Reviews: Red River Seven

Red River Seven,
A.J. Ryan,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, ISBN 9780356520056,
Published October 2023

A man wakes up on what appears to be a small naval patrol boat. He has no memory of how or why he is there – in fact, he has no memory of who he is, what he does, where he went to school, the names of any of his family (if he even has a family). And yet his knowledge of the world and his own skills are still there, just his most personal memories are missing. And there are scars from recent surgery, both to his cranium and elsewhere on his body, close to where the kidneys are located. He doesn’t even know where the boat is sailing, as it is surrounded by a deep fog.

And then he sees the dead body, bullet wound through the skull, and realises the sound that woke him was a shot – from the looks of it, self-inflicted. On examining the body and the pistol, he notices he handles all of this professionally – was he a policeman or some other sort of investigator? The body has similar scars to his, and a tattoo reading “Conrad”. Looking at his own body, he find a similar tattoo reading “Huxley”. He soon finds several others in the lower decks, men and women, none of whom can recall any personal details, although all also seem to still recall their particular skills and knowledge, like him – it looks like one may have served in the forces, one was an explorer or mountaineer, one a scientist; all have tattoos to identify them in lieu of their own personal memories of who they are, such as “Pynchon” or “Plath” – all names of authors.

The boat is on its own course, all the screens and dials are blank, the controls are sealed away with little indication of where they are or why they are going to… Wherever they are going. When a satellite phone rings, the voice is artificial and terse, not answering any of their understandable questions, demanding to know their condition and telling them little, except they have to open a buoy which has been dropped ahead of them, which they reluctantly do. Information is drip-fed to them only in tiny increments via this phone link, and when a few of the ship’s screens come to life, they can now see their geo-location and realise they have been sailing off the east coast of England, approaching the Thames. But why they are heading that way, who put them there, what they are expected to find or do, is all a mystery…

I really don’t want to write more about the plot of Ryan’s (better known as Anthony Ryan, for his fantasy series) novel here, because this is one of those tales where the reader knows no more than the characters, and I don’t want to spoil the surprises as they slowly discover little pieces at a time (usually at a cost). I will say that it cracks along at a fair old pace – you’re dropped right into it from the first few pages, the pace, the bewilderment of the characters, the feeling that they are clearly on some sort of urgent mission, that something terrible has happened to the world and that their desperate mission and lack of memory is all connected to it, it all builds into a compelling read that I tore through in a few hours.

It evokes the influences of other works, notably films like Cube and Carpenter’s classic The Thing, along with touches of Jeff Vandermeer’s work, or Mike Carey’s Girl With All the Gifts, while still ploughing its own furrow, building tension, paranoia and a resigned, reluctant acceptance that no matter what horrors are revealed, their only course is to carry on. An excellent, fast-paced blend of horror, action-thriller and science fiction.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

Reviews: lush, erotic, Gothic fantasy in A Dowry of Blood

A Dowry of Blood,
S.T. Gibson,
Orbit Books,
Hardback,
Published October 2022

My in-built book radar started pinging as soon as I was offered a sniff at this book, and I am happy to report that instinct is still steering me to books I find I absolutely love. Fair disclaimer at the start: a lifelong Gothic fiend, I am a sucker for a good vampire tale, although to be fair, that also means having read a lot of them, I can also be quite critical – as with, say, fantasy, it can be too easy for new novels to simply trade on well-worn generic tropes. Which makes me all the more delighted when I find one which is taking a fresh angle (while still maintaining a number of the elements you would expect), and, even better, that approach also has a lot of socio-cultural relevance to debates in our own contemporary society.

Constanta is a simple peasant girl in Eastern Europe; her family and village are all but wiped out in an attack, while she is abused and left for dead – until he shows up, like carrion, attracted to the leftovers of the slaughter field. This darkly handsome, powerful nobleman offers her a choice – she has to ask him, he will not compel her (shades of Louis and Lestat) – an offer of a new life of power and privilege, or to slip away into the darkness, just another anonymous victim of another small battle, which history is sadly replete with.

It isn’t much of a choice, and unsurprisingly Constanta chooses life – in her case immortal life – and her battered, abused body heals itself, raising her from certain death, and, satisfyingly, allowing this previously powerless peasant woman the overwhelming strength to take revenge on those who harmed her and cut down all those she knew and loved, while at the same time quenching her new-born thirst for human blood.

In the following chapters we see Constanta settle into her new life – her noble husband, centuries old (a serious spin on the older man / younger woman dynamic!) seems so sophisticated to her, wise, well-read, intellectually curious, so keen to look after her and make her happy. We see, from Constanta’s perspective, the passing of years and centuries, of the two settling into a life together, both domestic and, of course, vampiric, the home scenes contrasting with the depictions of the pair hunting and feeding on humans across various European centuries

Cracks start to appear in her husband’s mask though – his temper, a callous, arrogant streak he tries to keep hidden beneath his cultivated persona. She slowly, across time, comes to realise he used his greater age, experience, power and wealth to impress her when she was most vulnerable and impressionable. Like many in such relationships, she often convinces herself this is all in her mind, or if something offends him, it must be her fault (and he is an expert in ensuring she does – this man could use the entire North Sea supply for his gaslighting).

Across the decades, then centuries she starts to see him more for what he is, as their family grows – a second ‘wife’ with the strong-willed Spanish noblewoman, Magdalena, who challenges him intellectually as well as physically, and much later, Alexi, a young Russian. They become, in effect, his harem, there to satisfy him, and god forbid they act outside his precious rules and wants. This creates an interesting dynamic, not just between the lord and his harem, but between the three of them, Alexi, Magdalena and Constanta.

As the ‘original’ (she finds that there were in fact some before her, who have vanished) Constanta feels, understandably slighted by these later additions, but at the same time, she also feels a kinship – I found this far more realistic and satisfying emotionally, more like real groups of friends and families, the push and pull of love and jealously, possessing but also wanting to be possessed, while other times desiring freedom. And then there’s the sex, centuries of sex; male, female, bi, in a group or pairs, wonderfully lush and erotic – even in later years as Constanta questions everything in their lives, the sex and the hunting as shared and enjoyed and binds them together. The eroticism hinted at in the likes of Interview With the Vampire is out here in full, earthy form.

The story is written from Constanta’s perspective, as if she is writing a series of letters to her husband, who is never named, a deliberate choice, I am sure, and a part of her, now older, wiser, more assured, coming into her own power and realising she doesn’t have to be what he wants, that she can be herself, make her own choices. Dowry drips in deliciously decadent High Gothic, sensual, erotic, dark; it doesn’t shy from serious subjects like spousal abuse and male abuse of privilege either, all areas we’ve all been increasingly aware of in recent years (as we should be), or why some remain so long in such relationships, and I think this very much added to the novel’s power and in drawing the reader into it emotionally.

A deliciously decadent, erotic romp in some places, a darkly, deeply emotional tale in other places, as much a tale of a survivor of abuse as it is vampiric novel, nodding its head to Bluebeard or the 1970s films like The Velvet Vampire, as much as the influential Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles. Perfect reading for the dark autumn and winter nights.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity

Reviews: Beyond the Hallowed Sky

Beyond the Hallowed Sky,
Ken MacLeod,
Orbit Books

I’m always happy when there is a new Ken MacLeod book to be read; for my money he is one of the UK’s most consistently impressive and thought-provoking SF writers. In Beyond the Hallowed Sky we have not only a new book, but the start of a trilogy – the Lightspeed series. As that would suggest, this is a story in which the development of FTL (Faster Than Light) travel is fairly prominent. In the summer of 2067, Lakshmi Nayak receives an old-fashioned, physical letter, containing detailed mathematical proofs, which would seem to indicate that FTL travel is in fact possible. It seems to echo some thoughts she has already had but not fully formulated, but who was thinking not only on the same lines but ahead of her, and knows of her interest to contact her? Examining the letter the seemingly impossible explanation is that she sent it to herself – from the future…

After finally publishing the work, Lakshmi’s reputation is ruined by many of her peers; she eventually decides to take an offer to defect to the Union bloc and travels to Scotland, a member state, where after some Le Carre-esque spycraft in the middle of Edinburgh, the Union’s AI guides her around the spies of rival powers and to a job interview on the west coast. The job offer is genuine, but the AI has other reasons, not least the development of her FTL ideas into a workable engine for a starship.

This brings us to the Clyde Coast and John Grant, a “responsible” (a person who was seriously active and important in a previous revolution in the Union) and his comrades who run an engineering co-operative making ships on the Clyde. The AI guides them together to start a collaboration which could create the first FTL ship – rather pleasingly, Clyde-built, like the great ships of the previous two centuries of tradition on that great river.

But there’s more going on here – out for a coastal stroll John sees a submarine leaving the Faslane naval base – in this decade Scotland is no longer part of the UK, but an independent member of the Union. However, Westminster held onto the vital nuclear submarine base of Faslane as part of the deal, and shares it with their US allies. When John sees a submarine leave the base and sail out into open water it’s nothing unusual – until it seems to hover above the waves for a moment before vanishing in a shimmering haze. Most don’t believe him, the all-seeing AI carefully wipes his photographic evidence from his devices. Is it possible that FTL is not only possible, but other power blocs already have it?

MacLeod proceeds to gives us an expanding universe with three main arcs: our future Scotland and the small team trying to engineer their FTL ship (without the rival power blocs knowing), a Union science team on a floating base in the violent atmosphere of Venus, paying host to a visiting android who is also a spy for British Intelligence (which they are aware of, all sides are playing a version of The Great Game here), and a distant world around another star, reached by FTL, and the science teams operating there. Crossing all of this is a discovery that ties all three worlds together in a way that isn’t clear yet.

The multiple, overlapping story arcs work nicely to build up a three dimensional picture of this future society, dominated by three rival power blocs; as with a number of his previous works, MacLeod conjures up a believable socio-political structure, giving it just enough details that we can grasp the situation but not bogging it down with too much exposition, so the narrative flows at a good rate of knots. Along the way we get to consider various weighty topics, from the notions of political ideology and patriotism to the use and limits of AI in the human sphere, and the exploration/exploitation of other worlds. Looking forward to the second volume.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Reviews: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians,

H.G. Parry,

Orbit,

Paperback, 534 pages

Kiwi author H.G Parry was new to me when I read her utterly delightful The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep at the start of this year, in which a young literary academic prodigy has the unusual gift of bringing characters forth from what he is reading, if he gets too lost in the book (seriously, it was a book-lover’s delight, chock full of references to other works and with a wonderful sense of fun, it went down well with my SF Book Group). Orbit planned to release a second book by Parry within just a few months, so I was now primed and looking forward to this one, and while I loved her first novel, I was also pleased to see this next one was taking a very different subject matter and approach, being ostensibly Alternative History.

I must confess I have a real soft-spot for alt-history tales, doubtless driven by my interest in history; anyone who has read a lot of history books is almost certainly aware how many world-changing events could easily have happened differently, and this offers fertile ground for storytellers, from Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee to the massive and engrossing works of Neal Stephenson. In this instance Parry is focused on the Age of Enlightenment, with the main action taking place in three locations: France as the Revolution approaches and then happens, the Haitian slave rebellion in the Caribbean, and in Britain, the work of Wilberforce and Pitt to create an Abolition bill to outlaw the slave trade.

The book is littered with many actual historical events and figures, from the aforementioned Pitt and Wilberforce to Robespierre in France and Toussaint Louverture in what would become Haiti, but while it follows much of our world’s established history, this is a version of our world in which magic is real. Real, but restrained, however, especially for the Commoners, who are forbidden to use any inherited powers, while the aristocracy has much more leeway in using their gifts to enhance their already privileged lifestyle and opportunities. The threat and promise of power through magical ability – or the restraint of that power – links the events in all three settings, as does the issue of immorality of slavery.

As the monarchy of France falls to Revolution – with a call for “free magic and liberty” replacing the more familiar “liberty, fraternity and equality” – and the Haitian slave rebellion blooms, the Revolutionaries are torn, as the slaves are demanding the same rights and freedoms as they do – but the French coffers need the money coming from that lucrative sugar trade which relied on back-breaking slave labour (the clash between morality and money, a sadly eternal quandary throughout our history, imagined or actual). Magic is also used to bind the slaves in this world – while the brutal treatment of our own shameful slave-owning history is present here, a magical elixir is also used, which effectively imprisons slaves with their own body and will compliant to their masters, while leaving their mind perfectly aware of what is being done to them but unable to react, to even cry out if they want to, another horror on top of horror.

Morality and the struggle to maintain one’s principles is very much at the core of this story – as well as struggling with the notions of equal freedom for the Caribbean slave, the French Revolutionaries, notably Robespierre (whose magical power is Mesmerism, very useful in the debating chamber) who has strong principles, which he increasingly bends then breaks, in the name of securing Liberty (the ends justify the means, even if it means The Terror). In Britain too the fight to end the slave trade is riven by those who insist it is fine in principle but in practice will bankrupt the nation, just as it needs every resource to combat the French in warfare, while in Haiti the slave rebellion leaders debate the merits of trying to be merciful if they do secure a free society on the island, rather than giving in to the (no doubt justified) revenge on those who inflicted years of cruelty upon them.

Into this already engrossing stew of events and philosophical musings there are hints of a wider magical history underpinning this era, including a centuries-ago war against vampire lords, which lead to a bloody campaign to free Europe of dark magics, a pact still enforced by the Knights Templar, even in Protestant countries like Britain. And behind all these world-wide events is a shadow-figure, glimpsed mostly in dreams by Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture and Pitt, who seems to often be offering help and advice, but you just know that any bargain made with this mysterious figure will be a Faustian pact.

This is a richly-detailed alt-history, and arriving with wonderful coincidence as the Black Lives Matter movement has triggered far more serious reconsideration of the slave-owning era in the history of many countries, and its legacy (indeed one of Pitt’s fellow politicians here is Dundas, who delays the attempts to end the slave trade – as I was reading this we are debating in my home-town of Edinburgh how to mark his statue, atop a huge column, to address his shameful legacy, just as memorials to others from that era are also being re-evaluated). You can imagine how this coincidental timing of events and publication added to reading of this book, and acted as a reminder, if any were needed, that history is never just the study of the past (even in imaginary, alt-history), because the present is shaped by that history; it isn’t really past, it’s still with us, affecting all aspects of our civilisation in ways we need to study and comprehend if we are to learn from those events and grow beyond them to a better future.

A beautifully-written tale, which takes in the personal – the close friendship of Pitt and Wilberforce for instance – as much as it does the large-scale, global picture of events, with a strong examination of morality and how power corrupts it, be it money, legislative power or magical abilities, with some lovely turns of phrase (Parry’s descriptions of the walls of the House of Commons reacting musically to a well-written speech is quite wonderful and evocative of the power of well-chosen words, delivered with conviction). I look forward to the next volume.

On a side note: if you enjoy history and are interested in this period, Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast series has covered both the French and the Haitian revolutions used in this book in great (but very accessible) details

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction.

Reviews: The Book of Koli

The Book of Koli,
M.R. Carey,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, 400 pages,
Published April 2020

(cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio with photography by Blake Morrow)

A new book by Mike Carey is always something to look forward to: here we’re even more fortunate as The Book of Koli is the first in a new trilogy sequence by Carey, with The Trials of Koli following in September and The Fall of Koli in March 2021. Koli is a teenage boy, in the small, walled village of Mythen Rood (a nod to Mythago Wood, perhaps? And “rood”, a splinter of the True Cross, a play on the importance of trees and wood in this book?). In many ways this feels like a medieval-era village, but actually it is an unspecified point in the future, and the world is very different from today, in the land of “Ingland” or “Yewkay”.

The deep, dark woods beyond our settlements have disturbed human dreams and nightmares since the dawn of time; they litter our collective folk tales of old, they re-emerge in many modern horror films and books, danger always lurks in there for those who stray from the path. In Koli’s world, while there are dangerous beasts in the wilds (and dangerous rogue people who may be bandits or cannibals or both), it is the forests themselves which present the greatest danger.

Long before his time, the old stories tell of a civilisation that had such knowledge and power as to seem magical to Koli’s simpler, damaged era. But in their arrogance they over-used their knowledge and science, damaging the world around them. So they turned to those same devices and learning to repair the damage, genetically altering the flora and fauna, with catastrophic results. Now the trees are deadly – only certain kinds of true wood can be used (Koli comes from the Woodsmith family of wood-turners), any seeds that land in the village and aren’t clear can cause death and destruction, swallowed chocker seeds result in a horrendous death from within, wood cutters and hunters only venture out on dull, overcast days when the trees are less active, in a reversal of what would have been normal practise of utilising periods of fine weather.

The village is dominated by the Ramparts, the group who can use the remaining, scavenged tech from the fallen world. By a remarkable coincidence – or is it? – one family has become the only ones who ever seem to make the dormant tech “wake” (a coming of age ceremony sees each youngster try to wake a chosen device, those that do become Ramparts, but these days nobody save members of one family seem to be able to manage this). Koli is a teenage ball of longing – for a friend who now seems more interested in a young Rampart, for the ability to work the ancient tech and become a Rampart himself. He will come into knowledge via Ursula, a travelling physician. And knowledge can be dangerous without the wisdom to use it, even more dangerous when it contradicts the established system and privileged groups who do well from it, and it will put a reluctant Koli onto a very different path from that he expected.

The youngster coming of age, discovering new knowledge and awareness before they have the experience to know how to use it safely, finding companions on the way, is something of a staple in storytelling, as is any resulting voyage of discovery and trials on the journey. This is Mike Carey, however, he is well-versed in those classic tropes, and quite deliberately using them, then reshaping them to new ends in some quite delicious ways.

Koli’s world is richly described, from the village to the terrifying woods, with Carey only allowing us small fragments of the history that lead to this dystopian world where humanity has turned nature against itself, so the reader is much like Koli, finding out pieces along the way, and this immerses us into Koli’s world, piquing curiosity not just about what will befall Koli but how this world came to be as it is. As you may expect from Carey, this doesn’t shy away from some quite terrifying and horrific moments, and it populates its world with realistic characters (nobody here is entirely evil or heroic, they are just people with a mix of traits). There’s a strong ecological theme running through the book, and also eco-horror, which reminded me (in the best way) of some of Jeff VanderMeer’s work and the “revenge of nature” cycle of fantasy and horror common in the 1970s. A world turned upside down, once exploited by teeming masses of humans, now the humans are a small group living in fear of the world,.

It’s rich, intriguing, heady and often terrifying work that will draw you deeply into Koli’s world. I can’t wait for the next volume…

This review was originally penned for Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Shoreline of Infinity

Reviews: Rosewater – Redemption

Rosewater: Redemption,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, 374 pages

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

The third and final part of Arthur C Clarke Award-winning Tade Thompson’s rather excellent Rosewater series arrives from Orbit, and it proves as engrossing as its predecessors. The first novel introduced us to the world of Rosewater, this unusual near-future Nigerian shanty-town that had grown into a city state, based around a vast alien dome, the power politics going on between locals, such as the city’s major, the Nigerian government, the secret police, the aliens and other groups, and the “sensitive” Kaaro and his psychic abilities, which are linked to the alien-created xenosphere. Book two, Insurrection (reviewed here), took us away from Kaaro’s point of view and expanded our experience of this world through the eyes of several other characters, less a direct sequel as viewing events from another angle, giving a much rounder picture of both characters and the history that has lead to this point.

Insurrection also expanded on the alien presence, far from the benign if mysterious visitors who do annual “healing” ceremonies (one of the things which has put the once shanty-town of Rosewater on the political map and made it important) and brought us the xenosphere, this is, in effect, a very slow-motion invasion of our world. It is one which has been going on behind the scenes for decades, centuries even, the base, Wormwood, with roots deep below the Earth. And now more of the aliens are coming from their distant world – or at least the digitally archived mental imprints of that now otherwise extinct species, downloaded into dead human bodies and re-animated in a process similar to the “healing” gifts given to human pilgrims and their injuries.

Jack Jacques, the mayor, has a tenuous alliance with the aliens, or at least a section of them (it appears there are cracks in the aliens and their plans and approaches, just as there are divisions between the different human groups), allowing them to take dead bodies for this resurrection project. Understandably many bereaved families are aghast as this use of the body of their deceased loved ones being used as a vehicle for an alien mind. The arrangement does buy Jacques some bargaining power with the belligerent Nigeria though, still smarting from losing Rosewater as an independent city-state – with the power of the alien behind him, they can’t move too openly against Jacques (not that is stops all sorts of backroom plans and schemes).

Cymera 2019 - Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard 04
(Tade Thompson on stage at the first Cymera Festival of literary Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in Edinrugh this summer, photo from my Flickr)

But this is a delicately balanced situation and not one that can be maintained for long. Nigeria and other powers are interested in what is going on and want to move more openly, laying plans to disrupt the city’s routine and destabilise it, Jacques knows also that he cannot rely on the protection of the alien, and even if he could, he understands that each new one that is brought here and downloaded into a former human body is another nail in the eventual coffin not just of Rosewater but for the human race on Earth. He’s buying time, but that’s all, and he may have less than he thinks – bad enough people are forced to surrender the freshly dead bodies of their loved ones, but what if the belief that the resurrected bodies are entirely blank slate until the alien mind is downloaded are false? What if there is even a partial imprint of the original human soul still trapped in that revived body, now shunted to the back of the mind as the alien takes control?

A lot of hard decisions are going to have to be made by different powers, all squabbling for their own angle and unwilling to face the fact that perhaps their angle is, in the long-run, meaningless if they don’t unite to try and prevent the eventual extinction of their own species and the take-over of our planet by another. Assuming, of course, it is even possible to stop something like this, which has been happening for so many years already, a slow-motion invasion that had established a beach-head long before humans even realise they were at war…

Thompson takes the multi-character angles from the second book and deploys them again here to great effect, giving us insights into the competing human and alien interests, from the ones who are tying to co-operate at some level to the ones who will stop at nothing to impose their own will, consequences be damned (not hard to see echoes of this in, for example, the current climate crisis in the real world and the groups that fight around that despite the dire consequences awaiting all groups regardless of their prestige or power or angle). The notion that the newly resurrected formerly human cadavers, now home to alien intelligences, could also still retain vestigial elements of the original person’s mind, their essence, trapped in there, is horrifying, and brings the idea of global invasion to a very personal, individual level, upping the horror element (it is also not hard to compare this to the often brutal colonial/imperial era of history in Africa).

With so much at stake none of the original characters are safe, and there is a feeling throughout of how precarious the lives of even characters we have come to love are, how easily they could die by the hand of the slow alien infestation or by the quicker hand of their own fellow humans still trying to score points for their own agendas. There will be a blood-toll here, and there is a sense of increasing desperation as some of the players start to fully realise the stakes they are playing for, even as they try to form new plans that they have no idea they can pull off.

It really is all to play for here, and Thompson immerses us in the situation and in the character’s fates – it is a real gut-punch to see something bad happen to some – and keeps us guessing right to the end, how this will play out for both our individual characters and for the fate of humanity and the world. This all comes wrapped in a style and setting which sets it apart from a lot of other recent SF – Tade is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting new voices in the genre, and I can’t commend this series enough to your reading pile.

This review was originally penned for the Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction writing.

Rosewater Insurrection

Rosewater Insurrection,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit
Paperback, 375 pages

I’ve been recommending Tade Thompson’s first Rosewater novel since I first read it last autumn, and it went on to feature prominently on my annual Best of the Year list for 2018 books, so to say I have been looking forward to this second volume is something of an understatement. In fact when I read the original book I had no idea it was actually going to be a series – it felt very self-contained, in and of itself, although the world Thompson has conjured up was so rich I was very glad to learn he was going to explore it further. With Insurrection Tade has side-stepped the normal serial approach of most multi-volume SF&F, instead rather than lead simply and directly from the previous events he takes different angles here, some of which give another perspective on what we saw in the first book, others moving on the story.

Rather than following Kaaro from the first book, Insurrection follows several other characters, some we are familiar with from Rosewater, others new, prominent among them Eric (another intelligence operative and along with Kaaro the only psychic sensitive left alive), the mayor Jack Jacques (who chose his public name for PR purposes, a real politician!) and Aminat, a scientist and another S45 secret service operative, who is also the girlfriend of Kaaro (in some nice touches which help round out the emotional believability of the characters we see more of their relationship from Aminat’s perspective, and why they love each other, despite Kaaro’s many failings).

This multi-character perspective could be confusing in the wrong hands, but Thompson keeps a tight reign on his narrative and his different characters, each chapter labelled with the name of the person we are following in those pages. This allows for a much wider view of the events taking place in the second book, there’s a real sense of Thompson, having established the world of Rosewater in book one now opening it up. We see not only the ongoing potential threat from the alien presence in Rosewater (perhaps the most slow-motion alien invasion ever in SF?) but the personal lives of various people, from those working like Kaaro did in S45 to gangsters and the political elite (the two not being entirely separate, no-one will be shocked to hear).

The title may refer to the political insurrection, as Jacques attempts to proclaim Rosewater as an independent city-state, evoking a predictably aggressive response from the main Nigerian government. But it may also refer to a secretive society that moves behind the scenes (shades of the Illimunati and other such conspiracies) which Jacques is a part of (but not always following their hidden agenda, perhaps following his own), or even a schism between the lifeforms that have come from the alien presence in Rosewater, with different creatures who may have very different ideas of what they want from planet Earth (while the humans are tossed in the middle, many still unaware of what is really happening).

It’s a much wider-ranging story than the first Rosewater, but the solidity of that first book setting the scenery allows for this expansion, while the multiple character views give not only more angles on what is happening, they also often show conflicting ideas and agendas, reminding us that each person here has their own ideas and goals, and ways they are willing to try and achieve them, which makes them much more believable as characters.

The increase in the threat to humanity from the aliens is ratcheted up several levels here too, and between the Big Threat and the Personal Threats it’s a damned good mix for snaring the reader into this book, while, as with the first book, Thompson’s descriptive prose really gives you a feel for the sights, sounds and smells of this future Nigeria. Thompson builds on the promise of his debut novel brilliantly, clearly a talent to watch out for. I can’t wait for book three…

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading science fiction journal

The Hod King

The Hod King,
Josiah Bancroft,
Orbit Books,

(cover art by Leino)

I described the first of Bancroft’s remarkable Books of Babel series, Senlin Ascends, as “an engrossing, intoxicating delight”, back in 2017. Now into its third volume (of a projected four, I believe), I stand by that description. There can sometimes be a tendency for series to flag slightly in the middle volumes, but both this new third volume, The Hod King, and the previous tome, Arm of the Sphinx, have been, for my money, even better than the first book. I confess, I am smitten with this series, its main cast – poor rural headmaster turned reluctant adventurer Tom Senlin, his missing wife Marya, the irrepressible Voleta, the strong, determined Edith, the mighty yet surprisingly tender-hearted warrior Iren – and its astonishing setting, no less than the Tower of Babel itself, each massive round floor its own “ringdom”, the mysterious upper levels lost in clouds, the original builders and the maintainer – the Sphinx – now almost legend and myth.

Having encountered the mysterious Sphinx in the previous book and finding that person to be far from a myth, our reluctant adventurers are now sent forth on new business – Tom, having overcome his accidental drug addiction, is removed from his former crew and sent ahead to the ringdom of Pelphia, where the missing wife he has been seeking to find and rescue is now known to be living (married to a noble of the ringdom and apparently content, her old life and husband forgotten). He has strict instructions to carry out business as a spy for the Sphinx, although it is made clear to him his personal goal of communicating with his wife, to see if she is truly happy in her new life or wishes to be spirited away, will be supported later by the Sphinx. Naturally Tom gets himself into all sorts of trouble fairly early on – we would expect no less! The question arises, however, when he goes off-mission, is he really breaking the Sphinx’s commandments, or is he merely doing exactly what the Sphinx expected and planned for him to do?

The rest of the crew returns to airship life, although not their tatty old ship, but the fully updated and restored flagship of the Sphinx, the State of the Art (I did wonder if that was a nod to Iain Banks?), with Edith, now fitted with a new “engine” by the Sphinx (a mechanical arm, making her one of the Sphinx’s “Wakemen”, a group of augmented beings spread through the ringdoms and, nominally at least, agents of the Sphinx), becoming captain, much to the approval of the rest of the group. They are to tour the ringdoms, to show off the gleaming, powerful ship as a form of diplomatic gun-boating (behold the power of the Sphinx) and they are to dock at Pelphia, where Voleta will be passed off as an aristocratic lady to this pompous society, in an attempt to contact Marya while also obtaining items the Sphinx requires.

Of course, no plans survive contact with the enemy, and it isn’t long before both strands of this two-pronged tale, Tom’s trials and Edith with the airship crew, start to unravel, forcing them to adapt to often brutal changes or perish. And then, behind the scenes – almost literally, in access shafts and trails hidden behind the walls of the ringdoms – there is another plot brewing, Luc Marat and his army of zealot Hods we encountered in book two have more going on than anyone, even the Sphinx, suspected, and who is the Hod King they acclaim in secret, away from the free people of the ringdoms? There’s a real sense of a mighty storm brewing here, of conflicting forces that have been hidden for many years about to erupt, which may dictate the future of all the people in all of the ringdoms of the Tower, or even, perhaps, if there will still be a Tower…

They’ll say no, no, no, women are weak. They’re foolish. They need looking after and direction. But I think deep down they can’t forget they came out of a woman, were nursed by a woman, and had their little minds sculpted by one as well. When they grow up, just the thought if it makes them uneasy. But rather than face their fear, they look for ways to dominate and possess us, to create proof we are weak and they are strong. I’ll tell you this: the harder a man brags about his thunderous escapades in the lady’s boudoir, the more frightened he is...”

This growing urgency in the narrative goes hand in hand with strong development and growth of the main characters (the huge, powerful warrior woman Iren is especially nicely handled), in a way I found most satisfying. As with the first two volume though, the intriguing characters (who I have totally fallen for) and increasingly complex conspiracies and plots, while a delight, are only a part of the pleasure of Bancroft’s writing – his way with words, his assured, lyrical descriptive passages (he was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows in his beautiful way with words), and the mischievous sense of humour, and some nice gender moments (he has some very formidable female characters, often far more capable than the men, as the themselves note), all combine to make this one of the best forms of books – the type you can totally lose yourself in.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

The first of the Books of Babel, Senlin Ascends, is reviewed here, and the second volume (Arm of the Sphinx), is reviewed here on the blog.

Red Moon

Red Mars,
Kim Stanley Robinson,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Lauren Panepinto, art by Arcangel Images)

I’ll confess right away to being biased here: I think Kim Stanley Robinson is one of our consistently most thought-provoking and intelligent science fiction writers we have working today, and any new work from his pen is most welcome. In Red Moon we’re roughly three decades into the future, with well-established Moon bases – numerous nations have a presence, from Brazil to Britain, the Americans, the Russians, but the biggest player by a Lunar mile is China. Robinson imagine the vast monetary surpluses China already has today, much of which is invested in gigantic infrastructure projects, and plays that out on the astronomical scale with huge investment in colonising and exploiting the Moon. Among the various nation states there are also freebooting prospectors, 49ers in spacesuits and Lunar rovers and a form of free town, a domed settlement run on co-operative lines where the architecture takes advantage of the lower gravity (humans leaping and swinging from structure to structure like orang-utans).

American Fred Fredericks works for a Swiss technology firm, tasked with taking a special communications device to a customer, a senior Chinese official on the Moon. The device is quantum-entangled, it will only talk to its paired device back on Earth and is pretty much un-hackable. On the shuttle to the Lunar surface Fred meets a fellow traveller Robinson fans will remember fondly from Antarctica, Ta Shu, now quite elderly but still up for exploring a new destination for his much-loved travel shows. Ta Shu takes a shine to the awkward Fred (who is better with systems than people, it’s hinted that perhaps he is on the Spectrum), and when his young friend finds himself mixed up in a mysterious assassination of a Chinese official (which almost kills Fred as well), he does his best to help, which draws him into the orbit of Chan Qi, daughter of a high party official, who needs to get off the moon quickly after breaking the rules big time – she’s heavily pregnant.

Ta Shu, Fred and Chan Qi find themselves soon treading through a labyrinth of conflicting ideologies and movements, some local, grass-roots (Qi is involved with a people power movement across China), some internal party politics (leader succession time beckons and different groups want a different direction for China), and global conspiracies (America is even more in debt to China than it is today, but trying to compete and play the Great Game against a backdrop of economic chaos at home). It’s an incredibly rich stew of the political, economic and scientific, but as with his previous works Robinson is good at ensuring there is always a personal level here that isn’t overwhelmed by the events going on around the characters.

These are characters you come to love – the brave but brittle and testy Chan Qi, the awkward but trying his best Fred, and, for me most especially Ta Shu. There are some beautiful little emotional moments, such as Ta Shu meeting an old friend, who takes him to the best spot to watch the Earth Rise above the Lunar surface, after which the two old gentlemen, in the traditional, refined Chinese manner, each compose a poem for the moment. Fred forced into close contact with Qi for a long period on the run, has to deal with his problems in interacting with others, while Qi is slowly forced to realise that individual friendship is as important as the Great Cause she is fighting for.

Robinson, as he often does, uses his future fiction to address many of the ills of today’s world – the vast economic inequality (both individual and national level), the importance of equal rights for all, the problems of mass, illegal migration (although of a different type from what you may think), and weaves in an environmental aspect to it all. Red Moon also echoes his much earlier Antarctica novel (written after Robinson himself travelled there, part of a writer and artist’s programme by the National Science Foundation), not just in having Ta Shu, but also echoes its feel in some places, the Lunar colonies reminiscent of the scientific bases on Antarctica, the stark, barren beauty of the landscape also evoked by the Lunar surface. But at its heart this is less about the science or the politics but the people involved, and that is what makes it so compelling.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

The Labyrinth Index

The Labyrinth Index,
Charles Stross,
Orbit Books

The ninth entry in Charlie Stross’s fabulous Laundry Files arrives, and leads directly on from the events of The Nightmare Stacks and The Delirium Brief, which saw this most-secret branch of the old SOE, the intelligence service which deals with extra-normal threats (from vampires to unicorns – not as cuddly as they seem – to the increasingly likely Case Nightmare Green scenario which would see an unspeakable, Lovecraftian Elder God awakening and pushing into our world) exposed to the public after a cross-dimensional invasion of Britain reveals their existence. And then, worse, public scrutiny leads to meddling politicians interfering with the Laundry, neutering them just as a threat at the highest levels of government strikes, ending in a desperate deal choosing between the (slightly more approachable) lesser of two evils, leaving the British government now under The New Management – the Elder God N’yar Lat-Hotep is now the Prime Minister…

Now well into the reign of The New Management and his darkness summons Mhari Murphy to Downing Street. Despots are always hard to anticipate – underlings never know if they are still being favoured or summoned to be disciplined (and the new PM’s discipline includes planning a giant Mesoamerican temple to replace Admiralty Arch, all the better to show off the skulls of his enemies and those who have disappointed him (if you are lucky you will be dead by this point, if unlucky a still-living decapitated skulls), the old tradition of placing the heads of enemies of the regime on spikes taken to the max. In an impish move the PM has promoted Mhari to the Lords – creating her as “Baroness Karnstein”, a nice nice nod to her vampiric status. He has a special mission – in fact a pretty desperate, possibly one-way mission – for her and a small team in America.

It seems that while the UK – mostly unaware – has been slowly assimilated under the rule of a new Prime Minister who is just a human sock puppet for the Elder God, something else is going on in the US of A. Previous books had hinted at power struggles within the various agencies there which ran Laundry-style extra-normal intelligence services, and now it seems the main one, known to everyone else as the Nazgûl (which gives an idea of the sort of ethics they have) has pretty much cleared out agents of other services. But there’s something else – nobody has seen the President in weeks, not so much as a wave while boarding Marine One. And only those outside of the US have noticed this oddity, those in America not only haven’t noticed the absence of the President, they no longer even recall there was such a person or post. Somehow the entire nation has been enchanted into forgetting even the term “president”, and the PM sends Mhari and her small team covertly into the US to find out what is going on.

I’ve loved the Laundry Files since the beginning – they are an intoxicating mixture of spy thriller, supernatural horror and some wonderfully dark humour (you may be battling inter-dimensional dark gods but you are still in the Civil Service, so you need to fill out a Risk Assessment form and properly document any expenses claims). Over the preceding eight books Charlie has built up the world of the Laundry Files and its characters, and with the most recent few books there has been a strong sense of events spiralling ever more rapidly, the tempo is increasing, any victory may be short-lived, the darkness is spreading. It makes life hellish for our characters, but it makes the series ever-more engrossing for the readers. Covert espionage missions, power plays between different Dark Elder Gods coveted our world greedily, vampire agents, humans with special powers, Men In Black and even our old chums from the secret 666 RAF Squadron making an appearance again. As gripping as a hungry anaconda.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading science fiction journal

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.

High tension in Adrift

Adrift,
Rob Boffard,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

With a history degree and little chance of going straight from college to a nice museum job, and reluctant to take a post with her oh-so-successful older sister or parents, Hannah has, like many a young undergrad or graduate, decided to travel and take on a low-level job to pay her way, get some work experience and fund that travelling. In her case it isn’t tending a bar in Ibiza though, but becoming a tour guide at Sigma Station, a massive station which serviced trade and mining processing for the outer colonies, but which is now also a luxury hotel and tourist destination, boasting spectacular views of one of the galaxy’s greatest sights, the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s not going well though – she’s not even settled in and gotten used to the place before she is put to work, and like many low-paid jobs she gets tossed right in with hardly any training and, unsurprisingly feels overwhelmed, clumsy and out of her depth. Hardly how any of us want to feel at any time, harder still for a young woman in her first job and her first long distance trip away from home on her own, hardly a confidence booster. One of her first tasks is to be the perky, cheery guide for some of the station’s tourists who are taking a local trip on the Red Panda, a basic small vessel, the space equivalent of the wee converted fishing boat that you get at the seaside, all aboard the Mary Jane, twice around the lighthouse and back in time for fish and chips!

It’s not helped by a surly Russian captain who refers to her only as “Guide” rather than by name, or that the small group of tourists are made up of bored, or grumpy types, and several are the type who seem to like belittling anyone in the poorly paid service post below them (we’ve all seen plenty like that). Oh, and then there’s the sudden, violent destruction of the station and the mass slaughter of the thousands of unarmed civilians within just after the Panda had launched…

(the Horsehead Nebula, some 1500 light years from Earth, infrared image from the Hubble Space Telescope)

A ship of unknown origin appears and attacks the station with weapons unlike any they’ve seen before. Who are they? Why have they attacked such a huge civilian outpost without warning? The human worlds have been putting themselves back together after a costly war between the Earth-lead planets and the colonies (as with such wars throughout terrestrial history, the colonial power expands to take in more resources, but when those colonies become successful, strangely enough they start to question why they should be breaking their backs to send most of their hard-earned resources back to the motherland). But the war is over, peace returned, hence the return of tourism to the frontier. And that strange attacking ship didn’t look like anything from the colonies, or Earth, and the tech seems too high… Who are they? Why are they attacking? Are there more of them?

And meantime the small, disparate group of tourists and Hannah have to survive on a tiny ship designed only for short, local sightseeing trips – this is a small pleasure craft, not an interstellar starship, it was never meant to be far from support. Assuming they can avoid meeting the same fate from the mystery ship they’re still in desperate straits, cut off from any support, on a ship with limited supplies and systems, light years from the next base. A mixed group flung together, it isn’t long before the divisions and arguments start, making an awful situation worse. And this is all just in the first few chapters…

This is a tale that stamps on the accelerator right from the start, launching our characters from an everyday situation into a terrifying position in an instant, and then taking that situation Boffard expertly turns the crank on this emotional rack, tightening the ropes, increasing the tension in a desperate fight for survival mixed with conflict and conspiracies. It makes for a read as gripping as a hungry anaconda. It’s a story that has a lot of DNA in common with the likes of Hitchcock’s classic Lifeboat, and like that film it cleverly maximises the almost single-setting to its advantage, building tension laced with claustrophobia and rising panic, anger and division. I hate using a cliche like “page turner”, but oh boy, this is indeed a page turner…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog