Recent Reads

The last few months have seen me return to using the Kindle app on my phone to catch up on reading on my way to and from work – and I’ve mostly been mainlining Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series.

The concept of the series is relatively simple to those of us with a geeky side, or at least an appreciation of mathematics and Lovecraftian horrors. Magic is basically advanced mathematics. The performing of complex mathematic formulae resonates with other dimensions and attracts the attention and response of entities in those nearby realities. Most of those entities are generally inimical to life in our set of dimensions. 

To try and mitigate the effects of rising numbers of people and computers the British Civil Service contains a secretive branch descended from the wartime SOE (Special Operations Executive) which tidies things up before things like the transfiguration of Wolverhampton into Nyarlahotep become more than an ill-defined PhD paper, or a televangelist can resurrect a Sleeping God.

Just don’t forget your security pass when entering the office after hours or you’ll be eaten by the Residual Human Resources (don’t use the Z-word).

It’s a great series available for not a lot of money, and it makes me quietly giggle on the bus so that more people than usual shuffle away from me. Go find it, it’ll make you smile without even needing a geas.

Book Review: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris

I’m a great fan of urban fantasy that takes advantage of London’s layered past and present. I’m a Londoner, born and bred, and one of my joys is hunting down folktales and legends associated with this amazing city. Stories that go play in that landscape tick an awful lot of intellectual and emotional boxes for me.

That’s what brought me to The Wolves of London, and it’s not led me far wrong. The concept seemed fairly simple – an ex-con lured back into a life of crime coming into possession of something magical that nightmarish figures fight to steal away – but the execution is anything but that.
This is better described as a crime-horror thriller than an urban fantasy. There’s a definite sense of two worlds side by side and the horrors seem to eclipse the world of gangsters in a rising tide as the story progresses; but it’s flawed.

The book is noted as being book one of the Obsidian Heart trilogy, and it definitely suffers from it. It becomes clear that this is the type of trilogy where the story is told across the three books, rather than the three books necessarily being Acts that stand on their own.

About two thirds into this book I began to wonder how the waving threads were going to end up being resolved, and then things started expanding and the titular macguffin began to be a bit of a Deus Ex Machina. It makes for some unsettling and spectacular set pieces, but I found myself less and less gripped by the story.

It’s frustrating. There’s a lot of very vivid imagery on display, and some nicely written characters with intriguing interactions on the normal side of the fence, but the Wolves are ciphers and the story increasingly feels like a video game rather than a narrative.

I don’t know. Maybe the trilogy as a whole will work, but if it does I feel it will be despite the structure of the story, not because of it.

Three out of Five Stabby Monstrosities

Book Review: The Devil’s Detective – Simon Kurt Unsworth

I picked this book up on a whim, and after a couple of false starts I was able to devote some time to this dense police procedural set in Hell. I’m glad I persevered with it.

Hell, as depicted here, is definitely other people. The days of burning brimstone are long gone, and instead a crushing and labyrinthine Bureaucracy exists. The Damned don’t remember why they are here, only that they deserve the brutality of demons and crushing banality and squalor around them. 

Our protagonist, Thomas Fool, is one of Hell’s Information Men, tasked with solving or at least reporting on crimes committed against humans. There’s usually no resolutions or punishments and it’s another thankless and unending task that is as much a punishment as anyone else’s.

Brutalised bodies start cropping up, an angelic delegation is in town on an inspection and to administer a lottery of souls to be released from Hell, and Thomas knows that all eyes are on him.

The violence is grisly and the misery unrelenting, and yet like Dante’s Inferno there are new visions and even a beauty in the unfolding structure. I feared I was in for an extended short story by someone who had read too much Neil Gaiman, but I was relieved that instead there was an individual voice and inventiveness at play. This is a story that puts it’s own stamp on the tone and narrative.

There’s some intriguing world building here, and I was pleased that it wasn’t spoon-fed to me, leaving room for ambiguity and inquisitiveness to match that of the weary narrator and protagonist. Not every plot twist was a complete surprise, but by the same token nothing felt entirely pulled from a hat, staying in keeping with the established rules of the setting.

What was a pleasant (for lack of a better word) turn of events were the changes to the status quo along the way that served to underline the treacherous nature of Hell. I’m torn between wanting more books in this setting and being happy with it as a standalone tale.

Over all, an engaging read once I got to grips with it, with unrelenting misery that serves a purpose. Four out of five pitchforks.

Book Review: The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch

hangingtreeI’ve been waiting on this book for what seems like an age, and then with everything that’s been going on recently I then managed to completely lose track of the publication date. It was therefore a very nice surprise to realise on the first day of my leave that it had downloaded to my Kindle.

What follows is a spoiler-free review based on my first read-through, completed yesterday in a single read while wrapped up in bed with multiple mugs of Bovril though the morning.

If you’ve not read any of the Peter Grant novels or comics before then this will still be enjoyable, but you really do need to go an read what has come before so that you get half the context of half the references in this story.

Go on – this review and book will still be waiting for you. Don’t miss out the comics which have already been collected in a bound trade paperback either – they are in continuity and are set between the events of the last book (Foxglove Summer) and this one.

Right, that should keep the newcomers busy while we get on with this. As the last paragraph reveals, the comics are worth reading, for the same reason that you should have read the previous novels – but they are not vital. That is the joy of this series, and this book in particular. Any references to previous stories’ events and characters are dealt with as colour rather than necessities – throwaway comments that hint at the rich stew of past adventures rather than relying on them as plot points. Anything relevant to the immediate plot is laid out for you briskly so that continuity is a scaffolding rather than a scaffold. (See what I did there?)

I do wonder, and I’ll be sure to ask when I next get to a book signing, if this attention to detail and back-story has been enhanced by the experience of writing a comic book. There seem to be so many callbacks and characters popping up that you could be forgiven for wanting to make your own case wall to keep track of everyone. It’s a massive contrast to the leafy and somewhat isolated themes of the previous novel, which seemed intent on keeping the regular characters as much on the borders of the story as possible.

The strength of this series, for me, has always been the ensemble cast and the interactions between them. The usual dry and self-deprecating humour in Peter’s internal monologues continues – a comfort blanket of caustic wit that draws you in and along on his journey without being actively mean. All the regular cast get moments to shine without edging out either the protagonist or the plot – and the story fills out yet more back story for certain characters that will add weight for re-readings of earlier books.

At one point I was going to make the criticism that the book has so many recurring characters that it was in danger of getting muddled. New characters introduced in this story go a long way towards spacing things back out again and adding new ingredients to the mix, but even so there were points where I did ask myself if the whole thing was going to wrap itself up in a Möbius Strip and strangle the plot.

To my great relief, that didn’t happen. There are resolutions, and climactic battles that bounce from suspense to drama to surreal humour to wide-screen action without breaking sweat and I finished the story with a sense of satisfaction.

But

There’s an awful lot of sub-plots waving in the wind, setting things up for future tales. I don’t know if they will be resolved in the comics, or in future stories and I do hope that the temptation to throw plot points at the wall to see what sticks is avoided. I keep going back to the comic books and the influence of that writing style. Chris Claremont, legendary writer of the X-Men, became famous and then notorious for throwing sub-plots into the wind and then taking forever to resolve them, if he ever did. It lead to a soap opera feel where laying threads for future plots sometimes made the current plot play second fiddle.

I really hope that Ben Aaronovitch resists this temptation. I also hope that the comics generally stay as their own thing that occasionally get referenced in the novels, rather than important story elements shifting over to the new medium for resolution. Cross-media storytelling can be fun, but it shouldn’t be at the risk of confusing people as to where their plot lines have disappeared to. The balance seems to be about right at the moment, I’m happy to say.

Like life, there are no definitive endings, and there are always loose ends, which plays to the aforementioned loose plot points. There’s no grand closing of the book, just the sign off on the case, and the realisation that life goes on. This has been another chapter in Peter Grant’s life, just like each month is for the rest of us. We’ll see how he’s moved on and grown in the next instalment.

So if you can’t already tell, I really enjoyed this book. It doesn’t contain the wisdom of the ages and its generally light fare, and that’s absolutely a selling point. It’s fun. It rewards regular readers with knowing nods and small updates, and best of all tells a story.

Can’t ask fairer than that. Five out of Five Lux Scinderes

Measuring Manhood

There are hours, days, even weeks, or months where the concept of defining who or what I am against some arbitrary measure of manhood doesn’t even flicker across my senses. Even the phrase “measuring manhood” is loaded with the humour of the playground and the imagery of testosterone-addled youths looking for any excuse to prove dominance or alleged maturity.

And yet, in the introspection of counselling, and especially in darker moments, concepts of masculinity and perceived worth have often spun round in ever decreasing circles and given me pause for thought. Our household is one where I am not the biggest financial provider at this moment, and I contribute with cooking and cleaning and a thousand small touches instead. The desire to provide for those I love can feel thwarted if I only acknowledge the financial aspect of support, forgetting the value of just being there and running the household, cracking awful jokes and picking people up when they need a hand.

I like to tell myself I’m an intelligent, educated and reasonably self-aware individual who sidesteps stereotypes of masculinity; and yet I can and do derive a certain caveman-like satisfaction in barbecues, beer, uncomplicated visceral humour involving bodily functions and sex. Not necessarily all at the same time, but also not necessarily as entirely mutually exclusive activities.

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This is probably why I had no problem picking up this book in the library, enjoying the joke, and taking it home to flip through with Lady M. We duly spent a good half hour or so curled up and giggling at the categories and descriptions of different “manly” and “anti-manly” activities and the points associated with them.

Activities such as starting fires, getting a table in a restaurant without booking, flying a plane in an emergency, unblocking a toilet, or investigating strange noises in the night are all defined, rated, and embellished in a strange cod hyper macho sarcastic tone that is a sheer subversive joy. The anti-manly penalties to your manliness total include sleepovers, cocktails, rom-coms, and watching The Notebook.

Lady M joked we could use the book to work out who the bitch is in our house, but we gave up scoring in favour of acknowledging Lady P’s contention that we’re already awesome, and that if you need a book to tell you how manly you are, you’ve already surrendered your man card whatever gender you identify as.

Quick Book Review: Glasslands by Karen Traviss

Title: Glasslands

Author: Karen Traviss

ISBN: 978-0-7653-3040-6

Synopsis: Set in the Halo universe (as in, the series of Halo games by Bungie and 343 Industries), the tale follows an ONI team on a mission to foment Sanghelli insurrection in the aftermath of the events of Halo 3. Meanwhile, Dr Halsey, the creator of the Spartans – long thought killed in the fall of Reach – is trying to escape the Forerunner slipspace bubble at the heart of the destroyed artificial planet called Onyx.

Thoughts and Themes: I’ll put my hand up now and admit I wasn’t expecting much from this novel, but Karen Traviss has garnered a reputation of being able to breathe life into franchise-based novels with a good eye for characterisation so when I saw this on the shelves in my local library I thought I’d give it a go. I’m glad I did.

The story unfolds through three primary strands that eventually intersect in a way I didn’t find too contrived and is woven into the wider Halo universe by referencing cut-scenes and outcomes at the end of the game rather than through the publishing of a timeline. As a standalone story, I didn’t feel the need to have read any other novels or even to have played the game itself though I suspect from how easily I recognised elements from the game that if I had read any others they would be just as gently referenced. With the announcement last year of a new game being published in the series there were also enough vague hints dropped to suggest possible ways in which this story may inform the setting and themes of Halo 4 without being heavy handed or even committing the developers in such a way as to leave the book looking suddenly out of continuity if different editorial decisions are made down the line.

As a standalone book then, what were the themes that spoke to me? There was a lot of discussion and debate on facing the sins of the past that resonates strongly with the current ‘War on Terror’ in our world. It is revealed that the original Spartan supersoldiers were kidnapped as children by Dr Halsey, abused and mindwashed, and effectively treated as child soldiers as a response to colonial strife rather than having been miraculously created to fight on behalf of humanity against the threat of the Covenant. A lot more of the book is concerned with exploring the aftermath of a thirty-year long war: not just the physical damage but the social effects on both sides. For humanity, what does it mean when there is a whole generation who have never known what peace is? For the scattered fragments of the races that made up the Covenant, how do they adapt back to not having rigidly defined caste structures and what happens when the controlling forces that ruled them are suddenly not in place to quell violent disagreements between factions? There are shades here of the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq that make for interesting parallels, and I suspect that this is entirely intentional. I don’t think the story or setting suffers for it.

I found the book easy to read, and with only occasional moments of action at key points, I also found it a more thoughtful novel than I had been expecting from a franchise revolving around aliens, the fight for humanity’s survival, black ops missions and the aftermath of war. A lot of time is spent fleshing out the alien culture here. Not having read any other books connected to the franchise I found it interesting to find a light being cast onto areas that just don’t often occur during a first person shooter and I’d hope to see this quality of writing carried forward in anything else published around this franchise.