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*

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird (review copy from Jo Fletcher) is a glorious tale of historical mystery, peopled with compelling eccentrics and drawing on a rich heritage of English folk tales.  It’s a compelling page-turner from start to finish.

Rotherweird is an isolated place.  Cut off from the rest of England since Tudor times, it exists under its own laws and rules under the custodianship of hereditary office-holders.  With his career in tatters, Jonah Oblong takes a job as history teacher at Rotherweird school, but under the stricture that all the history taught must be modern – nothing older than 1800.  Another outsider – Sir Veronal Slickstone – has bought the local manor house, which has been closed up since time immemorial.  He moves to the town with his wife (an actress) and his son (an urchin pulled off the street) and seeks to make big changes in the town.  The timing of Sir Veronal’s arrival is no accident.  Unbeknownst to the townspeople, Rotherweird’s past is about to come to the fore, putting all their lives at risk.  It’s up to Jonah Oblong and a band of Rotherweird inhabitants to solve the mystery and save the world by piecing together the past.

Rotherweird is unmistakably English as a novel.  It is steeped in a certain type of English folk tale, like the Lambton Worm, and draws on iconography around the Green Man and English folk rituals such as festivals and passion plays.  The Rotherweird raft race is straight out of a school of British local customs that bring you cheese rolling, bog snorkelling and Straw Bear Day.  And it is peopled by Great British Eccentrics throughout, all of whom are written with a delightful lightness of touch, while never falling into the trap of becoming simplistic or two-dimensional.

But Rotherweird is also a fantastically rewarding and convoluted mystery story.  Along with Jonah Oblong and friends the reader pieces together the history of Rotherweird and the Lost Acre, a place of fantasical flora and fauna that can only be reached through a special portal.  Although the story wraps up satisfyingly well, there are just enough loose ends left to keep the reader guessing.  Caldecott has a sequel planned: Wyntertide.  I for one, can’t wait.

Goodreads rating: 4*

All The Birds In The Sky – Charlie Jane Anders

There’s been a lot of buzz about the debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds In The Sky.  This seems to be largely driven by the author’s status as a recognisable ‘name’ in online pop culture journalism: she is one of the co-founders of io9.  The book has been nominated for the 2017 Best Novel award at the Hugos, and won the 2017 Nebula, so I was particularly interested to read it.

This is a charming novel about the relationship between Patricia and Laurence.  We first meet them both at school, where they band together as outsiders from the normal school culture.  He is a maths and science geek, she is a bookish and rather fey girl with a love of the outdoors who discovers a talent for magic.  The casual cruelties of school bullying and the expectations of their parents push Patricia and Laurence together, but their friendship suffers the tensions of a science v magic divide and they go their separate ways.  Of course, life throws them into one another’s paths once more as adults, where they find themselves on opposite sides of a debate about how to save the world from a global crisis induced by climate change and scarce resources.

Where this novel is strongest is in the exploration of Patricia and Laurence’s friendship.  The shared experience of growing up weird and misunderstood is a tough one.  It throws the two together and has lasting effects on their friendships and relationships throughout their lives.  To that extent it’s reminiscent of books like Jo Walton’s Among Others.  But the novel suffers from a thinly drawn supporting cast, and the doomsday device v magical apocalypse plotline is resolved unsatisfactorily, with a rather predictable ‘you need both’ conclusion.

All The Birds In The Sky is zeitgeisty, but ultimately pretty forgettable.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The House of Binding Thorns – Aliette de Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns is the sequel to Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel, The House of Shattered WingsBinding Thorns (review copy from Gollancz) picks up immediately after the cataclysmic events of Shattered Wings.

In de Bodard’s post-apocalyptic Paris, wealthy Houses are ruled by the Fallen, angels ejected from Heaven, but with no memory of why they were cast out, or their former lives.  The major houses provide a measure of protection for them, and a way of using their magical talents.  But as Shattered Wings showed, there are dark forces at play seeking to undermine the House structures.

But Binding Thorns takes a different tack to its predecessor, focusing on the much story of a strategic alliance House Hawthorn is seeking to make with the Annamite dragon kingdom under the Seine.  The existence of the dragons is known to very few and the product of France’s colonial past.  Paris has a substantial Annamite minority, living on the margins of society, many of them migrants or the descendants of migrants unable to return home.  It is natural that they would have brought their beliefs and supernatural beings to their new home.

It’s always exciting to find a work of speculative fiction that deals with post-colonialism, let alone one that does it so well.  As de Bodard makes clear in her Afterword, this is a novel that draws on the experience of colonial control through things like the Opium Wars.  Except the drug of choice that is slowly destroying the Paris dragon kingdom is angel essence, not opium.  And just like China, the trade in angel essence is a deliberate attempt to weaken and undermine the kingdom, making it ripe for a takeover.  The dissonance between Fallen and Annamite culture is portrayed incredibly well throughout the novel, whether through the starkest incompatibilities in the two magic systems, or the subtleties of cultural constructs.

The chance to explore another House is an exciting one.  House Hawthorn is an interesting contrast to Silverspires in the first novel.  We learn much more about its enigmatic leader Asmodeus.  Cruel and self-serving he may be, but he turns out to be much more complex than the pantomime villain of the first novel, and an incredibly sympathetic character.

The overall cast of characters remains strong and diverse.  It’s good to see motherhood portrayed, along with older women in positions of power and influence.  There are gay, lesbian and bisexual characters, as well as the obvious racial diversity of the Annamite and Fallen characters.

With the groundwork laid in its predecessor, The House of Binding Thorns is a much more interesting and powerful novel.  de Bodard’s series is shaping up to be extremely interesting indeed.

Goodreads rating: 4*