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Paris Adrift by E J Swift

Solaris, 2018, 379 p. Reviewed for Interzone 274, Mar-Apr 2018.

Paris Adrift cover

Time travel is one of Science Fiction’s most venerable tropes but in more recent times has taken something of a back seat to other aspects of the genre. In Paris Adrift, E J Swift has adopted an oblique approach to the topic, gaily skipping over any problems with the ethics of non-intervention and avoidance of the grandfather paradox. She does not make anything of, still less explain, the mechanics of the process (which arguably puts us in fantasy territory,) it is simply an integral part of the story she has to tell.

Hallie, an English geology student estranged from her family, is on a gap year in Paris trying to sort her life out. She takes a waiting job at Millie’s, a bar near the Moulin Rouge. Millie’s is a nexus for the strange. Fellow employee Gabriela finds she is always somehow prevented from leaving Paris while Hallie has odd encounters with birds that talk to her, an apparent doppelganger, and customers, while also experiencing odd sensations both in the keg room and in Paris’s catacombs. She still finds space for a relationship with fellow waiter Léon, and Swift charts superbly the overwhelming intensity of a burgeoning love affair.

The narration is almost exclusively from Hallie’s viewpoint, in that pressing present tense which can seem like a default in so much modern SF. Occasional mentions of geological terms underline Hallie’s background.

The incursions of the weird might perhaps have been more unexpected had we not already read a prologue chapter introducing us to the chronometrist, a person seemingly able to take control of other’s bodies at will but whose essence is fading, and to the concept of anomalies and their incumbents. Hallie soon finds out the keg room is a time portal and her future has been mapped out by the Way of Janus.

Her first experience of timefaring takes her to 1875 where she seems to adapt to her new situation remarkably quickly and is befriended by the Millie who will one day found the bar. She also meets the architect designing the Sacré-Coeur. Partly due to Hallie’s interference that building will no longer be erected. In its stead will arise the Moulin Vert which becomes a significant location in the rest of the book (plus inspiration for a political movement) and technically makes the novel an alternative history. However, other aspects of our modern world and its history are unaffected, there are mentions of Whatsapp, plus the Bataclan, Stade de France and Nice attacks.

The anomaly’s next flare sends Hallie to 1942 and a suitably claustrophobic encounter with would-be cellist Rachel Clouarte. Hallie dodges German soldiers and the curfew to reunite Cluarte with her cello and aid her escape in order to ensure her career in music will prevail, so that she will not marry and produce (eventually) the descendant who will contribute to a catastrophic war in the future. This 1942 Paris is lightly affected by the occupation, street life continuing gaily as normal, though of course the deportations from which Clouarte is to be saved proceed apace. I did wonder why Hallie’s intervention in the Clouarte family tree had to be quite so early but of course it does give Swift the opportunity to depict Paris in wartime and up the danger quotient.

Another flare takes Hallie to 2042 and a terribly plausible fascist Paris (complete with Metro station called LePen) and the seeds of the situation which the Way of Janus seeks to avert. Other timefaring trips are mentioned but not gone into in detail.

The 1942 and 2042 excursions lend the novel aspects of a thriller yet there are other scenes which bring to mind Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and the work of Tim Powers. Throughout, Swift’s portrayal of her characters is assured. These are people we can believe in even if one of them is prey to the logical fallacy that because the Earth is remarkably suited to humans it is a sign of something miraculous rather than the unfolding of impersonal forces which merely allowed us to arise.

Paris Adrift deals with the heavy theme of totalitarianism and the threat of the far right but never loses sight of the smaller people who live through interesting times. While Léon and Hallie are pivotal to the resolution of the plot (and History itself) its emotional focus, though sometimes sidelined, is on their relationship.

Like a lot of SF this suggests life is hard and pain impossible to avoid but unlike most recent SF it proffers hope along with the sacrifice. Never mind it being good SF/Fantasy, this is a good novel.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “the night team begin to trickle in” (the night team begins to trickle in,) “the group want shots” (wants,) “a stream of people flow inside,” (a stream flows,) “the confines of the locker room lends an air” (the confines lend an air,) “a travelling company were performing” (a company was performing,) “the shape of the walls change, become smooth and rounded” (the shape changes, becomes smooth,) “Her age and appearance has altered once again” (have altered,) “the floor team are doing the rounds” (the team is doing the rounds.) “None of these people have an anomaly. None are bound to this place” (none has, none is.) “Only a small proportion of the catacombs are maintained for visitors.” (Only a small proportion is maintained,) “as the assault team go through their final checks” (as the team goes through its final checks.) Yet despite all these examples of such failures of agreement of subject and verb Swift obviously knows what’s what as we had the correct “a rickety set of steps leads up to”,) “till I am stood right next to him” (it wasn’t a passive activity, so standing”,) “sat on the gravestones” (sitting,) gotten (in a narrative otherwise so British in tone this USianism jars,) “since she bid me farewell” (bade me farewell,) “preempting the touch that will follow” (the context implied savouring rather than pre-empting,) Dušanka calls Hallie “‘my petit chou.’” She responds, “‘And I’m not a pastry.’” (That response would be to “my petit choux” – chou is a cabbage and “petit chou” a term of endearment. Hallie’s French isn’t supposed to be good but surely she would not confuse the two?) “is sat” (is sitting,) “another woman is stood at the window” (is standing,) dove (USian; the British past tense of dive is dived,) “sat sipping” (sitting sipping,) “glasses pile up on either side” (context implies both sides,) inside of (USian, it’s just inside, no “of”,) descendent (descendant,) focusses (focuses,) syllabi (I prefer syllabuses, though I concede syllabi is a correct Latin plural,) “you’ll be never be happy” (that first “be” is redundant, “‘How can I do that.’” (That is a question so requires a question mark, not a full stop.)

Interzone 278 (Nov-Dec, 2018)

TTA Press

Interzone 278 cover

Tim Lees takes the guest Editorial where he ponders truth and realism in fiction and welcomes more inclusiveness – more truths – in SF. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupteda wonders about the preponderance of negative perceptions of crowds in SF – and more generally – compared to their positive potential. Aliya Whiteley fills the gap left by Nina Alan’s columnistic departure in Climbing Storiesb, arguing that SF tales have no set structure like romances or horror stories do. Instead SF steals from everywhere. In Book Zonec Tade Thompson laments the failure of The Evolution of African Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Francesca Barbini to treat African Sf&F on its own terms rather than Western ones, Daniel Carpenter says Aliya Whiteley’s The Loosening Skin will haunt the reader long after it is read (and also interviews the author,) John Howard appreciates Gary Westfahl’s reappraisal of Arthur C Clarke in the latest Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, Val Nolan discusses Christopher Priest’s “September 11th” novel An American Story, Duncan Lunan finds The Song my Enemies Sing by James Reich enjoyable hard work – up to a point – and considers carefully E M Brown’s Buying Time, I characterise Death’s End, the culmination of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, as a bracing intellectual tour-de-force but emotionally unsatisfying, Andy Hedgecock finds Adam Roberts’s By the Pricking of her Thumb too self-indulgent, Stephen Theaker says Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar is quite terrific – a corker – and Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates to be heavy-handed satire but arguably what this moment needs.

As to the fiction:-
Soldier’s Things1 by Tim Lees tells of a soldier invalided out from an ongoing conflict journey back home only to find nothing familiar, his memory untrustworthy – about anything.
In Doomed Youth2 by Fiona Moore an infestation of giant ants occurred sometime in the 1950s with intermittent rises and falls in their population ever since. The story is supposedly narrated by a Chinese American called Kara Chong in a chatty style that didn’t sit well with the content. The background of a world elsewhere falling apart has led to distrust of foreigners.
The Path to War3 by Louise Hughes sees a storyteller whose audience finds her lacking take a mountain path between two newly-warring countries (after a litany of wars) rather than the coast road in the wake of the army.
In Heart of an Awl4 by Eliza Ruslander an AI that was a car is bequeathed its owner’s body after his death. It and his widow go on a road trip.
Zero Day5 by Sheldon J Pacotti is the story of an off-duty cyber soldier who meets a girl on a bus. Tracking her later online he misses the big cyber attack.
The SF premise of Birnam Platoon by Natalia Thoeodoridou is much the same as that of Green Troops by William King, ie the development of soldiers capable of photosynthesising by themselves. This lot take their mission of promoting world peace seriously though. The story is framed via the post-war trial of one of their commanders for war crimes.

Pedant’s corner:- aZamyati’s (Zamyatin’s.) b“in the same way that there are” (in the same way that they are,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s.) cMaurits’ (Maurits’s,) “And it’s becoming clear is that” (and what’s becoming clear is that,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s,) 1fit (fitted,) 2“I made a final effort” (“I finally made an effort” makes more sense,) “someone beating a tympani” (tympani is plural, one of them is a tympanum.) 3snuck (sneaked,) “stood like marketplace crowds” (standing like marketplace crowds.) 4Written in USian, “she pulls up the hand break” (hand brake.) 5Written in USian, “and diffuse the situation” (defuse.)

Interzone 280 Has Arrived

Interzone 280 cover
The Orphanage of Gods cover

On the doormat this morning: Interzone 280.

This one contains – among all the other goodies – my review of The Orphanage of Gods by Helena Coggan.

My review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, due in issue 281, has been despatched.

BSFA Awards Nominees for this Year

This year’s short list has been announced.

Best Novel:-

Dave Hutchinson – Europe at Dawn

Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun

Emma Newman – Before Mars

Gareth L Powell – Embers of War

Tade Thompson – Rosewater

I’ve not yet read any of these, I’m afraid.

Best Shorter Fiction:-

Nina Allan – The Gift of Angels: an Introduction

Malcolm Devlin – The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct

Hal Duncan – The Land of Somewhere Safe

Ian McDonald – Time Was

Martha Wells – Exit Strategy

Liz Williams – Phosphorus

Marian Womack – Kingfisher

The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct appeared in Interzone 275 (I reviewed that issue here) and I read Time Was in September.

Best Non-Fiction:-

Nina Allan – Time Pieces column 2018 articles

Ruth EJ Booth – Noise and Sparks column 2018 articles

Liz Bourke – Sleeps With Monsters column 2018 articles

Aliette de Bodard – On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures

Adam Roberts – Publishing the Science Fiction Canon: The Case of Scientific Romance

Of these I have of course read Nina Allan’s “Time Pieces” from Interzone and (some of) Ruth EJ Booth’s “Noise and Sparks” columns in Shoreline of Infinity.

I’m assuming the usual BSFA Booklet will be forthcoming giving me a chance to catch up on the shorter fiction, non-fiction and artwork. First I’ll need to get to tracking down the novels…..

Interzone Time Again

The Orphanage of Gods cover
Interzone 279 cover

The latest Interzone, 278 of that ilk, came through the letter box a few days ago. It doesn’t have one of my reviews in it.

The issue after, though, 279, will do, as a couple of days later The Orphanage of Gods by Helena Coggan also arrived.

Once again, Ms Coggan is a new author to me – even if she has had two previous books published.

Best Reading of 2018

Listed below in order of reading. 16 in total; 7 by Scottish writers, 4 SF or Fantasy (+ 1 non-fiction about SF,) 3 in translation, 10 by men, 6 by women:-

Living Nowhere by John Burnside
All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky
Science Fiction: A Literary History Edited by Roger Luckhurst
The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk
The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig
The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey
Hame by Annalena McAfee
I Remember Pallahaxi by Michael G Coney
Not so Quiet …. stepdaughters of war by Helen Zenna Smith
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez
Time Was by Ian McDonald
The Shipbuilders by George Blake
Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Reading Scotland 2018

The ones in bold are in the 100 Best Scottish Books list.

I’ve read 33 Scottish (in the broadest sense) books in 2018, 7 SF or Fantasy (italicised,) 13 by women, 20 by men. E M Brown (aka Eric Brown) qualifies by having a small part of Buying Time set in Scotland and by living near Dunbar for the past few years.

I’ve not a good balance this year between men and women, mainly due to exhausting the women on the 100 Best list.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid
Living Nowhere by John Burnside
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig
Autumn by Ali Smith
The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey
The Lie of the Land by Michael Russell
As Though We Were Flying by Andrew Geig
Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine
Jericho Sleep Alone by Chaim I Bermant
Hame by Annalena McAfee
The Thirteenth Disciple by J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
The New Road by Neil Munro
Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
Supercute Futures by Martin Milllar
The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre
Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey
Adam Blair by J G Lockhart
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh
The Shipbuilders by George Blake
Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel
Serious Sweet by A L Kennedy
Interrupted Journey by James Wilson
The Bone Yard by Paul Johnston
Buying Time by E M Brown

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Macmillan, 2017, 423 p. Reviewed for Interzone 273, Nov-Dec 2017.

 A Skinful of Shadows cover

A YA novel with the usual quota of incident this is also a book written with a pleasing clarity and focus.

Makepeace Lightfoot is brought up as a Puritan in her aunt’s house in Poplar, sleeping on a straw mattress shared with her mother. More unusually her mother frequently forces her to spend nights in a church so that she might learn to ward off ghosts. Her lack of knowledge of her origins and the conflict this produces induces Makepeace to run off after a man her mother lets slip came from Grizehayes, her father’s home. This leads Makepeace into a mob heading for Lambeth Palace, protesting against the influence Archbishop Laud has over the King. In the confusion her chasing mother loses touch with her. Makepeace encounters wisps emanating from the body of a mistreated dancing bear, whose presence, as Bear, will be with her for ever. When Makepeace’s mother dies in the disturbances the classic ingredient for a children’s story, no parents, is in place but there is a moment of horror as Makepeace battles off her mother’s ghost.

Quickly packed off to Grizehayes, the ancestral seat of the powerful Felmotte family where the patriarch Lord Felmotte is a malevolent presence, calling her ‘the by-blow’, Makepeace is despatched to work in the kitchen where she befriends the domestic animals, despite Bear’s reluctance, and in turn is taken up by her half-brother James, another Felmotte by-blow who tells her a Felmotte’s character changes for the worse when he comes into his inheritance. While the reader has already divined the phenomenon it is only slowly that the extent of Makepeace’s genetic disposition – beyond the Felmotte cleft chin – becomes fully apparent to her.

That the waters we swim in colour our attitudes is indicated by Makepeace’s observation that, “Back in Poplar, everyone had known that the king was being led astray by evil advisers and Catholic plots. …. in Grizehayes it was just as obvious … that a power-hungry Parliament driven to frenzy by crazy Puritans was trying to steal power from the rightful King.”

Up to this point that background conflict seems only colouring but Hardinge integrates it into her plot with the revelation of the existence of a charter bearing the King’s seal acknowledging the Felmottes’ unique strangeness in return for their financial support.

The relatively kindly Sir Thomas Felmotte, who has not yet inherited, reveals to Makepeace, “‘There is a …space inside us. We can host more than ourselves.’” Makepeace realises, “‘We’re hollow. And dead things can get in.’” On death, the Elder Felmottes pass on their personalities to their chosen heir’s body, which acquires exceptional skills as a result. As Sir Thomas rationalises, “‘Imagine how great a family would be, if no experience, no skills, no memories were ever lost.’” The downside? Only the strongest personalities survive among the mix.

Makepeace ponders their toleration by the Elders and begins to understand the danger she and James are in, telling him, “‘We are spares,… somewhere to put the ghosts in an emergency!’”

The dispute between King and Parliament has by now erupted into full blown war, “The world was turning cartwheels … and nobody was sure which way was up any more,” providing Makepeace with the opportunity to flee when that emergency does arise. But James has meanwhile succumbed to Felmotte infiltration.

“Humans always betrayed you sooner or later,” Makepeace reflects, but embarks on a search for a way to restore James to himself and destroy the Felmottes forever. Along the way she incorporates a doctor, a Parliamentary soldier and a Felmotte sent ahead to take her over. These talk to her in a different, lighter font. Her travels take her to the King’s court at Oxford and capture by a Parliamentary detachment where she is accused of witchcraft. She speaks again to our times with the thought, “Humans are strange, adaptable animals, and eventually get used to anything, even the impossible or unbearable. In time, the unthinkable becomes normal.”

Towards the end Hardinge has a playful stab at the author/reader relationship with the doctor’s ghost’s rumination, “I am nothing but a bundle of thoughts, feelings and memories, given life by someone else’s mind. But then again, so is a book.”

The author’s touch is assured and her execution admirable. Apart from some dialogue which (arguably necessarily) doesn’t quite have a 17th century feel there is little to find fault with here.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- Remarkably for these times I found only one typo, “she had had unexpectedly halted” (only one “had”.) Yes the book had a few examples of collective nouns being given a plural verb but these were in dialogue and therefore possibly true to the character – except for “a murder of Crowes were gathered around Lord Felmotte” (was gathered.) The phrase, “‘I had a ringside seat’” is hardly a 17th century expression, I’d have thought, and unfortunately we had an explosion occurring at an “epicentre” (centre.)

More for Interzone

Another book for me to review for Interzone arrived today.

It is called Supercute Futures and was written by Martin Millar – born in Scotland but now living in London – and is said to be “a gloriously warped dystopian fantasy.”

The review ought to appear in Interzone 277.

I’ll need to get on to it straight away.

Interzone 276 Jul-Aug 2018

TTA Press

 Interzone 276 cover

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam takes the editorial slot and reflects on how growing up queer (her word) revealed that adults knew as little as children about navigating the world and instilled her with all sorts of phobias. In Future Interrupted Andy Hedgecock reveals how certain formative reading/viewing experiences still colour his tastes. Nina Allan’s Time Pieces reflects by way of her own experience and Marian Womack’s debut collection Lost Objects on how the short story is still the best pathway for a writer to come into his or her own.

The fiction kicks off with Grey Halls1 by Rachael Cupp where a future musician famous for, but himself dismissive of, his one big success, Grey Halls, travels back in time for inspiration.
Superbright2 by Ryan Row is set in a world where superpowers are common. This story totally failed to capture my interest.
In Tumblebum3 by Darby Harn, New York is flooded and everything is controlled by a huge corporation named TAG. Tumblebum is hired to find the missing photographer daughter of a racehorse owning family.
A species of harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex quaesitor; or P.q. starts building sculptures- or are they temples? – in P. Q.4 by James Warner.
In Tim Major’s Throw Caution5 pseudo-crab lifeforms have been found on Mars. Their bodies contain diamonds. (Well, not really. They’re silicon based.) The story follows two prospectors searching outwith the normal areas.
So Easy6 by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is a post-apocalypse story. Well enough done but a bit inconsequential.
Paul Crenshaw’s Eyes7 has a young boy find a pair of disembodied eyes floating in the stream which runs by his house. They can still blink and so answer his questions thereby telling a tale of life, the universe and so on.

In Reviews Iain Hunter recommends the Jane Yolen edited Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 (rather confusingly featuring stories from 2016;) I am rather less enthusiastic about Paul Jessup’s Close Your Eyes; Duncan Lunan says Rob Boffard’s Adrift relocates the aeroplane movie to a tour shuttle from a habitat overlooking the Horsehead Nebula, Lawrence Osborn claims Revenant Gun, the last in Yoon Ha Lee’s trilogy which began with Ninefox Gambit is essential reading for military SF space opera or worldbuilding buffs (I still won’t be going near it;) Duncan Lawrie accepts Shattermoon by Dominic Dulley for what it is, fast-paced light reading; Andy Hedgecock lauds at least one entertaining and provocative story from an under celebrated master in The Adventures of the Ingenious Alfanui by Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio translated by Margaret Jull; Stephen Theaker8 likes Kameron Hurley’s fix-up Apocalypse Nix better than he did her God’s War trilogy and Andy Hedgecock returns to praise Juliet E McKenna’s The Green Man’s Heir.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Written in USian, “He was fortunate, then, to not have Osorio’s fan base” (not to have.) 2Written in USian; “experiments with which had given her son” (either experiments which had given her son, or, experiments with which she had given her son,) “He shined.” (He shone.) 3Written in USian. 4Written in USian, “atypical climactic conditions” (climatic.) 5“sand….sunk away” (sank,) shrunk (shrank.) 6Written in USian. 7Written in Usian. 8“her ramshackle team of misfits are pretty much always doomed to fail” (her team is always doomed to fail.)

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