

We learn this thanks to Jack Sparks' estranged brother Alastair, who footnotes and provides a foreword for the first draft of the found fiction that follows:
The decision to publish Jack Sparks on the Supernatural in its entirely uncensored form was in no way taken lightly, and I know how very difficult it is for the bereaved to read accounts of such horrendous events. Yet I also hope this book may yield some form of closure and put an end to unhelpful internet speculation—not least concerning the nature of my brother's death. (p.8)
Be warned, though, that Alastair's intentions might not be so wholly noble. "Believe me," he begs—but why should we? There's something defensive, dare I say desperate, about his abrupt introduction. And not long later, we learn that he and his brother weren't even on speaking terms towards the end of Jack's tenure. Might Alastair have an axe of his own to grind?

Jack indubitably does. He's a man on a mission at the outset of his ultimate effort: not to find evidence of things that go bump in the night, but to disprove every indication that they may. To wit, he sits in on an exorcism in Italy; laughs out loud as he live-tweets it, even. What he sees that day is hard to explain away, but Jack is determined to do so, or die trying.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Book Review | The Race by Nina Allan


In a future scarred by fracking and ecological collapse, Jenna Hoolman's world is dominated by illegal smartdog racing: greyhounds genetically modified with human DNA. When her young niece goes missing that world implodes.

Christy’s life is dominated by fear of her brother, a man she knows capable of monstrous acts and suspects of hiding even darker ones. Desperate to learn the truth she contacts Alex, who has his own demons to fight. Last but not least there's Maree, a young woman undertaking a journey that will change her world forever.

The Race weaves multiple together story threads and realities to take us on a gripping and spellbinding journey.

***

If I were to start this article by stating that The Race is the best debut of the year to date, I'd be telling the truth, to be sure, but I'd be lying to you, too—and that's as apt a tack as any I could take to introduce a review of a book as deceptive and self-reflexive as said.

You see, it might be that I was more moved by Nina Allan's first novel than by any other released in recent months—emotionally and, yes, intellectually—but The Race was not released in recent months, not really: NewCon Press published an earlier edition in 2014, which, even absent the substantial and supremely satisfying expansion Allan has added for Titan Books' new and indubitably improved take two, went on to be nominated for the BSFA's Best Novel Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Prize and the Kitschies' Red Tentacle. And although The Race is indeed Allan's first novel proper, it is, in a sense, a cycle of stories that share subjects and settings, not unlike several of the aforementioned author's earlier efforts, such as Stardust and The Silver Wind.

So it's not really a debut and it wasn't really released this year, which leaves just one of my first line's facts unfudged. Happily, The Race actually is amazing, and if you haven't read it already, don't let this second chance pass you by.

The Race is a book about longing, and belonging. It's a book about identity—how it's formed for us, and how we go on to fit it to ourselves or else ourselves to it. It's a book that teaches us the value of family; the damage those nearest and dearest to us can do, and the good things, too. It's a book that instructs us to take the measure of our previous experiences before moving fully into the future.

It's a book, for the first hundred pages and change, about Jenna Hoolman, who lives in a former gas town with what's left of her family; with her brother Del and his oddball daughter Lumey. Sapphire's glory days are long gone, alas. "It's what you might call an open secret that the entire economy of Sapphire as it is now is funded upon smartdog racing. Officially the sport is still illegal, but that's never stopped it from being huge." (p.11)

Smartdog racing is the practice of gambling on greyhounds that have been genetically engineered to have an lifelong link with their runners, which is what the men and women who train and care for these incredibly clever creatures are called. Some people believe they're mind readers, but not Jen's boyfriend Em:
"I think true telepathy—the kind you see in films—is probably a myth. But something approaching it, definitely. A kind of empathic sixth sense. The work that's been done with the smartdogs is just the start. All runners are natural empaths to an extent, we've known that for a long time. The implant is just a facilitator for their inborn talent. Children like Lumey though—children who don't need an implant at all to communicate—they're the next stage. A new race, almost. And yes [...] that would make her very valuable indeed." (pp.129-130)
Valuable enough to kidnap and hold to ransom, to truly devastating effect, not least because the only way Del knows how to raise the money to buy Lumey back from her captors is to wager a sizable sum on his smartdog, Limlasker, winning the Delawarr Triple. "What it came down to was this: Del was proposing to bet his daughter's life on a sodding dog race." (p.67) The race Allan's title refers to, right?

Well, you know... yes and no.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Book Review | This Savage Song by V. E. Schwab


Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city, a grisly metropolis where the violence has begun to create real and deadly monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the inhabitants pay for his protection. August just wants to be human, as good-hearted as his own father but his curse is to be what the humans fear. The thin truce that keeps the Harker and Flynn families at peace is crumbling, and an assassination attempt forces Kate and August into a tenuous alliance. But how long will they survive in a city where no one is safe and monsters are real...

***

A girl who wants to be a monster and a monster who wants to be a boy learn that you can't always get what they you in This Savage Song, a refreshingly unromantic urban fantasy bolstered by a brilliantly built background and a pair of expertly crafted characters more interested in making the best of their bad lots than in bumping uglies.

Though we're given a gaggle of glimpses of the wasted world that surrounds it on all sides, the first volume of V. E. Schwab's Monsters of Verity series takes place primarily in V-City, twelve years on from something called the Phenomenon: an apocalypse of sorts which means, for whatever reason, that monsters are born whenever humans do wrong.
The Corsai seemed to come from violent, but nonlethal acts, and the Malchai stemmed from murders, but the Sunai, it was believed, came from the darkest crimes of all: bombings, shootings, massacres, events that claimed not only one life, but many. All that pain and death coalescing into something truly terrible; if a monster's catalyst informed its nature, then the Sunai were the worst things to go bump in the night. (p.190)
That's what a lot of the people who live in V-City think, particularly those who've chosen to pay for the privilege, but August Flynn is one such Sunai, and he isn't evil in the least. Sure, he swallows souls whole, but only the souls of sinners, and only then when he absolutely has to.

The saviour who took August in in the wake of whatever catastrophe created him has managed to make lemonade out of those very lemons, however, by using said Sunai's nightmarish nature to do good. As the founder of the FTF, an organisation which keeps the South side of this split city safe, Henry Flynn has enlisted August and his kin to seek out and eat bad people. He's also "the only man willing to stand up to a glorified criminal and fight." (p.38)

That glorified criminal is Callum Harker, the enterprising mind behind the protection racket that keeps the Corsai and the Malchai at bay beyond the bounds of Henry's territory, and our other protagonist's father.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Book Review | Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell by Paul Kane


Late 1895. Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Dr John Watson are called upon to investigate a missing persons case. On the face of it, this seems like a mystery that Holmes might relish, as the person in question vanished from a locked room. But this is just the start of an investigation that will draw the pair into contact with a shadowy organisation talked about in whispers, known only as the Order of the Gash.

As more people go missing in a similar fashion, the clues point to a sinister asylum in France and to the underworld of London. However, it is an altogether different underworld that Holmes will soon discover—as he comes face to face not only with those followers who do the Order’s bidding on Earth, but those who serve it in Hell: the Cenobites.

***

The great detective applies his inimitable intellect to a murder mystery like none other in Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell, a surprisingly credible commingling of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic characters and the soul-shredding subjects of The Scarlet Gospels. That's right, readers: Clive Barker's Cenobites are back—and they may actually have met their match.

Holmes himself has seen better days, I dare say. In the wake of the great hiatus, during which period he disappeared to mess with his nemesis, he's alive and relatively well, but without the dastardly Moriarty to match wits with, he's grown a bit bored. And as Dr Watson warns:
When Holmes grew bored, it was usually only a matter of time before he took up his old habit of drug use [...] however his penchant for his seven-percent solution of cocaine, administered via a needle he kept locked away in a polished Morocco box, was the least of my concerns after he returned, it transpired.
The black dog of Holmes' habit is troubling, to be sure, but still more worrisome to Watson is the fact that his closest acquaintance's "malaise was gaining momentum." Said detective is dismissing fascinating cases with no explanation and plying his elementary trade in plague-ridden areas. "If these were in fact efforts to feel something, to feel alive," Watson worries, "then they might well kill the man instead."

It's a relief, then, that "this dangerous road he was heading down: this terrible testing of himself" seems to cease when a couple come knocking on the door of 221B Baker Street. Laurence Cotton's brother Francis has gone missing, is the thing, and the police aren't taking his disappearance seriously—despite the screams the housekeeper heard emerge from the loft he was last seen locking.

At the scene of the could-be crime, our chums uncover a void in the decades-old dust that suggests the involvement of a small box, and soon scent "an odd smell of vanilla" masking an undercurrent of what must be blood. From just this, Holmes is convinced that Francis has fallen victim to some dark deed indeed, but the mechanics of his murder are mysterious—as is the motive of the killer or killers—and that comes to fascinate a fellow famed for his ability to explain anything.