‘The Supernatural Enhancements’ by Edgar Cantero

CB-DR-Jul-The-Supernatural-EnhancementsI knew absolutely nothing about The Supernatural Enhancements before it dropped through my letterbox but I was immediately taken with its premise. Unsolicited books rarely work their way to the top of my embarrassingly large to-be-read pile, but Edgar Cantero’s novel was intriguing enough warrant a climb to the summit. I’m so glad I did. This genuinely scary, offbeat mystery is a contender for my book of 2015.

The novel opens with ‘A’ (that’s a much as we ever find out of his name) arriving in small town America to accept his inheritance; a mansion and almost unlimited funds. Axton House is a large country pile recently vacated by a distant cousin. The sting in the tail? Cousin Ambrose died “jumping out of his bedroom window” (“forgetting to open it first”) as did Ambrose’s father before him. Accompanying ‘A’ is Niamh, a young mysterious teenager from Ireland with whom ‘A’ has a complicated and somewhat dubious relationship.

The set up is a classic Scooby Doo haunted mansion. Mysterious noises, strange bumps, shorting light bulbs. There’s a botched break-in with nothing apparently stolen. And where did the butler go?

The story is told through a variety of different media – Letters, diaries and transcripts of audio and video recordings. There are excerpts from textbooks and newspaper clippings, also pages of old code books. The Supernatural Enhancements is a classic horror-noir investigation, all done with a knowing smile. Some might find the arch tone irritating but I enjoyed it.

An untimely thunder comes rumbling along – one that might have fit better at some other key point in the dialogue.”

The setting and incidental characters reminded me of Twin Peaks. The book style and subject matter is reminiscent of House of Leaves. At the risk of obviating all my reviewing credentials, I didn’t really like House of Leaves. I think possibly I didn’t get it. The Supernatural Enhancements was what I hoped Danielewski’s much fêted brick of a novel would be. It mixes differing media to construct a beguiling and exciting tale. I also found it scary. I don’t very often become nervous when reading, but Cantero genuinely had me holding my breath as I read on, tiptoeing quietly down Axton House’s darkened halls.

The plot is a fascinating construction that led me to unexpected places. The tone and the ideas in the book are fresh and interesting. I’m not sure it will suit everybody’s tastes, but in a year where I have struggled to enjoy many books, The Supernatural Enhancements stands out as unlooked for and unexpected gem.

Many Thanks to the team at Del Rey UK for sending me a copy of the book. 

 

The Versions of Us – The new wave of the parallel universe

slidingdoors1This piece first appeared on GeekDad on 16/8/2015 

Parallel universes have long been a mainstay of science fiction. They are an attractive proposition, allowing the exploration of themes and ideas in familiar surroundings, whilst breaking free from the rigidity of the story being set at home. Throw in some time-travel and a bit of alternate history and you have pretty much covered two-thirds of works in the SF genre. (I pluck that figure out of the air; in your universe it may be different).

Worlds with wormholes, where Hitler won, and quantum leaps are abundant across the genre, but recently I’ve noticed the parallel universe has started to make an appearance in more mainstream, literary forms. Sliding Doors’ novels have started to turn up in the front windows of bookshops and on broadsheet bestseller lists. It seems that more traditional authors have suddenly caught up with the storytelling potential of the parallel universe.

I’ve read six sliding doors novels recently, all appearing in differing places along the speculative spectrum.

The least science fictional of the my choices is The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. The story here forks from a chance meeting between two Oxford students on a dark night in 1938. The narrative splits into three prongs. One where the couple date and get married, one where they split up and another where the initial meeting never happens.

After the initial split, the three narratives don’t really interact with one another. There’s no crossing of the time-streams. What Barnett does though is show how life can take many paths and how all be filled with difficult trials and moments of joy. She cleverly shows how contentment in one aspect in your life can cause you to drop the ball in another and how adversity can spur on endeavor. The novel’s cleverest trick is to build up a three-dimensional picture of its characters. In a conventional narrative we only see characters from one perspective. Here Barnett uses each story like a camera lens aimed at different angles. We get to see how characters might respond to the same situation under different pressures, giving us a more rounded view. The Versions of Us is a story about life, how to live it and how not to regret the bits that you didn’t.

Similar, and my favorite of the novels mentioned here is Jo Walton’s My Real ChildrenWalton gives us two narratives that alternate with each chapter of the book, starting from a marriage proposal and the question, “Now or never?” Her Real Children is more overtly science fiction than The Versions of Us, with two parallel universes that differ subtly from our own. I particularly enjoyed the way Walton handled her alternate histories. They are subtle enough to make you almost miss them, then have to back up a sentence or two to fully take in what just happened. Much like The Versions of Us, this novel shows there is more than one path to happiness. It’s a beautiful meditation on the wonders of family life and a gentle reminder that now matter how progressive each generation thinks it is, their children will always be able to chuck them the occasional curve ball.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is a sprawling novel, that is not so much about parallel universes but stacking ones. Ursula’s life keeps repeating. After she dies, on the next repeat, she is able to avoid it, and continue on, having had a narrow escape. Her lives branch out from dying immediately after being born, into numerous different stories; some happy, some sad, some mundane, and some momentous.

Much of the story occurs during World War II, both in England and Germany. Atkinson paints a vivid portrait of wartime on both sides of the divide. There is a clever feathering of Ursula’s lives throughout, with central characters in some strands turning up as passers-by in others. Atkinson is one of my favorite writers. Her writing style is second to none and her powers of observation are acute and accurate. Life After Life is a novel about potential. If it has a message, it’s that we only have one life and we should try to make the most of it.

slidingdoors2The science fiction elements of Life after Life are small, but Claire North’s, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is out and out SF. It’s the first of these books mentioned to have been published by an SFF imprint (Orbit). After death, Harry August returns to the point of his birth still able to remember everything that has gone before. For each of his incarnations, he returns to the start with the sum total of the knowledge he’s acquired. He is living a Groundhog Life.

It turns out there are a number of these so-called “kalachakrans,” each looking out for one another as part of a parallel universe-spanning secret society. When Harry receives a message handed down from the future that the world is soon to end, he endeavors to find out what’s going on and save not just his current universe, but countless others. Featuring the Cold War, time travel, and quantum physics, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an intricate construction and makes for an invigorating read.

If North’s novel is more overtly SF than my other choices, David Wingrove’s Empire of Time by comparison is a DeLorean on top of a police box, bolted onto a Star Destroyer. This book is as SF as they come. Time travel has been made possible but has led to an eternal conflict between Germany and Russia. Set (mostly) in medieval Europe, World War Two, and the far future, Empire of Time is a bamboozling tale of time-altering plots and counter-plots, with people popping up to mess things up when you least expect them. It’s an absolute riot. If its SF credentials were in any doubt, Empire of Time is the first book of a trilogy.

My final pick for parallel universes is a wonderful multi-threaded novel about science fiction writing and the creation of fictional parallel universes. The central conceit of Jake Arnott’s The House of Rumour is that science fiction writers of the 1940s were tasked with helping out intelligence agencies during World War II. They were asked to propagate rumours in their stories of technological innovations that may or may not have been true.

The House of Rumour flits about time periods like an attention-deficient butterfly, rarely settling anywhere for long. Arnott blends fact, fiction, and facts about fiction in wonderfully inventive manner. His meandering plot and peculiar structure (around a tarot deck) won’t suit all tastes, but the book was unlike anything I’d read before. Arnott is perhaps more famous for writing sparse 1960s gangster novels, and House of Rumour marked a massive departure for him. It is definitely his finest moment. A brilliantly constructed, fiercely intelligent novel, soaked in the golden age of science fiction, with nested parallel universes. What’s not to like?

I enjoyed all these parallel universe novels immensely. “What if?” is an idea that continues to inspire a wide variety of writers into producing some wonderful fiction. I’m sure there are many more universes to be explored. Has anybody else read any great parallel universe stories recently? What are the classics of the genre that should not be missed? Please add your suggestions in the comments.

I received a copies of The Version of Us, Life After Life, My Real Children, and The Empire of Time for review. 

The Book of Slaves – ‘The Hunter’s Kind’ by Rebecca Levene

1603_HuntersKind_PPCRebecca Levene’s The Hunter’s Kind was my most hotly anticipated book of 2015. It’s the direct sequel to 2014’s excellent Smiler’s Fair and the second book in The Hollow Gods series. If you haven’t read Smiler’s Fair you should stop reading this review now.

The problem with hotly anticipated titles is that sometimes there is tendency to over-inflate in your mind just how good they are going to be. It doesn’t help that my memory is not what it used to be. I remembered that the end of Smiler’s Fair is brilliant, and that it has an amazing cliff-hanger leaving me desperate to read more, but one year on, could I remember what that cliff-hanger was? I could not.

The start of The Hunter’s Kind gave no clues either. There appears to be nothing cliff-hanger resolving in the opening hundred pages, and I must confess, I struggled a little to remember what I’d got so excited about.  The summer of 2015 has been tumultuous here in the house of Brooks, and my reading has been fragmented and distracted. I’ve found it very hard to force my way into anything. And so it was with The Hunter’s Kind. 

I felt like I was going through the motions. I couldn’t get on with the characters like I had in Smiler’s Fair, yet they were the same characters. What was going on? It was only on finishing I was able to work it out. Levene has pulled the street-artist trick of drawing a picture that is apparently formless right up until the final few touches are made, at which point all is revealed. The audience can only stand back and say, “Woah! That’s awesome.” Because it is. The novel slow burns to a white hot conclusion.

The Hollow Gods, so faris a genesis story; that of Krish as he wrestles with taking on the mantle of the Moon God, Yron. In truth it’s a rebirth rather than a genesis. Yron was killed a thousand years earlier, by Sun God Mizhara, who, horrified by the destruction she wrought in defeating her brother, subsequently ceased to exist. She left behind her followers, and he his. We now watch as the two sides react to Yron’s return. It’s the same with the novel’s other characters. Unlike most fantasy novels, where the central players are the agents of change, In The Hunter’s Kind we have a rapidly changing world with the characters reacting to those changes.

The book contains a sizeable ensemble cast and the narrative jumps between points of view. No one thread picks up a head of steam until towards the novel’s end when all sorts of interesting things start happening. There are a number of political plotlines, which didn’t engage me quite so much. I had started to question whether they could have been cut from the book entirely, until the very end, when it becomes apparent that all that has gone before has bearing on the characters’ actions as they react to the novel’s epic final scenes.

Once again Levene has created a story that takes place in a fully credible world, a feat rare for fantasy novels. Apart from the obvious differences in technology and magic, Levene’s world is one in which real humans might live. There are no absolutes, merely points of view. Krish has most of the world trying to kill him, but he is not evil. He’s just a young man trying to understand why most of the world wants to kill him. He’s told that he is a god, but what does that mean?

Krish tries to do good, but nothing works out the way he expects it to. Levene captures brilliantly the downfall of many leaders and statesmen – The law of unintended consequences. That’s how the real world works; try to make one thing better, you often make something else worse. Usually, with hindsight, a something that ought to have been obvious. These sorts of consequences are rare in fantasy fiction though. Most novels are simple cause and effect; destroy the ring, save the world. Levene has created something more subtle, complex and, above all, human.

I didn’t quite enjoy The Hunter’s Kind as much as Smiler’s Fair, but I read the closing chapters of both with the same sense of awe. Levene is creating something I’ve not really encountered in fantasy fiction before, a story that is unfolding to create a credible history. The novel works on both the personal level of the characters but also as the unfolding of myth. This volume hasn’t left me hanging quite like the end of book 1, but there are revelations aplenty before the end. Answers are given, but just as many questions are posed. I’m fascinated to find out how the ages-old battle between Yron and Mizhara will unfold, and more, how it’s going to affect the series’ central players. The Hollow Gods is settling down into something very special, and once again I am left hankering for more.

Many Thanks to Anne and the team at Hodderscape for sending me a copy of this book.    

Guest Post: Car-Jacked by Ali Sparkes

carjackedFor one paragraph, I hand over to my son, aged 9, who wanted me to help him tell everybody how good Car-Jacked is. 

Jack Mattingly is 12. He is a genius. He has an IQ of 170. He speaks fluent Mandarin and Latin. When the car is hi-jacked he is as clueless as the rest of of us. But the car-jacker does not know he is inside and it can’t be long before he finds out and then anything could happen. As Jack travels to London he is scared and thrilled and this is surely the most exiting thing in his life. While he is away he has sugar, the thing his mum despises him having. His parents miss him so much that when they see him they will be ecstatic. The book was good because it was exiting all the way through. Each page has something exciting on it.

This book is so good, I made my dad read it.

He’s right he did. And he’s right this is a great book. Particularly, one imagines, if you’re aged 9-14. I suspect my son is a little young to have picked up everything in the book, but he certainly devoured it in record time. Car-Jacked is a fast-paced children’s thriller, that entertains from start to finish. The book’s two central characters, genius Jack and his unwitting carjacker are brilliantly drawn. They take centre stage as an intriguing mystery unfolds. Grown-ups might be forced to swallow their disbelief a few too many times, but I think the twists and turns are pitched perfectly for the target audience.

Car-Jacked poses some interesting questions about right and wrong, whilst also questioning whether parents are always right. From first page until last there is something interesting. I love that my son decided to report that Jack has sugar during his escapade, and important part of the book, but perhaps not the most dramatic!  Jack’s genius status allows him the good fortune to be in possession of some fascinating information of interest to kids of all ages. This book came highly recommend by children’s book reviewer Amanda Craig. She rarely puts a foot wrong, and Car-Jacked is another excellent novel to add to an ever-growing list of wonderful children’s fiction.

 

Klingons on the Starboard Bow… 

armadacover…or something.

Ernest Cline’s Armada is a preposterous, porously plotted, pop-culture checking, piece of protracted nonsense. It’s also good fun in a silly sort of way. I think I last felt like this when reading The Da Vinci Code

I enjoyed Ready Player One, though I found it a bit repetitive, because it simultaneously managed to be fresh and nostalgic. RP1‘s fresh originality would be difficult to mange second time, and whilst Cline almost pulls it off, ultimately he falls short, often mistaking throwing in a quote from a film with character development.

The biggest difference between the two novels is the depth of the geekiness. In RP1 it feels embedded into the fabric of the story (mostly because it is; the book is about hidden secrets in computer games, placed there by a gaming geek), but in Armada they feel sprayed on. Earth is trundling along as normal, when suddenly alien spacecraft appear. Alien spacecraft from a fictional computer game. That in a nutshell might be the problem. The main point of reference is made up and all the geekyness is bolted on to it.

The story itself  is a sort of Ender’s Game, Last Starfighter mash-up. It’s entertaining enough but not very solid. It’s not helped by the fact that similar themes are addressed, with a whole lot more meaning added, in TL Costa’s excellent Playing Tyler. If you only read one of these novels make sure it’s Playing Tyler.

It’s difficult to say much more without giving lots away. Perhaps everything is deliberately kept light, and veneer thin, in keeping with the source material; Space Invaders doesn’t have much of a back-story. It doesn’t help that Cline spends a lot of time explaining how the premises behind computer games rarely make sense. As his book is predicated on a computer game that is meant to be real, the reader spends a lot of time thinking ‘but this doesn’t make sense’, for all the reasons the author lined up.

Ultimately it does just about make sense, but it isn’t terribly convincing. One can’t really help shake the feeling the entire story is a MacGuffin. The story is pacey, the reference spotting good fun, but Armada is destined to be little more than geeky beach read, forgotten before the flight home.

Tracks of Our Lives – ‘The Versions of Us’ By Laura Barnett

VersionsParallel universes are a mainstay of science fiction, but increasingly they seems to be creeping into the mainstream. Jo Walton, Claire North and Kate Atkinson have all produced phenomenal Sliding Doors novels that have (to a greater or lesser) degree have wormed their way into the nation’s consciousnesses. The latest arrival in the literary parallel universe corner is The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. This has been pushed heavily, being a Waterstones book of the month and has been riding high in the charts.

The Versions of Us is a reality three-way that has very little science and large amounts of human interaction. At first I struggled. I was expecting cleverly dovetailed realities or a little science fictional trickery a la Walton or Atkinson, but there is nothing at all.  The book is pretty much three separate stories with chapters that interleave. The action branches out from a single incident, and we watch as three differing realities unfold.

As this is a story about ‘true-love’, and in two of the realities this love is thwarted, once by chance and the other by painful decision, I found myself settling on one particular narrative as the one I was rooting for. Barnett however is cleverer than that. Borrowing the idea that the “course of true love never did run smooth”, she demonstrates how things might go wrong even when you’ve found the person of your dreams, and how adversity might bring out the best in some, whilst overwhelming others.

Whilst there is little interaction between the narrative strands, as the novel progresses, we build up a deeper picture of its characters. In a conventional novel we tend to only see the players from one angle. We follow them through one story. Here Barnett builds a three dimensional picture by showing how her creations might react to similar situations in differing circumstances. As the novel builds to its conclusion it becomes increasingly satisfying. Upon finishing I was bereft that there as no more to read.

This book is perhaps not good fare for worriers or those not satisfied with their lot. It’s hard not to read The Versions of Us and wonder if it may have been possible to end up somewhere else. You may find yourself pondering missed opportunities and unexpected forks in the road. The flip side to this is that the book can be seen as empowering. You may not be where you want to be, you may have a talent that is being wasted, but it’s still with you. It’s never too late to apply yourself and change things around.

Whilst this is essentially a romantic novel, Barnett has a pragmatic view towards romance. This is not a tale of lovers destined to be together at all costs. It shows that there are many paths to happiness and that human beings desire companionship above all else. Wherever you are, there’s almost certainly somebody nearby waiting for you.

Whilst there was little of the literary trickery I was expecting, The Versions of Us is no less an accomplishment than the other novels I’ve mentioned here. It’s layering and juxtaposition of real-lives builds into a solid rendering of love, loss, happiness and the ability of the human spirit to keep moving forward. It’s a novel that contrives to be more than the sum of its parts. Each of the three stories is interesting enough, but in weaving them together Barnett has created something special and well worth reading.

Many Thanks to Rebecca at Weidenfeld and Nicolson for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

Dark Matters ‘Way Down Dark’ by James Smythe

waydown

This review appeared as part of a larger piece published on Geekdad on 12.7.2015

“There’s One Truth on Australia. You Fight or You Die”

If Katniss Everdeen somehow wandered into Hugh Howey’s Wool, the result might be something like Way Down Dark. The Australia is a ship, meandering through space in search of a home. On the brink of destruction, Earth sent out huge survival spaceships. The last hope of mankind, searching for new homes. The Australia is still looking. Like most sealed systems that contain humans, things have gone badly wrong. Life support is barely functioning, food is scarce, and Australia‘s inhabitants have started cannibalizing their own ship. Stairwells have been ripped out and their precious metal used for defenses or weapons.

Two things the Australia has in abundance are anger and fear. The ship has divided into factions. Some with agendas, some simply trying to eke out an existence until they can finally find a planet to call home. All fear the “Lows,” the gang that holds the bottom sections of the ship, an ever-expanding gang that threatens to plunge the Australia into anarchy.

Way Down Dark is a brutal book. It opens with lead character Chan having to kill her mother. If there is a line where Young Adult fiction becomes merely fiction, this book sits directly on it. It is simply an excellent story with a teenage protagonist.

The Australia is two steps away from anarchy. In this kill-or-be-killed world, superstition and reputation are everything. In order to build hers, Chan must build her own legend–be prepared to carry out the unthinkable. On her own, with few friends, she must do whatever she can to survive. But what good is living if you do nothing with your life? In a riff on the “with great power comes great responsibility” motif, Chan feels obliged to use her relative freedom to try to emancipate other denizens of Australia. She has no real power, but, on Australia, the ability to self-govern is power enough. Almost single-handedly she tries to hold back the tide of Lows. It leads her all over the ship, hunting the missing and rescuing the stolen. She’s a white cowboy wandering the confines of a tin can steeped in darkness.

This being a James Smythe novel, all is not what it seems. The story has unexpected depths. The reader anticipates there’s something more, but the characters have no idea. With each new piece of information she acquires, Chan has to assimilate it into her world view. Chan’s is a dark transition from adolescent to adult, but it mirrors the real world as she gradually learns things she took for granted aren’t quite as simple as she had imagined. Chan’s nemesis throughout the novel is her dark inversion, Rex. Rex too has earned the right to self-govern, but her grip on life is brutal and sadistic. With it she drags the Lows to her bidding. It’s not difficult to imagine that Chan could easily be Rex.

Like most Smythe novels, the book is heavily steeped in faith. Not in a supreme being, although religious faith does feature, but the simple human faith that things will get better. The ship will arrive. The Lows will be stopped. There will be a reprieve from the horror of life on board Australia. Once again, Smythe probes the limits and questions the wisdom of such faith.

Way Down Dark is the opening book in a trilogy and it is left wide open after several twisting turns. This is not for the faint of heart. The squalor and brutality of life on the Australia makes for breathless reading. Characterization is excellent, with several strong females taking center stage. Smythe has created an intriguing sealed dystopia, which will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Like many of these novels, the reader is left wondering why humans can’t just get along and work together to survive. You’d hope the anarchy of the Australia could only be fiction, but it doesn’t take much convincing to see that Smythe has probably called it right.

Smythe has a strong loyal fanbase, of which I am one. I was predisposed to liking this novel, but I think Way Down Dark will bring him to the attention of more readers. Short, punchy, and gripping from first page until last, Way Down Dark makes an excellent entry point into the splendid works of James Smythe.

Over the years I have received review copies of all the books mentioned here. JP Smythe’s Way Down Dark was sent to me by its UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton. James can be found on Twitter as @Jpsmythe and excellent literary-geek fun can be had @hodderscape and also www.hodderscape.co.uk. 

‘The Just City’ by Jo Walton

TheJustCity_coverA new Jo Walton is something to be celebrated. Her last two novels have been very special indeed. Among Others and My Real Children are two of the books I have loved the most since starting this blog.

I had some initial trepidation about Walton’s latest. It’s essentially a thought experiment about Plato, and I don’t know very much about Plato. A bored Apollo and Athena decide to set up a city that is run by the precepts of Plato’s The Republic.  They do so in ancient Greece, inviting several famous philosophers and thinkers from throughout history and even future history (though there a host more who don’t get invited). They are placed on an isolated island, which is significant in a small but entertaining way.

Athena also brings in some robots to help with the menial tasks. Robots. Hmmm, my sense of unease went up another notch. Next they need to populate the island, not just with great brains of ageing thinkers, but also some bright young things that can be brought up in Plato’s enlightened manner. Having done so they unleash their experiment and see how Plato’s Republic might have gone down. Needless to say it turns out to be a total shambles, filled with egos, sexual appetites and slavery. Clearly Plato had never watched When Harry Met Sally.  Thinking about life is not the same as living life.

The society generated is heavily male dominated and Walton picks this apart in the name of womanhood, making many valid points. Despite being poles apart, the female characters here are reminiscent of those in Among Others and My Real Children. There are moments when the book feels like it’s about to burst into life, but much as it pains me to admit it, it never really gets going. Not for me anyway.  The beauty of Others and Children, is that they are other-worldly, yet fresh and real. This feels too much like a contrivance to make a few points.  

This is more a thought experiment than a narrative; a vanity project, even. The central question in the novel turns out to be whether the AI that sits behind the robots means they have Free Will and therefore, whether they are in fact being treated as slaves. There’s some discussion, between the ancient and modern philosophers as to whether slavery is bad (yes it is). This discussion is interesting, as is the wider unposed question as to whether society always relies on indenture in some form to propagate a philosophical, inquiring culture. Unfortunately, the set up with the robots, that allows Walton to hold this discussion, feels very arbitrary.

I suspect that if you know more about history of philosophy than I, particularly about the Greek philosophers and their central tenets you would probably find much greater depths to The Just City. Yet, if compared to the accessibility of Walton’s previous two novels, which can picked up an enjoyed by almost anybody (I know this as I’ve recommended them to all sorts of people with great success), her latest offering would seem to have a narrow scope.

As an avid Jo Walton fan it’s painful to admit that I didn’t particularly enjoy her latest offering. Walton is a great writer but this one for me is little more than Okay. It says in Walton’s author bio that she hopes to write a book a year, so hopefully it won’t be too long before I find another book to fall in love with. A quick bit of searching for an image for this piece revealed that there is already a sequel ‘The Philosopher Kings’ available. Whilst the end of Just City is a little vague, I hadn’t particularly noticed the need for another volume. Indicative perhaps that I wasn’t paying enough attention. 

Many thanks to Grace at Corsair for sending me this book. 

Series Review: Dan and the Dead by Thomas Taylor

 

 

Thomas Taylor - Dan Dead

This review first appeared on GeekDad on 30th June 2015 

Thomas Taylor is possibly one of the most famous author/illustrators you’ve never heard of. In illustrator mode, Taylor gave the world the original cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A book that quite a few people have read. Those of you who follow Mike Carey’s superlative ‘Unwritten’ series will know that its central character is ‘Tommy Taylor.’ I don’t know whether this is a coincidence but considering how Carey’s Potter-channelling graphic novel series drips with literary allusion and reference, I very much doubt it.

But enough of the fan-boy trivia.

I first encountered Taylor’s work in the form of his Young Adult thriller, Haunters. This is a well-executed novel about teenagers who use their dreams to travel through time and space. I very much enjoyed Haunters; it’s a book which showed potential for further instalments and I am rather vexed that a follow-up has yet to appear. At that time, the first of Taylor’s Dan and the Dead series was available but, as it is aimed at the bottom end of my preferred reading age (pre to early teens), I never quite got around to picking it up.

Shard-Ch18

Several years later and having become fond of Taylor’s creativity celebrating Facebook page, I noticed that Dan is now having his third outing. My oldest son is now at the bottom end of the books’ reading age (9), so I dropped Thomas a line and asked nicely whether he’d be prepared to send me a book in exchange for a review. His UK publisher, Bloomsbury was kind enough to send me all three, and so here I am.

“I see dead people.”

As Dan concedes in the opening line of the book, he’s “… like that kid. You know, the one in the film…”

That is the series’ central premise; Dan can see the dead. Restless spirits who have unfinished business. For a small fee Dan acts as a closer, giving peace and rest to troubled ghosts. It’s not a new premise, but it’s an interesting one. With hindsight, it’s easy to say that Dan of the Dead is obviously a first novel. It’s well crafted, readable but it doesn’t particularly stand out from the pack.

Dan is a fairly typical young teen character; a talented outcast. His most common companion, Simon, has been dead for hundreds of years. Together they form a team. A young Sherlock Holmes and late Dr. Watson. The partnership works well, and delivers plenty of light-hearted supernatural sleuthing. The first book focuses around a morally bankrupt gangster and his ring of blackmailed children. It’s set in and around Dan’s school life in London.

Shard-Ch7

The first book may not glow as brightly as later installments but it forms a solid base on which the series is built. The rules and precepts for Dan’s power are established, as is what being a ghost in Dan’s world means. To reveal the finest aspect of the book would be too big a spoiler, but it centers around Dan’s payment for his services. Taylor has set himself up with a powerful device with which he can build a range of stories and character angles.

In the second book of the series, Dan and the Caverns of Bone, Taylor moves up a gear or two. Set in Paris, with much of the action taking below the ground in the city’s catacombs, the book has a more macabre feel to it. Nevertheless the same light tone of the first book pervades, and, if anything, this book would appeal to slightly younger readers. In Caverns of Bone a strong sense of theme starts to develop: standing up for the downtrodden.

To all intents and purposes Dan is a geek. A geek who can see the dead but essentially a boy with his own style and a worldview that differs from the norm. Inevitably he comes under the scrutiny of the school bully. Dan stands up to him, and a less-than-fair teacher, not always successfully, but doggedly. He takes another child under his wing; a paper plane-making math genius.

I like this geeks-together aspect of the books. Since the ghosts in the stories are victims of something, the novels convey a strong sense of the importance of righting injustice. In a world where community seems to be corroding, Dan’s sense of fair play and looking out for the underdog is an important idea. Doubly so, as Dan hardly comes from a position of power himself. There is a strong sense that the individual can make a difference.

The latest installment, Dan and the Shard of Ice, is set almost entirely within in London’s iconic new skyscraper, The Shard. The Shard seems to have captured authors’ and creators’ imaginations; I’ve read some great books set there and then there was the Doctor Whoepisode The Bells of Saint John.

In Shard of Ice, the building is being terrorized by a malevolent poltergeist. In an attempt to find out what is going on, Dan sneaks into the entourage of a famous TV psychic. Again Dan tries to come to the aid of the disadvantaged. The fraudulent “Venn Specter” preys upon the gullible and recently bereaved. In a sub-plot to the novel Dan tries to uncover the TV star’s duplicity and in doing so learns an important lesson about the bulletproof nature of being rich and powerful. The plot here again brings home a message of standing up for what is right, though this time there are less predictable consequences.

Shard-Ch9

Shard of Ice sees a stronger overreaching story arc begin to develop. The first two novels are interesting, but largely stand alone. Shard of Ice suggests there is a bigger picture and a wider supernatural world. This gives the series a greater coherence, making the the third book the most satisfying read of all.

With his Dan and the Dead books, Thomas Taylor has developed a gentle entertaining series, with a strong message. The books are slim, fairly quick reads for 10- to 14-year-olds and are well-presented with lots of illustrations drawn by the author, a few of which are shown here with Taylor’s permission. All three are satisfying reads, each better than the last. With the final installment ending with a number of unanswered questions, I am thoroughly looking forward to reading book 4. And Thomas, whilst you’re there, how about a sequel to Haunters too?!

Many thanks to Thomas and Bloomsbury for sending me copies of the books to review. All artwork Copyright Thomas Taylor 

Burning Bright – The Pyre by David Hair

pyreAbout ten or so years ago I stumbled across Ashok K Banker’s Prince of Ayodhya, the first book of his Ramayana retelling. I found his (originally) six volume series wonderful. I knew very little of the epic on which the series was based, but it had everything a fantasy reader loves. Gods, princes, demons, magic weapons, epic battles and…er…flying monkeys. Paper copies aren’t in great supply these days, after Ashok spat his dummy out over editorial changes made to the UK/US editions, but ebooks appear to be available on Amazon. They are excellent and I whole-heatedly recommend them.

Those six books sparked a love affair with the Ramayana. I have read a couple of different, more traditional translations; there is something so compelling about the story. When I heard about David Hair’s Return of Ravana, Ravana being the ten headed villain at the centre of the Ramayana, my curiosity was piqued.

The action in The Pyre switches between two timelines. One is set in modern times, the other in AD 769. Both narratives take place in the same area of India, Rajasthan. The modern strand opens in the city of Jodhpur and the historical thread centres around nearby Mandore. In 769 Mandore was a thriving city, ruled over by the tyrannical Ravindra-Raj. Ravindra-Raj predicts his own death, and insists that his funeral must take a very particular course. At the heart of his wishes is the rite of sati, in which each of his seven wives will throw themselves on his pyre.

In modern India, three teenagers find themselves drawn together by virtue of sharing disturbing dreams and visions. They are each reincarnations of the players in the events that transpired in ancient Mandore over a thousand years earlier. The three are thrown into a battle that has been fought countless times before. This time, will the outcome be different?

As The Pyre progresses its inspiration from the Ramayana becomes more overt. Initially, it is an intriguing ghost story, spliced with a heroic tale of love and rescue. As the action comes to a head, the Hindu wheel of life starts to turn and the epic battle between Rama and Ravana makes itself felt. David Hair’s writing is sharp; his action sequences exciting. The demonic ghosts are more than a little scary, and the story contains some genuine surprises. Like the Ramyana, The Pyre is a story about love, honour, loyalty and fighting for what you believe. This is the opening salvo in Hair’s Return of Ravana sequence. Whilst satisfying in its own right there a lots of lose threads and many turns of the wheel left before the end of what I hope will be a memorable and enjoyable saga.

The Pyre is an excellent fantasy novel. If you’re familiar with the tales of Rama and Sita, you’ll find much to enjoy, and if not, then David Hair’s introduction to the legends are an excellent place to start.

Many thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of the Pyre. It’s out on June 4th