Let Sleeping Gods Lie – Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond

TheWokenGods-300dpiIt pains me to concede that Woken Gods is not quite the novel I’d hoped. I loved the premise, and thoroughly enjoyed parts of it, but I also had nagging doubts that I found difficult to shake. The basis of the novel is simple. Ancient Gods have woken, and they walk the Earth.

Brilliant and audacious, maybe, but I don’t think the novel had enough meat to cover bones this size. I think the problem stems from Woken Gods being a YA novel; heavily plot driven, with teenage angst and romance thrown in. Against a backdrop of all known deities stalking the Earth, these themes feel underpowered. I would like to have seen a much weightier tome. A brick, like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The reality of Gods walking the Earth would fundamentally alter every facet of human existence. It’s ramifications would run deep, yet in this novel the surface is barely scratched.

We join the story five years after the gods have woken. This gives the peculiar feeling that you’re reading book 2. An experience I’ve not had before. The gods woke, threatened to take over the world, but thanks to a shadowy organisation, ‘The Society of the Sun’, they have been kept in check. This was (apparently) due to an audacious capture and slaying of a god. Realising they too were mortal, the gods started playing nice. I immediately felt like I was playing catch up. Despite being sure this was book one in the series, so heavy was the exposition explaining what i missed, I succumbed to my doubts and searched the Internet to check it wasn’t a second novel.

To trim down the deific interactions only the trickster gods wish to have prolonged contact with the world. This has the effect of paring down the overwhelming number of gods Bond has to deal with, whilst leaving her the cool ones to play with. Some are well known, Hermes, Loki and Set, others less so, Legba and Enki. It is the less notorious gods that Bond focuses on, and the book contains some interesting and little known mythology. This is the first of the novel’s good points.

But it is also where I feel the novel falls down. If the Gods walk the Earth, where is God? And why does no one mention him? Or JC, Allah, Ganesha, Shiva and Vishnu for that matter. Why hasn’t Ravanna poked his heads in? The implications for modern religion are obviously huge, but they are ignored, undermining the novel’s central premise. This is why I would like to have seen a much meatier novel.

Putting that aside, what’s the story like? It’s strong, with some great set pieces and a pleasing prophecy twist (where we all think one thing is going to happen, but something else does). There are some great shadowy villains and nothing creates excitement like gods double crossing each other. The Society of the Sun have a store of religious relics, and Bond uses them bring magic into the novel in an inventive way. (If you like this sort of thing be sure to check out Polly Shulman’s ‘New York Circulating Material Repository‘ books).

Woken Gods’ teen-romance is weak, but that other stalwart of YA fiction, the parental battle, comes off in spades. Despite the unusual backdrop, the relationship between Kyra Locke and her parents feels very real. A father absent through work and a mother missing due to illness means Kyra faces her challenges alone. Beneath her confident tough exterior is a conflicted girl lacking love and support. Bond handles it very well.

The novel ends on a high. It’s open ended, and has the promise of interesting times ahead. There’s a hint that I might be in luck on the religious ramifications side in the next novel, and the promise of a whole heap of action. Whilst not completely convinced by everything in Woken Gods, there was more than enough to maintain my interest. Gwenda Bond has conjured a marvellous premise for a an extend run of novels, and despite my reservations, it’s the first time I’ve ever been tempted to generate some fan fiction. In reality I’ll end up leaving it to the professionals, and I’m intrigued to see where Gwenda takes things next.

Many thanks to Caroline at Strange Chemistry for sending me a copy this book. Here is Gwenda talking to John Scalzi about Woken Gods on his blog, Whatever.

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Just Like That – Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone

foolingI have to confess that on starting this book I had the wrong end of the stick. I had thought it was a novel based around the life of young magician; a book not unlike Marius Brill’s excellent ‘How to Forget’, a book I loved.

It started promisingly; our hero is at an international magic competition, where he vies to become magic’s Olympic champion. He fails in a humiliating fashion, returns home, tail between his legs, and gives up magic forever. After taking a position in a physics lab, he gradually finds himself drawn back into a murky world of sleight of hand and three card monte.

The more I read, the more dissatisfied I became. The story didn’t seem to be moving very fast and each chapter felt more like factual description of a facet of the magic world. I read the back of the book, ‘Magic/Psychology’. I read the blurb, ‘Stone reveals the principles and history of some of the greatest tricks ever performed’.

Oh. It IS a factual description of the magical world. Non fiction, not fiction! With this rather important realisation made, I could settle down and really enjoy the book.

Performing magic puts you in the awkward position of having to deceive the very people whose approval you seek to win.’

Fooling Houdini is more than just descriptions and explanations of well-worn tricks. There is lots of insightful information about the psychology of magic, in respect to both performers and audience. Stone suggests that the draw of magic is that it allows us to feel like children again. The idea that the suspension of natural laws makes us question the world around us is a powerful one. We are filled with wonder at the unknown. Magic is a deception that rejuvenates us.

Stone is an articulate companion; an obsessive but self-aware, geeky practitioner of sleight of hand. His self-effacing prose style is engaging. The book is interesting throughout, peppered with information that elevates it towards something special. In magic we find more than a little of what makes the world tick.

I particularly enjoyed the sections about magic and science. Once, the two disciplines went hand in hand, but now they make uneasy bedfellows. Stone shows how one can inform the other. There is some simple yet elegant maths, that whilst counterintuitive make perfect sense. It will ensure that you never look at a deck of cards the same way again. This, combined with some touching portraits of the art’s biggest characters, makes Fooling Houdini a very good read. You’ll like this. A lot.

Many Thanks to the team at Windmill Books for sending me a copy of this book. 

Alive as a Dodo – The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

This review is part of the Hodderscape Review Project. The first of twelve.

eyreI remember vividly reading a review of The Eyre Affair in the Times’ book section, one Saturday over ten years ago. It sounded like nothing I’d ever read. It sounded like something I had to read. By the end of that weekend I had tracked down a copy. By the end of that week, I’d finished it.

It was (as my son had to say in last year’s nativity) astounding, astonishing, amazing. I loved it from start to finish. With its alternate universe, ridiculous names and time-bending structure it was fresh, original and very, very funny. It was also divisive. A friend of mine, read the same review, made the same purchase, but hated the book. Couldn’t understand it, didn’t see the point, couldn’t stand the stupid names. I haven’t seen him since 2002.

Much like The Princess Bride, you either get The Eyre Affair or you don’t. I have a theory that people who don’t like the Princess Bride, probably aren’t going to be worth knowing, and whilst I wouldn’t quite make liking The Eyre Affair a criteria for friendship, if you didn’t, I’d view you with deep suspicion.

So ten years on. There are now 7 Thursday Next novels, and Fforde has written books for at least 3 other series. The Eyre Affair propelled him to literary success and rightly so, but how had his original stood the test of time?

Fforde’s decision to set the novel in an alternate 1985, has made the novel largely future proof. By setting the novel in the past, Fforde has avoided using pop culture references that would date. A good job, as the advent of the e-book and smartphones would have transformed the world in which the Literatecs live. Apart from a reference to flying toasters that won’t mean much to some readers, I didn’t notice any obsolete descriptions.

The novel is essentially a locked room mystery with added bells and whistles. It’s set in an alternate reality in which the dodo has been resurrected, England is at war with Russia and Wales is a communist republic. Literature is at the heart of society. Arcade machines quote Shakespeare and children collect author stickers like they’re Premiership footballers. As the book opens, the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen.

Dastardly criminal, Acheron Hades is the prime suspect, a man who doesn’t show up on cameras and who can convince police officers to turn their guns on themselves. Enter our hero Thursday Next, a literary detective and veteran of the Crimean War.

I found The Eyre Affair to be as entertaining as I’d remembered. Over successive novels Fforde has sometimes struggled to keep his ideas fresh. His world is quirky and clever, but some of its stock jokes can grate when overused. But in this book Fforde has the balance pretty much spot on. The central mystery is entertaining, the concept engaging and the setting fascinating, particularly if you are bibliophile like me. Thursday and her supporting cast have stood up well in the years since their creation, and the Eyre Affair remains one of the most innovative creations of modern speculative fiction.

Many thanks to Anne at Hodderscape for inviting me to join the review project.

When reading The Eyre Affair I used a new micro-blogging tool called Thought Streams. This is a new experiment for me and I’m not sure of the best way to utilise it, but if you do want to look at my Eyre Affair stream, click here.

A Gem to Draw Strength From – ‘The Amber Amulet’ by Craig Silvey

amberThe Amber Amulet is a slim but potent read. It’s a pleasing of blend of Graham Rawle and Michael Frayn. I could easily believe that it was by Rawle, such are the similarities in both prose and appearance. The narrator, a child, dwells in that space that Rawle chronicles so well, of not quite normal, but not outright weird. Then there is the artwork.  A collage of cuttings and photos that tell the story beyond the words. Again, the book lives in the spaces in-between; this time betwixt prose and graphic novel.

Liam McKenzie is the Masked Avenger, caped protector of Franklin Street.  The Masked Avenger draws his powers from hidden energy (potential energy) in precious rocks. He creeps about at night, looking to safeguard his neighbourhood. When the boy genius discovers that his neighbour is unhappy, his researches tell him that amber is the answer.  So after procuring the Amber Amulet, the Masked Avenger sets out to bring light to the wronged.

What follows is a heart-breaking tale of misapprehension and naivety that could only be produced by a child narrator. In this aspect that the novel resembles Michael Frayn’s prizewinning novel ‘Spies’.  Adult readers can spot what is happening, and Liam’s blissful innocence makes it all the more poignant.  ‘The Amber Amulet’ is quick read that takes considerably less than an hour to finish. It packs a powerful punch, and only the hardest of hearts will not be moved by Liam’s journey towards adulthood.  It’s a novel tinged with regret but filled with hope. It really is quite lovely; a gem to draw strength from.

Lost and Found by Tom Winter – Paperback Release

lost and foundIn January, I picked up a small unassuming proof sent to me by those lovely people at Corsair Books. I had no expectations about it whatsoever but found it to be a delight from start to finish. Lost and Found by Tom Winter is the very definition of bitter-sweet. It lays bare the futility of human existence, but manages to remain funny and life-affirming.

With summer now in full-swing the newly-released paperback edition of the book would make an excellent holiday read. If you’re not off on your hols it will make a damn fine read wherever you are. For my full review click here.

Corsair have invited me to put an extract of the book here on Quicksilver Reads (Robins Books, whatever!). To be honest the whole book is quotable gold, but I have chosen something from early on in the book. Chapter 2, with its immortal line about Croydon, made me realise that Lost and Found was something special. And indeed it is. A book that delivers on every level.


 

City of Dreaming Spires ‘The Bone Season’ by Samantha Shannon

bonseason‘Knowledge is dangerous…Once you know something, you can’t get rid of it. You have to carry it. Always.’

Whilst I was reading The Bone Season, the hype surrounding it hit the national press. At twenty-one Samantha Shannon is of an age that captures media interest. The book is published by Bloomsbury and contains magic, and so the inevitable question is asked, Will Shannon by the next JK Rowling? Bloomsbury have paid her a six-figure advance, so clearly they are hoping so. Considering the unique standing Rowling has in the literary world, it is an unfair comparison, and no doubt an unwanted burden.

But is there any justification for making it? Aside from superficial similarities, Bloomsbury, female, magic, I would say no. The Bone Season is an accomplished and compelling debut, but it is far cry from the early Dahlesque, wizards in pointy hats, Potter novels. This is no children’s book. It is much darker. Its blend of magic and dystopia, not to mention an alternate Oxford, make the Bone Season far more Pullman than Rowling. *

Though intrigued by the premise, I found the book awkward at first. Set in the near future (2059) but in an alternate universe (where magic became possible in 1859), the central protagonist, Paige is a powerful wielder of the aether. As a teenager, she is not yet fully aware of her abilities only that she is a dreamwalker, one of the rarest types of Clairvoyants.

The world is split into two types ‘amaurotics’ (people like you and me) who are in the majority and mistrustful of those who can interact with the aether. Of those who can, there are many different types (all beautifully laid out in a diagram at the front) which have weird and wonderful names such as cartomancer (who use cards to access the aether) and chiromancers (palms). The problem is with so many gradings and subtypes of ‘voyant’ it becomes confusing as to who can do what, and what significance (if any) that might have.

The government is backed by the organisation, Scion, designed to keep the minority voyants in check. In what is a standard dystopian device, they do this through use of a draconian police force. Counter to Scion, are the syndicates; gangs headed by crime-lords that run different areas of the city. Paige’s boss Jaxon Hall, is a mime-lord, an expert in voyants; a Fagin for the aethereal generation. Jaxon and his gang operate out of Seven Dials, in London, a wonderfully evocative place, even on your average weekday.  Shannon has constructed her world outwards from there. The dirty streets, oppressed masses and occasional bank of fog give the whole novel a Dickensian feel.

The action quickly moves to Oxford. A closed city and unbeknownst to the rest of the country a penal colony for voyants. Here the true masters of Scion are revealed. The Rephaim. An almost angel-like race (in aspect, rather than attitude), who can use aether for more effectively than humans. They use the voyants for their own nefarious purpose. Their grip on the nation is total, and they hold us in the utmost contempt. Headstrong Paige must learn to survive, but when her life is put in hands of the blood-consort, what chance does she have?

The novel’s success lies in its depth of the world-building. It is a little confusing at first, but Shannon has developed an intriguing and innovative setting. The magic used by the voyants and Rephraim is multi-layered.  The physical aspect that is required for many of the aether’s wielders is particularly interesting and gives the voyant’s magic depth and texture.  The real-world references are well placed. There are small historical extrapolations that make the alternate United Kingdom feel credible.  The novel’s politics and power is detailed and plausible with factions of Rephaim, voyants and amaurotics, all vying for supremacy and survival. There are factions within factions, and as the novel builds up a head of steam, the plays and counterplays are breathtaking.

The best dystopian fiction offers insight into the human condition, and The Bone Season does exactly this.  The ease of indoctrinating humans to become their own gaolers, and the selfishness of the individual are cleverly exposed. There is something Orwellian about the ordeal of the voyants.  The nature of trust is central to the novel. Paige has learned to rely only on herself, but in order to survive she must trust people who are close too her. But at what cost?

The Bone Season is a complex novel, with many layers, and a vast number of ideas. Almost too many at times. It offers much food for thought, whilst delivering excitement and intrigue. It is a fine rendition of a dystopian world, which will appeal to many fans of the genre.  By the end of the novel the central story is closed, but with many of its players still at large, the book is well positioned for a follow on. If the hype is anything to go by, the Bone Season is likely make a decent splash in the literary pond. It deserves to. It’s an original idea, well executed by a prodigious talent. I look forward to reading whatever comes next.

Many Thanks to at Bloomsbury for sending me an advance copy of this novel to review. 

*I was convinced that The Bone Season had been influenced by His Dark Materials, after all Shannon is lucky enough to be of an age to have grown up with Pullman’s novels.  I chanced upon a Tweet from Samantha saying that she had just finished The Northern Lights.  When I asked her about it, she confirmed that this was her first reading of the book, and that she hadn’t heard of Lyra’s Oxford before writing her own version of the spired city.  

Fairytales of New York – ‘The Grimm Legacy’ by Polly Shulman

grimmThe Grimm Legacy is a light younger-teen book, based on a simple but extremely pleasing premise. Objects from fairy tales exist. Not only do they exist, they are stored in a beautiful building in New York, where a library like system allows them to be borrowed. The idea is so elegant, it’s one of those you wished you’d thought of first, and so simple, you’re not quite sure why you didn’t. What follows is a a very pleasing story of magic and fairy dust.

The story is, in itself, slight. Somebody is stealing the items, and it is up to newly recruited Elizabeth to find out who. Together with some close friends she has to… Ok, you know what they have to do. What sets the novel apart from the field is the delightfully named New York Circulating Material Repository; an assortment of all things weird, wonderful and in the Grimm Collection, magical.

As in many fairy tales, the magic comes at a price. For a start, in order to borrow something you have to leave a deposit. This is not simple cash, but something far less tangible. Sense of humour, ear for music or childhood memories are all things that could be left for the duration of the loan. Shulman has great fun with the things her characters do give up, as well as examining the consequences of doing so.

Similarly, there is a wealth of source material to work with. When combined with the repository’s other fictional collections, the Wells Bequest (science fictional items) and the (brilliantly titled) Gibson Chrestomathy (computing) Shulman has given herself licence to plunder the most interesting artefacts from centuries of storytelling and use them to create fantastic new tales. This is particularly effective for the fairy tale elements; their gifts are often double edged and when utilised in 21st century Manhattan, can have some unexpected consequences.

You do have to be able to suspend your belief for the novel to work. The idea that real-life magic artefacts gave rise to the Grimm’s fairy stories isn’t too much of a stretch, but asking readers believe that Well’s Time Machine or shrink rays really exist pushes things a bit too far. Similarly, the idea that a lending library of incredibly powerful artefacts is safe in downtown Manhattan, could, for some, be hard to swallow. Shulman makes some effort to explain how they got there and why most of the collection’s guardians are children, but these explanations wouldn’t withstand serious probing.

But what sort of killjoy would want to do that? The Grimm Legacy is an imaginative reworking, and great fun to read. It’s well-written, with strong characters and snappy dialogue. The novel fizzes with the same storytelling energy as the original works from which it takes its inspiration. If you are looking for something a little different to read, you could do a lot worse than The