Having no idea what to do next left her traitorous mind free to ruminate

All Good Things
by Emma Newman

Book 5 of Emma Newman’s Split Worlds series came out in June and I bought it pretty promptly, keen to learn the fates of Catherine, Max, Sam and all the other great characters that populate these stories. I’ve been following the series since the start (I went to the Bristol launch of book 1, Between Two Thorns) and thoroughly enjoyed every instalment.

As the title suggests, this is the final part of the series (but is it an end rather than the end?). There are the same great characters and sense of humour, plus some seriously ramped-up action.

At the end of book 4 (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Cathy has escaped the Nether and is under the protection of Sam, who as Lord Iron is the one person who can keep her safe from the Fae and their magic. But Cathy doesn’t want to rely on anyone else, even the loveable, well-meaning Sam, so she finds a way to make herself stronger. It involves facing a huge decision, one that puts a lot of lives in her hands. Has Cathy bitten off more than she can chew?

Continue reading “Having no idea what to do next left her traitorous mind free to ruminate”

A story can even raise the dead

Gospel of LokiThe Gospel of Loki
by Joanne M Harris

I had very high hopes for this book, possibly too high, so that even though I really enjoyed reading it, I somehow feel slightly disappointed. I’m pretty sure I’m being unfairly harsh.

Yes, the Loki of the title is indeed the Loki of Norse myth. This is the story of his time in Asgard, from his recruitment by Odin, the Allfather, to the final battle of Ragnarok. Loki narrates the tale himself, putting his own self-serving spin on events as they unfold. In this accessible, relatable style, Harris successfully brings to life a complex set of myths without the whole thing feeling complicated (although I did have to refer to the handy character list a few times early on).

“Words are what remain when all the deeds have been done. Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains – hey, a story can even raise the dead.”

Continue reading “A story can even raise the dead”

Mid-winter reading round-up

Hands up: I finished reading two of these books weeks ago and have therefore forgotten almost everything about them. They all deserve full reviews but I’d have to reread the books for that to happen and, let’s face it, that’s not happening. So here are some woefully brief thoughts on the last few books that I’ve read. (Incidentally, my 2015 reading has started slowly. Goodreads tells me I am already behind. Stupid reading challenges.)

Dear LifeDear Life
by Alice Munro

Munro writes beautiful short stories about everyday life in Canada, often set in or starting from the mid-20th century, and even the more modern settings have a timeless quality to them. There was a bit of a theme of passing through, of the people who are important to you for a while and then move on, which is not an easy theme to create satisfying endings from, but this never bothered me. I really liked the story “Amundsen”, about a woman who goes to a remote village to teach at a school that’s part of a tuberculosis sanatorium. It’s somehow very ordinary and very strange at the same time.

“The building, the trees, the lake, could never again be the same to me as they were on that first day, when I was caught by their mystery and authority. On that day I had believed myself invisible. Now it seemed as if that was never true.”

First published in Great Britain 2012 by Chatto & Windus.

Source: Foyles, Bristol.

The Dead Lake
by Hamid Ismailov
translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield

This strange short book started out with so much eerie promise but it got a little boring in middle. In fact, I put it down for a month and wasn’t sure if I would pick it up again, but I’m glad that I did. The language is beautiful and the story almost a fairy tale. It’s about Yerzhan who lives in a remote part of Kazakhstan where the Soviets test atomic weapons. As a young boy he fell in love with the girl next door and one day, to impress her, he dived into a forbidden (and almost certainly radioactive) lake. The consequences of this action are odd and fantastical, which is fitting for such an empty, unsettling landscape.

“Yerzhan stood there with his heart pumping hard, pounding its rhythm against the wall – or was that the heavy passenger express that pounded on the rails with a rhythm that pulsed through the ground? Whatever the cause of the pounding, Yerzhan just stood there nailed to the floor, more dead than alive. And once again that same implacable, visceral fear rose up from his trembling knees to his stomach, where it stopped like a hot, heavy, aching lump.”

Published 2014 by Peirene Press.

Source: Peirene gave this away as a free e-book to newsletter subscribers.

Rivers of London
by Ben Aaronovitch

This had been recommended to me by basically everyone and we accidentally ended up with two copies of it, so I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. It’s the story of Peter Grant, constable for the Met, who at the start of the book is at the end of his probation, waiting to be assigned to a department, so his whole career could hinge on how he handles guarding a crime scene in Covent Garden. Which would be easier if this particular murder case didn’t appear to involve ghosts and all manner of strangeness. This book is a lot of fun. It explores fantasy, magic, policing, class, race, history and death, doing so with great humour and plenty of action. There are already four sequels, which I know people rave about as much as this first book.

“Rush hour was almost in full flood when I got on the train, and the carriage was crowded just short of the transition between the willing suspension of personal space and packed in like sardines…I was sending out mixed signals, the suit and reassuring countenance of my face going one way, the fact that I’d obviously been in a fight recently and was mixed race going the other. It’s a myth that Londoners are oblivious to one another on the tube: we’re hyper-aware of each other and are constantly revising our what-if scenarios and counter strategies.”

Published 2011 by Gollancz.

Source: Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge.

See how the light needs shadows

bone-clocks

The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell

It’s almost two weeks since I finished this book, and the more I reflect on it the higher it ranks in my esteem. It’s definitely a book that rewards giving it some thinking time.

If you’ve read any of Mitchell’s first three books (Ghostwritten, number9dream and Cloud Atlas) then this new release will feel familiar, and not just because of the direct references to characters, places and things in those books. This has actually been true of all Mitchell’s books but never quite so clearly as here. He has been world-building for five novels and now he’s capitalising on it with a glorious plot that combines the best of all that has gone before and throws in some brand new magic.

“Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark. See how the light needs shadows. Look: wrinkles spread like mildew over our peachy sheen; beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat, varicose veins worm through plucked calves; torsos and breasts fatten and sag…as last year’s song hurtles into next year’s song and the year after that, and the dancers’ hairstyles frost, wither and fall in irradiated tufts…”

As I mentioned in my write-up of David Mitchell’s talk at Bristol Festival of Ideas last week, it would be very easy to spoil this plot by saying too much, so I’m going to try very hard not to do that.

The Bone Clocks opens with teenager Holly Sykes having a really rubbish day. She starts off pretty annoying, as indeed most teenagers are, but as events continue to go badly for her, I realised I must have warmed to her because I really did care how things were going to turn out. It’s 1984 on the Kent—Essex border and though Holly mentions punk music and the miners strike, she doesn’t need to because the setting is so very alive. Holly’s parents own a pub and in reading about it I pictured all those small town pubs from my own childhood.

There are hints of something fantastical in the background, that this isn’t just a realistic story about a 15-year-old who’s had a massive fight with her mam, but Mitchell keeps these hints simmering slowly. It’s a tactic that for me paid off brilliantly, as it kept me reading even when the narrator switched to a whole new person and story that once again I needed to warm up to.

“Grey comes in through the cracks, birdsong too, and the sound of a lorry passing overheard, and a sharp pain from a knocked ankle, and I’m crouching on the concrete ground of an underpass, just a few yards from the exit. A breeze that smells of car-fumes washes over my face, and it’s over, my daymare, my vision, my whatever-it-was, is over.”

As always, Mitchell’s style is very readable and enjoyable. There’s plenty of humour to balance out the occasionally tough topics addressed. But key to what makes this such a good read is that every character is a rounded, believable person and though there are a few clear heroes and villains, even they can’t be relied on to be wholly good or bad.

Published 2014 by Sceptre.

Source: Waterstones.

When is a legend legend? Why is a myth a myth?

dragonriders of pern

Weyr Search
by Anne McCaffrey

After my recent introduction to Anne McCaffrey’s work, I was pleased to find this novella, an opportunity to check out the Dragonriders of Pern fantasy series that McCaffrey was best known for. Oh dear. Maybe I’m not a fantasy person?

My hackles were up from the start, as the story is introduced with a lengthy, complex prologue setting up the world of Pern, its people and its politics. Frankly, I forgot most of it almost immediately, but skimming through it again, very little of it was directly pertinent to this story and it could easily have been dropped.

The story itself opens with Lessa, who is using magic to hide in plain sight in her home, Ruath Hold, after her family, the hereditary rulers of Ruatha, were all butchered by Fax, a warmongerer from a neighbouring hold and new ruler of Ruatha. Lessa is exacting a slow revenge by preventing Ruatha from producing any profit, but as the story opens she feels a portent that danger is coming her way.

“When is a legend legend? Why is a myth a myth? How old and disused must a fact be for it to be relegated to the category: Fairy tale? And why do certain facts remain incontrovertible, while others lose their validity to assume a shabby, unstable character?”

If this had been purely Lessa’s story, I think I might have quite liked it. She’s fearless and determined, but shortsighted about how her ruination of Ruatha is affecting its people. However, this is all rushed through far too quickly as backdrop to the central story – the dragonmen have arrived at Fax’s Hold in “Search”. Their leader, F’lar, is hunting for a woman for a purpose that is only slowly spelled out, and as he and his men travel the area it becomes clear how bad a ruler Fax is. He fears dragons and holds the dragonmen in low regard – it’s never quite clear if this is in ignorance of their power or because of it.

Perhaps if I was already familiar with the setting (and McCaffrey wrote many books and stories set in Pern) then I wouldn’t have felt so bombarded with exposition, but as it was I was constantly trying to get to grips with the terminology – Weyr, between, bronze rider, Impression, Dragonqueen, etc etc – at the expense of getting absorbed into the story.

“Lessa woke, cold. Cold with more than the chill of the everlastingly clammy stone walls. Cold with the prescience of a danger greater than when, ten full Turns ago, she had run, whimpering, to hide in the watch-wher’s odorous lair.”

My guess is that this story was written to specifically illustrate the process of finding a new Weyrwoman, and to an extent details are held back so that the reader is as in the dark as Lessa. I would also hazard a guess that this wasn’t the best introduction to the world of Pern, and fans would recommend a different starting point. However, I’m not sure it’s for me either way. It felt to me that information-overload is an essential part of McCaffrey’s fantasy writing style. Simple conversations are peppered with authorial comment on the political and social connotations of word choice or tone of voice.

But that’s not my only objection. Though I believe from a little research that this is not typical of McCaffrey, in this particular book the gender stereotypes bothered me. For a book that starts and ends with a powerful woman who has a purpose not related to romance, the bulk of the story is about men talking war and politics while all the women are either servants or wives/mistresses with little or nothing to say. To a certain extent you could argue that this illustrates the kind of man that Fax is, the result of his methods of leadership, but if this isn’t typical in Pern then not enough is said or done to make that clear to the reader. I certainly came away with my idea of “swords and dragons” fantasy being rooted in medieval politics and gender roles thoroughly backed up.

“Mnementh’s many faceted eyes, on a level with F’lar’s head, fastened with disconcerting interest on the approaching party. The dragons could never understand why they generated such abject fear in common folk. At only one point in his life span would a dragon attack a human and that could be excused on the grounds of simple ignorance. F’lar could not explain to the dragon the politics behind the necessity of inspiring awe in the holders, lord and craftsmen alike. He could only observe that the fear and apprehension showing in the faces of the advancing squad which troubled Mnementh was oddly pleasing to him, F’lar.”

I’d still like to read more of McCaffrey’s SF but I’m not convinced I want to try more of her fantasy. Unless anyone can persuade me I’m being unfair and/or direct me toward a better starting point?

First published 1967 in Analog.

Source: Republished in Lightspeed Magazine, issue 20, which I have a selection of back issues of thanks to the Kickstarter project Women Destroy Science Fiction!

Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that

Orlando

Orlando
by Virginia Woolf

This is an odd book. Having read some Woolf before and knowing roughly what the storyline was I thought I knew what to expect, but it wasn’t really what I got. I ended up greatly enjoying it but though I found it clever and witty from the start, it took me a while – more than half the book – to actually like it.

How to explain the story? Orlando is born the son and heir to an aristocratic English family and becomes beloved courtier to Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I until his heart is broken by a Russian beauty, after which he sulks his way through the civil war and Restoration and then travels to Turkey to be the British Ambassador there to King Charles II, is made a duke, then falls asleep for a week and wakes up a woman, upon which she continues to have adventures up until the present day (or rather the present when the novel was written, back in 1928).

Notice the hinky timeline there? Orlando’s ability to live through centuries with minimal ageing (the narrative clearly states Orlando is 30 when he turns into a she about a third of the way through the novel, despite about a century having passed since the book’s opening scene, in which a 16-year-old Orlando alternates swordplay with writing poetry) isn’t directly addressed until quite late on, and it took me a little while to notice the historical clues to this fantastical thread. The switch in Orlando’s gender, on the other hand, is very directly dealt with, with comments on Orlando’s gender from page one.

“Orlando stared; trembled; turned hot; turned cold; longed to hurl himself through the summer air; to crush acorns beneath his feet…Whom had he loved, what had he loved, he asked himself in a tumult of emotion, until now?…Love had meant to him nothing but sawdust and cinders…as he looked the thickness of his blood melted; the ice turned to wine in his veins…he dived in deep water; he saw the flower of danger growing in a crevice…”

I can see how many an essay could be based on this book, there are so many interesting themes and details, from gender identity and sexuality, to Orlando’s attempts to be a patron of poets and a poet him/herself, to Woolf’s view of the changes in society over the centuries covered, and so much more besides. (It’s also apparently a fictionalised biography of Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had an affair and to whom the novel is dedicated, but I don’t know enough about the real-life history to have spotted this within the text myself.)

What struck me most was the tone of the book. It’s very satirical, almost brashly so, and this I felt kept me at a distance from the story, which was in stark contrast to my experience of Woolf’s other works. This meant I never got a handle on Orlando as a person but I did (eventually) grow to love the style and rhythm of the story.

“Once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing. And while this is bad enough in a poor man…the plight of a rich man, who has houses and cattle, maid-servants, asses and linen, and yet writes books, is pitiable in the extreme.”

There’s certainly no shortage of great lines. I had to stop using sticky notes to mark great quotes and start using a pencil, because there were so many but also because I found myself wanting to add little comments. I just wish I’d found a harder pencil as I’m having to squint a bit to read my faint scribbles!

While the genres the book satirises – picaresque adventure, historical biography, overblown romance – are as old as the novel, and while this is not written in Woolf’s familiar Modernist style, there are nevertheless modern touches. Woolf breaks the fourth wall by not only speaking direct to the reader and discussing the art of writing biography but even referencing specific page numbers (which are presumably carefully changed in every new edition) in a non-fiction fashion. And though for the most part the style is straight-faced biography, occasionally it turns abstract, nonlinear, in sections that are not exactly stream of consciousness but certainly owe their origin to Woolf’s mastery of that mode. Through Orlando’s own attempts to become a writer, Woolf pulls apart the literary style of every age since the Elizabethan but also mocks the literary critics of every age for preferring anything old over anything new.

“Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.”

I think I liked the last part of the book best because it became more self-aware, discussing Orlando’s reactions to the changing times rather than time just passing unnoticed as it seemed to in the first part of the book. The satire gets particularly savage in the 19th century, perhaps exposing Woolf’s own prejudices, but this results in some of the book’s most delicious lines.

“Thus the British Empire came into existence; and thus – for there is no stopping damp; it gets into the inkpot as it gets into the woodwork – sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied, lyrics became epics, and little trifles that had been essays a column long were now encyclopaedias in ten or twenty volumes.”

All of which did appeal to me, but I was still left wishing this had been more like Woolf’s other works. Perhaps (and I seem to find myself saying/writing this far too often) this is another book I need to re-read to fully appreciate. I definitely think I would get more from studying it – from having someone draw out the little details and historical background that I know I missed. Maybe I’ll search out a study guide before I pick it up again!

First published 1928 by the Hogarth Press.

Source: I bought this as part of a set of Penguin Red Classics several years ago, I think from a catalogue so probably the Book People?

Life had once been normal but it was so hard to recall

I thoroughly enjoyed the Split Worlds trilogy by Emma Newman and heartily recommend it to absolutely everyone, but I feel there’s a limited amount I can say about books 2 and 3 without spoiling the plot of the first in the series, so here are my very brief reviews.

Any Other Name

Any Other Name
The Split Worlds book 2
by Emma Newman

The series continues with another excellent adventure featuring Cathy, the reluctant member of fae-touched society, and Max, the investigator whose soul is trapped in a gargoyle. I worried this would be the toughest of the trilogy – to set up the final part the characters most likely have to both start and end in a bad place. But of course I needn’t have worried. There were just enough new twists and reveals while continuing and building on the set-up of book 1 (Between Two Thorns). I still love both the lead characters and I really appreciate the wonderful plot contrivance that allows Cathy (and others) to be aware of the essentially historical setting they live in and the inequalities of their society. It’s tough to say much about the plot without giving away what happened in book 1, so suffice to say that both Max and Cathy find themselves embroiled in much bigger problems than they thought they were getting into. So much fun, and thoroughly absorbing.

“I would like it if once, just once, a man would not decide what’s best for me without seeing how I feel about it first.”

Published 2013 by Angry Robot.

Source: Forbidden Planet Bristol.

All is Fair
The Split Worlds book 3
by Emma Newman

Ooh, it’s all kicking off now! That was pretty much my feeling throughout this final(?) instalment. It had become clear in book 2 that the problems in the Split Worlds ran deep and involved all sorts of deep corruptions that it seemed impossible would be fully cleared up by the end of this book. In fact I worried a few times that too much was happening at once and it would be too neat to resolve it all so quickly. I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that, while some threads were wrapped up, others are left loose so there is certainly potential for the story of the Split Worlds to continue, though whether future books would centre on Cathy and Max I am not sure of. I’ll admit there were moments where the story went in a direction I didn’t want it to, but I always ended up persuaded that that was the right decision. Because no-one’s perfect, and no solution is neat and tidy for everyone. I loved the new character Rupert, the Sorcerer of Mercia; he was brilliantly eccentric in a completely different way from Ekstrand, the Sorcerer of Wessex (who you may remember is completely useless on certain days of the week). Also, big thumbs up for the appearance of the excellent Bath bookshop Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights (which I realise now may have had some influence on the naming of the magic shop that plays a major role in the trilogy, The Emporium of Things in Between and Besides). I really did love this book and hope that Newman does have some more Split Worlds tales up her sleeves!

“He knew, intellectually, that his life had once been normal but it was so hard to recall. The bereavement was like the camphor in his grandmother’s clothes; it perfused everything and the smell just lingered on and on after the mothballs were gone.”

Published 2013 by Angry Robot Books.

Source: Forbidden Planet Bristol.

The dark afterlight of accomplished tragedy

the-infernal-desire-machines-of-doctor-hoffman

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
by Angela Carter

I have wanted to read more Angela Carter since I fell completely in love with Nights at the Circus a couple of years ago. So I enthusiastically added my vote when this was suggested for book club. It didn’t win me over quite in the same way but I still think it’s an amazing piece of writing.

This book can be pretty disorienting. It begins with a set-up so completely strange that it takes a while to understand what is happening. And throughout the book there are themes and incidents that are so shocking they disorient you all over again.

“I think I must have been one of the first people in the city to notice how the shadows began to fall subtly awry and a curious sense of strangeness invaded everything…Sugar tasted a little salty, sometimes. A door one had always seen to be blue modulated by scarcely perceptible stages until, suddenly, it was a green door.”

The story is narrated by Desiderio, a civil servant in the great unnamed capital city, and he describes the ongoing war with Doctor Hoffman, a physicist/magician who has declared a reality attack on the city. Apparitions and mirages fill the city, often with terrible consequences. Desiderio’s minister tries to stand up to this attack by becoming the Minister of Determination, his department responsible for figuring out what is real and what isn’t. But the real story begins when Desiderio leaves the city on a quest to find someone the minister believes will lead them to Doctor Hoffman.

So begins a journey with more than a touch of Gulliver’s Travels about it (in fact, Gulliver’s Travels is referenced multiple times) – in each chapter a new distinct territory is travelled to, with distinct people, always ending in near-misadventure for Desiderio, and of course for the reader there’s some serious political points being made.

“I must admit that all my guests enchanted me and I, in turn, enchanted them for, here, I had the unique allure of the norm. I was exotic precisely to the extent of my mundanity…They wondered at the masterpiece of sterility I remembered for them.”

The recurring theme, as the title suggests, is sex/desire. But sex in this book is never sexy, it is extreme, varied and frequently shocking in how matter-of-factly it is described, covering all manner of proclivites including paedophilia, rape, bestiality, violent sex, pornography and voyeurism. The sex, like the rest of the story, gets more fantastical as the book goes on, so although shocking things still happen, it gets less shocking because it’s less “real”.

“I see them all haloed in the dark afterlight of accomplished tragedy, moving with the inexorability of the doomed towards a violent death.”

Tied up with but some extent separate from the sex/desire theme is that of gender. This is definitely a feminist book but it makes its point in an odd way. Gender differences are made much of in every group of people/beasts encountered and women are always subjugated in some way. The satire is so stylised that some sections could be construed as hideously racist or sexist if you didn’t see the point being made (for instance, the “river people”, natives of this unnamed South American country, are eager to marry off their nine-year-old daughter and also suffer from the effects of in-breeding).

The 19th century travelogue style means that there is a certain distance maintained from all the characters, even the narrator, so that there is little psychological insight into the characters, but conversely there is plenty of psychological insight into human nature in general, albeit mostly about the nature of desire.

“None of these gobbets and scraps issuing from a mind blunted by age and misfortune made much sense to me. Sometimes a whole hour of discourse plashed down on me like rain and I would jot down from it only a single phrase that struck me. Perhaps: ‘Things cannot be exhausted’; or ‘In the imagination, nothing is past, nothing can be forgotten’.”

I know some at book group didn’t take to the florid language (which I’ll admit I love) but also pointed out what I hadn’t really noticed – the text is crammed full of references and could be analysed endlessly. It’s a cracking good adventure, but not a fast read thanks to all that detail in the language. It also describes itself as a love story, but I must admit I struggled to see the love buried under all the lust. Perhaps that was, after all, the point.

“We pursued one another across the barriers of time and space; we dared every vicissitude of fortune for a single kiss before we were torn apart again and we saw the events of the war in which we were enlisted on opposite sides only by the light of one another’s faces.”

There is so much more that could be discussed – the treatment of different languages and cultures; foreshadowing and even outright stating how things will turn out (on reflection the opening chapter tells the whole story, but it all seems so strange at that point that I had completely forgotten by the end of the book). I am definitely enthused to read more Carter but I’ll admit the disturbing nature of much of this one means I didn’t love it.

First published 1972 by Rupert Hart-Davis.

Source: I bought this from Foyles Bristol.

The sky was the colour of a day-old bruise

Between Two Thorns

Between Two Thorns
Book 1 of the Split Worlds
by Emma Newman

I went to the launch of this book a few months back (which for some reason I blogged about beforehand but not afterward – very strange) and the only reason I have taken so long to get round to reading it is that it is linked to a series of online short stories that I wanted to finish reading before I started this novel. Then I got impatient with myself and just read this anyway! I will go back to those short stories now.

Disclaimer: Emma Newman is a local author to me and we have met a couple of times, as well as having a few conversations over the internet. I think she is very lovely and this may or may not have coloured my opinion of her book. Which I really liked. I think it’s probably very good whether or not you ever so slightly know the author.

Newman has come up with something special in the Split Worlds. She has created a fantasy world with a multitude of characters and things going on that feed into not only 50+ short stories and three novels (at least??) but also interactive games. But you could absolutely read this novel on its own, or any one of the short stories on their own, and enjoy it for itself, without the extra knowledge of all the other stuff.

What’s great is that although Newman has clearly put a lot of thought into world-building, there’s no noticeable chunks of exposition in this novel. You get dropped straight into a funny but sinister incident involving a drunk man desperate for a wee on his way home from the pub and all the details you need to understand what is going on and how that links to the other characters are added gradually and skilfully.

“‘Tea, sir?’ Axon picked up the teapot. Ekstrand peered at it suspiciously.
‘It is Assam, isn’t it, Axon?’
‘Indeed, sir.’
‘All right,’ he muttered and started to pace. ‘It’s all happening at the same time. I never did trust Sundays and this only adds weight to my theory.'”

There are quite a few characters but arguably the main one is Cathy, one of the “fae-touched” who is trying to break free from her family and live in the normal world known as Mundanus by – shock, horror – going to university. However, those who inhabit the magical mirror world she is hiding from, the Nether, will not leave her in peace. In the meantime, Max, a sort of policeman of the Split Worlds who is separated from his own soul, has stumbled on a breach of the Split Worlds Treaty so huge that there’s no knowing how high up in society the trouble goes or who he can trust.

I like the idea of the magical world and the normal world co-existing, and Newman paints both equally well. Characters in both worlds drink a lot of tea. But the worlds themselves are very different, or at least their people and societies are. The Nether seems to be stuck in a facsimile of 18th-century Britain, all very patriarchal and anti-technology and formal, with rigid rules governing everything and everyone, especially women. Mundanus is the world as it is now, in the 21st century, which makes for a huge contrast in some ways. Really, it’s a wonder Cathy is the only one looking to escape the Nether! But the Nether also sounds quite wonderful, with its silver sky and all the possibility of magic.

“‘Bloody weather,’ she muttered and then silently took it back. The sky was the colour of a day-old bruise and the wind was bitter but she still loved it just for being there. She never wanted to see a silver sky again.”

While you could read this as a standalone book, I was left wanting more, eager to buy part two and read it soon despite my enormous TBR. Thankfully my procrastination on getting round to reading this one means that book two, Any Other Name, has already been published (and indeed I bought it last weekend) and book three, All is Fair is coming soon, in October.

Published 2013 by Angry Robot.

Source: I bought this at the book’s launch at Forbidden Planet in Bristol.

Nothing said in that language can be a lie

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman

It’s not often I read a book within 24 hours of buying it but the combination of circumstances and it being a darned good read meant on this occasion I did just that. As I mentioned on Sunday, I was lucky enough to attend a “pre-launch event” for this book on Friday and got my 30 seconds with Neil Gaiman himself, during which I, as always, failed to have anything interesting to say. By Saturday lunchtime I was reading the last page and wishing the book could have been twice as long.

There’s a sweet story behind this book, and also a very sad one (two different stories, that is). Gaiman’s wife went away for a few months last year on a tour of Australia and he missed her, so he decided to write her a short story as a kind of love letter. Not that it’s a romantic story, but it is a personal one, with a character heavily based on 7-year-old Neil and a setting heavily based on his childhood home and beginning with an incident that really did happen to his family when he was 7 years old, though his parents didn’t tell him about it at the time. Except this isn’t a short story, because he kept on writing and ended up with a novel. Which I think all Gaiman fans will be grateful for.

The un-named 7-year-old boy at the centre of this story is bookish and friendless, which is fine by him as he has his books. But the sudden and shocking death of the family’s lodger unleashes something terrible and powerful that only the three women who live in the farm at the end of the lane can possibly defend against. These are the Hempstocks – Lettie, who is 11 and has been 11 for a very long time; Young Mrs Hempstock and Old Mrs Hempstock. They resist the word “magic” but there is definitely something magical, or even mythical, about them.

“It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn’t very big. Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country. Her mother said Lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk. Old Mrs Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country. She said the really old country had blown up.”

This is quite a dark story, in a fairy tale kind of way. And it gets genuinely frightening in places, as well as being happy and sad and wistful and of course funny. It touches on the different ways in which children and adults see the world, with children both missing certain things through lack of understanding but also seeing more through curiosity and not having yet built up that blasé acceptance of how things are that can blind us adults to possibility.

“I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real…nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything.”

Gaiman said on Friday that he felt writing this that he was creating a myth rather than a novel and that makes a lot of sense. He also said that the Hempstocks have been characters in his head since his childhood and this book certainly doesn’t clarify who or what they are, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they turn up again.

Published 2013 by Headline.

Source: Bought from Topping & Co at their author event on 14 June.