Half Off Ragnarok : Seanan McGuire

When I started Fox Spirit Books, I officially stepped down from reviewing. I sent polite emails to everyone explaining that I no longer had the time and could not go on accepting books knowing that I would not have chance to review them. Occasionally I have to resend due to staff changes.

There was one exception. I never sent such an email to DAW. The thing is DAW have only ever sent me books for one of their writers, a certain Seanan McGuire. Add to that, the fact that Seanan is one of those rare writers whose books I turn to when ‘I can’t find anything to read’ (in a house full of read, re read and many as yet unread books). It doesn’t matter how restless I am, or what mood I am in a new Seanan McGuire book will always hit the mark.

As such I make an exception. So here is a review.

download (1)Half Off Ragnarok by Seanan McGuire

Half Off Ragnarok is the third in the Price family cryptozoology series which kicked off with Discount Armageddon. It picks up after the events that left Verity dating a member of the covenant and her cuckoo cousin Sarah badly mentally damaged from saving Verity’s life.

The third book moves location and focus, picking up with Alex Price, Verity’s brother who is working in a reptile house at a zoo and tracking the population decline of amphibians in the area. His work is disrupted by a death at the zoo. Something is turning people to stone and Alex really doesn’t want to believe it’s the local Gorgon community.

Taking a different character POV for the book works brilliantly, not only in keeping the series fresh and interesting, but allowing us to focus on different characters and other elements of the world building. The change helps to really develop the bigger picture.  It’s just as action packed and gripping as ever but Alex approaches things differently to Verity and obviously has other circumstances to deal with, including a small girl who keeps breaking into the zoo to see her fiancé, a king cobra, an assistant whose hair becomes irritated under stress and a sort of girlfriend who is entirely human and doesn’t know who Alex really is.

In all her series Seanan continually nails exactly the things I love about urban fantasy down onto the pages. Investigation, adventure, characters and settings that balance every day familiar with utterly other. The Price books bring all the things of myth and legend into the fore, dragons, gorgons, little froglike things with feathers, staying away from the fae worlds of the Toby Daye books. Her characters continue to be fun, flawed and multi faceted as people rather than endlessly powering up super heroes.

Always well written and tightly plotted this is quite simply some of the best urban fantasy out there.

Review: The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Thingstenthousand

by John Spurling

Duckworth Publishers

My interest was piqued when, on a two week internship at Duckworth and Overlook Press, I heard the Managing Director call this book ‘exquisite’. He went on to say that whilst in hospital recovering from injury, this was the only book (the ONLY book!) that he read from cover to cover.

With that sort of testimonial from one of the Publishing Greats, how could I not begin to fixate on it? ‘Exquisite’? I’ve read a lot of classics, of course, books so well known in general that reading them is less discovering a new story than it is learning the lines that connect the dots, but I’ve never really thought of them as exquisite; language differences and the way the pacing pulls you along rarely allows you to savour the way Authors really craft their novels. In my normal reading I’m a fan of fast-moving, pacy books that I can lose myself in and (usually) suddenly find that I’ve finished them within a matter of hours.

I am, perhaps, a product of my times. Without getting too political or philosophical about it the fact is that I’ve grown up alongside ever faster technologies. The idea of waiting for a chicken breast to cook in the oven is difficult for me, and internet clothes shopping is for me, a lazy pastime in which I can zone out and flick through dresses on asos.co.uk. (This is a habit that I am trying to break, as I am now not in quite so secure a financial situation as I once was!)

My point is, that although this is the book I was most excited about reading in my collection, I was also a bit hesitant. My expectations were high, and I’d enjoyed Tan Twang Eng’s THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS, which can be compared to this book if only based on their both being set in East Asia during times of hardship and turmoil, so I should enjoy this one too, right?

Except that I can’t recall much of that book, shortlisted for the Man Booker as it was, I’m not even sure if I finished it. I can’t find any indication of a bookmark, but I don’t remember the end, and while I enjoyed it, I couldn’t tell you where I finished reading, or indeed much beyond some vague beginnings of the story.

I suppose I needn’t have worried, as these two books are indeed very different. THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is set (mostly) shortly after World War 2, whereas THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS is set mostly during the last generation of the Yuan Dynasty, which started in 1260 and ended in 1368.

I know nothing of Chinese history, beyond what little can be gleaned from Disney’s MULAN and, later, the MULAN film that has Jackie Chan’s son in it. Luckily it is all perfectly illustrated and described for me through the eyes of Wang Meng, the man who would later be renowned as one of the ‘Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty’, but at the time of the novel was little more than a low level bureaucrat with little interest in much beyond painting.
We are first introduced to Wang Meng in prison, at seventy eight years old, seething at the ridiculous nature of his imprisonment. ‘for going to see a private art collection’ he writes, addressing the reader directly. Given time to dwell on little but his life, he resolves to document his life in the third person, ‘to experience it as a whole, as space, and perhaps perceive its pattern for the first time.’

I’m not a fan of quoting to much in reviews, but with the meandering, luxurious way that Spurling has created this life for us to experience it seems crude not to give such a novel a regard almost reverent when discussing it.

Because that’s what this book is. A luxurious, elegant, exquisite novel that feels as though you’re reading Wang Meng’s paintings as they’re created, as though its been written by hand on silk with a calligraphy brush, and I’ve never read anything quite like it.
Part of the appeal is undeniably down to the character Spurling has created in Wang Meng, a low level bureaucrat from an impressive family with no ambition, who in the first chapter loses a ring given to him by his grandfather, a famous artist and politician who worked under the Mongolian led Yuan Dynasty in its early years.

Wang’s such a wonderfully intricate person, that it almost seems disrespectful to call him a character. He’s so delightfully ordinary in that he dithers between sides in war, between the countryside and the city, and between his life as a husband and as a solitary man who prefers the company of his faithful servant, Deng.

There are no harsh descriptions of Wang, he is not introduced to us. There is no summing up of his temperament, or his desires, as he doesn’t seem to know them himself. We get to know him slowly, through his actions, his contemplations, his kindness, determination and his nervousness. He has no problem asserting himself at times, and then in seemingly similar situations dithers and meanders around the conversation to avoid disagreement.

Everything about him is a contradiction, and we truly feel led by his hand through the novel as no other characters are treated quite the same way. We get first impressions of his friend and peer Ni Zan, also historically one of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty, and of the rebel leader the White Tigress. We see all the other characters through Wang’s eyes, through his first meetings with them and how he considers their virtues and their faults.
This is one of those books that is so wholly immersive that you can’t read it in one sitting.

Each chapter tells a different story from Wang’s life, and the threads that tie them together are subtle, then stronger and more obvious towards the end. The way Wang describes a simple painting can take up a whole page of text, but while that sounds daunting it is really a rare pleasure to read a passage so devoted to describing one thing, but in a way that feels so natural. Before I ever googled the work of either Wang Meng, Ni Zan or even the old master whose painting is viewed at a party, Huang Gongwang, I had such a clear image in my head, such intimacy with their paintings that it felt almost spiritual seeing them on my computer screen. Artists so long dead, revived for fiction in Spurling’s novel.

Again, the only word I can think of is exquisite.

You get a little thrill every time the writer refers to ‘the so-called “ten thousand things” that make up the world’ in his writing, either when he first mentions it writing about his contemplations in a prison cell, or any time his muses over his place in them whilst going through his own past.

The tumultuous times between Dynasties, plagued by civil war and unrest, is all told to us through Wang Meng. He is involved in but deliberately distant from the high stakes game of choosing who to support, and indeed has ties to almost all of the different factions fighting each other. The best description is perhaps from Wang himself, when talking to a monk novice who has ascended to extraordinary heights:

‘“We should be like water.” said Wang, “finding our own level, accepting our own nature and our part in nature, as we observe and contemplate the ten thousand things and move amongst them, gaining knowledge of ourselves as we gain more knowledge of them, penetrating the mystery of the ordinary. This is what the philosopher Zhang Zhou called ‘riding on the normality of the universe’.”’

Although maybe this isn’t quite true, Wang is trying so hard to be a passive non-force in this passage, trying to avoid confrontation or choosing a side that I’m not sure this is the best way to describe him at all.

At the risk of over-indulging myself with quotes, I’ll resolve that this be the last.

‘“I am by nature detached,” said Ni. “Always have been, cannot be otherwise. You are the opposite, by nature attached. Your mountains [in your paintings] are right in your face, your trees are tangible, your pictures are full of houses and people. I like your pictures so much because I can have all that attachment without having to scramble up the cliffs or bump into the trees or get involved with the people. You like mine because you think you’d really prefer to be detached. And yes, in a way you are detached and I am attached- … So, how real are these distinctions we make?”’

Truth be told, I finished this book a couple of hours ago. I have so much to say but it feels like I’d be doing any readers of this a disservice by delving any deeper into it, as all I’d be doing is sorting it out for myself, writing down my thoughts and feelings as I let it sink in.
I even still have trouble calling it Spurling’s book. It feels so much Wang Meng’s that I’m having difficulty associating this novel with the hand of a London playwright, penned only recently.

The end of this book is remarkably well done too, and I finished it with a hollow feeling in my stomach that you only get when you finish a story that is going to stay with you for a very long time. Because it will, I can promise you that.

This book will stay with you for such a very long time.

It’s simply exquisite.

THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS is released in January 2014 by Duckworth Publishers.

Review: Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire

chimesThe latest October Daye novel once again raises the stakes for our heroine as Toby’s always tempestuous relationship with the Queen comes to a head.

Toby is investigating the distribution of the incredibly dangerous Goblin Fruit. 100% addictie and eventually deadly to all except purebloods and someone is letting it into the mortal world. When her investigation leaves her faced with banishment and questioning the Queens claim on the throne Toby has to find a way to save herself, reverse the decree and remove the goblin fruit from the streets.

This series never fails to be action packed, fun adventure. Toby and her friends are a fantastic cast of unusual characters and things never go smoothly, but they are resourceful and determined and should not be underestimated. The world Mcguire has built is complex and detailed and manages to blend the modern mortal world with the fae worlds soothly and consistently.

This latest instalment is due out in September 2013 and if you haven’t discovered the series yet go back to the beginning, it’s a treat.

 

Review: Between two Thorns by Emma Newman

imagesI’ve had a run recently of books i’ve really ripped through and another was the first Split Worlds novel by Emma Newman.

From the moment Sam’s beer bladder takes him down a backstreet in Bath in the opening pages I was hooked. A rebellious fae girl determined to make it in the mortal world, family politics, fae lords and ladies up to cut throat shenanigans, a human male in the wrong place at the wrong time and all the murder, mystery and intrigue you would expect from worlds colliding and urban fairy tales.

Newman has created a well considered universe, balancing our reality and the Fae world convincingly, and creating compelling characters and plots, written with a wry humour. Right from the beginning I needed to know what Sam really saw and what Cathy’s fate would be. On finishing my first thought was when is the next one?

if you are looking for a new urban fantasy series that’s about character and adventure then   start here.

Review: Plague Nation by Dana Fredsti

PlagueNationCover_FinalThe second Ashley Parker novel pretty much picks up where Plague Town left off. The wildcards are clearing out pockets of remaining zombies within the quarantine zone, while the reader get to see a series of incidents that are definitely not in the area. The virus has spread.

A tragic incident sends events into a chaotic spiral that climaxes at the end of the book with classic ‘to be continued’ style cliffhangers. Dana manages to deliver satisfying story telling and humour as well as a few new twists to the classic zompoc in these books that leaves you eager for the next one.

The use of zom pop culture references helps remind the reader that these wildcards mostly aren’t experienced army recruits, they are just the people who happen to be immune, so they joke about, they make mistakes, they go back for the cats. it’s part of the joy of these books.

if you are a fan of zombie fiction, or even if you aren’t sure you are, I recommend the Ashley Parker novels.

Review: Zoe Sharp & The Charlie Fox Books

I reviewed the second Charlie Fox book a while ago and I ordered the third and fourth straight away. Some time later I finally had the chance to read them, back to back in record speed.

In Third Strike as Charlie prepares to go back into the field she finds her father is in the States and in trouble. In spite of their troubled relationship Charlie is determined to find out what is going on and soon discovers her parents are in serious danger. As she tries to figure it all out and help them she and her team are in a situation that is getting rapidly more dangerous.

Fourth Day sees Charlie under cover in a cult led by a charismatic and dangerous man, but all is not what it seems and as Charlie delves deeper, determined to find out who the real threat is,

I love these books, they deliver plenty of hard, fast, brilliantly visceral action. Sharp writes great fight scenes and plots with enough twists and turns to add depth to the drama and  make them solid memorable stories. The best thing about them remains Charlie. She’s a great character, far from perfect, too hard on Sean and herself, has a difficult relationship with her family, but she’s more compassionate than she has to be and utterly determined.

If you are struggling to find a thriller that packs enough punch I recommend the Charlie Fox series.

Gun Machine – Warren Ellis

Gun Machine
by Warren Ellis
Pub: Mulholland Books
308 pages

I’m going to cheat a bit with this review. The best way to get some sense of this book is to watch the trailers I’ve embedded below. I could tell you it reads something like if David Cronenberg (in the horror/History Of Violence days) made an episode of CSI. I could liken it to a less drug infused Hunter S. Thomson. Warren Ellis’ writing always puts me in mind of a text analogue of a  Hieronymus Bosch painting, as he conjures an image of hell that’s by turns fascinating, disturbing, and most importantly a bit too close to home. But these comparisons would only get you so far.

I’m going to put you into the capable hands of Wil Wheaton, Ben Templesmith and Jim Batt to get a better flavour of things.

Has that piqued your interest?

I suppose you need to know a it more of the story. I’m going to leave the lead up to that scene alone, and instead tell you what comes after. All those weapons can be traced to an unsolved murder; hundreds of guns, each with its own dead body. And it’s Tallow that’s going to take the fall for finding them, because no one in the police department wants to deal with the politics and PR of all that unnoticed death.

And it’s not just his colleagues and superiors Tallow needs to be wary of, but the owner of the morbid treasure trove, out to reclaim his trophies, and make some fresh corpses on the way.

Tallow isn’t alone in his insane journey down shit creek though. Two CSU’s come along for the ride, with their own brand of madness. Scarly and Bat, really help the book along, with the interplay and dialogue between the three being key to elevating the book.

Set in a future that feels a mere handful of tomorrows away, there are tiny nods to technology that could be just around the corner, without pushing the book anywhere close to science fiction.

Gun Machine is as much a story of Manhattan as it is a tale of crime, and there are references and mentions that’ll have you reaching for google to track them down.

Warren Ellis’ second fiction book, this feels more grounded than the ambient weird of Crooked Little Vein, and there’s still the feeling of a comic book writer under the surface in the descriptions, and that’s no bad thing.

I’m going to leave you with my recommendation that you give the book a go, and with the second trailer, which is a very different beast from the first, and that’ll make more sense as you read the book.

Dangerous Gifts – Gaie Sebold 2

Dangerous Gifts
By: Gaie Seblod
Pub: Solaris

 

Adele put up a review of this book up couple of weeks ago, and I thought I’d follow it up with my opinion.

The second book featuring Babylon Steel, the eponymous heroine of Gaie Sebold’s first book (reviews here by me and here by Adele), Dangerous Gifts sees her once again forced to deal with trouble she’d rather avoid. The story carries on from the first book, with Babylon becoming the bodyguard to Enthemmerlee, against her better judgement, under the unfortunate confluence of circumstance and financial troubles. This means abandoning the Red Lantern and her crew, and venturing to Incandress, Enthemmerlee’s home plane/world.

Wrapped more in political intrigue than the first book, Dangerous Gifts keeps up a good pace, keeping things nicely rolling along within it’s confined time frame, balancing it’s constituent parts well. With the story primarily taking place on Incandress rather than Scalentine the book has a freshness that the second book of a series sometimes struggles to find.

If I had one complaint about the book it would be that slightly too much of the plot pivots on eavesdropping upon some fortuitous piece of information. While not a bad plot device I can think of four instances where the story changed in a way impossible without Babylon or another character happening to be in the right place at the right time. While this is the case with the plots of all books, the use of eavesdropping broadcasts it over-much.

The above aside the book is very good, the pacing is good, the action scenes work, and the characters feel real, with layered emotion, and the dialogue is great.

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Ready Player One
By Ernest Cline
Pub: Arrow Books
374 pages

Wade Watts has but one escape from his hellish life in a towering trailer park (see the rather wonderful cover), the virtual reality world of OASIS. There’s something grander than merely ducking into an imperative online world though, and that’s a quest.

James Halliday, the creator of OASIS was obsessed with 80s pop culture, an obsession that dominoes out into the world upon his death. Halliday had no heirs, and so in his will left the control of OASIS, his personal fortune and possessions to anyone who can solve the puzzles he has left scattered throughout the virtual world he has created, and find his Easter Egg. Wade, like many others is dedicated to solving these puzzles, yet as we start the story, five years after Halliday’s death the first riddle has yet to be solved.

The 80s theme that so pervades the quest for Halliday’s Easter Egg serves as an interesting device, allowing the book to merge past and future with geekish abandon. There’s inferences on the current state of the world as well, in the vision of what we become. It’s hard to move away from the 80s when considering the plot, and I can’t decide if that’s a fair comment, or just the nearest one to hand given the way the book wears the era. There are huge and evil corporations, high school to survive, and the awkwardness of young romance, a sub-plot that works nicely against the larger story without feeling in any way forced in.

With technology reminiscent of William Gibson’s cyberpunks, nods and knowing winks to games, films, music, and fashion from the era the book is unrepentantly nostalgic. I suspect there is a perfect demographic that this book fits, that experienced the era it harks back to first hand, rather than seeing it diluted through the lens of current pop culture. That said being a little out of that loop hasn’t harmed my enjoyment of the book, although there is a feeling I might have missed references.

Wade feels well realised as a character, and there’s an interesting duality between his progress in OASIS and in the real world. The book handles the virtual landscape well, although I’d be interested to know how it reads to someone unfamiliar with computers, or indeed looking back in the years to come over the technological developments.

Pony up your $1, take your 3 lives, and prepare yourself.

Kraken – China Miéville

Kraken
By China Miéville
Pub: Pan Books
481 pages

Kraken is a book I should have got round to reading a long time ago, but it seems strangely appropriate to be talking about it now, with the first footage of a giant squid in it’s natural habitat having been released this week. But less science, onto the book.

Billy Harrow is a man out of his depth, although he’s assured, by some, that it is far deeper than he imagines. A curator at London’s Natural History Museum, he was part of the team responsible for preserving the giant squid that sat at the heart of the Darwin Centre. The 8 meter (ish) long specimen, that one morning simply isn’t there. Someone, or someones has pulled off an  impossible theft.

For the sake of avoiding romanticising the squid (we’re not that kind of site), here is Archie (no, really) in his tank.

Picture taken from The IndependentThe discovery of the theft places Billy at the heart of a conspiracy in a world he doesn’t know exists; a London rife with magicians, cults, prophets, gangs, sects, familiars, and gods. Not to mention the Met’s own small magical task force, the FSRC, the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit. To some of them the squid is more than just a museum curiosity, it’s a creature that holds the apocalypse in it’s tentacled grasp.

China Miéville’s writing style is idosyncratic, and it’ll drive you off if you can’t settle to it. If you can though, the staccato rhythm suits the book incredibly well. There’s much of the uncanny setting left unexplored, with groups, factions and places left as hanging meat hooks to snag in the readers brain, mentioned only as titbits and allusions.

Billy feels well rounded, and his reactions feel like the most markedly real thing in a book full of the unreal. His friends, allies, accomplices and enemies are less pinned down, and better for it, as their mystery only serves to enhance the demarcation between the weirder London and Billy.

And London is as much the star as Billy. There’s the unsettling overlay of the real and unreal in the book that is only tempered by having heard of those places, been in that building or stood in that spot.

There are similarities to be drawn between Kraken and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Both feature a protagonist unwillingly pulled into a darker, deeper, more magical London, and being changed by the experience. Is it going to appeal to the same people? Undoubtedly yes, although tone and style are far removed. While Neverwhere, though macabre, always had something magical glittering in the darkness, Kraken leans more towards the black cold of the ocean depths; the violence and magic has a different aspect, a rougher edge. There are many characters who simply won’t survive, and the book gains weight and power from the feeling of no one being safe.

I can only recommend Kraken. It’s a fantastic book that takes the reader on an unlikely journey through a supernaturally tinged world that’s a far remove from the usual urban haunts of vampires, zombies and werewovles. The unfamiliarity and the unexpected plot this allows is one of the highlights.