Monday 22 August 2011

Book Review | Regicide by Nicholas Royle

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Carl meets Annie Risk and falls for her.

Hurt by a recent relationship, she resists becoming involved. A chance find offers distraction: Carl stumbles across part of a map to an unknown town. He becomes convinced it represents the city of his dreams, where ice skaters turn quintuple loops and trumpeters hit impossibly high notes.... where Annie Risk will agree to see him again.

But if he ever finds himself in the streets on his map, will they turn out to be the land of his dreams or the world of his worst nightmares?

British Fantasy Award winner Nicholas Royle has written a powerful story set in a nightmarish otherworld of fathers and sons, hopes and dreams, love and death. 


Regicide is either a long novella or a short novel written twenty years ago by the winner of not one but two World Fantasy Awards. Odd, then, that we're only seeing it now.

I should think Nicholas Royle needs no introduction, but indulge me a moment, for he is a man of many and various talents -- few of which I knew about myself before researching him for the nefarious purposes of this review. In no particular order, then, Royle is: a literary critic for The Independent, the editor of at least a dozen anthologies, and a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is too the mind behind the small press publisher Nightjar (christened thus in honour of the corpse fowl), and the author, finally, of more than one hundred short stories and some six - I think - full-fledged novels.

Royle seems, in short, a one-man powerhouse of creative energy, and so, knowing only some of his untold achievements, I came to Regicide with certain expectations. Had I come with none... well, who can say what would have happened? I imagine I may have been staggered rather than half-fulfilled, as I am. 

Regicide is a short, sharp shock of a tale about a man who loves maps. A man who loves music too, so for the love of it, and to make ends meet during the lean years of his life, Carl runs a record shop in London, buying and selling vinyl as time ticks ever on. That he has recently begun a sideline in selling books as well is pretty much the most remarkable thing that's happened to Carl in recent memory.

Which isn't to say Carl is at all unhappy. He's got his health, a few good friends, a job he enjoys, and hobbies enough to obscure what occasional absences there are in his life. As he muses, "The shop was doing OK. Surviving. It was like my life at the time. Everything was just sort of going along. Nothing major, good or bad. I felt like an engine that was idling, just waiting for someone or something to kick me into gear." (p.23)

Annie Risk is that someone; a crumpled fragment of a map is that something. Annie he meets and promptly falls for while out on the town with his pal Jaz, and though she rebuffs Carl's initial advances, our man - sensing the first threads of a connection between them - is undeterred. The map, meanwhile, "frayed at the edges and scored with deep folds" (p.34) - a black and white guide to a strange city that does not seem to exist, strictly speaking, except perhaps on this stray page - the map comes later.

You will not, I assure you, miss its advent.

Carl is a terrific character, of a sort not often seen in literature, whether speculative or otherwise: a man - not a boy - mostly contented with his lot in life, though it is admittedly little. He seems an affable, unassuming city mouse, immediately endearing to the reader; unless nice guys offend you somehow, you will find rooting for Carl from the get-go a natural act. You want this fellow to live happily ever after, perhaps even with Annie, though the odds soon seem stacked against him, and them.

As to those odds... well, that's where the map comes in. Before long, Carl is drawn into a city the very existence of which he had begun to question, where he finds, to his horror and ours, a totalitarian state single-mindedly set on uprooting all the rebels in any sense responsible for the killing of the King. Who this King is, exactly, and how Carl could possibly have killed him, is the central mystery of Regicide

Though it wouldn't do to forget the hellhounds...

For such a short novel, Regicide has a great many things going for it. There's Carl of course, but also the near-nostalgic trimmings of the early 90s: count cassette tapes, payphones, and of course, everyone smokes. Taken together with the imagery Royle summons up, of impossible ice skaters and man's-best-friend-turned-our-worst-enemy, Regicide comes across an effortlessly atmospheric piece; a sort of morbid, middle-aged Coraline with echoes of 1984, or a bastard Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but as Carl falls further and further still down the rabbit hole, and reality mutates awfully around him, Royle's novel seems at odds with itself. In particular some truly depraved events in the last act sit uneasily with the gentleness of the narrative beforehand, and though there's something to be said for injecting abject horror into everyday events, I do not know that Regicide quite pulls it off. The city - and much of what happens within its intolerable borders - feels a bit of cheat; a dark turn unearned, and moreover undeserved... phantasmagorical horror for its own sake when a very real emotional resonance rings out in the middle distance.

Nonetheless, Regicide is much more than a mere curiosity. If at times it is inexpert - and it is, at times - take heart in the fact that Royle on an off-day is more a master than many of the authors that stand as champions of the genre. A kingkiller chronicle of a whole other order than the one on the tip of your tongue, Regicide may be but a minor work from a major talent, yet it is easy, all the same, to recommend.


by Nicholas Royle

UK and US Publication: August 2011, Solaris

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