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*

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*

The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

2018 is already shaping up to be a fantastic year for fiction.  The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (review copy from Headline) is a thought-provoking post-apocalyptic tale about social media, climate change and identity.  It masterfully blends themes with a lightness of touch and real emotional punch.

In Clark Windo’s near-future, we are all permanently connected to each other through brain implants and the Feed: a lightning fast social media link that connects us all at the speed of thought.  Privacy is no more as people increasingly live their lives digitally, storing their knowledge, memories and experiences on servers and backing themselves up each day.  But that safe, complex world collapses suddenly when the Feed goes down, shortly after the assassination of the President.  The shock kills many, leaving only a few left, trying to eke out life in the ruins. 

Tom, Kate and their young daughter Bea are among their number, living in a small community on a farm. Relying on the Feed has left them with little or no knowledge of how to survive.  They don’t know how to grow food, cook, build or repair things.  But with the help of a couple of older people who remember life pre-Feed, they are trying to rebuild knowledge and a life.  Until Bea is kidnapped one day, triggering Tom and Kate to search for her.  A search that inevitably takes them on a journey of understanding that reveals the real cause of the collapse.  

Clark Windo plays with some of the tropes of genre fiction, giving them a contemporary update.  This is a novel that nods towards classic horror staples with a Survivors-style post-apocalyptic vibe and a distinctly literary fiction interiority.  The immediate aftermath of the Feed collapsing creates zombies unable to function and unused to having to speak.  And pervasive throughout the novel is a body-snatchers horror of a person’s implant being used to have them taken over by an alien consciousness.  In a post-collapse world without the intimacy of directly-shared thoughts and where the ability to read body language and facial expressions is a skill that has ossified, people are forced to ask themselves how they know who a person close to them really is.

Tom is particularly well-drawn.  As a son of the family responsible for the creation of the Feed technology, he has chosen to reject his place.  He is characterised by the desire to forget the past, to find ways to live on and to be self-sufficient.  The oblivion of forgetting and being forgotten is his first response to any trauma.  Yet he cherishes his memories of his relationship with Kate, clinging on to them through adversity.  
There is a climate change undertone to all this too.  The Feed consumes huge amounts of energy.  Our social media habits are putting increasing pressures on power supplies.  (All so we can share cat videos and photos of our lunch.)  Clark Windo asks if this is really worth the eventual price.  

Goodreads rating: 5*

Dogs of War – Adrian Tchaikovsky 

Fresh from Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us yet another fresh take on a classic.  Dogs of War (review copy from Head of Zeus) is a glorious updating of H G Wells classic The Island of Dr Moreau.  Told entirely from the viewpoint of bioengineered animal soldiers, this is a story of choices, ethics and overcoming our collecive limitations.

Rex is a dog soldier, and the leader of an experimental squad of similar bioengineered beings.  His squad-mates are Bees, an artificial intelligence distributed across a swarm of insects, Honey, a bear who is a heavy weapons specialist, and Dragon, a sniper lizard with chameleon-like powers to blend into the background.  The squad are under the direct control of their creator, Murray, with the control mechanisms plaing on Rex’s canine instincts to serve his human master, reinforced with a feedback chip that rewards and punishes.  

Rex’s squad are being trialled in a guerilla conflict in South America.  The use of bioengineered soldiers opens up new combat options, and the distance between commanding officer and battlefield changes judgements about risk and tactics.  It quickly becomes apparent that Murray has become involved in war crimes, including the illegal use of chemical weapons.  Rex’s squad are being used to cover up the evidence.  The issue is finally exposed when Rex’s unit become cut off from Murray’s command, and come to the aid of a village Murray is targeting to cover up a previous chemical attack.  Rex’s actions open up the question of Bioform autonomy, leading to a change in their legal status.
Dogs of War is a story of growth, change and evolution, as Rex and the other Bioforms transcend their limited beginnings.  Tchaikovsky’s strength as a writer shines through in the way he brings forward so much depth in a story told for the most part by a first person narrator with a very limited perspective.  Rex grows and changes over the novel, in large part as a result of his friendship with Honey, who forces him to stretch his thinking and understanding, first through making his own choices about right and wrong, and then as a leader of his Bioform people.  

For the most part this is an optimistic story about growth, change and the evolution of sentient beings.  But it is tempered with caution about the impact technological change canhave if not subject to proper regulation and control.  There is an element of body horror to Dogs of War, as Tchaikovsky shows us the potential of mis-using this technology in the novel’s climactic finale.

Most of all, it’s impossible not to warm to Rex and his squad-mates.  Good dog, Rex.

Goodreads rating: 5*