From tiny acorns – Codex Born by Jim C Hines

Codex-Reborn-UK-editionOne of my surprise best reads of the year is Libriomancer by Jim C Hines. A book with such a beguiling premise that it demanded to be read. The idea that there is a coven of magicians who can pull all manner of stuff out from between the covers of a book propelled Libriomancer to the top of my to-be-read pile. Beneath the pulpy cover, vampires and lusty dryads was an intricately conceived and well executed urban fantasy that had considerable depth. It is pretty much a must read for anybody who loves the genre. Libriomancer didn’t just lazily reference its influences, it embedded them in the story and enhanced their myths.

So how do you follow that? Well it’s pretty tricky. Libriomancer is stuffed full of innovation, but the mechanics of libriomancy are now pretty much established, and surely all the best fictional references were in the first novel? What would a second book have to offer? The answer is, ‘Pretty much the same as the first’. This story doesn’t offer much on top of Libriomancer in terms of fresh concepts, so it doesn’t have the wow-factor of book 1. Indeed some of the embellishments don’t quite work. It’s a common problem in this type of storytelling. In order to make an original premise more convincing, there are often constraints put in place. When an author finds that it’s not just his characters bound by the constraints, but subsequent stories too, they bend the rules to allow more interesting things to happen. Invariably they don’t quite work.  Having said that, whilst a couple of Isaac Vanio’s new skills jarred, they certainly didn’t spoil the party

Codex Born has story and character a plenty. There is an irreverent vein of humour running through it, and there is still a reverence retained for books and storytelling. Here vampires are replaced by werewolves (which makes you wonder if zombies are next). I’ve never been a huge fan of lycanthrope stories, so some of the references were lost on me. The central plot once again revolves around dryad Lena Greenwood and her being a living thing that was once fictional.

As in the first book there are thrills, spills and literary shenanigans. Whilst Codex Born doesn’t elevate the series, it certainly does it no detriment. It’s another entertaining novel written in the same vein as the first; magical high jinx for library lovers. I look forward to volume three.

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

Now or Never? – My Real Children by Jo Walton

my real childrenIf you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for Jo Walton. Among Others is a book I love. I’ve recommended it countless time and bought copies as presents for just about anybody I could half-way justify. What Makes this Book so Great also left an impression. So much so I’ve started the world’s most infrequent (and least membered) book club.

When those lovely people at Corsair sent me Walton’s latest, I squeeeeed with excitement (on the inside at least). But publication was a while away and I’m forever playing catch up on my reading pile, so I left it to one side. It was a special treat awaiting my delectation. Yet somehow, whilst it sat there, the shelf started to bow under the weight of my expectation. I became convinced it was going to disappoint. I almost persuaded myself I didn’t want to read it. The obvious comparison with Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life started to put me off. How could it possibly be in the same league?

As an acolyte of Walton (a Waltonite?) I should have kept the faith. My Real Children is a masterpiece of understated brilliance.

The novel opens with the rambling thoughts of an elderly lady in a care home. Her sense of reality is confused. Stairs misplace themselves, lift doors appear where before there was only wall and did she have three children or four? Is she suffering from dementia, or is this something else? Is she remembering lives that never were, or did both happen?

The book is predicated on a simple ‘Sliding Doors‘ premise. Patty’s (rather peculiar) boyfriend asks her to marry him (in extremely unromantic circumstances). What happens if she says ‘Now’? What if she says ‘Never’?

The two stories then run concurrently, a chapter at a time. Each is mundane in its own way, but both are compelling and fascinating. It’s a beautiful examination of how decisions might come to define our lives, but it’s a whole lot more than that. Walton examines the role of women in the home and in academia, sexuality in the 1970s and the threat of nuclear oblivion.  It describes the importance of family and humanity’s need to form a collective unit. In essence the book is a peon to love: platonic, familial and romantic. It also provides a crushing reminder that as well as being capable of great love, humans can also be violently destructive.

So where’s the SciFi?

Walton’s brand of science fiction fantasy is delicate and subtle. Among Others contains references to fairies, but the real sorcery is in the power of books and the magic of libraries. Clearly, in My Real Children, we have two alternate realities. Walton cleverly dovetails these into wider conterfactual realities. So real are the stories Walton is telling, time and again I found myself puzzling over a wider historical inaccuracy, before kicking myself; this is a world of fiction. Some of the book is rooted in reality, whilst other branches shift under the moving sands of history. It’s a great device, pulled off expertly. They could have easily overwhelmed the delicate plot, but the speculative fiction elements never jar the reader away from the central story. If Among Others was fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy, this is science fiction for people who hate, abhor and would never ever read science fiction.

I absolutely, completely and without reserve loved My Real Children. It’s a wonderfully clever book. Moving in the extreme. Nothing much happens, yet the stories told are utterly compelling. This is fiction of the highest quality and deserves to be read as widely as possible. Be warned. If you know me, this is what you’re getting for Christmas.

Many Thanks to Grace and the team at Corsair for sending me a copy of this wonderful book.     

Scaffwolves of London – Our Lady of the Streets by Tom Pollock

untitledThe Skyscraper Throne trilogy is a fascinating series created by a one of the genre’s finest new talents. Tom Pollock’s inventiveness is astounding. His grimy London is filled with magical creatures, ghost trains and tower cranes; even the streets themselves rise up. When one of the major players in a novel continually and convincingly recreates itself from the rubbish and detritus of the city, you know you’re reading something pretty special.

My opinion was divided on the opening two novels. Whilst impressed by Pollock’s creativity in book 1,  The City’s Son, I felt he’d thrown too many ingredients into the pot, making for an uneven and often baffling read. Book 2,  The Glass Republic, I loved unequivocally. He’d taken one of his excellent ideas and explored it in greater detail. The layers of meaning and depth of characterisation made it a remarkable book.

So, I opened book 3 with some trepidation. We are now back this side of the mirror, but London is well and truly cracked; sickened by fever. Beth, Pen and their rag-tag army of non-humans are all that stand between the megalomania of Mater Viae and the death of the city they love.

Our Lady of the Streets is a mixture of the brilliance of book 2 and the ideas overload of book 1. I loved elements of the book but others didn’t really make sense to me. Or at least why they were happening didn’t. I think part of the problem is the reemergence of Reach, a character whose premise is brilliant but whose full execution doesn’t wholly chime with me. I struggled generally with the problem of motive. Lots of terrible stuff was happening very quickly, but I wasn’t convinced as to why.

As before there are some stunning set pieces. Pollock’s descriptive writing is excellent. The villains ooze menace and reading about the grubby streets leaves you wanting to wash your hands.

Two chapters in particular set this book apart from the standard urban fantasy offerings. Grown-ups often get fairly short shrift in YA novels, and The Skyscraper throne trilogy is unusual in making Beth’s dad a positive influence on the story. Pollock highlights the parent-child bond; its strength and the love behind it. He does this without ever dropping into schmaltz. As a parent I thought he’d captured it beautifully and was greatly moved.

Later in the book Pen finds an elderly resident, holed up, waiting for the end of days.  Again, taking a break from the magic and mayhem, Pollock writes a touching and reflective piece on growing old and making peace with one’s lot.

In all three books Pollock shows he has imagination to burn; that he will be the urban fantasy go-to guy for countless readers. These two chapters show he is more than just about the weird and wonderful. Heartfelt and real, they demonstrate Pollock can handle and reflect on subtle and delicate emotions.

The end of the novel fits well with what has gone before. Pollock walks the thin line between frustratingly bleak and everything tied off with a bow, with barely a misstep. It’s hard to get the balance right across a trilogy, but here the reader gets mostly want they want, with a few tantalising and painful omissions. The Skyscraper Throne trilogy heralds the arrival of a coruscating talent. It hasn’t always convinced me, but it’s never failed to impress. I very much look forward to reading what Tom Pollock writes next.

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book

Word up! – The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

the_word_exchange_1024x1024Here at Robin’s Books, titles that revolve around social media seem to be coming more and more prevalent. In the last few months I’ve read the writer’s view, the scary vision of the future for grown ups and the scary vision of the future for young adults. All of these titles ask what exactly are we surrendering by putting so much stock in social networking; are we in danger of becoming homogenised sheep all shuffling after the next trend? If they had a coverall catchphrase it might be ‘Think before you Tweet’.

The Word Exchange is definitely the most cerebral of these social media critiques and it’s probably the hardest to read. Dense and thoughtful, the book suggests it’s not just our personalities and our freedoms that are at stake. If they weren’t enough, the very future of language might be at risk.

This isn’t some Daily Mail, Gove loving, piece about teenagers using ‘m8’ signifying the death of the written word (does anybody use m8 any more? I’m too old to know). It’s a serious meditation on how instantaneous information is changing the way our brains function. Recall of telephone numbers, facts and appointments is obviated by modern technology. I barely know my own number let alone anybody else’s. But what if language went the same way? What if your device, here called a ‘Meme’ could supply that difficult word for you? Then, if large corporations were involved in supplying those worlds, how long before they tried to control the chain? It’s quite a simple idea, but Graedon gives it a profound treatment.

The Word Exchange, as one might expect for a novel with at least three lexicographical experts (lexicographers even!), is rich and dense in language. Not only there are oodles of complicated words (that are nothing like ‘oodles’) there is also much discussion as language as a living entity. The metaphysical musings occasionally threaten to overwhelm, but there is lots of interesting stuff in here about how we communicate and how fragile the communication pathways that we take for granted are.

Kim Curran gave us Glaze and destroyed the world. James Smythe gave us ClearVista and did the same (one man’s anyway). Graedon’s Memes are sort of a combination of the two, with prediction and control front and centre. On the face of it they all perfect iterations of social media, but behind each lie sinister forces. For sheer readability The Word Exchange is not in the league of the other two books, but all three can be read and enjoyed for entirely different reasons. It took me a long time to plough my way through Graedon’s book, mostly because of the complex language and themes. I’m not honestly sure her central conceit ‘Word Flu’ properly hangs together but I must confess to not fully understanding everything that I read.

Nevertheless, Graedon makes some very important observations about the subtle ways being permanently hooked up to devices could change our society. It is a peon to the written word and a reminder that sometimes longhand is best. This is not a quick read; not one for the beach, but it is a clever and thought-provoking book that will appeal to anybody who loves language and reading.

Many Thanks to Jess (formely of Orion) for sending me a copy of this book to review.