Interzone Reader’s Poll 2014: my picks

Following a crafty break from t’internets, your least-humble servant has returned to pollute the information superhighway with his usual brand of excessive verbiage and questionable wisdom, this time focusing on the reader’s poll currently doing the Interzone rounds. “Interwhat?” you might ask. Interthis…

Click to jump to the TTA Press website

Interzone is a long-running UK magazine dedicated to science fiction and fantasy, and each issue is filled with commentary, reviews and short stories from around the world that tend towards the literary end of the spectrum. A long-standing tradition of the magazine has been to invite its readers to vote for the stories it has published during the previous year. Readers can vote positively or negatively, however they see fit.

So without further blathering, here are my top 5 Interzone stories of 2014:

Marielena by Nina Allan (Interzone 254)

Another knockout story from Nina Allan, whose novella “Spin” won a BSFA award last year. (And rather good it is too. You can read my review of it here.)

Noah Wahid seeks asylum in the UK but he is finding the Border Agency painfully slow to deal with. He is a passionate man whose fire is frequently stoked by those who add nothing to society, whether they’re a jeering pack of feral youths or a filthy bag lady. Nobody he meets seems to appreciate what they have, especially when compared to the chaos and violence he has fled, and all the while his mind is tormented by glimpses of his love, his muse, his demon, Marielena. She taunts him for running away, she mocks his newfound pauper’s existence, she fuels the growing anger and frustration he feels inside.

But then Noah learns that not everyone he meets is a perfect fit for his prejudices, and discovers there are some among us who are just as alien to their situation as he.

A reliable indicator of a good story is a count of how often one checks their progress while reading it. I don’t recall doing this at all while reading Marielena, it’s that good. The writing is excellent, but then fans of Nina Allan’s work already know that. Noah Wahid is a wonderfully complex character. He is an eloquent, well-read man who has fled a regime intolerant of intellectuals, and the reader gets a real flavour of his plight. Noah’s arc (sorry) is also perfectly judged, with the reader rooting for him one moment and finding their sympathies tested the next. I found Marielena a fine counterpoint to the island mentality that pervades the UK and the current heat of Islamophobia we find rippling across media outlets the world over, and it is my standout read of Interzone’s 2014.

My Father and the Martian Moon Maids by James Van Pelt (Interzone 253)

A man visits his father in a care home and is reminded of happier times when he was a boy and his father was a UFO obsessive, going so far as to build a comically simple detector in his closet. His father would stand by the telescope he had built in the back yard, not looking through it but straight up into the stars. There was never any doubt in his father’s mind that UFOs existed, but now that mind is being cruelly eaten away by Alzheimer’s. When the man takes his father for his next doctor’s appointment, he makes a fateful decision to stop by the old family home.

I really liked this story. Up to a point My Father… can be read as an affective meditation on how all fantasy eventually succumbs to reality. You might read a novel, but then you’ll eventually put it down. You might meet a Martian Moon Maid at the Cinderella City mall, but eventually she will clock off her shift and go home. You might become lost to Alzheimer’s but even then something very real and final will release you from it. As the story alternates between past and present, we therefore witness real life overtaking the fantasy worlds of both the boy and his father at much the same time, and, when this happens, how soon they then drift apart.

I especially liked the ambiguous ending of this story, and how, by turns, it can be seen as a happy outcome or an equally alarming one. This is a story that somewhat belies its daft-sounding title, and one I would very much recommended you check out.

Ashes by Karl Bunker (Interzone 251)

Neil is handed a small box containing the ashes of Lucia, his former partner, and is immediately reminded of their adventures together. They would travel the war-ravaged world, seeking abandoned new-tech sites created by rapidly-advancing AIs, trying to figure out what they were building and why. The AIs responsible had all disappeared, each of them reaching a stage in their development sufficient for them to suddenly “wink out”. When Neil learns of a new-tech site in which Lucia had grown interested before falling ill, he knows he has found an appropriate location to scatter her ashes.

I’ve chosen Ashes for the sheer number of ideas fizzing beneath the story’s surface. It’s an excellent example of unobtrusive world-building. In the space of 5,300 words not only do we have Lucia’s wake and Neil’s journey to scatter her ashes, but also a history of the AIs and how they helped the human race destroy themselves, an interesting philosophical debate as the remaining AIs attempt to discuss “winking out” without doing so themselves, a believable world littered with new-tech sites and the mysteries surrounding them, and so on and so forth. It all made Ashes a really entertaining read.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer (Interzone 251)

Some way into the distant future Fari blasts asteroids for a living for the Baselle Mining Corp, a deeply-religious company that values women far less than they do men. She excels at her job, mixing it with her male colleagues with consummate ease, earning their respect if only a fraction of their wages. Indeed she is one of the best slaves… er… employees of the Corp, which poses an awkward anomaly for the new hard-line Rep in town. When the Rep takes it upon himself to push Fari’s buttons, Fari pushes back and then some.

Another from Interzone 251 (2014’s strongest issue by a distance) Fly Away Home is a straight story that engenders some complex emotions in its readers. Baselle is an amalgam of many existing cultures that routinely piss on women’s rights, but it’s this hesitancy to single out a particular culture that stops me just short of calling Fly Away Home an important work. (Of course, given the number of brainwashed lunatics we are led to believe walk in our midst, this is perhaps understandable.) Nonetheless it is a great and thought-provoking read and well worth checking out.

Wake Up, Phil by Georgina Bruce (Interzone 250)

Laura Harrison works for an interplanetary company called Serberus, a company fighting a bitter war against a rival called Callitrix. Laura is a level two employee working on the third floor. She drinks Serberwater, eats Serberus Low Cal meals and tows the Serberus line. When she is called up to the eleventh floor she is nervous. Few people return from the eleventh floor. Once there she is instructed by Doctor Thrum to lose a few pounds with the help of a diet pill called Serberitum. When she does her life is transformed. She now works for Callitrix on the thirteenth floor. Or does she? And what’s the deal with her neighbour Phil? Why is he looking after an identical copy of himself?

I don’t normally seek out stories that take the reader down the rabbit hole, but there was a playfulness I really enjoyed about Wake Up, Phil as Laura found herself flip-flopping between Serberus and Callitrix. The story also makes a pleasing and subtle dig at the march of globalisation in depicting a future where war is fought by companies, not countries. This is a fun story that’s definitely worth a read.

Honourable mentions

The following stories also tickled my sci-fi fancy, and are worth checking out. Predvestniki by Greg Kurzawa (Interzone 250); Ghost Story by John Grant, Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa (both Interzone 251); The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson, A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey (both Interzone 252); The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussoff; The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson (both Interzone 253); A Minute and a Half by Jay O’Connell; Dark on a Darkling Earth by T. R. Napper (both Interzone 254); Must Supply Own Work Boots by Malcolm Devlin; The Calling of Night’s Ocean by Thana Niveau; Finding Waltzer Three by Tim Major; Mind the Gap by Jennifer Dornan-Fish (all Interzone 255).

Boos and hisses

I wouldn’t be so mean as to mark down any particular story. They were all clearly good enough to appeal to someone, after all, and Interzone would be a poorer magazine if it published the same kinds of story over and over again. That said, there were stories here that won’t sway me from my reading prejudices any time soon. Stream of consciousness still makes me want to chew out my eyeballs, and I have yet to read a story that has been successfully written in the second person. Maybe in 2015? Maybe.

That’s that, then

So those are my picks for the Interzone 2014 reader’s poll. If you aren’t familiar with the magazine then I hope to have given you a flavour of the kinds of stories you can expect to find inside. It’ll be interesting to see how close (if at all!) my choices match the magazine’s wider readership.

Laters taters,

LP

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Review – The Year of the Ladybird

NOTE: This book will be released in the US later in the year under the title “The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit”

In “The Year of the Ladybird” we follow a student called David as he takes a job at a seaside holiday resort in Skegness, Lincolnshire, during what was to become the hottest summer on record. It’s 1976, the paint is peeling off the economy and nationalism is beginning to take a hold in the less well-off areas of the country. Once at the resort David finds an industry in decline thanks to the wide availability of cheap package holidays overseas.

David’s parents are disappointed by his choice of employment to say the least. His stepfather is most put out, having gone to some lengths to create an opening within his building company. His mother is deeply upset because David is returning to the scene of his father’s death – something that happened when David was just a toddler. But still David came. It just felt like the right place to be.

Pretty soon David settles into his assorted roles throughout the park, getting to know his fellow Greencoats and the other members of staff in the process, including resident nutjob, Colin, and his wife, Terri. David’s life becomes tangled when he finds himself drawn to Terri, a woman in thrall of Colin. More worrying for David is that Colin seems to have taken a shine to him.

Things take a turn for the bizarre when David catches occasional glimpses of a father and his young son. The father is wearing a dark suit wholly unsuited to the hot weather and carries what looks like a loop of rope over his shoulder. His young son waves to David, as if eager to join in the activities he’s supervising. A second look, however, and the pair are gone.

As the summer progresses the temperature rises, tensions mount between the staff, and the number of ladybirds flying about the place creeps ever higher.

Okay, bear with me, folks. There’s a point to be made here, honest.

There are some people in the world who are so ridiculously good at what they do that it often appears effortless. Consider the brilliant vocals of both Paul Rodgers and Bill Withers, for example. Listen to “My Brother Jake” or “Grandma’s Hands” and you could be fooled into thinking those bluesy, laid-back vocals are easy. That is, of course, until you try singing them yourself. Reality then crashes in and you find yourself standing in a karaoke bar hollering at a bunch of drunk businessmen. Or something.

The same can be said of writing. Pick up a novel and you may be tempted to say “I could have written that”. But you would be wrong. Ignore plot, characters and the setting for a moment and consider something just as important: style. It’s the secret ingredient that stops a story going in like a diesel daiquiri. The smoother the style, the easier the read and the better chance a story has to take root.

“The Year of the Ladybird” represents some of the best writing I’ve read in a long, long time, and for me the key lies in it’s uncomplicated style. Not once was I fighting against unnecessarily verbose sentences. I never longed for the end of a dreary paragraph. Each and every scene in the book was timed to perfection, never once outstaying its welcome. I can usually gauge how well a novel has grabbed my attention by how often I find my eyes drifting towards the page numbers. Within the space of two train journeys I had glanced at the page number twice: each time to pop in a bookmark, and each time I was surprised at how much of the story I’d yomped through.

Not only do we find a beautifully-written story in “The Year of the Ladybird” but we also have some excellent and truly memorable characters. David’s roommate, Nobby, Manchester’s finest motormouth, is a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. Nikki, with whom David frequently finds himself paired, is a wonderful and sympathetic character who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. The best of the bunch, however, is Colin: a truly terrifying man dripping with malice and barely-suppressed violence. He’s like a coiled spring that has been filed down to a razor’s edge and you can feel your stomach lurch whenever he makes his presence felt.

Another thing that impressed me was the restraint shown throughout the story. The creeping nationalism of the time (something that sadly seems to be making a comeback) could have been easily overplayed. Not so here. There’s no drum-banging or chest-beating, just the characters behaving in exactly the way you would have expected back in the day, and so the intelligence of the reader is treated with a great deal of respect.

The downside of this, if there is one, is that David can sometimes come across as a little too naive. There are a few times you think to yourself “I wouldn’t have done that.” When David questions his actions you wonder if there is a hint of authorial voice there.

But this is a minor gripe against an overwhelmingly excellent novel and one I would recommend you snap up immediately. I’m almost ashamed to say this is the first and only novel by Graham Joyce that I’ve read. It’s a situation I hope to rectify soon.

5/5

Review – NOS4R2

NOS4R2 is Joe Hill’s third novel, following “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Horns”, the latter of which has been recently made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe.

In NOS4R2 we are introduced to a young girl by the name of Vic McQueen. She’s beginning to twig that her parents aren’t exactly getting along. When her mother loses a cherished bracelet Vic sets out to find it before all hell can break loose. She happens across a covered bridge suspended over the Merrimack River. The trouble is the bridge shouldn’t be there. Upon crossing it she is amazed to find herself at a diner they had all visited earlier in the day, wherein she finds said bracelet. She has discovered a magical bridge that can take her between lost and found, and, crucially, it belongs only to her.

Unfortunately, Vic’s use of the bridge sustains a painful toll upon her in the shape of agonising headaches. As Vic grows up the trips she takes across the bridge become less frequent, but when she learns of an evil fellow called Charlie Manx doing the rounds in his similarly magical 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, complete with NOS4R2 number plates, her interest is piqued. When she storms from the family home following a blazing row with her mother and heads out looking for trouble you can guess where her bridge offers to takes her.

All the while Charlie Manx is on a mission to save the souls of assorted children he claims are under threat. He does this by whisking them away to a place called Christmasland, where every morning is Christmas morning and all the kids get to play such delightful games as “Scissors For The Drifter”. What his sleazy right-hand man, Bing, does with the adults is often left up to Bing himself. Needless to say it never ends well.

When Vic finds the trouble she was looking for, and succeeds in getting Manx locked away, a bitter vendetta is born. As time goes on, Vic finds herself paying a heavy price indeed…

So let’s talk some NOS4R2 (or NOS4A2 as it’s known in the US. A2, R2, potato, pota-too, let’s call the whole thing off…)

Moving on.

The more I read Joe Hill’s work, the more I find a top-notch writer and a very talented storyteller. His work goes through more drafts than a conscientious objector and it really shows because NOS4R2 goes in without ever really touching the sides. (The story, that is, not the 700 page hardback. *Coughs*)

There is, of course, an inevitable temptation to wang on about him being a chip off the old block, but I’m not so sure this is accurate. There’s more than enough here to see Hill stand out on his own. For example, there’s a lot of invention in NOS4R2: some real put-the-book-down-and-utter-“you clever, clever bastard”-under-your-breath moments. I genuinely can’t recall ever doing that with a Stephen King tale. (That said, I’ve recently splurged on a whole lotta King recently to put that to the test.)

The main players of the story are all well-realised and are often brilliantly observed. The pacing, too, is just about perfect. No one scene ever outstays its welcome. We’re always trucking on, engrossed, to the rather bombastic finale.

In a book of this size, however, not everything is perfect. Initial drafts of NOS4R2 contained around a hundred pages of Charlie Manx’s backstory, for example, but these were eventually dropped from the novel. If I recall correctly, the reason behind this hefty excision was that Manx’s backstory risked softening his menace. Hill reasoned that in cutting away a monster’s history we know less about them as a person, and so the more fearsome they can become. By taking Manx’s story out of the novel, however, a noticeable imbalance develops. You get Vic McQueen’s backstory, and by virtue of that you get a decent snapshot of a number of supporting characters. You even get some backstory for Bing, Manx’s right-hand man. But the most you get about Manx’s past arises from a frank confessional he makes to one of his charges. (He says, tip-toeing around the spoilers.) When you consider Manx is taking said lad to Christmasland, and would otherwise be making upbeat promises of brightly-lit fairground rides and more candy canes to eat than those found in an Acme Candy Cane factory, said confessional had a feel of raw scar tissue about it.

The other gripes I had with the book were all fairly minor, and they were mainly little tics that I felt became overused. For example, several of the earlier chapters ended by leading into the title of the next. This was initially a neat touch, then became wearisome, then stopped altogether and then restarted again near the end. (I can’t for the life of me work out why!) Manx’s overuse of exclamation marks! Also! Gets! A bit much! After a while! The nods to geek culture and to his father’s universe risked bouncing me out of the story the more I picked up on them, and there were the occasional narrative asides to the reader I could have done without.

Anyway, like I said, these are minor gripes. NOS4R2 is a great read, and one that belies its length. I’m not the quickest reader around by a long chalk, but I tore through the final third in one sitting. The ghoul in me would have liked a little more story at the end, but that perhaps says more about me than the book.

Before finishing this review I’d also like to credit Gabriel Rodriguez’s excellent illustrations sprinkled throughout the book. It takes a really steady hand and a strong line to make something rather technical and geometric look so simple. Brilliant stuff.

This is the second of Hill’s novels I’ve read. It certainly won’t be the last.

4/5

Review – Cold Turkey

Disclaimer: This review is based upon an advance proof of Cold Turkey, provided by TTA Press.

Cold Turkey marks TTA Press’ third entry in their novella series and was written by Carole Johnstone, who has contributed a number of stories to TTA’s Black Static magazine over the years. In it we find the story of a primary school teacher called Raym and his increasingly bizarre battle to quit smoking.

We initially find Raym fretting over his health and dwelling on the recent deaths of his parents, both having succumbed to separate smoking-related illnesses. When he resolves to kick his own twenty-a-day habit for the umpteenth time he immediately finds his sleep plagued with bizarre, trippy nightmares where he is chased around a surreal landscape liberally populated with assorted sci-fi and horror icons of his youth.

But there is someone else in Raym’s dreams, a terrifying constant, a fragment of his childhood made manifest in a tall, spindly man dressed in a crooked top hat and tails. The man’s fingers are long and dancing, his mouth is “the idea of a sharp-toothed grin”, and his arrival is chillingly foreshadowed by jangling ice-cream van chimes. He is Top Hat, the tally van man.

When Top Hat starts leaking into the real world, Raym begins to fear for his sanity. The chimes stalk him through empty streets. He finds himself being chased all the way to the school doors on a morning. Worse still, he finds he’s starting to lose time: an hour here, an hour there. And all the while Top Hat keeps asking him, “Are you done with all this yet?”

As much as he would love to dismiss Top Hat as a mere hallucination, Raym fears the tally van man is real for he’s not the only one to have seen him. Some of the schoolchildren have seen him too…

Which gets us into the meat of Cold Turkey, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Those of you with sufficient stamina for my reviews will recall I was rather impressed with TTA Press’ previous novella release, Spin by Nina Allen. Does Cold Turkey continue this fine standard?

Nnnnnnnnearly…

It’s just those first twenty or so pages. I found them a little difficult to read in that sentences would veer off here and there, (sometimes spanning a couple of lines, housed within parentheses) sometimes via tangents that – and I’m only hypothesising here – were perhaps an attempt to convey a sense of the gossipy undercurrent that exists within every close-knit community… which I found jarring. A few times I was forced to backtrack and reread a passage to make sure I had it right.

(That said, I’m not the quickest reader on the planet. I tend to chew over the words as I read them. You might therefore find these early chapters an easier read.)

Happily, once beyond those initial chapters the story becomes a smoother ride and one well worth a read. While TTA’s previous novella, Spin, was a literary blend of science fiction and fantasy, Cold Turkey is a horror story through and through.

Raym’s parabolic glide between bleak sanity and potential madness is deftly handled and well-paced. This is frequently helped by a cast of well-drawn and often excellent secondary characters for Raym to riff against, chief among them Wendy, his long-suffering other half.

The grimness of Raym’s predicament is often leavened by some well-judged humour, particularly within a number of staff room scenes. (The caretaker, Lachlan’s, sweary turn at the Easter Fayre elicited a genuine belly laugh.) It all helps to keep those pages turning.

While Raym is not the most likeable central character in the world, he does have his moments. The way he tries to deflect a young pupil’s terror upon seeing Top Hat, despite his own fears, has you warming to him. (You could of course argue he should be doing this anyway, being a teacher.) The cunning he shows in twisting a bad situation to his advantage, specifically his missing hours, also had me nodding in appreciation, if perhaps not his… um… “extracurricular” reasons for doing so.

And then there’s the ending, one which I think will linger long in the mind. It’s powerful stuff indeed, going from the comically awful to the breathtakingly horrifying within the space of a few uneasy pages. I think I actually uttered “Holy shit!” under my breath while reading it. Great stuff!

Would I recommend Cold Turkey? Absolutely. Persevere with those first few chapters and you’ll be rewarded with an evening’s read of some mighty fine horror.

Just don’t sneak away for a nervous ciggie midway through…

4/5

Review – The Executioner’s Heart

I’ve been a fan of George Mann’s Newbury & Hobbes series for some years now. The stories are often fast-paced and exciting, with a lot more going on in the series’ steampunk universe than intricate clockwork automata and chuffing great engines. The central duo of Sir Maurice Newbury and Veronica Hobbes are often engaging and great fun (even if their mutual lusty restraint doesn’t exactly chime). The books are blessed with a well-drawn cast of supporting characters, from Newbury’s chum on the force, Charles Bainbridge, to the gross and cold-hearted Queen Victoria, for whom Newbury acts as agent.

I do find the series a little like the Indiana Jones movies, however, in that you get marvellous odd numbered books but wonky evens. “The Affinity Bridge” was a great start to the series. “The Osiris Ritual” was okay, but not as good as I’d hoped. “The Immorality Engine”, on the other hand, was flat-out brilliant.

As “The Executioner’s Heart” marks Newbury & Hobbes’ fourth novel-length adventure, you don’t need a crystal ball to get a gist of what’s coming.

It’s London, 1903, and we find an assassin at large; one whose calling card sees them ripping open the chests of their victims and removing their hearts. When Charles Bainbridge is called to the scene of a third victim he suspects a ritualistic edge to the crimes and so calls upon the expertise of a man he knows who lives and breathes the occult, Sir Maurice Newbury.

But all is not well with Newbury. When he’s not receiving death threats from thwarted occultists, megalomaniacs and all-round loony-tunes from his previous escapades, he’s being tasked by the Prince of Wales to root out rogue elements within the Empire that could spark a war. And when he’s not got that hanging over him, he’s using his considerable knowledge and willpower to root out the terrifying premonitions that have long afflicted Veronica’s younger sister, Amelia: a girl the Crown believes (and would prefer) to be dead.

As Amelia’s condition improves, so too does Sir Maurice’s deteriorate. When a particularly gruelling ritual from an ultra-rare (and stolen) book yields the chilling word “Executioner” scrawled over and over again in Newbury’s hand, Amelia has an awful feeling the message is a warning meant for Veronica.

Meanwhile Veronica is growing increasingly suspicious of Bainbridge’s new ally, Professor Archibald Angelchrist. What interest could the Secret Service possibly have in all of this?

So unfolds “The Executioner’s Heart”. It is, for me, the weakest book of the series. It’s still worth a read if you’ve already devoured the first three books, but don’t expect it to reach the giddy heights of “The Immorality Engine”.

The book takes a grave misstep right at the start when Veronica is killed. The story is then rewound to the start so we can follow the events leading up to her murder. Now, there is a device often used in TV shows called the “cold open”, where the show opens with a real WTF curve-ball that leads into the titles. The idea is to hook the viewer into watching more in the hope they will discover just what the hell happened back there at the start. Think of virtually any episode of The X-Files and you’re there. It is not a cold open, however, when you go on to repeat the same scene at the climax of the story and then make a small, yet significant difference to the outcome. What you have instead is a cheating, tenth-rate way of getting readers to the end of the book, and it really leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Then there’s the “investigation” part of this particular Newbury & Hobbes investigation. Essentially there isn’t one. If you take a step back from the story you soon realise the plot is flanneling along until Aldous Renwick, Newbury’s friend and rare book dealer, pulls out a dossier on the assassin and says “That’s the one.” It’s also fairly obvious who is hiring the assassin before reaching the half-way point.

Finally we come to typos. I have in the past dragged this book’s publisher, Titan Books, over the coals for their shoddy work on David Wong’s “This Book Is Full Of Spiders”. It’s therefore disappointing to also see some pretty calamitous typos in this book, including what appears to be one sentence pasted into the middle of another. Given the number of eyes cast over the manuscript, I’d dearly love to know how these things manage to slip by undetected. Seriously, Titan, I’m all ears.

So, yeah, I didn’t really get along with “The Executioner’s Heart”. Being a fan of the series as a whole I really wanted to like it, particularly when I learned there was somehow more to come after the jaw-dropping conclusion of “The Immorality Engine”. Maybe that’s it. I’m only theorising, but I’m wondering if Mann wrote Book Three feeling there would be no more to come, and went hell for leather with the plot as a result. (The first three novels were put out through a different publisher, Snowbooks.) “The Executioner’s Heart” also has the whiff of a reboot about it. Certain holy-shit moments from Book Three aren’t necessarily ignored, but they are dialled down in their importance in ways that don’t feel right, presumably to regain control over the plot. It’s like re-boxing a mess of uncoiled springs.

While the plot and the structure of the novel were a let-down, the novel is partly saved by its characters. They are all as engaging as ever, and do help keep those pages turning. Those who enjoyed the bloodthirstiness of the previous books will also be well served here.

Should you read “The Executioner’s Heart”? Yes, but only because it sets up “The Revenant Express”, book five in the series – an odd number lest you forget. Pray that Mann pulls it off because the next one sounds like a belter.

3/5

Review – The Chosen Seed

Note: this review for “The Chosen Seed” contains spoilers for “The Shadow of the Soul” and “A Matter of Blood”.

“The Chosen Seed” is the final book of Sarah Pinborough’s “Dog-Faced Gods” trilogy (also known as the “Forgotten Gods” trilogy in the US) and concludes the story of Detective Inspector Cassius Jones following the frantic conclusion of “The Shadow of the Soul”.

Dr Hask and DI Ramsay are hunting for the newest killer stalking London, one who is murdering people using the lethal Strain II virus, a stronger derivative of HIV. A dying victim recalls a clean-cut man in his early thirties saying to her “For this is the word of your God. Spread it.” Shortly afterwards she began to display symptoms.

Meanwhile Cass Jones is on the run following the murder of a man linked to the disappearance of his nephew, Luke, and also that of Adam Bradley (the real murderer). While his former colleagues, Hask and Ramsay, have a hard time accepting his guilt, Jones’ former partner, DS Armstrong, has no such concerns. He is hell-bent on bringing Jones to justice.

Jones lies low while his underworld contacts arrange a new identity for him, but his mind is alive with the mysterious Mr Bright, a man who has long pulled his strings and those of his family, and someone who most certainly knows what happened to Luke. Events take an unusual turn, however, when Jones’ murky undercover past comes back to haunt him.

All is not well within Mr Bright’s world and those of the Cohort – his fellow eternal, otherworldly beings. Not only do some find themselves dying, but now it appears an emissary has appeared, having seemingly come to Jones’ rescue at the end of the previous book. Her presence is a bad omen that suggests the imminent arrival of Him and the onset of the Rapture. At the same time the first of their kind has finally woken from his comatose state and is found to be in no fit state to lead the Cohort as hoped. He has woken an old man, meek and scared.

So here we have it, the final part of “The Dog-Faced Gods” trilogy, and while it’s better than “A Matter of Blood”, I didn’t find it quite as good as “The Shadow of the Soul”. The pages fly just as fast, the plot keeps on coming like a flood, the characters are just as good, and – yay! – there are no passwords being guessed, but… I don’t know… there were a few things that kept the book tantalisingly short of excellent.

For example, the underlying threat of revenge hanging over Jones and his undercover past, touched upon several times during the previous two books, comes to very little. Any bad blood is all too quickly forgotten. The brutal cruelty meted out to one of the characters (you’ll know when you get to it) also left a bad taste in the mouth. (The same could be said of Mr Craven’s exploits in the previous book.) Finally, and this is for me a minor point, when you take a step back from the trilogy and consider it as a whole you could be left wondering why no other religions were touched upon at all, though this was perhaps a conscious decision to keep an already huge story as lean as possible.

That said, there are some excellent scenes too. The finale is well worked, with a real sense of urgency and impending doom in the run-up. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough once it got going. The epilogue gives some real satisfying closure to the story. Yes, the story could be re-opened later down the line, but you at least feel there is no need to do so (i.e. there is no “Meanwhile at Camp Crystal…” bullshit to contend with at the end).

I think the faults I have with the trilogy mostly stem from the incredibly complex plot that spans all three books – nearly 1200 pages’ worth. Beneath the main plot threads touched upon in my reviews you will find a ton of subplots, incidents and secondary characters. Given all that, it is perhaps inevitable that some panel-beating would be required to fit it all in. Taken as a whole, I’d suggest not looking too hard at the few niggles that exist and tuck in, folks. There’s a lot of good stuff here to chew over.

The Dog-Faced Gods marked my first foray into Sarah Pinborough’s work. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to seek out “Mayhem”.

4/5

Review – The Shadow of the Soul

Note: This review contains spoilers for “A Matter of Blood” (albeit nothing you wouldn’t find in the blurb).

“The Shadow of the Soul” is book two of Sarah Pinborough’s “Dog-Faced Gods” trilogy (also known as the “Forgotten Gods” trilogy in the US) and continues the story of Detective Inspector Cassius Jones following the dramatic conclusion of “A Matter of Blood”.

Six months have passed since that climactic shootout, London is recovering from a string of recent severe bomb attacks, and Cass Jones is investigating a series of unusual student suicides, each linked by a single bizarre phrase: “Chaos in the darkness”. He has a new partner in tow that he can barely stand, his testimonies against fellow coppers attract suspicion and resentment from many of his colleagues, and he finds his messy private life and family history further entwined in the machinations of the mysterious Mr Bright and The Bank.

Specifically, it turns out that Luke, the nephew he had thought murdered, was not the biological son of his brother, Christian. A switch at birth had taken place, and one that Christian had grown to suspect. It does not take a giant leap of logic to suspect Mr Bright’s involvement, particularly when Cass finds the man in age-old family photographs looking not a day younger.

We are introduced to a new character, Abigail Porter, security operative for the Prime Minister. When CCTV footage reveals a large fat man in the vicinity immediately before each bomb blast in London, it becomes evident that they are seeing the same person each time, something that should not be impossible when the bombs were all detonated simultaneously. When Abigail spots the same figure in the crowd prior to an official engagement she chases him down into a tube station. He looks close to death and, when he touches her hand, her mind is filled with bizarre images and sensations. He leaves her with a single word, “Interventionist”, before hurling himself under a train with a big grin on his face.

Meanwhile a fear of death permeates the cohorts of The Bank. They are supposed to be eternal, otherworldly beings, and yet several of their number are finding their lifeforce, their “Glow”, on the wane. While Mr Bright is convinced it is all a state of mind – that they have simply grown tired of living for so long – the fear among the ranks is proving enough to stoke a rebellion. It is the last thing Mr Bright needs. The first of their kind remains comatose, and the way home across the Walkways is proving as elusive as ever.

For anyone who thought “A Matter of Blood” dragged a little (particularly in regard to Cass Jones’ home life) let me put your mind at rest. “The Shadow of the Soul” thunders along like a speeding freight train. With the (ahem) dead weight cut from Cass’ overarching story, the pages turn thick and fast, helped in no small part by a healthy dollop of Even More Plot. Yum!

Sometimes when completely new characters are crowbarred into established stories it can be quite jarring and off-putting. (I finally lost track of how big Tony Soprano’s extended family became by season six, for example.) While the temptation would have been there to plonk Abigail Porter into the story simply as a means to further Mr Bright’s storyline, this has been largely resisted and results in a great, fully-rounded and kick-ass character: perhaps my favourite of the trilogy.

On top of this, exposition is drip-fed into the narrative in mostly the right places and really helps draws you into the story. If you hadn’t quite guessed who or what the cohort were by the end of book one, for example, you’ll be in little doubt by the end of this one.

There are issues to overlook, however. We have the re-emergence of Guess The Login Password, which, as my previous review mentioned, is a plot trope that should suffer the editor’s red pen the world over. Luckily this time it’s not as integral to the plot. There is also the usual riddle-talking and copious amounts of I-know-something-you-don’t-know from Mr Bright that can become rather tiring.

There was another thing that niggled me throughout the series, though I fully admit this may have been just me. I am aware that the author used her former pupil’s names for characters in her earlier books. For this trilogy she appears to have name-checked several fellow authors and editors in the field: Ramsey (Campbell), (Jo) Fletcher, (Steve) Rasnic (Tem), Brian Freeman, (Stephen) Jones, (Paul) Cornell and so on. On the one hand this is a nice gesture, and yet, once I noticed it happening, I must say every fresh nod bounced me a little out of the story.

Otherwise I was looking at an entertaining read in “The Shadow of the Soul”, and one that satisfyingly ratchets things up from “A Matter of Blood”. Recommended, but make sure you read the first book!

4/5

Review – A Matter of Blood

They’re funny old things, book trilogies. Some genres seem to suit them better than others. For example, you’ll be doing well to pick a sci-fi or fantasy novel off the shelves and not find it “Volume whatever of The Handlecrank Trilogy”. (Usually the second.) There are some genres, however, that are ill-suited to trilogies. Crime, for example, where the book series is king owing to its inherent case-by-case story structure. Horror, too, is often stony ground for trilogies. (Tales of high terror and nerve-shredding peril tend to lose something when you know the protagonist needs to survive to book three.)

So when someone takes the crime and horror genres and then fashions them into a dark fantasy trilogy I’m left with two thoughts. One is: “There’s something you don’t see every day.” The other: “I want to read that!”

All such blathering leads me to Sarah Pinborough’s “Dog-Faced Gods Trilogy”. (Also known as “The Forgotten Gods Trilogy” in the US.)

“A Matter of Blood” is the first of the trilogy, in which we find London suffering under the weight of recession, a highly-contagious new strain of HIV and a serial killer known as the Man of Flies.

The wider world is largely beholden to The Bank: an organisation that was formed by the wealthiest to pour oil over choppy economic waters, one whose fingerprints cover nearly every financial transaction made, but also one that is secretly controlled by cohorts of otherworldly beings. When one of the cohort starts to die – something that isn’t supposed to happen to the everlasting – discord and fear build through the ranks.

Amid all of this we are drawn into the messy world of Detective Inspector Cassius Jones as he investigates a string of murder victims: each with the words NOTHING IS SACRED written across their chest; each sporting a neat arrangement of fly eggs about their person. Meanwhile a parallel investigation is attempting to track the killers of two school friends in what appears to have been a botched gangland hit.

When someone anonymously deposits a DVD at the station showing the boys’ shooting, intrigue is notched higher still. Or at least, that is, until Christian, Cass’ brother, apparently shoots his wife, young son and then himself.

Could there be a connection? Well, we wouldn’t have a 419 page novel if there wasn’t, would we? “Ah, but is it any good,” you ask? My answer is “Yes, but…”

The yes: In “A Matter of Blood” we are given a believable alternate London with a large cast of well-drawn characters on both sides of the law. The star of the show is, of course, Cass Jones, a satisfyingly complex character whose rough edges – his chequered history, his infidelity, his acquaintance with Charles (so to speak), his foot in the criminal underworld – instantly engage the reader. Such a large cast makes for a lot of plot to chew over, and, happily, there isn’t much flab in those pages.

The but: Plot advancement and pacing is sometimes reliant on characters doing dumb or unbelievable things, often jarringly so. An example of a dumb move sees Cass attempting to gain illegal access to The Bank’s headquarters. It quickly becomes apparent why, for the sake of the plot, he does this, but his motive in doing so is weak. Indeed, when he later questions his dumb move you can’t help but wonder if there’s a hint of authorial voice in there. A rather large example of plot-stalling emerges once you’ve read the trilogy and realise one key (and short-lived) character could have saved at least a book and a half by getting to the point and not talking in unnecessary riddles.

More yes: the near-future world in which this all takes place is often brilliantly realised. There is an excellent sense of place in each scene, achieved not through pages of dry description, but through the observations of believable characters. The police procedural elements of the story are so well done there were often times I forgot I was reading a dark fantasy story.

More but: You have all this sterling attention to detail only to then see the story resort to hoary old plot tropes such as “Guess The Login Password”! (And a two-character password at that. If you listen carefully you can hear a million IT guys across the world “WTF” simultaneously, and a squillion office workers say “Huh, I wish.”) Seriously, folks, there are less clunky ways of gaining access to a locked laptop.

So it goes, back and forth, between the really good and the not-quite-so-good. If you can accept the story for what it is and don’t peek too deeply into its plot holes then you’ll find a lot here to enjoy. It does suffer a little for being the first of a trilogy, but, rather like Mark Hodder’s “Burton & Swinburne” series, the story really picks up in subsequent books.

If the somewhat permeable nature of some trilogies (*cough* Night Watch *cough*) has left you jaded, it’s also worth mentioning that there is a genuine sense of closure in “The Dog-Faced Gods”.

(Unless, of course, the planned TV series is a roaring success, in which case all bets are off!)

3/5, but this is a trilogy worth sticking with.

Review – Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

Everyone likes to find a twenty in their wallet they forgot they had. Nestled between some wrinkly old receipts, its discovery puts a smile on your face and you find yourself saying “Hello, where have you been all this time?”

I found the final three-quarters of Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon a little like that, for reasons I’ll blather about shortly.

Welcome to the by-now utterly bizarre universe occupied, amongst others, by Sir Richard Burton, famous explorer and agent for King Albert (see, bizarre – I told you), and his assistant, the poet Algernon Swinburne. Theirs is a time knocked wildly off-course by the accidental interference of one Spring-Heeled Jack, whose inadvertent influence has given science and technology a premature shot in the arm, leading to bizarre insect-based conveyances (each hollowed out and steam-driven) and eugenically-altered plant life. So, yeah, like I said… mondo bizarro.

It should be said at this point that you really ought to come to Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon having already read The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man. While Hodder gives the reader a fair amount of backstory, had I have come to this book cold I’d have perhaps put it down three chapters in, wondering what in blue blazes was going on, and declaring the whole thing a little too wilfully outré.

A significant reason for this, as I alluded to earlier, is because the universe in which these stories take place has, by book three, deviated so far from historical norms as to make it almost alien. The creative spurts of the eugenicists, for example, has bridged the gap to create not only animal men, but plant men too. Weaponised vegetation? Check. Acid-spitting plant-life with a thirst for blood? You betcha. In the first book, Spring-Heeled Jack suffers severe culture shock upon landing so far back in the past, which, I suspect, is a sensation not entirely dissimilar to diving into this series three books in.

The most troubling aspect I’d have had, however, would have been the structure of the book. Here you have two Burtons: one preparing to venture to the Mountains of the Moon, to not only retrieve a dirty great diamond but also to once and for all ascertain the source of the Nile; and also a second amnesiac Burton flung forward in time to an alternate World War I, witnessing first-hand the terrible world that has spun off from the actions of both Spring-Heeled Jack and he himself.

In short, I suspect it’d make a hell of a lot more sense if you were to read the first two books, so off you toddle.

For those of you still here, let me say that Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is another great read from Hodder, who, I’m guessing, three books in, is having a whale of a time conjuring up yet more complicated oddness for his alternative universe, when most lesser writers would have jumped off a bridge, declaring to have written themselves into a corner.

Not only has Hodder an imagination seemingly only measurable in light years, but he has a depth of knowledge for the Victorian era to match it. While his universe has spun off in many bizarre ways following the accidental assassination of Queen Victoria, it still recognisably parallels real-life events and the people of the age. But then, in Expedition, he pulls an ace from his sleeve.

We are shown, in the previous books, Burton’s recollections of his time spent in Africa, and how he incorporates the things he learned there into his day-to-day duties as the King’s agent. These references help cement the man as a dyed-in-the-wool explorer. Around a quarter of the way into Expedition, Burton and company embark on their journey for the final as-yet undiscovered black diamond, and here Hodder suddenly reveals himself to be just as good at writing a sprawling (and, crucially, well-researched and expertly-executed) desert adventure. After 2 1/4 somewhat barmy books set in foggy old Blighty I found myself reading Expedition thinking “Hello! Where’s all this come from? This is great!” It was like finding a whole new book, if not that crisp twenty from earlier.

Expeditions is not a book without its issues, however. Like Spring-Heeled Jack before it, the reader is asked to let slide some pretty eye-watering coincidences from beginning to end. For example, the way in which Burton’s party for the expedition is assembled is somewhat contrived (i.e. nearly all the surviving characters from the previous book are somehow shoehorned into the start of the expedition, including one that instantly had my eyes rolling – you’ll know who when you get there). An old returning character is reintroduced to the story in a fashion that had me saying to myself “Of all the oases in all the deserts in all of Africa she walks into mine”. Finally, the author’s habit of dropping in real-life historical figures into the story continues unabated. Some work, such as Sidi Bombay, while others set my eyes rolling again.

Finally, there were a few too many typos than one would expect from a retail book. There are thankfully not as many as there were in Spring-Heeled Jack, but enough that had me starting to watch out for them, taking me out of the story a little.

As for the ending… well, let’s just say I can’t wait to read #4, if only to see how on earth Hodder manages to continue the story. The Goodreads blurb hints #4 to be the start of a new series, which sounds ominous. I’ll reserve judgement, however, until I get my eager peepers on the thing.

Rating: In summary this, like Clockwork Man before it, is a solid 4/5 from me. Heartily recommended, old thing.

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the final draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll

Review – The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

So, you’ve just managed to disentangle a massively complicated plot from your head and successfully gotten it onto the page. Not only that but you’ve managed to hang upon it some very well-researched material to give it a real sense of place, and a huge dollop of imagination to make the story your own. Heck, you’ve even received an award for your efforts.

Where next then? Get a clean notebook out for an all-new story?

Well, if you’re Mark Hodder it appears you decide that the first story wasn’t complicated enough and then go in again with a big spoon to stir things up some more!

Welcome to The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, set in the bizarre alternative universe inhabited, amongst others, by Sir Richard Burton, famous explorer and agent to King Albert (yes, that’s right), and his assistant, the poet Algernon Swinburne. Theirs is a time significantly altered by the unintended temporal shenanigans of one Spring-Heeled Jack, bringing about premature advances in assorted scientific and technological disciplines. Do you want to be flown here and there beneath giant eugenically-engineered swans? You got it, old bean. How about some autonomous steam men clunking about the place? Yeah, we got those too.

Now, if you haven’t read The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, then stop right now and seek it out. While many book series are comprised of largely separate stories, the events of both this book and its sequel, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, are tied more with its first book than other series I’ve read. Hodder provides some backstory in each of these follow-ups, but had I come to this story cold then I may have felt these expository parts a little tacked-on. And, anyway, the first book is rather good fun, so give it a whirl.

Anyway, what you have here is another inventive slice of Albertian England involving missing diamonds, contested estates and ghostly manifestations, which then descends into something else entirely.

There’s no farting about from Hodder in this story. The action and intrigue kick in from the get-go – a benefit of having gotten a large amount of the world-building guff out of the way in the first book. In this story Burton and Swinburne follow the trail of a stolen collection of black diamonds. Burton discovers the stones possess a few special properties, chief among them a resonance with human brainwaves. Or they would have done were they not fakes.

Meanwhile, public interest is piqued by The Tichborne Affair, where the sudden return of Roger Tichborne, long considered lost at sea, sees him pitch a claim for the Tichborne estate. The fact that the claimant doesn’t resemble Roger Tichborne in any way seems no obstacle, particularly when many of those who see him in the flesh instantly vouch for him. The general public take Roger to their hearts, despite his social standing, seeing instead a penniless man deprived of what was rightfully his. Tensions mount across London when the claimant’s lawyer takes his client’s case to the masses.

Could the two stories be connected in any way? Oh, come on, what do you think?!

How these story threads come together, however, takes the story off in a completely different direction: one that doesn’t auger well for the course of (this alternative) history, one that smartly ties in with elements of the first book and one that brilliantly sets up the next one. (Don’t worry, there’s closure to be found.)

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is, for me, a great follow-up to The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, and one I feel somehow improves the first story. As mentioned earlier, the fewer diversions into world-building enables Hodder to get on with telling the goddam story, and as a result, he keeps those pages a-turning, which, of course, is A Good Thing.

Another Good Thing is the fact that the book is mostly clean of typos, something of a blessing when compared to the first book. It all helped to keep me in the story. (I can’t heap praise onto a published book for being free of typos, however.)

What irritations I found in the story were relatively minor. Again the finale gets a little too silly for me. It’s funny, yes, but you may be well advised to suspend disbelief before stepping in. The main characters once more fall into philosophical discussions that take the reader away from the story, though thankfully only for a couple of pages at a time. Then there was the rather OTT descent into carnage that teetered dangerously close to Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air (whose message, I think, though I could have been wrong, even though it was rubber-stamped on nearly every bloody page, was that communism was bad). Thankfully Hodder uses such civil unrest sparingly and, in a way, eerily presages the Tottenham riots of 2011 that unfolded a month before the book’s publication!

Rating: In all this is a great read, a nailed-on 4/5 from me. Be sure to pick up the next book as well as this one, however, as you will want to dive straight in once you hit the end of Clockwork Man.

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the final draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll