A Woven Cloth of Gold – ‘Arcadia’ by Iain Pears

This review fist appeared on GeekDad on 4/1/2015 

arcadiaukIain Pear’s Arcadia is a piece of precision literary engineering. I’ve realised recently, that a novel’s structure is very important to me. I don’t like structure to overshadow the substance of a novel, but I do find quirky or unusual constructions very appealing.

So it is with Arcadia, a novel, if its app is to believed, that has chapters which can be read in any order. I read Arcadia in paper format, forwards from page one, so I can’t verify the truth of this statement (Pears explains in this interesting Q&A, how the book format is but a single narrative route through his creation), but I can confirm that story does fold back over on itself.

How does it do this? Pears, not traditionally a science fiction writer, employs some commonly used devices of the genre to create a mind-bending but wholly satisfying tale. To say more would give the game away.

As Arcadia opens, Henry Lytten, an Oxford professor, is a writing a fantasy novel. He’s not the first to do this, and it will delight Tolkien fans that Lytten is a small-time member of the Inklings. Prof. Tolkien doesn’t feature directly in the novel, but he does touch its edges a couple of times, which is a pleasing addition to proceedings.

Where Tolkien created Middle Earth as a vehicle for myth and language, Lytten wants to build a realistic working society.

“No goblins,” he said. “This is serious, I want to construct a society that works. With beliefs, laws, superstitions, customs. With an economy and politics. An entire sociology of the fantastic.”

Things become more interesting when a young girl who feeds Lytten’s cat discovers a peculiar portal in the professor’s basement. She walks through it and, like C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe, it transports her into another world.

The girl quickly ducks back to her own world, but not before interacting with one young boy. This brief encounter has deep ramifications for the world she’s visited. Things become more peculiar when Lytten subconsciously adds a young girl into his story. We are left wondering is Lytten controlling events with his narrative, or does his narrative somehow control the events around him?

arcadiamap

The route through the maze. Schematic of interlocking worlds from the Touchpress ‘Arcadia’ app.

Additional narrative strands are added, with chapters that detail life in the fictional state of Anterworld, and, more curiously, a tale from a dystopian far off future. This features an Earth with a ravaged surface, crumbling societies, and humans that are enhanced by implants. In the far north of Scotland, a brilliant but querulous mathematician and physicist has invented a machine that can open portals into alternate dimensions.

How does this fit in with Professor Lytten’s comfortable Oxford home and his fantastic creation? The answer to that question forms the spine of the novel, and the reader’s voyage of discovery to find its truth is rich and enjoyable.

The narrative’s construction is faultless. Lytten manages to weave parochial college life, future dystopia, mythical fiction, quantum physics, and even Cold War espionage into a compelling, brain-massaging whole. I wouldn’t want every novel I read to be like Arcadia, but I found the entire reading experience invigorating. By taking what are essentially tired tropes, Pears has created something innovative and interesting to read.

Arcadia is a fine novel that I think achieves everything it set out to do. Whilst I haven’t read all of the electronic version, the Arcadia app is elegant and appealing. Touchpress, the company that built the app, also created the excellent Elements app, so it has been built by a team with a great pedigree. With the app, Pears offers his readers yet another layer of innovation to his genre-borrowing yet ground-breaking novel.

I was sent a copy of this book to review by its UK publisher, Faber & Faber. Arcadia is out now in the UK

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.    

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  

‘The Chronicles of Light and Shadow’ by Liesel Schwarz

Lieseluk

This piece first appeared on Geekdad.com on 8th May 2015. 

Steampunk. Queen Victoria, airships, and steam. Men who want to be Sherlock Holmes. Feisty women, often in jodhpurs. Fog. I’ve read good steampunk and I’ve read terrible steampunk. Because it’s a heavily stylized genre, some authors seem to think you can throw a few tropes together and make a decent novel. The Chronicles of Light and Shadow by British author Liesel Schwarz, fits firmly into the “good” category. The setting is a fairly typical cogwheels and carriages environment, but the novels have a fresh originality that many of their counterparts lack.

Whilst there’s no Holmes or Queen Victoria, Schwarz does employ steam, airships, and a feisty lead female. She also manages to blend in vampires, fairies, and fortune telling; pirates, warlocks, and clockwork hearts. Better still, rather than being confined to the fog-bound streets of London like most steampunk novels, Schwarz’s characters take in Paris, Vienna, Constantinople, San Francisco, and even Cambodia. It’s these varied settings that set the The Chronicles of Light and Shadow apart from the pack.

The trouble starts with precious cargo. Eleanor (Elle) Chance is asked to smuggle a special package to London. She is attacked, immediately after leaving the Parisian absinthe bar where she picked up her cargo. Elle barely escapes with her life, but her bag is stolen, and, along with it, the precious secret she was meant to deliver. The game is afoot!

The three novels follow Elle in the aftermath of the theft that changed her life. She is a strong central character. As an airship pilot, Elle is a woman in a man’s world. The lack of respectability of her position requires that she often take cargo that is not strictly legitimate. After the theft of her latest consignment she finds herself tangling with the shadowy Council of Warlocks. When Elle starts hearing voices in her head, it is not long before she discovers she’s in possession of a secret that she has even managed to keep from herself.

In Elle’s world magic is open, if mistrusted. Open and accepted but fading. There are two realms, Light and Shadow. The Shadow realm is where the fairies, vampires, and other mythical beings reside. The Light is the real world, and due to increased technology and a transferral of faith towards science, it is gradually squashing the Shadow out of existence. There is an interesting tension between the two sides. Both are at odds with one another, but both need the other to survive.

Villains come in the form of renegade warlocks, and a white witch with a terrifying clockwork army. I liked the way magic works in Schwarz’s world, particularly the interaction with fairies and other denizens of the Shadow. They add an extra dimension to the story, being both playful and sinister. The vampires, or “Nightwalkers” as they are termed here, largely move around in the background, adding further depth, without turning the story into something that sucks.

Although airships always seem to exist in steampunk novels, I’ve yet to read a series that features them so heavily. Steampunk dirigibles usually float around, offering local color but rarely becoming involved in the story unless an explosion is needed. Elle however, lives to fly, and as the series opens owns her own vessel, the Water Lily. I very much enjoyed the sections on board the airships, in particular the battles. Schwarz manages to make dog-fights between what are essentially cumbersome oversized cigars very exciting. By having air travel at the heart of her novels Schwarz is able to take her characters to a wide range of locales. Well-rendered alternative versions of world-famous cities are another draw for the Chronicles of Light and Shadow. If airships weren’t enough, there’s even a trip on the Orient Express from warlock-controlled Venice to an exotic and magically charged Constantinople.

The Chronicles of Light and Shadow is a solidly entertaining series. The books won’t blow you away. There are some nice extensions of familiar steampunk themes, but nothing mold-breaking. The middle novel A Clockwork Heart is, however, a little bit special. It is set in a trope-embracing fog-bound London, but the creepy menace of the “White Lady” and her army of clockwork zombies is chilling. I found I had to read this one late into the night to make sure I found out what happened. Though not marketed at the Young Adult audience, there is nothing in here that I warn against for older children. The books are written in the tradition steampunk Victorian detective style. There’s no bad language or excessive violence. If you’re looking for a new steampunk series to try and you like strong female leads, you could do a lot worse than Liesel Schwarz’s Chronicles of Light and Shadow.

Disclosure: The publisher sent me copies of all three books for review. The books are published by Del Rey in the US and UK. All three books are available in paperback and as ebooks now. 

Lies, damn lies and natural historians – ‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge

the lie treeThe Lie Tree is significantly more straightforward than the last Frances Hardinge book I read.  A Face Like Glass, was a phantasmagoria worthy of Lewis Carroll.  It took me a while to find my way in, but ultimately it’s fresh brilliance won me over. It’s a novel I love to recommend

Hardinge’s latest offering is a period tale with fantasy overtones. It is reminiscent of the early chapters of Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel The Signature of All Things. Both novels feature women born out of time, blessed with towering intellect and curiosity about the world in which they live. Both women are cursed to live in a world in which they are subjugate to men. Hardinge gives her tale and additional fantasy facet, in the form of the eponymous plant, The Lie Tree.

As the novel opens Faith and her family are fleeing England in haste. What terrible disasters are they escaping? Those two scoundrels Gossip and Scandal. Piecing together what she can from overheard fragments of conversation (Faith is 14 and a girl; adults talk over her head), Faith works out that her father’s integrity has been called into question. A natural historian of great repute, it seems his greatest discoveries may be fabrications. The first of many untruths revealed in the book.

Before long, Faith’s world is in tatters. The family have fled to an isolated island with a tight-knit community. Soon after the rumours arrive on the island; there is no escaping them. The family’s prestige as London sophisticates is destroyed. The island dwellers turn on the new arrivals and Faith and her family are ostracised from their new community. After a number of slights and insinuations, and with the family reputation in tatters, Faith’s father disappears. He is soon found dead. Has taken his own life in despair or are more sinister forces at work? Faith takes it upon herself to find out.

At the centre of this novel are lies. Whilst the Lie Tree is the root of the more outrageous ones told on the island (for reasons I won’t divulge), nobody it seems is being honest with anybody. These are not all inventive lies spouted through malice or in the hope of bettering one’s position, but also little ones of the type we tell ourselves all the time. The justifications and tales we spin that make our lives bearable.

Nominally a YA a novel The Lie Tree forces the reader analyse the nature of truth. Set in the late 1800s, shortly after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Faith is very much constrained by the time in which she lived. It was an era where appearances were extremely important, especially in the circles in which Faith and her family operate. Every woman in the novel has some hidden truth that she keeps close. This tissuing of secrets and façade builds up into a beguiling whole. Hardinge uses her construction to reveal the absurdity of gender attitudes at the time.

It is also easy to see that whilst contemporary teenagers’ lives are vastly different to Faith’s, some aspects of them are the same. Society is still built on layers of untruths. It would be impossible to function if we continually told the absolute truth. We would have few friends and many enemies. Appearances are still important today and revealing too much can still lead to ostracism. The lies of the modern world are perhaps more subtle, but advertising, media and politics still all rely on portraying elements of the truth. Gender inequality is less obvious than in Victorian times, but nevertheless is still present in society; women still need to lie about their aspirations or risk being judged by all and sundry (or at the very least Mail Online).

In today’s world, social media allows us to project an image of ourselves different to the one seen by those who know us in real life. Which one is real? Probably neither. Everybody has a façade and normally for the best of reasons. This is a powerful message to the target audience of The Lie Tree and Hardinge delivers it with subtle grace, cocooned in an intriguing story.

This is the third Frances Harding novel I’ve read. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them all. The Lie Tree doesn’t quite beat the wacky majesty of A Face Like Glass, but it’s vivid setting and range of solid well-wrought characters make it in an excellent read. This is a fine novel well worth picking up by anybody looking for something that deviates a little from the norm.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Programme. 

Gods and Monsters – The Iron Ghost by Jen Williams

ironghostJen Williams’ Copper Promise was one of my stand-out novels of 2014. It is an accomplished debut filled with first rate character writing. It’s players are compromised heroes, yet the novel is in no way dark. They’re not villains, not heroes, simply humans.

I was filled with second book trepidation when picking up The Iron Ghost. I would expect great things in this book, where I had only hoped for them when picking up book 1. Would I find that it shined brightly like the burnished Copper Promise, or would The Iron Ghost show rust spots?

Sebastian’s internal struggle with demons, both metaphorical and literal, was the pinnacle of The Copper Promise. There isn’t anything that quite reaches those heights in The Iron Ghost, but it is a fine novel all the same. Williams delivers an epic battle against a force of great evil. Yes, this is a standard trope, but Williams is an author who can handle the complex side of human nature, which gives her storie an added dimension.

The villain may be a towering force of evil, but he is not a shadowy faceless Dark Lord. He is a man with deep psychological problems, exploited by an unscrupulous manipulator. Yes, Bezcavar is back, and, once again, he is where the true wickedness lies. It is clever device. The character who is wholly and irredeemably evil has only limited power. He is strong of mind but weak of body, and must find others to do his dirty work. Bezcavar is a creation of the highest order. Consumed by malice, chilling to the core, he steals every scene he’s in.

As the novel opens the Black Feather Three have decamped to an icy continent, hired to settle an internecine dispute. One faction (the Skalds) uses a magical stone, to imbue giant golems with life. The other (the Narhl) believe this is heresy of the highest order and that the Skalds are defiling the mountain Gods. Who’s right will turn out to be very important. Things of course don’t run out as expected. Whilst Wydrin, Frith and Sebastian are going about their quest, somebody else’s plan is coming to fruition. Suddenly there’s a new mage on the block, and he can do things Frith can only dream of.

The rest of the novel is effectively a quest to put the genie back in the bottle. It will take the characters (particularly Frith) to some dark places. No tool in the arsenal can go unused, no matter how dark, if the Black Feather Three are to save the world. This raises interesting questions about whether the ends justify the means, though events do rather steamroll over the answer. The Iron Ghost lacks some of the subtlety of The Copper Promise; it starts to feel like a procession of set pieces, each more preposterously lethal than the last. The exception to this is the continuing story of the brood sisters. This is an interesting thread about self expression and stepping out of your parents’ shadow. Again something you don’t usually find in fantasy fiction.

There may be lots of action, but its quality is always high. It’s forever exciting. Once again Williams delivers the feeling of playing D&D in the best ever dungeon crawl. I’ve not encountered this before, and whilst I wouldn’t want it in every book I read, it makes the Black Feather Three books uniquely exciting. By maintaining strong characterisation and visceral action scenes, Williams avoids the ‘difficult second novel’ problem. The 500+ pages whip by, with numerous surprises that I won’t spoil here. Whether we see the Black Feather Three have another outing remains to be seen, but whatever Jen Williams does next, I’ll be there.

Many Thanks to Caitlin at Headline for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

Stings like a bee – The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

the mime orderThis book is the sequel to 2013’s The Bone Season. If you haven’t read that, you probably want to stop reading now.

I enjoyed reading the Bone Season. At its core it’s a wonderful mix of Pullman’s Northern Lights and Orwell’s 1984. My overriding memory of it though, is that it was unnecessarily complicated.  There’s an awful lot going on in the Bone Season. Almost too much. The combination of London setting and ideas to burn, put me in mind of Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne series. Pollock’s first book, The City’s Son was too bewildering for me. The follow up pared down the ideas to one or two of the really good ones, making The Glass Republic an exceptional novel. So it is with The Mime Order. Having opened up a multitude of paint cans for book one, this time Samantha Shannon uses only a few shades to paint something wonderful.

The Orwellian overtones of the first book are largely gone. Scion still sits over the story, but their totalitarian regime hovers over proceedings without interfering too much. Shannon has essentially ring-fenced her storylines. There are concentric circles of plot, with the mysterious (and murderous) Rephraim on the outside, and the oppresive (and murderous) Scion inside that. Residing in the middle are the oppressed (and murderous) syndicate of clairvoyants.  The events of the Mime Order take place at the heart of Shannon’s creation.

Paige Mahoney has one eye on the architects of her misery, but the action here deals almost exclusively with the mime-lords and their quasi-Dickensian London. After escaping from Sheol I, Paige quickly realises that she has little chance on her own. Despite their argument at the end of book 1, Paige’s latter-day Fagin, Jaxon Hall, has offered her a place back at his side as his ‘mollisher’. When a brutal murder takes place at the top of London’s clairvoyant syndicate, a power vacuum is formed in the city’s underworld. There’s a space at the top and only one person can fill it. Paige is faced with a choice. Aid Jaxon to a likely victory, but forever remain under his yoke or double cross the man who trained her. Jaxon isn’t interested in her tales of the Rephraim, he won’t let her go up against Scion, but if she becomes head of the syndicate she can reveal the truth to her fellow voyants. She could spark a revolution.

The Mime Order channels Dickens and Gaiman, with colourful characters in an oppressed criminal underworld. I do love a good alternate London, and Shannon’s is one of the best. Once again, the choice of Seven Dials as a key setting is inspired. I love it around that area of London and the dials is so otherworldly it’s perfect for a tale of myth and magic. Shannon plays deft homage, whilst banging out a great story.

The plot of the Mime Order has little out of the ordinary. Criminal factions play off one another, each vying for supremacy. What sets the novel apart, once again, is the world building. The gangs of voyants are marvellously drawn, as are their colourful leaders. There’s skulduggery aplenty. Lies, plays and double crossings, back-stabbings and full frontal assaults; it’s all here. The magic and clairvoyance upon which the novel is based are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story. This adds great atmosphere; almost anything could happen. Shannon’s writing is highly addictive, I read this book for great chunks at a time, desperate to find out what would happen. The story swings back and forth with several twists, building up to a (possibly overdone) humdinger of a reveal.

It’s no secret this is a projected series of seven novels. The overreaching arc is left wide open for volume three; loose threads abound. The Mime Order was such a compulsive read, it’s going to be hard to wait for the next book. I’m eager to find out where the story will go next. Having constructed her world like an onion, Shannon has plenty more layers left to reveal. There are five more books to go, so lots yet to happen. If they’re all as good as The Mime Order, I’d happily read 50.

Many Thanks to Madeleine at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of this book. 

The Mutability of Story – Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

rabbitI read this book over Christmas. I thought the Finnish setting and wintry backdrop might somehow be enhanced by the festive period. Boy was that wrong. Chances to sit and read for any length of time were few and far between and as books go, this one is definitely a large hot-tub full to the brim with expensive Christmas-gift bubble bath. You don’t want to be dipping in and out. You want to luxuriate in its baffling, quirky majesty.

From the town of Rabbit Back hails Laura White, an international bestselling children’s author. White has written a series of fantasy books featuring anthropomorphised animals. She is in essence the love child of JK Rowling and Kenneth Graham. She’s also not in the book very much. Twenty or so years ago, Laura White started the Rabbit Back Literature Society in order to find and nurture hopeful young writers. By young, I mean school age. To be chosen was a great honour and there were only ever to be ten members. For years there have been nine. The tenth was never discovered. The existing nine all went on to have successful literary careers of their own.

Lonely Ella Milana, a literature teacher with little remarkable about her, finds herself being invited to be the tenth member; a talent worthy of Laura White’s time and energy. Laura is initiated into the society where she discovers at its heart a curious game. Beyond that, strange things are afoot in Rabbit Back, not least of all a mysterious library copy of Dostoevsky with the ending changed.

This is a wonderful mishmash of a book, with the impossible residing next to the mundane, and fairy tales snuggled up to the kitchen sink. It is in essence a story about stories. About how they change over time, and how they depend on the reader. It’s also greatly concerned with the creative process. ‘The Game’ is a method in which members of the Rabbit Back Literature society could peel back layers one another’s psyche, probing their innermost secrets in order to gain material for novels. It’s peculiar, yet enthralling; an examination of the myriad ways one can look at something. This is particularly noticeable by the way the fledging Ella asks very factual questions, whereas the experienced novelists she’s thrown in with see the world in altogether different way, asking far more subtle and psychologically testing questions.

I’ll be honest and say I struggled with this book. It’s continual rubbing up of the surreal, real and psychological made for an uneven read. The narrative was forever shifting and I found it difficult to keep hold of a sense of story. Ironic for a novel about stories. The writing though is fabulous. Evocative words and sentences jump of the page. It’s a beautifully observed novel, but I failed much of the time to find a sense of whole. It was like a patchwork quilt of clashing colours, where the finished article is less than each individual square.

The book was a book group choice, and it was only after sitting and discussing it with friends, that I realised how much I had enjoyed it. How many little things I had absorbed without noticing. How many things I completely missed. Each member of the group brought something different they’d noticed about the novel to the table. It made for one of our best conversations yet (out of 8 years and counting). After the group discussion, I felt much more kindly towards the Rabbit Back Literature Society. It is a very accomplished novel, cleverly constructed. There are dozens of references and influences. It is indeed a patchwork, and while its colours clashed at first, there is something unique about its riotous splendour. It’s a definitely a book that would bear rereading, and in light of all the things we discussed, this is something I aim to do. Just not at Christmas.

 

 

Last Seen Wearing – Retribution by Mark Charan Newton

retributionMark Charan Newton’s follow up to his fantasy whodunnit, Drakenfeld, picks up the story immediately where we left it. If you haven’t read Drakenfeld, you should probably read that first. Retribution does stand on its own, but much of the interplay between Drakenfeld and his companion, Leana would be without context and therefore diminished. In any case, it’s always best to start at the beginning (it’s a very good place to start).

Fresh from his success in the court of Tryum, Drakenfeld is posted to the city of Kuvash where a high ranking bureaucrat has requested the attendance of a member of the Sun Chamber, Vispasia’s neutral police force. A high ranking Bishop has gone missing. Unwilling to allow political unrest to foment in a region destabilised by the events of book one, the Commissioners of the Sun Chamber dispatch Drakenfeld in spite having received a second message stating help was no longer required. Unsure of what he is walking into, Drakenfeld arrives hoping to discuss matters with Sulma Tan, Secretary to the Queen of Koton.

On his arrival Drakenfeld is informed that the dismembered body of the Bishop has turned up. The man had clearly been tortured and died in agony, but there is little clear motive for his death. The Bishop was well liked, and as he was to soon leave the city, there is little political motivation for his murder. It is only after the discovery of a second body that patterns begin to emerge and Drakenfeld can begin to tease out clues as to the killer’s identity. Still unaware of what he is dealing with, Drakenfeld finds himself not only trying to solve two grisly murders, but fighting to prevent his own.

Retribution marks a step up in quality its predecessor. The original novel, though very good, dragged a little in the middle. There was lots of (fictional) politics and I found it difficult to fully buy into the complex machinations. Here, whilst the murder victims have political connections, the mystery is of a more visceral kind. There’s a serial killer on the loose; one who’s very good at hiding their tracks.

I don’t want to say too much more, lest I give something away, so I’ll stick to generalities. The Drakenfeld books are nominally fantasy novels, but whilst they are set on a fictional continent, this should not put off non-fantasy readers. These books are far more reminiscent of Samson’s Shardlake or Pariss’ Bruno novels than The Lord of the Rings. There are swords but only the barest whiff of sorcery. It’s unusual for the magic and monsters to be so pared down and it makes a welcome change.

Once again the world building is strong. Koton, a neighbouring province to Detrata from the first novel, is well realised, as its capital city. The flavour of the book is very different from the first, thanks to the cultural differences between the two settings. It is very much its own novel, but because of a wider overreaching story arc the two books dovetail together well. As with all the Mark Charan Newton books I’ve read, this is a book with a social conscience. Oppression and exploitation are never far away from his central plots and events often mirror real-world cultural dilemmas.

Retribution is an excellent novel. ‘Sherlock Holmes meets Game of Thrones’, some bright blurb writer might be tempted to say, which segues nicely into my final observation. Drakenfeld, Leanna and the enigmatic Sun Chamber would make tremendous television. Rich settings, strong characters, interesting politics and a outfit dedicated to solving crime, what more could you ask for? This is a series that could run and run, and long may it do so.

Many Thanks to Lauren and Clare at Macmillan for sending me a copy of this book. 

Three go adventuring again – The Obsidian Pebble by Rhys A Jones

obsidianSometimes a simple story, well told, is all it takes to make a good book. I’ve just written my review of 2014, and it’s full of books with interesting structures and reworkings of old ides, but sometimes all you want is some heroes, some bad guys and a mystery to solve. The Obsidian Pebble is just such a book.

It’s a children’s book, roughly 10+, so by necessity plot and deed are comparatively simple. The story zips along and the characters involved all feel real, which takes Rhys Jones’ first book in his Artefact Quintet a long way. The main cast is the standard 3 player HRH (Harry, Ron, Hermione) set up. Two boys and a girl always seems to work in this type of novel. There is the usual offset of school work against mystery solving, and there are problems both at school and home with bullies and unfair teachers, unpaid bills and absent fathers. More poignant is the black dog of depression that hangs over the lead character’s mother. The possibility of the mental collapse of a parent is far more scary than whatever shadowy forces lurk inside the old house in the story.

The novel opens on Halloween. Oz Chambers and his friends are going to sleep over in the oldest wing of his family home, Penwurt. The house was a former orphanage, and had prior to that been owned by a number of adventuresome types. Adventuresome types who often didn’t make it back from their escapades. The last person that failed to return was Oz’s father. When the trio hear footsteps in the abandoned wing of the house, an investigation ensues. They begin to reveal the tumultuous history of the house, and a number of powerful artefacts associated with it.

Money is tight for Oz and his mother, so they are forced to rent out rooms in their ramshackle house. This is the perfect excuse to have a number of different characters hanging around, all with questionable motives, some more obviously sinister than others. Jones plays his deck of antagonists well, and whilst his finesse his unlikely to throw adult readers, his younger ones will probably be fooled by the misdirection. The house is wonderfully atmospheric, and the author’s drip feeding of its history, keeps you reading. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot and the final reveals are satisfactory with plenty of interest created for the next book in the series.

The sections in the school are diverting, possibly even a distraction from the main event. They’re not terribly exciting in themselves, but they ground the characters with some real life problems and scrapes in the playground. They also add light relief with some BBC drama (Grange Hill) snotty bullies, who may or may not get their comeuppance by the end of the novel.

So there is nothing remarkable here, but does that matter? If you keep things simple, you have to do them well to make the book good. There’s nowhere to hide if your storytelling is weak. Jones knows his craft and delivers an engaging and entertaining story. My 9 year old is probably a bit young for this yet, but next year I’ll add it to his reading pile, happy in the knowledge he’s sure to be entertained.

The author sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

For other great books with Obsidian in the title see this one by Catherine Fisher