Planetfall – Emma Newman

Emma Newman‘s Planetfall (newly republished by Gollancz, who provided a review copy) is a brilliant SF psychological thriller.  Renata Ghali is an engineer on a high-tech extra-terrestrial colony founded by the visionary Lee Suh-Mi who brought together a group of colonists to flee Earth and travel to a new planet.  The colony is small, but stable, living around the base of an alien structure part plant, part animal and part city.  Suh-Mi is inside, communing with an alien civilisation, and the colonists have been awaiting her return for more than 20 years.  But the colony’s peace is over-turned when Suh-Mi’s grandson walks out of the grassland and into their lives, claiming to be the only survivor of a group of colonists believed to have crashed on landing.

Renata is a troubled protagonist, and the novel slowly reveals both her mental illness and the likely cause of it.  She suffers from anxiety, struggles to connect with other people and hoards goods.  She fell for Suh-Mi, her former flatmate, and followed her across the stars to escape a troubled relationship with her parents, and an increasingly dystopian Europe of scarcity, diminishing opportunity and encroachment on freedom.  The colony project is a grand vision of escape she can throw herself behind, running away from the challenges of Earth.  Newman’s depiction of Renata famously draws on some of her own personal history of anxiety, and is one of the best and most sympathetic portrayals of a complex and flawed character I’ve come across recently.

The reader quickly realises that all is not as it seems within the colony.  The Machiavellian and manipulative figure of Mack looms large within the novel.  Known as the Ringmaster, his job was to bring the colonists together and help broker their departure from Earth, using his charisma and influencing skills to create a shared vision and manage the people dynamics.  After landing, he has turned those skills to keeping the colony going while it awaits Suh-Mi’s return.  Superficially jovial, charming and caring, the reader soon realises there is a much more sinister undercurrent.

Newman is an accomplished novelist, though Planetfall is her first foray into SF.  The plot unravels with a beautiful balance of twists, reveals and insights that never once feels like Newman is artificially witholding information from the reader for plot purposes.  We travel with Renata as she revisits traumatic events of the past that she has tried to bury and forget.  And Newman gives us a brilliantly diverse cast of all races, genders and sexualities.

I am delighted that Gollancz has picked up this series of books, enabling Newman to finish writing and publishing the sequels.  This is exciting and fresh fiction.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Advertisements

Between The Blade And The Heart – Amanda Hocking

There are a whole bunch of cliches about urban fantasy.  About ‘strong’ female protagonists with the ability to kick demon butt and a taste for form-fitting black leather, tattoos, piercings and edgy haircuts.  About irresistibly sexy Fae creatures that capture the hearts of said strong female protagonists, often after stories involving love triangles.  And plots centring on conspiracies, world-threatening catastrophe and hidden pasts.  So much so that when I picked up Amanda Hocking‘s Between the Blade and the Heart (review copy from Pan Macmillan) I took it for parody to begin with.  But apparently it’s meant to be serious, and Hocking’s popularity suggests her writing is the source for a lot of these tropes and cliches.

This was a book I didn’t finish.  There are holes in the plot and the world-building you could drive the main character Malin’s luft-bike through.  And the prose was so eye-rollingly facile and over-sexualised that I struggled.  This is pure chick-lit – romance with the slight gloss of a supernatural mystery to solve as Malin gets involved in correcting a mistake her mother once made that arguably puts the world at risk.  It aspires to being ‘edgy’ with Malin’s bisexuality, strained relationship with her mother, references to drink and drugs, and her status as a professional slayer of immortals, but this is as derivative a work of fiction as they come.

The characters are unlikeable stereotypes, yet with Hocking making a point of telling us exactly how attractive they all are.  Malin is a standard issue strong-female-protagonist, who aspires to being a rebellious outsider (by not taking her college classes seriously, by ignoring instructions and advice, and partying hard).  Her flatmate Oona is a put-upon doormat.  And there is a classic Mean Girl at college, who is no doubt destined to become Malin’s BFF.  Add to that mix a Sexy Ex, a hot Friend With Benefits, and a Sexy Yet Mysterious Stranger and I noped my way out fast.

Hocking’s popularity and sales suggest she has a devoted readership and following of fans.  I am glad they are reading work they enjoy.  But this is not my cup of tea.  I prefer books with a bit more substance.

Goodreads rating: 1*

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*

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*

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*

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*