Clockwork City – Paul Crilley

I loved Paul Crilley‘s Poison City last year.  Its irreverent take on the supernatural police procedural was a breath of fresh air.  Crilley has followed it up with Clockwork City (review copy from Hodderscape), a direct sequel picking up on Gideon ‘London’ Tau’s work with the Delphic Division and his search for his missing daughter.

One of the strengths of Poison City was its South African setting, and the wide range of gods, monsters and orisha that setting enables Crilley to draw on for the book.  That felt fresh and new compared to the run of urban fantasy and supernatural police procedural clogging the shelves.  So setting Clockwork City in London was a bold move. I’m not sure it completely works, as it loses the USP of these books.

Dealing with the aftermath of the events of Poison City, Tau finds himself sent to London to investigate the disappearance of two Delphic Division agents.  But this is a London full of Fae, walking brazenly and openly through the streets.  Four competing Fae gangs between them control London and its organised crime, but the Blessed are seeking to take over.  And they seem to have some connection with the disappearance of Tau’s daughter.

Clockwork City is a proper romp of a crime thriller, as Tau and his foul-mouthed dog spirit guide continue to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of Tau’s daughter.  It’s an adventure that takes them to the heart of ancient London and the alternate world of the Fae.  There’s a host of new characters and a glorious heist that is the supernatural equivalent of Ocean’s 11.  This is fantastic fun, and  a worthy sequel, even if not – quite – on a par with the first book.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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In Calabria – Peter S Beagle

It’s become a cliche that literary fiction tends to centre on a middle-aged man having a mid-life crisis and getting together with a much younger woman who helps him resolve his emotional crisis.  Peter S Beagle’s In Calabria (review copy from Tachyon press) is exactly that.  With extra unicorns.

Claudio Bianchi lives on his own on a farm in Calabria.  The farm provides his refuge from his past, and in particular from the break up of his marriage following the stillbirth of his daughter.  The trauma divided Bianchi and his wife, and their emotional distance grew from that point.  A simple life of complete isolation reflects the emotional pause in his life.  But the arrival of a pregnant unicorn on Bianchi’s farm becomes the catalyst for himto come to terms with his loss and the end of his marriage.  Caring for the unicorn and midwiving her through a difficult birth gives Bianchi a measure of redemption and emotional closure.  All this is, of course, aided by his new love, Giovanna, the postman’s sister (and a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl).

Although competently told, there is nothing new or insightful about In Calabria.  There are thousands of other stories telling this tale.

Goodreads rating: 2*

FO: Budleigh

Second in my Rachel Coopey A-Z of socks is Budleigh.

I love the mix here of the double cables with the snaking twisted stitches.  The double cables are offset, giving a lovely slanted effect.  And in one of the designer’s signature features, the socks are perfect mirrors of each other. They were very quick to knit too, with the first one taking just a week from start to finish.

The yarn is a skein I’ve had in stash for a while. It’s Artists Palette Smoothie Sock in a bright semi-solid pink. The yarn is a blend of 75% merino and 25% nylon. It’s incredibly soft and quite fine.  I’ve been worried that the high merino content might make them prone to wear and felting, but they’ve been holding up very well so far, and the cheerful colour is just the thing on a dull day.

The Toymakers – Robert Dinsdale

The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale (review copy from Del Rey) tries to deliver a magical and whimsical tale along the lines of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, but fails to deliver any of the depth of emotion or insight.

The Toymakers is the story of a magical toy shop in Edwardian Mayfair, run by Papa Jack, his two sons Kasper and Emil, and their community of shop workers.  Papa Jack’s toys are legendary for their inventiveness and magic, and the shop’s pre-Christmas opening each year is a famed spectacle.  A young woman called Cathy Wray finds refuge there after she runs away from her family, pregnant by a local boy and desperate not to find herself in a home for the mothers of illegitimate children.  Cathy is our window into Papa Jack’s Emporium, as it struggles to survive the challenges of the Great War, and a toxic rivalry between Kasper and Emil.

The premise is a great one, and there is definitely a lot of magic in Papa Jack’s Emporium and the family’s creations. Where the book is strongest is in its exploration of the traumatising effects of war in a period where understanding and empathy about mental health problems was very immature and gendered expectations of men made it very difficult to explore those issues.  One of the underlying messages of the book is that the experience of trauma can sometimes be necessary to enable one to tap the deepest wells of creativity.  The magic of childhood and its toys is made all the more precious when contrasted against the darknesses of war, poverty and trauma.

But I was left fundamentally unsatisfied and disappointed.  At its heart this is the story of the rivalry between two Great Men.  Cathy, despite being the viewpoint character, is relegated to the role of helpmeet and observer.  Loving and loyal, her role is to endure, and she lacks any agency of her own.  It is strongly implied that she is the victim of rape, having been pressured into sex by her childhood playmate, but she shows little sign of any lasting trauma and the crisis pregnancy seems little more than a narrative device to force Cathy to move to the Emporium and stay once the winter season is complete.  The other female characters are equally thinly drawn.  Without greater depth this book will never reach the subtle and delicate heights of something like The Night Circus.

Not only am I tired of reading books about Great Men, but there is a missed opportunity to tell a really interesting story.  I want to know more about  Cathy and the other women working to hold the Emporium together while her husband and the other men go to war, and dealing with a psychologically damaged husband returning home afterwards.  The Cathy dealing with a crisis pregnancy and coming to terms with sexual assault and the rejection of her family.  A Cathy who feels trapped by her circumstances.  We do Cathy and women like her a disservice by relegating them to passive victims and bystanders in men’s stories.

Goodreads rating: 2*

Paris Adrift – E J Swift

Time travel novels are relatively rare.  It’s too easy to get caught up in a knot of grandfather paradoxes and endless self-referential loops.  Plus Doctor Who has pretty much sewn up the market.  Time travel stories work best when the stories told are small, and personal.  That’s what E J Swift gives us with Paris, Adrift (review copy from Rebellion).

Hallie is a teenager escaping from a difficult family home by putting off university, travelling to Paris and working in a bar.  Nudged towards a bar called Millie’s by a mysterious stranger, she finds a new family in the transient community of Paris bar staff.  She also finds an anomaly in the keg room beneath the bar that enables her to travel through time.  Unbeknownst to Hallie, she’s been selected as the person most likely to be able to avert a dystopian, apocalyptic future by making small changes to the course of events.

Hallie’s story is a coming of age tale.  She grows in confidence and maturity as she comes to terms with her challenging family upbringing.  It’s a love song to that time in our life when we first move away from home and discover self-reliance.  Hallie has the chance to reinvent herself in Paris, connecting with a diverse group of likeable people, both in her contemporary Paris, and the city throughout time.

The world-building has a pleasing sense of mystery, with the anomaly left unexplained, and the plot moves along swiftly.  Paris, Adrift is an enjoyable story told with pace and skill.

Goodreads rating: 3*

FO: Ficus

After the epic project that was Evenstar, I needed to follow up with something quick and simple to cleanse my knitting palette.

Ficus was one of those brilliant one-skein projects, perfect for that special skein of 4-ply yarn and super-quick to knit.  It’s a triangular top-down shawl that begins with a garter tab cast on, has a panel of stocking stitch and a simple leaf lace border.

I’m trying to be a bit more adventurous with yarn, using variegated skeins more in my work.  Here I used a merino/silk/yak blend from Nimu yarns.  This was from her summer yarn club in 2016, and it has a lovely mix of autumnal shades.  I’ve not yak or a yak blend before, but it has a lovely drape and softness.

I’m always really nervous of variegated yarns pooling, and a top down triangle is a good way of breaking up regular pooling patterns because of the stitch count changing each row.  You get the joy of the colours blending and contrasting, but without the anxiety of strange pooling effects.

The downside to single-skein triangular shawls is that I often find them a bit on the small side, with not quite enough length to enable them to be wrapped effectively round the neck.  So with Ficus I chose to extend the leaf lace pattern with extra repeats until I had used up as much of the yarn as possible.  I was left with around half a metre after I’d cast off, so I’m confident I’ve squeezed every last bit out of this beautiful skein.

The Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden

Last year’s The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favourite reads of the year: a feel-good adventure story about a young girl overcoming a threat to her village with the help of the fairies and other mythical beings that live near her Russian home.  The Girl in the Tower (review copy from Penguin Random House) is the sequel, and second book in the trilogy.

The Girl in the Tower picks up straight after the events of the first book.  Mourning her family and lacking a place in the world, Vasya decides to try her luck in the world, riding out dressed as a boy and with a pocket full of silver.  She finds herself on the trail of bandits burning villages, before accidentally meeting up with her brother Sasha, travelling to Moscow and finding herself pitted against another of Morozko the frost demon’s bitter enemies.  

This is a classic – and winning – formula.  A tomboyish girl fighting against the gendered conventions of her time, a magical horse, adventure, peril and a happy ending.  Arden ups the stakes in this sequel, with Vasya also fighting to save her niece from a cloistered life as a Russian noblewoman within the even more constrained environment of the Moscow court.  Vasya continues to be impulsive, wilful and an utter delight.

Tremendous fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*