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My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Faber and Faber, 2002, 508 p. Translated from the Turkish Benim Adim Kirmizi by Erdağ M Göknar.

My Name is Red cover

Well, this is an interesting concoction. The events take place in Istanbul in the time of Sultan Murat III. The first chapter is entitled I am a Corpse and is narrated by a murder victim. This sets up the novel as a whodunnit but Pamuk is far too subtle a writer for that to be his sole concern. The remainder of the book is narrated from a wide variety of viewpoints; several manuscript illustrators, the effectively widowed daughter of one of them, her son, her suitor, their go-between, the corpse, a dog, a tree, a counterfeit gold coin, death, the colour red, a horse, Satan – and two dervishes. In various of these the reader is occasionally addressed directly. The non-human narrators turn out to be parts of a manuscript illustration designed to show the splendour, magnificence and power of the Sultan, to impress Westerners, especially Venetians. Not a simple read then, by any means. Add to this the fact that three corpses undertake narration duties since during two of the relevant chapters the particular narrator is also killed – and describes the experience – and the artistry becomes evident.

In ways this reminded me of The Name of the Rose as it is the manuscript that is at the heart of things. So we have passages dealing with the philosophy of illustration and miniaturism, its place in the Islamic traditions, on whether or not it is blasphemy to ape the Venetian/Frankish form of realistic painting and use perspective, to show Allah’s view of the world, or the world as it is. The murders are direct consequences of this conflict. Plus there is a meditation on the acceptance of blindness as Allah’s reward to the miniaturist for his years of devotion to his art and frequent references to the Persian tales of Hüsrev and Shirin, and of Sohrab and Rüstem. There are, too, several instances of characters telling stories from the perspectives of folk named Alif, Ba and Djim. Some of these interpolations verge on the tedious but perhaps to Turkish readers they have more resonance.

The above may make it sound as if the book is difficult, but it isn’t if you are prepared to go with the flow as I was. I certainly will be reading more Pamuk, who clearly has considerable self-confidence. In what has been a feature of all his novels I have read so far there is a character named Orhan. This time it is not “Orhan Pamuk” though, but the Orhan within is eventually revealed to be the overall “author” of the book we are reading.

In the background but providing some impetus to the plot at times a preacher from Erzurum is blaming apostates and infidels for the supposed catastrophes of the last ten years and stirring up the mob. Casting blame on the other. Does this sound familiar to anybody?

Among Pamuk’s bon mots here are, “Only imbeciles are innocent,” “A letter doesn’t communicate by words alone. A letter, just like a book, can be read by smelling it, touching it and fondling it” and “Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight.” He has the old miniaturist Osman say, “Painting is the act of seeking out Allah’s memories and seeing the world as He sees the world.” The book’s main love interest, the illustrator’s daughter, Shekure, tells us, “Marriage douses love’s flame, leaving nothing but a barren and melancholy blackness,” but, “The truth is contentment. Love and marriage are but a means to attaining it,” and that painters “substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life.”

The translation is into USian and there were several curiosities or infelicities within it. Iron smiths may be a direct translation from Turkish but the English word is blacksmiths. Then we had, “your sympathy and understanding are much obliged,” “ the both of you,” “artists who are discontent with,” “a superior element as all of you are familiar,” “would’ve hid that picture,” a use of “plenty” where “greatly” made more sense plus the misspellings “guilded,” “descendents,” “practice” as a verb, the “pitfulls” of love and women, “imposter,” “quandries.”

Interzone 254, Sep-Oct 2014

Interzone 254 cover

Marielena by Nina Allan1
Noah Wahid, an asylum seeker, while waiting for his permission to remain, spends the days in an endless round of impoverished futility and seeing the face of Marielena, the girl he left behind, in nearly everyone he meets. The story hinges on Noah’s encounter with a refugee from the future.

A Minute and a Half by Jay O’Connell2
The tale of how Evan came to be in sole charge of a two year old daughter he hadn’t known about. He’s taken programmers, which, in a very intrusive info dump, we are told are able to sculpt human wetware in accordance to user input parameters. Or are they just hallucinogens?

Bone Deep by S L Nickerson
A woman with a medical condition where her flesh is turning to bone can only access the treatment she needs by having sponsors’ logos tattooed onto her. (Don’t give the buggers ideas is what I say.)

Dark on a Darkling Earth by T R Napper
In a world of perpetual war where memory has to be stored on electronic cards or it is lost, an old man falls into the orbit of a group of soldiers.

The Faces Between Us by Julie C Day
Is set in an Oregon where ghosts live on in ashes and Larry and Amber try to find the way “through” by snorting them.

Songs Like Freight Trains by Sam J Miller
Christine no longer listens to music. Ariel, her friend from her teenage years taught her the trick of time travel via song. But Christine’s daughter yearns to dance.

1 Imposter. Narrator Noah tells us his vocal command of English is not good but uses words like annunciates. Pita bread is usually spelled pitta.
2 Cannoboloid (????) I suspect this should be cannabinoid.

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 303 p + iii p introduction. First published 1991.

 Sarah Canary cover

One night in 1873 a woman stumbles into a Chinese railway workers’ camp in North-West USA. This is bad news for the workers as the woman is white. But she is uncommunicative, appearing only able to make unintelligible sounds. (She is later dubbed Sarah Canary due to these bird-like noises.) Chin Ah Kin is delegated to take her away from the camp to the nearest town. They both end up in a lunatic asylum, before escaping in the company of fellow inmate B J. Their adventures take them over the Pacific North-West, Sarah is kidnapped and paraded on stage as the Wild Woman of Alaska and mistaken by Adelaide Dixon for a murderess from San Francisco. Dixon is a campaigner for women’s rights – especially in the sexual area. In the Pacific North-West of the 1870s this doesn’t go down particularly well. “Adelaide was afraid that if she ever once allowed herself to feel the full range of her sexual desires that this would be a need too great for any man.” She tells Chin that the issue of the civil war had been largely sexual. In the slave system one group of men (white) had absolute power over one group of women (black).

And what has all this got to do with Science Fiction? You may well ask. Apart from a mention of a self-repairing dress which also deflects bullets and the disappearance of Sarah Canary in something approaching an insectile metamorphosis there is nothing in the text that could not be read as straightforward realism. Moreover the two characters who make these observations could be classified as mad.

Graham Sleight’s introduction to this SF Masterworks edition suggests the book is a sort of First Contact novel and contends that the text’s frequent references to butterflies can only be understood if the novel is SF. If so the Contact is so nebulous as to be non-existent. But I suppose that if, as Arthur C Clarke had it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” then so must any advanced intelligences be unintelligible. Yet Sarah Canary does not behave like an advanced intelligence, she does not behave as intelligent at all. She might as well be an idiot. There is no attempt on her part to communicate with the other characters.

So read this as an adventure in the 1870s US, an illustration of misogyny and racism in that time and place. Or a feminist tract. Another interpretation is yielded at one point by Chin. “Sometimes one of the great dreamers passes among us… We dare not waken the dreamer. We, ourselves, are only her dreams.” And there is an explicit reference to Caspar Hauser.

Take your explanatory pick. Whatever, Sarah Canary is good, well-written stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- conspiritorial

Interzone 253, Jul-Aug 2014

Interzone 253 cover

My Father and the Martian Moon Maids by James van Pelt1
When the unnamed narrator was younger his father, now in the last stages of dementia, built a UFO detector. While tacking backwards and forwards to the care centre he remembers how much of an influence his father was on his tastes and interests. A tale of filial affection and loss. Apart from anything else you can only warm to a story illustrated with a picture of a red Fokker Triplane.

Flytrap by Andrew Hook 2
A story about what it means to be human. Or alien. Which is perhaps what we are.

The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson3
Felix Kapel is an expert in aromas whose trade is in decline due to the innovation of Teleroma – transmission of smells via the internet – until he purchases the legendary (to olfactorists) Golden Nose of the Habsburgs. Its use has an unfortunate side effect.

Beside the Dammed River by D J Cockburn (James White Award Winner)
In a part of Thailand parched by Chinese damming of the Mekong River one of ex-Professor of Engineering Narong’s waning days is lightened by the breakdown of a truck carrying an off-target mined asteroid out of Thailand illegally.

Chasmata by E Catherine Tobbler4
A tale of human inhabitants of Valles Marineris on Mars, who have children there and encounter Martians, or the ghosts of Martians, and rain that floods that huge chasm, or doesn’t. The narration constantly undermines itself with asides. I liked the term “moonslight.”

The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussof5
When their world was destroyed a man called Blankenship and his daughter Tibbi were mysteriously transported to “our” Seattle where the counterpart of his wife is married to someone else. (In a particularly USian response he goes to therapy sessions.)

1 Written in USian
2 bought for brought; “she speculated her future” is surely missing a preposition; human’s as the plural of human.
3 George III of England. (Of nowhere else, then?) Struggled to “breath” in. We achieve the things are hearts wish for.
4 Written in USian
5 Written in USian in which pay back for seems to mean reimburse whereas in English it means get revenge. (On a stereo, “Blankenship found a knob hat made the sound louder.”) (Eyes) “seemed to be starting off into the distance.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, 128 p + ix p introduction by Candia McWilliam.

Spark is another important Scots writer with whom the 2014 challenge has given me the impetus to catch up. My only familiarity with her work up to now has been a BBC TV adaptation of The Girls of Slender Means, plus the TV and film versions of this title, all from way back. Candia McWilliam’s introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition describes Spark as “the greatest living Scots writer of prose.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie cover

I must say I found reading this to be an odd experience. There was just something about the writing style that didn’t sit well with me. Three times in the first few pages and intermittently thereafter we are told that Rose Stanley is famous for sex (or sex appeal), we are also frequently told that Monica Douglas is good at Mathematics. Yet we are never shown these traits, either via dialogue or in any other way, we simply have to take the narration’s word for it. Frequently, too, mention is made of things that will happen later than the immediate moment of the text as the narrative slips forwards from events in the 1930s to post war and backwards again.

Now; foreshadowing is fine, essential even, but this is not foreshadowing, it is relating. McWilliam sees this “proleptic1 use of time” as a strength. I found it irritating. (In this respect The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has something in common with the first line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.) It is as if the novel is a life recalled. Yet the narrative adopts multiple third person viewpoints, its events are not seen from one character’s perspective; or, rather, some events in it could not have been observed by a single narrator.

Miss Jean Brodie herself, teacher at Marcia Blaine School for Girls, is egregiously self-centred, demagogue rather than pedagogue, neglecting the wider needs of her pupils to indulge in reminiscences of her fallen fiancé, her tastes in art and her leanings towards the fascisti, brooking no contradiction: Leonardo is not the greatest Italian painter; that is Giotto, “he is my favourite.” Her contention, in a later conversation with Sandy Stranger, that she loved art teacher Teddy Lloyd, married to someone else, is not, however, borne out by her actions, which, some descriptions of her interactions with her pupils apart, are always given us at one remove. Her famous catch-phrases, “la crème de la crème,” “I am in my prime,” are there to be sure, but after the first third or so the book concerns itself more with her chosen girls (known as the Brodie Set,) particularly Sandy. At the end I felt, perhaps due to the shadows cast by the TV and film versions I have seen, Brodie was actually more of an absence than a presence. The nature of the final betrayal of Miss Brodie was also problematic for me. No doubt she was a dangerous woman (not least, dangerous to men) but there were plenty of people in Britain in 1938 – even in 1940! – who would not have held Miss Brodie’s political attractions against her.

Yes there are human truths here, Teddy’s inability to paint a portrait without it becoming a representation of Jean rings very true, young minds can be susceptible to influence, but the artifice of the writing made it very hard for me to suspend my disbelief. To judge whether or not Spark is “the greatest living Scots writer of prose” I’ll need to look out for The Girls of Slender Means or others of her novels as, on this evidence, I’d have to say not. (Or am I merely saying that Leonardo is not my favourite?)

1I am not convinced Spark’s use of time in the book is anticipatory.

Jani and the Greater Game by Eric Brown

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

This book is dedicated to Jack and Katrina Stephen. Those of you who know me will realise how pleased that makes me.

 Jani and the Greater Game cover

Janisha Chatterjee, daughter of an Indian Father and (deceased) English mother, is on her way back from England – where she is training in medicine – to her father’s deathbed when the airship in which she is travelling is brought down by Russian artillery fire. For this is India in 1925, and the Great Game is still afoot. Even though the Great War of our era does not seem to have happened the Russia contesting with the British Empire is Communist. China is also involved though only in the background here.

The Greater Game of the title concerns the prisoner on the airship, a creature known as a Morn, who saves Jani from the Russians mopping up after the attack. He gives her a coin and her entanglement in the plot follows. Other viewpoint characters are Durga Das, a priest of Kali, who is searching out the coin for reasons of his own, and Lieutenant Alfie Littlebody of the British Army, tasked by his superiors to spy upon Jani.

Echoes of Brown’s Bengal Station trilogy are never far away, this is India after all. But this is also steampunk. The wonder material Annapurnite not only powers superfast trains and airships but also weapons to keep the Russians and Chinese at bay; in a James Bond film-like touch Littlebody is given a photon blade and a Visual Camouflage Amplifier, both of which come in handy. There is also a mind-reading device. Oh and a Mechanical Man and even bigger mechanical elephant. And this is before we get beyond steampunk to the parallel worlds and the threat to humanity from the Khell.

The pleasure of this is in the journey. The author piles on the jeopardy and the intrigue and handles the politics of the British presence in India well – from both sides. Despite the steampunk trappings this comes out as a very Eric Brown type of story, if not quite reaching the heights of his The Kings of Eternity then less pulpy then the Bengal Station series. If Littlebody is a bit of a twit and Jani’s childhood companion Anand perhaps too cloying, Jani is engaging enough. And there is ample scope for a sequel (which I understand is in the works.) I’ll look forward to it.

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

In “A Scots Quair,” Hutchinson, 1966, 156 p. First published 1934.

A Scots Quair cover

After the form of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe, the previous books in Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trio, the text of Grey Granite is divided into four sections, here named after semi-precious stones, Epidote, Sphene, Apatite and Zircon, though unlike its predecessors there is no prelude, proem nor epilude in Grey Granite.

Following the death of her second husband Robert Colquohoun – whose last action to shock his ex-parishioners was to have himself cremated – Chris Guthrie has used what money remains to her to move from Segget and take a half share in a boarding house in the city of Duncairn. [An authorial note at the start informs us this name is amended from the author’s first choice Dundon, since early reviewers in English journals were mistaken in thinking it represents Dundee, nor yet (though it has a Cowgate, a Canongate and a Royal Mile) is it Edinburgh as an American newspaper had it, nor even – notwithstanding its granite buildings – is it Aberdeen (two Scottish sheets) but the city which the inhabitants of the Mearns have hitherto failed to build.]

It is perhaps this setting that makes Grey Granite seem less grounded than the previous two novels in A Scots Quair. While Gibbon’s descriptions of the industrial cityscape are fine they do not have the lyricism of his evocation of rural landscapes. Indeed it is notable that when the story breaks the bounds of the city the writing lifts. But in his defence here Gibbon certainly cannot do without Duncairn. It is absolutely necessary in a novel sequence about modern Scotland (as he was essaying) to encompass the industrial habitat in which most Scots live. And this is only a criticism in the context of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe. Taken on its own Grey Granite would stand as a fine mid-twentieth century Scots novel.

Another factor contributing to Grey Granite’s relative lack of force is the focus moving from Chris to her son Ewan. He is drawn into socialism after taking a job in a metal works which later gains an arms contract. He organises a subsequent strike and is arrested and beaten up by the police. It seems that police accounts of incidents diverging somewhat from what actually happened are never new. In addition, Ake Ogilvie, who had also come from Segget to work in Duncairn, opines, “there was as much graft in the average Scots toun as in any damn place across the Atlantic.”

Once again there is the shifting of narrative viewpoint familiar from Sunset Song and Cloud Howe, by which the Rev MacShilluck for example is well drawn; in a few devastating paragraphs scattered through the book. The text is of its time in some of its references: “psychoanalyst Jewboy chaps” reads shockingly today.

Her business partner, Ma Cleghorn, tells Chris there’s nothing worse than “some old runkle of a woman body living on with no man to tend and no bairns.” As to men, “(they) never live at all. They’re just a squeeze and a cuddle we need to keep our lives going. They’re nothing themselves.” Ewan himself thinks, “A hell of a thing to be History! …. LIVING HISTORY ONESELF.” His treatment of Ellen Johns, a teacher who lodges in the boarding house and helped Ewan along the socialist path is in the end less than gallant. Chris had warned her, though, as we were forewarned in Cloud Howe.

Chris certainly does not have her troubles to seek. Ma Cleghorn dies, Chris contracts a misguided and doomed marriage with Ake Ogilvie, who is instrumental in effecting Ewan’s release from prison. She muses that, “SHE HAD NOTHING AT ALL, she had never had anything, nothing in the world she’d believed in but change… Nothing endured,” and, “We’re all on leading strings out of the past.” She tells Ewan, “The world’s sought faith for thousands of years and found only death or unease in them.” He replies, “It’s the old fight that maybe will never have a finish…. The fight in the end between FREEDOM and GOD.”

On reflection, and after rereading passages, my initial feeling that Grey Granite was not quite at the level of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe may be a touch harsh. It’s a fitting enough conclusion. As Chris comes full circle, “She’d open her eyes and see only the land, enduring, encompassing.”

East of Laughter by R A Lafferty

Morrigan, 1988, 176 p.

East of Laughter cover

How do you describe the indescribable? This is Lafferty in all his bonkers glory.

The novel starts with a focus on one Atrox Fabulinus’s “one hundred and one tests to tell whether you’re dreaming” and in chapters one to three we are also introduced, by way of lists, to the Group of Twelve (who actually number fifteen.) Fabulinus (the Roman Rabelais) is one of the seven giants who scribble the world into being and also one of the pillars on whom the world rests. The twelve decide they are. (Dreaming, that is.) “To be real is to be unique. To be unreal is to be common. There is only one chance in all infinity of it (the world) being real. But there are a billion billion and ongoing billions of chances of it being unreal.”

Along with Fabulinus the Group of Twelve comprises Hilary Ardri, Jane Chantal Ardri, Leo Parisi, Perpetua Parisi, Gorgonius Pantera, Monika Pantera, John Barkley Towntower, Solomon Izzersted, Denis Lollardy, Caesar Oceano, Laughter-Lynn Casement, Mary Brandy Manx, Hieronymous Talking-Crow, Countess Maude Grogley. (Some of them are spares.) To call them characters would be to stretch the word beyond breaking point. You don’t read Lafferty for characters. Nor for plot – though there is one; involving the murders of successive members of the group and of others’ elevation to Scribbling Giant. They also roam the world day to day (chapter by chapter) taking in Frisia, Dublin (East of Laughter is apparently Lastoir de Gaire in Dublin,) East Sussex, the Isle of Man, Lecco in Italy and a castle in Germany. And there are eight days in the week for some and nine days – the ninth slotted into gaps in the other days – for a select few.

To give a flavour of the writing a (partially shortened) piece of dialogue runs, “Yes, to all appearances the atoms are empty boxes….. They lack detail…. They contain only rough schematics of even rougher schematics..” This situation is then compared to buying an expensive car and receiving only a child’s drawing of a car. The dialogue continues, “But this isn’t the way I remember them! I remember them as totally detailed…. Great God of the Atoms, you have short-changed me! Oh mend your ways! The atoms of the apparent universe are completely unworthy of you.”

Pedant’s Corner:- Skirried? Past tense of skirr? That ought to be skirred surely? Apparently skirried is in a Thackeray story. Aquafer, titonium.

Agnes Owens: The Complete Novellas

Polygon, 2009, 499 p.

 Agnes Owens: The Complete Novellas  cover

Various encomia adorn both the back cover (“Agnes Owens is one of Scotland’s best yet most overlooked writers,”) and the before-the-title pages of this book. Owens is someone of whose name I’d been aware but whose work I’d never sampled till now, an omission a chance encounter in a local library enabled me to rectify.

Like Birds in the Wilderness1 is a rather rambling tale of an unemployed bricklayer with a fondness for drink who moves to a northern city seeking work, meets a girl, encounters a military type who cryptically offers him unspecified employment, goes hiking in the highlands, returns home.

A Second World War childhood/adolescence figure in both A Working Mother2 and For the Love of Willie.

Betty is the titular working mother, the focus around which the events of the novella orbit. She is married to a war hero, but the only things she and her husband, Adam, have in common are alcohol and two children. As her husband is unemployed she goes back to work to help support the family. Her job takes her into the office of widower Mr Robson. This relationship, like hers with Adam’s friend Brendan, is not what propriety deems it should be. A few final scenes undercut the reliability of the previous narrative by revealing Betty is telling her story to a fellow mental patient.

Any unreliability issues are addressed at the start of For the Love of Willie where Peggy is an inmate in a psychiatric ward who announces to fellow patient, the duchess, her intention to write a novel based on her own life, scrounging or stealing paper to do so. The two phases of Peggy’s life are then told in parallel describing how her wartime employment in the shop of Willie Roper led to her present state. Peggy’s mother tells her warningly, “No man’s as nice as he looks” and also that (men) have habits worse than dogs. Peggy herself tells the duchess that love is only sex with a sugar coating round it. I note here that this novella’s title may be a crude pun.

Bad Attitudes3 revolves around the doings of the Dawson family – recently decanted from a condemned terrace to a new council flat – the busybody downstairs, her across the close neighbour, the local councillor they both consult, the one man who refuses to leave the old terrace, the tinkers who have squatted there and their sister/in-law. It takes a strange turn near the end when two murders are committed in the terrace.

In Jen’s Party Jen lives penuriously with her mum, Maude, and Aunt Belle. Her father is in jail but she thinks he merely left and is well off somewhere with another woman. Belle is a force of nature, blithely careening through life while Maude feels the struggle. Belle organises a party for Jen’s fourteenth birthday which, on the day, brings all sorts of things to a head. The dialogue between Maude and her sister in this story is immensely readable and sparkles with authenticity.

One of Scotland’s best writers? I’m not wholly convinced yet, but she is certainly worth reading. I’ll look for more.

Pedant’s corner:-
1 encyclopedias (why the US spelling?) inadvertantly, skuttled, fruit wellies (jellies,) proprietory, stoney.
2 sprung – though sprang is used later, before I could take if off, dotary – which I’ve only ever seen as dottery before.
3 if she hadn’t seen it for her own eyes. For? It’s usually with.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

Headline, 2014, 538p. Reviewed for Interzone 251, Mar-Apr 2014.

The Citadel contains within its labyrinthine caverns not only the trapped remains of the old gods (bar one) but a supposed treasure trove. By reputation no-one escapes from it alive yet it still attracts adventurers and has guards who must be bribed to allow entry. Sell-swords Wydrin of Crosshaven (the Copper Cat) and Sebastian Carverson, disgraced former Knight of Ynnsmouth, are engaged by the mutilated Lord Aaron Frith of Blackwood to penetrate its secrets. They agree somewhat off-handedly considering the apparent dangers. Amid adventures which in part are curiously reminiscent of the 1980s children’s adventure game TV show Knightmare and Indiana Jones films they succeed up to a point. Sebastian suffers a mortal wound but Frith is restored to fitness – and beyond – by immersing himself in the lake underneath the Citadel. In the process Frith acquires magical powers by which he involuntarily transports our three heroes to Blackwood in an instant when they are threatened by the old god Y’ruen, a dragon, which their foray into the Citadel has raised from its confinement. Frith’s new powers allow him to heal the wounds of both Sebastian and Wydrin.

In the Blackwood village of Pinehold, they encounter the source of Frith’s misfortunes, Fane, who is torturing the inhabitants to find the secret of the Frith family vault. While wearing a peculiar glowing helmet – which channels the influence of the demon Bezcavar, the Prince of Wounds, an enthusiastic harvester of pain – Fane is immune from harm. His equally cruel henchmen, the Children of the Fog, Enri and Roki, wear enchanted gauntlets to manifest copies of themselves which confuse and confound any opponents. With help from an old woman, Holley, and her magical glass spheres our heroes escape, cross an invisible bridge to the vault, find in it little but maps and return to free Pinehold from its oppressors. Meantime Y’ruen and her indistinguishable brood army – whose members have numbers but no names (though some of them have developed an interest in words and their own individuality) – is devastating the land of Relios.

The three then split up to pursue their own projects before being reunited for the final scenes. Wydrin returns to Crosshaven, Sebastian goes to fight the brood army. On the Hollow Isle of Whittenfarne, Frith meets Jolnir, who turns out to be O’rin, the untrapped god, and, without much protest or questioning, bestows on Frith the power to control his magic. As a by-product Frith realises that the maps describe a weapon.

This is Williams’s first novel and I’m afraid that shows. We start with a torture scene – never auspicious – from the viewpoint of a character who is not even mentioned again for about a hundred pages and is encountered in the narrative just once more – and that after she has already been killed. Chapter two introduces the Citadel and some of its menaces. Sebastian’s erstwhile friend Gallo is killed. Only in Chapter three do we meet our heroes, the two sell-swords, in a tavern, awaiting their client, the tortured party from Chapter one, Aaron Frith, whose escape from torture is dealt with exceedingly sketchily. (Not quite “with one bound he was free” – but near enough.) Descriptions of fights are leaden, we have changes of viewpoint within scenes, suggestions by a character of what to do next are followed by the sentence, “And so they did.” At various points a touch of economy with the prose would not have gone amiss. For example, who else would a cluster of people be in proximity to but each other?

There is also a curious prudishness to the proceedings. None of the characters really swears. (Williams tells us they do but no expletives save two “bloody”s appear in direct speech.) They might as well be neuter for all the sexuality we are shown. The one time even the faintest possibility of sex arises the subject is treated with absurd coyness and the opportunity is snuffed out abruptly. We infer early on, and later are told – but without description – that Sebastian is gay. He doesn’t manifest it in the text. (But he does carry a large broadsword.) Wydrin, I suspect, is intended to be a spiky young woman but instead appears rather foolhardy and unreasonably cocky. All are hauled hither and yon by the necessities of the plot. Gallo’s reappearance as one of the walking dead is a case in point. None of them come across as having agency of their own.

For all these reasons The Copper Promise fails to breathe. There is no sense in it of a life beyond the page, and little but death on it.

The following comments did not appear in Interzone.
I read an uncorrected proof copy so some of these may have been amended for final publication but (among others) there was a “sunk” count of 5, 1 span, 1 sprung, a “scrapped” for scraped, an “octopi,” one instance of vocal “chords,” “every bone felt as though they had shattered,” – one of innumerable failures of verbs to agree in number with their subject nouns; in especial an army is singular – “over take” for overtake, “very almost completely normal,” “it’s” for “its,” the “lay” of things (which wasn’t a song,) “lengths they would go to deceive each other,” “fit” for fitted etc, etc.

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