Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence – Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith gives the familiar subject of marital breakdown a new twist in his novel Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence (review copy from Harper Voyager).  The titular Hannah Green is a young girl dealing with the break up of her parents’ marriage.  Her mother has left her father for a work colleague, and has moved from the West Coast of the USA to London.

The marriage break up is the unfeasibly mundane part of Hannah’s life.  So common a set of experiences and so frequently covered in fiction as to be unremarkable.  This is a well-trodden emotional journey for all the participants in it.

Hannah’s family story becomes interwoven with that of the Devil, when she is sent to stay with her grandfather for a while.  The Devil is trying to deal with a coup aimed at unseating him, and enlists the assistance of that same grandfather.  This allows Marshall Smith to take the domestic story on an abrupt jink to the side.  Introducing these supernatural elements lets him explore the family’s crisis in an allegorical manner, focusing on humanity’s ability to cause harm to family and friends.  It lacks no less of the emotional punch and impact of a traditional literary fiction treatment of these issues, but is delivered with a wry, sideways smile.

This is a heart-warming book that uses traditional genre tools to tackle a traditional literary fiction topic.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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Godsgrave – Jay Kristoff

Second novels can be difficult things, particularly the middle novel of a trilogy, which can never provide the resolution the reader is seeking.  So, how do you follow up a smash like NevernightJay Kristoff‘s  Godsgrave (review copy from Harper Voyager) takes Mia Corvere away from assassin school to pursue her mission of revenge against the people who unseated her father and executed him.

Godsgrave picked up after the cataclysmic event of the first novel – the Red Church is diminished, with many of its top echelons dead and its branch offices destroyed.  Now a fully fledged assassin, Mia is plying her trade, killing the great and the good to order, when she spots an opportunity to progress her revenge.  But it is one that may mean she must breach some of the most fundamental tenets of the Red Church, and will take her down a path that involves working with former enemies.

Mia Corvere engineers her way into gladiator school to earn a place at the biggest tournament of the year.  If she wins, she will have the opportunity to target her father’s killers.  But it is a life or death gamble – the survival rates from being a gladiator are low, and Mia rapidly finds out that her Red Church training will only take her so far.

In Godsgrave Mia’s single-minded focus on revenge begins to come under some pressure.  Time as a gladiator slave forces her to grow a social conscience about social and economic inequality.  But it also forces her to learn about the value of community and companionship, as she grows closer to her fellow gladiators.  There is not quite the same competitive culture that she experienced during her assassin training.

This greater social conscience adds depth to the novel, but takes away some of the sparkle of the first book.  Add that to some of those difficult middle novel issues, and Godsgrave doesn’t quite reach the peaks of Nevernight, but it’s still a great read.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Tarnished City – Vic James

Regular readers of this blog will know that I loved The Gilded Cage, the debut novel from Vic James.  So I was delighted to get a review copy of its sequel, Tarnished City from Pan Macmillan.  Go read my earlier review if you want the backdrop to this trilogy.

You will be relieved to hear that Tarnished City picks up immediately after the cliffhanger ending of the previous book, and continues with the same, unrelenting pace.  Without spoiling the plot of either this book or the first in the series I can say that the events of The Gilded Cage have irreversible changed the lives of all those caught up in them.  Both Abi and Luke find themselves set on very different – but equally dangerous – paths.

One of the things I loved about The Gilded Cage was its commentary on English history and class issues.  This continues in Tarnished City, and James’s writing if anything has got even more political.  This book exposes in some detail the culture of the super-rich and powerful, exploring whether they should be seeking to preserve that position of power, or using it to help the less privileged.  In a searing look at contemporary celebrity culture, James looks at the way the public are at times complicit in perpetuating those power structures by lionising the very people who do the least to help them.  And where the last book fictionalised the Peterloo massacre, Tarnished City gives us both the Gunpowder Plot and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This is incredibly high-grade writing from Vic James – Tarnished City is insightful and thought-provoking while delivering a thoroughly ripping yarn.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Blackwing – Ed McDonald and Godblind – Anna Stephens

It was fascinating reading Godblind (Anna Stephens, review copy from Harper Voyager) and Blackwing (Ed McDonald, Gollancz) closely together.  There are a lot of similiarities between both novels, but quite a few differences too.

Godblind features two warring civilisations.  Rilpor, a largely peaceful, but still militarised kingdom is bordered to the West by the Mireces, a blood-thirsty alliance of tribes.  Each worships two gods (one male, one female), but while one is peaceful and preaches redemption, the other thrives on violence and human sacrifice.  Centuries before, the gods were thrust behind the veil, but the red cultists are plotting to tear the veil through the blood-shed of war, enabling the Red Gods to walk the world again.

In Blackwing, the existential terror lies to the East.  The Misery is a warped and shifting landscape filled with mutated creatures and monsters that has been occupied by twelve evil immortals.  Set against it is a city-state that controls the Engine, the only weapon capable of damaging the Deep Kings and their twisted troops.  A weapon built by one of the twelve immortals set against them.  Although stalemate has reigned for many years, there are concerning signs that the Deep Kings are mustering for invasion.

Ryhalt Galharrow is the titular Blackwing, a soldier marked by one of his gods and regularly tasked to undertake mysterious quests for little reward.  As the novel progresses, his background as a battle-scarred noble who has turned his back on his heritage begins to emerge.  Godblind features Dom  Templeson, a warrior who is also a seer, with a portal in his head that he uses to communicate with his gods.  He works as a Watcher, guarding Rilpor’s Western border.  Galharrow is cynical and self-reflective, where Dom mostly reacts, perpetually seeking to escape his role as seer.

Chance encounters prompted by their gods are the jumping off points for both novels.  Galharrow is sent to one of the forts in the edge of the Misery which is shortly going to come under attack.  His job is to save a particular person, who turns out to be his former fiancee, now a powerful magic-wielder key to repelling the forthcoming invasion.  Dom receives a vision telling him to go to a particular place.  There he finds Rillirin, an escaped Mireces slave, and saves her from her pursuers.  She turns out to be the killer of the last Mireces king and the brother of the new one.

Both books are classic grimdark, featuring a high body count and lots of violence.  Both use it to illustrate the horror of the enemy, but where Blackwing uses it to show the horror and darkness of war, Godblind veers close to torture-porn at times, glorying in showing the full horrors of Mireces rites.

I would also give Blackwing the edge in its world-building.  The magic-system built on the use of light is fresh, but has a realistic industry supporting it.  An industry that is subject to corruption, relies on the exploitation of workers and ties the kingdom together in its focus on battling the Deep Kings.  McDonald’s gods are clearly playing a long game.  They are frequently absent and use humans as pawns in their centuries-long battles.  By contrast, it’s unclear to me how the largely agrarian country of Rilpor can manage to support a large standing army that doesn’t appear to do much most of the time, or why its small towns and cities remain loyal to the throne, beyond that it’s there.

While both are very enjoyable books, Blackwing just feels as if it has a bit more depth, more nuance and and greater maturity to it than Godblind.

Blackwing: 4*

Godblind: 3*

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead‘s novel The Underground Railroad (review copy from Little, Brown) has achieved an interesting double: winning the Pulitzer and the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2017.  It’s also shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  The Pulitzer, the Clarke and the Booker are unlikely bedfellows, but they show the impact this book has had.  Whitehead has written a magical realism novel about slavery in America, following escaped slave Cora on her journey to freedom.

Whitehead literalises the underground railroad of the book’s title, using it as the engine that drives Cora from state to state on her escape, experiencing different aspects of the slave experience.  Whitehead moves Cora through time as well as space, enabling him to fictionalise real events that took place over American history.  This is an analogue of Pilgrim’s Progress, or the copy of Gulliver’s Travels Cora finds in the library: a journey that is enabled and hindered by people she encounters, and tempting her to end her travelling and settle at various points on her way.

Cora’s journey is one from a closeted, pastoral existence to increasing social and political awareness, and growing personal agency.  Each step on her journey broadens her understanding of the world and increases her dissatisfaction, showing a different aspect of the discrimination and exploitation suffered by black people, both enslaved and free.  Some of that is obvious: the cruel plantation owners or the weekly lynchings of escaped slaves.  But some of it is much more subtle and insidious, including the benevolent white people seeking to instil their own values and practices, a thin veneer of tolerance concealing medical experimentation and other forms of control.

Most of all, The Underground Railroad shows how people are active and complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression.  The system sets people against each other, even those that might appear at first blush to be natural allies.  Poor Irish immigrants like the maid Rose are keen to separate themselves from those at the bottom of the heap; others find it an outlet for their saviour complexes; still others live in fear of setting themselves against their neighbours by standing up against poor treatment.

Ultimately, Cora’s choice is one to pursue and shape her own destiny, rather than to fall into the choices and structures of others.  Freedom comes in many forms, but that is the only one that truly counts.

Goodreads rating: 4*

From Darkest Skies – Sam Peters

From Darkest Skies is the debut novel from Sam Peters (review copy from Gollancz).  It’s a crime thriller set on a colony world in space.  Agent Keon Rause is newly returned home and investigating the deth from drug overdose of a celebrity, while on the side investigating the death of his wife in a terrorist attack several years previously.

This is solid and dependable stuff.  Think of a mismatched crew of investigators, led by Rause, all with different skills and mysterious backgrounds.  Think of a simple investigation that reveals a major conspiracy that threatens the world.  Think of signs that the wife’s death was not all it appeared to be.  You know what to expect with this kind of thing.

The book does have some interesting aspects to it.  Agent Rause has created an illegal android analogue of his late wife, Alysha, with a personality matrix built from everything that has been recorded of her life, opinions and what she did and believed.  Rause uses it as a comfort as he fails to come to terms with her death.  But it’s an imperfect copy, lacking Alysha’s inner life and deepest thoughts.  The android is unable to help him piece together what motivated Alysha to run away in her final hours of life and find herself on a train that was blown up by terrorists.  From Darkest Skies asks us how well we can ever know a person, even in a world of omni-present social media and surveillance.

Some interesting world-building is hinted at too.  Alien beings called The Masters were responsible for the destruction of large parts of Earth, and for dispersing its population throughout the universe on a number of colony worlds.  This piece of history is only mentioned in passing in this novel, but if offers some fascinating hints of where future books could go.

I will watch with interest to see what Peters comes up with next.  This is a promising debut.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Space Between The Stars – Anne Corlett

Every now and then a book comes along that confirms to you that it’s not that you’re struggling to get excited about reading.  It’s just that the books you’ve been reading recently, while perfectly competently written, have just been a bit meh.  Anne Corlett‘s The Space Between The Stars (review copy from Pan Macmillan) is one of those astonishing, game-changing books that reminds you what reading should be about.

Corlett’s novel is the story of a universe after a highly contagious virus has wiped out most of humanity.  A tiny number of survivors – each of them one in a million – are scattered across colony worlds across the universe.  They must deal with what has happened and find a way of moving forward. The story focuses on Jamie Allenby, who had fled to a remote outpost from the breakdown of her relationshp following a miscarriage. She wakes alone after the virus has burned itself out, and sets out on a journey home to the Northumberland coast.  Along the way she meets a failed priest, a religoius scientist, a ship’s captain and his gruff engineer, a prostitute and a boy with autism.  These become her unlikely travelling companions on her journey to Earth and a hoped-for reconciliation with her partner Daniel – if he has survived the virus.

So far so Station Eleven.  But what sets The Space Between The Stars apart is its focus on the personal.  The small stories of the survivors and how they deal with the consequences of what has happened: grief and anger are real and there are no easy ways forward.  Let me be clear: this is not a big, galaxy spanning story of rebuilding civilisation or a Survivors-style tale of people banding together for protection against feral raiders in the ruins of our world.  Civilisation has ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

This is a story about humanity in all its chaotic glory.  Don’t expect the relentlessly saccharine positivity of The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet.  And that makes it a much better piece.  This is a book about how imperfectly we live together with one another.  It’s about the tension between our striving for privacy and independence, and our basic need for community and contact with one another.  It’s about the imperfect communications between us all.  It’s about the messy business of life and survival, and the way it does not fit neatly into the stories we tell one another, with their clarity of purpose and happy ever after endings.  Like the sea glass that Jamie collects on the beach, we are all unique: shaped and made beautiful by the pounding tides that rub us up against one another and the grit between us.

Goodreads rating: 5*