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Interzone 272

Interzone 272 cover
A Skinful of Shadows cover

Two packages from Interzone have arrived.

The latest issue, Interzone 272, containing all the usual but no contribution from me this time.

An ARC (uncorrected proof) of A Skinful of Shadowsby Frances Hardinge for me to review for the next issue.

Ms Hardinge is another writer new to me though her entry on Fantastic Fiction lists seven previous books by her. Most seem to be fantasy works.

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2016, 430 p.

 Radiance cover

Radiance is set in a fantastical universe where the Moon and the planets have all been colonised and are unrecognisably exotic places. At times the appearance of the text mirrors this exuberance. There is a variety of typefaces, some offset on the page to the right, others to the left and some laid out as a film or play script – or even transcript.

We are first invited to “Come inside and meet the prologue.” In a comment on literary affectation she (the prologue) tells us she has been told often that she is wholly unnecessary, a growth upon the story the wise doctor must cut off.

Below each chapter’s title is a representation of a film strip with an astrological symbol in it relating to the planet or moon on which it is set. The meat of the novel deals with the life of Severin Unck, an actress since a very young child, her father a film director, her mother a camera (he was always pointing one at her) but herself in her film-making resolutely wedded to documentary, “Any story is a lie cunningly told to hide the real world from the bastards who can’t live in it.” Severin cannot tell that lie. “We think of ourselves as being in … not just a story, but a good story.” It turns out film in this universe occurred early but when talkies evolved Edison subsequently sat on the patent so that only silent movies acquired the cachet of being art.

The story is told through personal reminiscences, transcripts of both Severin’s own – now fragmentary – archive and her father’s. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, her real mother is unknown to her – and to the world except for her mother (who wishes to remain anonymous) and her father who keeps his counsel. Severin was delivered to his doorstep and he took her in and raised her without demur, casting her in his films from an early age. She had a succession of stepmothers all of whom seem to have treated her well enough, the most long-lasting being Mary Pellam. The timeline (helpfully given in a Chronology on pages 7-9) goes from 1858 to 1962.

Creatures known as callowhales feature heavily. They are massive denizens of the deeps of a water-covered Venus. Their nature is unknown except for being able to produce a universal food called callowmilk, which gets turned into ice-cream among other things.

Anchises St John grew up with Severin and has a strange disfigurement, an unhealing “mouth” on his hand procured due to him inadvertently touching a callowhale. At one point the novel threatens to turn into a detective story as Anchises is manœuvred into trying to ascertain what happened to Severin after she dropped out of the public eye. This does give Valente the opportunity to regale us with the aside, “In detective stories, women are usually dead before the curtain goes up. In fairy tales, they’re usually alive. Fairy tales are about survival. That’s all they’re about. The detective solves the woman, the knight saves her.”

There is something very odd about the celestial mechanics of the Solar System described in the text. In ours, Earth is not incommunicado for years when the sun passes between it and Pluto – or Neptune (stated in the text to be out of radio contact with Earth for 72 years.) Our Earth scoots completely round the Sun in only one year after all; so it will be on the same side as those planets again within six months at maximum (and in practice probably only obscured for a few days.) Arguably, though, this discrepancy is in agreement with the fantastical nature of the solar system of the book. When there is a bridge between Pluto and Charon and people can stroll about in the open air under the moons of Uranus what’s a little radio blackout?

In its settings Radiance is a whirling round of invention but these flourishes do make it difficult to read as Science Fiction – though as outright fantasy not a problem – and it is not until the very last pages that the genesis of this strange solar system is addressed in the text. (Even so those orbital mechanics are a bit hard to take.) Severin explains, “‘Because I am a nexus point connecting all possible realities and unrealities…. I exist in innumerable forms throughout the liquid structure of space/time, and neither self nor causality have any meaning for me.'” The significance of the callowhales is that they “exist throughout everything that has ever existed or will exist.” For, “There are a million million frames,” (in a movie) “each one of them only a little different, and callowhales move through those frames like a cigarette burn in the corner of the image. Each frame is a world, a universe.” These glosses were too late for me as by the time they came I had lost patience with the idea of the book as anything but a fantasy.

As an adjunct to the living in a good story theme we also have a character say, “‘I think we’re all Graeae… We all share one eye between us, the big, black camera iris. We wait for our turn to see what someone else saw on a screen. And then we pass it on.'”

In an aside on hiding in plain sight Mary Pellam tells another, “‘If you’ve married men twice, nobody asks what you think about when the night breeze comes sidling in.'”

The penultimate chapter, Goodbye, echoes the prologue – “There is no such thing as an ending. There are no answers.” And of course in another piece of comment on the art of fiction it is not the end of the book.

Despite Valente being from the US we have “arse”, “knitted” and “bum” used in the British sense – and even maths! – but hood for the bonnet of a vehicle. Odd. Her intention for the book may be that “the story of the Grail is one of failure and always has been.”

Radiance is pyrotechnic and contains some fine writing but its fantastical trappings distract more than a little from the human story it portrays.

Pedant’s corner:- parenthetical hyphens are not spaced from their content-as a result this reads oddly-put in the space please. Otherwise; sprung (sprang,) lay down (lie down,) ice flow (floe,) off of (off, just off, no of,) assaying a Charleston (essaying,) outside of (outside, just outside, no of,) “partnered in own his dance” (in his own dance?) Hades’ (Hades’s,) “Nous vous attendons pour vous” (if I remember my schoolboy French aright either the “vous” or the “pour vous” is superfluous – Nous vous attendons = we will await you; nous attendons pour vous = we will wait for you,) “‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan his stately pleasure dome decree.’” (A stately pleasure dome, ) “and, and” (the first “and” is superfluous,) “a throng stampede” (earlier throng had been accorded a verb agreeing with its singular nature – so; a throng stampedes,) Franklyn Edison (elsewhere referred to as Freddy,) octopi (octopuses, at a pinch octopodes.)

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

Corvus, 2012, 521 p.

 Hide Me Among the Graves cover

Powers has form with poetry and poets, especially those of the nineteenth century. In The Anubis Gates he even, in the form of William Ashbless, deployed one of his own (and that of James Blaylock) invention. Fantastic Fiction even lists some of “Ashbless”’s works.

Here Powers concentrates on the Rossetti family, Christina and her brother Dante Gabriel, but Algernon Swinburne also features as a character as does Edward Trelawny.

In Hide me Among the Graves sublime poetry is an expression of a kind of demonic possession by (or more accurately a close association to) the Nephilim, a semi-vampiric type of creature. The affliction is partly hereditary but can be transmitted by biting. Two of these creatures (one is Byron’s friend John Polidori, the Rosettis’ maternal uncle, the other embodies the spirit of Boudicca – though the characters of course call her Boadicea) are the background drivers of the plot. Uniting their two strands in one body by the union of the two bloodlines will awaken such power that Boadicea will again be able (as she did in Roman times) to destroy London in an earthquake. Byron, Shelley and Keats are said to have shared the nephilitic tendency, Tennyson and Ashbless not. The loved ones, especially the children, of those close to the Nephilim are in danger of death, or – worse – a lingering half life as a diminished ghost. The prologue involves the awakening of the spirit of Polidori, by Christina rubbing her blood into a small statue belonging to her father. (There it is, blood again.)

The lesser known (ie totally fictional) protagonists of the book are Adelaide McKee and John Crawford who unknown to each other (at first) are host to the relevant spirits. When they are passing by chance on a London bridge at night they are attacked by an avatar of Boadicea. Only Crawford’s quick thinking in hurling them both into the water saves them. (For some reason both salt water and almost drowning repel the vampires, exposure to the open air increases the danger.) The same night though they conceive a child. Since McKee had earlier been trapped into prostitution they do not meet again for seven years, by which time McKee thinks Johanna, their daughter, may be dead. She is not, but has fallen into the clutches of Polidori and they and she spend the rest of the book trying to evade a forced union of Johanna with one of Boadicea’s creatures.

Powers is good with characters. McKee, Crawford and Johanna are very well drawn and their story is much the most compelling in the book. I was less taken with the doings of the Rosettis though. This is perhaps due to my distaste for the incorporation (it might as well be traducing) of real people in such a distortion of history. It is only the fantastical elements which disturb me here, however; I have no quarrel with the practice in a straightforward altered history. In this context, in Hide me Among the Graves, Powers purports to give us the real reason why Gabriel’s wife Lizzie Siddal’s grave was exhumed.

While Powers does write like a dream bits of this are ridiculous. Like vampires, the Nephilim – or their agents – can be deflected by garlic, killed by silver bullets, and their reflections trapped by mirrors. (I know it’s a staple of vampire stories but …. garlic? Really?) It is a measure of Powers’s facility that despite my reservations I continued reading. He can certainly spin a yarn and people it with apparently living, breathing characters. The book is too long though. I could quite happily have stopped reading at the end of Part One and still felt satisfied; but there was still over half the book to go.

Pedant’s corner:- remarkably few instances for a book this long. And the copy I read was an ARC (or proof as they used to be known.) It shows it can be done.
Nevertheless we still had “to lay low” (lie – but it was in direct speech,) missing opening quote marks when direct speech started a chapter, “had strode” (stridden, surely?) “‘the effect requires parents from two continents’” (Powers’s geography is off here. A Roman, no matter how consecrated to an Alpine Goddess, who raped one of Boadicea’s daughters – similarly consecrated to the old British Goddess known as Andraste, Magna Mater or Gogmagog – was not from a different continent to that of his victim.) An electric doorbell (in 1869?) Octopi (the plural is octopodes or octopuses,) “in front of one in the long row of houses” (it does make sense but “one of the long row of houses” is a more natural construction.)

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Vintage, 2016, 296 p. Reviewed for Interzone 265, Jul-Aug 2016.

 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights cover

The title is an indicator, clearly alluding to a famous collection of tales of wonder, promising (as it then does) exotic happenings, digressions, meanderings and stories within stories. Yet it is also somehow unmistakably Rushdian. Exotic but recognisable, aslant but accessible. In any case, I doubt any other present day author would invite comparison to such a well-known set of stories as the Arabian Nights. But the conceit doesn’t come from nowhere. If he perhaps hasn’t addressed the supernatural quite as directly in most of his previous novels there has nearly always been more than a hint of the strange, brushes with the uncanny, in Rushdie’s work. So here we have jinn (not genies, no, we don’t use that word any more) the Grand Ifrits, Zumurrud the Great, Zabardast the Sorcerer, Shining Ruby the Possessor of Souls – so slender he disappears when he turns sideways – Ra’im the Blood-Drinker, the source of all the world’s vampire stories, and the jinnia Dunia, otherwise known as Aasmaan Peri, aka the Sky Fairy and the Lightning Princess of Mount Qâf.

The narrative is couched as a looking back at the legendary time when the seals between the worlds eroded, a great storm struck the Earth and the Strangenesses began. Yet the story begins over 800 years earlier, in 1195, with the arrival at the house of the philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) of a young homeless girl. This was Dunia, indulging her fascination with human men and her capacity for love. For two years eight months and twenty-eight nights they lived as man and wife and produced numerous offspring, whose descendants, all characterised by their lobeless ears, became the Duniazát. Not named after him as, “To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.” Ibn Rushd’s dispute with the philosophy of a predecessor, Ghazali, “Only fear will move sinful man towards God,” and who stated that things happen only because God wills them, provides us with disquisitions on God’s nature, “God is a creation of human beings; the clap-hands-if-you-believe-in-fairies principle.” These differences are played out on a grander scale during the war between the worlds that followed the Strangenesses.

During that time rationality crumbled. Some found their feet didn’t touch the ground and might float away so high that they died, others were weighed down so that they became crushed. A baby born during the storm caused outbreaks of sores on anyone corrupt or dishonest into whose vicinity she came. The irrational became commonplace. The Duniazát had inherited some of Dunia’s jinn powers and were invaluable in the final confrontations with the Grand Ifrits. The whole time of Strangeness lasted, of course, two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights.

Lines like, “If I get hurt in this putative affray of yours then I’m not an innocent bystander?” to a policeman from a musician at risk from the incitements of a rabid preacher show that the events of Rushdie’s life so far have contributed mightily to this – as, I assume, theirs must necessarily do for all but hack authors. Yet while the novel contains all Rushdie’s strengths, it also manifests and perhaps magnifies his faults. There is not much restraint here, there is a lot of telling, the treatment is, as ever, consciously literary and full of word play (Lebanonymous; “all the gold, men, in your sacks will not save you.”) Yet the retrospective narrator defuses any tension in the reader as to the eventual outcome. Rushdie also feels it necessary to define FTL despite name-checking eleven masters of the golden age of science fiction.

However, the book is mainly a meditation on the nature of story. “All our stories contain the stories of others and are themselves contained within larger, grander narratives.” “The first thing to know about made-up stories is that they are all untrue in the same way,” (which feels Tolstoyan but is certainly debatable.) “To tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present.” That stories tell us what we are; we tell them in order to understand ourselves. Quite where the incursion of the supernatural leaves us with that one is rather problematic. “To recount a fantasy is to tell a tale about the actual.” Well, maybe. “If good and evil were external to Man, it became impossible to define what an ethical man might be,” is closer to the mark.

In general Rushdie is at his best when his flights of fancy are tethered more firmly to earthly events, more centred on his human characters which here are too thinly delineated. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is pyrotechnic, impressive even, undoubtedly worth reading, but, ultimately, curiously lacking in heart.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- St Sebestian (Sebastian?) Nietzche (later rendered correctly as Nietzsche,) “when the princes’ attention was elsewhere” (yes it was princes, plural, ergo it should be attentions were,) bsattling (battling,) Rossonero, (Rossoneri.) In name (In the name,) one less sad angel face (one fewer – but it was narrated in tight third person,) waitstaff (that’s just a horrible conflation, waiting staff is entirely adequate,) knobkerry (I’ve only ever seen the spelling knobkerrie before,) scent to the lower world (sent.)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Serpent’s Tail, 2016, 430 p.

 The Essex Serpent cover

To all intents and purposes this is a nineteenth century novel but it is one written with a modern sensibility. The text is divided into a prologue set on (an unspecified) New Year’s Eve followed by four parts split into unevenly distributed sections which are titled consecutively January to September and then finally November, all interspersed with letters written between the characters.

In it the recently (happily) widowed Cora Seaborne with her son Frankie – who seems to have OCD or at the least autistic traits – and his childhood nurse Martha travel to Colchester to get away from London. The doctor who attended her husband’s death bed, Luke Garrett, has meanwhile formed an unreciprocated attraction to her. An earthquake eight years before the book starts has, according to rumour, let loose again the Essex Serpent which for a short time in 1669 roamed the waters of the Essex coast. Every local mishap or disappearance is now blamed on it. In the Blackwater estuary village of Aldwinter, there is a representation of the serpent carved onto a pew in All Saints Church. Through a mutual acquaintance an introduction is arranged between its vicar, William Ransome, and Cora, who has an interest in ancient creatures inspired by Mary Anning. Both Cora and Ransome erroneously imagine the other to be a stereotype of their respective statuses. They first meet by accident while rescuing a sheep from the muddy river bank but on further introduction strike up an intellectual, if verbally combative, friendship. Ransome is at odds with his congregation in being unwilling to address or assuage their belief in the creature. Ransome’s wife, Stella, is a consumptive, who is pleased by, even encourages, the friendship between her husband and Cora, and herself befriends Frankie.

The ingredients are here for a tale of forbidden love (or two eternal triangles even) set against a backdrop of supernatural horror but Perry does not play that game. She is more subtle – and too good a writer. Yet something about the enterprise nevertheless misses the mark.

The prologue mentions the banks of the River Blackwater in its first sentence. Having once lived by that river’s banks myself – but way upstream not near the estuary – I was therefore disposed to like the book, but as time went by I grew increasingly frustrated by it. It is not that it is not accomplished in its way or fails to provide memorable characters – even the relatively minor ones are rounded and all too human. There was just something about it that felt askew. About halfway through the thought crystallised.

Perry has yet to learn economy. Accumulation of detail normally lends verisimilitude, but she overdoes it. Descriptions frequently contain at least one observation too many. There is too much telling, too many extended ruminations by the various characters. And is Cora just a little too modern in her attitudes? In this regard the sub-theme of the problem of social housing and high rents also seemed to be straining for contemporary relevance. And – this last was actually a grace note, so not infelicitous as such – I did wonder if Martha had been named solely so as that another character might say to her, “‘Martha, my dear.’”

A pointer to Perry’s intentions for the novel may be found when she puts into the mouth of Will Ransome the thought, “‘far from being one truth alone there may be several truths,’” but we are never in any doubt that there is only one reality here. In that regard the putative fantasy element of the serpent promises more than it delivers.

While Perry has a facility with character and behaviour and The Essex Serpent has much to recommend it, it is more than a touch overwritten.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) fit (fitted, x 2,) “no sooner had she grown accustomed to one Cora, another would emerge” (than another would emerge,) “‘Still gadding about with hookers, is he?” (hookers was not a British usage in Victorian times I’d have thought. It still isn’t,) “he’d showed her” (shown,) “that of a minor royal greeting dignitaries at the opening of a library” (did minor royals perform such functions in the nineteenth century?) “Fifty miles south as the swallow flies and London’s at her best” (London? South of the Blackwater estuary as the swallow flies?) “Think of the set to when Galileo sent the earth spinning round the sun” (that was Copernicus, not Galileo, but it was in a character’s musings. He may have been intended to be mistaken but he was otherwise presented as scientifically literate,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb – which was used only seven pages later!)
Greetings to the word croat (meaning a cross) which was a new one on me.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Viking, 2016, 349 p.

 The Power cover

The Power imagines what it would be like, how interactions between the sexes would be affected, how society would be changed, if women developed the ability to administer electric shocks – in much the same way a manta ray can. The premise is a fantastical one but is given a Science-Fictional rationale by positing an area of muscle across the collar bone, called a skein, as a centre for the power and an origin for the mutation in a Second World War chemical agent (Guardian Angel) which protected against gas attacks, which inevitably leaked into the environment.

The story of how this power changes the world is told mainly through four points of view: Allie, who becomes the head of a new religion emphasising God’s female nature by transforming herself into Mother Eve; a London gangster’s daughter called Roxy; Margot Cleary, a US city mayor eager for further political advancement and Tunde who, initially by accident, becomes the journalistic chronicler of events.

There is, of course, a backlash to the new reality, both in the political sphere and in the darker (and perhaps not so hidden) recesses of the internet. One conspiracy theorist called UrbanDox believes that Guardian Angel was leaked deliberately just to do men down.

Yet Alderman’s is no simplistic account. Biblical cadences emphasise the mythical nature of the origins of her future society. Her characters are by and large agreeably nuanced, their actions not entirely predictable but still credible. Roxy is wonderfully realised but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Alderman’s US ones, and wondered whether Saudi Arabian women would throw off sexual inhibitions quite so quickly as one does here. But I suppose in the heady throes of a revolution anything might go and Alderman’s tale implicitly argues that human nature is indivisible, characteristics and behaviours shown by any one individual may or may not be shown by others, irrespective of their sex.

Where I have major reservations is with the framing device, a series of letters supposedly sent five thousand years hence between “Neil” and “Naomi” wrapped around the contents of a manuscript whose title page reads The Power: a historical novel by Neil Adam Armon (the anagram is easily deciphered) and which purports to be an imaginative, speculative, account of how the power originated and precipitated what became known as the Cataclysm. These letters stand on their heads widely held beliefs (in our present) about the proclivities and habits of, and attitudes to, men and women. Alderman’s point in a nutshell, but perhaps a little too heavy-handed. Between each section of the book (which count down from the power’s first appearance to the Cataclysm) are illustrations of little understood artefacts from around the time described in the manuscript. The interpolation into the manuscript of seemingly intact “Archival documents relating to the electrostatic power, its origin, dispersal, and the possibility of a cure” also strains credibility. How could they have survived more or less intact, remaining understandable, when the illustrated artefacts did not? Moreover the manuscript itself is too close to present day speech patterns – especially in the character of Roxy – to make the framing device believable. A five thousand year hence Neil Adam Armon would have got so much of our present wrong that he actually gets right. From this point of view it might have been better just to present the story as speculation rather than an imagined history from the future. This is a very purist position, of course, which argues for every detail of the overall book to be true to its own reality as presented to the reader – and very difficult to bring off. And anyway, SF is always about the present, never the future (or in this case the manuscript’s distant past.) I also doubt whether the inhabitants of such a world would in fact call the historical break a cataclysm but all this is mere quibbling. Though its interpretation of human nature, power and how it is implemented is bleak, The Power is engrossing, well written and with a lot to say about relationships between the sexes.

Pedant’s corner:- “over to her cousins” (cousins’,) “the particulate and debris grow” (particulates and debris?) “the music reaches a crescendo” (no, a crescendo is a rise, not the climax at its end.)

The City of Woven Streets by Emmi Itäranta

Harper Voyager, 2016, 324 p

 The City of Woven Streets cover

In a society where dreams are forbidden Eliana experiences night-maeres, which she must keep hidden or suffer banishment. She lives in an island city, in the House of Webs, whose head is called the Weaver. All born on the island bear tattoos showing their citizenship with a mark added yearly to show age. The city is prone to flooding by the sea and there is an overhead transport system of gondolas travelling on suspended ropes, and rope bridges between buildings. One day a girl whose tongue has been cut out is brought in to the House. In a certain kind of light Eliana’s name can be seen to be tattooed on her hand. The mystery builds from that point as Eliana comes into contact with a resistance movement, is betrayed by the Weaver and banished to a punishment detachment diving for valuable red coral.

The normal text is interspersed at long intervals with passages rendered in italics and which, apart from starting and finishing partway on a page, have no punctuation to separate them from the rest.

The setting has similarities to Itäranta’s first novel Memory of Water in that there is an oppressive regime from whom secrets must be kept. The City of Woven Streets leans more towards fantasy than, and does not have the clarity nor focus of, that previous book. Eliana’s escape from servitude is fortuitous and the final confrontation seems a bit rushed. This may be due to the pressure of the deadline to which Itäranta refers in her Acknowledgements.

Pedant’s corner – some of these may be due to Itäranta being Finnish. She wrote the book in both Finnish and English – :- span (spun,) lays (lies,) “two less than I have” (fewer,) different than (different from.) “none … come” (comes,) “to join the same queue with him” (as him,) “the Council have pardoned … , who in their wisdom” (has pardoned, in its wisdom,) “the members of the Council raise their right hand” (right hands.) “There is yet another hour less left of our lives” (an hour fewer,) undisputably (indisputably.) “None of us do” (none does of us,) none of them draw nearer (draws.)

What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

Re-reading the classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Corsair, 2015, 477 p.

 What Makes This Book So Great cover

This is a collection of Walton’s contributions to a blog on Tor.com, appearing between 15/6/2008 and 25/2/2011, in which she discussed the works of SF and fantasy she had been re-reading during that time. Her claim to be able to read up to six books in a day astonished me. If she’s doing that how does she fit in everyday life – food shopping, cooking, eating, family life, putting out the bins? Where on Earth can she find time to write fiction, or a blog post? Yes she says she sometimes spends all day in bed (I assume through illness or some debilitation) but even so. Admittedly that six was a maximum and she says she starts another book as soon as finishing the previous one. There was also the odd, to me, observation that she feels she hasn’t read a book if she hasn’t re-read it at least once; that first impressions of a book are suspect. I differ here, certainly from a later in life perspective. If a book does it for me the first time that’s fine; with perhaps a very few exceptions, if it doesn’t, a re-read is unlikely to help. My tbr pile is too high for much re-reading anyway. I also cannot read at Walton’s pace. Perhaps I pay too close an attention to the minutiae of a text; vide Pedant’s corner.

Many of Walton’s enthusiasms I doubt I would share. She spends 14 posts and over 60 pages here on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series which has far too many volumes for me to embark upon now, and in any case I have a disrecommendation from another source. Similarly 17 posts and 53 pages on Steven Brust’s Dragaera series. Not going to happen.

Walton always writes interestingly about the subject at hand; even of books I have no desire to read (whatever her eloquence.) And “IWantToReadItosity” is a great coinage. “It’s hard to explain, is utterly subjective and is entirely separate from whether a book is actually good.” We all have such guilty pleasures.

She occasionally digresses from the SF/Fantasy remit, for example enthusing about Iain Banks’s The Crow Road and of Middlemarch opines that George Eliot would have been a great writer of Science Fiction if only she’d had the idea to invent the form.

A puff on the back cover quotes Publishers Weekly, ‘For readers unschooled in the history of SF/F, this book is a treasure trove.’ I wouldn’t disagree.

Pedant’s corner:- Various instances of “there are a number” or “there are a lot” – too many to note individually. “I admire it to no end” (if anything this means “there is no purpose to my admiration of it”. I assume Walton meant “I admire it no end.”) a missing comma before a quote (x 2,) Achilles’ (Achilles’s,) visit with (visit,) “Every culture has their own naming custom” (its own naming custom,) “and right go on into” (and go right on into,) for goodness’ sake (goodness’s.) “The Mazianni are a company fleet” (is a fleet,) “the rest of the worlsd … look on jealously” (looks on,) “The weight of significance of things … sometimes need” (needs,) “when it gets us information” (gives us,) Marilac – but two lines later Marilican Embassy (which is it; Marilac or Marilic, Marilacan or Marilican?) “global warming has deteriorated” (“the climate has deteriorated because of global warming,”) “and is decided” (either “has decided” or “is tasked with” the context isn’t entirely clear,) Katan (Katin on next page,) “‘going I know not whence’” (in a quote from Dunsany; whence means “from where” – you can’t go “from where”,) “‘to be a part of the forest. (from ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for the Sacnoth’)” (no full stop after forest; or else a capital F at “from” and a full stop after Sacnoth.) “There are the sort of situations,” (the sorts of situations,) “who’s presented a great poet” (as a great poet,) elegaic (it’s spelled elegiac.) “There were a host (there was a host,) “that the British population shrink” (shrinks,) “Shute’s Britain …., indeed their ability” (its ability,) “to get away with Nicholas’s guesses to be more often right than wrong” (being more often,) to whit (to wit,) the PTA are considering (the PTA is considering,) vaccuum (vacuum,) “These are the kind of” (kinds of,) Marcus Aurelius’ (Marcus Aurelius’s,) “so that she has learned to thank people, and realise how nice” (realised,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “Small Beer are definitely my favourite small press” (is definitely,) vapourised (vaporised, this is a curious error in a book full of USianisms,) ascendency (ascendancy,) philo-sophical (no hyphen) even moreso (more so.)

The Vorrh by B Catling

Coronet, 2015, 510 p.

The Vorrh cover

I had this on the back burner until I read the recent favourable review by Brian Kelly in the Guardian of The Erstwhile, the second part of Catling’s trilogy.

The book is an eccentric thing to be sure – featuring a mysterious forest, robots in basements, a more or less human cyclops, a bow forged from human bone and which has strange powers of attraction, a pioneering photographer, anthropophagi (a smaller species of cyclops – Catling seems to have a thing about one-eyed creatures – but whose heads protrude from their chests,) a ritual involving still-born or aborted children – but I fear you may have to be in the mood for it. And I wasn’t.

The Vorrh is a forest in Africa which may be the site of the Garden of Eden and may even still have living somewhere in its centre, Adam. Most of the action of the book, though, occurs in Essenwald, a European city “imported piece by piece to the Dark Continent” which lies to the Vorrh’s south-east. The time is sometime after the Great War – yet there are sections from the Victorian era featuring the photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

The more or less human cyclops is Ishmael, raised in the basement of 4 Khüler Brunnen by the Kin, gentle dark-brown robotic machines. He is rescued from them by the building’s inhabitant, Ghertrude Tulp, whose lifelong chastity is broken by her attraction to Ishmael. But having tasted freedom from the basement and seen the city via a camera obscura in 4 Khüler Brunnen’s upper levels Ishmael is not content and on Carnival weekend (a time of masked, licenced debauchery) travels the city, encounters and has sex with the blind Cyrena Lohr. The next morning, Ishmael disappeared, Cyrena finds she can see. As a result of this miracle she dedicates herself to finding him. Meanwhile the ability to cure or cause affliction has become transferable from person to person.

The city’s fortunes are tied up with trade with the Vorrh for timber, trade which can only take place via creatures known as the Limboia, whose cooperation is only achieved via the delivering to them of the bodies of still-born children, an enterprise in which a Dr Hoffmann is closely involved.

There are also passages featuring a Frenchman who is based on the real life Raymond Roussel, in whose book Impressions of Africa appeared a forest called the Vorrh. Likewise the names of Ishmael and Dr Hoffmann are, I’m sure, intended to have resonances.

In that review Stuart Kelly waxed lyrical about The Erstwhile as did Michael Moorcock about The Vorrh in his review. but none of this really grabbed me.

And the Muybridge strand was odd in that it did not link to the others. I suppose it may do so in subsequent volumes but that, along with the occurrence of at least 30 instances of “time interval later”, meant I found completing this something of a chore. Those subsequent volumes may have to wait.

Pedant’s corner:- The copy I read was a publisher’s proof (or advanced reading copy as they are now known) so some or all of these may have been changed in the final published book.
“He had been in a slithering ditch at Passchendaele for two years” (no British unit was ever in the line that long) “had witnessed spectral visions .. Angels of the Somme” (Passchendaele isn’t on the Somme – and the Angels were seen at Mons,) at 23 “he stepped from a plane” 200 miles to the southeast of the Vorrh (a plane? in what must be the very early 1920s?) Prone (in the sexual encounter described “supine” is meant,) silkand (silk and,) workingmen (working men, cargos (cargoes,) “I loosen an arrow” (x3, arrows are loosed, not loosened,) “he had survived far worst” (worse,) leeched (leached, ditto for leeching vs leaching) “the surface is clear and highly reflective” (it can’t be both those things; clear = transparent, reflective = mirror-like, mirrors are not transparent,) affliction (affliction,) Misstress (Mistress,) a missing end quote mark, octopus’ (octopus’s,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb,) gotten (got,) vise (vice,) skeptics (sceptics,) fit (fitted,) “‘She’s just a bit ruffled, that all’” (that’s all,) staunched (stanched,) parquetflooring (parquet flooring,) “’I am the only person ever to ever have photographed it’” (one of those “ever”s is unnecessary,) the butlerhad (the butler had,) on all matter of things (manner,) no start quote when dialogue started Chapter 29. “He had aged seven years enough time for every cell in his body to change. A different man climbed these shadows and stairs, so why did he feel the same?” (in Victorian times was it known that every cell in the body changed over seven years?) lay low (lie low,) laughingstock (laughing stock,) undrgrowth (undergrowth.)

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

Jo Fletcher, 2016, 450 p. Reviewed for Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

 City of Blades cover

In this sequel (of sorts) to Bennett’s City of Stairs the action of the book is set round the Continental city of Voortyashtan, quite a few years after the events of the previous novel. The Continentals are still resentful of the rule of Saypur and, in Voortyashtan, especially of the cannons threatening its citizens from the ramparts of Fort Thinadeshi.

Saypuri General Turyin Mulaghesh has been recalled from retirement by Shara Komayd, now Prime Minster of Saypur, to investigate the strange goings-on in Voortyashtan to do with a mysterious powdery ore (at first described as a new element) which can greatly enhance electrical conductivity. Komayd’s previous investigator, Sumitra Choudhry, has disappeared and a series of strange ritualistic murders is taking place in Voortyashtan’s hinterland. Examination of the crime scenes rouses Mulaghesh’s guilt at what she did on the Yellow March during Saypur’s war with the Continent.

Voortyashtan was formerly the Continent’s main port but most of the city has been destroyed, sliding into its waters in the event known as the Blink which ended the war. Voortyashtan’s harbour and river are now being cleared by a consortium of Dreyling, the people from the Northern Isles. This project is being managed by Signe Harkvaldsson. The suspicion nags that the Dreyling are only there so that Sigrud from the earlier novel can be dragged into the tale. Bennet has made an effort here to humanise Sigrud a little (Signe is his estranged daughter) but he’s still quite cartoonish; and, while we’re casting aspersions, Thinadeskite is a strangely Wellsian name for the mysterious ore.

Despite its suspicious nature, on close examination the Saypurians can find no trace in Thinadeskite of influence of the Divine who used to rule the Continent. This is as it should be, as all these old Gods are supposed to be dead, killed either in the war or the Battle of Bulikov which ended City of Stairs. Yet the spirit of the Continental Saint Zhurgut still somehow manages to manifest in a guard who handles the gift of a sword meant for Mulaghesh and cuts a swath through Saypuri soldiers and Voortyashtani citizenry alike before Mulaghesh can bring him down.

Mulaghesh’s investigations lead to a scene where the blood – why does it always have to be blood? – of killers (herself, Sigrud and, more surprisingly, Signe) is required to transport her to the Voortyashtani nether world and its City of Blades where she believes Choudhry has gone. There, she uncovers the mystery of Thinadeskite but is too late to prevent an army of the dead from which the ore derives its potency setting out to devastate Voortyashtan. Her trip does provide her the means with which to confront them though.

Mulaghesh has something of a rose-tinted view of the trade of soldiering as a noble enterprise whose standards she fell below during the Yellow March but still strives to uphold. General Biswal, her commander during that march and now in charge of security at Fort Thinadeshi, represents what is perhaps a more realistic tradition of single-minded self-righteousness.

Its treatment of such themes of personal responsibility and the importance of relationships makes City of Blades very readable stuff.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- to not say so (not to say so. Please?) Secret (Bennett meant secrete,) “none of them produce anything” (none produces anything; repeat instances of “none” with a plural verb,) “the figure’s head….. [is] oddly swollen as if their skull is far too large” (only one figure, therefore its, not their, skull. Bennett repeats this use of plural possessive pronouns relating to singular nouns several times,) routing (routeing,) Olvos’ (Olvos’s,) off of (just off, no “of” necessary, multiple instances,) Mulaghesh’js (Mulaghesh’s,) a gazing pool (is a usage I had not come across before; it seems to mean a pool which reflects light,) each of which resemble (each resembles,) “the surface of the waters are dotted with shapes, long and thin and curiously shaped” (the surface is dotted [and shapes/shaped is clumsy],) “the ship is shook” (shaken,) putting the lives … in incredible risk (it’s usually “at incredible risk”,) “he lunges at her piling riposte upon riposte as she just barely manages to parry” (a riposte is a return thrust, not an attack; barely also appeared two lines above,) “the endless line toil up” (a line toils.)

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