Plain Great Storytelling – ‘The Obsidian Mirror’ by Catherine Fisher

obsidianCatherine Fisher’s Obsidian Mirror is an old-fashioned storytelling treat. It’s hard to find fault with it. Aimed at a younger teen audience, it contains strong characters and exciting plots with thrills and spills aplenty.

The novel centres around two characters, Jake and Sarah. As the novel opens Jake is a misfit in an elite school in Switzerland. All he wants to do is avenge his father. Jake holds his Godfather and benefactor, Oberon Venn, responsible for his father’s disappearance. Sarah is a traveller from another place, pursued by a shadowy figure and his wolf of ice. Sarah throws herself upon the mercy of Oberon at his residence, Wintercombe Abbey. After Jake turns up, expelled from school and in disgrace, the two are thrown together. They have different motives for solving the same mysteries. At the heart of their quest for answers is the Chronoptikon; the obsidian mirror.

It is soon obvious that nothing is clear cut. Oberon is not the villain that Jake suspects him of being, but he is hiding many secrets and harbouring an obsession that threatens to doom everybody he knows. Oberon’s enigmatic butler brings some comic relief, but there is steel beneath his jovial exterior. Fisher’s villains are menacing. The ruthless Janus has exterminated Sarah’s friends and family and will stop at nothing to kill her too. And there is the scarred man, who is he and what is his connection to the Chronoptikon? The beauty of this novel is that the motives of just about every character are unclear. It is a story is filled with layers of lies and complex truths.

If that wasn’t enough, the novel includes time-travelling scientists, antique journals and magic notebooks. There is even an enchanted wood with an army of fey elves. All this is bound together in an elegant and entertaining plot, that keeps the reader guessing right until the end. Fisher tells her tale in succinct and sparkling prose. There is no padding, just page after page of exceptional storytelling. This is the first book in a proposed series and I am very much looking forward to part two.

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Obsession can be Murder – ‘The Man From Primrose Lane’ by James Renner

primroseIf you like thrillers but generally find them derivative, then James Renner’s debut ‘The Man From Primrose Lane’ might just be the book for you. It’s takes a fresh and original direction for crime fiction, and is based on audacious premise. Unfortunately, to tell you why would give away an important part of the plot, but I will say this book is pure Michael Connelly cut with an eighth of Poul Andersen.

There are flaws, Renner is occasionally over-ambitious, with complexity and misdirection sometimes added for the sake of it. There is also an appearance of a metaphorical cat who threatens to derail the whole novel. This cat is attached to a story arc, that never quite makes sense, making for the least satisfactory thread of the novel. It is easy to overlook this since the rest of the book is so enjoyable.

Not since reading Connelly’s The Poet have I been so hard-wired into the plot of a novel. Investigative Journalist and best seller writer David Neff, is trying to solve the mysterious murder of The Man With a Thousand Mittens. The man, a recluse, was found bound, shot and fingerless, with his severed digits whisked in a nearby blender. As Neff investigates he finds links between this case and child abductions from the past. Then when evidence turns up implicating Neff in his own investigation, things really become interesting.

The plot to this novel is mind-bending. It soon becomes evident something very odd is happening, and discovering what is one of the most exciting literary experiences I’ve had in a while. Not everybody will like it. The novel’s premise is well conceived but preposterous. There are also so many layers and threads to the novel, that a few of them are dropped during the novel’s climax. I didn’t notice at the time of reading, but as I compose this review, a number of unresolved issues occur to me.

I’m more than happy to write off these dropped threads as the result of the gleeful exuberance of a début novelist. Renner has stuffed his first novel with more innovation than some crime writers manage in their entire careers. The Man from Primrose Lane my have its flaws but its still a diamond. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining read that should keep you captivated during the dark winter nights.

Many Thanks to the team at Corsair for providing me with a review copy of this book. 

Bad Moon Rising -‘The Artemis Effect’ by Kasia James

PrintThe Artemis Effect by Kasia James marks a first for Robin’s Books. It’s the first book I’ve read at the direct request of its author. Since starting the blog and joining Twitter, I’ve found my attitude to reviews has changed. It’s great to have increased links with the source of my books, in particular the authors, but it makes being impartial much much harder.

It used to be easy to eviscerate poor prose and dismiss dodgy dialogue. Now, with more of an understanding of the body and soul that goes into a book, I don’t want any book to be bad. If I follow an author on Twitter, and he seems like a thoroughly decent chap, what do I do when I find I don’t like his book? What if I’ve begged a copy from the publisher? Writing a bad review in those circumstances feels like a betrayal.

The possibility of these feelings are somehow worse when it’s a debut novel and I’ve been asked directly by the author to review it. Now a negative review is saying ‘I am good enough to review your book, but it is not good enough for me.’ What a conceited arse that would make me.

Further to that, just knowing this is an independently published novel by a fledgling author makes me look at it in a different light. From the outset I’m expecting it to be poorly edited, so I unconsciously look for every mistake. Yet I know this is a debut, so I want it to succeed. I want to be positive. I am prepared to overlook things I might have jumped on from more established authors, or a book heavily promoted by a publishing giant. I am simultaneously harsher yet lenient. It’s a discomfiting feeling.

I am pleased to report that the Artemis Effect is a pretty fine debut; enjoyable from wherever it had come. Okay, it is preposterous in many ways, but it’s exciting and thoughtful, with a fine cast of characters. The story revolves around a bizarre phenomenon affecting the moon. This in turn plays havoc with life on Earth. Tides go bananas, electromagnetic radiation haywire and communication over any distance becomes almost impossible.

This is not a book for the credulous. The central phenomenon has a 1950s B-movie feel to it and has to be taken with a giant pinch of salt, but James is more interested in the implications of her premise rather than the premise itself. What happens to 21st Century life, if communication becomes impossible?

Computers fail, planes are grounded, commerce grinds to a halt. Suddenly the postal service is all important, but only whilst the petrol lasts. James sets her book in three locations; small-town Australia, the American mid-west and rural Britain. By choosing these locations, she deliberately avoids writing about the disintegration of an urban population, and the likely incipient violence. This is a quiet apocalypse. Obviously there is some looting and rioting, but this is about what might go on beyond that.

On the face of it, the decline of society felt too quiet. Governments do little. There are no troops on the streets, no national campaigns to keep society together, but on reflection perhaps this is appropriate. Information dissemination, so vital and taken for granted, would suddenly become impossible. How would governments keep control? This started me wondering, how do they do it now? I’m not sure they do. It’s the continued supply of food and money to buy it, that keeps society from toppling. We really are three square meals from anarchy.

The device of using three far-flung locations works well. It affords the opportunity to show the differences in her locations but also the commonality of humanity across the globe (though all the characters are from broadly the same walk of life ). There are several delicious links between the three settings, that only the reader is aware of, which helps bind things together.

Another strong link (due to one of the plot threads) is child birth. All locations have at least one delivery. With medical intervention reduced to a minimum, childbirth is reduced to the primal, dangerous process it had been for thousands of years before the advent of modern medicines. It makes you realise how ill-suited to the task we are! It’s a wonder humanity ever arrived at this point of civilisation at all.

There are problems with the book beyond the plausibility of the plot. The pacing is all over the place. After a strong start the pace slackens, so much so I thought I was reading the first book in a series. Then the final fifty pages wraps everything up at a bewildering pace, leaving me out breath and a little short changed.

A book like the Artemis Effect relies on its readability. Each night I found I had to force myself to stop reading. Since I’ve been averaging 5 hours sleep a night, I can’t really think of a stronger way to recommend this book. Kasia James’s prose is easy to read, and she treats her readers to plenty of mysteries that draw them through chapter after chapter.

Though they are nothing alike in content, The Artemis Effect reminded me of another independently published novel, ‘The Plantation’ by Chris Kuzneski. Kuzneski has since been picked up by a major publisher and has a number of bestselling thrillers to his name. James’s debut has fewer deficiencies than Kuzneski’s, and on the strength of The Artemis Effect she too deserves a successful writing career.

Gunfire in the sky – ‘Genus’ by Jonathan Trigell

genus

Dystopian fiction is all the rage right now, which is fine by me because I like reading it. Most new titles are aimed at the YA audience. They tend to be punchy, fast-paced and chronically over-simplified. They’re exciting to read, but entire continents subjugated by totalitarian regimes, headed by a crazed megalomaniacs tend to stretch plausibility to its limits.

Jonathan Trigell’s speculative fiction offering aimed at adults is Genus, a book that oozes authenticity and is all too plausible. Like most good dystopian novels Trigell alters one facet of society and analyses how that change affects the world. In this case, gene manipulation. Designer babies are the norm. The so-called Unimproved are the offspring of parents who could not afford, or chose not to have, designer babies. They have become an unwanted underclass.

Genus is set in near-future London. Most of the action takes place inside ‘The Kross’, a ghetto that was once Kings Cross. It follows a variety of undesirables, but focuses mainly on Holman a genetically challenged artist; a future incarnation of Toulouse Lautrec. His life is predominantly miserable, with flares of beauty. The story opens with Holman having discovered a body; random event, gang killing or serial killer? The answer to this question forms the spine of the novel.

It’s hard to describe just how good this novel is. It deserves to go down as one of the greats of the genre. By using a science fiction premise Trigell poses awkward questions about present day society, most notably the increasingly vilified underclass of homeless and jobless. Coalition Britain’s welfare reforms feel barely a step removed from the right-wing policies of the establishment described in Trigelll’s novel. His descriptions of attitudes of the press towards the Unimproved could have been clipped from a present day edition of the Daily Mail.

But this novel is more than just a left of centre jibe at corporate greed and welfare-cuts. Trigell examines the allure of genetic modification, and also its pitfalls. The ramifications for religion are manifold, but there are also many considerations on a personal level. With your genetic code laid bare, what does it mean for free-will? What does it mean to know that you are fundamentally inferior to others around you?

Trigell’s London is brilliantly realised. It’s dirty streets and ugly inhabitants are vivid and believable. The political system is all too real, and slots seamlessly into a wider geopolitical framework. It’s a masterclass in world building; layer upon layer of description and detail build up a stunning picture. Trigell is an expert at showing rather than telling.

What really makes this novel is first class prose. Not a single word is wasted. Each sentence feels like it was honed lovingly to resonate perfectly with the reader. If writing is a craft Trigell is a master wordsmith. I could pick out sentence after sentence to illustrate my point. I often fold the corners of pages (heinous, I know) with quotes I might want to use in reviews. For Genus there were just too many. I loved Genus. It’s a dark and depressing, but a fantastic story that is wonderfully told. The whodunit aspects of the plot work well, and the denouement wholly satisfying. This is a book that will stay with me long after reading.