Wednesday 25 July 2012

Donato Carrisi: The Whisperer (2009)

Translation: Shaun Whiteside, 2010
Edition: Abacus, 2011
Review number: 1460

Three stories come together at the beginning of The Whisperer. An investigator specialising in finding missing children rescues a boy and a girl form a paedophile, before she is immediately reassigned to work with a serial killer investigation. Although this is not Mila's area of expertise, the reason is apparent from the second strand of the story, in which five severed left arms are found buried in a wood, then a six. The first five clearly belong to five girls reported missing, but no sixth girl is known to have disappeared. The last body has another difference from the others: medical evidence suggests that she might still be alive. The clock is ticking though, as even with the proper care, she only has another ten days outside a hospital. The third thread is a description of a desperate drive by a man with an appalling secret hidden in his car, which ends and joins the serial killer thread when he is stopped by the police.

The story itself consistently seems far-fetched, but is still quite compelling to read. Serial killers who enjoy setting cryptic puzzles for the police are bread and butter for crime thriller writers, as sinister monks haunted the catacombs in eighteenth century gothic romances. The paedophile preying on children is the terror of our age, no matter how rare he might be. Using the medical deadline given to the missing girl imposes dramatic tension on the story, albeit one which feels artificial - the child has been kidnapped: are the searchers going to waste their time on Facebook without this extra incentive? All these things add up to a hackneyed plot, if one which is quite well constructed, with twists and turns in every chapter.

I found the style of The Whisperer uninspiring, descending into lazy journalistic clichés such as "It all kicked off when...".  It is hard to tell whether this is the fault of Carrisi himself, or of the translator Shaun Whiteside. In the early chapters, I found myself considering not bothering to continue several times, because I found the writing so off-putting. Eventually, though, I was drawn in, and did keep going, even though one of the twists in the story involves something I always feel is a cheat in an apparently realistic detective story: the use of a medium.

Nothing like as good as the hype - too clichéd, too poorly written, and too over the top to be seriously read as a thriller. (Maybe it's a spoof, and I just didn't notice.) My rating: 4/10.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Michael Moorcock: The Blood Red Game (1974)

Edition: Mayflower Science Fiction, 1974
Review number: 1459

The contents of this novel are actually from the very beginning of Moorcock's career, appearing as a pair of stories in a science fiction magazine in 1962, at around the same time as the first Elric novel, which was much more of a signpost to the type of writing he was going to go on to become known for. This packaging of the stories together which appeared in the mid-seventies must have seemed rather out of step with the cool New Wave work he was writing at the time; The Blood Red Game is, by contrast, clearly derivative from pulpy SF writers like E.E. "Doc" Smith and AE Van Vogt, especially the latter. (I should perhaps mention that, according to Fantastic Fiction, the two stories also appeared as - extremely short - separate novels in 1966.)

The first story, originally entitled The Sundered Worlds, has a hero, Renark, who has the psychic ability to sense the universe as a whole. He realises that it is beginning to contract, threatening the total destruction of humanity, a slightly strange premise that is apparently forgetting that it would take billions of years to contract the universe, even if the contraction occurred at almost the speed of light. No explanation is given of why it poses such an urgent problem, or even any indication that the contraction is very fast. The sundered worlds of the title are a small group of planets which travel between dimensions, and Renark thinks that they will hold the key to saving the galaxy. So he, with a small group of friends, travels to the sundered worlds the next time they pass through our universe, even though no human has ever returned from similar trips.

The second story, sharing its title with this book, follows immediately on from the end of The Sundered Worlds, so much so that I suspect some re-writing was done to cover the join for publication as one. The story now sees humanity facing a different external crisis, being forced to participate in a series of incomprehensible psychic games against alien species, for the amusement of more powerful beings.

In themselves, the two stories are fairly mediocre. To the Moorcock fan, they do have interesting ideas which relate to important concepts behind his later work, including an undeveloped form of the multiverse, with clashes between universes playing a part as they do in several later stories. I can see that they would have been of sufficient interest to a magazine editor in 1962 to publish, but I don't think that anyone would have bothered to re-package them as a novel without Moorcock's name associated with them - if, say, they had been the only published stories by someone who went on to become an advertising executive or a banker, instead of a world famous and hugely influential science fiction editor and author. As things turned out, it is still interesting to read them in the context of Moorcock's other work.

My rating - 4/10.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Julian Rathbone: Kings of Albion (2000)

Edition: Abacus, 2001
Review number: 1458

L.P. Hartley's line "The past is a foreign country" is often quoted, but it can be hard to realise just how different things were in former times. Kings of Albion is a novel which literalises the quotation to great effect. The plot is about an expedition sent out by the threatened Indian kingdom of Vijayanagara, to see if they can learn something from the far away English, who are rumoured even that far away to be the most warlike race on Earth. And the rumour turns out to be accurate, for they arrive at their destination in 1460, at the bloodiest period of the Wars of the Roses.

This device makes it possible for Rathbone to make us see how different England was 550 years ago, as the cultured Indian delegation react in horrified fascination to the things they see. Apart from being clever, Kings of Albion is also funny, with anachronism being used in a creative and humorous fashion: it is not out of place for the party to survive being caught between two gangs of youths from rival factions in Verona, but it seems so to the modern reader, because this is an episode from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This sort of pre-echo is used to evoke films, plays, books, and twentieth century physics without technically breaking the historical mode of the novel.

Vijayanagara is a kingdom about which fairly little is known; according to Rathbone's preface, this is why he chose it, on the advice of an expert in Indian history. It enables Rathbone to construct a culture which produces a delegation with a philosophical outlook more like a person of today than a medieval Englishman, which heightens the shared reactions that we as readers have with the characters in the delegation.

Some modern devout Christians could still be offended by the religious themes of Kings of Albion, which concern on the one hand links between Hinduism and the origins of the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary, and some of the practices of the fifteenth century church on the other. But on the whole, most people should enjoy this evocation of medieval England which is reminiscent of the spirit of George MacDonald Fraser.

My rating: 9/10.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Robert V.S. Redick: The Red Wolf Conspiracy (2008)

Edition: Gollancz, 2009
Review number: 1457

This excellent fantasy novel tells of the voyage of the great ship Chathrand on a mission apparently to seal a peace between two empires which have been involved in a cold war for decades. But there are plots woven by several of those involved in the journey, from the Emperor himself downwards, and the story is mainly about the workings of the plans of the different factions aboard the ship. There are several major characters who take turns, chapter by chapter, to provide the narrative viewpoint (a common device in the fantasy genre); all of them are innocents in the machinations of others. One group aboard, the Ixchel, seem to be remnants of the sort of idea that sparks the writing of a novel: suppose Gulliver's Liliputians were taken from their home to be zoo exhibits, escaped, and spent the next few centuries trying to avenge the kidnapping - what would they be like?

The fantasy world in which the story is set is a richly realised one with technology approximately equivalent to the real eighteenth century (though it would have been impossible to build a ship the size of the Chathrand then - and the ship is old, built with knowledge lost by the time of the story's beginning). This means that The Red Wolf Conspiracy draws heavily on the many sea stories set during the Napoleonic Wars, particularly those less fenced in by the boundaries of the officers' quarters.

Exciting, fascinating; I am pleased that this is in fact the first of a series, because that promises much pleasure to come.

My rating: 8/10.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Gwyneth Jones: Spirit, or The Princess of Bois Dormant (2008)

Edition: Gollancz, 2009

Review number: 1456

There are a few writers who seem to be able to create a world which is instantly memorable, colourful and atmospheric, and it is a valuable skill to have in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Michael Moorcock and China Miéville can do it, and now Gwyneth Jones shows herself to be another member of the club.

The story opens as the central character,  a girl named Bibi, survives the massacre of the community into which she was born, by accepting the offer made by Lady Nef, wife of the attacking general, to become her servant, as an alternative to life as a concubine of the general. The novel then follows Bibi's career, as she becomes involved in the political scheming which surrounds Lady Nef and her husband, with tragic consequences. The severity of the difficulties encountered by Bibi can be seen from the comparison to The Count of Monte Cristo made in the SFX review quoted on the back cover. The middle section is basically a reworking of Dumas' novel in a science fiction setting, and is grim but fascinating.

It rather amazes me that I have not read anything by Gwyneth Jones before, if she has been writing fantasy of this quality for decades. This novel, and several of her earlier ones, have been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award. She has never been shortlisted for the Hugo or Nebula, awards for which I try to read the shortlisted novels each year; with writing this good, perhaps I should add the Clarke award to the list.

The atmosphere of Spirit continually reminded me of Miéville's Perdido Street Station. Both share a fantasy style but are in fact science fiction (though not hard SF) underneath - space ships and aliens, not dragons and goblins. Spirit is set in a post-technological world in which Clarke's famous dictum that advanced science is indistinguishable from magic has come true, and society's structure has at the same time moved back to a feudalistic form. The mixture of fantasy and science fiction is compelling, as it is in Miéville's work. It is also, like Perdido Street Station, a novel which is well written, dense, and yet still pacey and exciting.

Another writer I was reminded of by Spirit was Cordwainer Smith, whose influence is fairly clear in the depiction of the advent of the Princess of the sub-title in the last third of the novel. His quirky richness is especially apparent in the section set on the planet Mallorm. The plasticity of the setting, with the vague boundary between reality and virtual reality, and the menace which lies behind the outwardly absurd could have been found on Norstrilia or among the Underpeople.

In terms of criticism of Spirit, I am not sure that there is much of a point in the twenty-first century in such a clear homage to Dumas' famous novel. It's not that a novel really has to have a point at all, but The Count of Monte Cristo just seems like such a strange model to pick today. Vengeance in the modern world is the anonymous vendetta of the suicide bombers, not the more sophisticated, long drawn out, personal, and highly political destruction of the enemy. Spirit looks back to a time when there was more to revenge than just killing at random. Whether or not that is a good thing, it is certainly satisfying to read when the avenger is as sympathetic a character as Bibi.

My rating - 9/10.