Dr Potter’s Medicine Show (Eric Scott Fischl, review copy from Angry Robot) is a dark and lush gothic horror set in frontier America. The titular Dr Alexander Potter is a seller of snake-oil, taking his touring circus and freak show round the Western states of America. But the mystery potion that Dr Potter is selling – The Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic – is not your usual concoction, part placebo, part laudanum. This Tonic is an alchemical preparation, part of an experimental series designed to unlock the secrets of eternal life.
This is a novel populated by grotesques and monsters, none more so than the sadistic Lyman Rhoades, who has the whole medicine show under his control. The venal and cowardly Dr Potter is dependent on his patronage to get access to the Sagwa Tonic that is keeping him and other key Medicine Show people alive. But Rhoades himself is merely the roving agent of a reclusive chemist, Dr Morrison Hedwith. He brews the Sagwa Tonic as part of his experiments, and sends the Medicine Show out on the road in the hopes that its travels will conceal some of the more horrific results of his experimentation.
This is not an easy read. Expect lots of graphic violence and sadistic torture, including sexual violence and its threat. There is no white hat hero for the reader to identify with. But the darkness and violence fits the overall tenor and style of the novel. It rattles along as a satisfying thriller, building to a climactic and horrific close.
Goodreads rating: 3*
Thoraiya Dyer’s debut novel, Crossroads of Canopy (review copy from Tor) is a fresh take on the fantasy genre. Set in a lush rainforest, Unar runs away from her parents, who want to sell her into slavery, and becomes a junior priestess to Audblayin, goddess of growth and fertility. After Audblayin’s death, the ambitious and rebellious Unar is passed over for promotion, and leaves the temple, vowing to be the person to find the reincarnated Audblayin and become the god’s Bodyguard. Unar leaves Canopy, the part of the forest protected by the gods and goddesses and descends to Understorey, where she discovers a new way of living and uncovers a plot to destroy Canopy.
There’s a lot to like about Crossroads of Canopy. Unar’s growing realisation of the unfairness of the society that she lives in shows us the dark underbelly of privilege. It depends on the exploitation of others. In this case, the slaves sold into servitude and the outcasts living outside Canopy who don’t benefit from the protection of the gods and goddesses above. This is a society of strict hierarchy where the privileged live close to the sun and the rest scrape a living on the edges of society. Unar’s compassion for the slaves is what ultimately leads to her being cast out of her temple and ostracised. Socialism and class awareness are still rare enough things in contemporary fantasy writing, that to see them is always a delight.
The treatment of female friendship and family loyalty is also a particular strength of the book. Unar is close to her fellow initiate Oos, though the two come from widely different backgrounds. Oos is a noblewoman, all grace and elegance next to the tomboyish Unar. Their friendship suffers trials and is repeatedly tested, but it endures and strengthens. But the real joy of the book is Unar’s relationship with her younger sister. Lost as a baby, Unar’s life is shaped by the desire to find her and make restitution. That guilt and drive is shamelessly exploited to Unar’s downfall.
Unfortunately, though, I struggled with Unar herself. She is an angry and rebellious teenager who repeatedly does exceptionally stupid things. That makes her a difficult protagonist to identify with for the whole of the narrative. She does have a lot of growing up to do – and matures significantly over the course of the novel – but it disrupted the flow for me and frequently threw me out of the novel.
Goodreads rating: 3*
Miska Storrow leads an unusual band of mercenaries in The Hangman’s Daughter, Gavin G Smith‘s latest novel (review copy from Gollancz). Hers are pressed men, prisoners kept in suspended animation on a prison ship and fitted with collars that enable Miska to explosively decapitate them at will. Miska and her mercenary legion have been retained to infiltrate a mining base that has been taken over by rebels, but she has few resources to back her beyond some ageing weapons and ammunition, and an AI version of her late father.
This is classic military science fiction – lots of running around, explosions and gory injuries and deaths. In between, a conspiracy plot begins to be revealed. Is Miska the rogue special forces operative turned cold-hearted and ruthless killer that she claims to be, or is there more going on under the surface? Obviously there is, otherwise this wouldn’t be much of a story.
The plot rattles along fairly well, but the cast of supporting characters is pretty thin and straight from central casting – identikit gangsters and idealistic rebels plus a stereotyped drill sargeant for a father. There is some disturbing fetishisation of a dangerous cohort of three high security prisoners held on Miska’s ship, including one particular serial killer that she is inexplicably attracted to. But the biggest difficulty for me was Smith’s reliance on concealing information from the reader. It jars me out of the story for a close third person narrator to not share information that would be known to the perspective character, particularly in a knowing way that is clearly designed to build suspense.
Goodreads rating: 2*
Empire Games launches a new series of books by Charles Stross (review copy from Pan Macmillan), but it didn’t leave me wanting to read on.
I haven’t read the earlier Merchant Princes books that this series follows on from, but I don’t think reading the earlier books is necessary before reading these. The story follows Rita, a drama graduate scraping a living as a booth babe, whose life is turned upside down when she is recruited by the NSA. What Rita doesn’t realise is that she is the child of an experimental programme designed to breed the talent to walk between worlds, a talent limited to a small group of people who are believed to be responsible for a terrorist attack that destroyed the White House. The NSA, fearful of further terrorist attacks, want to train Rita as a worldwalking agent, to infiltrate the terrorists.
In a parallel world, Rita’s biological mother, Miriam, is a refugee from the retaliation attack that destroyed the home of her family. She has worked her way up to being a Commissioner in the Government, heading the Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence, an agency that mixes espionage with the securing of technology to help develop the world in which she is now living. Rita’s mission is at risk of upsetting the delicate geopolitics of Miriam’s world, potentially triggering a worldwide nuclear war.
While there is a great Cold War espionage-style thriller in Empire Games, it was drowned out by an extremely polemical tone, reminiscent of Cory Doctorow. It was far too prominent in the story, and regularly intruded into and distracted from the story.
Goodreads rating: 2*
I have a weakness for well-told fairy tale, particularly stories out of the Western European tradition. And Katherine Arden gives us that in spades with The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, review copy through NetGalley).
Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna is a child of the frozen, Russian countryside. A child with an interesting heritage: her mother was the daughter of a mysterious woman who walked out of the Russian countryside and captured the heart of a Russian prince, becoming his second wife. Vasya’s mother and grandmother were steeped in Russian magic, a heritage increasingly in conflict with the Orthodox church and its strict version of Christianity. The Bear and the Nightingale is part an exploration of that tension between religion and the world of Russian myth, and part a coming of age story.
Vasya herself grows up learning her folk heritage. In particular, she is fascinated by the stories of Frost, the winter-demon who takes the lives of the unwary, but occasionally rewards with riches brave young women who are offered to him as tribute. She feeds and nurtures the household and wild spirits of her village as she grows up, all unaware that she has already caught the attention of Frost himself. Vasya is thrown into conflict with her father’s second wife, a devout Christian who also sees the local spirits but dismisses them as hallucinations sent to tempt her, and a new local priest obsessed with Vasya and determined to convert the local population with his hellfire preaching.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a glorious story of growth and personal self-discovery. Vasya is an unconventional young woman, pushing against the boundaries of the community she lives in, for the sake of that community. Even if it means she is forced into a position of conflict with that community. Arden has a beautifully rich and evocative story-telling style. This is a fantastic and very readable piece of fiction.
Goodreads rating: 4*
I am an unashamed fan of Grayson Perry and his work as an artist and cultural commentator, so I was delighted to receive a copy of his latest book, The Descent of Man, from the publishers Allen Lane, a Penguin imprint.
Gender politics is a very live and current issue. Many of us who are passionate about equality are fearful of a mood in the world that seems determined to row back on much of the progress that has been made by successive waves of feminism. For some the battle appears to be won, and the struggles necessary to secure what has been achieved are forgotten and the results taken for granted. Those who continue to agitate for further progress to tackle the remaining hidden and cultural barriers can often be perceived as extremists, our accounts of the lived experience of being on the receiving end of sexism (personal or institutional) discounted or seen as hysterical exaggeration.
Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man looks at the impact of this changing social dynamic on men. He rightly points out that men have been as much the victim of narrow gender stereotypes as women have. A macho culture that prizes men as dominant bread winners, sexually promiscuous but emotionally repressed is just as damaging as the one that limits to domestic caring roles as wives and mothers, denies them career opportunities and judges them primarily by their sexual attractiveness. That impact is there if you look for it, present in indicators such as the high rates of suicide among men. But it is not widely talked about, particularly by men themselves. Instead, perversely, a small group of men seek to cling on to those outdated and narrow roles, railing against the loss of power and privilege that inevitably comes from a rebalancing and opening up of gender roles. As always, for a rebalancing to occur, some of those who have historically had power and privilege will lose it in favour of others, so it is in many ways unsurprising that so much anger can be directed against women and other groups seen to be benefitting.
Perry’s central premise is that rather than engaging in blaming others, men should acknowledge the problems of the past and articulate a new, more inclusive identity that embraces contemporary society and exploits the opportunities of the contemporary world. It’s a laudable aim, but Perry himself never quite manages to lay down the essentials of what that identity might be, or how to persuade people to buy into a more positive view of masculinity. Regardless, this is a powerful and timely book, excoriating in its criticism of aspects of contemporary masculinity and the damage that a narrow patriarchal view has on us all, men and women.
Goodreads rating: 5*
Victor Pelevin’s Empire V (English translation published by Gollancz, review copy from NetGalley) aspires to be a 21st Century The Master and Margarita. It follows a young man called Ram, who is drifting through life in modern Russia. He follows chalk marks on the floor to an apartment where he is offered a bright future. He is transformed into the vampire Rama, and is gradually educated about vampires and the controlling role they play in the world economy.
Pelevin paints a harsh and nihilistic view of contemporary Russian society. It’s a very cynical view of commercialisation: the vampires are a literal parasitic class exploiting the labour and hopes and dreams of ordinary people. They are not productive in themselves, but instead create a culture of discontent, ambition and greed that fuels the economic activity that creates the conditions for the vampires to thrive. Strange rituals link the vampires to a secret society of the rich and powerful in society, as if the Bilderberg group were participating in scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut. The theatre the vampires create preserves their position of dominance.
The reader follows the naive Rama as he learns more about the new world and society he finds himself in. Like the worst social climbers out of water, he over-compensates in order to convince that he belongs as a member of the group. Pelevin contrasts Rama with another new vampire, the worldly-wise Hera. Achingly cool and very well-informed, Hera navigates vampire society with an ease and facility that Rama envies. Although regularly humiliated by her, it only fuels his attraction and desperation to please and impress her: a microcosm of vampire society’s control over the rest of the world.
Empire V is a cynical and disturbing read, but thought-provoking.
Goodreads rating: 3*