When the nightmares leak out into the streets: Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters,
Lauren Beukes,
HarperCollins

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There’s a short version of this review which runs something along the lines of South African writer Lauren Beukes has been sent personally by the Dark Forces from the Infernal City to scar the mind’s inner eye with a scalpel of sharpened words. Although if Lauren is sent by demonic forces she’s very personable and has excellent taste in footwear. And besides, joking aside, from me saying a writer can scar your inner eye is a compliment. In Zoo City then more particularly with her last novel, the intensely brutal and powerful The Shining Girls (which made by 2013 best of the year list), she has displayed an uncanny knack for not just being able to conjure up images and scenes which stick in the reader’s mind long after finishing the book, they really get under your mental skin. In Broken Monsters she develops this skill to peel back the reader’s cognitive functions with a fine blade: the compelling main narrative flows over the cognitive components of the brain but the imagery leaks beneath the foundations of that logical faculty and seeps into the parts of our mind where imagination and it’s twin offspring Wonder and Terror live. This is a book which works as much on the logical strength of a powerful detective tale narrative but simultaneously works by engaging the darkest parts of our imagination; the combined effect is devastatingly powerful.

It seems pretty much everything in Broken Monsters is a struggle. The lead detective, Gabrielle Versado, has had to struggle against macho misconceptions about gender roles in the homicide department, as well as racial ones, while also struggling with a broken marriage and trying to be a single parent (her clever, determined but impulsive daughter Layla is also struggling, to come to terms with no longer being a happy family, with her mother often being dragged away by work pressures and the usual coming of age problems any teen in any city has). She and the entire department are in an eternal struggle, not just against crime in a city riddled with violent acts but with trying to bring order to a city that itself is struggling to hold together – Detroit. And then into this comes Clayton Broom, a man who has failed at relationships, at fatherhood, work and art, a man struggling to try and make sense of his life but lacking the ability to really understand and fit in. Until a car accident changes his perspective and he begins to start using his ‘art’ to reshape the world to how he thinks it should be. It’s not long after this that the first murder victim is found, his first attempt to bring his ‘message’ to the world and try and change it.

A body of a young boy.

Or, more accurately, half a body. The lower half is gone, replaced with those of a young deer, fused to the boy’s torso, then left posed to be found.

The scene is described in terms that really bring home the horror of this, not just of the deliberate, wanton taking of a life – a child’s life at that – but desecrating the corpse in this manner. Beukes captures the mindset of a group of big city detective battling to develop any possible clues into something they can work with, to take the monstrous but categorise it into areas of logical enquiry they can use, at emotional arms-length, to focus on the case and start working out why the killer did this, what it tells them, how they can use this to hunt him. Serial killer? Twisted trophy hunter fed up stalking animals, now turning to people? Is it race-driven? Sexual? Could it be some sort of ritualistic thing – a Satanic cult, Voodoo? You can almost hear the mental clicking of gears as the detectives take a situation that should never happen and try to apply their tried and tested methods on it to make sense of something that may be beyond sense, to categorise it, analyse it and follow those clues. But what if it is something else altogether?

What starts as a brutally compelling police-procedural story soon starts to morph – it will surprise no-one who has read Beuekes’ other books to learn that no single genre label can contain her work, and this is as much a horror story and a dark fantasy novel (reminding me sometimes of the dark horrors the likes of Tim Lebbon can conjure) as it is a detective story. When we see some of the events from Clayton’s increasingly disintegrating point of view we see that to him his horrific murders and bodily mutilations and alterations are not killing – they start as a sort of art, but not just art, this is primal art, art as a form of magic, as it was in the earliest days, when painting a deer on a cave wall was not just art but sympathetic magic, trying to capture something of the essence of that creature being depicted and to use it for understanding, shaping the world and power. The writing is deliciously dark – these are nightmares leaking out of the darkest places of a twisted, delusional mind of a man turned murderer, but as we are drawn deep into this heart of darkness it becomes increasingly difficult to tell nightmare fantasy from hard, cold reality in the semi ruined streets of Detroit. How much of this is the warped imagination of a sociopathic killer trying to somehow justify what he is doing to himself? And could it be real? What if others start to feel the awful, dark presence of what he is doing and how it can change the world around him and his ‘art’? It this shared delusions? Is there something else here? Psychotropics? Or something far worse, darker and unnatural…


(Lauren Beukes with artist Inaki Miranda at the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my own Flickr)

I won’t delve any deeper into that, save to say Beukes manages to both have her cake and eat it in the very satisfying manner in which she explores the escalating situation and offers up different aspects for the readers to draw conclusions (and doubtless to argue with one another over aspects of what was what). Running through this main narrative thrust there are other elements – a sexual predator her daughter and friend bait with the aim of publicly shaming, her daughter’s friend in her seemingly perfect family but nursing her own dark secret, the burned out, failed journalist Jonno, come to the decaying city of Detroit and trying to reinvent himself as a new media guru, feeding off the increasingly bizarre murders. The scenes where Beuekes depicts various forms of new media and social media circling these events, exploiting them (and traditional media trying to feed off it like carrion) are bitingly realistic – the instant rush to judgement on comments online posted by people who don’t know what really happened but straight away have to shout loudly about their opinions (often in banal, badly spelled ways, frequently in vile, violent form) are sadly far too realistic. But those elements aren’t just added for a bit of detail or verisimilitude, oh no, Beukes is too good for that, she also starts weaving these new and social medias into the story in an unusual form that contributes to the main narrative, and how those changing media and technologies alter our view of the world around us, and our morality.

Even for an old hand at horror like me (happily raised in the pre-legislation era of the Video Nasties where you could watch anything) this is a deeply disturbing read. Somehow Beukes manages to craft not just the awful horrors of the brutal world big city detectives have to deal with on a daily basis (and she depicts the toll it takes on them) but then make this worse with an almost Lovecraftian atmosphere of some unspeakable, un-knowable, un-nameable horror that is leaking out from realms that should not exist except in our collective nightmares, bleeding into the real world on an artist’s palette that uses blood and body parts instead of oils and brushes. And it is utterly, utterly compelling while making parts of your brain twitch, you simply can’t pull away from it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Ragnarok was never so much fun – Joanne Harris revisits Norse myth with the Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki,
Joanne M Harris,
Gollancz

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Ah, Loki, for millennia known as the Trickster of the gods. Not the mightiest, not the wisest, not the most heroic or noble. Nor is he one of the Aesir, the deities lead by one-eyed Odin, the Allfather, or the Vanir, the other early gods Odin managed to bring into his fold (or bribed, cajoled or tricked into partnership, depending on which version of the Norse sagas and myths you read – Loki is not the only one capable of cunning and trickery…). He’s the schemer, the inventive trickster, impetuous and although invited into Asgard as Odin’s sworn blood-brother he knows and the other gods know (and he knows they know and is acutely aware of it) that he’s simply not one of them. And it rankles and festers inside him, driving him to various plots to undermine some of the gods, to settle scores and slights, which, of course, gets him into more trouble, makes him more distrusted, which in turn makes him even more irritated with his situation and so he thinks up more plans to trip them up…

…And you can see how that’s a situation that pretty much powers itself on upwards, forever escalating and you know it’s not going to end well, not for anyone, Loki included. And if you couldn’t guess that this endless spiral would lead to disaster (and you had no familiarity with the Norse legends) you would still know, because Loki tells you as you go along. This is his story, some of the great tales of Norse myth retold by Harris but from the perspective of the god who most often gets the blame for everything which goes wrong, by the other gods, by the Folk (humans), the Rock People, the dwarves… Well, pretty much everyone in creation. And he’s not happy with this situation, so this is his version of events, his justification for why he did what he did, how it all went down (as he sees it, anyway), from his first meeting with Odin to the slippery road that leads to Rangarok and the end of Worlds.

If you have read some of the great Norse myths, many rather handily preserved by Icelander’s centuries-long love of practising their calligraphy and vocabulary by painstakingly copying the sagas so even when original fragments have been lost there have been copies to maintain the stories, then you will recognise many of the tales Harris weaves into The Gospel of Loki. There’s the stealing of Sif’s beautiful tresses after a bit of hanky panky, which doesn’t exactly make her husband Thor very happy (and it doesn’t take much to get Thor roused to violent behaviour), leading Loki on a mission to the dwarves, those underground dwelling (and rather ugly) masters of the forge and crafts to flatter and cajole them into creating a temporary replacement for Sif’s hair, created from incredibly detailed, jointed strips of gold, woven with runes so it becomes like her hair and grows with it as it returns. To sweeten things after his faux-pas he also manages to make the dwarves create some other artefacts, all run-inscribed, magical devices (such as Odin’s spear) but being Loki he can’t stop there and it isn’t long before, blinded with the idea of more magical gifts, he schemes to get rival dwarves to try and outdo the others for craftsmanship (part of which leads to the forging on Mjolnir, the fabled battle-hammer of Thor) and, of course, he gets himself tied into knots with his head literally on the line…

Many of these tales from the myths occur in The Gospel of Loki, but now from the perspective of Loki, casting a different light on events even if you are fairly familiar with the original tales already, and if you aren’t then they function as a very accessible (and highly enjoyable) introduction for modern readers to some of the great myths and legends of Norse culture (also if you aren’t familiar with them I’d recommend following this with a read of The Prose Edda – there’s a lovely recent Penguin Classics edition which is a perfect primer). In lesser hands that’s what this might have been – a version of the great tales told in a way modern readers would find more palatable, and really that would still have been an interesting read. But Harris is too good to simply do that, she breathes life into all of the characters, from Chaos incarnate to dwarves to gods in a way that the sagas often don’t – the sagas spin great yarns but this is a novel and Harris takes those tales as a framework then fleshes out her characters and makes them, well, more human (sorry, gods of Asgard, it’s just a phrase), which gives another dimension to the events. Telling a great epic of the gods and heroes is fine (and has historically been one the drivers of the human urge for storytelling) but a novel lets you experience not just the big events but to get inside the characters, and that means some emotional investment, as well as perhaps framing those ancient stories in a way more suitable for some modern readers (a trick Ashok Banker also handled well with his Ramayana cycle).

And that, in turn, means you’re much more emotionally involved as the various events push ever forward to the seemingly inevitable ending of Ragnarok, twilight of the gods, Wagner playing in the background (metaphorically) as the Bi-frost crumbles, the walls of Asgard shatter and the gods fall in a final battle as the great wolf eats the sun and the moon; the end of the Worlds… Everything which begins has an ending, and in myths from many lands that doom is usually long foretold and seemingly inevitable, no matter how the gods and heroes may struggle to deflect fate. And is it all truly inevitable? Are prophecies always going to come to pass, or does the knowledge of the future – or a possible future – shape events, leading to decisions which will eventually lead to the conditions that bring prophecies to reality? Are they in effect self-fulfilling? And how much can you trust prophecies which come from a disembodied head kept in a well (separation of Mimir’s head from his body caused by one of Odin’s schemes, so really, as Loki says, should you trust him? Actually Loki says you should never trust an oracle, but then throughout there are many people Loki says you should never trust…). There’s a school of thought that argues Norse storytellers were well aware of Classical tales and that these influence some elements of the Norse tales, and if you’ve read any Classical Greek tales involving oracles you’ll doubtless see echoes of how double edged future knowledge can be, even to a god.

Loki himself is, appropriately enough given this is his tale, the most vibrantly realised of the characters here, and Harris has him down to a T; cheeky, quick to take offence, just as swift to plot some revenge scheme which will dig him even further into trouble, then take further umbrage at being vilified for his misdeeds (even when he knows he did actually do that naughty thing, he resents being blamed for it), never taking responsibility for his actions (just look at his monstrous children he pays little attention to after his dalliances, who will eventually play major roles in Ragnarok), always blaming others for his own faults (although in his defence, as he points out, he is Wildfire, born of Chaos, and Odin knew that when he brought him into Asgard. It is his nature, after all). But he’s also charming, quick-witted, silver-tongued, funny and frankly it’s hard to dislike him even when he is cooking up another revenge scheme or even plotting the downfall of Asgard.

And it isn’t as if Loki is the only one with selfish motiviations or who find using others for his own schemes comes to easily to him – it’s quite clear throughout that the other gods are just as shifty and duplicitous, happy to bask in glory (earned or otherwise), to take tribute from others, worship from the Folk, to lay out their own long-term plans that involve manipulating others (not least Odin, a crafty old bugger if ever there was, and quite ruthless). The difference is Loki know this is his character, it is his very nature as Wildfire, but he never really pretends to be anything else, while the gods like to present a veneer of honour over all their deeds. Never trust a god, as Loki would no doubt comment – you don’t get to be a god, especially the top god, the Allfather, without being a sneaky, ruthless character…


(Joanne Harris signing copies of the Gospel of Loki after a reading in Blackwell’s, Edinburgh)

It’s not all sneaking and subterfuge and plots within plots though – there are moment, just a few here and there, where briefly Loki feels content. A fishing trip with Odin, camping out, just the boys, drinking, travelling, hunting together away from all the god concerns for a while, he even becomes friendly, briefly, with Thor. And that makes the oncoming betrayals and Ragnarok all the more bitter, because while he plans vengeance with his dark allies (and is he using them or is he being used – in fact is everyone from gods down to chaos demons and giants all being played?) there’s that emotional barb, the moments when he did like being in shining Asgard, the fleeting moments where he and his blood brother Odin just hung out like old pals… And again its the emotional depth Harris puts into these ancient characters that takes this beyond just a great set of yarns and makes you actually care.

On her own site the author commented of the book that “It’s not quite a retelling of the Norse myths, although I have drawn extensively from them. Instead it’s more like a version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which Stoppard takes the story of Hamlet and retells it from behind the scenes, from another point of view,” and I think that’s also a good way of looking at this different perspective on some classic myths. Loki has been busy popping up in different media in the last few years – most obviously in the big-budget splendour of the Thor and Avengers movies, but he’s also been reborn in the Marvel comics and been brought to rather selfish and nasty life in the excellent Kiwi fantasy series The Almighty Johnsons. And here is that lovable rogue again grabbing a slice of the limelight, and again showing that actually in many ways, despite not being the most noble, strongest or wisest, he’s far more interesting than most of the other gods, and Harris gives us a Loki, full of obvious faults, but one who is never less than charming and fascinating. And, it has to be said, a hell of a lot of fun!

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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Neil Gaiman returns to the Sandman

The Sandman: Overture #1
Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III
DC/Vertigo

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(above: variant cover art for Sandman Overture #1 by Dave McKean, below: below cover art by JH Williams III)

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We blogged months ago about the raft of new titles coming from DC’s acclaimed Vertigo imprint this autumn. We’ve already seen the first issues of Hinterkind and Coffin Hill, which I very much enjoyed (reviewed here and here, respectively). But with no disrespect to those fine creators I (and I suspect many of you) have been waiting most impatiently for this week’s Vertigo release, nicely timed for the Halloween week, when dark things are allowed to leave the imaginary realms to walk the waking world, a series which is synonymous with the Vertigo imprint – The Sandman.

To say Neil Gaiman’s return to arguably his greatest comics creation comes loaded with anticipation is an understatement. And as Neil himself pointed out during his talks at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, he was keenly aware of that. As he put it, when he first wrote Sandman few folks knew who he was and they were in a position to try what they wanted and push the sort of storytelling they wanted to try in the comics medium. This time though, it comes long after the original comic run, then the collected editions which introduced Sandman to a new and wider audience, and which are still introducing them, because there is always a reader who will be coming to it as a new discovery, because books are wonderful that way, they wait patiently for us to pick them up and they don’t care if you were one of the first to pick that book up or if you came to this author many years later, the book will welcome you in with open pages. But yes, Neil said he felt that all that much larger audience were, in a sense, there, looking over his shoulder, all with their own expectations. It’s the flipside of success and quite a burden on a writer. Thankfully Neil is one of our finest spinners of tales, and clearly he still loves the Dreaming…

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As many of you will know Overture will take in events that preceded the first Sandman story arc, where a Crowley-like magician summoned and captured Dream (although he was trying for Dream’s older sister, Death). We know from that tale that Dream was returning from some great trial in a vastly distant galaxy, tired beyond endurance (one reason he was captured so easily by simple summonings), but we never knew what those earlier events were. Here we open with a distant world peopled by different lifeforms, including sentient, carnivorous plants (Dave Stewart is, as always, to be commended for his colouring work, especially on this opening page); as one plant sleeps it dreams, and as it dreams it behold a strange plant, dark faced, black-leaved – Dream in one of his aspects. He feels something is wrong with the Dreaming on this world, although everything on the surface looks fine, but his sense of wrongness increases until suddenly it ends in shrieking and fire…

We cut to Britain, during the First World War, a pale man with a sinister smile and dark glasses pays a visit to a handsome young clerk in a store, telling him he has information on his brother, missing for some time after one of the battles on the Western Front and offering to meet him later. Regarding the man’s dark glasses the clerk asks “Sir? Your eyes? Were you hurt in a gas attack?” “Something like that,” replies the man, “You will find out all about my eyes tonight…” It can only be the nightmare, the Corinthian, and in a touch fans will love the panels from this scene are viewed through frames shaped like teeth, a hint to the Corinthian’s rather grisly habit and his endless hunger, as well as a nice visual nod to his nature by Williams.

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Neil also manages to slip in appearances from several other favourite characters in this first issue – Destiny and Death (looking wonderfully like a Gothic Mary Poppins) discuss those distant event we glimpsed at the start and what ramifications they may have for Dream, and we briefly see Merv Pumpkinhead talking with Lucien in the Library of Dreams (where Merv is delighting in telling how he put ‘Siggy’ – the inference is Sigmund Freud – ‘right’ about his cigar). These are worked into the events rippling out as a consequence of what we glimpsed on that distant world rather than simply pushed in to make the fans happy, although I am sure there would have been an intent to show some of the old characters for that reason too.

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I don’t want to spoil the whole issue for you, so won’t continue to the later pages here; suffice to say the Corinthian’s activities in the Waking World draw Dream’s attention (a rather natty Edwardian-era Dream visiting his London Office, satin cloak and top hat), but as he does so those ripples set in motion right at the start of the issue and which Death and Destiny had discussed are starting to reach this aspect of Dream and he feels that things are about to be set in motion…

Alright, I am biased, Sandman is my favourite comic series and one I still delight in returning to every now and then, so I may be a little biased in my desire for this to be good. Although as someone who read it right from the start you might also argue I may be more critical of new material. I can honestly say I tried to approach this without either of those old-hand fan filters on; I came to it, at least as best I could, as someone who simply likes a good tale well-told, and I was not disappointed. In a few pages Neil not only re-introduced characters he set up the first inklings of an event which will have huge ramifications for Dream, and does so with a structure that, like the original series, is a beautifully constructed narrative.

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And, as you might expect, JH Williams III’s artwork is simply beautiful, and more than that, as with his work in his quite excellent Batwoman run or with Moore in Promethea, he exhibits a wonderfully inventive flair for interesting layouts and page designs (including a terrific double-page spread which folds open to reveal a stunning four page scene). Never just to be showy, but perfectly integrated into the service of the story and atmosphere, pushing the ways in which our beloved medium can carry a story and draw in the reader’s imagination, a perfect fit for Neil and Dream alike. I’ve said it before and will say it again here; I think Williams is one of the finest artists working in the medium today. A beautiful, elegant piece of work and a first issue which is, if you will forgive the weak pun, something of an overture to the story of Overture.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Review: Fairest – the Hidden Kingdom

Fairest Volume 2: the Hidden Kingdom (buy from Forbidden Planet)
Fairest Volume 2: Hidden Kingdom TP(buy from Amazon)
Lauren Beukes and Inaki Miranda,

DC/Vertigo

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Yes, I know, I’m recommending a Volume 2 to you – but worry not, although if you already know your Fables history there are little references hidden away for you to enjoy, but to the new reader this Fables spin-off series focused on the female characters is a terrific way into this long-running world of tales (and if it is new to you you will want to explore not only Fairest 1 but the whole of Willingham’s magnificent Fables series afterwards). For this story arc Willingham sought out South African writer Lauren Beukes (rhymes with Lucas, if you are wondering), who I’m sure some of you will alreadyknow from her Zoo City novel, which won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award, the UK’s top prize for literary science fiction (I’d also commend her recent, disturbing, fascinating and compelling The Shining Girls novel, reviewed recently by James on our blog and now nominated for the prestigious Golden Dagger award), while Brit comics readers may have seen Inaki’s work in Judge Dredd.

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Lauren was given Rapunzel (of flowing locks fame) as a character to play with and teamed up with Spanish artist Inaki Miranda, and although she felt tempted to do something with folkloric characters from her own African homeland she couldn’t resist the lure of Japan. And while I would love to see the duo revisit Fairest later for an African myth-themed tale I, am glad they did go Japanese for this first outing. Despite working in different countries the two were soon swapping ideas, references and influences, from ancient Japanese folklore to modern anime and J-Pop, and the hugely influential J-Horror (as Lauren put it, there had to be a crazy hair horror moment in the Japanese setting!) which fuse in the tale to give a fantastic setting that takes in the hypermodernity of big-city Japan mixed with its much, much older rich seam of folklore.

Rapunzel has had a mysterious message, that a dark chapter of her long personal history is calling her to Japan, where she had been centuries before. A potion helps slow her astonishing hair growth so she can travel in the human world without drawing too much attention (when your hair grows several inches every few hours it’s hard to hide it on a long flight from the US to Japan!) and with some other Fables she begins her search in Japan, where we get to meet a whole array of Japanese Fables, many of whom soon prove memorable characters in their own right, some quirky, funny, some disturbing and monstrous, some rather sexy.

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This is no simple tale of personal rediscovery in a (too us anyway) exotic setting and culture though , as Beukes and Miranda layer in a whole lot of other elements into both the story and the characters. This isn’t a story that shies away from exploring dubious moralities and the consequences to many from the actions of one, and it is also a story in which sexuality (in a very sensual fashion though, not an exploitative way) plays a major role. Also mixed in with this is violence, including a particularly harrowing sequence which writer and artist crafted to be brutal, not wanting the stylised, almost, as Lauren put it discussing this scene recently at the Edinburgh Book Festival, consequence free violent fights of some superhero tales (lots of violence but rarely seems to matter much). This shows the awful nature of someone being hurt, repeatedly and brutally, deliberately shocking the reader, as indeed it should. Miranda conjures up some wonderful visuals, from a splash of neon Tokyo that looks like a J-Pop album cover to a brooding, dark old forest in which the overgrowth of Rapunzel’s hair (and the things that come from it) are spun into a nest, like something from one of Del Toro’s early films, menacing and disturbing, while the aforementioned violent scene flashes from different protagonist’s perspectives until the physical punishment leads to the frames breaking up, shattering, cleverly echoing the victim’s point of view as the punishing concussion of the blows drives her into unconsciousness, or a psychedelic, disturbing birth scene – the pair of them reallydo craft some memorable scenes.

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There’s been a real push to bring in novelists – especially from SF&F – into comics to help stir things up in recent years, bringing in new perspectives, and this is one of the fruits of that push. Much recommended. You can read a special guest Commentary post by Lauren and Inaki discussing their approach to Fairest here on our blog. Inaki’s art will be seen again this autumn in Coffin Hill as part of the big, new DC/Vertigo series of titles and I reckon he’s one to be watching. Lauren is already working on a new book and let’s hope it won’t be long before she also returns to comics.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The Bone Season – a seriously compelling debut from a new talent

The Bone Season (Scion 1) hardback

The Bone Season (Scion 1) Kindle

Samantha Shannon,

Bloomsbury

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It’s 2059, and the United Kingdom – and the rest of the world – of this future is not just different, it has evolved rather differently from the history we know. In this world Queen Victoria was the last ‘good’ monarch, but her son is reviled as the Blood Prince, who dabbled in ‘unnatural’ practices using those with psychic gifts (known as voyants) which drove him into murderous acts (playing on the long-running legend that Jack the Ripper was actually a mad member of the royal family). Britain changes, becoming the Scion, a sort of Puritan totalitarian government (with echoes of Moore and Lloyd’s Norsefire regime in V for Vendetta), virulently anti-voyant in almost religious tones, with decades of propaganda from Scion largely persuading much of the population that all voyants are evil and must be arrested and dealt with. Secret police and uniformed patrols are all over the place, especially in the Scion heartland citadel of London, where the fortunate voyants have been recruited into criminal gangs which use voyants of different psychic abilities (from seeking information from the minds of normals – aumorotics – through to those who can channel ghosts, including even the spirit of a famous dead painter to create new works to sell). The unfortunate ones ‘busk’ in the streets, and like anyone living on the streets they are vulnerable, especially to the vigilant eyes of Scion.

Paige Mahoney, a nineteen year old Irish girl, is secretly a voyant – the daughter of a highly-regarded scientist for the regime she must keep her growing abilities hidden not only from the government and general population but even her own father. He despairs his darling daughter left school and won’t go on to college despite his entreaties, not realising she knows at college she would be too visible and it would only be a matter of time until her abilities were spotted for what they were. So instead he thinks she holds a low level job in an Oxygen bar (the good old fashioned British pub has gone under Scion, who seem to share Cromwell’s attitude to people having fun) that she travels across the city too, but actually she’s in the employ of Jaxon Hall, a mime-lord, one of those who run the voyant gangs around the city. Jaxon isn’t just some underworld figure though, he’s voyant himself and he’s spent a lot of time researching the subject and categorising the abilities and classes of psychic abilities. Paige has abilities, including being able to project herself right out of her body and into the aether (although this leaves her physical body vulnerable and in need of life support). But Jaxon is sure she has much more to her abilities, more than she knows herself yet…

It’s a far from ideal life, but given the circumstances of Scion society (a credo which is spreading to other nations) Paige is relatively content with her alternative ‘family’, despite having to always look over her shoulder for the secret police of Scion seeking out Voyants to send to the Tower and despite missing her native Ireland (now crushed under the Scion heel too, in another echo of Cromwellian times). But Paige’s settled if precarious existence comes crashing down when she is caught by a random police check on public transport and uses an ability she didn’t know she had to fend them off, an ability that puts her onto the radar of the authorities… And others…

When Paige is finally hunted down and taken she finds herself not under arrest by the voyant-hating Scion, however, but by something quite possibly worse – the Rephaites. Large, strong humanoid creatures with a strong connection to the aether and an interest in collecting voyants with skills they can use, they have been in partnership secretly with Scion since the time of Lord Palmerston, a dirty secret at the heart of the state. Supposedly in return for a supply of voyant prisoners and equipment – and the use of the sealed off, lost city of Oxford – they are protecting humanity from incursions by a vicious breed of creatures which only they, with voyant help, can combat and prevent from over-running Scion then the rest of the world through breaches in the Aether made by so many voyants interacting with it. The Rephaites despise humans and treat their prisoners brutally as they train them, discarding those who fail, ruthlessly using the ones who pass their nasty tests. Paige, with her suspected hidden talents, is taken on by Warden, a Rephaite of some standing who has never taken on a human before. Life and training in Oxford at Reph hands is vicious and brutal, most of the humans treated dreadfully, save for a few who seem to take to the life and basically become collaborators. But all is not as it seems – the Reph may have a deal with Scion but they also appear to have their own agenda, while some of the Reph may be a bit different from others, but how can Paige discern friend from foe in this secretive, brutal, closed society, and even if she can, will it be enough to help her survive?

I’m not going to potentially spoil it for you by revealing any more of the plot. However on the quite wonderful style and craft of words Samantha displays I really cannot heap enough praise – it is remarkably self-assured writing, most especially for a debut. This was one of those remarkable reads where within a few pages I felt totally drawn into the world the author drew around me. It’s an intoxicating mixture of elements – personal growth, struggle for freedom (in quite a few ways – from the puritan, authoritarian Scion regime, the vile Rephs, even her ‘family’ of criminal voyants is a form of forced control), they way society view the ‘other’,  with good use of fantasy and science fiction elements in a tight, gripping narrative that pulls us right along the journey with Paige. The settings too, from this authoritarian future London ‘citadel’ to Oxford, sealed off for centuries, it’s ancient buildings and streets still lit by gas lamps like the ghost of the Britain that was before the Blood Prince scandal and the rise of the Scion, while that setting also reminds the reader, in the good way, of Pullman’s excellent Dark Materials novels, a fully and well-realised world. It’s not difficult after reading this to see why such a new and very young author has Bloomsbury very excited, and why it has already been sold on into quite a few other countries, while Andy Serkis has taken out a film option on it. I get through a lot of books and comics, but I can say this is the most engrossing read I have had so far this year and frankly the most absorbing and compelling debut I’ve read since the superb Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Hugely recommended.

Lord of the Strings

Lindsey Stirling’s violin medley of music from the soundtrack of the magnificent Lord of the Rings films is simply superb – from the beautiful airs of the songs to the more martial theme of the horse lords that stirs up the blood for a cavalry charge against the Orcish hordes…

And on a non musical note, Lindsey herself is incredibly cute and Elfin.

Reviews from the past: Prospero’s Children

Prospero’s Children

By Jan Siegel

Published Voyager

Another old review of mine unearthed from quite a few years ago (I think this even predates my Alien Online reviews and was penned for my first ever website, The Library of Dreams, it was, the debut fantasy novel by Jan Siegel, one of those books I just knew as soon as I picked it up, knowing nothing about it, but somehow knew it would be good. My book radar rarely fails me and in this case it was spot on, a superb work:

An ancient house on the Yorkshire moors is left to sixteen-year-old Fern’s father upon the death of its occupant, her distant uncle, and old sailor. Fern is suspicious of Alimond, a woman she suspects is more than she seems, and is interested in her father. With their father away on business often, Fern and her younger brother Will are left for much of the summer in the mysterious old home, exploring the many strange objects gathered from around the world by their late uncle.

After nightfall the old country house becomes stranger. Fern is sure she has seen something lurking in the shadows of the hall, and each night comes the sounds of some unknown creature snuffling around outside the house, as if seeking a way in. This nocturnal noise is so frightening that Fern finds herself unable to leave her bed and look out the window, instead lying in dread, waiting for the dawn, trying to convince herself it was only a badger. In the daylight she and her brother seek out the footprints of the nocturnal visitor, but none are to be found in the soft earth. At the end of the garden, on the edge of the moors is a rock, shaped like a sitting man, which seems to come and go of its own volition.

Alimond comes to stay and the mysterious creature gains entrance to the house. As most know, magical creatures may only enter homes when invited, so is it in league with Alimond, who seems to be searching their uncle’s belongings for a mysterious object? As the tale progresses we find the rock is indeed a man, Ragginbone, an ancient wizard who has spent his power. With him appears Lougarry, a large dog, who may or may not be a werewolf now trapped in canine form. When the nocturnal creature attacks, Lougarry defends Fern and Will stoutly. As they explore carefully, treading their path through an invisible maze almost as impenetrable as the mists on the Yorkshire moors, they discover that Alimond seeks a key, a key that opens the Door to the otherworld, to Death itself. Her ambition is so blinding she is allied her magical powers with an ancient and malevolent spirit entity, both seeking the key to open the door, and also to reach back through time to find the Lodestone, lost when Atlantis was taken by the waves. A wave of magical events is unleashed and Fern must cross the portal back into per-history to Atlantis to try and make things right, with only her own growing Gift to protect and guide her.

On the surface you may be tempted to mistake this first-time author’s novel for a typical piece of genre fantasy writing. It has strange creatures, magic, witches, Unicorns, lost lands … But this is a wonderfully written tale, literally enchanting, with an excellent atmosphere – try reading the part with the unseen night creature trying to gain access to the house, or the statue talking, in bed at night and feel the hairs on your neck rise … Having a sixteen-year-old girl as the heroine works very well, and Siegel deftly mixes her magical mystery with a tale of a young girl growing into womanhood in a family without a mother, coming to terms with her adulthood while also realising she too has the magical Gift … This is a gorgeous novel, entrancing, it will draw you in like a magical web. It should appeal especially to readers of Marion Zimmer Bradley (alas, recently deceased) and Anne McCaffrey. Intelligent, thoughtful and imaginative – the best fantasy work I have read this year.

Reviews from the past: American Gods

Time to dig out another old review from my archive, this time by one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman and his novel American Gods. I remember doing the event in Edinburgh (packed, standing room only) with Neil when this book came out and I’ve still got a nice signed edition he scribbled in for me afterwards. I can’t remember if this appeared on the Alien Online or not, I think it might actually date to my own first review site The Library of Dreams, back around 2001 or thereabouts. I seem to remember Neil had been wanting to write it for a while but had still been busy with a lot of his comics work and so this large prose novel had to wait, but it was worth the wait.

American Gods,
by Neil Gaiman,
published by Headline

American Gods begins simply enough with a man called Shadow, counting the days until his release on parole from prison. A few short days before he is due to be released he is taken to the warden’s office to be told he is being released early on compassionate grounds. His wife has been killed in a car crash, just days before he was due home. Worse is to come when Shadow attends the funeral and finds his wife had been sleeping with his best friend and had actually caused the crash by giving him fellatio while driving. As Shadow’s new start in the world crumbles around him he is followed by a one-eyed stranger called Mr Wednesday. Wednesday offers Shadow a job, which he refuses at first, but wearily agrees to after the funeral is over. He is not told what the specifics of the job are, but he does find himself in a bar, drinking Wednesday’s mead to seal the deal and fighting a drunken leprechaun called Mad Sweeney by way of an audition.

Thereafter Shadow travels across much of the land of America. Some of it and its inhabitants are recognisable, other parts and people are more like the dream imagery of America described in film, painting and literature. Shadow senses a great storm coming and Wednesday confirms that this coming storm is what their business concerns. After performing a successful con job at a bank to raise funds for their venture they begin seeking out some very odd people, who Wednesday arranges to meet at the House on the Rock, a bizarre attraction of run-down fairground oddities and architectural curiosities.

While riding the world’s largest carousel there, Shadow experiences an alternate reality – a dream perhaps, or a glimpse of shadow worlds – where he sees many of theses people they have collected in their real light. They are gods. Old gods. Gods who were brought across the great oceans by the many waves of immigrants from the Old World. Wednesday was brought to the Americas centuries before, in the beliefs of the Vikings who ventured to this strange, new land. His wolves and two ravens appear. He is Odin, the one-eyed gallows god. And he is seeking to gather together all the old gods in America because a storm is coming.

Although many of the Old World gods made the journey to the New World with the people of their old lands, they are fading away. America is not the most fertile ground for such beliefs, it appears. As the successive immigrants have settled down and assimilated themselves into American culture, belief in the old ways and old gods has diminished, until most are simply tales to be told to children. Without belief a god dwindles, weakens and fades. Some seek to exploit this weakness of the older gods.

A new generation of gods has sprung up. American gods. Gods of the media, the television, the Internet, pop music, Wall Street. These are the gods of the New World, and they do not wish to share it with the gods of the old. Driven partly by jealousy and partly by fear – the old gods, after all, are a reminder to them that even a god’s life is finite – the new gods will wage war with the old. They try to co-opt Shadow to join their ranks, as the gods of the media bring his television to life. Lucy speaks to him from an old re-run, trying to persuade him to come over to their camp. She finishes with a wink and an offer to show him Lucy’s tits, surely one of the more unusual lines in contemporary fantasy. Shadow refuses and is attacked by strange men-in-black – the realisation of America’s security services, they even have unmarked cars and helicopters – but is rescued by his dead wife, Laura, who he may have accidentally resurrected.

Wednesday sends Shadow for safety to stay with old friends, Mr Bis and Mr Jacquel, who run a small mortuary and funeral service, with their cat who takes a fancy to Shadow. Times are hard when no one believes in you, and so Anubis makes a living now as an undertaker. After leaving them, Shadow is sent to the relative safety of a small, idyllic heartland town of Lakeside. A seemingly perfect little town, immune from all the ravages of the real world affecting the towns around it, Lakeside is like Bedford Falls, the small-town American ideal. Of course, there is a dark reason as to why Lakeside is the way it is, as Shadow finds out, a sinister reason linked to the almost annual disappearance of an adolescent from the town. Even in the idyll of rural America, nothing is just as it appears. And still the war is coming. Wednesday is manoeuvring friends and foe alike, and not necessarily all for their own benefits. Shadow will face death, the underworld, dreams of the great native Indian Thunderbirds and battles with duplicitous gods, occasionally helped by his dead wife, leading to a conclusion which is unexpected and startling.

American Gods has been a cherished project of Neil’s, that he has been working on for some time. It has been postponed more than once, but the final 500 page plus novel is more than worth the wait. Alright, you all know I am biased towards Neil’s work. Guilty as charged. But I think anyone who reads this wonderful work of fantasy will being to see just why I rave about his writing so much. American Gods is an extremely clever piece of fantasy, mixing some wonderfully original storytelling with world mythology and folklore. This is not an uncommon theme in Neil’s writing, and of course, we have seen him use Odin and Loki before in the Sandman. But the juxtaposition of these brilliantly realised mythic archetypes from the Old World with the belief systems of modern America is the charm, which breathes life into this clay. Neil’s observance of America, its beliefs and how it sees itself are both affectionate and cutting. The idea that we create new gods without realising it, such as gods of the media or Wall Street, is intriguing – we all worship something after all, a deity, liberty, money, love, possessions. It echoes Grant Morisson’s early Invisibles episode where it is revealed that John Lennon now has all the attributes of a god.

The new gods represent this idea, that our beliefs may change, but gods will always be with us, because we create them ourselves, whether we are worshipping the dollar or a pop star. They’re not called idols for nothing after all. And when a god is no longer worshipped or remembered they fade slowly away, reduced to performing con jobs like Wednesday to get by as best they can, like a once-famous actor now scratching a living from commercials. Even gods can die, and this frightens the new gods even more than sharing America with the old gods. The old gods represent their own mortality. Worse, in our hi-tech, fast-moving, short-attention span world, belief in the new gods is far more fleeting. While Odin may have commanded worship for centuries, many new gods are discarded quickly, such as the sickly Rail Baron god. Not enough belief to go around for everyone, every god for themselves.

American Gods is one of Neil’s finest works to date. If you have not read any of his work before, this is an excellent starting point, as it needs no knowledge of his other material to understand. If you are familiar with Neil’s canon then you will be rewarded by little literary nuggets. The room in the House on the Rock, full of old coin-operated shows which is reminiscent of the arcade in Mr Punch. The girl with the multi-coloured hair and the dog, who may or may not be Delirium. As ever his work is littered with multiple references to other writers. Of course his beloved James Branch Cabell, but I’m sure I spotted references to, or influences of many others, such as Sheri S Tepper and Lord Dunsanay, to say nothing of the Frank Capra homage to Bedford Falls in the shape of Lakeside, which in turn becomes a homage to David Lynch’s skewed take on the hidden side of American small town life in Blue Velvet. If you are looking for dense, multiple layering of narrative and metaphor, then Neil’s your man. This is a work of first class literature, bursting with gorgeous ideas and characters, both original and those from our collective mythologies. Like any truly good piece of writing, it will change the way you view the ‘real’ world.

Pottermania

No, I’m not talking about dear old Colonel Sherman T Potter from M*A*S*H* but the boy wizard. This morning on the way to work there were already some fans in glasses, lightning bolt and Hogwarts scarves queuing on the pavement outside The Bookstore That Shall Not Be Named (indeed the very branch Evil Boss moved to later on and made the staff there very happy too – not). Man, that is one thing I do not miss, having to do the midnight opening for Harry bloody Potter… To be fair the kids were okay – they were so excited and many were in costume, so that was kind of fun, but some of the older fans, notably the semi-drunk students were a pain in the bloody arse. As was being there to 1 or 2am and still expected to be back in at 8am next morning for the Saturday Potter onslaught (and no, we didn’t get paid overtime rates either, tight bastards). I also laughed out loud at the news that Childline ( a fine charity) needs extra counsellors on duty to deal with young fans if they are traumatised by the widely expected death of a major character. No, I’m not joking. Jeez, kid, get a fecking grip and clear the line for some kid who has a real problem and needs help!

Still, I was thinking, if Harry Potter was killed off it doesn’t have to be the end of the series – in the worlds of fantasy and science fiction death is rarely final, after all. So I was thinking we team up a deceased Harry Potter with the recently murdered Captain America to fight evil in the Afterlife. Harry Potter also starts dating X-Statix’s Dead Girl and when he and the Cap have saved the Afterlife they earn the right to be returned to the land of the living, where Captain America then adopts Harry as his son so at last he has a dad, while Doctor Strange completes Harry’s magical training and shows him how to grow a moustache. They might turn Iron Man into a frog while they’re at it. (sorry, that last bit will be meaningless to folks not up on current comics news)

Gaiman in Scotsman

Scotland on Sunday – the Sabbath’s version of the Scotsman – has a very nice write up on Neil Gaiman following his visit to Glasgow and Edinburgh last week on the UK leg of his Anansi Boys tour (the book is, as ever, wonderful – it’s also Neil’s first humour novel since Good Omens with Terry Pratchett – if you haven’t read it yet then start dropping hints to family and friends in the run up to Christmas). It also mentions something I covered in the FPI blog a while back, that the new National Theatre of Scotland is adapting the children’s picture book Wolves in the Wall by Neil and Dave McKean for one of their first touring productions.

Vellum

Indulging myself in waxing lyrical on books reminded me that I forgot to post a link here to the author interview with Hal Duncan over on the FPI Blog. Hal is the Glasgow-based author of the astonishing debut novel, Vellum, which I’ve been raving about for the last couple of months – its one of the most literate and inventive fantasies I’ve ever read and draws handsome comparison to some of the finest practicioners of the art such as Michael Moorcock and Neil Gaiman. If you have read Vellum, which came out in August, then I think you’ll find Hal’s answers in the interview to be illuminating; if you haven’t read it yet then I hope it encourages you to pick it up.