Thursday, 19 November 2015

Book Review | The Light That Gets Lost by Natasha Carthew

A small boy hiding in a cupboard witnesses something no child should ever see. He tries not to look but he still hears it. And when he comes out, there's no mistaking. His mum and dad have been killed. And though he's only small, he swears that he'll get revenge one day.

Years later, Trey goes to a strange camp that is meant to save troubled teenagers. It's packed with crazies, god-botherers, devoted felons and broken kids. Trey's been in and out of trouble ever since the day the bad thing happened, but he's not here for saving: this is where he'll find the man who did it. Revenge and healing, salvation and hell are a boiling, dangerous mix, and Trey finds himself drawn to a girl, a dream and the offer of friendship in the dark .


When you think about it, the business of living boils down to a string of decisions; seemingly insignificant decisions about little things, largely, like whether to take the left road or the right. Maybe one direction gets you to your destination without delay on this postulated day, and perhaps that matters, but taking the long way could lead, equally, to a chance meeting that leads to laughter that leads, at the last, to love.

What I mean to say is that, in a very real way, we're changed by our choices—made or broken or both. Take Tremain Pearce, the deeply damaged protagonist of Natasha Carthew's languid but ultimately uplifting latest. When a man murders his mother and father, and hurts his big brother Billy so seriously that he'll require round-the-clock care for the remainder of his days, Trey chooses to make the guy who got away with it pay: a decision that determines the lot of his lamentable life from that sickening instant on.
His short life, sketched and drawn wrong since memory began, had been rubbed down to this one moment in time; he was sitting at the brink of a place where there was no turning back and he was ready to jump. For Mum and Dad and Billy he was ready to leap into the unknown and all he knew of that unknown was it had one single solitary name and the name was revenge. (p.5)
In the name of revenge, then, Trey contrives a transfer from his foster family into the care of Camp Kernow, a faith-based prison facility which purports to teach difficult children a trade, where he has reason to believe the man who took his family from him has sought safety "in the cloth of God." (p.6)

Monday, 16 November 2015

Book Review | The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

In the radically advanced post-human worlds of the Amaranthine Firmament, there is a contender to the Immortal throne: Aaron the Long-Life, the Pretender, a man who is not quite a man.

In the barbarous hominid kingdoms of the Prism Investiture, where life is short, cheap, and dangerous, an invention is born that will become the Firmament’s most closely kept secret.

Lycaste, a lovesick recluse outcast for an unspeakable crime, must journey through the Provinces, braving the grotesques of an ancient, decadent world to find his salvation.

Sotiris, grieving the loss of his sister and awaiting the madness of old age, must relive his twelve thousand years of life to stop the man determined to become Emperor.

Ghaldezuel, knight of the stars, must plunder the rarest treasure in the Firmament—the object the Pretender will stop at nothing to obtain.

The year is 14,647 AD. Humankind has changed, fractured, Prismed into a dozen breeds of fairy-tale grotesques, the chaos of expansion, war and ruin flinging humanity like bouncing sparks around the blackness of space. Man has been resculpted in a hundred different places, and the world as he knew it—this world—is gone for ever. (p.96)
This is the posthuman premise of The Promise of the Child: an extraordinary space opera which charts the inexorable fall of an assortment of autocratic immortals in a milieu so elaborately imagined that immersion in it is as risky as it is rewarding. Taken together with its dizzying depth and intelligence, the debut of Tom Toner, a twenty-something science-fiction savant with a sweet spot for shark teeth, has an ungodly amount going for it.

If Hannu Rajaniemi had come up with The Culture, it would have read rather like this, I think. But like The Quantum Thief before it, The Promise of the Child has an approachability problem: absent the warmth and wit that made Iain M. Banks' books beloved, it can come across as cold, calculated and at points impenetrable.

The first difficulty those who do dedicate themselves to Toner's text will need to deal with is its stupendous setting: "an impossibly delicate, eleven-light-year-wide ecosystem" (p.276) known as the Firmament. Here, the aforementioned immortals—the Amaranthine—hold sway; that is to say, they do today, if only by dint of "the ratio of butlers, gardeners, housekeepers and paying tenants to the riff-raff that inhabited the thin wilderness—the Prism Investiture—that surrounded their huge and desolate estate, the twenty-three Solar Satrapies." (p.276)

But the Amarantine's grip is slipping, and quickly...

Friday, 13 November 2015

Book Review | Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

In a fractured Europe, new nations are springing up everywhere, some literally overnight. 

For an intelligence officer like Jim, it’s a nightmare. Every week or so a friendly power spawns a new and unknown national entity which may or may not be friendly to England’s interests. It’s hard to keep on top of it all. But things are about to get worse for Jim. 

A stabbing on a London bus pitches him into a world where his intelligence service is preparing for war with another universe, and a man has come who may hold the key to unlocking Europe’s most jealously-guarded secret...


A great many maps were made in Europe in the Middle Ages. Foremost among them were the Mappae Mundi: "maps of the world" meant not as navigational aids but to illustrate different principles—the earth's spherical shape, say, or its flora and fauna. Such scrolls represented repositories of medieval knowledge, but even the most definitive had their limits; here be lions and the like was oft-enscribed where the unknown roamed. The Ebstorfer Mappa Mundi, for instance, depicts a dragon to the east of Africa—also asps and basilisks, presumably because it was better to show something than nothing; better, according to that thought process, to invent the positively extraordinary than to admit the littlest deficiency.

In this day and age, we expect rather more from our maps than that. We demand that they are exact, in fact—detailed to the nearest nanometre at least! And perhaps they are. But you know what? I hope to God not. If we're to understand that modern maps are absolutely accurate, then there remains nothing about the world we do not know, and me... I love a bit of a mystery. Which might be why I loved Europe at Midnight. That and a hundred other reasons, even.

The second section of the sequence Dave Hutchinson kicked off with Europe in Autumn—an "awesome concoction of sci-fi and spies" which went on to be nominated for a whole hodgepodge of awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke—Europe at Midnight is damn near the definition of unpredictable. It doesn't pick up where its predecessor left off, with Rudi welcomed into another world; indeed, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the glorified postman who was our last protagonist. Instead, the story, told by two brand new narrators, starts in a strange country—one of the milieu's proliferation of pocket nations, maybe—called the Campus:
The Campus was made up of four hundred Schools, scattered over an area about two hundred miles across and surrounded by mountains. Opinions differed over whether we sat in the bottom of the caldera of an ancient supervolcano, which was a charming thought, or the crater of a colossal prehistoric meteor strike, but to be honest nobody was thinking very hard about those theories at the moment. (p.29)
Why? Because the Campus is under new management following the overthrow of the oppressive Old Board, which left a mountain of mass graves in its wake, and an impoverished population. Unfortunately, well-meaning as it may be, the New Board doesn't have the slightest clue what it's doing, and though he has his own array of failings, no one knows this better than Richard, or rather Rupert of Hentzau—The Prisoner of Zenda, anyone?—"the worst Professor of Intelligence the Campus had ever had." (p.19)

Said sorry state of affairs isn't on him, however:
Part of the problem was that we just couldn't trust the few members of the Intelligence Faculty who were left alive, so I'd had to rebuild it from scratch, mostly with people who immediately changed their minds when they discovered that intelligence work was less like a John Buchan novel and more like being a particularly nosy village postmaster. (p.19)
Poor Rupe clearly has his work cut out for him, but when he discovers the hastily-burned bodies of a host of human beings genetically engineered to have working wings and whatnot, he puts his other assorted responsibilities on pause to look into a sickening conspiracy which not a few folks from Science City are complicit in. Little does Rupe realise that his investigation will culminate in a catastrophe that could collapse the entire Campus...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Book Review | The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

A master storyteller at his best—the O. Henry Prize winner Stephen King delivers a generous collection of stories, several of them brand-new, featuring revelatory autobiographical comments on when, why, and how he came to write (or rewrite) each story.

Since his first collection, Nightshift, published thirty-five years ago, Stephen King has dazzled readers with his genius as a writer of short fiction. In this new collection he assembles, for the first time, recent stories that have never been published in a book. He introduces each with a passage about its origins or his motivations for writing it.

There are thrilling connections between stories; themes of morality, the afterlife, guilt, what we would do differently if we could see into the future or correct the mistakes of the past. 'Afterlife' is about a man who died of colon cancer and keeps reliving the same life, repeating his mistakes over and over again. Several stories feature characters at the end of life, revisiting their crimes and misdemeanours. Other stories address what happens when someone discovers that he has supernatural powers—the columnist who kills people by writing their obituaries in 'Obits'; the old judge in 'The Dune' who, as a boy, canoed to a deserted island and saw names written in the sand, the names of people who then died in freak accidents. In 'Morality,' King looks at how a marriage and two lives fall apart after the wife and husband enter into what seems, at first, a devil’s pact they can win.

Magnificent, eerie, utterly compelling, these stories comprise one of King’s finest gifts to his constant reader. "I made them especially for you," says King. "Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth."


"I never feel the limitations of my talent so keenly as I do when writing short fiction," confesses Stephen King in the introduction to The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: an unusually introspective yet no less effective collection of eighteen variously terrifying tales, plus a few pieces of poetry, from the affable author of last year's similarly reflective Revival.

This is far from the first time King has discussed his "struggle to bridge the gap between a great idea and the realisation of that idea's potential," and although, as readers, we only have the end product to parse, the ideas the Edgar Award winner explores here—and the characters, and the narratives—are not at all inadequate. If anything, in dispensing with the hallmarks of Halloweeny horror to which his bibliography is so bound in order to investigate a goody bag of markedly more grounded goings-on, the stories brought together in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams number among King's most thoughtful and evocative.

Which isn't to say they ain't scary. They absolutely are! 'Premium Harmony,' 'Batman and Robin Have an Altercation' and 'Herman Wouk is Still Alive,' for instance, are still seething somewhere under this critic's skin, but said tales are scary in a more mundane way than you might imagine. Respectively, they address the mindless last fight between a man and his wife, the hellish senselessness of senility and suicide as a means of finally achieving freedom.

If the components of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams have a common denominator, and I dare say they do, it's death... but death by misadventure, or as a direct result of dubious decisions, or as something that simply comes, like the setting of the sun, as opposed to death by killer car, or wicked witch, or eldritch mist. According to Dave Calhoun, the elderly subject of 'Mr Yummy,' a bittersweet story set in an Assisted Living facility, "death personified isn't a skeleton riding on a pale horse with a scythe over his shoulder, but a hot dancehall kid with glitter on his cheeks." (p.350)

Death is depicted in countless other, equally ordinary ways over the course of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: as a name sketched in the sand in 'The Dune,' an unpleasant smell in 'Under the Weather' and an increasingly meek mutt in 'Summer Thunder.' King hasn't suddenly come over all subtle, but this collection clearly chronicles a gentler, more contemplative author than the purveyor of penny dreadfuls whose part he has played with such panache in the past.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Book Review | Slade House by David Mitchell

Turn down Slade Alley—narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you're looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn't quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won't want to leave. Later, you'll find that you can't.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe'en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a 'guest' is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose?

The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs...


Though there have ever been elements of the speculative in David Mitchell's fiction, his Man Booker Prize longlisted-last, released in 2014, was the first to fully embrace the form. Section by section, The Bone Clocks revealed itself to be "a soaring supernatural sextet" somewhat taken with time travel and very interested indeed in immortality. Unfortunately, the protracted finale of Mitchell's sixth made a middling meal of the same fantastical flourishes that had been so appealing when presented with more measure—an oversight I'm pleased to say he sets right in his laconic new novel.

Comprised of a collection of interlinked short stories, Slade House shares a world with The Bone Clocks—such that the Shaded Way has a pivotal role to play and Spot the Horologist is the game of the day—but where said setting was once an expansive canvas spattered with the stuff of science fiction, in this book it becomes the close-cropped backdrop of a hypnotic history of haunting.

For all that it has in common with The Bone ClocksSlade House's characters and narrative notions are its own—excepting, perhaps, the presence of little Nathan Bishop, the central character of the first section of this text: an extended version of the same short Mitchell shared by way of the "diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjacket" of Twitter in the lead up to the publication of its predecessor. 

Reiterated, 'The Right Sort' does not stop with Nathan lost in the gorgeous grounds of Slade House, which, like the text itself, are basically "a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever." (p.119) Instead, he ends up in the Victorian property proper, where the owners, Norah and Jonah, proceed to essentially sup his soul.

"It's not as if Norah and Jonah go 'Wooooooh' or drip ectoplasm or write scary messages in mirrors," (p.63) but they are, as it happens, as good as ghosts—or rather as bad.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Book Review | The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman

A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett is delivered to her new school: Drearcliff Grange in Somerset. 

Although it looks like a regular boarding school, Amy learns that Drearcliff girls are special: the daughters of criminal masterminds, outlaw scientists and master magicians. Several of the pupils also have special gifts like Amy’s, and when one of the girls in her dormitory is abducted by a mysterious group in black hoods, Amy forms a secret, superpowered society called the Moth Club to rescue their friend. They soon discover that the Hooded Conspiracy runs through the School, and it's up to the Moth Club to get to the heart of it.


It's a credit to Kim Newman that he only rarely writes the novels you think he will. Just look at his last book: An English Ghost Story indubitably did what its title described, but it was—weirdly, wonderfully—as comical as it was creepy, and as interested in depicting the dysfunctional family it followed as it was the spectral presence that pushed them to the inevitable precipice.

Newman's newest—which purports to be the start of a series by Louise Magellan Teazle, the previous occupant of the haunted house at the heart of the aforementioned narrative—is not dissimilar in its evisceration of expectations. The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School appears to be one thing, namely a classical magical academy narrative along the lines of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. And it is! And it isn't.

"A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett was delivered to her new school. Like a parcel," (p.13) with exactly as much love and care as that imagery entails. Mother, you see, is not best pleased that her daughter has developed such particular Abilities:
In the months since she first came unstuck from the ground, Amy had been subjected to cold baths, weighted pinafores, long walks, hobbling boots and a buzzing, tickling electric belt. Leeches and exorcism were on the cards. Mother's whole idea in sending Amy to Drearcliff was to clamp down on floating. (p.22)
As it happens, however, Amy's new school—"a rambling, gloomy, ill-repaired estate on top of a cliff" (p.13)—is not at all what Mother had imagined. Instead, it's a place where unseemly tendencies are accepted. Encouraged, even, since Headmistress considers it Drearcliff's responsibility to help Amy and the other Unusuals she'll meet in the year Newman's novel narrates to find Applications for their array of Abilities.

Needless to say, not all of the students studying at Drearcliff are as welcoming as Dr. Swan...