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: the Laundry is changing – the Delirium Brief

The Delirium Brief,

Charles Stross,

Orbit Books

The latest volume in the brilliant Laundry Files arrives from the delightfully warped brain of Charlie Stross. I’ve enjoyed Charlie’s books for many years, but I have an especially soft spot for his Laundry novels; in fact they’re a particular favourite of mine, a delicious mixture of fantasy-horror, laced with dark humour and some fine satirical sideswipes at society and organisations, and, in the form of husband and wife team Mo and Bob, characters that grow on you very quickly and who you become very fond of and invested in.

For those not in the know, the Laundry is nickname for a very special section of British Intelligence, with a very unusual remit – like MI5, MI6 and predecessors like the famous SOE they track and attempt to neutralise threats to the security of the realm. Except the Laundry deals with what most would consider supernatural threats – vampires, portals to other realms, mind-crunching extra-dimensional parasites and unspeakable Elder Gods.But this is no Buffy-esque secret Watcher society, the Laundry may be super-secret (even most of the cabinet doesn’t know about this, and they operate beyond even the secretive oversight of the other intelligence services (which is going to be one of the problems in this volume) but they are still a part of the civil service, and that means procedures, HR requirements and lots of paperwork in-between trying to save the world from soul-devouring monstrosities.

After an enormous incident in the preceding novel though, involving many deaths and an invading force from another dimension in a major British city, the usual clean-up protocols are useless – the Laundry has been exposed to the public and government scrutiny, and as we open poor Bob, who has faced everything from unicorns (nasty buggers) to the skin-crawling horror of the The Sleeper, has an even more terrible foe to face – a live interview on Newsnight. With the Laundry exposed the media is diving on this once secret division and of course the government isn’t too happy either, and in best tradition both media and government are looking for someone to blame for the previous disaster. The media scent blood and the embarrassed government wants scapegoats to blame. And there is outrage that the Laundy has been operating beyond the oversight of the parliamentary intelligence committees (and the legalities that constrain just what more regular services like MI5 can and cannot do).

This is just the start of a seismic shift in how this organisation has been run for many decades, and enemies can scent a sudden weakness and opportunity. The fact that the Laundry has held off absolute nightmares from devouring our Green and Pleasant Land (not to mention the rest of the world and humanity with it) seems to count for little in this atmosphere. And some enemies are prepared to use the devious weapons of the political-corporate elites as much as they will use more fantastical means. Why use up your supernatural energies when you can manipulate government ministers and get them to go along with your ideas – privatise and outsource many operations to a private security firm, it’s more cost-effective and market-efficient, don’t you know! And the group pushing the prime minister for this has already successfully taken over entire sections of the Laundry’s opposite numbers in Washington. Bona fide government contractors, what could be better???

Naturally there is much more going on here, the dark forces using ideas dear to certain sections of the political establishment (supposed free-market competition and efficiency that usually actually means even poorer service – usually bailed out by the taxpayers – and contracts given to firms which just happen to have friends in government, and where many politicians go on to serve after retiring from political life), to infiltrate and quietly take over whole sections of the fabric of our society we depend on, without anyone even knowing they have ceded that control. The huge upset in the operations of the Laundry are also mirrored in Bob and Mo’s personal life – in the most recent volumes both have been through enormous changes that have left their marks. They are both still in love but unsure they can be together (not just in the emotional sense after the traumas they’ve endured, there is an actual safety issue, not least because Bob is now also the Eater of Souls).

I don’t want to go to deeply into the unfolding narrative here, it’s nice, tight, packed with tension and turns, as you would probably expect from one of Charlie’s books, but this set-up with the Laundry now in the open and being menaced as much by government rationalisation plans as it is secret societies and dark gods, is one ripe with potential, both for satirical humour and for dramatic tension, and Charlie uses it perfectly, giving a gripping new installment and quite a major development in the Laundry itself. If you are already a Laundry fan you know you need this, and you know you are in for a treat, if you are new to the series then get yourself started with the Atrocity Archives and the Jennifer Morgue and I think you will soon be as addicted as the rest of us. Clever, funny, gripping, inventive and with more than a few satirical comments on the state of our modern world, what more can you ask for? Except maybe a TV series? Constantly surprised there hasn’t been a Netflix or HBO type series based around the Laundry novels yet…

You can read an excerpt from the Delirium Brief on the Orbit blog. Charlie will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Jo Walton as part of Ken MacLeod’s guest selector strand on August 16th. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Boy on the Bridge

The Boy on the Bridge,

Mike Carey,

Orbit Books

I’ve long enjoyed Mike Carey’s writing, both his comics work and his prose, and his Girl With All the Gifts (also published by Orbit), was one of my Best of the Year selection when it came out (review here by Mal), and likewise the more recent film adaptation (scripted by Mike himself) also made my Best of the Year list. The Boy on the Bridge returns us to that post-apocalyptic Britain, but this is no straight sequel; if anything it is more of a parallel tale set in that ruined world where a fungal infection (like the one in the Amazon which infects insects and hijacks their nervous system) has brought down human civilisation, the infected – “the hungries” – a zombie-like shell of their former human selves, moving only when stimulated to feed. I think you could read this quiet easily on its own merits, without having read Girl, but really I’d advise reading Girl first if you haven’t already, because it will enrich your experience of Boy (and yes, there are some nods to the earlier story, which are very satisfying, but which I won’t blow here).

Where Girl started in the enclosed base and labs, encircled by hordes of Hungries (a deliberate nod to Romero’s Day of the Living Dead and the military-scientific besieged base), Boy is even more claustrophobic, mostly taking place in the Rosalind Franklin (Rosie, as she is known), sister research vehicle to the lost Charles Darwin expedition, a heavily-armed mobile fortress complete with onboard lab facilities, slowly traversing what’s left of Britain, picking up safely stored samples cached by the Darwin expedition and picking  up their own specimens, all in a desperate attempt to find out a way to stop or cure the infection. A dozen odd scientists and soldiers sealed in an armoured vehicle on a quest they all feel increasingly is hopeless. Even an upbeat crew would be stressed out under such prolonged close quarters, in this broken world though it is even worse, and the differences between them are becoming more and more obvious.

It’s probably not going to be a surprise that those stresses and differences are going to reach a boiling point sooner or later, you can almost cut the increasing tension with a knife. It’s a scenario rich with dramatic possibilities, and the real meat here is in how the writer takes those paths, twists those knives, turns that screw. And here, with a writer like Carey we are in exceptionally fine hands; Mike doesn’t just deliver an ever-increasing ratchetting up of dramatic tension, he weaves us into the confined, strained lives of Dr Khan and all of the Rosie’s crew. Within a few dozen pages you can practically smell the sweat of sharing a small, restricted space with others, the increasing sense of urgency mixed with desperation. Add in a new development found out in the field – after they had all but given up on finding anything new that might help them – and back at base, where the last remnants of humanity are packed in as badly as the crew of the Rosie, struggling among themselves almost as much as against the infected, and you have the Rosalind Franklin (good name) effectively turned into a pressure cooker.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 - Mike Carey
(Mike signing Girl With All the Gifts at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Boy on the Bridge oozes atmosphere – within a couple of dozen pages I found myself right back in that world Mike first conjured up in The Girl With All the Gifts, so richly described, the characters’ emotive responses to this world gone to hell echoing with the reader so well that you can imagine it, feel it, smell it. The differences, from small-scale bickering to an ever-escalating level feels all to plausible, people under severe stress, in a crisis, with no seeming end in sight (save for a hideous one), the cracks appearing like emotive metal fatigue and just as deadly in the long run. The internal politics of individuals and groups fighting among themselves as the world falls seems all to possible, the descriptions of what some have had to do – awful, unspeakable acts – also far too real.

And yet this is not entirely a book of doom and despair, there is a light there, a tiny, flickering candle of a light, and that makes the despair and death perhaps even harder to bear – if it is truly hopeless then the characters are better off facing the end, shortening the misery…. But when they may be a tiny sliver of hope then they have to struggle for it. It’s a deliciously baited hook for the readers, drawing us deeply into both hope and despair. I really don’t want to go to deeply into some of those elements for fear of spoilers, but, oh boy, are they effective in totally miring the reader into this world until they feel they are right there among the Rosie’s crew. A simply superb, chillingly plausible post-apocalyptic tale.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Ancestral Fire

Ancestral Machines,

Michael Cobley,

Orbit Books

ancestral_machines_michael_cobley_orbit_books

(Ancestral Machines cover artwork by Steve Stone)

A few years ago Mike Cobley moved from his popular fantasy series to science fiction, with his hugely enjoyable Humanity’s Fire trilogy, centred around a lost colony world (settled mostly by Scots and Norwegian colonists) being rediscovered, only to be brought into the middle of galactic politics and power-plays they didn’t even know existed until contact with the Earthsphere was re-established. Over the course of the trilogy Mike gleefully indulged himself in some fine world-building, both on his lost colony planet and then a wider galactic canvas. Ancestral Machines is set in the same universe as Humanity’s Fire, but it is a standalone novel, and while those of us who enjoyed the heck out of the original trilogy will welcome this return to that setting, I think it establishes itself and its setting so well that you can still enjoy this even if you haven’t read the trilogy (and you will probably find afterwards you will want to seek those out!).

Brannan Pyke is a pleasingly irascible scoundrel from Cobley’s Scots-Norwegian colony world, now master of the Scarbarus, with a motley collection of crewmembers from various worlds, taking on legal and, well, slightly less above board jobs to make ends meet, now that their world is connected into that larger universe again. There’s more than a hint of Joss Whedon’s much-loved (and cut far too damned short) Firefly here, I was thinking as I read it, then found Mike actually referencing Firefly in his afterword. There are other influences visible here, notably from fellow Scots-based SF writers like Ken MacLeod and the late Iain M Banks, and readers who have enjoyed those authors will find much to enjoy here. Which is not to say this is slavishly following those other creators, Mike’s too good for that, he takes his influences but the characters, setting and compelling narrative are very much his style.

After a shady deal goes wrong Pyke and his crew wake up in their de-powered ship, their partners having left them to die and make it look like an accident with power and life support. Understandably angry they try to pursue the double-crossing former partners, little knowing that a smuggling deal gone wrong is about to lead them straight into a situation they could never have imagined, and a desperate struggle, as they are dragged into the Warcage, an unbelievably vast series of worlds, all connected by ancient technology, around an artificial star, travelling into our galaxy, built by creators so ancient and distant that even the AIs of the Construct, who monitor the galaxy from various tiers of hyperspace, had thought this travelling group of worlds to be a myth. Originally conceived as a utopia, creating harmony, it was long ago usurped by those who saw it as a tool for power; instead of harmony between various worlds now the various races all train in martial arts, competing in regular deadly tournaments to keep their skills sharp (and to ensure they are always going to have grudges against the other species, therefore unlikely to combine to take control).

All of this is overseen by a group of five cold, violent, loathsome beings, the Gun-Lords, so called because they are a hybrid of an organic host with a quasi-organic-machine parasite, which also includes a sentient weapon arm on the host body. These vicious beings took control of those harmonious worlds and turned them into the dreadful Warcage, and now it’s moving towards out part of the galaxy. The Construct and Earthsphere Intelligence are concerned and plan a covert mission to investigate, little knowing the human Pyke and his crew have already been drawn into this struggle and that their paths will cross.

This is an absolute cracker of a space opera, fast-paced despite being over 400 pages, with both the personal level – Pyke and his crewmates desperately trying to save themselves and also being inexorably drawn into a greater struggle – and the large scale (entire planets destroyed, the misuse of power and how tyrants craft their vile states and hold onto power through a mix of lies and violence, an origin going back millennia), the larger scale exciting the imagination, the personal scale keeping it nicely relatable, which characters we genuinely care about.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Mechanical: morality, philosophy, free will and a fascinating Clockpunk alt-history

The Mechanical,
Ian Tregillis,
Orbit Books

the_mechanical_ian_tregillis_orbit_books_cover

Clockmakers lie.”

Ian Tregillis first came to my attention when Orbit published his Milkweed series, starting with Bitter Seed, a fascinating and very well constructed trilogy – or perhaps triptych is a better term, as the books aren’t just sequential but curve back on one another – of an alternate history of World War Two, of an even more bitter struggle for national survival by the UK, mad Nazi scientists, scientifically-created supermen with dangerous abilities and an intriguing magic/science underlying it. It was dark, often bleak, relentless and utterly compelling and addictive. So when The Mechanical arrived on my desk – with its very cool minimalist graphic cover and page edges matching the red of the cover colour, very swish – I was eager to see what he was going to do with the start of a new series. Well, you know how I said his previous trilogy was “compelling and addictive” a moment ago? The Mechanical is that too and even more so. This is the kind of novel you’re reading on the bus or train and you actually resent reaching your destination because it means you have to pause your reading.

There are some common elements this new novel – the first in the Alchemy Wars series – has in common with Tregillis’ previous Milkweed trilogy. Both series feature Tregillis’ own take on one of my favourite forms of science fiction, the alt-history tale, a subgenre which, if handled cleverly – as it is here – can fascinate the reader with “what if?” moments where the fictional history diverge from our own around some turning point which came out a little differently. The second thing it has in common with his previous book is in world-building. And if there is something we geeks really love in our science fiction, it’s some seriously good world-building, the sort which has lovely details we can absorb and well-worked out variances from the actual history, with good supporting reasons as to why this world has developed as it has and how those changes from our history affect everything else rippling forward. And here it is handled brilliantly – Tregillis crafts an alternate history for the world that is as intricate as the clockwork mechanicals – the Clakkers – who feature in the story, fine details adding to the feeling of authenticity of this fictional world. For instance steam power is hardly known – who needs steam locomotives or steamships when you can have them powered by rows of mechanicals? And little, knowing details like Delft being famous not for the lovely Delft ware, but for their antique decorated masks for earlier, vintage models of Clakkers, or, being the Netherlands, there are rumours of an “underground canal” rather than an “underground railroad”.

Of course no matter how wonderfully though-out the world-building and the clever reasons for the alternate versions of history, these are just the stage-dressing; it’s the narrative and the characters that make a novel really work, and I’m glad to report that Tregillis handles this as skilfully as he does his background detail. This is one of those eminently satisfying novels where, by the time you get halfway through it, you will be very emotionally invested in the characters, both human and mechanical. We open with a gathering in the Hague – humans and Clakkers coming together to witness something now fairly rare, a public execution. On the scaffold today, some “papist” French spies trying to undermine the fine, upstanding Protestant Dutch. This isn’t the 17th or 18th century though but the 20th. The religious wars are still ongoing, but in this world the Dutch married the maritime and trading expertise to the creation of their mechanical men – general servitors, specialised units like soldier mechanicals, the dreaded multi-legged Stemwinders (which do the bidding of the Horologist’s guild, which after several centuries is not just a powerful guild but also operates elements akin to a secret police/intelligence unit) or maritime or airship mechanicals. The result is that rather than the British creating their vast empire, it was the Dutch who rose to global domination, aided by their almost unstoppable Clakkers, designed to obey instantly, to work tirelessly. They are still at war with France, but this is New France – what would be Canada in our world – because the Continent belongs to the implacable Dutch and the Brasswork Throne. What’s left of the French kingdom and crown is buried in Marseilles-in-the-West, surrounded by Dutch forces from New Holland, based out of New Amsterdam (obviously with no British empire New York remained Dutch and with no British colonists it was the Dutch and French contesting for North America), where Berenice – known as the Talleyrand (a sobriquet for whoever holds the position of the French spymaster) – is being humiliated in the king’s council because the French about to swing from the gallows in the Hague are the main part of her network in the Netherlands, now blown (it’s almost like something from Tudor times, with Walsingham’s spymaster rounding up Catholic spies).

And there is something else, which has brought out the crowds but also large number of the mechanicals in the Hague – a rogue Clakker is to be executed. A machine which has done the seemingly unthinkable and developed free will, able to simply say no to a human command, to ignore the compelling geas upon geas layered on their systems to make them obey, punishing them with a deep, searing pain inside their mechanical souls if they do not obey right away. Many of the city’s Clakkers are lingering, despite the pain of the command geas pushing them to go about their duties, to witness this, as the Horologists plan to burn away the machine’s hard-won sense of individuality in their glowing forge. These machines are born from both clockwork mechanics and science as well as a rich infusion of alchemy (legend has it the great Huygens purloined some of Newton’s secret alchemical notebooks which, along with his own genius, kickstarted this era). Actually it’s not fair to say this doomed rogue – an extremely rare creature the Horologists take huge pains to prevent happening again – has developed individuality.

the_mechanical_ian_tregillis_orbit_books_header

As the book progresses and we follow the Clakker servitor Jax and see his interactions with other mechanicals (they click and twang their pulleys and gears to talk secretly to each other, their humans totally unaware), it becomes clear these mechanical creatures are indeed self-aware, but the geasa the Horologists layer on their awareness at creation, like subroutines in a computer programme, bind them, almost the way a magician is said to bind spirits or demons of familiars, to compel them to do what is commanded, aware but unable to refuse. It’s a particular vile form of one of humanity’s scourges, slavery, except this bondage doesn’t just hold the body in thrall but the very being is held in perpetual service. “Clockmakers lie” is the regular secret greeting between the Clakkers, and they dream of emulating the rogue – how did he escape his bonds? Could they do the same? If they did, what would they do, where could they go? Escape to New France and beyond into the north where their own secret legends tell of a place where they can be free? Or is that just comforting folklore for the mechanicals? Circumstances will soon push Jax to find out the answers to these questions rather urgently…

This is an increasingly fascinating book, becoming every more so the deeper you dive into it. The main narrative arcs of Berenice and Jax are well-paced and absorbing, while the superb detailing and world-building I mentioned before flesh this world out into one you can believe in and feel you could explore. Those elements alone would promise you a superb read, but there’s more in here, for those who want to think further, from the more obvious themes revolving around the morality of holding someone – machine or human – in bondage, Tregillis capturing with quiet, emotional intensity the pain of those so enthralled, imprisoned both physically and spiritually, aware but never in control of their own bodies, and the associated philosophical questions of free will – is there really such a thing, or is it only an illusion? There are elements of Frankenstein in here – the creation of new forms of life then not treating them with the respect they should have had, humans dabbling into areas where perhaps only the gods should – and questions of the nature of freedom and the nature of being which will have you thinking long after you finish reading. As with his Milkweed series you cannot take the safety of even lead characters for granted, Tregillis is not afraid to make his characters suffer, some of them quite terribly. All of which makes this one of the sharpest, most intelligent, hugely compelling works I’ve read this year, and I cannot wake to see where Tregillis takes this series next.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog