Thursday 6 December 2007

Laurie R. King: The Beekeeper's Apprentice (1994)

Published: HarperCollins, 2000

The number of novels which have purported to be lost Sherlock Holmes stories is immense, many times more pages than make up "the canon", as Holmes fanatics denote the tales of Arthur Conan Doyle. Like most literary pastiches, few of these can be said to be worth reading. Definitely forming part of this small minority are the Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King, of which this is the first.

Mary Russell, at the start of the novel, is an intellectual fifteen year old, studying while walking across the Sussex Downs during the First World War. She is concentrating so hard that she almost steps on a man watching bees. In the ensuing conversation, it becomes clear that she has met Sherlock Holmes himself, retired into Sussex to take up beekeeping (a detail taken straight from "the canon"). Impressed by her intelligence, Holmes takes Mary under his wing, and begins to train her in his investigative methods, culminating in a shared investigation into concerted attempts to kill Holmes.

King is rather cavalier in her attitude to the canon when it suits her, though this and others of her novels (not all in this series) indicate that she knows it extremely well. The most obvious deviation is in the age of Holmes, who becomes about a generation younger than Doyle makes him, which would make him barely out of his teens in the earliest stories. (This change, Holmes tells Mary, was made so that readers of Watson's tales would take the detective seriously.) From King's point of view, this change makes the novel and its successors possible, as Holmes is now in early middle age rather than in his late sixties when he meets Mary. This alone might put off Holmes purists, but King goes on to make more subtle but far-reaching changes: not so much from the facts of the canon, but to the character of Holmes himself.

Doyle's original Holmes is cold and analytical, with quirks such as the violin playing added to give a certain amount of humanity to what is essentially a detecting machine. King changes this slightly, rejecting the attributes which are not so acceptable today (drug addiction, and a modified attitude to women) and deepens the character farther, in a rather more convincing way. But he is not the Sherlock Holmes that fans have known for over a century, even if he can still distinguish the different types of cigar ash left by criminals. Clearly, she wants to buy into the Holmes background without the encumbrances of the original character; if this is a problem, then this novel and the series as a whole is not for you. I personally am in two minds about it; I like the way that others have taken the same characteristics rejected by King and made them the peg on which to hang their own re-interpretation of Sherlock Holmes (such as Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution), but on the other hand, King's character makes for a more rounded novel and makes her ideas possible - in particular, the relationship with Mary Russell.

Ignoring the questionable nature of the Mary Russell series' relationship with the Holmes canon, The Beekeeper's Apprentice and its sequels are satisfying crime novels in their own right.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Charles Stross: Glasshouse (2006)

Published: Orbit, 2006

Glasshouse (named from British army slang for a military prison) is basically a spy novel set in the future. The central character, Robin, starts the book recovering from memory surgery, a standard voluntary brainwashing technique which is part of psychiatric treatment: but he doesn't remember why he had memories removed, nor why the process was quite so drastic as it turned out to be. Then he is recruited for an experiment, in which he will live in a recreated environment from "the Dark Ages" (roughly, today) ostensibly to derive information and understanding lacking from the historical record (essentially because the knowledge required to understand our proprietary computer file formats has been lost). This sort of experiment has been done already: a famous attempt to get several families to live in a reconstructed Iron Age village in the late seventies was the earliest reality TV series I remember watching. When Robin wakes up in the experimental domain, he is no longer a man, but has been turned into a housewife in an environment distinctly reminiscent of the film Pleasantville. The undertones are even more sinister, as this isn't just a sitcom reflecting the attitudes of the fifties, but an experiment with a hidden purpose. This is made clear to Robin (or Reeve, as she is now known) when she realises that all the participants have been made fertile - this is normally a deliberate choice in their culture - and the aim appears to be to create a generation who know no other life than the experiment.

Using science fiction to satirise the attitudes of the present is hardly cutting edge science fiction. Even the use of time travel, re-enactment or simulation is common: it forms a major part of the film Star Trek IV, as well featuring in Pleasantville already mentioned. Other science fiction joins Stross in describing our age as psychotic or crazy (notably Robert Heinlein's Future History stories). Stross is at the edge end of this tendency in the genre, certainly more so than anything mentioned, but his writing here also contains much humour. (This is generally his writing style: dark but knowing.) The principal way in which Stross differs from many of the others who have satirised the present day in this way is that his future setting is very different from our own, even though the way in which it could have come about (apart from the unexplained cornucopia technology) is fairly believable as are continuing parallels with our own time (such as the detail that the cornucopia machines are subject to hacking and the equivalents of computer viruses) and people who are still recognisably human. To compare with Heinlein again, in his earlier works his future society is hardly distinguishable from that which he describes as crazy. Glasshouse also has a really good ending, after Reeve starts receiving messages that Robin had implanted deep into his subconscious before the memory surgery.

Glasshouse is publicised as a sequel to Accelerando, but this doesn't seem quite right to me. While dreaming of similar themes, much of the envisaged future here is different from that at the end of the earlier novel. It doesn't manage to be quite as interesting as Accelerando, which I feel is Stross' strongest work so far; nor is it as entertaining as the Merchant Princes series. However, it is still both interesting and enjoyable, and well worth reading.

Wednesday 31 October 2007

Donald Clarke: The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (1995)

Published: Viking, 1995

What requirements are there for a history of "popular music"? In some ways, Clarke's work seems to fit the bill admirably. While he doesn't actually define what he means by the phrase, and discusses music which has never been all that popular with the general public, the book basically covers music from non-classical genres in the US from the early nineteenth century to the 1960s. He talks briefly about British music in the eighteenth century, and again looks at the UK in the prelude to the British invasion of the mid sixties, and ends with some discussion of later trends (of which more later) and a couple of paragraphs about the music of the rest of the world, but actually he what Clarke is looking at - and what the history of popular music effectively boils down to - is the way that the modern music industry developed, from the first publishers of sheet music for a mass market. In musical terms, the body of work produced by this industry most deserves the label "popular", as a major part of the American cultural domination of the modern world. This doesn't just include music which is popular at the time, but should reasonably also discuss the music which influences popular genres or is not yet popular (such as the blues), and popular music which is no longer primary in the market (such as post-war jazz). Clarke does both, perhaps concentrating too much on the latter. Overall, he has chosen a reasonable interpretation of what is meant by "popular music".

The author of such a history must be knowledgeable about the subject; this is not so easy as it sounds as there are few people who know much about nineteenth century black-face performers and about bebop. While Clarke manages this admirably up to about 1965, he is opinionated and dismissive of almost all popular music since then - jazz, becoming a niche interest by that time, no longer really falls into the "popular" category and should really have been discussed mainly to suggest reasons why it became less popular - it became viewed as "art music", but was this because it became more difficult to understand as a listener, or was it due to perception or marketing?

This brings us to the main problem with the book, which is this antipathy to anything more recent than 1965 or so that isn't jazz. The problem with rock music, as Clarke sees it, is poor musicianship. It is certainly true that the standard to which instruments are played is often lower (though there are virtuoso players - many heavy rock guitarists, for example) and the stars are often bolstered by unsung session musicians (and Clarke misses the opportunity to point to one of the most famous examples of this, the original single version of Mr Tamborine Man by the Byrds) or by production techniques which smooth over the rough edges. However, the democratisation of popular music brought in by rock and roll is something of a return to the earlier traditions of folk musics, with the first half of the twentieth century where professional players and singers provided music for the masses being something of an aberration. This change, though, is effectively what Clarke means as the "fall" of popular music, and he talks about it as the legacy of the fame of Elvis Presley (as a former truck driver with no musical education) and the Beatles (who made it fashionable for bands to write their own material, however poor, rather than relying on professional song writers). However, rock music is popular, without a doubt, and (despite the judgements explicitly promised in the title) a history of popular music shouldn't be so dismissive, particularly as it leads to the omission of several important developments. It would be possible to dismiss jazz for equally personal reasons (I used to feel that except in the hands of an absolute master, improvised solos were just too banal to be worth listening to, for example): just because the author doesn't like a genre, doesn't mean that it's not popular music.

Some of the issues he raises have basically ceased to be the case: Clarke bemoans the loss of local music stores with knowledgeable personnel, and the Internet has more or less replaced this, as people can order just about any recording that's in print (and many that aren't) through Amazon or other record stores, view Web sites which tell them anything they want to know about a band, and listen to music from local (or not so local) up and coming musicians through MySpace and its competitors. Similarly, he is scathing about the quality of US radio, and the rise of independent media such as podcasting has thrown up an alternative. (However, since the nature of podcasts is that the listener needs to actively subscribe, it requires more engagement than overhearing a radio station playing inside a shop, so the two kinds of media are not precisely parallel.) The current fuss about the sharing of music over the Internet is also something which might well have been mentioned had the book been written now (and the importance of the Internet is a measure of how much has changed in the last ten years): it would follow on from the discussion of earlier attempts by the music industry to act restrictively against changes in the marketplace.

In other cases, his opinionated stance means that Clarke almost completely ignores developments which to me seem to be important. The rise of the power of an artist's image is really important in modern popular music, and it is not something ever mentioned directly (MTV and video, crucial elements of this change, get a brief mention). There are entire genres and approaches to music making that are either completely (punk) or almost completely (reggae) left out. Synthesisers are ignored. As a result, The Rise and Fall of Popular Music is at best a personal history of popular music, rather than one which covers everything which should really be in such a book.

In the end, it is fascinating to read, but will probably infuriate many readers. Re-reading it now has certainly inspired me to listen to more jazz: and that means that The Rise and Fall of Popular Music has done the best thing that a book on music can do, which is to send the reader back to the music itself.

Saturday 27 October 2007

Stephen Hunt: The Court of the Air (2007)

Published: HarperVoyager, 2007

Iain MacLeod's The Light Ages is one of my favourite fantasy novels of the decade, and one whose influence seems clear in Stephen Hunt's debut. The world here is very like MacLeod's: a pretty unpleasant early industrial landscape with magic. Rather than the nineteenth century slums of the north of England which interested MacLeod, however, Hunt is clearly inspired by the brutalities of the French Revolution.

Two orphans, one from an orphanage in the city, the other brought up on his uncle's country estate, suddenly find themselves hunted by ruthless killers: they are obviously special to someone, but they have no idea why. In the first half of the novel only the "bad guys" know what is going on (and even they turn out to be disparate groups all keen to trick each other, to carry out schemes designed to put their group on top). This works very well, and by the half way stage, I was thinking that this would be one of my top fantasy novels of 2007.

But then the story moves into a description of an epic battle, with encounters between many of the characters who have been involved in the story so far. This half of the novel is much more problematic. The battle, with ground, aerial and underground forces, as well as a mystical battle and a multiplicity of factions, is extremely complex, and Hunt never really gives enough of the big picture for it to cohere in the mind. (Admittedly, I was suffering from a fever when I was reading the end of The Court of the Air, so my mind was not at its sharpest.)

So, there are many excellent things in The Court of the Air. There are two that I have not mentioned so far: I like to see fantasy novels that stand alone, that do not have to be read as part of a series. Hunt also excels at a key skill of the fantasy genre author, the invention of names, which are vitally important in the depiction of atmosphere. Even so, it fails to live up to its promise, and left me sufficiently disenchanted that I have not even listed Hunt as an author I should look out for in the future.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

Published: Hamish Hamilton (2007)

Having mentioned the Man Booker Prize in my previous post, I now come to the first of my annual read through of the short list. And it is a good one too: I'd rank this a better than any of last year's short list, and probably as the best novel about how 9/11 has changed the world that I have yet read.

At a café in Lahore, a Pakistani man tells his story to a sinister Westerner: how he left his home to study at Princeton, took a prestigious job as a management consultant in Manhattan, fell in love with an American girl; and became a figure of hate in the streets after the attacks, facing uneasy looks everywhere until returning to his home. The story is told just as it would be in such circumstances as a first person narrative with the odd interruption (to order food, or comment on passers by). It is a conversation, even though we only hear the words of one participant. This is really convincing, and gives the story an intimate quality beyond that gained from just the use of the first person perspective.

In some ways, The Reluctant Fundamentalist reads like a first novel, particularly given the parallels with Hamid's own life as evidenced by the biographical details on the book jacket. However, it is in fact his second, and there are deeper possibilities in the construction of the novel than the simple use of autobiographical elements. To Hamid's protagonist, America still seems to be the land of plenty, where his intellectual gifts receive the rewards he deserves; but it is never somewhere to which he is emotionally attached: his girlfriend is too unstable, the affection he has for New York is closely connected to the Pakistani element in the cosmopolitan city (the taxi drivers speak Urdu, and he can live near a café which service authentic cuisine from his home). In other words, he fails the infamous "cricket test". His outsider status goes the other way too: there are just two people in America who seem to care for him at all: a colleague, and their boss. Even there, it just leads to a handshake and an offer of a drink when he leaves the company, which is contrased with the general fear and loathing that his "Arabic" features generate in everybody else.

There are nice small touches, such as the first mention of fundamentals, which comes from the management consultancy: "focus on the fundamentals" is described as the company's guiding principle. The reader is left to decide the implications of this for him or herself. Similarly, given the reaction caused by the narrator's appearance in New York, the reader is aware that the Western man in the Lahore café fits the stereotyped appearance of a CIA agent, just as the narrator's appearance is that of an Islamic fundamentalist. Just because he wears a black suit which bulges in places that might cover a hidden holster, doesn't mean that he is an agent. If nothing else, the message of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is that appearances can be deceptive.

While the style of the writing is deliberately anti-rhetorical, there are clearly rhetorical elements. Just how much is not clear (and it is another issue that readers can decide for themselves): the narrator could be almost entirely truthful, or almost completely mendacious, or anything in between. However, taken at face value, his story is a gentle criticism of extremism, whether Islamic, capitalist, or just plain xenophobic.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a compelling story, a mature reflection on the times in which we live - and may well turn out to be the classic novel of the aftermath of 9/11.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

John le Carré: The Mission Song (2006)

Published: Hodder, 2007

Since Midnight's Children, the legacy of colonial rule has been a popular choice of theme for literary authors, with at least one novel of this type appearing in most year's Booker Prize short list (and frequently proving less than enjoyable in my annual reading of the books on that list). The Mission Song is le Carré's second novel on this theme, after the interesting The Constant Gardener.

The Mission Song is about the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along the border with Uganda and Rwanda. Congo is, to most Westerners, still Conrad's Heart of Darkness: its colonial and post colonial history among the most troubled on the African continent (see the Wikipedia article on the country). In the east, the Rwandan genocide filled the country with refugees and ethnic tension (there were ethnic Tutsi living on the Congolese side of the border before, during, and after the killing). Remote from Congo's capital Kinshasa, the region seems rife for independence; at least, that is the view of the power brokers who are the subjects of The Mission Song.

The narrator, Bruno Salvador, is (by his own reckoning) a top class interpreter who also happens to come from the region, though his background, as the child of an Irish Catholic priest and a local woman makes him an outsider both in Africa and in London where he now lives. This doesn't prevent him being recruited as a proud member of the British Secret Service - he obviously feels that he is accepted by the establishment and working for the good guys.

It is in this role that he is asked to attend a secret meeting between some of the important regional leaders from the eastern Congo. Bruno, under another name, works as their interpreter, but the meeting's participants are unaware of the full range of languages he speaks, and the organisers also use him to provide fuller translations, including transcripts from bugs planted around the hotel. At the start, he recognises some of the participants and admires the principles they adhere to; but this level of access leads to disillusionment as he is privy to the deals, bribes, and even torture which are used to get final agreement to go ahead with an attempted coup in the region.

It is usual in this kind of novel to dwell on the atmosphere of the country in which it is set (done marvellously in, say, The God of Small Things), but almost the entire narrative of The Mission Song takes place in an anonymous European hotel: this book is about the impotency of those who live in Africa, when the decisions which effect their lives are made in such places. The reader never gets to know the identities of the conference sponsors. Only the early reminiscences of Bruno's childhood are set in the Congo.

While slow moving, The Mission Song grips through the depiction of Salvador, whose name is clearly ironic: he is a passive observer of events, not an actor, and certainly not a saviour. He delights in his job, especially the honour of being asked to join the Secret Service, and le Carré's depiction of his naive enjoyment is entertaining and well done, as is the despair alternating with optimism that is the result of his discovery that men he had previously admired were as venal and self serving as any behind their public image.

There is perhaps not much here for fans of George Smiley, but The Mission Song is an indication of the literary quality of le Carré's work: much better and more thought provoking than most of those Booker shortlisted post-colonial novels.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Joe Abercrombie: The Blade Itself (2006)

Published: Gollancz, 2006

The first book of The First Law is a tale of a brutal world. A declining kingdom now faces invasions from resurgent nations from both north and south, nations which have grievances to settle as well as expansionist aims. Its moribund army is dominated by class privilege, as European armies were until the nineteenth century. Interest is more on the annual fencing competition, which includes several major characters who are former winners or current competitors. Another side of life in the Union is shown by chapters focusing on the work of the Inquisition, which is investigating treason by one of the kingdom's richest guilds using torture and intimidation.

As is fairly common in fantasy, the chapters alternate between the viewpoints of major characters, around half a dozen of them. (This technique is used in the genre because it gives a wider impression of an imaginary world while retaining a personal side.) What is slightly unusual here is that these people are not basically nice with a few character flaws to add realism, but pretty unpleasant on the surface with redeeming features hidden underneath. (Three of these characters are described on the back of the second book, Before They are Hanged, as "the most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union".) This makes the book seem very dark indeed, particularly when the characters are carrying out some morally reprehensible activity such as torture: one of the viewpoint characters, Glokta, is a senior figure in the Inquisition. His redeeming features include rather more of a sense of justice than his colleagues, as he is convinced at the beginning that the work he does is necessary and that the those tortured are guilty, a conviction that is undermined through the book by the actions of his superiors, and his background, which was as a war hero captured by the Gurkish and tortured himself for two years. His profession will immediately make a genre fan think of Gene Wolfe's classic New Sun series, which had a torturer as its hero, and there are similarities, but Glokta lives in a nastier world and his activities reflect this - parts of The Blade Itself are not for the squeamish. However, he is one of most interesting of the viewpoint characters, and the chapters involving Glokta always seem to raise the quality of the narrative.

The first law, by the way, forbids mages from communication with supernatural beings (the term used, "the Other Side", has a slightly unfortunate resonance of tacky fake spiritualism): something of a problem when all magic however benign does so in a small way. Readers also learn of the second law, which forbids cannibalism; the consequences of this act are a loss of humanity, with the addition of superpowers. The consequences of breaking the first law are not spelt out, but could well form an interesting part of the later parts of this series.

While the nastiness of some scenes will put off many potential readers, The Blade Itself is a well written and interesting fantasy novel (more so for its characterisation than other features), the start to a series that I will want to read to its resolution.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

Ken MacLeod: The Execution Channel (2007)

Published: Orbit, 2007

Sometimes the line between science fiction and contemporary thriller is a thin one. The Execution Channel is set very slightly in the future, as many thrillers are, but the science fiction elements are minimal and (to my mind) detract from what could have been a fine thriller. The cover strapline tells us that in the book "the war on terror is over ... and terror won"; I don't think this is quite an accurate summary of the novel's contents. In fact, The Execution Channel depicts a Britain weary of the never-ending war on terror (a phrase I always want to put in quotation marks), not trusting its politicians, under heavy surveillance, with curtailed civil liberties and with a military basically taken over by the US; some cynics might say that it is almost like Britain today. The pirate satellite channel known as the Execution Channel is different, if only an extrapolation of some of the more extreme material broadcast by some channels: it shows footage of executions from round the world, and is widely considered to be run by the American intelligence services to bolster support for the war on terror.

It is against this background that the story is set, starting with an atomic explosion at RAF Leuchars in Scotland, which has become a USAF base. As other attacks follow, the combination of cover ups, leaks, deliberately planted and spontaneously generated Internet rumours prove a major part of the novel, which is the first thriller I have read to look at the relationship between blogging and military intelligence, which will obviously increase in the future, building on the importance blogs and social software generally already have in the political arena. The thriller parts of The Execution Channel work well, except for one thing: they don't really lead anywhere. This is in part due to the nature of the war on terror: it has the potential to be a never-ending conflict, rather like the virtual conflict between spam filters and spammers. Can there be an ending, unless it is that "terror won" because the US public got tired of the war?

This is presumably the reason for the science fiction in the story (though of course Ken MacLeod is best known as a science fiction genre writer, so these elements may have come first). Some of it is fairly trivial, such as the throwaway comments that indicate that in the world of the Execution Channel Gore rather than Bush won the 2000 presidential election; 9/11 was hugely different, but the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan still happened. This is not an important part of the plot, but is an interestingly argued little counterfactual.

The denoument of the whole novel also depends on an idea from the SF genre, one which will be fairly familiar to fans. Without revealing it, it is possible to say that, as the final act, it doesn't really work as an explanation for what has gone before. It raises more questions than it answers; it isn't really properly prepared, so appears to be inadequate as an explanation of what happened at Leuchars and insufficiently relevant to the events in the rest of the novel. Apart from the last two chapters, The Execution Channel is pretty good; but it is surely not possible to read it without being disappointed by the ending.

Tuesday 28 August 2007

Linda Fairstein: Bad Blood (2007)

The ninth Alex Cooper mystery begins in the courtroom, where Alex is prosecuting businessman Brendan Quilley for arranging the murder of his wife. The case soon becomes swamped in drama, as the first prosecution witness is forced to reveal that she had slept with Quilley, making her testimony seem to be untrustworthy to the jury and effectively ruining Alex's case. Further complications - an explosion on a construction site killing Quilley's brother, possible links between Quilley and a cold case - quickly follow, and before the reader knows it, Alex is once again chasing bad guys through a strange piece of New York architecture. Where in previous books we've had the derelict institutions on Roosevelt Island, sites associated with Edgar Allan Poe, abandoned railways and remodelled theatres, this time it's tunnels.

The Alex Cooper mysteries belong to a subgenre of the police procedural crime novel in which the detective is someone involved with crime but not in a profession which usually undertakes investigation. Other examples include the Kathy Reichs novels which were the basis for the TV series Bones. While prosecutors do have a role in ensuring that police investigations remain within the law and obtain enough evidence to make a conviction possible, and I know that they have more involvement in the US system than in the UK, the amount to which Alex carries out the detecting seems unlikely to me.

I have now alluded to the biggest problems in Fairstein's series of novels. The implausibility of both the way in which Alex gets involved in her cases and of the situations in which she finds herself in the course of each stroy don't really register while reading the novels, as they carry the reader on fast enough and are involving enough to keep him or her from thinking about such things. The other main problem with the series is the similarity in ideas between the various novels - the quirky locations, the confrontations with the killer, the complicated personal life - are all repeated each time. This makes the first Alex Cooper novel, Final Jeopardy, by far the best. For the rest of them, including Bad Blood, the edge that Alex's specialisation in sex crimes gives to them marks them out from the herd, but otherwise they are basically well written but unremarkable.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

T.H. White: The Age of Scandal (1950)

Published: Penguin, 2000

T.H. White is obviously best known for his Arthur stories, starting with The Sword in the Stone, and after that, for his book on falconry, The Goshawk. So a guess as to which period he would choose as the subject for a series of essays on history would probably be medieval. Instead, The Age of Scandal is about England in the second half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, roughly the reigns of George III and George IV. The book chronicles the scandals of the age (with a chapter on the Marquis de Sade taking it across the Channel), and is really a minimal narrative thread connecting excerpts from contemporary letters and diaries.

That White had views which now seem a little eccentric is evident from the very first sentence: "Well, we have lived to see the end of civilization in England." (Those who read the table of contents before this statement would have realised his eccentricity from the inclusion of an essay entitled Ears.) He believed that the essence of civilisation in England was the country house aristocratic culture that was effectively destroyed by changes in the property laws during the first half of the twentieth century - something which may have made this start seem less outrageous to a committed Tory at the end of Labour's first post-war government. It does seem that the rest of the book is devoted to prove something quite different: that there was nothing civilised about the late eighteenth century either.

On the other hand, he may well not have intended this to be taken seriously. Among his other suggestions that must surely be tongue in cheek is the suggestion that the reason that the French revolution failed to spread to England was that the English have a sense of humour. Later, White quotes an English description of King Christian VII of Denmark, which ends, "That is all that decency permits to be said, the rest must be imagined." Then, linking this to an account by a French writer who is much less discrete, he adds, "It need not be imagined, however, by people who understand French."

There are lots of interesting, amusing and enjoyable quoted documents in The Age of Scandal. It is not the place to look for in depth analysis, or indeed for anything (the lack of an index makes it almost useless for reference). White also expects a knowledge of the events of the period; people and events are referred to without explanation or further mention. But if you have a passing familiarity with the personalities, reading the highlights and raciest sections of contemporary accounts of them is fascinating. The bittiness which comes from being a collection of essays is something of a problem, with events referred to without being described elsewhere when in a more unified narrative they surely would be (scandals involving the sons of George III are a case in point; despite an essay on Royal Gossip, there are other scandals mentioned elsewhere that do not appear in that section at all). But otherwise this is a most entertaining read.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Richard Morgan: Black Man (2007)

Published in the US as Thirteen.
Published: Gollancz, 2007

On the assumption that any technology developed by the human race will be used in for short term gain without consideration of the consequences or of ethics, the outlook for genetic engineering is frightening. That is the basic premise of Black Man, Richard Morgan's latest novel (published in the US as Thirteen, presumably because the publishers there - Del Rey - don't want readers to assume that it is about racism). Richard Morgan envisages the production of three types of genetically modified human being: the hibernoids, considered ideal for space exploration because they hibernate; bonobos, submissive bimbos produced for the sex trade; and thirteens, sociopathic individuals expected to be super-soldiers. None of these groups performed as expected by their makers, and by the time in which Black Man is set, they are rarities, feared and hated by many. The thirteens are the most feared, with the result that they have been declared non-humans, not covered by human rights legislation. Most of them have emigrated to Mars to escape the restrictions placed on them on Earth.

Carl Marsalis is not just a thirteen, but a renegade: he hunts down other thirteens for the UN. However, when he is arrested in Miami, he is left to rot in a brutal Jesusland jail - Jesusland being the fundamentalist state that has seceded from the US - until his expertise is needed. A thirteen has escaped from indentured service on Mars, getting back onto a ship returning to earth. A glitch in the hacker code needed to override the normal cryogenics so that he could get on board means that this thirteen has been woken up only two weeks into the journey, surviving the remainder by brutally butchering the other passengers and eating their body parts. The shuttle crashes in the Pacific, and a killing spree begins. So Marsalis is freed from prison, and sets out, abrasively and violently, to track down the missing thirteen.

In many ways, Black Man is a maverick cop thriller with added science fiction elements. I can't really think of a way that the SF ideas really add anything to the story at all. In the Takeshi Kovacs novels, starting with Altered Carbon, the ideas are fascinating in themselves and a vital part of the plot and atmosphere of the novel. It seems that without Kovacs, Morgan has problems putting together anything beyond a science fiction inflected violent thriller; his other non-Kovacs novel, Market Forces has similar problems. Here, things are worse, because Marsalis is too much like Kovacs (minus a sense of humour), making it look as though Morgan is incapable of writing a range of characters.

My feeling is that publishing this novel as it is was a mistake. Morgan should have been encouraged to revise it, beefing up the science fiction content, improving the characterisation (particularly of the female characters) and reducing the violence. Genetic manipulation is obviously a topic that science fiction should be exploring at the moment, but this is not the novel to start a debate on how it should be handled.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

Published: Bloomsbury, 2007

This blog entry is not so much a review as a reaction as I read the early chapters (the first ten or so) of the most eagerly anticipated novel of all time. So there are not going to be spoilers for anything later than these chapters. I may return to this post later and add a comment about the later sections of the novel.

Over eleven million copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were ordered in advance of its release. The only literary events I can think of that rivalled the publication of The Deathly Hallows are the appearances of the serial parts of Dickens' novels in the nineteenth century. While there are obvious differences (Dickens released his novels in a large number of individual parts, rather than Rowling's complete novels making up a series; and Dickens' plots were a lot more predictable in broad outline, so there wasn't speculation about, for example, whether the hero might die). Does the fanaticism mean that Rowling's work last as long as Dickens'? Plenty of old bestsellers have gone completely from the public consciousness - Marie Corelli, for example, was one of the biggest sellers of the early part of the twentieth century, but it would be unusual to see her books even in second hand shops. Will Rowling turn out to be the Corelli or the Dickens of our time?.

All three have social themes in their books which make them more than just escapism, though Rowling's concerns in the Harry Potter books - racism and the rise of Neo-Nazism, and the excesses of the press and its manipulation by government - are more like the social campaigning of Dickens than Corelli's theme of the relationship between spiritualism and Christianity. The first is more explicit from the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, as Voldemort and the Death Eaters are described in ways which show them to be closer to Hitler and his followers than was seen in the earlier novels. Rowling's other major social concern is more modern and is unlikely to have occurred to Corelli at all. Dickens, on the other hand, was extremely upset by attacks on him in American newspapers after he published articles critical of some aspects of life in the United States, just as Rowling has indicated that she feels that press interest in her personal life was unwarranted. So this too is a similarity to Dickens.

Speculation has been rife about how the series will end, and an intensive security operation was (more or less) successful in keeping details from getting out before the release date. Even following this, spoilers have generally (as far as I have seen) been well signposted; it's quite remarkable on today's Internet how polite people who have posted something about the novel have been to those who are yet to read it. The main information that was widely disseminated, revealing that at least two major characters would be killed, came from Rowling herself, and this left a lot open (the ending could have the rest of the cast living happily ever after, or a bloodbath on the scale of a Jacobean revenge tragedy - or anything in between).

More important to me than the issue of what might happen in the novel is whether it would be a satisfactory ending to the series as a whole. I found Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the least involving novel in the series so far, and I was almost expecting to be disappointed by The Deathly Hallows.

And then I read the first chapter, which describes Voldemort plotting with the Death Eaters. This seemed to confirm my worst fears - dull, predictable, lacking in any kind of atmosphere. One thing it does make clear (even if Rowling's revelations about character deaths hadn't) is that The Deathly Harrows is going to continue with the darkening of the series that's been apparent since the arrival of the Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

But then, in the second chapter, Rowling seemed to return to her best form. Harry's relationship with the Dursley family is an integral part of the whole series, and has gradually been revealed as more subtle than the bullying and abuse which characterised it at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The chapter also indicates that no matter how dark things become, the humour of the series will still be part of the final volume.

Thursday 12 July 2007

E.L. Doctorow: Sweet Land Stories (2004)

Published: Abacus, 2007

Sweet Land Stories is a collection of five short(ish) stories, all but the last published in the New Yorker in the first few years of this decade. In order, A House on the Plains describes a young man's discovery that his mother is a serial killer, enticing men to a midwest farm to kill and rob them; Baby Wilson is told from the point of view of the boyfriend of a young woman who steals a child from a hospital; Jolene: A Life describes the disastrous relationships of a young woman who initially marries at fifteen to escape a foster home; Walter John Harmon is the story of a cult whose founder is a garage mechanic who was caught up in a seeming miracle; and, finally, Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden is about the choices made by an FBI agent initially called in to investigate the discovery of a boy's body in the White House grounds but later instructed to be part of a cover up.

The first four stories share many themes; the fifth one is a bit different (and is the one not from the New Yorker). This can be seen in the setting; while Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden takes place mainly in Washington DC with an episode in Texas, the others are all set mainly in the midwest. Like most (if not all) of Doctorow's work, they look at America from the points of view of the little people, the outsiders in US society: those who remain the poor and downtrodden, despite the inscription below the Statue of Liberty. A House on the Plains and Baby Wilson go so far as to use a secondary part in the drama as a narrator; the main character is even denied a voice in their own story. Again, the final story is a little different, but achieves a similar result by making the dead boy the outsider, a victim of political machinations, while the investigator can do little but look on and wrestle with his moral dilemma: it subverts one of the normal rules of the crime genre, which is that the story is about the mental battle between criminal and investigator. All the stories make a point which is critical of American society (even if the stories are set in the past, which is at least apparently the case with the first three), with the final tale being overt political satire, with the boy a symbol of those without a voice in modern US politics.

The title of Sweet Land Stories comes from the US patriotic song, My Country, 'tis of Thee, which describes the country as the "sweet land of liberty". Liberty and sweetness are clearly in short supply in these stories, but Doctorow is not the first to use the sweet land quotation ironically - there is a film of the same name, about the struggles of a German girl who travels to Minnesota during the war to marry a farmer there. The use of lyrics from a patriotic song as the title suggests a link to Steinbeck, specifically to The Grapes of Wrath. Though less downbeat, there is something about the stories which is also reminiscent of Steinbeck, which is only partly thematic.

The cover of Sweet Land Stories describes the book as "by the author of The March". This seems an odd choice from Doctorow's past to me, unless the assumption is that readers of literary fiction only remember the author's most recent other work. There are other Doctorow novels which are far more like this collection, such as Ragtime. A more personal objection: why is it that from such a distinguished career, full of novels I enjoyed immensely, why pick the one I found unreadable as a comparison?

Thursday 5 July 2007

Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006)

Published: Gollancz, 2006

From mythological characters such as Anansi, Loke and Odysseus onwards, quick witted thieves have always been a source of entertainment in our culture. Current favourites such as Ocean's Eleven and its sequels and Hustle indicate that the tradition of the clever caper is still alive and enjoyed by many. While blacker than either, The Lies of Locke Lamora is basically a fantasy genre version of the film or TV series.

Locke Lamora is the leader of the Gentleman Bastards (and this novel is the first in a series named after them), a small gang in the busy city of Camorr. He pays his dues to the chief of thieves, or at least, the Capa Barsavi thinks he does. For the Gentleman Bastards are not the cat burglars they pretend to be, but play the long con; not only that, but they break the most important rule of the Camorran underworld: they choose their victims from the aristocracy. Through much of this novel, they are involved in a complex scheme to which involves simultaneously deceiving their victims about a famous brandy but also posing as the Camorran secret police, telling their victims that the brandy scheme is a scam but that the Duke wishes them to carry on giving the con artists the money they ask for. However, they get caught up by another, wider, scheme which they did not initiate and which they have no desire to be involved in: a new power has risen in the underworld, the Grey King, and he is about to attempt to overthrow the Capa Barsavi. Having found out the Gentleman Bastards' secret, he is able to blackmail them into reluctantly helping him. Like underworld takeovers in the real world, this is an extremely nasty affair, with a great deal of unpleasant violence that Lamora would rather avoid if he could.

The success of The Lies of Locke Lamora illustrates many of the requirements of the caper story. The most important of these are requirements that help the reader like and identify with the criminals. To do this, the main characters need to be likeable and charming, with at least some moral sense. It is particularly important that their victims are not very nice; rob the rich and unscrupulous but leave the virtuous widow her life savings. After that, the reader has to be interested; the schemes in caper stories (whether novels, TV programmes or films) are generally very complex, often having two or more levels of backups (such as Locke posing as a secret police agent here). It is particularly vital that they obtain their loot by cleverness, not by force (though the most famous thieving hero, Robin Hood, doesn't conform to this requirement).

The Lies of Locke Lamora does all this very well indeed. There is nothing particularly new or innovative about it - the Camorran setting is so old fashioned it is of the type parodied in the earliest of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels more than twenty years ago. However, it is extremely well done, and consistently exciting, clever and amusing. I seem to have read a lot of excellent fantasy written in the last couple of years; and this takes its place with the best of it.

Friday 22 June 2007

Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer: This Rough Magic (2003)

Published: Baen, 2003

It took me a long time - around two hundred and fifty pages of reading - to get into This Rough Magic, and yet I ended up enjoying it immensely. I picked this up in the local library, without looking at it too closely, and didn't even realise that it is the second in a series.

The central part of the plot is about a (fictional) siege of the citadel on the island of Corfu in 1539, when it was held by the Venetians. The Hungarians, led by the evil King Emeric and manipulated by the Grand Duke Jagellion of Lithuania who is a demon in human flesh, carry out the attack in alliance with the Byzantines. The Corfu garrison has been regarded as something of a backwater by the Venetians, despite the island's strategic position (controlling the entrance to the Adriatic, at the other end of which Venice herself lies). Among those trapped in the citadel are the main characters, including the wild young Venetian Benito Valdosta who is the hero of This Rough Magic.

The last paragraph makes clear both the alternate history aspect of the novel (the Byzantine empire had fallen to the Ottoman Turks almost a century before the action of This Rough Magic takes place) and the nature of the fantasy it contains (non-human creatures, both good and evil, ranging from fauns and undines to demons and angels). This is a typical sort of scenario for what is becoming known as the "new weird" (a term I think is terrible), but where This Rough Magic scores is by concentrating on people who have some magical power but are not the most potent around, rather as though a superhero saga like Batman was centred on Robin rather than Batman himself. At the same time, Benito Valdosta is sufficiently heroic without the superpowers for readers to be able to identify with his character in an escapist mode, and more interesting than the bland superhero type of central character (as Hans Solo is more interesting than Luke Skywalker) or the hero who overcomes by extreme superpowers (as Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake is tending to become) - ingenuity is more involving to a reader than simple brute force.

The point at which I began to be involved in This Rough Magic was with the arrival of the main characters on Corfu. The background from the first third of the novel, which leads up to this, is quite important, and is particularly useful to those of us who did not read the first novel (the reader is given enough explanation that This Rough Magic can stand on its own), but it is not particularly interesting: judicious editing and dispersal of some of the material to form references to the past in the second two thirds of This Rough Magic would have improved the novel.

While not innovative, This Rough Magic integrates its various elements of medieval folklore and magic well, particularly in the different ways in which various genii loci work. It is an enjoyable read, and well worth picking up - though skimming the first third is probably a sensible idea.

Thursday 14 June 2007

George R. R. Martin: A Feast for Crows (2005)

Published: HarperCollins 2006

The fourth volume in Martin's acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire appeared after a lengthy hiatus, and the afterword acknowledges that he found it difficult to write. Not as long as the third volume (which had to be split in two when published as a paperback), it could have been much more so: much material originally intended to be part of A Feast for Crows will now make up the next instalment.

These structural matters aside, A Feast for Crows is basically the diffuse continuation of the many faceted narrative of the earlier novels in the series. Not only would it be incomprehensible to anyone who had not read these earlier novels, but I found it hard to get into because it is so long since I read its precursors. The principal strand tells of the high point in the career of the dowager Queen Cersei, whose ambition for her children, not in fact sired by the dead king but through incestuous adultery with her brother, proved one of the major causes of the terrible civil war. She starts A Feast for Crows as regent for her youngest son King Tommen and is determined to hang on to as much power as possible, despite the misgivings about her competency from man of those who have been her allies so far. Her character is basically an unpleasant combination of Lady Macbeth and Isabella (from 'Tis Pity She's a Whore), and the plotting at her court in King's Landing is very similar to the scenarios of Jacobean revenge tragedies.

Unpleasant as her machinations are, the real theme of A Feast for Crows is the horrific effect of the war on the lower classes. Most descriptions of medieval warfare, particularly as they are filtered through to the fantasy genre, concentrate on the leaders, the gallantry and the spectacle. Some semblance of reality has crept into the genre relatively recently, but few fantasy writers allow themselves to be as bleak about the anarchy, starvation and desperation that follows the brutal rape and pillage that was part and parcel of this style of warfare. While most readers point to the Wars of the Roses for real world parallels to A Song of Ice and Fire, it is not a war that is in my mind at least associated with widespread suffering (though writing that down immediately makes me think of the scene with the son who has killed his father and the father who has killed his son in Henry VI Part III). It seems to me to be more like the anarchic violence which virtually destroyed community life in much of France in the mid fourteenth century, as depicted in Jonathan Sumption's excellent history of this phase of the Hundred Years' War, Trial By Fire. Perhaps this is a little too much reality for the fantasy genre (even if Martin doesn't go into the tortuous financial issues which were an important cause of France's problems in the 1360s): it definitely makes for depressing rather than escapist reading, and really when it comes down to it is not as interesting as the real history.

The series takes a dip in interest here, but I would rate A Feast for Crows as good nonetheless. I will just add one more thing, which is fairly standard for any mid-series novel. If you have read the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire, you will have decided that the series as a whole is worth reading, and you will not be put off here. (A new novel by an author generally has to be pretty poor to alienate a fan.) On the other hand, this is neither the book by Martin to read first, nor is it going to gain new fans for the series - and those who have already tried this series and given up won't be reading it anyway.

Friday 1 June 2007

Martin Jones: The Molecule Hunt - Archaeology and the Search for Ancient DNA (2001)

Published: Penguin, 2001

In the last two or three decades, modern scientific advances have led to a revolution in archaeology, much of which will be to an extent familiar to watchers of TV shows such as Time Team, which make extensive use of techniques from geophysics to investigate remains which are still buried. But the biggest change is probably due to the use of biochemistry to find out more about the minutiae of past lives and shed new light on long standing questions. This too has been the subject of television programmes; I have seen at least two which aimed to find out what proportion of the British have Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Danish or Norman ancestry. Pop science like this aside, what has the impact of modern biology been on the study of the past?

Martin Jones is in an excellent position to answer this question, as first George Pitt-Rivers Professor of Archaeological Science at Cambridge, and a pioneer of this field. Most of the book is devoted to the message that the traditional big pictures of archaeology developed in the early twentieth century (ideas about migrations, the domestication of animals, the spread of cultures and the Neolithic revolution) are massively over-simplified; this seems to be the major lesson learnt from the new techniques. These major insights are clearly explained, though the complexities of domestication events (basically answers to the question of when and where animals and plants were domesticated) are somewhat confusing due to a desire to include a large number of different scenarios for the different species.

However, I found the minute details which were previously unknowable that have been discovered with biological evidence to be much more fascinating. There was one story about a collection of bodies of medieval nobles exhumed from a German church, which it was possible to identify. There was one count who had no sons, until late in life his wife surprised him. However, DNA analysis showed that he wasn't related to his supposed son and heir. This is something that has obviously been thought about before - I remember reading one analysis that suggested that 10% of official father/son relationships were likely to be wrong, if results from twentieth century surveys on adultery were extended back into the past - but of course it makes something of a mockery of the idea of a royal or noble line of descent. There is always the possibility that the supposed father knew of the parenthood of the child, and accepted the baby as his for political reasons. Determining the real attitude of the count is something that even these new techniques cannot do.

More touching is the story of two communities, one by the sea and the other inland. Analysis of the bodies buried at the inland community showed that one man had, just before his death, been eating a seafood diet which would have been impossible if he had been living there. He must have been a recent arrival, who was buried with as much care as was reserved for the long term inhabitants despite his alien origin.

DNA is obviously the best known, and probably the most important biological molecule discussed in The Molecule Hunt. But Jones does not let his subtitle prevent him from looking at other indicators in biological remains - the second example quoted above does not depend on DNA. Generally, the science is explained clearly, and the story is well told. There is one moment which reads a little awkwardly, though I can see why Jones says what he says: he comments that in the sixties, pottery finds were carefully washed to remove the dirty residue; today, you see projects where the pottery is destroyed in order to make the residue accessible. It is a measure of just how far things have changed, but he says it in a way which is so artificial seeming that it robs it of impact. This short anecdote is atypical of the writing in the rest of this excellent book.

Saturday 26 May 2007

Mike Ripley: Angel in the House (2005)

Published: Allison & Busby Ltd, 2006

This was my first read of one of the Angel novels, though it is in fact the twelfth featuring the feckless detective. In Angel in the House, Angel is faced with something that he has always tried to avoid: he has to get a job. Luckily (though not from his point of view) his partner Amy May buys a stake in a private detective agency, so that is where he goes to work. Soon he becomes involved in a bizarre case involving suspected missing Botox, as well as investigating potentially haunted mansions in South Cambridgeshire.

Most comic crime fiction is heavily indebted to Hammett and Chandler, whose hard boiled style is easy to parody (though not so easy to parody well). The Agatha Raisin books parody Christie and other stalwarts of the traditional murder mystery, but I find them unbearable. Angel is not really a detective from either school; in fact, he'd much rather not be a detective at all, and just be supported by Amy. So he blunders around, making inappropriate jokes, and getting into awkward situations. Generally, this is funny, though he is sometimes exasperatingly feckless. The balance is towards the right direction, however.

As a crime novel, the plot is not terribly difficult to untangle, particularly the hauntings. The mechanism behind the botox thefts is ingenious, however, and the central characters will keep even the most cynical genre fan happy through the novel. I wouldn't want to read several of them in quick succession, but I will look out for them in future, after a suitable interval.

Saturday 19 May 2007

Paul Magrs: Never the Bride (2006)

Published: Headline Review 2006

Since Bram Stoker's Dracula, Whitby has become indelibly associated with gothic horror. It is a town quite well suited to the role, with the popularity of Whitby jet for Victorian funeral and mourning jewellery, and the atmospheric ruined abbey on the cliff top which dominates the time. At the same time, Whitby is a part of the British seaside holiday tradition - which has opposing resonances of the old fashioned and safe. All this makes it an ideal setting for Magrs' debut, a comic gothic fantasy.

Brenda has recently taken over a bed and breakfast in Whitby, which seems to her to be the ideal place for her to live a quiet life. This is something that has not often been possible for her, as her lack of a surname and scarred features suggest. (Anyone who has watched any classic horror films will guess who she is long before Magrs makes it explicit.) But strange forces are at work, and soon she and her neighbour have to deal with demonic beauty treatments, fake Christmas cheer at a Whitby hotel, spiritualist TV programmes and other bizarre incidents. The general outlines of the plot are shared with many horror satires (the supernaturally unusual trying to live a normal life is, for example, the basic premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but of course it's the inventiveness of the specific incidents that matters: and here they are very good indeed. The novel reminded me of other writers of comic fantasy who I like, notably Robert Rankin (particularly the Brentford Trilogy) and Tom Holt.

Generally, Never the Bride is very enjoyable, probably the funniest debut I have read since Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair.

Thursday 10 May 2007

David Dickinson: Goodnight Sweet Prince (2002)

Published: Constable, 2002

When one things of the British royal family in the later nineteenth century, the immediate image that comes to mind is that of the perpetually mourning Queen Victoria; perhaps secondly there are the mistresses of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Less well known is the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, because he never actually succeeded to the throne, dying of influenza in 1892. The career of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale (known informally as Prince Eddy) was much more scandalous than that of his father - he is a candidate for the most badly behaved royal in British history, a post for which there is a fair amount of competition. It has even been suggested that he might have been Jack the Ripper.

Goodnight Sweet Prince, the first in Dickinson's series of Lord Francis Powercourt detective novels, takes the death of Prince Eddy as its starting point, to weave a conspiracy theory to rival the wildest stories that concern the death of Princess Diana a decade ago (and one not mentioned in the Wikipedia article referenced above). In Dickinson's fictionalisation, the influenza was a story dreamt up as a cover for the murder of the prince, portrayed as a hedonistic bisexual syphilitic bent on debauching everybody with whom he came into contact; and the subject of blackmail paid by his father. Clearly, an excellent and popular choice of murder victim, and yet someone whose death requires careful and discreet investigation. Working out which of the various motives actually led to the killing is the main point of the story.

As a novel, Goodnight Sweet Prince is somewhat uneven. The title, for instance, takes a sarcastic tone alien to the rest of the narrative - and Prince Eddy is no Hamlet! The first few chapters are a little dull, enough to make me consider giving up reading the book; but in the end I felt that I enjoyed the novel. The mystery is interesting, the background well researched, and the scandal appeals in the way that conspiracy theories in general tend to - fun, no matter how far fetched.

Wednesday 2 May 2007

Agatha Christie: Destination Unknown (1954)

Published: HarperCollins, 2003

When Agatha Christie is mentioned, or when you pick up one of her books, it is crime that you expect to be the subject. But Destination Unknown is no murder mystery: it is a straightforward thriller. There are innumerable thrillers much like it: the defecting scientist was made the peg on which hundreds of similar novels were hung during the Cold War. When Dr Betterton goes missing, it looks to the British Secret Service as though his wife might follow him, when she books a trip to Morocco, ostensibly to recuperate from the stress. She is killed when her plane crashes, and so they recruit a woman of similar appearance to take her place - with the obvious problem that they might well be unable to protect her when she is finally brought face to face with a husband who will obviously not recognise her.

The plot is complicated by several other deceptions and impersonations, and a second air crash: although plotting seems to be generally considered Christie's strong point, this is not one of the best. It becomes overloaded, unbelievable and there are loose ends left dangling. The ending is peculiarly unsatisfying, as the young woman who has been the central character for most of the story plays a distinctly passive part in it, which is not only unconventional in the genre, but just doesn't work. I realise that I am now criticising Destination Unknown for pandering to the clichés of the genre and for failing to follow the conventions simultaneously, but both feel like problems when reading the novel. This is because it seems over-familiar, by re-using thriller conventions which are tired (and which were surely tired even in 1954), while ignoring conventions which are useful structurally for adding to the tension and suspense which is a major reason for reading the genre.

Problems that are systemic in Christie's writing also occur here. The plot is convoluted and bizarre even by her standards, with far too many impersonations for it to be credible. Characters are one dimensional, even the central agent at the centre of the story and dialogue can be awkward. There are some especially poor specimens of reported thought. And yet Destination Unknown is a pleasure to read, in an undemanding kind of way; again, a trait common to much of the author's writing. In the end, Destination Unknown can be seen as an interesting but not entirely successful experiment in writing in a genre that was not natural for Christie.

Saturday 21 April 2007

Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956) (Tiger, Tiger)

Published: Gollancz, 2006

One of the indisputable classics of science fiction, The Stars My Destination is a novel which has received surprisingly little recognition outside the genre compared with some of the works it influenced. The story of a thirst for vengeance to rival The Count of Monte Cristo, it is a clear forerunner of Philip K. Dick's work, and like Dick it is a formative influence on much modern science fiction, from William Gibson onwards - whether directly or indirectly. This is a novel I have read now for the second time, and I was much more impressed than as the teenager who first picked it up.

Gully Foyle is a failure in a dead end job on a space ship, but becomes the sole survivor of an accident. After 170 days in a tiny airtight piece of wreckage, Foyle thinks he is going to be miraculously rescued when another ship comes so close that he can read the name Vorga on the side; but when he makes a signal the ship bears off - leaving him to die. The massive inhumanity of such an act inspires Foyle; his desperate attempt to save himself is the prelude to a long campaign of vengeance against the person who was willing to give the order to abandon him.

Comparison with The Count of Monte Cristo shows Bester a far more morally ambiguous writer. Yes, what happens to Foyle is outrageous, but so are the crimes he commits during his single-minded pursuit of revenge. There are no solely good or evil characters, with one possible exception (a hospital nurse whose family connections make her a subject for blackmail by Foyle). On the other hand, Foyle is not a particularly subtle character; the thirst for vengeance fills him so completely as to make him as implacable and elemental as Medea or Electra (say) in the Greek tragedies that bear their names.

The Stars My Destination (or Tiger, Tiger, a title that I, agreeing with Neil Gaiman's introduction, think is much better) ends with two chapters which must include some of the most ambitious writing in the science fiction genre before the sixties New Wave. The first is when Foyle experiences great pain, and Bester wants to express that it is beyond description; he uses a whole series of typographical extravagances which it is amazing that any publisher of genre fiction in the fifties was willing to pay to reproduce. Where authors keep up such a style for too long it tends to become wearing, but it works quite well in a single chapter when well done and for a specific purpose.

In the other, Foyle has a meeting with his enemies, a set piece showdown which is satirifcally undermined by the way that the only suggestions Foyle is willing to listen to come from the totally predictable programming of the robot servant in attendance. Satire and irony are never too far away in any of Bester's writing, and though it is possible to read and enjoy The Stars My Destination as a straight novel, the reader will get more out of it and, I believe, be reading in a spirit closer to the author's intentions, if they bear this in mind.

Friday 13 April 2007

Paul Park: A Princess of Roumania (2005)

Published: Tor, 2005

One author who is mentioned several times in the quotations printed on the back of A Princess of Roumania is Philip Pullman. Now, anyone who has read my reviews of the His Dark Materials trilogy will know that Pullman is an author I think massively overrated, and so I found this somewhat off-putting. The praise I had read for A Princess of Roumania in the end persuaded me to give it a try, and I am glad that I did. While I can understand the comparison to Pullman, Park has more interesting ideas, a more atmospheric setting, and, above all, the ability to write convincing characters; while many consider His Dark Materials a classic, A Princess of Roumania is much more deserving of the label.

The story is simple; in fact, it is the ultimate fantasy cliché: the lost heir. Park mixes it with alternative universes, also not especially new: hiding the lost heir in our world is something I planned to use in an abandoned novel I began in 1991, among other uses of the idea. The first slightly unusual aspect to A Princess of Roumania is that our world is the fictional one, magically created solely to hide the princess Miranda from her family's enemies. Park's Roumania is a great power in decline, threatened principally by the Germans; her father was wrongfully accused of betraying Roumania to them twenty years earlier, an event which led to the elevation of one of the Roumanian generals as the power behind the throne. The baby Miranda was hidden by her aunt, an adept of magic, with the aid of a pair of books: each describing the history of a world, one real and one fictional; when both books are destroyed, the spell is broken and Miranda is returned to the "real" world. An odd quirk means she's fifteen even though twenty years have passed: this is not explained (though of course future novels in the series may do so) and suggests that the flow of time in magical worlds is different from that in the real world, an idea which goes back to folk stories where people kidnapped by fairies find that after a single night everyone they knew is dead of old age.

The pace is slow; the point of the novel being to establish the characters and set the stage for their interactions. Quite a lot does actually happen - it just feels relaxed to read it. Park doesn't quite manage the (surely impossible) task of persuading the reader that his Roumania is more real than the world we live in, but he comes closer than a lot of writers. It is the characters which really excel. This makes Park's work reminiscent in truth of one of the other authors to whom he is compared on the back of A Princess of Roumania, John Crowley, who is one of my favourite authors of all. Involving, rather than exciting, is the order of the day; and A Princess of Roumania is guaranteed a place on my reads of the year.

Tuesday 27 March 2007

Peter F. Hamilton: The Naked God (1999)

Published: Pan, 2000

Night's Dawn may well be the longest work ever published as a trilogy. Each volume is as long, if not longer, than many trios of science fiction novels - the classic Foundation trilogy is less than half the length of The Naked God. With that length (which is the most obvious distinguishing feature of the series), there is a concomitant vastness of scale: hundreds of characters, spanning several universes and thousands of light years. The subject matter is weighty, too: an invasion of human occupied planets not by aliens but by people possessed by the spirits of the dead; a huge scale zombie attack with semi-serious philosophy behind it. The series is about what might happen to us after death, how we might be able to return to a kind of life, what a spirit or soul might be, all dressed up as exciting space opera.

To summarise a plot of such scope in a few words is hard; indeed, several attempts to review earlier novels of the trilogy foundered on this rock. There are various groups of humans seeking, in various ways, to contain or counter the threat of the possessed; at the same time, the reader begins to see the possessed as people in their own right, with differing motives and interests (though they continue to include the psychotic Quinn Dexter) rather than as evil monsters with strange powers. The important thing is not the details of the plot, but that Hamilton makes it work. The reader does get pulled in, and cares about the characters even if they are somewhat sketchily depicted.

The general success of the series, and of this novel within the series, doesn't mean that it is flawless. The length is clearly going to be a problem for many readers, who will be unwilling to put aside the time to read almost four thousand pages - a recent survey showed that the first lengthy Harry Potter novel, the Goblet of Fire, was among the books most likely to be left unfinished by British readers. A certain familiarity with the common ideas of the science fiction genre is assumed, as is often the case with more recent works in the genre. These ideas, such as faster than light travel, are more or less taken for granted, and are not treated in a particular imaginative way; writers in the genre have spent many years mining the nuances of these ideas, and Hamilton has other concerns. This is something that may be off-putting for this who are not fans of the genre, but, as I have mentioned, Hamilton is hardly unique in this respect.

A more serious flaw is the evenness of the tone of the writing, which dilutes the potential of certain events; some very nasty things happen, but they have little emotional impact on the reader. Perhaps having so much to say encourages levelheaded exposition rather than visceral storytelling, but this detached style is something I have found in other stories by Hamilton. The story is interesting enough to keep me going to the end, at least, but a bit more excitement might be nice.

The Naked God is of course space opera, part of that subgenre's re-emergence over the last decade or so. Hamilton's ideas and big canvas generally seem to go back to earlier writers such as Isaac Asimov, while many of his contrmporaries (such as Alastair Reynolds) concentrate on smaller details - how cosmic events affect small groups of individuals rather than tackling the cosmos as a whole. So the trilogy could be considered old fashioned, and not particularly innovative; but it is very well done for any reader willing to put in the time required to read such a long story.

Tuesday 13 March 2007

Ann Granger: A Rare Interest in Corpses (2006)

Published: Headline, 2006

A Rare Interest in Corpses initially appears to be something of a departure for Granger. She is best known for her Mitchell and Markby series, and has also written several novels about amateur detective Fran Varady; both these series are contemporary crime fiction (in the sense that they are set in the modern world; the Mitchell and Markby novels are rather old fashioned in tone). Here we have her first historical crime novel, set in Victorian London - not as popular a time and place as might be expected, probably because it is so strongly associated with Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the writer I was reminded of by A Rare Interest in Corpses was not Arthur Conan Doyle, but Anne Perry.

The central character, Lizzie Martin, is a doctor's daughter from the Derbyshire coalfields, forced to take a position as a companion to an older rich widow in London when her father's death leaves her penniless. When she arrives, she discovers that the woman who previously acted as companion to Mrs Parry went missing, apparently eloping with a lover, but, it now turns out, murdered and her body left in the huge building site that would become St Pancras station. Lizzie feels an obligation to a woman who had been in the same situation as she now finds herself to try to find the murderer - a task in which she is much aided by the reluctance of key witnesses to speak to the police.

I have in the past discussed an issue I have with a lot of crime fiction. The genre is very much dependent on plot construction, and in particular on the construction of plots where particular points remain obscure to the reader (though fairly presented) until the very end: the reader has all the clues, but should still be surprised by the revelation of the murderer. Constructing such a plot is quite hard, and a shortcut which is often used is to use a coincidence - an unlikely happening which is not justified by the rest of the plot (it is one thing for an mysterious lost cousin to turn up just at the time of the murder, but much more acceptable if the murderer lures that person there so they arrive on the scene in time to be implicated in a murder they would benefit from). Even when unmotivated coincidences are left in a plot - and it is true that coincidences really happen - they usually have some meaning in the plot itself, whether actually helping to point the way to the solution of a crime, or making it harder for the reader to see the real solution. Sometimes coincidences are used to promote the continuation of a series, as where a character finds a body in novel after novel. At the beginning of A Rare Interest in Corpses, there are two coincidences which really serve no purpose whatsoever. The first of these is that Lizzie, taking a cab from King's Cross station to her new home, is delayed by police removing a body from the half-demolished slums which were Agar Town and would become St Pancras (which is, for readers not familiar with London, immediately next door to King's Cross): this is the body of Madeline Hexham, her predecessor. The second is that the police inspector assigned to the case turns out to be someone she already knows, despite her belief that she is a stranger to everyone in London: he met her when he was a small boy working in a coalmine, where her father was helping with the aftermath of an accident; her father paid for his education, which he put to use in joining the Metropolitan Police. The second establishes a certain bond between Lizzie and the policeman, but not one which could not have been developed in other ways, while there seems to have been no motivation at all for the first.

I found these coincidences, which come very close together near the beginning of the novel, a big hindrance to enjoyment of a book by an author that usually I like a lot. Although I got more into it by the end, I still feel that A Rare Interest in Corpses is Granger's least involving novel. This is partly because the character of Lizzie Martin is not very different from either Meredith Mitchell or Fran Varady, though the forthright attitude they share is interesting in a Victorian pre-feminist context (though it is hardly original in historical crime fiction set in the nineteenth century: as well as characters in Anne Perry's novels, it is also shared by Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody).

A competent historical crime novel, but by no means Ann Granger's best work.

Wednesday 28 February 2007

Charles Darwin: The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)

Original title: The Journal of Researches (one volume of several produced following the voyage)
Published: Everyman, 2003

The eighteenth and nineteenth century saw many voyages of exploration by Europeans, most of which would have been followed by reports and books, ancestors of today's travel memoirs. Most of these voyages have now been forgotten, even the names they gave many places being swept away in our post-colonial world. The books produced are even more forgotten in general: the sort of books you sometimes see in the libraries of English stately homes, and maybe read by academics with related interests. The exception is of course this one (and this does not include the companion volumes with which it was originally published). Its survival is not so much due to its literary qualities, though it is eminently readable, but because of the use Darwin later made of this material; the obvservations made on this voyage, especially on the Galapagos islands, form an important part of the foundations of one of the most famous books of all time, The Origin of Species (also included in this Everyman edition).

The voyage began in December 1831, reaching the Galapagos in September 1835 after spending several years surveying the waters around South America (the principal purpose of the voyage), returning to England a year later; a lengthy circumnavigation of the globe. When the Beagle departed, Darwin was only 22. Without a reputation to uphold, or an academic post which would have made it politic to peddle old orthodoxies, he was a modern, up to date naturalist, surely better able to make use of his observations (and the attention to detail with which he observed should be the envy of many scientists to this day) than a more eminent older man, who would, moreover, have probably been reluctant to spend so many years away from European scientific culture. Darwin was a follower of Lyell, whose Principles of Geology, which had the same sort of revolutionary effect on that science that the principle of natural selection was to have on biology, had started appearing in 1830, the year before the Beagle set sail; he was given a copy of volume one by the Beagle's captain. Lyell attributed the character of the most world's rock formations to forces acting over lengthy period of time rather than to a series of catastrophes in the much more recent past. (Indeed, his book should be at least as stringly anathematised by Creationists as Darwin's own ideas.) Darwin was one of the first scientific observers to take part in such an expedition who was able to bear Lyell's ideas in mind, and he describes how they informed his observations at several places in The Voyage of the Beagle, and a long geological history is essential to the principles of Darwinian evolution. It is clear, too, that the ideas which became known as natural selection were in the air (the introduction to the Origin of Species lists quite a number of precursors) and early thoughts about this, as well as rival theories like Lamarck's, may well have influenced the way that Darwin looked at the plants and animals he saw on the voyage.

The Voyage of the Beagle is not all about the natural world. There are interesting observations on the ways in which people lived in the countries he visited, particularly on the gauchos of Argentina, and a lot of material about the effects of colonisation on native peoples and the institution of slavery. On both these issues Darwin had quite modern views.

In terms of style, Darwin is a clear and writer with fascinating information to impart, though perhaps not as good (and certainly not as amusing) as Gerald Durrell, who must be the current bestselling author of natural history travel books.

In the end, though, the principal interest of The Voyage of the Beagle is its formative role in Darwin's later thought, and this makes it completely unique.

It should be noted that the text here is the second, 1845, edition. There is an interesting foreword to the Everyman edition from Richard Dawkins, which (somewhat predictably, but with a certain amount of justification) he claims evolution to be the greatest scientific idea of all time.

Thursday 22 February 2007

Jeffrey Deaver: Speaking in Tongues (1995, revised 1999)

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999

This is an early thriller from Jeffrey Deaver, revised four years after the original publication. Like most of his thrillers, it is fairly conventional in its plotting and background. Megan is the daughter of a moderately successful lawyer and his estranged wife; following an incident which suggests a suicide attempt to law enforcement, she is undergoing therapy when she is abducted by a psychopath looking for revenge. Her parents, intended to believe that she ran away, quickly work out that her absence is unlikely to be voluntary - why buy and hide a birthday present for her mother and then disappear before the event? The story follows Tate and Bett's attempts to find Megan, while the kidnapper makes things as difficult for them as possible - framing them for crimes, deceiving those who might otherwise have helped the pair, and so on. Though very early in his career, Deaver is already putting together the convoluted and somewhat unlikely plots which have been his stock in trade.

What lets this novel down, and exposes Deaver's inexperience even after the revision, is the characterisation. It would be easy to fill out some of the less important characters; Deaver concentrates too exclusively on Nate and the kidnapper. His wife, Bett, is sufficiently a cipher that we never learn what kind of "businesswoman" she is - and yet how many people would describe themselves as a businesswoman rather than some more specific and informative title such as "investment consultant"? Even the kidnapper is nothing more than a device for making Tate's life difficult; he is rather unbelievably good at persuading people to believe what he tells them; for example, he persuades Megan's best friend and her family, who have presumably known Megan and Bett for ages if not Tate, that Tate is a child molester - I think if someone came to your door with this story, you'd seek confirmation from someone who might know, not an apparent stranger to the family. Certainly, if Speaking in Tongues could be said to have a moral, it is not to believe what strangers tell you automatically.

Speaking in Tongues is not one of Deaver's most successful novels; for that, look to The Blue Nowhere, or one of the Lincoln Rhyme thrillers (though these also suffer from over-elaborate plotting).

One other thing, a small detail, irritated me about this novel (as someone with a research degree in logic). There is a type of argument known as an enthymeme, which when I encountered it, was called specialisation (the Greek names, which date back to Aristotle, not being considered helpful for mathematicians). This basically takes the form "if all As are Bs, and C is an A, then we can deduce that C is a B". The most famous example is "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal.", but Deaver gives a slightly different example: "All cats see in the dark. Midnight is a cat. Therefore Midnight can see in the dark.". He then goes on to say that the classical formulation of the enthymeme is incomplete, because it also needs a line that states "All cats see in the dark, therefore Midnight sees in the dark." Now, this isn't true: what you in fact do is to note that the first two sentences take the form of the premises (parts that are assume to be true) of an enthymeme, and that therefore the enthymeme rule tells you that the conclusion is true; this isn't an extra part of the logic, but the application of a general principle. There is a much better expressed discussion of this point (though based on a different logical principle) in Douglas Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach; the problem with requiring a new line of logic is that this starts an infinite process, all in effect identical: you also need to know that "All cats see in the dark, Midnight is a cat, and we know that when all cats see in the dark, then Midnight sees in the dark; therefore Midnight sees in the dark." (You can see why mathematicians find it easier to use symbolic notation!) Now, Deaver also goes on (much later in the novel) to suggest that the conclusion is false: Midnight is blind, so cannot see whether it is dark or not. In fact, the conclusion can only be false if one of the premises (that are assumed to be true) is actually false: either if Midnight is not a cat, or if not all cats can see in the dark (which is the reason why his example fails to be true). It has nothing to do with the general validity of the enthymeme. I suppose it's beside the point for this review (though it's the kind of error that will irritate readers who know more about a particular field than the author of a book, whatever the field happens to be), but the discussion is also beside the point in the novel itself.

Tuesday 13 February 2007

Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson: Hunters of Dune (2006)

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006

The original Dune is one of my favourite books, as it is for many science fiction readers. (The blurb for this novel claims that it is the bestselling science fiction novel of all time.) Frank Herbert's own sequels, while good, were not in the same class as this classic and, particularly later on, began to introduce elements which diluted the force of Dune itself. So when Brian Herbert (Frank's son) and Kevin J Anderson began producing novels in the Dune universe, expanding on the detailed background to the story, I never bothered to read them, especially after I read some lukewarm reviews. This novel is a bit different: it is a sequel to Chapterhouse Dune, based on a rediscovered outline by Frank Herbert himself; it will be followed by (at least) two more. This sequel has been something that fans of the series have long wanted to see; Frank Herbert's death made it seem that the loose ends in Chapterhouse Dune would never be cleared up authoritatively.

The novel follows three major points of view, following on from the ending of Chapterhouse Dune. One is that of the community centred round Duncan Idaho, fleeing mysterious hunters in a stolen ship; the second is that of the Bene Gesserits left behind on Chapterhouse led by Duncan's wife, attempting to bring about a union with the Honoured Matres to combat an unknown threat from beyond the worlds of the Old Empire. These two are relatively familiar, involving many already established characters. The third is different, being that of a Tleilaxu geneticist, who has to face the twin blows of the defeat of his people by the Honoured Matres (though he himself was part of a group allied with them) and the discovery that the long time Tleilaxu servants, the Face Dances, have developed into creatures far beyond their original design, with their own purposes at odds with their erstwhile masters. While always present, particularly in the last couple of books, the Tleilaxu have never been as close to centre stage in Frank Herbert's work. They become more important thanks to the discovery of a secret held by the Tleilaxu Masters, which the reader of Chapterhouse Dune knows but the other characters only find out halfway through Hunters of Dune. This is that they have cells preserved from famous people of the distant past which can be used to reincarnate them; these people include the principal characters of Dune itself.

There is not actually very much plot in Hunters of Dune, particularly compared to the labyrinthine twists and turns of Dune (or even, to a lesser extent, most of Frank Herbert's other novels). It is like the middle novel in many fantasy trilogies, there to keep the traditional number of volumes but just describing relatively uneventful activity between the scene setting of the first and the climax of the third. It covers a longer period of time than the other novels, but I feel that everything in this novel could have more effectively treated as backstory for the later resolution of the saga. For example, it doesn't seem to be important to document the details of the attempts to unite the Honoured Matres and the Bene Gesserit, and anything from this story needed for the future plot of the series could be mentioned in passing.

There are problems in this novel which derive from the particular loose ends left in Chapterhouse Dune. It is hard to see just why the characters think that cells from thousands of years in the past are so valuable. I suppose that if someone said they were able to create a clone of Jesus or Mohammed, people would be interested today, and the clones themselves might be made to serve some political purpose. Here, though, the timescales are such that this would be more like resurrecting an Egyptian pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar for their insight into the problems of the Middle East. The Dune universe may be peculiarly static (in the thousands of years that pass during the saga, there are few important technological innovations), but new factions such as the Honoured Matres, and the impossibility of applying the prescience that several of the ancient cloned individuals possess to the majority of the humans alive at this point of the saga make it hard to feel that the contributions the clones could make will be significant. (Obviously the further novels in this conclusion will make a great deal of use of the clones, but it will take a really impressive coup de theatre to convince me that it makes sense.) There are other details which jar as Herbert and Anderson expand on them, which would give things away if I expanded on them.

In the end, the central problem in Hunters of Dune is that the lack of an exciting plot proves a difficulty beyond the abilities of the authors. Since the only interest here turns out to be the way that Frank Herbert tied up the loose ends, I would have preferred just to read his outline as he left it and saved myself the time required to read three or more full length novels. Further novels continuing this story will be ones I skim through, say in the local public library, rather than books I buy for re-reading in the future.