Archives » Fantasy

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape, 2008, 359 p.

The Enchantress of Florence cover

A foreigner turns up to the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, at Fatehpur Sikri with a claim to be related to him and a tale to tell to justify it. The foreigner has called himself variously Uccello di Firenze, Mogor dell’ Amore (the Mughal of love) and Niccolò Vespucci. So begins this typical piece of Rushdian flamboyance.

Containing elements of fable, fairy tale and Rushdie’s usual dose of magic realism (among other things Akbar has managed to conjure up for himself an imaginary – and therefore perfect – wife) there is nevertheless something about the treatment that does not quite hit the mark. Rushdie has always been fond of digression, word games and allusions (in this case, for example, take the mercenaries Otho, Botho, Clotho and D’Artagnan) but it has to be said; in amongst the showing here, there is a lot of telling. As if to underline this there is a list of works consulted for research given in a bibliography.

Yet, as the author notes, “The untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world.” That is what fiction is for after all. But then again, “Those sceptics who by virtue of their sour temperament resist a supernatural account of events may prefer more conventional explanations.” Indeed.

It might seem, too, that in a novel entitled The Enchantress of Florence that the woman concerned could be expected to appear in the narrative somewhat earlier than two-thirds of the way through but while this is her story it is also the story of Akbar, of the Florence of the Medici (and the monk Giralomo,) and of three friends from that city, Antonino Argalia, last of the condottieri, Niccolò – ‘il Machia’ – Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli) and Agostino Vespucci (cousin to Amerigo.) It is also the tale of why the Mughal court had to leave Fatehpur Sikri.

The enchantress is Qara Köz, “Lady Black Eyes,” Akbar’s Great Aunt, sister of Babar the first Mughal, eliminated from the family history when she rejected a return from capture. Her enchantments seem to lie in the ability to entrance men, if only for a while. Her destiny is to pass through the hands of a warlord, to the Safavid Shah Ismail, to Antonino Argalia and finally to the New World with Agostino Vespucci. She has a companion, her mirror in all respects (bar one.) Yet she is an absence in the book, an emptiness around which Rushdie weaves his tale of folly, wisdom, hope and loss. Akbar is at the heart of it, a ruler wise to his surroundings and to the machinations of the power hungry. There is a barbed inversion of insular Western conceptions when Akbar muses that, “The lands of the West were exotic and surreal to a degree incomprehensible to the humdrum people of the East.”

A noteworthy aspect of this edition is that it is endowed with beautiful endpapers picturing at the front a detail from The Building of Fatehpur Sikri Palace from the Akbamama and at the rear from the Carta della Catena showing a panorama of Florence.

Pedant’s corner:- A 16th century Scottish pirate may well have been carrying letters of marque or even diplomatic credentials from Queen Elizabeth (of England) but I doubt he would treasure a locket containing her portrait. Equally he may have boasted of climbing all Scotland’s Munros but not in those terms. They were not named as such for a further three centuries. “I’d keeped her locked up” (keep,) rowboat.

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2000, 1114 p.

 Ash cover

The main parts of this compendious novel are framed as a (complete with footnotes) modern academic translation from mediæval Latin of several “found” manuscripts depicting the life of Ash, the female leader of a company of 15th century mercenaries whose emblem is the Lion Azure. These are presented in the form of “Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy” as by “Pierce Ratcliff, Ph D.” Ash, like Joan of Arc did, hears a voice in her head; in her case it transpires this is of a machina rei militaris (engine of military matters or, to put it in modern terms, a tactics computer.) In Ash’s story Gentle evokes the mediæval world marvellously; the power balances, the camaraderies, the techniques of fighting, the blood and guts, the miseries of a siege, the inconsequentiality of the common people – and there are more technical terms for pieces of armour than you might think could actually fit on a human body.

It is clear from early on that this is not our history, though. When religion is invoked it is the Green Christ, Christus viridianus, who is called upon – this religion is some sort of mash-up between Mithraism and what we would recognise as Christianity – and, while the Turks have indeed taken Constantinople, there are no Moors in North Africa and Carthage is a power in the world, a Visigothic Carthage. The manuscripts also refer to clay men – a term thereafter “translated” as golems – accompanying the forces of Carthage in an invasion of Europe.

Neither is it the history of Ratcliff’s world. Discrepancies exist between details of the manuscripts he is translating and history as he knows it, in particular the existence of a Visigothic Carthage in the 15th century. Moreover, those few copies of the manuscripts held in academic institutions round the world have been mysteriously reclassified from history to fiction even while he has been in the process of translating them, placing at risk his chances of publishing his findings. In search of evidence for the city he has joined an architectural dig in North Africa. The discovery there of a Stone Golem (another name for the machina rei militaris,) initially dated as modern but on second examination to mediæval times, and traces of the city corresponding to the Carthage of the manuscripts (in a deep trench in the Mediterranean sea floor not found on Royal Navy charts from the Second World War – Green Christ notwithstanding, there are overwhelming similarities between Ratcliff’s world and ours) also point to the fluidity of the historical record. This strand to the book is revealed in a series of transcribed emails between Ratcliff and his publisher supposedly interpolated in the printed out pages of the translation. Discussing many worlds and quantum theories these exchanges lend a Science Fictional air to what would otherwise be a straightforward Fantasy. As a coda to Ash’s story, a transcribed interview with a previous translator of the Ash documents and afterwords to successive editions of Ratcliff’s publications continue this strand.

All of this elaborates a tale of deeper powers beyond the Stone Golem, the Ferae Natura Machinae, or Wild Machines, silicon intelligences located inside pyramids in the desert near Carthage, who have not only cast the shadow of night over both Carthage and most of Europe (bar Burgundy) by drawing down the power of the Sun but also threaten to extinguish humans from the world. Through the Wild Machines’ influence on the Stone Golem, Carthage has been breeding for the ability to alter reality. The leader of their invasion of Europe, the Faris, is the first to be able to communicate with the Stone Golem at a distance and will be the instrument of their designs. Thus is the old Roman epithet Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed) given enduring relevance. Ash turns out to be a by-product of the Carthaginian breeding programme, rejected at birth, who was taken in on a whim by members of the Griffin-in-Gold mercenary company and survived to adulthood merely by chance. The voice she hears is the machina rei militaris.

So why Burgundy and the “Lost History of Burgundy” (which would actually be better rendered as the “History of Lost Burgundy”)? In the story Burgundy has, inadvertently, perpetuated a bloodline that negates the reality-altering ability.

That women were involved in warfare in the mediæval era – as combatants (and surgeons) as well as camp followers – and would be capable leaders, are points worth making into a novel. To my mind, though, it detracts from the possible resonance of that fact that Ash is imbued with “supernatural” powers.

The character of Ash herself is agreeably complicated; accomplished to be sure, decisive, ruthless at times, but also loyal and liable to human flaws. The portraits of others are equally successful.

I’m not sure about that framing device, though – even if it does give us the delight of footnotes and adds the Science Fictional gloss.

Pedant’s corner:- The text flips indiscriminately between the use of ass and arse, and after the Lion Azure’s surgeon is also revealed to be a woman, her name is given equally indiscriminately given as Floria or Florian. The use in the “translation” of modern phrases such as “listen up,” “you bottled it” and “rag-head”- while conveying the essences well enough – jars a little in the context of mediæval discourse. Then we had 2 counts of lay/laying (lie/lying,) sprung (sprang) and sunk (sank,) a snuck (sneaked,) merchant (merchants,) still born up by the welcome (borne up by,) blue slates roofs (slate,) is there proof of your been born from a slave mother (being,) still held prisoned (prisoner?) no one (no-one,) “His took a slow match” (He,) the edges of her armour cuts the hands of men she helps (cut,) force-marched (the phrase is “forced march” so forced-marched,) towards at the head of (either “towards” or “at” but not both,) auxiliary’s’, paying merry hell (playing,) Richard (Rickard,) outside of (outside,) at your Duchesses’s request (but the request had been made by the Duke, now deceased,) deosil for deasil is an variant of deasil I hadn’t previously seen, E pur si muove is usually rendered as Eppur si muove, “to get the stiffness out her neck” (out of,) hung (hanged.)

Tanith Lee

I saw in today’s Guardian Tanith Lee’s obituary.

Despite her prolificity, I don’t recall reading much of her work (SF, Fantasy and Horror in the main) but her name was familiar to me. I may have noticed at the time that she wrote two episodes of Blake’s 7 but it wasn’t something I had at my front of my mind.

She was notable as being the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel (for her book Death’s Master.)

Tanith Lee: 19/09/1947 – 24/5/2015. So it goes.

The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano.

Gollancz, 2014, 270 p. Reviewed for Interzone 254, Sep-Oct 2014.

 The Seventh Miss Hatfield cover

In 1954 an eleven year old girl named Cynthia carries a wrongly delivered parcel to its correct destination across the road. There she meets Miss Hatfield, who has a collection of portraits and antiques plus a strange clock with unusual intervals marking its dial. Miss Hatfield gives Cynthia a glass of lemonade into which she has poured the last drop of liquid from a vial. Within a few pages – bare minutes of conversation, and no change of scene – Cynthia has become a fully grown woman. The physics of this transformation, the chemistry required, its energetics, are all not so much skimmed over or ignored as seemingly unconsidered. The process is only a means for Caltabiano to propel her narrator into the story she wishes to tell. It does of course also signal Cynthia’s altered reality.

Miss Hatfield tells Cynthia the fateful drop was the last remnant of a bottle filled from a mysterious lake stumbled upon by Juan Ponce de León on his first voyage to Florida. The liquid confers immortality on its drinkers. The Misses Hatfield have been employing it to recruit new versions of themselves ever since it came into their hands. Moreover they use the strange clock – which an early Miss Hatfield just happened upon – to navigate time. Miss Hatfield informs her new protégée time is not a river, but a lake; existing all at once. Quite why a clock would then be a suitable device to use to sail on it is odd. Moreover, how it actually manages to achieve this feat is never divulged. Again, it just happens.

Cynthia accepts the actions of Miss Hatfield, plus her subsequent demands to go to 1904 to steal a portrait, indeed begins to think of herself as Rebecca Hatfield, the seventh such, amazingly readily. In no time at all, corsetted and long-skirted, she is rushing off through carless streets to the house of Charles Beauford, who fortuitously takes her for his niece Margaret. There she meets his son Henley who, despite knowing she cannot be his cousin, plays along with the deception. The seventh Miss Hatfield has something of a charmed life, it seems.

This is fine as far as it goes but here the story gets bogged down as Caltabiano’s over-arching fantasy becomes somewhat lost amid the details of the burgeoning relationship between Henley and his “cousin.” True, every so often the new Miss Hatfield (she forgets her past life all too easily) remembers she is supposed to be stealing the painting and also experiences a growing sense of wrongness associated with being out of time but this is all diluted by the routines of daily life in a well-to-do Edwardian household and a preponderance of “playful” dialogue. Even the appearance of the Porter sisters, Christine and Eliza (the first of whom and Henley are effectively promised to each other, the second is by far the most interesting character in the book) does not give Rebecca a quick way back to her own time – or later. Cynthia/Rebecca/Margaret also has a very modern idea of servants’ individuality and sense of self but is annoyingly gauche. Her discovery of what the reader sees as links between the Misses Hatfield and the elder Mr Beauford does not give her pause about her sponsor’s motives.

The book is adorned with a cleverly designed Escheresque cover and the accompanying promotional blurb makes much of Caltabiano’s youth. That earns no free pass here; but Caltabiano can write – even if she occasionally employs awkward sentence constructions and lacks quite the necessary feel for the detail of late nineteenth/early twentieth century speech and mores. In their trip to the country, Henley drives the automobile himself. Families like his had chauffeurs for such tasks. And I doubt that, once the car had broken down, an unmarried man and woman at that time (cousins or not) would be allowed to sleep in the same space – even if it was a barn.

There are other details which niggled. Except in the most unusual circumstances would her assumed persona as Mr Beauford’s sister’s daughter still have his surname? The sixth Miss Hatfield refers to being shown a photo sometime in the early 1840s. So early? Eliza mentions that ever since reading Jules Verne she has wondered about the possibility of time travel. (Oh dear. Unless this is an altered universe in which Verne actually wrote any such stories.) The women take part at a burial. In 1904?

Caltabiano’s story of time-crossed love is never entirely convincing, the book’s resolution a touch rushed, the supposed poignancy of the epilogue not fully earned by the preceding pages and the speculative content comes down to trappings. There are two more novels to come, though.

Pedant’s corner:- goodnight for good night, Tu scies nunquam finem. (Since in Latin verbs are placed at the end of a sentence should this not be Nunquam finem scies?)

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Harper Perennial, 2007, 210 p

 Magic for Beginners cover

This is a book of short stories by Link, who has won multiple awards for her fiction.

The Faery Handbag. Made by Genevieve’s grandmother from an old dog skin, the eponymous bag opens three ways. One is just a normal bag, another leads to a capacious land where centuries elapse while only a single night has passed outside the bag, a third contains the bag’s guardian (the dog whose skin it was made from – and who is not a happy bunny.) Told with such confidence that it even warns the reader not to believe a word of it and also comments on the art of storywriting, “It’s hard work telling everything in the right order,” Link’s skill here is to make sense of nonsense, logic out of the bizarre.

The Hortlak. Eric works with Batu at an All-Night Convenience Store. Eric likes Charley, a woman who drives past regularly with dogs about to be put down but he never talks to her and is jealous of the fact that Batu is teaching her Turkish. The store is close to Canada and has some Canadian customers but is also frequented by zombies from the Ausible Chasm just across the road. The blend of the mundane (the store and the talk of changing the face of retail) and the bizarre (the zombies and the ghosts of dogs Batu says haunt Charley’s car, which are nevertheless treated matter-of-factly) gives the story its frisson. And the Hortlak of the title? I have no idea. It’s never mentioned.

The Cannon. Couched as a question and answer dialogue this is about emm…. a cannon – from which people are shot into the air to fly for miles without apparently suffering any injuries.

Stone Animals. A couple and their two children move into a new house whose entrance is flanked by stone rabbits. As the lawn gradually fills with rabbits they come to feel everything is haunted.

Catskin. A tale of witches, and how they get their children, of revenge, of sewing people into catskins so that they take on the attributes of a cat, and which may, just may, have been written to enable a pun on the word pussy.

Some Zombie Contingency Plans. A former jailbird who thinks a lot about zombies, icebergs and art gatecrashes a party and takes the girl of the house into his confidence.

The Great Divorce. A man who is married to a dead woman – “It has only been in the last two decades that the living have been in the habit of marrying the dead, and it is still not common practice” – and has three dead children with her, wants a divorce, “Divorcing the dead is still less common.” He consults a medium – mediums know what the dead are like.

Magic for Beginners. A tale about Jeremy Mars, one of a group of teenagers who are avid fans of a magnificently bonkers and elusively scheduled TV show called The Library, but who themselves appear in episodes of the show. The story is beautifully written; about burgeoning sexuality, embarrassing parents, the highs and lows of friendship (and the characterisation is very good) but it doesn’t really go anywhere. (Except Las Vegas, where Jeremy’s mum has inherited a wedding chapel and a phone booth.) Contains the questionable assertion, “That’s the trouble about being a writer. You know how every story goes.”

Lull contains a tale within a tale within the tale, about a poker playing group, time running backwards and a cheerleader and the Devil.

Link is without doubt a stylist, but that style is unusual, full of meanderings and discursions, and never far from a core of disorientation. Oddness is the keynote of almost every sentence. Individually the stories would be intriguing and striking but one after the other they add up to a niggle about how Link’s world corresponds to the real one.

Pedant’s corner:- Bajadoz (Bajadoz?) sucessful (successful,) if you had to chose one (choose.)

Terry Pratchett

It’s sad to hear of the death of prolific SF/fantasy author Terry Pratchett. Alzheimer’s Disease is a terrible affliction. It is for anyone; not just those whose working lives depend to a large extent on memory. His passing is a great loss to the overall SF/fantasy genre.

Pratchett’s greatest creation was of course Discworld, whose genesis owes more to fantasy than to SF.

Looking through my shelves I found I have more of his books than I had remembered, 9 novels in total, of which 6 are Discworld books. This is perhaps because I never much took to Discworld and didn’t really find the novels amusing. I think I laughed only once when reading a Pratchett book and that was for an atrocious pun (of which I admit I am fond.) Reading Equal Rites in particular I felt there was a serious novel in there struggling to get out and that the treatment somewhat detracted from the book’s possible import. I fully understand that Pratchett’s later work may have fulfilled the hopes that I had for Equal Rites when I was reading it but by then I had moved on to other things. According to Fantastic Fiction there are 40 Discworld novels. Too many to catch up with I fear.

Terrence David John Pratchett: 28/4/1948 – 12/03/2015. So it goes.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Hodder, 2014, 310 p, including 4 p Glossary of Nigerian pidgin, 1 p Acknowledgements and 3 p Reading Group Questions.

Another from the BSFA Awards list. 5 out of 8 read now.

 Lagoon cover

A sonic boom sounds out over Lagos lagoon. Very shortly thereafter three people whose names begin with “A” are taken up by a fist of sea-water and submerged. Some time later they are returned to the beach, as is a creature with the appearance of a woman but who is in fact an alien; an alien who can shift shape. One of our “A”s, Adaora, is a biologist with a lab in her basement and examines the alien, whom she names Ayodele. “Her” cellular structure is totally unlike that of life on Earth, mainly in that it doesn’t have cells, only very small, apparently metal-like, spheres “not fixed together as our cells are.” But Okorafor isn’t interested in this. Her focus is on the effect of the intrusion on Lagos and on its people and on manifestations of Nigerian folk tales/myths. We find out not much more about the aliens than that, apart from being able to read minds and having healing powers, as Ayodele tells the President, “We are technology,” and “we just want a home.”

The other two “A”s, the soldier Agu and the Ghanaian rapper Anthony Dey Craze, and Adaora turn out to have special powers, Agu has extreme strength in his punch, Dey Craze can project sound and Adaora a force field. Adaora’s husband, Chris, who is under the influence of the (nominally) Christian bishop who calls himself Father Oke, already thought Adaora was a witch. In light of this to my mind it undermines the implied criticism of self-serving “charismatic” preachers embedded in Okorafor’s treatment of Oke to have any hint of the supernatural attaching to Adaora.

Ayodele tells Adaora’s two children, “Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them. It’s your greatest flaw.”

The Lagos setting is welcome (too often stories of alien invasion focus on the US or Britain) but the move deep into fantasy territory broke my suspension of disbelief. Okorafor’s descriptions are effective but the action scenes can be cursory. By and large the characters are well differentiated, though a few are drawn from the stock cabinet, and we do see a cross-section of Lagos society, some of whom speak in pidgin. This can be understood easily enough (SF readers are used to unfamiliar words and phrases) but the appended glossary will help anyone who struggles.

Lagoon is written in USian (Okorafor is a professor of creative writing at the University of Buffalo, SUNY) so we get dove for dived, upside the head, if worse came to worst, most everyone, asses; which all seemed to me odd usages for a former British colony only 55 years from independence.

Pedant’s corner:- “even before he’d sunken his claws into Chris” (sunk,) “also a bad sign were the two army trucks” (a sign is singular,) “low and behold” (lo,) “to not turn away”. This last is not quite cancelled out by knowing where “not” ought to be placed in “not all was well.”

100 Best Scottish Books (Maybe)

I came across this list a week or so ago. There are some odd choices in it. The Woolf and Orwell are surely pushing it a bit to qualify as in any way Scottish. And The King James Bible? Yes he was primarily a Scottish King but the endeavour was undertaken for reasons to do with his English realm.

Those in bold, I have read. There’s a lot I haven’t. Time to pull my socks up. (Those with a * I have now read.)

John Galt – Annals of the Parish* (1821) is on my tbr pile. I’ve read The Member and The Radical. See my review here.
Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn (2003) This is written in Gaelic and hence beyond my competence.
Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – (1995) I read this years ago.
Ian Rankin – Black and Blue (1997) I’ve not read this Rankin but I have Knots and Crosses.
Laura Hird – Born Free (1999)
Tom Nairn – The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977) Non-fiction
Frederic Lindsay – Brond (1984)
Naomi Mitchison – The Bull Calves (1947) Not a Mitchison I’ve read but I’ll need to catch up with more of her work.
Anne Donovan – Buddha Da* (2003)
Matthew Fitt – But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000) Science Fiction in Scots! Brilliant stuff.
Patrick MacGill – Children of the Dead End (1914)
AJ Cronin -The Citadel (1937) Cronin was from Dumbarton. I’ll need to read him sometime.
Frank Kuppner – A Concussed History of Scotland (1990)
Robin Jenkins – The Cone-Gatherers (1955)
Thomas De Quincey – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)
Iain Crichton Smith – Consider the Lilies (1968)
R. M. Ballantyne – The Coral Island (1858) I may have read this as a child but I cannot actually remember doing so.
Louise Welsh – The Cutting Room (2002)
Robert Alan Jamieson – A Day at the Office (1991)
Archie Hind – The Dear Green Place (1966)
James Kelman – A Disaffection (1989) I read years ago. Kelman is essential.
RD Laing – The Divided Self (1960) non-fiction
William McIlvanney – Docherty (1975) Again read years ago. Again McIlvanney is essential reading.
David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Philosophy. I haven’t read this.
Andrew Greig – Electric Brae (1997) A superb first novel. See my review here.
Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker* (1771) Smollet was from Renton, which is 2 miles from Dumbarton.
Violet Jacob – Flemington* (1911)
Agnes Owens – For the Love of Willie (1998) See my review here.
Ian Fleming – From Russia, With Love (1957) Fleming? Scottish? Only by extraction it seems.
Dorothy Dunnett – The Game of Kings (1961)
Denise Mina – Garnethill (1998)
James Frazer – The Golden Bough (1890)
Nancy Brysson Morrison – The Gowk Storm* (1933)
Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes (1997)
George Mackay Brown – Greenvoe (1972)
Alistair MacLean – The Guns of Navarone (1957) I read this many years ago. Decent enough wartime thriller.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1902) Conrad was the favourite author of the original Jack Deighton (my grandfather.) I’ve read The Secret Agent and always mean to get round to more. But… Wasn’t Conrad Polish?
John Prebble – The Highland Clearances (1963) Non-fiction
Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001) See my review here.
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
George Douglas Brown – The House with the Green Shutters (1901) A Scottish classic; see my review.
Willa Muir – Imagined Corners (1931)
Luke Sutherland – Jelly Roll (1998)
Chaim Bermant – Jericho Sleep Alone (1964) is on the tbr pile.
James Robertson – Joseph Knight (2003) Robertson is another of those very good present day Scottish authors. My review of Joseph Knight.
Various – King James Bible: Authorised Version (1611) ???? See comments above.
Alasdair Gray – Lanark (1981) Absolutely superb stuff. More essential reading.
Ronald Frame – The Lantern Bearers (1999)
James Boswell – The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Bella Bathurst – The Lighthouse Stevensons (1999) Non-fiction. I bought this for the good lady and it’s another I keep meaning to read.
George MacDonald – Lilith (1895) The Scottish tradition is to write fantasy rather than SF. I’ll need to catch up with this.
John Burnside – Living Nowhere (2003)
Anne Fine – Madame Doubtfire (1987)
Alan Spence – The Magic Flute (1990) I’ve read his Way to Go.
Des Dillon – Me and Ma Gal (1995)
Margaret Oliphant – Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Alan Warner – Morvern Callar (1995) I think Warner’s most recent books The Worms can Carry me to Heaven and The Deadman’s Pedal are more successful.
George Friel – Mr Alfred, MA (1972)
Neil Munro – The New Road (1914)
William Laughton Lorimer (trans.) – The New Testament in Scots (1983)
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) I know it was written on Jura but Orwell? Scottish?
Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums* (1935)
Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
Christopher Brookmyre – One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night 1999) Brookmyre is a fun read – if a little too liberal with the violence. But this isn’t even his best book. See my review here.
Catherine Carswell – Open the Door! (1920)
Andrew O’Hagan – Our Fathers (1999) I have yet to warm to O’Hagan. My review of this book.
A.L. Kennedy – Paradise (2004) Kennedy’s more recent Day and The Blue Book impressed me more.
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) My review is here.
James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) The quintessential Scots novel. The döppelganger tradition starts here.
Suhayl Saadi – Psychoraag (2004)
Nan Shepherd – The Quarry Wood (1928)
Walter Scott – Rob Roy (1818) Scott more or less invented the Scots historical novel but I can only remember reading Ivanhoe.
Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1836) Anothe disgraceful omission on my part I fear.
Toni Davidson – Scar Culture (1999)
Margaret Elphinstone – The Sea Road (2000) I’ve read Elphinstone’s A Sparrow’s Flight and The Incomer; but not this.
Jimmy Boyle – A Sense of Freedom (1977)
George Blake – The Shipbuilders (1935)
Gordon Williams – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969)
Neil M Gunn – The Silver Darlings (1941) Of Gunn’s work I’ve only read The Well at the World’s End.
Ron Butlin – The Sound of My Voice (1987) I’ve not read his poetry but Butlin’s fiction is excellent. My review of The Sound of my Voice.
Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) Following on the döppelganger tradition from Hogg. Again I can’t remember if I’ve read it or just watched adapatations on TV.
Jeff Torrington – Swing Hammer Swing! (1992)
Lewis Grassic Gibbon – Sunset Song (1932) A brilliant novel. Worth its status as a classic. See my thoughts here.
John Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927)
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (1993)
Janice Galloway – The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) I fear Galloway is an acquired taste. See here.
Jackie Kay – Trumpet (1998) I read this last year.
Christopher Rush – A Twelvemonth and a Day (1985)
Michel Faber – Under the Skin (2000)
David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) In the Scots tradition of the fantastical but has a weirdness all its own.
Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984) The much lauded Banks debut. I’ve come to think A Song of Stone may outrank it.
Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (1776) The foundation stone of Economics.
Compton Mackenzie – Whisky Galore (1947)
Jessie Kesson – The White Bird Passes (1958) To be reviewed within the week!
Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows (1908) I may have read this as a child but can’t honestly remember.
Alexander Trocchi – Young Adam* (1954)
James Kennaway – Tunes of Glory (1956)
John Gibson Lockhart – Adam Blair (1822)

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Worldbreaker Saga Book I. Angry Robot, 2014, 541 p.

 The Mirror Empire cover

In a series of planets with twin hour-glass suns and strange satellites named Para, Sina and Tira from which certain inhabitants can draw power when they are in the ascendant, an invasion from a parallel world is taking place. Transit between the worlds (which have differently coloured skies) is by means of something resembling a mirror but isn’t possible if the companion person is alive on the other side. The most powerful satellite, Oma, has not been ascendant for 2000 years but its influence is being felt more strongly.

Now, this parallel worlds and weird suns scenario could have been an intriguing SF setting but the author lost this reader’s sympathies when it turned out early on that the shedding of blood could also open gates between the worlds. Cue gratuitous bloodshed on a wide scale. I would submit this is laziness on the author’s part. Couldn’t we have had something a bit more inventive, a bit less sanguineous?

Add to this the fact that the characters have very little agency beyond advancing the plot, which itself takes a long time to get going, and you end up with a less than satisfying read. Oh, there is some jiggery-pokery about different gendering and women tend to be in power; but when they behave as powerful men would in our world is there any point?

Plus I really don’t see the point of Fantasy when its characters wield strange powers, even when they do have to endure for a while before growing into them. How does that illuminate the human condition?

It may be that I am committing the error of wishing to read the book that I might have desired Hurley to have written rather than the one she actually has, but when a book revels in so much gratuitous slaughter more or less for its own sake it’s time to call it off. I won’t be taking The Worldbreaker Saga any further.

Pedant’s corner:- Admittedly mine was an advance reading copy – I have my sources – but it was so full of typos, verb/noun disagreements, misspellings, missing words, repeated words, malapropisms (or near malapropisms which are perhaps better described as dyslexisms – scarified for sacrificed anyone?) awry punctuation and errors in lay-out etc that I gave up counting them after page 63. It may be she was under pressure to hand this in quickly but to my mind Hurley’s manuscript hasn’t been looked over critically enough before submission. And did no-one at Angry Robot seek to check it? Such things make the whole more difficult to read you know. I’m left harbouring a sense of disappointment with all concerned. And there was the use of drug as a past tense of drag which may be a niche USian habit but reads absolutely horribly.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan, 2014, 622 p.

 Life After Life cover

Preamble:- I wanted to read this because its premise is similar to that of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I reviewed for Interzone 252, and put up here two posts ago. (Since Atkinson lives in Edinburgh Life After Life was also eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, though in her author notes at the end she says it is actually about being English.)

Review:-
So. As the author, where do you start a novel whose conceit is that the same person lives her life out again and again, on each death recycling back to her moment of birth. Is it with her still-birth, when the darkness falls immediately, to set up the premise? No. That life comes second. The one where she drowns as a four-year-old? No. When she falls off the roof trying retrieve the doll her brother had thrown there? No again. The Spanish flu? Several times? No. The Blitz? Again several times? No. So where then?

Oh, Of course. You start, albeit briefly, with the life in which, before his rise to power, she kills Hitler. (Or tries to. We don’t know if she succeeds because his heavies shoot her, the darkness falls and so we recycle back to her birth. I note here that in the real world, outside this novel, many attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful.)

The problem I have with this attempt to attain a spurious significance is that it isn’t developed. In all the lives Ursula Todd experiences within this book – all, by the nature of the premise, altered histories – wider history is not affected one whit; World War 2 occurs regardless (if Ursula even lives long enough to witness it.) I therefore struggle to see the point of the novel, what it is Atkinson is trying to say. Unless it’s that no matter what you do with your life nothing makes a difference. Which is a pretty bleak outlook.

Yes, in some of her succeeding lives Ursula has premonitions, or moments of déjà vu, which lead her to actions which avert the possibility of death or some other potential disaster in her present timeline – and to appointments with a psychiatrist – but this attribute is neglected for long parts of the book only to resurface in another Hitler killing episode. And we never follow events beyond Ursula’s death for, I suppose, the simple reason that she cannot witness them, yet the earliest sections of Life After Life are mainly given over to interactions within the household of which Ursula becomes a part, most of which she similarly does not witness. Life follows life and it is all very well laid out and interesting enough if a trifle depressing what with all the deaths. A recurring child molester/killer incident seems particularly gratuitous. Far from being about the state of Englishness the book is really more bound up with death and the innumerable ways in which it can come about. The other two principal novelistic concerns, love and sex, do get a look in but almost incidentally.

While at one point Ursula is allowed to muse, “That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) – one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events,” she does not actually travel in time, except in the normal way, before being rebooted, and her foreknowledge is never conscious, she cannot rationalise it. Elsewhere she says, “… you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” To which her brother Teddy replies, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Yet even in the life where Ursula reaches 1967 before dying it is difficult to see whether she got it right. (Remember; history isn’t changed.) Yet she can come to the conclusion that time isn’t circular, it’s a palimpsest – a conceit to which Life After Life, as a printed book, cannot quite live up. (Perhaps only an electronic medium would truly allow that.)

I’ll say this for Atkinson. She has come up with a neat way of incorporating all the ideas she may have had about the possible courses of her protagonist’s life – too many to be credible for a unique lifespan – without having to discard any single one of them; but while Life After Life is very readable it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe time is circular after all.

Pedant’s corner:- Izzie’s call to alms. (Since Izzie was going to be a VAD neither call to arms nor call to alms really makes any sense.) I can find no dictionary entry for “banting” – even online. Then there was, “reached a crescendo,” (that would be a climax, perhaps?) and furlough is USian, as is medieval. Plus points, though, for the Misses Nesbit.

free hit counter script