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9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Gollancz, 2006

This is a slightly different cover from the copy I read – where the Times comment given was, “Compelling Entertainment.”

Bobby Zha, a San Francisco detective with Chinese ancestry and the obligatory failed marriage, is murdered while on a case. He sees a nine tailed fox – a ghost from Chinese myth – and knows he’s dead. He then mysteriously wakes up in New York in the long comatose (since childhood) body of Robert Vanberg, now a wealthy man. He returns to San Fran and posing variously as a CIA, FBI or White House agent sets to investigating his own death and sorting out the case he was working on at the time he was killed.

It’s a neat SF idea, having a character delve into the circumstances of his own death. The problem with this is that until the last two chapters that’s the only SF element present and hence for most of the book there seems no adequate reason for it. Apart from that we have a pretty straightforward thriller. No sweat there, it’s what Grimwood has made himself good at – big on plot and violence.

I had some minor irritations: despite the US setting and points of view, Grimwood repeatedly uses the word knickers for a woman’s underwear and has characters use the epithet ‘a shit’ about others, along with other British usages. As a result I didn’t really feel I was reading about Americans. Amusingly, there is also the quite magnificent malapropism of proprietaries for proprieties. Sadly, there was a span count of 1.

While it doesn’t match the peak of Stamping Butterflies, in 9Tail Fox Grimwood delivers what you would expect from reading others of his ouevre. If you like his writing you won’t be disappointed.

End Of The World Blues by John Courtenay Grimwood

Gollancz, 2006

End Of The World Blues cover

After catching up with Grimwood’s early work I thought I’d read his latest. As progressively in the Arabesk trilogy and Stamping Butterflies, in End Of The World Blues the short staccato sentences of Grimwood’s really early books are (thankfully) gone. The prose here flows, the reading is consequently easier. This is the sign of an author totally in command of what he is doing. (But Grimwood still favours using sat as a participle. I wish he would kick that habit.)

Grimwood seems to like what are (for SF) unusual settings. In Arabesk and Stamping Butterflies he gave us North Africa and (some of) China. Here we get a bit of Japan, or at least Tokyo, before the action moves to London and then back. The violence in this one is noticeably less gratuitous than in the early books even though End Of The World Blues has plot up to its armpits.

Christopher Newton calls himself Kit Nouveau and has run away from his home and youthful indiscretions (not to mention any possible responsibilities) in Britain to live in Tokyo where he runs an Irish theme pub with his high-art-pottery-making Japanese wife. He also works part time as a teacher of English to local individuals, who include a gangster’s wife with whom he is having an affair. Kit’s pub is blown up and his wife dies. Then his old girl friend Kate’s mother turns up from Britain and tells him Kate has apparently committed suicide but her father doesn’t believe it and she asks Kit to find if Kate is still alive.

The above represents only a little of the convolutions of the plotting, but everything is clearly set out and there is no difficulty in keeping up with what’s going on.

Grimwood’s penchant for adolescent (or pre-adolescent) female characters is once more to the fore. Here she is Lady Neku, a smart street kid whom Kit occasionally buys coffee and who later follows him to London. Except Neku is also an aristocratic clone of a clone of a clone of a clone… from a rope world floating above Earth somewhen at the end of time.

However, despite being marketed as such – and winning the BSFA award for a novel in 2006 – this is not really a Science Fiction novel at all, but is instead at heart a thriller. None of the elements of the main story rely on any science fictional extrapolation whatever. The SF floating rope world elements seem tacked on and Neku could just as easily have been an ordinary Japanese cos-play, as she is in effect only a hook on which to hang the London end of the plot, though Grimwood takes care also to weave her into the Tokyo plot web. Moreover, it is the sections of the book set on the floating rope world that are the least convincing.

That said, the plot is gripping, the major – and minor – characters are all well drawn and their motivations are entirely believable. If you like tightly plotted thrillers with decent characterisation then check this one out.

redRobe By Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Earthlight, 2000

redRobe cover

I first read Grimwood when reviewing Stamping Butterflies for Infinity Plus and I have since gone through his back catalogue starting with his Arabesk trilogy. redRobe completes the four novels he published before those three books and it is possible to identify certain aspects of his shtick – at least in these early works.

To illustrate hip up-to-the-minuteness we get short, breathy sentences. Jump-cuts. Sex. Hyphenations. unUsual capiTalisations (as in the titles reMix and redRobe.) Soldiery of varying degrees of experience – usually inexperience. General grittiness. Atrocity stories. And violence: lots of violence. Plus enough just-about-plausible hightechery to give the whole thing that SF sheen. Sensory overload alert?

This striving for terseness in redRobe also means we get several instances of “sat” instead of the more correct “sitting.” (And, sadly, there is a “span” count of 1. Sigh.)

As an aside, is it novels like this that Damien Walter and Jetse De Vries among others have bemoaned lately for being too pessimistic? The thesis seems to be that SF was once an optimistic literature (this was of course never entirely true) and now it very largely isn’t. For myself, I think this development is a reflection of the times. In the 50s and 60s, in the aftermath of two catastrophic world wars, it was possible to have optimism for the future. Now, with all the resource and possible climate problems besetting the world, it is much more difficult to sustain.

Whatever, Grimwood frequently sidesteps issues like this by setting his books in alternative futures (or even alternative presents) on Earths recognisable to ours but divergent at some time in the past.

As to what happens in redRobe: Habsburgs of the Maximilian stripe are still Emperors/Empresses of Mexico. As historical turning points go it has to be admitted this is pretty arcane, full marks for it. But this Earth has also just had a female Pope (Joan, of course) killed and the plot revolves around the fact her memories have been placed in a soulcatcher necklace of beads and her dreams embedded in the mind of a more or less kidnapped 14 year old prostitute, Mai. Plus there is a talking handheld gun.

The hero is Axl Borja who was once a child assassin on some sort of reality TV show but doesn’t really know his origins. That is, he was a child who was an assassin; he did not assassinate children. That, I suspect, would be going too far even for Grimwood.

As it is, Axl cannot possibly be a sympathetic character – there are few of these in redRobe – though it is mostly Axl’s point of view the novel follows. Early on, we also track the talking gun for a while. (I was disappointed when this strand tailed off as it was faintly amusing, but the gun does reappear later, metamorphosed into a silver monkey.) In chapter one, Axl kills again, and instead of suffering a death sentence, is sent by Cardinal Santo Ducque, the de facto acting Pope, to trace Pope Joan’s memories.

The latter action, and resolution, takes place on a wheel-shaped space habitat Joan had campaigned to have built to house refugees from all the grisly happenings taking place on Earth and it is here that Axl has to prevent Mai, and Joan’s memories, from falling into the hands of the aforementioned soldiery – and where Axl must make his moral choice.

Grimwood’s writing, as you would expect, developed during the course of his early books, becoming more assured, as is evidenced in redRobe, which is a superior example of its type. And I also unhesitatingly recommend his Arabesk trilogy, where his character building is much more to the fore.

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