The doctor is in – Greta Helsing returns in Dreadful Company

Dreadful Company,
Vivian Shaw,
Orbit Books

(delectable cover art by Will Staehle)

“An absolute delight.” That was what I said about the first of Vivian Shaw’s Great Helsing novels, Strange Practice, around this time last year (see here for the review). In fact you can see that quote on the back cover of this second book; it really was one of the most enjoyable novels I read in 2017 and made my annual Best of the Year list. So you can imagine that when the second book, Dreadful Company, showed up on my desk you would have seen me shiver with anticip…. ation…. Did the that difficult “second album” live up to the promise of the first book? Nope, in fact it surpassed it; Vivian has taken all of the best elements (characters you really get to know and care about, sly sense of humour, clever references, some social commentary), allied them to an intriguing new story and along the way also nicely expanded the world Greta and her friend inhabit.

Greta is, like almost all GPs, constantly run off her feet, but her medical practice in London takes in an unusual set of patients, ones who otherwise would struggle to obtain healthcare – vampires, ghouls, werewolves, mummies and more, Greta treats any who need it. Unusually Dreadful Company takes her away for a few days, both from her practice and from London, invited to fill in at short notice at a medical conference for those with her unusual selection of patients, Greta is in Paris for a few days. Lord Ruthven returns from the first book (yes, that Lord Ruthven) and he is delighting in escorting Greta, treating her to the finest the City of Light has to offer – sumptuous hotel, elegant evening dress, a night at the opera in the Palais Garnier. Vivian has a delicious line in descriptive prose, and here the overly ornate opera house decor as possessing the “same kind of uninhibited, glittering cheer as a polished drag queen’s performance.”

The use of the opera house offers up the first in a number of references to one of the great classics of horror literature, Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, even down to a scene on the grand staircase where Ruthven feels as if another presence is watching them close by (a nice nod to the 1920s film version of Phantom with Lon Chaney Snr, which used some remarkable early colour for the staircase scene and remains an astonishing piece of early cinema). Of course they are indeed being watched, there are local Parisian vampires at the opera – opera being one of those things that just attracts vampires, as is noted wryly in the book. And it isn’t long after Ruthven has to take his leave that Greta finds herself in trouble, snatched by the leader who has an entire coven of vampires in the infamous catacombs near the Père Lachaise cemetery (where else??), and this leader has a grudge against Ruthven, putting Greta in a huge amount of danger.


(the ball sequence in the opera house from the 1920s Phantom of the Opera)

Into this mix come new characters such as the werewolf St Germain (a nod to the famous vampire novel series?), who is effectively the supernatural protector of Paris. In a nice touch St Germain’s origins allude to the real historical mystery Beast of Gévaudan from 1700s France (still a fascinating mystery to this day), and two immortals who are very good at clearing old haunting sites, helping spirits move on, Crepusculous and Brightside, who put me in mind (in the good way) of Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens. The kidnapping plot is just the tip of the iceberg here though, and Vivian weaves an increasingly compelling story with many winding side-branches that twist around much like those ancient Parisian catacombs, before very satisfyingly coming together again, both the narrative and the character arcs being rounded up nicely. And no, I’m not going to say any more on the plot because I don’t want to spoil any of it for you.

There is a real sense of world-building going on here – Vivian is expanding that mix of the real and the supernatural world that Greta lives in, the history, the geography, the characters, and it is all tremendously satisfying – it reminded me of early Jim Butcher Dresden Files novels in that respect, in that each book had a self-contained tale but also built up that world with more details in each book so you became more immersed into them. As well as the expanded sense of Greta’s world and a compelling story, the wicked sense of humour in some of those descriptions there is also a nice line in geek-friendly references from the aforementioned Phantom of the Opera and Beast of Gévaudan to tips of the hat to Armand’s subterranean coven of blood-drinkers in The Vampire Lestat and how many other writers manage to work in an underground jail scene which manages to take in both “Oh whistle and I’ll come, my lad” and The Prisoner? This is the sort of book which will deserve a second read further down the road and I am sure I will spot more references, not just thrown in but nicely woven into the actual story. This is an utterly delicious read.

“You shall go to the ball…” – Cinderella

Cinderella,
Directed by Beeban Kidron,
Starring Marcella Plunkett, Jane Birkin, Kathleen Turner, Gideon Turner, David Warner, Katrin Cartlidge, Lucy Punch, Leslie Phillips
Simply Media

The Cinderella story is pretty much an archetype – variations on the theme of the innocent, warm-hearted young lass who finds herself in awful conditions through no fault of her own, before finally finding good fortune and true love go back many centuries, with that scribbler of old fairy tales Charles Perrault in the late 1690s and the Grimms in the early 1800s crystalising the story into the form we’re familiar with today. This version is a television film from 2000, which aired on Channel 4, and boasts some solid British thesps like David Warner, Leslie Phillips and the late (and much-missed) Katrin Cartlidge, joined by Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, Body Heat).

With such a well-known story there is always a question of why do another version? In this case it’s easily answered – because the film-makers have reworked it to be more relevant to the modern day, and in a manner that the younger viewers can enjoy, but which works well for the teen/YA and the adult audience. It is set in a sort of fantasy kingdom of strangely coloured skies, which has the traditional horse drawn carriages, palaces and country mansions, but also open topped cars and steam trains, royal orchestras but also a guitar playing, singing Prince. The Prince and his friends come across as a playful pastiche of the modern, hipper young Royals, the wicked stepmother (Turner) and her nasty daughters aren’t just nasty and spiteful to poor Cinders, they are also a nice comment on modern, super-shallow celeb culture, creatures who are empty inside but made-up exquisitely for outward appearance, the sort who appear in the pages of Hello and its ilk.

David Warner’s father returns from a business trip with a “surprise” – a new wife and step-daughters, to the shock of his daughter. Her shock is furthered by the way her new stepmother so obviously manipulates her widowed father and allows his new stepdaughters to bully her. This swiftly escalates from subtle manipulation to the far more obvious kind of control – Turner’s wicked stepmother is soon quite clear she is in this for money and the noble connections. Warner’s father has the noble title but not much money, so he is soon banished to sleep in the attic – “You know the rule: cash equals company.” despite this he still refuses to see what is going on (no fool like an old fool), and his daughter becomes increasingly isolated in what was once her own loving home.

A woman lives on her own and the whole world imagines she must be a witch…”

Cinderella retreats to the grave of her beloved mother on the hills, encountering a bird of prey who, in the best animal tradition in fairy tales, acts as a form of guide, leading her to a cave by the lake, a magical cave where the waterfall parts for her. Instead of a fairy godmother, here we have Mab (Jane Birkin), an odd being who is half-amused, half-offended when Cinders asks if she is a witch. She may not be a witch, but she does seem to have some magical abilities, and she helps Cinderella in her own peculiar way.

I somehow missed this when it was first aired, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it now. While some of the effects are very early 2000s (not bad, just not as polished as you would expect today), that in fact adds to the charm here, giving the kingdom an other-worldly look that suits it quite well. And besides, it’s the story and characters which really matter here, and oh boy does Kathleen Turner clearly enjoy playing the wicked stepmother, in fact she seems to relish it, and she is delectably wicked here and, pardon the pun, having a ball with the role (as are Lucy Punch and Katrin Cartlidge as her nasty daughters).

This is an unusual, modern take on an old tale, played well, with some nice riffs on both popular culture and society (Turner inspecting her wicked daughters’ vast shoe collection and advising them “Remember the harder they are to walk in, the more effective”), while also tipping a knowing hat to the old folkloric tropes (“I hate happy endings”). This is a clever version of the Cinderella tale, with all the main beats given a nice, more contemporary twist (and yet still classic tropes), and it knows enough to have fun with it along the way, and take the viewer along too, with a big smile.

Cinderella is available now from Simply Media

Reviews: disturbing Gothic horror in The Atrocities

The Atrocities,

Jeremy C Shipp,

Tor.com


(cover art by Samuel Araya, design by Christina Foltzer)

Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sores the size of teacups. If you come across a big-breasted bear with a child’s head in her jaws, you’re going the wrong way.”

Right from this opening paragraph Jeremy C Shipp’s novella The Atrocities crafts a delightfully, delectably creepy sense of unease. A tutor coming to a mysterious, isolated old home is, of course, hardly new in the fantastic genres – the governess in an old mansion with peculiar owners and even more peculiar children has been a staple of Gothic fiction since the 1800s, and the Old, Dark House has haunted our fictional nightmarescapes for just as long. It’s been quite a while since I came across someone opening up that particular playset again though, and I’m glad to report Shipp not only plays with an old generic type, he twists it and has fun with it; clearly he has a lot of love for some of those older tales, and that shows in the craft and attention to building mystery and atmosphere in The Atrocities.

The garden maze and bizarre, disturbing statuary could have come from the Addams Family mansion, but the constant, growing sense of unease, of things simply not being right, owes much to masters like Poe – there’s a feeling of dread growing throughout this book. On the surface it seems a very straightforward appointment: Danna has been engaged to tutor Isabella, the young daughter of Mr and Mrs Ever in Stockton House. There’s one somewhat unusual factor here though: Isabella is dead. Deceased. She has ceased to be, joined the Choir Invisible.

Mr and Mrs Evers, however, do not see this as any reason she should not have her education continued, like any proper young lady. Isabella is, according to Mrs Ever at least, still here, a phantom, and a playful impish one at that. Danna can see why previous teachers declined to stay, but is talked into giving the post a go, mostly because it may be emotionally helpful to Mrs Ever, who is unable to let her little girl go – has she lost the balance of her mind due to her grief, imagining that Isabella is still with her in her home, in spectral form?

Naturally there is much more going on here, but given how short this is, I’m not going to risk potential spoilers by dropping any major plot points. Besides, as with Poe the real prize here is the brooding, menacing, disturbing, Gothic atmosphere. That’s not to downplay the narrative here, which works beautifully – I’ve always thought shorter fiction is a good way to measure some writers, it is, contrary to what some think, harder to build a solid story, create characters and craft atmosphere in a short space, compared to a full-length novel. When someone does so, as Shipp does very well here, it is, to my mind, a mark of someone who really understands their craft.

Tor has been putting out some quite brilliant novellas and novelettes in the last couple of years, science fiction, fantasy and horror, and we’ve been loving them on here. A brilliant way to experience writers you may not have read before, also ideal for a quick read electronically, and The Atrocities is a very fine, hauntingly creepy addition to that range.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Dream a little dream…

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is my favourite comics work of all time, so when I say Bernhard Pucher’s short, not-for-profit film Black Sand, adapting some story elements from the early Preludes and Nocturnes, where the Dream Lord’s bag of dream-sand is in the possession of a drug-user, taking the sand like a euphoric. There’s a lovely appearance by the beautiful Michelle Ryan as Dream’s big sister, Death (her cheeky wink and smile to the lead is quite in keeping with the comics character). It’s only a dozen minutes or so long, but lovely work:

Black Sand – A Sandman Story – (NSFW) from Bernhard Pucher on Vimeo.

Hellboy: Kramupsnacht

Hellboy: Krampusnacht,

Mike Mignola, Adam Hughes,

Dark Horse

Now here’s a very timely seasonal treat for all the good readers (the bad ones aren’t allowed, they’re on a list and it has been checked twice): Hellboy in Krampusnacht. Actually this is a double treat as it sees HB’s creator Mike Mignola teaming up with superstar writer Adam Hughes (and I’m guessing Adam was most likely delighted to get to play in the Hellboy sandpit). The long winter nights are ideal for spook stories, and there is a long tradition of a ghost story around Christmas – just the other evening my long running SF book group enjoyed some classic M R James ghost stories for our final meeting of the year, in dark, wintry Edinburgh. And here we not only have a nice spook tale for a dark, winter night, but one with a distinctively Christmas theme but, thankfully, not the type of festive theme that lays on the sugar and heartstrings, no this is one more suited for us, thank you.

Krampus himself is an ancient piece of folklore, in latter centuries associated more as a dark partner of Saint Nicholas, but while jolly old Nick delivers presents to the good girls and boys and non-binary children of the world, Krampus punishes the wicked. As is often the case with such folklore, the origins stretch far further back, and more than likely the modern version of the last couple of centuries lifts from several earlier, pre-Christian fokloric versions. In the modern day Krampus has become better known in the Anglophone world, becoming something of a pop-cultural figure in horror and fantasy circles as a nice antidote to the artificial sweetness of much of Christmas, but his roots are much more steeped in that Mittel-Europa culture (the same that has been home to all sorts of wonderful mythic archetypes, from the vampire to the Baba Yaga), and this offering from Mike and Adam draws on that background.

It’s 1975, and Hellboy is making his way slowly through a deeply snow-filled forest in rural Austria, when the ghost of a woman appears, and begs him to save her little boy, before vanishing, leaving only an old-fashioned, carved wooden child’s toy in the snow. Pushing further through the icy forest he sees the lights of a lonely house and on approaching, the inhabitant, an elderly man, opens the door and hails him by name – he is expected, won’t he come in for some food and drink and warm himself by the fire? Naturally it is not what it appears – the old, genial man had previously made an appearance in a local church, causing a supernatural incident, specifically to draw Hellboy’s attention, for he has something he wishes to get off his chest, and a favour to ask, something only Hellboy can do.

And I’m not going to risk spoiling this for you by going any further on the story front. But I will say I enjoyed the hell out of this, no pun intended. As you’d expect from Mignola, the story is littered with references to folklore and myth, from the mysterious, solitary house in the woods, the dangers of the dark forest, through the dead offering advice and help, to the Krampus figure himself. There are shades of Dracula too as “Herr Schulze” invites Hellboy into his lonely, isolated dwelling to take food and drink; I almost expected him to say “Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring…” Unlike the Count, however, Schulze does drink wine…

Hughes’ art creates a lovely contrast between the icy blue-white winter forest and the warm, yellow glow of the candle and fire-lit home, and you can almost imagine knocking the snow off your shoes before stepping inside. That contrast is also carried over to a lovely vingette back at the BPRD with his adoptive father and Liz, by a roaring fire, hot drink to hand and Christmas tree in the corner, again standing against the cold, blue of the winter forest (a scene which, intentionally I imagine, recalls the like of James telling his yuletide ghost stories to friends in his college chambers), with great use of colour here to convey mood and atmosphere almost as much as the art itself does. Hughes also does a grand job of deploying his own fine style but ensuring it visually fits with that iconic Mignola Hellboy imagery, which is not the easiest balance to strike, but he does so admirably.

A lovely little seasonal one-off Hellboy gift to readers – do yourself a favour, take half an hour out of the frentic festive frenzy, treat yourself to a copy of Kramupsnacht and a hot chocolate or a nice mulled wine, and sit back (preferably at night, by the fire) and enjoy a good read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Who betrayed who? Judas #1

Judas #1,

Jeff Loveness, Jakub Rebelka, Colin Bell,

Boom Studios

Performing my normal early-morning perusal of the new titles at the start of New Comic Book Day, this one jumped out at me, something a bit different from most of the other four colour delights on offer this week. Judas is a character I have found fascinating since being forced to sit through excrutiatingly boring Bible classes on a Sunday as a child. I always found the simplistic portrayal of Judas taught in those classes to be very limited – they were, unsurprisingly for those kinds of indoctrination groups (because that’s what they really were, as far as I could see) it was presented in simple black and white, good and bad lines.

This always seemed to me to be skipping serious questions around the supposed greatest betrayal in human culture: was Judas just selfish and evil, and that is why he betrayed his friend (and saviour)? If he was evil then why on Earth did Jesus ask him to become one of his disciples? Or was it his plan all along to use Judas to betray him because he needed a sacrifice, even of himself (and how many tales of various gods involve some kind of sacrifice, deities, it seems, just cannot get enough of those) and here was the perfect man to use, his very own patsy, his own Oswald? If so that’s hardly the actions of a decent, moral person, is it?

Or was it that Judas knew this had to happen and only he could do it, knowing he would be damned for it, but he did it for the greater good, off his own bat or because his friend told him there was no other way, it had to thus and only he could do it? There are many complex moral and philosophical questions around that kiss, the thirty pieces of silver, that betrayal. And if all that happens is God’s will then presumably the betrayal was always ordained, and so poor Judas was a marked man from before he was born (and does that mean he is responsible for his actions then?). Indeed some gnsotic texts – beyond the pale to mainstream religious authorities – hail Judas for setting in motion what had to happen for human salvation.

Where the teacher in Sunday School was reluctant to engage, I have found over the years that many others have had similar thoughts, and the character of Judas has been explored many times in fiction, those complexities of the nature of morality, responsibility and destiny (free will or are we all following a pre-ordained script) and more have been fertile grounds for compelling drama, so it’s hardly surprising storytellers would pick up on it, from novels by Amos Oz or Tosca Lee, to the film Dracula 2000, which wove the myth into the vampire tapestry. Only a couple of years ago W Maxwell Prince and John Amor gave us the interesting Judas: the Last Days, which I found fascinating – review here. Loveness and Rebelka’s take, certainly in this first issue, continues that tradition of mining the motivations and actions of Judas Iscariot for some exceptionally compelling human drama.

That infamous betrayal is handled economically but efficiently and powerfully within the first few pages – this is a well-known story, and both writer and artist know they need only call forth a few specific scenes, such as the bag of silver coins, the leaning in for that kiss to mark out Jesus, the carrying of the cross by the scourged Christ, then the suicide by hanging of a bereft Judas, and those are sufficient to conjure forth the story in the mind of the reader. It’s a lovely bit of efficient and yet powerful storytelling by Loveness and Rebelka, and those few panels have real power, even to a non-believer like me (because this ancient story is a powerful one, regardless of faith or lack thereof, its human aspects make it endlessly compelling). Especially that single panel of the kiss, only half of the faces visible, below the eyeline, the intimacy and the betrayal so close they are interwoven, the colours muted, save for hints of bright red highlights that hint at the blood to be spilled.

No… Not here. I don’t belong here. But the voice comes… And whispers the truth:

‘Yes. This was always the end. This was always your story‘”

By only the third page we have seen the kiss, the betrayal, the thirty pieces of silver and the sad, lonely suicide, dangling from a solitary tree as a blood-red sunset stains the evening and night falls. And then Judas opens his eyes to find himself elsewhere, somewhere dismal, horrible – the Pit. Where else would the great betrayer go but Hell, of course? But does he truly deserve to be there? As he starts to walk through this nightmare landscape and the damned souls and the demonic entities that reside there to torment them, his dialogue continues and we see flashes back to his life on Earth, before meeting Jesus, and then also as a disciple.

And he asks the questions many would ask? He believes in his Lord, but if he can truly heal the sick, why are so many ill? If he can feed the hungry why do so many starve? If he can raise the dead, why then do we endure the immense pain of losing our loved ones? And if he was his friend and the source of all forgiveness, couldn’t he forgive Judas? But as Judas recalls the overpowering call from his very first encountered with Jesus, of hearing that voice calling him forth, he also recalls another voice, one which sowed doubts, that told him to question, which would lead him to this path in life and the hereafter and even now, in Hell, he can hear that voice still…

This is a hugely thoughtful and compelling piece of storytelling, and beautifully handled by both writer and artist here. There are some lovely touches too – in a lot of early Christian art (and indeed still common in the likes of the Eastern Orthodox Church art), the disciples and saints are often depicted with their golden halo (usually like a bright, golden disc behind their heads), and here Judas too has such a symbol behind his head, but his is jet-black instead of the glittering gold of a saint, a small detail, but a very telling and clever one, or little changes in lettering by Bell (Jesus’s lettering in red, seems to infer a voice different to normal ones, a voice that cannot be ignored, that compels, reminiscent of Jesse Custer in the Preacher comics). One of the more unusual comics of the year, and one which not only spins a good narrative, but which will leave you arguing with yourself over morality, the nature of free will and more questions that have been asked for eternity and which we rarely can answer completely.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Curios of the Paper Moon

The Curios of the Paper Moon,

Kat Hall,

One Little Apple


Kat Hall’s charming fantasy The Curios of Paper Moon is available as a regularly updated webcomic, but I must confess I hadn’t come across it (more interesting webcomics out there than there is time to browse them all!), before chatting to her at the recent Edinburgh Comic Art Festival. While we were nattering at her stall I was having a browse of a collected print edition of the series, and my initial impression made me want to buy it right away, which is usually a good sign.

Having had a wee chance to sit down and read it now, I am once more glad I listened to my instincts and picked it up, as this was just a lovely, lovely read, the sort of one that charmed me and left me smiling. The print version includes both the Prologue, which sets up the basics of what you need to know about Kat’s fantasy world of Little Garden, and the first chapter of the webcomic, which delivers a decent, self-contained story, the pair of them combining to give you a tale which you can take on its own, but more likely will leave you interested in reading more.

In this world there are treasures, monsters and dungeons, and treasure hunters like Clair who enjoy questing for them – for financial gain, either on behalf of a client, or to claim the treasure for their own. Clair, who between adventures has her own small store, also has a bit of an advantage on these quests as in addition to her formidable treasure hunter knowledge and skills she is also a witch. When she comes across the diminutive form of young Marina, the young woman persuades her to help find her friend, Barrett who unwisely ventured into a dungeon himself, seeking a special treasure. Clair isn’t indifferent, but she’s no charity case either, and agrees to help, for a fee.

I’m not going into too much detail on the quest here, because it would be a shame to spoil it for you. Suffice to say there are some elements you’d expect – and indeed, want – in a dungeon quest: the experienced, confident leader, the younger sidekick who has to learn fast (but is better than they think), surprises and twists, some very lovely tea cups (well, even a dungeon questor need to sit down and have a cuppa now and then). And, oh boy, some fabulous dungeon locations – not just the dark, dank caverns under the earth, but terrific fantasy architecture, bridges over chasms, Kat embraces the fantasy element to let her visual imagination indulge itself, and why the heck not? I mean if you can’t indulge yourself with wonderful visuals in a fantasy tale, where can you?? And that also includes some cracking fantasy creatures to encounter (yes, including dragons, I mean come on, you can’t have a proper dungeon quest and no dragon, can you? Just not the done thing!).

You can follow Curios of Paper Moon online as a webcomic, but it’s far more satisfying to have the print version, so I’d highly recommend picking it up (it also means you give some money to the creator, which is always a good thing). It’s utterly charming and delightful, the art manga-tinged but not too much, and nicely coloured (giving depth and feel to the fantasy world without going over the top), with some lovely visuals, and a story which functions as a good, standalone tale but also as an introduction to this world and characters, hints at paths to follow further and histories as yet undiscovered, and a nice little bit of world-building (including nice touches like what look like magical talismans but which on closer inspection also seem to be a sort of phone and social media device too). Still smiling just thinking about this comics…

This review 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

Reviews: the Doctor will see you now – Strange Practice

Strange Practice,

Vivian Shaw,

Orbit Books

Oh now this was an absolute delight to read. There has been a large trend in the last couple of decades for  urban fantasies, depicting a world that is recognisably our own, everyday realm, but where, usually in the shadows, unsuspected by most people, fantastical elements secretly exist. Charlaine Harris with her Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries (True Blood as it was for the TV version), Jim Butcher’s brilliant Harry Dresden novels (a gumshoe in Chicago who also happens to be a wizard), there has been an explosion in this area of fantastical fiction. So much so that these days I find myself a bit wary of new ones sometimes, but I had my bookseller’s Spidey-sense tingle when this arrived from Orbit, and I trust that little gut instinct. And I think Will Staehle’s cover (and some nice matching interior illustrations with a wicked sense of humour) had much to do with that too, a nice mix of woodcut style, with contemporary elements that also nods to those wonderful old Penny Dreadfuls.

And I’m glad I listened to those instincts, otherwise I would not have met Doctor Greta Helsing (her medical family long since dropped the “van”), a GP in London – in the famous Harley Street locale, no less, although unlike most their Greta is not exactly well-heeled. Except Greta’s practice takes in a very unusual set of patients – she, like her father before her, offers medical care to London’t community of preternatural creatures. Vampires, ghouls, were-creatures, vampires (and indeed vampyres, slightly different blood drinkers), even creating prosthetic bone replacements for elderly Egyptian mummies or treating a ghoul leader with clinical depression problems, it’s all in a day’s work for Greta. It’s long hours, like any GP, but it is very satisfying to her that she is not only helping people, but helping creatures that would never otherwise be able to access medical care.

However, London is a city in fear – a serial killer is stalking the city, the body count is rising, each victim found with cheap, plastic rosary beads. And those are just the ones the public and police know about – there are other victims, victims hidden from society, supernatural beings also being stalked by strange, monk-like figures, seemingly human, but stronger, with oddly-glowing blue eyes and a burning desire to destroy anything “unclean” before their god. And that includes some of Greta’s patients and anyone who helps them…

I’m not going to blow any spoilers by going any deeper into this tale here – it partakes as much of the detective novel as it does fantasy, and as such I don’t want to risk revealing any of the twists or turns here before you get a chance to read it. But I will say this is – especially for a first book in a series – this is a remarkably well-realised world and cast of characters; it really isn’t very long before you find yourself not only enjoying the story but the world demi-monde Greta moves in, a world where you can take the regular London Bus or Underground but which also has ghouls in the sewers, or Lord Ruthven in his Embankment House grand home.

Ruthven is just one of a number of literary characters who populate Greta’s world (in face Ruthven is a close family friend), we also meet the likes of Sir Francis Varney – as in Varney the Vampire (aka The Feast of Blood), one of those great penny-dreadful schockers of the 1800s), although, pleasingly, Shaw doesn’t drop in such famous Gothic characters in the way say Moore would in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they feel far more realised and realistic as actual, believable people (who just happen to be centuries-old sanguivores). That’s not me taking a swipe at LOEG, by the way, I do enjoy those too. And if, like me, you have a long-standing fondness for old Gothic novels and characters, this is a lovely extra layer to Greta’s world and its details. Vivian also gets extra vampy brownie points for me for referencing the likes of the Croglin Grange Vampire,

There is also a nice strand of social commentary running through this book – the religious fundamentlism of the “monks” who think they are doing the will of god (while overlooking breaking important commandments like “thou shalt not kill”) has more than a few echoes in the real world, from terrorists to religious zealots who refuse equal rights for those they disapprove of, those who consider themselves so right that they feel they can use bloody violence to enforce their will. The supernatural community that Shaw sketches out nicely here also hints at social problems in the real world – the segments of society that are Different, Not Like Us, Other, and therefore feared, hated, often turned on as easy targets.

There’s a lovely moment where Varney asks Greta why she does what she does, even for beings like him, a monster, damned to the Pit should he be killed. And Greta tells him he’s not a monster, none of them are, she sees them all as people, and she thinks all people should be able to access medical care. It’s a nice pairing of messages, that being a person is more than simply being physically human, it is qualities of being that define someone, and that medical care should be something anyone who needs it can obtain. In a world where many give into the darkness of bigotry and see even other humans as less than human (and therefore deserving of awful treatment) and many can’t get even basic healthcare, these are very welcome, warm, human messages to weave into the story, and nicely done via the medium of non-human beings. They also made me love Dr Greta all the more. As I said right at the start, this was an absolute delight to read. I look forward to more time spent with Greta…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Monkey Magic! The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo,

F.C. Yee,

Amulet/Abrams Kids

Genie Lo is a very driven, very organised fifteen year old Chinese-American high school student in the Bay Area. Like more than a few similar kids she’s ferociously organised and dedicated to her studies and coping with the pressure of exams, good grades and the even higher pressures of transmuting those grades into a good university (and then more exams, more organisation, more studies, more pressure to achieve the best grades there and then onto a career and…). Yes, it’s a hell of a lot of stress put on young shoulders, as anyone who has ever been a student will recall, and the target audience for this YA fantasy will be more than familiar with, I’m sure. And quite a lot of those kids will also empathise with feelings of being different, awkward. In Genie’s case this is exacerbated by being quite tall (although this has its uses on the sports field sometimes). Adding to the pressure of school, possible colleges and career choices (why do we expect someone to be able to deal with all of that at 15???) home life isn’t ideal either – her mother is uptight and precious about her achievements, her father is more easy going but now estranged from her mother.

And into this mix she’s about to discover something remarkable about herself, and find this surprise comes with even more responsibilities, the type she can’t tell anyone else about (even her bestest friend Yunie) and dangers. And she’s going to meet a boy, which sparks all of this change. No, not in the normal teen way of first finding out about the attractions of other boys or girls. Quentin may be handsome and terrifically fit (although short), but this isn’t some Romeo and Juliet deal. Quentin is… Well, he’s not human. In fact he is Sun Wukong – the fabled Monkey King of legend, as depicted most famously in Wu Cheng’en’s classic of Chinese literature, Journey to the West. I’m guessing that “Quentin”, the name he adopts as he pretends to be a new student at Genie’s school is a nod to Qítiān Dàshèng, one of the titles Sun Wukong took on in his many travels and adventures (meaning something along the lines of Great Sage). Born of a stone egg on a mountain top, who through many adventures (and misadventures) slowly became more of a hero and less selfish, more enlightened and a protector against evil. A character that those of us of a certain age probably first encountered in the bonkers 1970s TV series Monkey (“the nature of Monkey was…. Irrepressible!!!”)

What is such an ancient – until now mythical being, as far as Genie knew – Chinese celestial being doing in 21st century West Coast America? Well, he wants Genie. He thinks he knows her, knows her well of old, that she may perhaps be a reincarnation of a very important element of his own past, one that he has been watching the Earth for any sign of reincarnation in a new form. And it seems others too have similar ideas, a few good, emissaries from the Jade Emperor in Heaven, but most bad, demons escaped from hell and after power on Earth (gained through very nasty means). Many of these are demons Quentin fought and sent to hell himself centuries before as part of his penance for past misdeeds, and he is more than a little surprised to find so many of them back on Earth, a demonic jailbreak, it seems. And like it or not, Genie is at the centre of this. Just as well she’s clever and a quick study…

Teen girl finds herself chosen to be part of an eternal struggle between mythic or supernatural forces she hadn’t even dreamed were real. Yes, it does evoke memories of Buffy, of course it does, but the youngster suddenly exposed to a wider world and realising they are part of it and they have to take part in it even if they don’t want to has been a part of countless coming of age tales long before Buffy. And to be fair here, Yee does a terrific job of creating in Genie and Quentin something very different from Buffy, and indeed from a lot of the modern trend for urban fantasies where we have our regular, everyday world with some “magic is real” layer (some of which is terrific fun). Genie herself feels like a real girl, especially a real girl from that particular slice of Bay Area society, and Yee depicts her with a lot of sympathy and understanding; of course she has faults, but regardless it’s very hard not to become very fond of Genie quite quickly.

And then there is the choice of mythology deployed here, the fantasy dropped into the otherwise realistic family and school and social life of a teen Chinese-American teen. Although Journey to the West is one of the great treasures of world literature, a classic alongside Beowulf or the Iliad or Gilgamesh, it hasn’t been used as much in Western fantasies, making it ripe for drawing on its rich tapestry of characters and adventures, not to mention the coming of age element of Genie’s story being reflected in Sun Wukong’s own (rather slower!) learning curve towards being more enlightened. I was reminded a bit of Ashok Banker’s fascianting Ramayana series, which drew on the great Indian myths and tales and reworked them into a rich fantasy that Western readers, even those with little or no knowledge of the Ramayana cycle, could easily understand and enjoy.

I read this book with a huge smile over my face for most of it. Quentin is cheeky, full of himself but also heroic, funny and capable of sudden understanding and compassion, the Monkey King. Genie is self doubting, troubled but also determined, very clever and she’s not going to be pushed around, especially as she learns more about this hidden world around her, because when a student like Genie learns, she realises she can control more, and Quentin may have met his match. As an adult reader I enjoyed the heck out of this and adored mining the Sun Wukong tales for inspiration and details (sudden urge to revisit my Penguin Classic edition of Wu Cheng’en), it felt fresh and colourful. The target Young Adult audience will, I think like it even more. Yes, there are some standard elements of the Journey of the Hero in there, but those are there in so many tales over the centuries, it’s what you do with those elements that counts, and here Yee’s crafted an utter delight.

And just because I couldn’t get the “monkey magic” theme tune out of my head, the opening credits to that wonderfully madcap 70s TV version of Monkey (not as cool as Quentin tries to be but so much fun):

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Yukki-onna – Snow Woman

Yuki-onna / Snow Woman,

Directed by Kiki Sugino,

Starring Kiki Sugino , Munetaka Aoki, Mayu Yamaguchi

Another of the films I caught during the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was Kiki Sugino’s hauntingly beautiful film from Japan, Snow Woman. Drawing on an ancient folkloric tradition of the Yuki-onna, a spirit, almost ghostly being who, like the vampire, has had many variations in the telling and re-telling of her tale across the year. Here director Sugino takes the eponymous role, first appearing in an opening prologue, shot in a silvery black and white as a pair of hunters struggle through heavy snow on the mountains around Hiroshima, the elder male clearly losing the struggle, his young companion aiding him into the relative shelter of an old hunting cabin.

Awoken in the middle of the night, the younger man, Minokichi, is frozen by terror as much as the bitter cold, for their rough shelter has been invaded silently by a pale woman with piercing eyes and long, dark hair, crouched over his companion, and as her chill breath passes over his face the older man dies. Turning her attention to Minokichi the Snow Woman looks as if she is about to do the same to him, but then she tells him she will take pity on him because of his youth, and spare his life, on the condition he never tell another person what happened (a detail nicely lifted from one of the more popular versions of the many stories of the Snow Woman in Japan).

Moving to colour, it is now much later, the winters have departed the mountains, and Minokichi is returning from a hunting trip when he finds a beautiful woman alone on one of the paths. She asks the way to the ferry, and he takes her, inviting her to spend the night in the home of he and his elderly mother. The woman, Yuki, is beautiful but quiet and mysterious – she seems not to know where she came from, or of any family, but she is pleasant and both Minokichi and his mother are happy for her simply to stay with them, Minokichi slowly falling in love with her and asking her to become his wife. And for many years they are quite happy – Minokichi is curious about his strange wife, but as they live and love together and even have a child – a girl, Ume – he swallows this curiosity and seems content to live his life with wife and daughter in their small, barely changing village.

Of course it can’t last – Yuki has a familiar look to her and it is clear Minokichi has wondered if she is related to the Snow Woman he encountered (but if so how can she be here living as a human wife outside of her winter season?). He bites back his curiosity, partly perhaps because the Snow Woman warned him never to mention what happened on pain of death, but mostly, one feels, because he loves her and his daughter. But as the years pass – Yuki looks no older than the day she arrived – and their daughter starts to grow up, events start to happen around the village and mountain, strange deaths, the victims frozen…

This is such a beautifully crafted film – despite the supernatural elements and the folklore it is based on, it avoids the route of J-horror, instead creating a more chilling atmosphere in some places (no pun intended), like a Victorian ghost tale, perhaps. But mostly this is less a tale of strange spirits and more a tale of love and people and men and women, and how they can love one another truly but still sometimes simply cannot share a life, or at least not always, and sometimws can’t even communicate properly to one another (“husbands and wives are strangers to each other” Minokichi’s mother once tells him), a theme of Sugino’s other works too – she explained in a Q&A after the film that as a Korean-Japanese the idea of the outsider and not quite understanding one another is one she is very familiar with, while the tale itself reminds me of elements of the Selkie wife from my own country’s folklore tradition.

Snow Woman is a work of beauty though, the slow pacing and the almost timeless setting (a few items, like electric lights, hint at mid-20th century, but the village and clothing could be almost any time in the last few hundred years) allowing the audience to sink into the pace with the nature the villagers live closely to, and there is a real feeling of the turning of the seasons here (appropriately enough as some versions of the Yuki-onna associate her with seasonal spirits), the feeling of the village life in the shadow of the mountains and forest, the closeness of the natural world (and the supernatural Other World), told in some luscious cinematography and clever, precise use of soundscape until it feels less like watching a film and more like walking slowly through a dream. I can see why Sugino is making a name for herself in Asian cinema.

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(Kiki Sugino talking after the film festival screening of Snow Woman)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Art versus reality – The Electric Sublime #1

The Electric Sublime #1,

W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Mat Lopes,

IDW

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I really enjoyed W Maxwell Prince’s unusual, thoughtful and intriguing Judas: the Last Days back in early 2015 (reviewed here), and Morazzo I was familiar with from the fascinating Great Pacific (first volume reviewed here), so I’ve been looking forward to this. We open with a guide conducting a tour through the Louvre in Paris, leading them towards that great museum and gallery’s crowning glory, La Jaconde – da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and vainly trying to persuade the flocks of tourists to put away their cameras and phones and instead actually look at all this art with their eyes, and, please, no flash photography, it isn’t good for the art (a long-lost war, I fear, tourists from every nation stand right in front of priceless paintings flashing away without a care in their heads, sadly).

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But their tour ends abruptly – something is wrong, very, very wrong. La Joconde still has her enigmatic smile on her small painting (it’s remarkable when you see it in person just how small this most famous artwork actually is), but now, somehow, she is winking at her admirers. The art guide runs, shocked, from the scene shouting “we’re going to need the Dreampainter! We’re going to need Art Brut!” The latter turns out to be an actual painter – in an asylum – called Arthur Brut, a nice little bit of word-play on an artistic term. Director Margot Breslin of the Bureau of Artistic Integrity has come to see this strange man, “dreampainting” in his padded cell. On various medications and art therapy, he seems to be out of touch with reality, mind warped by artistic excesses, unanchored in the real world, drifting, sifting, exploring the imaginary (some especially nice touches by Morazzo here, the way the asylum is almost monochrome, the colours so subdued, except for the vibrant art Brut is creating).

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But Breslin is desperate and even this seemingly wrecked psyche could be of some help, he may, in his fractured, kaleidoscope lensed view of the world have more understanding of what is going on than her team. Because it isn’t just that the most famous painting in history has suddenly, inexplicably altered to depict a winking Mona Lisa, there have been numerous other incidents around the entire globe, suicides, bombings, in one memorably horrific incident a couple who cast their own children in bronze, literally, killing them as well as transforming them into art, “claiming Neo-Dada conventions as their only defence.” And in each case a very simple image was found, the same image at each scene, in different nations, continents, a very simple line drawing of a human face, winking… Meanwhile we are also introduced to a young woman with a troubled child, Dylan, taking him to a new therapy home where art is used to help youngsters with mental health issues. There may be a connection growing here to what is happening in the wider world.

I really don’t want to say too much more about this first issue because I’m trying to tapdance around any potential spoiler landmines. And also because this is one of those stories that while I can summarise it a bit for review purposes to give you a rough idea, it is only the very roughest, this is really one of those works that you simply need to experience. It is only a first issue, so we’re only getting the briefest glimpse into what promises to be an unusual tale, but already it is pretty darned compelling – the idea of taking notions of what constitutes art, how we make it, how we react to it, the power it has, are all fascinating (as is the idea of using an artform – here the comic – to explore other ideas of art), and it reminded me in the good way of Doom Patrol-era Grant Morrison. Art has always been connected with ideas of power and even magic – even our oldest artworks, cave paintings some thirty to forty millennia old evoke not just our visual senses and our emotional states, they whisper of magic, of somehow capturing and conveying the power or essence of something else. And there’s also the sense of life within some art, or sometimes whole vistas of alternative realities.

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It is strange how sometimes the universe throws up variations on closely related themes around the same time, occasionally. In recent months I’ve been reading Shaun Simon and Mike Allred’s Art Ops for Vertigo (first issue reviewed here), and just in the last few days I have been lucky enough to be reading an advance copy of China Mieville’s next novel, The Last Days of Paris (out from Picador in February, James and I will be doing a joint review/discussion of it in the near future), in which resistance fighters in occupied Paris also interact with and use Surrealist art manifested into the real world in the desperate fight, the Surrealist art and manifesto being invoked like magical summonings almost. And then this first issue of Electric Sublime arrived on my desk… Of course all three would have been created by those different creators around the same time, without knowledge of the others, and by coincidence they would appear within a year or so of one another. Perhaps the art world is tapping on our window and trying to tell us something…

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog