25 July 2016

Retribution

A review of Retribution by Mark Charan Newton (Tor, 2014) – originally published in Interzone

Retribution is the second volume in a series of crime fantasies whose central character, Lucan Drakenfeld, is an agent of the Sun Chamber, which enforces law and maintains peace across the Vispasian Royal Union, a loose federation of diverse nation-states. Lucan is by no means a typical fantasy hero: he has no particular martial or occult skills, he suffers from epilepsy, and he is plagued with self-doubt. On the other hand, he is basically a decent human being and refreshingly optimistic in spite of his constant exposure to the darker side of human nature. To compensate for some of his weaknesses, Newton has given him an assistant, Leana, who is a skilled warrior. The first novel, Drakenfeld, combined this likeable central character with a plot in which good ultimately triumphs and the truth is revealed, which led me to hope that the series might be the beginning of the fight-back against the grimdark tendencies that have infected so much recent fantasy literature. So I have been eagerly awaiting this sequel.

The new story begins just a few weeks after the events recounted in Drakenfeld. Lucan and Leana have been ordered to Kuvash, capital of the northern nation of Koton, to investigate a brutal murder. Two more murders that bear certain similarities to the first take place shortly after their arrival. In all cases, the victims were tortured before death, their bodies were mutilated and subsequently left to be found in public places. But what clinches the connection between the deaths is the fact that all the victims had possessed examples of an extremely unusual gemstone. As Lucan and Leana follow the trail of clues, it leads them to uncover a decades’ old conspiracy implicating leading members of society in human trafficking and a sinister religious cult. In addition to carrying out the duties that brought them to Kuvash, the Queen of Koton co-opts them to protect her daughter, and they succeed in foiling an assassination plot by a rival clan. Meanwhile, the precarious political situation in Lucan’s homeland, the neighbouring country of Detrata – a political situation brought about in part by their previous investigation – has degenerated to the point where an imperialist senate has gained power. At the end of Retribution, as Lucan and Leana leave Koton, Detratan legions are marching into the country.

Retribution is well plotted. Its story arcs are carefully woven together and equally carefully disentangled in the denouement. The story is also well paced with just the right amount of action to keep the reader’s attention. Nevertheless, I struggled to like this book. I was hoping for a departure from grimdark tendencies, but instead this volume is unremittingly grim. By the end of the novel, Drakenfeld’s decency and optimism are looking increasingly naive and his rejection of a gift with the potential to cure his epilepsy may well strike the reader as quixotic.

By comparison with its predecessor, the characterization in Retribution was disappointing. Some effort was clearly put into developing two new characters – Sulma Tan and Princess Nambu – but many of the others were stereotypical. Unfortunately, given that this story could otherwise stand on its own, Lucan and Leana were not as clearly characterized in this volume. We are given new insights into Leana’s background, but in spite of this she seems less likeable: gone is the clear-sighted observer of a strange culture who is easily able to match Lucan’s intelligence; here she comes across as cold and even psychopathic.

One of my irritations with Drakenfeld was an excess of unsubtle info-dumping, which I felt was exacerbated by the combination of a first-person perspective and a setting with which the central character was very familiar. I had hoped the foreign setting of Retribution would allow any necessary info-dumping to be handled more naturally. Unfortunately I still found the info-dumping distracting. Another irritation that has found its way into this volume is a tendency to overuse vague descriptive adjectives. In addition, at times I felt the language – particularly in some of the dialogue – was strangely formal. The result was that I was less able to enjoy the story because these issues kept forcing me to pay attention to the mechanics of the writing.

In conclusion, this is a well-constructed story, which more or less stands on its own (though I would recommend would-be readers to begin with Drakenfeld to get a better understanding of Lucan and Leana and, indeed, of the historical background to the Vispasian Union). Sadly I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it because of the aforementioned issues with the writing. However, anyone who enjoyed Drakenfeld will certainly want to read Retribution as the second act in a larger drama involving the future of the entire Vispasian Union.

18 July 2016

Son of the Morning

A review of Son of the Morning by Mark Alder (Gollancz, 2014) – originally published in Interzone

My initial reaction when this arrived in the post was trepidation: This is a very big book by an unknown author. In my experience, fantasies that can double as doorstops and/or sprawl over multiple volumes often sacrifice quality on the altar of quantity. On the other hand, the book has been enthusiastically endorsed by Robert Adams who is not known for his tolerance of bad writing.

Son of the Morning is a historical fantasy set at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. Alder has set himself the challenging task of telling ‘an accurate historical epic’ and superimposing upon it a mythology in which he reworks medieval Christian cosmology. In his take on the Hundred Years War, heaven and hell have entered the fray. France is defended not only by a large human army but also by several angels. Edward III is determined not to bow to Philip VI but he is reluctant to engage in direct conflict because the English angels have been notable by their absence since his father’s death. However, a possible alliance with the devils could tip the balance in England’s favour.

This is where Alder’s reworking of Christian theology becomes particularly interesting. He makes a distinction between devils and demons. The latter are powerful spiritual beings who have been supplanted by God. This divine usurper has imprisoned his rivals in hell, and the devils are God’s gaolers. With the demons safely out of the way, God has been able to exercise an iron rule over earth through the agency of his other servants, the angels.

However, the demons are fighting back. Led by Lucifer (who in this mythology is equated with Christ), they have carved out a free enclave within hell. Now they are seeking to regain a foothold on earth. For some time they have had human supporters but now their agent, Antichrist, has been born. The son of a human king and a fallen angel, he has the potential to transform this human conflict into a cosmic confrontation.

The publishers would have us compare this with the works of Bernard Cornwell and George Martin. Perhaps so, but for me, the obvious comparisons were Sarah Douglass’s Crucible trilogy, which operates from the remarkably similar premise of angels and demons interfering in the Hundred Years War (though she begins her series much later in the reign of Edward III), and Maurice Druon’s series Les Rois Maudits, which is a remarkable dramatization of events in France preceding the Hundred Years War (some of which are alluded to by characters in Son of the Morning).

Alder’s characterization is very impressive. The dramatis personae are all lovingly crafted individuals with their own distinctive voices. Not surprisingly, the dialogue is utterly convincing. As a result of this care, I found myself sympathizing with each character in turn, even with some who might simply be presented as one-dimensional villains in a less nuanced novel. This also has the effect of turning the novel into a complex network of stories interweaving into each other as we follow each of the main characters in turn.

Equally compelling is the descriptive dimension of the novel. He brings the period to life in a way that is rarely the case with historical fantasy. If anything, his handling of the supernatural elements of the story is even more striking. I particularly liked his approach to the angels, which are portrayed as surreal, otherworldly, but recognizably humanoid beings. As for his devils, they come straight out of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

In summary, the quality of writing is remarkably (even suspiciously) assured for an unknown novelist. The reason for this became apparent as I was browsing the publishers’ website some time after finishing the novel. It appears that Mark Alder is a new pseudonym rather than a new writer. This is, in fact the work of M.D. Lachlan (aka Mark Barrowcliffe) of Wolfsangel fame (which I reviewed enthusiastically four years ago).

I must confess I am less enthusiastic about Son of the Morning than I was about Wolfsangel. Yes, the writing is excellent but I’m not convinced the storyline can bear its weight. As I worked my way through the latter half of the novel I became increasingly ambivalent: I wanted to luxuriate in the characterization and description but I became increasingly impatient to get to the end. This problem was compounded by the sheer expansiveness of the storyline: its takes place over the best part of a decade; it is composed as already mentioned of multiple storylines woven together to tell the larger story; and the parts don’t always hang together as well as they might.



I was left feeling that somehow the whole seemed less than the sum of the parts. Nevertheless, the whole is still a remarkably good read and a promising start to a new fantasy series. I look forward to the next volume.

17 July 2016

This is not a crucifix

This is the profession cross of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis. People receive it when they become professed members of the Order. For Tertiaries, it is roughly the equivalent of the habit worn by our First and Second Order brothers and sisters.

It is not a crucifix.

I know . . . first impressions. But in the West, crucifixes normally bear a three-dimensional image of Christ. Instead this cross bears a mere outline of Christ’s body, a silhouette if you like. When I look at it, I do not see a crucifix; I see an empty cross that has had etched into it a memory of crucifixion. And that is just as it should be: the empty cross bears witness to our Lord’s resurrection, but the shadow of crucifixion reminds us of his suffering on our behalf.

11 July 2016

Drakenfeld

A review of Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton (Tor, 2013) – originally published in Interzone

I have been looking forward to this novel since the author started dropping hints about it on his blog. He has made no secret of the fact that the story was inspired by his interest in Roman culture and by C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake novels (detective stories set in Tudor England). The result is part historical fantasy, part detective story, which for me is an irresistible combination.

The fantasy world he has created is an interesting take on the late Roman Empire. Instead of an empire, his Vispasian Royal Union is a federation of equal kingdoms held together by shared economic interests rather than a central authority. You might expect such a federation to be very unstable, but Newton postulates a neutral peacekeeping force made up of the brightest, best and strongest of the member nations and large enough to keep individual nations in line. His central character, Lucan Drakenfeld is an agent of that force, the Sun Chamber.

The setting may be a fantastical take on Rome, but that is about as far as the fantasy element goes. At one point, Drakenfeld does encounter what might be a ghost. But, apart from that, there are none of the usual trappings of fantasy. In this respect, Mark’s approach to historical fantasy is reminiscent of that taken by Guy Gavriel Kay.

The detective element of the story is a straightforward locked room mystery. Drakenfeld has returned to his home city because of his father’s death. He receives a summons from the palace: Princess Lacanta has been found murdered inside a locked temple and there is no sign of a murder weapon. He may have a trusty assistant (Leana), but he is no Sherlock Holmes (and she is no Watson). There are no amazing feats of deduction, no brilliant intuitive leaps. Instead he systematically eliminates hidden exits and supernatural explanations and begins to suspect sleight of hand, which casts suspicion on all the courtiers who were present in the palace on the evening of the murder. As he pursues the investigation, the body count rises and the finger of suspicion points at a succession of highly placed individuals.

In addition to the central investigation, there are a couple of secondary stories. While dealing with his father’s affairs, Drakenfeld discovers that his father did not die of natural causes. Soon he has uncovered evidence of drug taking and large debts. Just what was his father involved in? Then there is the story of Drakenfeld’s relationship with Titiana, an ex-lover with whom he is reunited shortly after his return. Both of these secondary stories are neatly tied back into the central story in ways that seem perfectly natural.

Another aspect of the book that is perhaps more characteristic of detective stories than of fantasies is the first person viewpoint: the story is told entirely by Drakenfeld himself. Newton does a good job of developing Drakenfeld’s character, largely by means of his reflections on his relationships with Leana, his father, and Titiana. The result is more than a little reminiscent of Sansom’s Shardlake if you substitute the emotional crippling of growing up with an overbearing father for a physical deformity. Like Shardlake, Drakenfeld is conscious of his own inadequacies, uncomfortable with power (and the violence associated with wielding it), and dependent on his assistant to save him from dangerous situations.

I was less convinced by many of the secondary characters. Apart from Leana, they tended to be stereotypical. Leana, however, is a gem: a foreign woman who can match Drakenfeld for intelligence but who is also a very capable warrior. She enables Mark to indicate the racism and the sexism of the society he has created without being heavy-handed about it.

At 430 pages the story is long for a mystery and the action does flag from time to time (usually when Drakenfeld becomes introspective). But the storyline is strong enough to retain the reader’s interest through the odd slow patch.

The world-building in the novel is very good. Tryum is clearly inspired by imperial Rome, and Mark does a good job of evoking the darker side of the city: the violence, poverty, dingy bars and crumbling lodging houses are nicely juxtaposed against the opulence and conspicuous consumption of the royal precincts. I also like the way he gradually builds up the larger political picture and begins to set the scene for subsequent novels.

Unfortunately there is a certain amount of unsubtle info-dumping. He does try to use Leana’s foreign-ness as a pretext, but this is of limited use since a created world needs a lot of background information. The real problem here is the choice of a first person perspective combined with a central character who is very familiar with the society being described. I was also irritated by some of the writing, for example, redundancies such as ‘hurrying . . . in haste’ (p. 59); modern expressions like ‘narrative timeline’ (p. 69), which tended to disrupt my willing suspension of disbelief; and an overuse of vague adjectives (particularly lovely, beautiful and remarkable).

Those niggles apart, this is a really good read. If, like me, you are fed up with the ‘grimdark’ tendency in recent fantasy, you will welcome Drakenfeld as a satisfying antidote. I’m certainly looking forward to Drakenfeld’s next case.

Hide Me Among the Graves

A review of Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (Corvus, 2012) – originally published in Interzone

Tim Powers has returned to the world of his 1989 novel The Stress of Her Regard, which was set in the early decades of the nineteenth century and involved Byron, Keats and Shelley. Hide Me Among the Graves is largely set in Victorian London between the years 1862 and 1877 and involves two main sets of characters, one fictional and the other historical. The main fictional characters are John Crawford, a veterinary surgeon and the son of one of the protagonists of the earlier novel, and an ex-prostitute Adelaide McKee. Their historical counterparts are Christina Rossetti, her siblings and some of their associates.

The book opens with the teenage Christina reawakening the spirit that had possessed her uncle and now resides in a statuette belonging to her father. She later admits this to her sister and together they attempt unsuccessfully to lay the spirit to rest. Thus the scene is set for a complex plot in which the protagonists struggle to rid London of these beings.

Powers has done a masterful job of reinventing the vampire myth with these creatures, which he identifies with the biblical Nephilim. These ‘vampires’ have some of the characteristics of the classical creative daimon: they draw on the vitality of their human victims, but in return they endow those victims with remarkable creativity.

As ever, he tells a gripping story, weaving the biographies of several historical characters into a romp around the underbelly of Victorian London. I particularly like the way he superimposes a secret supernatural history upon the public history we all know. The creativity of the Rossetti family and their friends and acquaintances as well as the tragedies they suffer are explained in terms of their interaction with the Nephilim. Powers has researched the Rossettis and their context meticulously and uses that research to bring both Victorian London and his secret history to life. I am fascinated by the way he takes apparently trivial details (e.g. Gabriel Rossetti’s pet name for his wife, Trelawny’s mysterious mistress Miss B) or carefully selected quotations from Christina and her circle and uses them to reinforce his secret history.

One of the great strengths of his writing is his characterization and the complexity of the characters he develops. Christina is torn between guilt over her teenage indiscretion and genuine love for the entity that once possessed her uncle. Similar points could be made about every one of the central characters. And even the secondary characters Trelawny and Swinburne are lovingly developed.

At times, Powers seems to play elaborate games for the sheer fun of it. For example, a nursery rhyme becomes a mnemonic for Latin phrases that placate the genii loci presiding over subterranean London.

I confess that I attempted (unsuccessfully) to pick holes in his construct. Perhaps a scholar of the period would have more luck. His attention to detail and his ability to manipulate those details to serve the story he is telling are quite amazing.

This is intelligent, literate supernatural storytelling at its very best, a Gothic novel for the twenty-first century.

04 July 2016

Warring States

A review of Warring States by Aidan Harte (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) – originally published in Interzone

Warring States is the second volume of Aidan Harte’s Wave Trilogy. Its predecessor, Irenicon, was a very accomplished debut novel and for me one of the most memorable books of 2012. So, as you can imagine, I have been waiting impatiently for the next instalment.

Harte has not disappointed me. There are several important continuities between the volumes, which ensure that Warring States is as satisfying as Irenicon. For a start there is the same engaging prose. Then there is the complex world-building: he continues to develop his fascinating, and at times disturbing, riff on Renaissance Italy while adding into the mix his own take on Byzantium and the Kingdom of Acre. So with this second instalment a much bigger picture is gradually unfolding. And this bigger picture gives him a larger canvas for his vivid descriptions: there are new cities to explore, and the dangers of the Middle Sea and the Desert of Oltremare to be braved.

He begins this episode by backtracking to tell the back stories of Torbidda, a low class Concordian boy who rises to become First Apprentice of Concord in the wake of the events in Irenicon, and Leto, Torbidda’s ally who becomes the head of Concord’s armed forces. Harte’s ability to develop complex and convincing characters is worth mentioning here. With Torbidda, he has achieved the very difficult feat of depicting how Concord’s education system turns him into a cold-blooded murderer while portraying him in such a way that reader still finds him sympathetic. Part II picks up the story of Sofia Scaligeri, the central character of Irenicon, and traces her flight from Rasenna as she seeks a place of safety for birth of her child. Parts III and IV follow Sofia as she goes first to Ariminum (Harte’s version of Venice) and eventually reaches what she hopes will be the safe haven of Akka. At the same time, he weaves into Sofia’s story the parallel story of Torbidda’s struggles to retain control of Concord, to understand the truth of the Molè, the sinister building designed by Girolamo Bernoulli that dominates Concord, and to resist the Molè’s efforts to manipulate and possess him.

Harte also begins to develop hints from Irenicon that this is part of a much bigger cosmological conflict. It appears that Sofia’s unborn son has a messianic role to play and that the child’s ancient adversary is also seeking to be reborn and is manipulating world events to achieve final victory. The volume concludes with a cliff-hanger, namely, the reappearance in Concord of the messianic child’s ancient enemy.

Having said that Harte’s new volume did not disappoint me, I should mention that I have one or two caveats. This is very much the second volume of a trilogy: Irenicon is essential reading if you wish to understand what is going on. More of a problem is that I felt Warring States to be inconclusive: the story arcs that Harte has created are left hanging in mid-air rather than being given any kind of interim resolution. Taken together with the cliff-hanger ending, I found this more than a little annoying. Unusually, I am prepared to forgive this and give the book a qualified recommendation because of Harte’s accomplished use of language, his clever and complex world-building, and his very satisfying characterization.

In sum, if you haven’t read Irenicon, you should look at it first. If you enjoyed Irenicon, you will certainly want to read Warring States.