Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi

I must have downloaded this a while ago, when it was on a 99p deal, and like a lot of such downloads it sat on my Kindle waiting for me to notice it. After my recent disappointment with a book I paid full price for (😶) I started reading with low expectations.

But of course, it was right up my street. Given that my favourite book of all is Tim Powers’ Declare, an urban fantasy set in the world of espionage from the 1940s to the 1980s, I should not have been surprised.

This also reminded me a little of another book I love, The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod. In MacLeod’s steampunk universe, a Victorian industrial revolution is driven by the discovery of a magical substance, aether, which is used to power everything, with the correlative being that everything falls apart without a steady supply of this element. (In fact, you could argue that this book is a mashup of MacLeod’s The Summer Isles and The Light Ages.)

Finnish writer Hannua Rajaniemi imagines a world in which, instead of radio, Marconi and others discover a means of contacting the dead. The resulting discovery of Summerland and an apparently happy afterlife means that people generally stop worrying about dying. It also means that, when nations come into conflict in this world, they are also in conflict in Summerland, and so the spy networks extend from the living to the dead.

With cameo appearances from Philby, Blunt, and Burgess, this was bound to appeal to me. The world-building is excellent, with the mechanics of contacting the dead well imagined, and with the First World War having been fought with very different weapons of terror. Set during the 1930s, with a civil war in Spain, the British SIS are wrestling with the idea that they backed the wrong side, and are considering support instead for a different faction against a Soviet Union controlled by a god-like being called The Presence.

The technologies that have arisen around Summerland are fascinating, ranging from telephone-like instruments to contraptions that keep visiting souls in borrowed bodies. And of course, a Faraday cage can be used as a cage.

If it doesn’t quite reach Le Carré levels of hall-of-mirrors complexity, Summerland still nods towards that idea that you can never quite trust who you’re talking to. And given the entertainment along the way, I can forgive its too many aha! moments at the end. 

There are deeper mysteries here, too, to do with what Summerland was like when it was discovered, and the identity of the British Prime Minister is a neat surprise.

Is this as good as Declare? Of course not, but it’s a fitting entry to the smallish field of urban fantasy espionage.

Some book reviews

616aYU-j2ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Eleven books so far, in this summer of reading, including Tim Powers’ Declare, which I’ve read before and will read many times more. Here’s something of a test, then. Can I remember much about the others? Excuse the lack of cover images: on borrowed French wifi, which is painfully, rurally, slow.

Borderline – Mishell Baker

The Borderline of the title refers both to a person with borderline personality disorder and the idea that there’s a world beyond this one, peopled by creatures who come to visit our world in the guise of beautiful people who act as muses for people in the creative industries. Protagonist is a survivor of a recent suicide attempt, who has lost her legs and gets around using prosthetics and/or a wheelchair. She’s also has BPD and is approached by an organisation that manages the relationship between humans and the otherworldly creatures. Why do they approach patients in psychiatric hospitals in particular? Because nobody will believe them if they talk, of course. An interesting premise and protagonist, this award-nominated book is worth a look.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Hard to say what age group this book is aimed at. Slightly younger than YA, probably, but it was knocking around at work and so I added it to the pile. Is this Gaiman’s best book, as the blurb suggests? Probably not, though it was an entertaining enough read about an orphaned child who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Read to me, however, like a collection of scenes rather than a novel. Telling, to me, that Gaiman says he started with the fourth chapter and then went and back-filled. This is not the only novel I’ve read this summer that isn’t really a novel. To be fair, though, it is in the title: it’s not called The Graveyard Novel.

Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre

I could tell this was supposed to be funny in the vein of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiasen, but I didn’t crack a smile. An unpleasant story of unpleasant people, with some deeply unpleasant descriptions: avoid reading this while eating. Brookmyre’s an ex-journo, so of course his hero is a journo who is not above a little breaking and entering and is somehow attractive to the opposite sex.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate – N K Jemisin

This was the big one. I knew this was an award winning slice of fantasy fiction, and I’d read something else by Jemisin, and I’d heard nothing but good things about this series but I deliberately waited till this summer to get The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, knowing that the final part of the trilogy (The Stone Sky) would be published in the middle of August.

It’s so hard to describe what this is. The cover illustrations tell you nothing. You could almost say this was science fiction, since it seems to be set in a far future version of Earth which has become (for reasons) seismically unstable — so much so that no civilisation survives long enough to leave much of a mark when it is inevitably destroyed following a cataclysmic event involving volcanic activity, earthquakes, ashfall, pyroclastic flow, poisonous gases etc. But it probably shades into being fantasy because there are people here with abilities which aren’t really explained except in a hand-wavy way. I’d even allow this as science fiction, because we’ve all read about star drives and time machines which aren’t explained. But then I ask myself, why is it so important to you that this could be science fiction rather than “just” fantasy? I don’t know. Fantasy has uncomfortable associations with those terrible Lord of the Rings movies, but then the best fantasy often gives you great female leads (as here and in Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series) and it’s clearly more popular than science fiction, so.

The Fifth Season has an extraordinary three-stranded narrative which when it resolves makes clear that the rest of the series can continue the plot but not this tour de force of storytelling, which is a shame. In that sense, it reminds me of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, which has a similarly innovative first volume.

So. An unstable planet. A civilisation that barely remembers its past incarnations. People with special abilities who are treated as less-than-human and feared and hated by most people. On one level, this is clearly a racial allegory, which asks questions about why some people need to consider others as less than human? But it’s also a fascinating puzzle and a story of survival and loss. How did the world get this way? Can it be fixed? Is humanity doomed? Do we even deserve to survive?

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

Speaking of which. A mysterious stranger arrives in a small Irish community and seduces the inhabitants with his spiritualism and alternative therapies. Turns out, he’s definitely not who he pretends to be, and the consequences of his unmasking are grim. The book is really a series of encounters and meditations and doesn’t have much of a narrative plot. So I’d describe this as a Menippean Satire rather than a novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but then it would have been weird to.

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horovitz

This was more of a blast. I picked this up after noticing that it was a novel about a novel, and included the complete manuscript of the novel-within-the-novel. So it’s a whodunnit about a whodunnit, and it’s entertaining enough, though a long way from being a realistic crime novel, if that’s your thing. It’s more of a pastiche of Agatha Christie hiding inside something that wants to be a modern crime novel, something more like the Cormoran Strike series. Anyway. It’s okay. I’d have liked both stories to be more interesting, darker perhaps, but it was entertaining enough and a relatively quick read. Certainly a palate clearer after The Little Red Chairs.

The Other Side of Silence – Philip Kerr

Ted Allbeury wrote a novel with a similar title – a fictionalised account of Kim Philby’s activities. And Philby’s something of an element in this, which is one of a series about anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a German former cop and intelligence officer, who’s trying to leave his past behind. This is set on the Côte d’Azure in 1956, and features Someret Maugham dealing with a blackmail plot involving the KGB and a tape recording of Guy Burgess. It was okay to read. I didn’t like the hero and the outcome was clearly telegraphed. The whole  thing was a little static, not making much use of the location and a bit disappointing after the extraordinary treatment of spying in Declare.

The Hanging Girl* – Jussi Adler Olsen

Easily the worst book I’ve read this summer, I picked this up because it had a lot of pages. *The original (correct) title in Danish is The Boundless, which in itself doesn’t make for a better title, given the contents, but I feel the English title with its use of the noun “girl” is cynical and exploitative – typical of a publishing industry I have little respect for.

I’m not sure if it was the translation or what, but I didn’t like the dialogue in this, nor the exposition, and I didn’t understand who the characters were supposed to be. This is from a series and is obviously not the first, but that’s not always a problem. It wasn’t with Bernie Gunther, for example. The author usually puts enough in to get you up to speed (even copying and pasting expository sections), but not here. I didn’t like or care about the protagonist, and his colleagues were cyphers. At times this seemed both sexist and racist, and there were confusing moments, too, as when a character is called Assad in one sentence and then suddenly becomes Curly in the next. And I couldn’t believe the British publisher didn’t make some corrections to the bizarre explanation of a cricket match.

So this was a cold case story. A cop who’d been obsessed with a hit and run kills himself and the case falls to Department Q, whoever they are. Cold case unit? It’s not explained. Anyway, maverick cop, at loggerheads with his boss, dealing with broken relationships, blah blah blah. Just because it’s Danish it doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd. So it was long, and not very interesting, and as soon as they looked in the garage (early on) and decided not to search it because it looked dusty, you knew it was Chekov’s garage.

The Stone Sky – N K Jemisin 

No sooner had I ploughed despondently to the end of The Girl with the Hanging Girl than the yellow post van showed up with this. This brings the trilogy to a somewhat tragic conclusion, continuing its barely veiled discussion about race, exploitation, the legacy of slavery, justice, and how to go forward with a society when there is barely anything worth saving or preserving. This makes it extremely topical in this current news cycle context of job-lot el cheapo racist statuary erected at the behest of the Ku Klux Klan or anti civil rights elements: sometimes the only solution is to burn everything down and start again.

My one criticism of this trilogy concerns the map at the beginning, and the other repeated elements (glossary, appendix). The map was useful in the first book, because it showed the locations of the main places visited therein. But the same map then appeared in the second and third volumes, when two different maps would have made more sense, since the action does move around somewhat. As it is, you find yourself staring at the map and wondering where the characters you’re reading about are at the moment.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice was a tour de force, a book that shifted your perceptions and blew the genre/gender cobwebs from your mind. It had 517FZqyUbGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_multiple points of view (that were all, ultimately, the same point of view) and it had multiple time-lines. And its narrator/s called everybody she, even if they were male, causing you to picture every character as a woman, even the men.

The first sequel, Ancillary Sword was a continuation of the story, but in a different way that disappointed some readers. Gone was the widescreen, galaxy-spanning, time-shifting space opera narrative in favour of a small, contained (confined, even) story of local government and politics in a single, temporarily isolated system with one planet and one space station. Another tour de force, in a way, like an unexpected reboot. Many of the same characters were involved, but this was a completely different sub-genre within the genre of contemporary SF. Throw in an alien ‘translator’ who appeared to be human but was anything but, and you have the makings of a slow-motion diplomatic train crash that will have repercussions for all and leave you impatiently anticipating the conclusion.

Which brings us to Ancillary Mercy, the final novel in the sequence, which is best understood as a little bit from box A and a little bit from box B. Here, both the local politics and the galactic empire civil war come to a head, with a fish sauce guzzling alien wild card. The narrator still calls everybody she, and you, the reader, still read every character as a woman. Ann Leckie doesn’t remind you who is actually male. If you want to read the first novel over again and be reminded, here and there, of which character presents as anatomically male, you can. But I didn’t, because who cares. I still think the female pronoun thing is a stroke of genius, something that makes me want to trumpet this trilogy from the rooftops for all to read. The simple power of the overlooked pronoun is a shotgun blast to the face of people who think that language choice doesn’t matter.

The story comes to a somewhat satisfying conclusion. You can see how the future is going to go. What I particularly love/hate about this trilogy is that each volume isn’t 1000 pages. The trilogy itself doesn’t even add up to 1000 pages. Instead of the weight and heft of A Song of Ice and Fire or any number of other genre series, the Ancillary trilogy comes in light. Comes in light but shines very bright: it has more ideas and more food for thought than just about anything I’ve read in recent times. If Sword felt like something lesser after the triumph of Justice, Mercy takes you back to the feeling you got reading the first. Being on the short side (or of average length, in other genres), the trilogy is more accessible for the casual reader. But when you get to the end, when you read the final 75 pages or so in one sitting, with your late night self screwing the next day for your morning self, when you do that, you immediately regret it. The following day you feel a deep sense of loss because you no longer have Ancillary Mercy to read.

(Annoyingly, my copies of the first two in the series are digital, dating from before my decision to abandon screen reading and go back to books, so if I want to read this again I have to suffer the indignity of reading off my iPhone screen. Like an animal.)

Two reviews

darkness-cover(Two blog posts in one night because I’m temporarily on wifi.)

Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

The final outing for John Harvey’s Nottingham police detective, Charlie Resnick, concerns a murder that happened 30 years before, during the epochal 1984-5 miners’ strike. As the bulldozers move in to flatten former homes of former minders, a body is found: a woman missing since December 1984, activist wife of a miner who had continued working.

For anyone not around at the time, those dark days are hard to explain. I was in my first job, and was a bit of a union activist myself. I remember a couple of Welsh miners who came to address one of our union meetings and raise money. I won a brass miner’s lamp in a raffle.

The strike originated in the Yorkshire coal field and spread to the rest of the country. National Union of Mineworkers leader, Arthur Scargill, was warning the country that Thatcher’s government wanted to close down the British coal industry and buy in cheaper coal from abroad. The government issued unconvincing denials. They were closing pits while there was still coal in the ground, claiming they were “uneconomic”. Well, compared to cheap and dirty coal from Poland, maybe they were. Thing about a pit, once you stop working it, it fills with water and becomes impossible to go back to. There was no reopening the deep pits when the price of coal went up.

I have mixed feelings, of course. The impact of the closure of the coal industry was catastrophic, destroying communities and taking jobs and pensions away from generations. It was the beginning of the end of the postwar consensus that had seen a decrease in inequality. Dating from then, inequality started to grow again, reaching obscene levels today. On the other hand, what a terrible way to make a living. Breathing coal dust, working in the dark, at risk from flooding, cave-ins, and explosions, vibration white finger. Which is before we get to the fact that we probably ought to have been leaving all the carbon in the ground, starting then, and including the oil and gas, as well.

So the strike was national, eventually, and the government fought it through the courts, and introduced laws that made it harder for strikes to happen. The stick they hit teachers with now, the low turnout on strike ballots, was designed-in to the anti-union laws they passed then, which insisted that strikes could only be called following a postal ballot.

Flying pickets, police bussed in from all over the country, and scabs, especially in Nottinghamshire, where (eventually) a splinter union, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, was formed. The UDM broke the strike, believing the empty promises of the Thatcher government, and eventually they were all made redundant, too.

A murky world, in which people and money are smuggled around the country, and the notion of policing by consent is revealed as an illusion. The police were there to protect the interests of the powerful elite against the people. Instead of showing solidarity with their fellow working people, they were waving their bonus cash in the faces of pickets.

So Charlie Resnick, working as a civilian consultant in semi-retirement, is pulled in to investigate a 30-year-old cold case. There are parallels between Resnick and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, who also ended up working in a cold case unit, and also loves the jazz.

A fine read, though a depressing reminder of a horrible time.

thesilkwormFrom a detective at the end of his literary career to one close to the beginning of his. For a more pure form of escapism, consider Cormoran Strike, a private detective based in Denmark Street in London. The Silk Worm is J K Rowling’s Robert Galbraith’s second outing, and is as enjoyable as the first, which I reviewed here.

Strike, a scruffy, one-legged batman with side-kick Robin, his PA, is now enjoying the fruits of his success in the first novel. In demand, having to turn away work, and slowly getting to the point where he can pay Robin a decent salary and perhaps clear his debts.

The mousy wife of a missing writer asks him to find her husband, who has reportedly written a scandalous roman a clef, which has set literary London alight with gossip.

This is all very metaphysical: a well-known writer working under a pseudonym writing a novel about a little-known writer who insults fellow writers, agents, publishers, friends and family – and who may have had a partner in crime. Can you really spot who has written something based on style alone? A sly reference to the author’s own attempts to fly under the radar.

It’s London, it’s the coldest winter on record, and Strike is hobbling about on his dodgy knee trying to avoid too many taxis and takeaways.

In other hands you might expect a private detective to profess and prefer self-sufficiency, but here calls upon the help of several others, and is none the worse for it. This is a fun, light read, ideal for a holiday, and I’m hungry for more.

The Game of Thrones

gameofthronesI wasn’t sure about Game of Thrones when I first saw a few episodes on Pick TV (they showed the first three as a taster, before withdrawing it behind the Sky paywall). I’m not even going to try to defend the show’s nudity, though there is one way in which I get it (see below).

I confess that I’d been put off the whole fantasy genre by the disastrous Lord of the Rings films. I appreciate I’m probably in the minority when it comes to those extended exercises in CGI and silliness, but allow me to attempt to explain.

  1. If a so-called “live action” film over-relies on CGI, I lose interest. It’s just a cartoon. I appreciate that CGI is everywhere, and this is an arbitrary category problem, but call me old-fashioned. I like the story to be told in the camera. Anyway, you might forgive (1) if not for
  2. Over-long. Hey, maybe I might not have hated it so much if it had been a TV series. I quite enjoyed the radio version, back in 1981. At 11 hours 22 minutes for the three extended films, it adds up to about a season of Game of Thrones. Then again, much of the bulk of the book is taken up with lore and poetry and begats, and if you cut down to the bit you’d actually want to see, maybe it’s not even a season’s worth of plot.
  3. Too many endings.
  4. Overblown, over-budget. Like James Cameron, Peter Jackson throws money at every problem, but I don’t believe in his stories.

Anyway, Game of Thrones. There was the prejudice. Then there’s the fact that I prefer reading Sci Fiction to fantasy. I’ve enjoyed much of Katherine Kerr‘s output over the years, read a lot of Anne McCaffrey when younger, and love Tim Powers‘ take on urban fantasy. That was abut my limit.

I’d never read any George  R R Martin, and though I’ve now got the first volume of this on my Kindle, I’ve barely dipped into it. If I’m honest, I’m just a bit jealous that when TV finally did something like this, it wasn’t one of my beloved books got adapted, but some other set of people’s beloved books. Then again, maybe I’m glad that I wasn’t a fan of the books, so I can just enjoy the TV series on its own merits and not sit complaining that they missed out the important bit.

And it has merits. There are too many characters, and it takes a long time for anything much to happen, and the gratuitous nudity is somewhat one-sided, but it’s delightfully uncompromising and true to itself. Where it wins as a fantasy is that it doesn’t feature elves, dwarves, hobbits, etc., and it cleverly, oh so cleverly, wears its fantasy very lightly for the whole of the first season. By Season 3, we’ve seen walking dead, dragons, sorcery and resurrection, but by then the audience has been sucked into the story by the human characters, and we’ve never been allowed to forget that these are sweaty, dirty, shitting, pissing, fucking and bleeding human characters.

As to all the fucking, I get it. In a genre that has been ill-served by television, it was essential to send a message that this wasn’t for kids. How do you do that? You could try to tell an adult story with compelling characters, brilliant plotting, and superb dialogue. Joss Whedon did that with Buffy, and still the BBC took one look at it and put it on at 6pm, opposite The Simpsons. They even edited some of the scarier bits, considered too much for the early evening family audience.

So you (the producers of the show) need to send a message, not necessarily to the audience, but to the suits who run TV production companies and channels and networks. You need to say, this genre isn’t just for kiddies. Just like cops, docs, and lawyers, adults like this stuff. Smart scripts, interesting plot lines and well-drawn characters are, historically, not enough to do this. So you need in-your-face blood, guts, swearing, dead babies, nude bodies, fucking, homosexuality, beheadings, and anything else you can think of in order to make the thick-as-shit pen pushers understand. Now they get it, I think.