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*

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*

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*

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*

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*