A Memoir of Love and Life in China – Our Story

Our Story: a Memoir of Love and Life in China,

Rao Pingru,

Square Peg/Vintage Books

All we children knew about them was that books were among the good things of this world.”

This was an unusual one for me, an autobiography by an 88 year old Chinese gentleman; I think the last Chinese biography I read was back in the 90s, the globally conquering Wild Swans. Rao Pingru recalls his long life spanning most of the twentieth century: childhood, adulthood, meeting the woman who would be his wife for nearly six decades, it takes in the huge events they lived through (and many did not), from the end of an ancient way of life to war then civil war and revolution, and Our Story takes us through these events, but at a personal, family level, with an elegant and warm charm; by the end of this I felt as if I could sit down with Pingru for a chat and tea.

After losing Meitang, his wife of nearly sixty years, Pingru didn’t want the stories they had shared to vanish, and writing was a good way not only to share those memories, but was no doubt quite therapeutic after his loss. This isn’t really a graphic novel, it is more prose with illustrations, rather lovely ones at that, painted by Pingru. In fact there are scenes much later in the book, in his retirement years, where he takes up painting, which Meitang teases him for not being terribly good at, that he should have started learning this skill as a child so by now he might be good! And while there is an amateur quality to those paintings, they are done with love and affection and work far better than a professional illustrator’s work would have done, because this is clearly so personal and from the heart.

Pingru’s long life spans a huge series of changes in the ancient civilisation of China, events that have shaped the present day we live in and the future to come, not just in China but globally. But Pingru keeps those vast historical moments to the personal level: childhood in the last days of an old way of life, about to vanish forever, the long war with Japan (starting long before Singapore and Pearl Harbour brought that fight to the West), the subsequent civil war (just as they think they can at last go home to their lives and families), the Maoist revolution, the “re-education” camps, the emergence of modern China. All of these are seen through the personal level, how it affected him, his family, his friends, and as such it reminds us that those big historical moments are one thing, but it is the people swept up in them who really matter, because they are us.

A recurring theme in Our Story is food, and more importantly, the sharing of food. From the little treats beloved in childhood – especially the dishes served up only at specific festivals, like the Dragon Boat festival or Chinese New Year (we all have similar memories, I’m sure), the warmth of family around you (grandparents, aunt and uncles sneaking you extra treats or little pocket money gifts), through sharing food as a married couple then as their own family grew in turn, or the special occasions when several generations of the family get together. These events stand out against the harder, leaner years – the war, the early Mao era which saw Pingru sent to a re-education camp, apart from his family for so much of the time, making those moments together even warmer, more precious.

There are glimpses into another culture’s way of life – the lovely little rituals observed, such as one to mark the first day of proper schooling, including paying homage to the venerable Confucis, the writing of elegant short poems to mark special occasions in life, the seasonal festivals. Mostly, however, Our Story shows the traits of humanity and family run deeply through us all in any decade, in any nation, there is so much family life here that anyone, anywhere, will recognise, empathise with, smile at. Pingru’s paintings add a lovely touch (in some ways taking the role of family photos), and even the designers of the book have gone the extra mile, crafting a gorgeously bound volume; it’s physically elegant (everyone I showed this to thought it very beautiful), but as with any book it is the inner life between those handsome covers that truly counts. And in Our Story it’s a beautifully warm, personal, human story of life, love and family.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Arm of the Sphinx

Arm of the Sphinx,

Josiah Bancroft,

Orbit Books


(cover art by Ian Leino, design by Lauren Panepinto)

Some scholars believe the Sphinx must be a supreme mesmerist to bring so many to ruin. He spellbinds his victms into self destruction. Other students of the Sphinx, however, contend that, rather than hypnosis, he practices the black art of legal contracts.”

In my review of the first of the Books of Babel series, Senlin Ascends (see here), I described Josiah Bancroft’s debut as “An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher.” )in fact you can see that quote on the back cover of the new book!) So you can imagine that I have been eager to read the second book and see if it lived up to the promise of that compelling debut. Well, the short version of this review is yes, it does, and then some.

Thomas Senlin, our errant fish out of water headmaster is still determined to locate his missing wife, but now it seems as if he is further away from that goal, both physically and emotionally. He is now going by the name Tom Mudd, captain of a piratical airship, with his small, motley crew, and as far as actual piracy goes, they tend to be rather gentlemanly, as poor Tom is reluctant to surrender all of his remaining principles, already eroded enough by his misadventures in the first book. But circumstances are becoming increasingly dire – months have passed, our little crew is glad to be free, each from their previous form of entrapment, and they seem to be forming a genuine bond together. But as desperation presses them they find they are going to have to take bigger chances, returning in their stolen airship to the Tower of Babel, this time to levels we’ve not yet encountered, and it goes without saying that if the lower ringdoms of the Tower have a habit of enmeshing unwary visitor, these new levels are even more dangerous, their inhabitants even more devious and with much more opaque motivations.

So far we’ve heard whispers of secretive (or possibly whatever the Tower equivalent to urban legend is) figures, powers behind the scenes (if they exist, many think they are just legend), Luc Marat, the Hod King (the Hods being those unfortunates enslaved and who do much of the work that maintains the Tower life), and the even more mysterious Sphinx. Tom’s first mate on the airship, Edith, confirms reluctantly that the Sphinx is indeed real – her marvelous mechanical arm which replaced her damaged fleshly appendage, is a construction of the Sphinx, powered by the same red fluid batteries Tom has seen before in the vicious Red Hand in an earlier level. It seems the Sphinx has fingers in many pies throughout the levels of the Tower, and makes contracts with some he selects, such as Edith, with certain services required further down the line. But what game are these two shadowy figures playing? They seem to extol certain ideas but clearly also have other agendas, some of which may be contrary to their more openly espoused aims. Which are the real goals, how will Tom and his crew fit into their plans and will they survive them?

This is an immensely satisfying sequel to Senlin Ascends, and the book is full of multiple possible meanings, right from the title itself – the Arm of the Sphinx could literally refer to the mechanical arm he replaced Edith’s missing limb with (leaving her in his debt), or it could refer to his reach, connecting to all the various ringdoms of the Tower. And it comes as no surprise that a being named after the mythical riddler is something of an enigma – we don’t even know if this is the same Sphinx as the legends. If it is then he is far older than any human being could possibly be, or is there something more to the person, or the legend? And if so what, and why? Marat too, sitting in the ruined level of the former Golden Zoo (an eerie location if ever there was one, it has that creepiness of a funfair after it has closed for the night) seems to be more welcoming and genial, more humanitarian in his mission than the Sphinx, but like many who seem to be selfless and committed to a noble cause rather than their own aims, he may well be the opposite of what he appears to be.

This quality of the book extends to our small crew as well – Bancroft takes great pains to show us the many failings and weaknesses of each of the crew, but he balances this out by showing their better characteristics, not least their increasing bond to one another, a growing, genuine affection. They’re becoming a family, and like every family there is bickering, there are mannerisms and habits that drive others mad or to despair, and yet through all of that their fondness and loyalty to one another wins over, and it’s rather endearing. It all combines to give us far more three dimensional characters, flaws and all, and makes them both more believable and more relatable – I’ve become very attached to Tom, Edith, Erin, Voletta and Adam, and that emotional attachment, of course, draws me further into their story.

I praised Bancroft’s use of language in the first book – I was not surprised to learn that he was a poet before he turned to prose, as many of his lines and paragraphs have a beautifully worked, lyrical flow to them; this is a writer who really knows their wordcraft. And again the descriptions are remarkable, rich and evocative – think an SF&F version of Raymond Chandler on the descriptive phrases front, with lines like “the marble statues with robes no thicker than spilled milk”. It’s a wonderfully rich reading experience, the character developments, the twisting narrative twining its way up the Tower like writhing snakes, the labyrinthine, possible Machiavellian motivations of the hidden power plays of Marat and the Sphinx, some deliciously slow reveals about the history of the Tower (even this monumental structure may not be what it seems, continuing the theme of hidden or double meanings).

The middle books of a series often suffer by comparison to the beginning and end volumes, but here there is no such problem, Bancroft’s writing is too skillful. In fact this serves to draw you ever deeper into the mysteries of the Tower, the lives and trials of our main characters and narrative, leaving the reader eager for the third volume, The Hod King. Senlin Ascends made my annual Best of the Year list, and Arm of the Sphinx will doubtless make this year’s list, which is as strong a recommendation as I can make.

You can read an excerpt from Arm of the Sphinx on the Orbit blog here.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

250 Years of Women in Brit Comics – The Inking Woman

The Inking Woman,

Edited by Nicola Streeten and Cath Tate,

Myriad Editions

Comics and cartooning have often been labelled something of a boy’s club, both in terms of creators and most of the readership, and that’s a criticism that is not without some fairly solid truth behind it; in fact it’s still, even now in 2018, a subject of much debate. We’ve certainly seen change though, quite a lot of change, even just in the last couple of decades, and especially in the realm of Indy comics, small press and zines (the mainstream, while improving, is, as is often the case, lagging further behind). And while the larger visibility of female comickers in the last few decades is very welcome, they didn’t spring out of nowhere, like their male counterparts most of them have been inspired by those who went before them, and that’s one of the things Inking Woman does, and does very well, illuminates a side of British comics history that hasn’t been well served, and by doing so places those creators in a more understandable context, from pioneers like Mary Darly in the late 1700s or Marie Duval in the Victorian era (Marie is the subject of another recent, and much recommended Myriad release) through cartoons in Suffragette publications to the 1960s underground scene, the 70s and 80s rise of women’s liberation, the Rrrriot Girls of the 90s, the contemporary small press and zine scene and many points in between.

In fact that placing of cartoonists and comickers into some historical context is evident right from the beginning, and I am pleased to say not just historical but cultural and societal context (for example, the rowing women’s lib movement of the 70s leading to more cooperatives creating publications, which in turn provides both material and a space for women comickers to show their work, those comic works feeding back into the growing social and commercial groups by women, aimed at women). In her introduction co-editor Nicola Streeten mentions the likes of Jacky Fleming and Ros Aquith’s work that she read in her teens as powering her own ambitions in her comics work later on. I’d like to think that somewhere there is a teenage girl who will read Inking Woman and it will inspire her, to let her know she can create her own comics works too, and perhaps in a decade she’ll be citing Nicola and Cath’s work here as one of the starting points that got her going.

The book takes the form of entries on a multitude of women comickers from the 1770s to the present day, interspersed with chapters explaining some of the history and changing cultural elements throughout that period, such as the rise of the women’s Suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, the rise of feminism in the 70s, the influences of other parts of our ever-changing culture, such as Punk, with its DIY ethos (an influence I think you can still see strongly in the modern small press scene), the expansion of women-lead publishing like Virago or the Women’s Press, Cath Tate with her own publishing, discovering new and existing talents and reproducing their work.

Between those sections on the changing culture and history we have so many entries with brief biographical notes and a quick recap of the work of those women – in a rather nice touch more than a few of those entries contain quotes from the creator in question, talking about their own work or what it was like trying to establish themselves as a female creator, in their own words. Understandably there is much more material from the second half of the twentith century to today, and especially on the creators of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s, there simply being more creators working then. And as the authors note themselves, much of this is still living history, the woman comickers from that explosion in the 70s still with us to share that history, and many of them still actively drawing away. And as you move closer to the present you find many names that will be familiar to you – a lot of those creators have featured here on the blog, on Down the Tubes, on Broken Frontier. You’ve read some of those reviews, you’ve seen some of those creators at conventions like Caption and Thought Bubble, and, increasingly, at literary festivals, and chances are you’ve bought some of their comics from them.

The book doesn’t shy away from discussing how difficult it has been to fight through a very male-dominated industry and society, or from commenting on other elements of diversity, such as much of the earlier work in particular coming from women who, while still having to fight sexism, did start from a much more privileged area of society (a criticism often aimed at the 70s and 80s feminist movement, for example, that it came predominantly from a well-educated, white, middle-class perspective that didn’t take in the experiences of working class women, or of women of colour, or LGBT people – but these things are always, hopefully, evolving and learning to be more inclusive and diverse).

But overall this is a very positive, in fact I would say optimistic book, especially as it moves closer to the contemporary era – the number of creators increases, they are more and more coming from different backgrounds, tackling all sorts of subjects from social issues to bringing Shakespeare to a modern audience , from using comics to openly and honestly explore their experiences, from encountering racism to dealing with illness or the loss of a loved one to out and out humour and satire. As the book moves into those later sections it felt as if it was, a bit like the comics community itself, gathering pace, growing in confidence and numbers and mutual support, in fact it felt rather joyful, and it isn’t hard to feel that enthusiasm and delight and want to share in it.

This is a wonderfully warm look at an important part of British comics history, it is also a history of the challenges of gender, class and more and how they can be overcome, of how the medium is part of that society and that societal change as well as reflecting it, or sometimes even leading the vanguard demanding that change, placing those changes and the changes still to come into a larger context of pioneers and inspirational creators in turn inspiring new generations to realise they are free to create, to say something. The discussion of the rise of small-press friendly cons and other events, co-operatives like Team Girl Comics or the Strumpet/Whores of Mensa also sends a positive message, something I must admit I love about our comics community, the amount of mutual support and encouragement.

Flipping through the various individual entries on creators will likely bring cries of recognition at some of the names while also, hopefully, bringing creators who are new to the reader’s attention. I think many readers will come away from this not just with a more informed perspective on the history of Brit comics, but with a list of creators whose work they really want to read. And to return to what I said earlier, who knows, perhaps some young girl will be reading this and it will be the spark to her creative outlets and in ten years perhaps we’ll be reviewing one of her comics. I really like that idea.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Bizarre Romance

Bizarre Romance,

Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell,

Jonathan Cape

Now Blanche lies on the bed and waits to become a page in the book…”

I would happily read any book from Audrey Niffenegger or Eddie Campbell, so you can imagine my delight when a book collaboration by both of them turned up in the Blogcave, a collection of short stories on themes of relationships and love, some prose with illustrations, other short comic strips. As with any collection there are always stories that you like more than others, such is the nature of individual taste, but I can honestly say that while I did have my favourites, there really isn’t a tale here that I didn’t enjoy. In fact even the introduction is enjoyable here, as the pair relate a little of not just this their artistic partnership, but their real-life romantic one, once a tentative, very long-distance relationship, then full-blown romance and marriage: “now we are living happily ever after.”

That fairy tale phrase in the introduction is perhaps setting a bit of a tone – quite a few of the stories here have the scent of the fairy tale around them. Some fairly obviously are modern tales riffing on older fairy stories, such as RoseRedSnowRidingBeautyShoesHoodSleepingWhite, which starts with a sister and brother trying on last minute ideas for Halloween costumes in a store, a single splash page of the pair in front of the dressing room mirrors, costumes hanging from the racks, full of colour and hints of a chance to be someone else, at least for a while (it’s also, to those of us of a certain age, reminiscent of the start of Mr Benn’s adventures in the old kid’s animated series. And just like Mr Benn Roselyn is whisked away on a magical adventure, via the age-old portal of the mirror (reflecting surfaces long a gateway to the Otherworld). Faeries appear in other stories, with their own sneaky agendas, as the Fair Folk usually have.

Felines feature several times – Secret Life, With Cats is a short prose tale with illustrations, this one less about grand romantic love and more the warm companionships we can form, with other people and with our furry friends (and they with us, in their own manner, of course), while Digging Up the Cat is a short comic strip meditating on family, on home, on moving, on growing up, on parents getting older and of the furry members of our family, while another tale ponders the parental-child bond and the elements that changes as both grow older (and the elements that never change, no matter what our respective ages, if we are lucky).

Motion Studies plays with the still-fascinating early photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge which showed, as if by magic, the range of human and animal motions caught frame by frame (long, long before the Matrix’s clever “bullet time” method of multiple cameras), and allows Eddie to frame the strip like Muybridge’s famous photographic studies. The model, Blanche, normally poses for the life classes in the art school, the students trying to translate her likeness through mind, hand and brush, “to transform her into art”, but here Muybridge seeks to capture her exact image in slivers of frozen time, turning, rising, bending. Brand-new science which appears as magic, and yet both her appearances as artist’s model and as photographic subject are re-rendered here as comics artwork now, another transformation (are any of them really true representations of her or does each capture just a facet?). I found this one particularly fascinating, visually, the peculiar Muybridge with his still-compelling imagery and new way of looking at people, animals, the world, science and art and magic.

There are thirteen tales, all told, and I’m not going to go into the rest here because one of the joys of short tales is that you briefly immerse yourself into another world, or see through other eyes, but their very brevity means it is far, far too easy to spoil an important element in a review, and I really don’t want to do that. The stories rotate around love and loss and grief and joy, but there is a quite delightful playfulness running through them all, a deft lightness of touch, such that even the stories that have sadness in them are never maudlin or overly sentimental but leave you with a warm feeling. Bizarre Romance is an utter delight, an artistic collaboration between two writers and artists, not just of great storytelling skill, but who are, quite clearly from that lovely, warm, light tone, sharing a very good space together, and that warmth permeates the stories quite beautifully.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: the eternal tangle – Best of Enemies

The Best of Enemies:a History of US & Middle East Relations Volume 3,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, David B,

SelfMadeHero

I have been waiting for this third volume in the Best of Enemies series for a while – back in the summer of 2015 author Jean-Pierre Filiu (a former French diplomat and now history lecturer) was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on a double bill with Martin Rowson and chaired by Teddy Jamieson. At that point the second volume had only just come out, and the audience were treated to a fascinating discussion by an author who didn’t just have deep academic, historical and cultural knowledge of the issues, but a lot of first hand experience from his years working in an NGO and as a diplomat.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - Jean-Pierre Filiu & Martin Rowson 02
(Jean-Pierre Filiu signing previous volumes of Best of Enemies after his event with Martin Rowson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2015, photo from my Flickr)

Ally this with some quite remarkable cartooning art by the great David B and you had two totally fascinating volumes of recent and modern history that has shaped – and continues to shape – our planet’s geo-politics. Jean-Pierre explained that the amount of work involved in researching and then illustrating the books had taken quiet a toll on David B, hence a bit of a gap between those two and this third volume, which covers US and Middle Eastern relations from 1984 -2013. And that right away makes an already absorbing read even more compelling, because we’re moving from history, both older (18th century and the earliest foreign policies of a young USA) and recent (mid twentieth century) to events most of those reading will have lived through, have watched on the news, often with varying degrees of anger and despair.

And this third volume also takes a quality all of the best histories have, the ability to show that history in today: why our world is now as it is, because history is never just the past, dates, facts, events, it’s a rich tapestry, perhaps the most elaborate tapestry humans have created, so many inter-connecting threads all forming the today. The previous two volumes had this too, but with volume three covering such recent periods it really, really brings that aspect of history home to you, and that’s a damned good thing. In fact that’s one of the reasons many of us like to read history – we know the here and now is an expression of so many elements and events that preceded it, and we cannot hope to have any understanding of the now without that grasp of the earlier woven segments of that vast and never-ending tapestry.


And even though the book comes to an end at 2013, it leaves things open, because that history is still rolling on, as we know all too well just from our news bulletins – this volume takes in events we’re still reeling from in horror right now, such as the vile slaughter in Syria. It is all but heartbreaking as Filiu and David B show how policies and events from decades before in different capital cities created the scenario whereby Syria could fall into the seemingly endless civil war that has horrified us all and which the world seems powerless to stop. We see American and European activities with Israel, Iran and Iraq and how they pulled in Egypt and Syria, adding dominoes to the line that would later fall with such horrendous consequences.

We see Reagan, Bush (Snr) and Gorbachev, the USA and USSR both involved in talks in the Middle East, only for fledgling peace processes to falter and stall. We see that USSR collapse a little after those attempts to broker talks, then some years later the revived Russia under Putin intervening forcefully in those same regions. Of the globalisation of the “war on terror”, going from a supposedly noble aim (if you believe the propaganda about who we were supposed to blame, sometimes, but not always clear or true) to an easy excuse for any power to use for overt, powerful, often illegal actions.

Extra-judicial killings and torture? This justifies it. Breaking the terms of a peace process? We have to, because we are fighting the same terrorists as you, so you have to support us. As Israeli PM Sharon says by way of an excuse “Everyone has his own Bin Laden”, to justify breaking the terms of peace talks and use of military force. Putin uses similar excuses in Chechnya, leaders even in supposedly democratic countries use it to justify civilian deaths in military adventures, torture and the erosion of civil rights. Yes, this will leave you not just upset, but angry, bloody angry, and you should be. Of course we have the benefit of hindsight here, always useful, those who made the decisions that started these various dominoes did not, but they also failed to make much of an attempt to look forward at the potential repercussions of their actions and policies, sacrificing the tomorrows to the expediencies of today, as politicians all too often do.

David B’s artwork is, once more, absolutely superb – this is the work of a comics master at the height of his powers. He summons both humour and horror, satire and sorrow – invading armies during the Gulf Wars are shown as giant soldier’s helmets on legs with giant cannon barrels projecting from them, he again uses differing sizes to denote the relative power of different players (so the US presidents and generals are shown as huge frequently compared to other leaders, despots like Saddam are small compared to US presidents in the art but huge compared to some of his own enemies like the Kurds). There’s humour to be had – a bellicose Saddam Hussein yelling threats takes the form of a giant thunderstorm of a speech bubble, like an adult version of the “swearing” in an Asterix album, or Clinton depicted with Pinocchio nose a he lies about Monica Lewinsky, but distracts everyone with a missile strike against terrorists, only for one of the missiles raining down to turn out to be his Pinocchio liar’s nose.

And of course the artwork conjures disturbing, even horrific imagery. A panel depicting an Israeli-Hezbollah war in the Lebanon where, as usual, there were no clear winners but very clear losers – the civilian population (as in so many wars). The panel only shows a little, the bare feet sticking out from under the blankets covering the bodies, but it is more than enough, and it is echoed by later pages on the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Syria. Another panel depicts uniformed skeletons, all that is left of large numbers of Iraqi soldiers after the mass bombing on the “highway of death”, or the gunning down of protesters and crushing of suddenly raised hopes during the Arab Spring, yet another a starving child in Syria, hungry mouth open but the only thing falling into it is barrel bombs, all depicted in clear, powerful black and white artwork.

These histories take in cultural movements, political posturing, chicanery, greed, opportunism, nationalism, religious zealotry (Christian as well as Muslim), but also attempts at peace, noble aims of freedom and equality. In short these pages take in much of the worst and best of human nature, and they do so in a way that doesn’t point one accusing finger, for there is no one guilty party here. What this book and the preceding two volumes make eminently clear is how interconnected it all is, the actions and reactions and counter-actions from many different leaders in different years in different countries, all contributing to lead us to this point where we have madmen murdering innocents with airplanes into towers and others dropping bombs on civilians, and all of them in the name of some imagined higher purpose.

These are immensely complex woven threads in the grand tapestry of history, but Filiu’s expertise and deft analysis coupled with David B’s remarkable comics art makes it far more accessible and understandable than many prose works could. And we need to understand these things, we need to be aware of them to try and have some grasp of what is happening and why, and so what could be done to steer towards a more peaceful course eventually. Sadly I doubt many of the world leaders who could really do with learning from these books will ever read them, but that should not stop us from doing so – this is essential reading, and a fine example of the power of the comics medium to make such a complex subject accessible and understandable to readers. I highly recommend this and the preceding volumes.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head

Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head,

David Gaffney, Dan Berry,

Top Shelf

Valerie’s mind had three rooms: a front, a back and a cellar. If there was something she didn’t want to think about at a particular moment she would move it into the back. Then she could concentrate on playing the accordion. Or explaining her job to her mother. The problem was the cellar.”

I’ve been rather looking forward to reading Gaffney and Berry’s new book from Top Shelf, the description intrigued me when I first heard about the book, a woman who has serial problems with each relationship she attempts, and the obsessions and problems that cause each to go wrong or to fail to satisfy her standards. Relationship problems are nothing new for comics tales, of course, but here they are given an extra-fine twist: Valerie keeps her ex-boyfriends preserved bodies in her cellar, bringing them up regularly to talk to about her day or latest problems, even posing them into a sort of diorama (playing pool in the pub, performing trad jazz). And as she moves each body around and talks to it, this leads us nicely into a flashback of her time with that particular former beau.

And what a collection they are, each with some very serious defect. Well, at least, that’s how they are presented to us, but of course we are getting all of this from Valerie’s perspective. We see all the flaws in her would-be partners exposed over the course of their relationship, and wow, some of them really are hum-dingers – the boyfriend who hates wearing corrective lenses so has his car windscreen ground to his optical prescription so he can drive without glasses. Terrific. Not so good for anyone else in the car with him, like, say, Valerie, who is left nauseous by the distorted glass. And then there is the boy who is the first one she’s known who has a house with no street number! Oh dear! Or a bizarre fixation with the eyes of a former girlfriend that he has to tell Valerie about.

But each of these failings and flaws slowly reveal much more about Valerie than they do her would-be boyfriends, and we see more and more of her problems surface, of the aspects of her own character, expectations and problems which sabotage any really strong relationship developing more deeply. Talking with these preserved bodies of former boyfriends may be some sort of therapy for Valerie, but it is also a crutch she is using to validate her choices (and failings) to herself, to be in control of her own narrative, but it also reveals the gaps in her life, it reveals the needs she has but either can’t connect properly with someone else to fill, or perhaps she’s a bit scared and backs off before she gets too close (and yet given her cellar collection, she clearly can’t let go either).

In some hands this would have been one of the emotional-confessional, “oh I am such an emotional mess” type tales which Indy comics has rather more than its share of (not to knock that sub-genre, I’ve enjoyed more than a few of those comics over the years). This is a very different beast, less the autobiographical confessional of some failed relationship comics tales, this is far more comedic and with a delightfully surreal bend to it so that even when there are moments which  are rather sad they also manage to evoke laughter. It’s no mean feat to conjure both pity and humour from the same scenes, but Gaffney and Berry do that repeatedly throughout Three Rooms.

Dan’s art adds to that mix of surrealism, pathos and comedy enormously, his expressions on Valerie’s face as she argues with her cast of deceased boyfriends had me giggling away, but at the same time feeling sorry for her (actually Dan’s art had me roaring with laughter on a number of occasions, those expressions cracked me up). It also makes you pause and think – we all have little fantasies and daydreams, little narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves and our lives. Perhaps, thankfully, not to the surreal extreme Valerie has, but pretty much every person does have them, and that means we can all see a little of ourselves in Valerie, the hopes, the fears, the failings, the coping mechanisms; she’s not exactly a mirror to the reader, but she is perhaps a distorting reflection reminding us none of us are perfect and each of us tries some mental tricks and stories to help us deal with life’s slings and arrows, each of us could easily be Valerie.

That this is all delivered with a delightful level of humour – and a humour that steers away from meanness, it’s not laughing at Valerie’s foibles and failings – Gaffney’s script and Berry’s art working hand in glove, the dialogue and the imagery, especially during Valerie’s talks with her deceased beaus are so nicely timed together, they hit all the right beats.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

It Don’t Come Easy…

It Don’t Come Easy,

Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian,

Drawn & Quarterly

I’ve loved the Angouleme-winning Dupuy and Berberian’s work for many years – I’ve even struggled through some of it in the original French (no mean feat given how rusty my French skills are) – and I’ve grown very, very fond of Monsieur Jean over those years, not to mention the ensemble cast which has grown around Jean. In fact they’ve been around so long, and growing older (not necessarily wiser!) as the years passed, that they’ve become like old friends. You know, the sort of friends you have known forever, right back to when your eyes were clear and wrinkles were something you couldn’t imagine ever having. The sort you used to be around every day and couldn’t imagine it would ever be any other way.

Then one day you realise that Real Life has gotten in the way – you are all older, you’re still friends, still part of each other’s lives, but you see each other less frequently as work, relationships, family and more build up, or you find yourselves living in different cities. Revisiting the cast in this new D&Q collection, which collects fourth through to seventh of the Monsieur Jean series, feels a lot like that, and as the years rolled past for Jean, Felix, Cathy and the rest, so they did for the readers, and I think that’s part of what is so endearing about this series. There’a a lot here that most of us can empathise with; even if it doesn’t mirror our own lives exactly, we’ve all been through similar moments, and that makes it the stories all the richer and more emotionally satisfying.

Doing the best you can. Maybe that’s the trick. I try. Sometimes I even feel like it all makes sense. Everything just falls into place. Every breath I take, every thought: it’s all clear. Clear in a way you can’t put into words. It’s a fleeting sensation. It disappears the second I try to explain it. But when it’s there I know… Everything I do...”

We’ve seen Jean go from struggling writer to published success and acclaim (and then the treadmill of what do I write next? Will it be as good? Problems which plague every creator as much after success as the problems they had in trying to be published in the first place), a young man, single, playing the dating game, enjoying life, dealing with the highs and lows. And now here he is – Jean is in his forties, he has a baby girl (Julie), and he and Cathy are struggling with their relationship. Or more accurately Jean has little wobblers – little nervous moments, is this the life he wanted, is it too late to change, if he could, would he? Cathy, meantime, mid 30s and thinking she can’t wait forever for a man who can’t commit fully.

And meantime the old crowd are still there, notably disreputable best chum Felix, with his adopted young son. And Felix is still a dreamer, floating through life, seemingly not a care in the world, free-spirited, not bothered about settling down into his own place, solid job or any of that stuff. All of which seemed quirky and charming when younger, but as he gets older – and is responsible for a child – seems more like being selfish. And yet, despite frequently rubbing Jean up the wrong way, he is still his best friend, and you know he’s always going to forgive him after being angry with him.

That said, even Felix can surprise you – he seems his old, laid-back self, floating through problems (even a social services visit about his parenting skills gets treated lightly by him, as always). And yet Felix cares about the boy, not even his biologically, but the child of a former girlfriend who didn’t want him, and he’s taken responsibility (well, relatively, this is Felix, a man who can forget to pick the boy up from school, but that’s okay, Jean will do it, right?) for all these years. And when a family event offers him a huge opportunity, but one that comes with a horrible revelation, dear old Felix will show a strong side he’s never shown before, even if it costs him dear (although this may be a closing one door but seeing another, unexpected one open situation).

We travel from Paris to the countryside to New York as work for Cathy and Jean moves them, and so does their own relationship, both trying to figure out what they want in terms of career and family life, and realising, as we all do sooner or later, that you don’t get everything you want, that you have to compromise with the important people in your life, with their needs and desires as well as your own, if you’re going to make it work. And that creates tension and problems, and sometimes it leaves you unsatisfied… And other times it makes you feel like everything is perfect and you wouldn’t have it any other way, and it is all worth it.

In between these ups and downs we get treated to those flights of fantasy that have been a bit of a hallmark of the series; Jean’s imagination runs riot around a story involving an antique picture, bleeding into his own life and worries, his formidable concierge takes on monstrous forms in his dreams, or he has weird visions about Cathy, pregnancy and fatherhood (drawn in a totally different style to the usual version both Dupuy and Berberian create for the series). We revisit favourite old spots, like the bridge over the Canal Saint Martin, but also new places, like a stay in New York (a good excuse for our writer, Jean, to visit literary NYC landmarks like The Strand). People stay the same but also change at the same time, the essence of life.

The Jean books have always put me in mind of Woody Allen movies, circa mid to late 70s, still laced with humour but more dramatic and emotional than the earlier outright comedies, not quite as dry as the later ones, with dashes of the soap opera that is life and the Absurd and flights of fancy, both narratively and sometimes artistically. There’s a real sense of growth (painful, sometimes two steps forward, one step back variety, but that’s life, isn’t it?) for all the characters here (even old Felix), of realising, sometimes slowly and painfully, where they need to be in life, and more importantly, who they need to be there with. An absolute pleasure to lose myself once more in the company of Monseiur Jean and his friends.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Nevermore….

Today would have been the birthday of one of my favourite writers, Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve been reading Poe since I was about twelve and still love his work. Here, to celebrate his birthday, enjoy another of my favourite writers, one I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times, Neil Gaiman, reading The Raven:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.”

The Modern Prometheus still sparks fire from the Heavens

January 1st marked the 200th anniversary of one of the first and most influential works of science fiction and horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, first published, anonymously, in January of 1818 by the small press of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, a run of only 500 copies. Two hundred years on and Frankenstein remains unbelievably influential, in storytelling, as a cautionary note in scientific research, of the dangers and responsibilities of human knowledge and abilities. Of all the books ever published over the centuries many, even those which were huge bestsellers in their day, fall into obscurity, remembered only on the odd literary course. A few, a very few, achieve a form of literary immortality, remaining in print, still read, translated into other languages for even more readers around the world.


And of those few only a handful penetrate and suffuse the popular culture to such an extent that ideas and terms from the books are borrowed regularly and used even by those who haven’t read the novel, but who are still aware of what the ideas are. We are still, to this day, borrowing from Shelley’s novel – when reporters write a piece on genetic modification, her creature is evoked: GM crops become “Frankenfoods”, the possibility of genetic manipulation of the building blocks of our human DNA raises dire warnings drawn from Victor Frankenstein and his unfortunate creature (Frankenstein is tormented by visions of any female mate he makes for his creature joining with him to breed a new race that would outstrip by design mere, naturally evolved humanity). These also go hand in hand with worries about the pace of discovery and advancement, which often seem to move to fast for us to adapt to and outstrip our ability to moralise and legislate upon – the Universal film’s cry of “In the name of God. Now I know what it feels like to be God!” remains a pertinent warning to us that we always need to consider what we are doing and why.

In part this is due not just to the longevity of the original novel, but the way it and its themes have drawn other creators to adapt it, or to be influenced by it, for other media. Within just a few years of publication Frankenstein was on the stage. In the dim, early days of flickering light from the first motion picture cameras, the Creature was there, right at the beginning of the medium, in a short silent from the Edison Company in 1910. And the, of course, that first golden age of horror film from Universal in the early 30s, bringing us first Lugosi’s Dracula then Karloff’s wonderfully nuanced creature in Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein, with Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up. A couple of decades on and Hammer would revive both Dracula and Frankenstein for a new audience, in colour, with plenty of “Kensington gore”, and another iconic actor in both roles, the great Christopher Lee. Endless film adaptations, even more films and television programmes inspired by the themes in Frankenstein, the new medium of video games, and comics – notably the superbly illustrated work by the late Bernie Wrightson – those classic Aurora famous monsters model kits, even humour (think Herman Munster, or Mel Brooks’s wonderful young Frankenstein), Frankenstein has permeated our culture.

(above, the great Bernie Wrightson’s superbly detailed, iconic comics take on Frankenstein. Below, horror legend Karloff, whose subtle playing through Jack Pierce’s visually iconic make-up, gifted the cinematic monster with humanity, emotion and empathy. Bottom, Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in a modern stage version of Frankenstein, in which both actors took it in turns on different nights to play either Victor Frankenstein or the nameless Creature)

It’s not hard to see why – one of the keys of great writing is that it remains relevant to readers long after the time in which it was written. New decades and new centuries roll on relentlessly, new readers pick up the book and see in its themes comments and warnings applicable to their own contemporary world (again think of the conflation of Frankenstein’s creation with the worries over genetic research today). Of course it isn’t just the theme of humans dabbling in areas they shouldn’t, or the classic “mad scientist” who goes too far just because he can, it’s also the personal elements, the human elements – love, hate, responsibility, life and mortality, the powerlessness we have in the face of the death of loved ones, the duty we have to others, all are aspects of human nature that do not change, and so still resonate with us today. Guillermo Del Toro once described the book as one of the best “teenage” stories ever, as the unfortunate, rejected creature bemoans his state; he never asked to be created, didn’t have a choice in this life, is left rejected and alone and wondering why do I exist, why was I brought into this brutal world, what am I meant do to, what meaning is there to any of this?

We’ve all wondered that, especially in those formative teens years. I was to be your Adam, the creature tells its creator, instead I am your fallen angel. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a major influence on Shelley, the creature wants to be good, but his constant rejection and the fear others show him drives him away; can he be good? He’s not naturally created, does that mean he lacks a soul that God would have given any naturally born person? Does that mean no matter what he tries to do he can never be good, that he will always be a damned creature, except instead of being banished by his Creator to the Pit, he is rejected by his human who tried to steal the fire of creation, banished to the wastelands where no human feet walk, bereft, rejected, alone.

Other elements that remain very relevant to us: the gender roles of men and women – here a man who defies nature by creating life by himself, rather than from the womb of a woman. Is it hubris or is it fear of woman’s sexuality that drives him to try and become a creator of life himself, to take that power of generation for his own? And what does it say about relationships between men and women, about birth, death and creation? Gender even shows in the original publication, the first editions nameless, and while the first couple of editions generated mostly good reviews, some, now aware who wrote it, would sniffily dismiss it as an overwrought work of ‘a woman’, and therefore not worthy of contemplation. Two centuries on and how many women writers, especially in the fantastic fiction fields, have written under names that use only androgynous initials, or a name that could be male or female, because of the publisher’s fear that SF&F by women won’t sell as well? We’re getting past that a bit more now, but it still happens, and we still have a number of female writers who have had to do that to build a readership. Some elements, it seems, will remain with us for quite a while. At least we’re talking about it now.

Even the circumstances of the creation of Frankenstein fascinate us. The macabre experiments of Luigi Galvani with early electricity, notably the gruesome public experiment that saw him applying electrodes to the corpse of an executed criminal, creating spasmodic movement, grimacing facial expressions, all in a dead body. What was this power? Could it actually restore animation to the dead? Nobody knew, imaginations ran riot, and some of this is captured in Shelley’s dreams of an artificial being (along with, possibly, a visit to Castle Frankenstein, rumoured to once have been home to an alchemist who tried to find the secrets of life). And bear in mind this is a time when mortality, especially among children, was far higher than today, a sad fact Mary had horrible first hand experience of, even dreaming once that her dead little baby came back to life in her arms as she warmed him by the fire. Oh to have that power… And yet, nature clearly didn’t intend for us to have those powers, what would happen if we did? It all feeds into this rich novel, coming out of a fevered competition between Shelley, her poet husband, Doctor Polidori and Lord Byron as they sat bored in their villa during the “year without a summer”, trying to entertain one another.

Something opened in Mary’s mind that evening, those experiments, her reading of Milton, her own awful losses, all being fed into this story, a story that has lasted two full centuries, and which new readers are still discovering for the first time, and which has inspired countless other science fiction and horror writers across the centuries and continues to do so (what are modern fictional fears of AI outstripping its human creators, if not a modern Frankenstein tale?). If you’ve never actually read it, only watched the films or the comics, I’d urge you to go back and read it, it’s a different experience, taking in the novel; you think you know the story, but really, you only know it if you read the original, even the best film or play versions are interpretations and adaptations.

(painting of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, from the National Portrait Gallery)

As with other cornerstone works of the fantastic with which Frankenstein is often grouped, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s magnificently psychological Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, you have to go back to the actual books to truly know these stories, their nuances, their layers, their themes that haunt us still and likely always will. Mary’s Frankenstein will, most likely, remain one of those select novels which will be read for as long as people pick up books. In a way she has created her own being through her words, drawn down the vital spark of creation, and its lumbering shadow still stalks our dreams and nightmares in the twenty first century, and will continue forever…

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: climbing the tower – Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends,

Josiah Bancroft,

Orbit Books


Sometimes I’m waiting eagerly for a new book by an author I admire, always a happy moment. And then some other times a book from an author you haven’t encountered before arrives on your desk, and you have an even happier moment of a new literary journey, a walk onto a new area of the fantasy map you’ve not explored before. And for me that was the case here when an advance copy of Senlin Ascends appeared in the Blogcave; the first in the “Books of Babel”. That caught my attention, the name of that great structure – real? Mythical? More likely a fusion of later myth overlaid over some actual historical root like one of the great ziggurats of the ancient world. Babel. The tower to the heavens, a combination of humanity’s ambition, ingenuity and unbridled hubris, it’s a symbol that has cast a long shadow over human storytelling for centuries, there is something irresistible about it, and when a writer has a new angle on this ancient symbol it’s always going to be intriguing. My bookselling Spidey-sense was tingling, and it rarely points me wrong.

Meet Thomas Senlin, headmaster of a small coastal town, until recently a bachelor and a rather upright chap, something of a fuddy duddy, perhaps, and a man who is, as you’d expect for a teacher, well-educated. At least in terms of what he has read, but he is about to learn that the wider world doesn’t always conform to what you may have read, no matter how eminent the source book supposedly is. And Senlin has surprised his local village by finally taking not just a wife, but Marya, not only a very beautiful lady, but one with an impish and playful, adventurous  streak, almost the polar opposite of the fairly austere Senlin. And yet Marya has seen something in Senlin the other villagers never suspected, and she has awoken something in him. And for their honeymoon Marya and Senlin have taken the train to the Tower of Babel, the famous site he has told his students all about in school, but never visited.

The base  of the vast Tower is surrounded by the huge and teeming market, which right away pitches our newly weds into an exotic casserole of merchants from all over the world and goods from every corner, bustling, vibrant, overwhelming to a couple from a small, distant town, especially to Senlin, while Marya, resplendent in her new bright-red Pith helmet (so he can always spot her in a busy crowd, she tells him with a smile) seems to revel in it all.  A wonderful wife, a honeymoon in an astonishing location he’s dreamed of, what could go wrong? Well, of course things do go wrong, I mean there wouldn’t be much drama if they just had a nice holiday and went home with some postcards. There are little warning signs – Senlin, from his history and guide books, expects a land of wonders, cultured, the pinnacle of civilisation, and instead their first impressions are more like a wild and disreputable souk, the sort of place where you tread carefully and watch your belongings. Or your wife…

Because just like that, a few pages in, barely arrived at their destination – in fact not even in the Tower itself yet – Marya vanishes. And this teeming place seems to have no real authority, no police to turn to (there are some security types, but most are thugs posing in uniform to take advantage of the unwary). When he realises he has lost her he searches, but the market surrounds the base of the Tower, so it is massive, and he has no chance. Eventually Senlin concludes all he can do is proceed up the Tower to the Baths, two levels up, where they intended to stay at one of the hotels – Marya is a capable and independent woman, chances are after realising she may never locate him in the busy market she’s decided to go there already and wait for him.

This is, of course, assuming she is merely lost. But soon Senlin starts to hear stories from others that they too have lost loved ones, and in fact the base of the Tower – the Skirts – is festooned with notes from those desperately seeking missing family members, a scene with disturbing similarities to those posters placed around the 9-11 site as people urgently tried to find what happened to their loved ones. Senlin, a man who lives a very conventional, straightforward life is totally unprepared for  the world he is about to enter when he first moves into the Tower, and into the Basement. Each level of the Tower is a world unto itself, each different, but related, each stage is a “ringdom”, and like any good quest, any hero’s journey, Senlin will need to traverse each of them and meet their individual challenges.

(a glimpse into the lower levels of the Tower of Babel, borrowed from the Books of Babel site)

Except Senlin is as far from anyone’s idea of a capable hero as you can imagine. Trusting in his guidebook soon proves to be a mistake – this is no reliable Baedeker, beloved of Victorian adventurers in exotic lands, it seems like an act of total fiction. Senlin is going to have to learn how to adapt if he is to survive. He’s the proverbial fish out of water, in fact he is often so damned wet you almost feel the urge to slap him and tell him to get with the programme, he’s the blundering idiot abroad, totally unprepared, no idea what he is getting into, no idea what the local customs are, how things work here and it doesn’t look like he has what it takes. The unlikely hero is not a new idea in fantasy, but here Bancroft handles that trope extremely skilfully. Senlin meets people, has encounters, and they slowly start to change him through the hardest of lessons. But he doesn’t transform into some great hero, he’s still Tom Senlin, the village school teacher. But he’s learning. And even from the raw beginning, even at his weakest, Senlin does show one spark of backbone – he will not walk away without his new wife, no matter what.

And I’m not going any further into this narrative because I don’t want to risk spoilers – this is a journey, literally and metaphorically, and the reader needs to undertake those discoveries and challenges as much as Senlin does. The idea of the “ringdoms” is a great one, allowing for totally different worlds within worlds, and many different scenarios to test Senlin. And it also allows Bancroft much scope for some fabulous world-building and some lovely descriptions. It’s a world that feels like a mix of different parts of our own history – nice little details like people visiting from Ur, for example – and myth, and yet it is also so clearly not our world, and again this allows much scope for metaphor.

And then there is the style of writing – Bancroft has a remarkable way with words; workers in their faded finery for a night out have “collars the colour of cigar smoke”, while dancers have “mouths lurid as mashed cherries.” It put me in mind of those wonderfully evocative descriptive phrases in the Philip Marlowe novels, making Bancroft the fantasy equivalent of Raymond Chandler; I was not surprised to find out after finishing the book that he is also a poet.

An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher…

Senlin Ascends will be published by Orbit Books on January 18th, 2018; check out The Books of Babel site for more glimpses into this fascinating world, and you can read an excerpt from the book here on the Orbit blog.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

How to Survive in the North

How to Survive in the North,

Luke Healy,

Nobrow Press

First off, apologies for the tardiness of this piece; I read How To Survive in the North a while ago, put it to one side when busy, intending to get right back to it and writing it up. And promptly buried it under several other books, only to rediscover it when I was tidying a pile of recent books. Still, surge of guilt aside, this did give me a chance to re-read it to refresh my memory, and I found myself enjoying it even more the second time around.

The book follows two early twentieth century Arctic expeditions, with a contemporary strand in which troubled academic Sully Barnaby, recently put on an enforced sabbatical, inspired by finding the name of a much earlier lecturer who once used his office, starts using his newly freed time to start digging into the college library’s records on Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As he examines boxes of letters, journals and other documents in the Stefansson collection he also comes across mentions of Wrangel Island, which leads him to another expedition, on which a young Iñupiat woman, Ada Blackjack, was retained as cook and seamstress. The Stefansson organised expedition to Wrangel Island in 1921 also included Fred Maurer, who had survived the shipwrecking of a previous expedition on the Karluk which had left him and other survivors trying to survive for months on Wrangel Island.

With his suddenly enforced bounty of free time Sully begins piecing together the stories of the two expeditions, of surly, bad-tempered Captain Bartlett (who may be a tough and rough, prickly old salt, but he is also a very experienced captain and proves quite heroic in his determination to try and protect his crew in the face of disaster), of Stefansson, out to make a name for himself in Arctic exploration, and Ada, a woman struggling on the poverty line and with a seriously ill young son, driven into this dangerous mission by the simple need to earn money to pay for her son’s treatment. All are caught in a battle for survival on their trips, when things go wrong, and the Arctic is brutally unforgiving of mistakes.

Healy nicely captures something of the atmosphere of that last blossoming of a bygone age of great exploration, of adventurers and scientists (and indeed sometimes the scientists were adventurers) and sailors pushing into the last parts of the globe that weren’t fully mapped and understood (or claimed for one flag or the other – nationalism too plays a large part in these expeditions of this era). It’s an era that was as remarkable for its stoic heroism in the face of adversity (some of that adversity caused by their own lack of knowledge or preparation). Mostly told in pages of sequences of small panels, which keeps the narrative moving along, while the art is full of atmospheric little touches, like the frozen breath in the Arctic air – just a tiny detail, but it shows the attention Healy is paying to crafting his scene, to trying to induce a feeling for that great, frigid wilderness and the sort of people who challenged it for survival (some triumph, many do not).

The use of the troubled (fictional) Sully to piece these real historical events together is a clever one, not just as a mechanism to allow us into the twin narratives of the expedition, but also as a nice contrast. The middle-aged, pleasantly plump Sully has some personal problems (the cause of his current enforced sabbatical), but despite this his has mostly been a comfortable, sheltered, academic life in our modern age of conveniences, in stark contrast to the pushing the edge of survival of that age of hardy explorers and what they endured. It’s an absorbing, atmospheric melding of real history with a dash of the fictional tying it together, and a reminder of an era, only a century ago, when the edges of the world were still rough, dangerous and often unknown, a world vanished in our modern day when we can look at any spot on the globe from the comfort of our armchair.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness,

Chris Brookmyre,

Orbit Books

(cover artwork by Steve Stone)

Welcome to Ciudad de Cielo, or CdC, a city in the sky, orbiting high above planet Earth, a shining beacon to the blue world below. Home to the Quadriga, a consortium of four mega corporations and the brightest minds humanity has to offer, working on the most advanced research on – well, near – the planet, with the ultimate aim of preparing a generational starship. This is technology not just to better life on Earth, but to prepare the human race to expand out into the stars. An orbital city of thousands, a crime-free utopia of brilliant minds high above the Earth, bringing knowledge and technology to the world below, like some modern Prometheus, while the other foot is readying the long walk to deep space. The pinnacle of human civilisation’s evolution.

Or so the brochures and corporate PR would have it. As anyone who has ever studied utopias knows, they are rarely perfect, human nature just doesn’t allow for it. And human nature is at the core of Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre is a long-established member of the “Tartan Noir”, the brace of internationally bestselling Scottish crime writers (along with the likes of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and more), but here he’s going science fiction, although for lovers of his more Earthbound crime novels, there’s still much here they too can enjoy.

CdC started as a floating lab facility, with the “wheels” at either end being added as it grew, that central shaft offering micro gravity facilities for some advanced research and manufacture, the wheel sections simulating gravity. And “ideal society” claim or not, like every other human city in history it is stratified and with a hierarchy from the corporate suits and top scientists at the peak, down to mass of regular workers low down. The people who do the actual work – cleaners, joiners, electricians, medics, cops (well, private corporation cops), and where you have all of this population there will be a dark economy – bootleg booze, underground clubs, prostitution, and most regualr folks working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. The side of life the CdC like to pretend they left below on Earth; this is more Babylon 5’s Down Below than Star Trek’s shiny Federation.

And it’s into this Alice Blake is sent, a representative of the federated world governments, who keep a close eye on the CdC, the corporations forever wary of too much oversight, or intrusion into how they run things. Alice, adopted child of high flying government types, has been raised and schooled to fit perfectly into her niche and she actually believes the PR blurb about this idealised society and the selfless work leading to the stars and humanity’s destiny. But she is also enough of a political animal to realise her boss is sending her to take over the security gig so she can get a close look at how the corporations are running things. But the myth of the crime-free orbital society is about to be brutally shattered – the low level crimes the CdC can hide, but murder? An especially cruel murder and mutilation? No, that’s going to leak out. Hell of a first day for Alice, paired with the security team’s Nikki Freeman, a former homicide detective and only one on the private security force with the experience to work such a case.

But Nikki is also known as “Nikki Fixx”, a go-to, a fixer, a grifter, working both sides of her badge. Everything Alice despises; Alice, in turn is looked down on by Nikki as a privileged and rule-bound type who has no real idea how things work. In the best mismatched cop-buddy tradition they’re going to be flung together and find themselves spiraling down a far deeper rabbit hole than either could have anticipated, an investigation that will snake around itself, from conspiracy theories and power politics at the highest echelons down to the dive bars and hidden underground elements of society, from criminal smugglers to secretive elite scientists and everything in between, Alice is going to get a first-hand view of the reality of the society on this orbiting citadel of humanity.

I’m not going to go too much into the murder investigation and where it leads, far too easy to blow some spoilers that way, but for anyone who has read Brookmyre’s crime novels, you’ll already know that you are in very fine hands here regarding a good murder mystery, with plenty of twists and turns. But as with his terrestrial novels, Brookmyre delights as much in the details and the way these details and the events around them can reveal human nature in all of its many facets, and that is compelling, from the highest, elite segments to the lowest, and the elements of life that connect them all, one way or the other.

It’s a story which also questions the nature of humanity, from Alice, brought up in a very different setting from the likes of Nikki, with her by the rules, idealised view of how it should all be, to Nikki, who has seen how much of it really works, the dirty, oily engine under the gleaming bonnet of the car, and then those in positions of power, from crime gangs to the corporate and scientific leadership, and what they want their orbiting society – and eventual starship colony crew – to be. And it questions if you can really make people into moulds or if human nature will always assert itself – and if that is a good or bad thing, while also, like much of science fiction, using that future society as a mirror to observe aspects of our own contemporary world, from the haves and have-nots, the corporations straining to be free of government oversight, the bulk of people waiting for the “trickle down” effect, the role of technology in society (for good and ill) and more. It’s a rich brew, giving a real feeling of a near-future society you can believe in, humanity in a warts and all way, allied to a compelling and twisting narrative of murder and conspiracy.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog