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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber and other stories, King Penguin, 1983, 124 p.

The author had previously translated the fairy stories of Charles Perrault and clearly knew the byways of her subject. In this collection she gives us ten reworkings of fairy tales bringing to light the usually buried sexual admonitions embedded within them. All are written with an extreme literary sensibility, each verb is carefully chosen, each simile precise. This collection presents fantasy as high art.

The Bloody Chamber begins with the fretful wedding night train journey to his tidal island castle of a seventeen-year old ingenue just married to a much older man who has gone through three wives already, with the pair in adjoining compartments. Once home he conveys her to a mirror-lined bedchamber filled with lilies, that staining flower, and undresses her like a sacrifice. But the deed is not to be done just yet. “Anticipation is the greater part of pleasure, my little love.” Later, she quotes her husband’s favourite poet, “‘There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer.’” The next morning before leaving on a business trip he entrusts her with his keys – including one to a room she must not enter. This story implies that it is not just marriage but sex itself that is a bloody chamber.

The Courtship of Mr Lyon is a reworking of Beauty and the Beast as a kind of Sleeping Beauty in reverse.

The Tiger’s Bride also reimagines Beauty and the Beast. Beauty is lost to the Beast by her father in a game of cards and at first refuses the Beast’s single request of her, but in the end she strikes a different bargain.

Puss-in-Boots is narrated by the eponymous cat, all-seeing, all-knowing, conniving to ensure his impecunious and lustful master secures the love of his life, the beautiful, young, but closely cloistered, wife of an impotent grasper, fleetingly glimpsed one day as she goes to Mass. In its telling it has a central European quality to it, as befits the darker folk tale.

The Erl-King by contrast has an English feel with its evocations of woodland flora and fauna although it does contain an embedded reference to Little Red Riding Hood. It reads as a warning against the immolating snares of sexual attraction – until its dénouement.

The Snow Child is barely a page long. Out riding with his wife a Count meets the girl of his dreams, skin white as snow, mouth red as blood, hair black as ravens’ feathers. Responding to the Countess’s requests made in order to be rid of her, the girl picks a rose, is pricked and dies. Pricked again by the Count, she melts away, leaving only a bloodstain and the rose, to prick again.

The Lady of the House of Love is Nosferatu’s daughter, the last in a long line of vampires, dressed, like Miss Havisham, in a bridal gown, laying out her Tarot cards in her decaying château in a deserted Transylvanian village. An innocent young Englishman travelling on a bicycle causes her usual ritual to misfire. Early allusions to The Sleeping Beauty are deliberately misleading.

The Werewolf begins, “It is a northern country; they have cold weather, they have cold hearts.” In climes like these the supernatural is taken for granted – and easily found in untimely ripened cheeses, a friendly cat, or the marks on an old woman’s skin. The tale that follows can be read as one of a granddaughter discovering her grandmother has been a werewolf all her life or else that Little Red Riding Hood was a conniving little minx scheming to come into her inheritance much earlier than she should.

The more blatant reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, the award winning The Company of Wolves, contains the information, “Before he can become a wolf, the lycanthrope strips stark naked. If you spy a naked man among the pines, you must run as if the Devil were after you.” That second sentence is good advice at any time. As to the wolf, “Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.”

Wolf-Alice was abandoned by her mother in the woods as a new-born and suckled by wolves. When she is finally discovered by humans she is feral and, the nuns who first looked after her despairing of the task of civilising her, she is handed over to the care of the local Duke, himself a nocturnal cannibal who scavenges the local graveyards.

Pedant’s corner:- sunk (sank,) Missus’ (x 2, Missus’s, annoyingly rendered as such in a later instance, so no excuse,) rhuematicks (may have been a deliberate ‘olde worlde’ spelling but; rheumatics,) “none of her features exhibit any of those touching imperfections” (none .. exhibits,) a missing full stop. “Give me two spheres and a straight line and I will show you how far I can take them.” (This was said of a bicycle. Very rarely do these have two spheres. Two circles at a pinch, but more likely two thin cylinders as the wheels do have a measurable cross-section,) “gestured him to begone” (to be gone,) “night and the forest has come into the kitchen” (is either missing a comma after ‘night’ or else requires the plural verb form ‘have’.) “This dazzling, she combed out her hair with her fingers” (needs some sort of expansion.)

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor, 2018, 228 p.

When a first person narrator (here the titular Binti) dies halfway through the text it presents something of a problem for the author. How do you carry on? How can the story not finish then and there? Okorafor’s solution here is to switch to third person – at least till the end of the chapter, when Binti comes alive again, (with a bit of authorial hand-waving. Microbes, she is told by her alien companion Okwu, “blended with your genes and repaired you,” in a breathing chamber in a young spaceship called New Fish.) I would submit that this aspect of the book (though there are others too) makes it more of a Fantasy than Science Fiction. Or is that just me being purist? Still, it makes for an interesting read.

Once more (see here for my previous experience of this scenario) her ever dwindling supply of the skin-covering paste called otjize is a constant source of concern for Binti, without it she feels naked and again she makes extensive use of her edan. Her Meduse okuoko (blue tentacles on her head instead of hair) mark her out, though.

There is still a war going on between humans called the Khoush and the alien Meduse. Binti has moved on from Oomza Uni, the first of her Himba people to go there, the first to leave Earth. Now part Meduse, she has an affinity with and ability to use mathematics, calling up currents to “tree”. When stressed she repeats the word “five” to calm herself. She also has a connection to the Enyi Zinariya, twenty-foot-tall slender beings who seemed to be made of molten gold. Accompanied by Mwinyi, a zinariya, she is going back to her homeland to try to broker a peace between the Khoush and the Meduse. Her family produced astrolabes, devices which carry the full record of your entire life. Hers and her father’s were the best in the business. In times of crisis Himba turn inward. Her family did so (into the Root where they lived) when their village was threatened by the Khoush and their Root was burned so Binti thinks they are all dead.

In the run up to the peace meeting she sees once again The Night Masquerade, a spirit previously only appearing to males (but which we later find is not a spirit,) thereby confirming her unique status. During the negotiations something goes wrong (a minion on one side did not like the prospect and opened fire) and Binti gets shot. Her body is taken on board the New Fish and taken to the rings of Saturn about which she had had a premonition. She reflects, “It was so unlike Earth, where wars were fought over and because of differences and most couldn’t relate to anyone unless they were similar.”

It all makes sense in context and Binti is an engaging companion. It is also still refreshing to read SF from beyond the familiar Anglophile template.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” ~(or equivalent) count, 8. Otherwise; zinairya (elsewhere zinariya,) spit (spat,) sunk (several times; sank,) shrunk (shrank.) “Astrolabes were the only object that… (objects,) shined (several times; shone.) “None around me were beathing” (was breathing,) “the feel of the numbers … were such a relief” (the feel … was such a relief.) “I didn’t want to go with.” (I didn’t want to go with him,) accidently (accidentally,) a missing quote mark at the end of a piece of direct speech, “their skin and hair was nearly free of otjize” (were nearly free,) “presented the dress she’s sewn for” (the rest of the sentence was in past tense, ‘she’d sewn’,) “the Roots defenses” (Root’s, [defences],) “off of” (just ‘off’,) “as Mwinyi and Okwu moved went New Fish’s walkway” (I have no idea why that ‘went’ is there. The ‘moved’ is a bit iffy too,) “the far side of the doom” (dome,) two full stops at the end of one sentence.

The Rental Heart and other fairy tales by Kirsty Logan

Salt, 2014, 153 p.

Within this collection are twenty stories of varying length but none could be said to outstay their welcome. Logan’s inspiration here is clearly derived from fairy tales; but only one of them, the last, begins with “Once upon a time.” Apart from the usual admonitory accounts, some are celebratory and some have tints of magic realism. In general Logan’s writing here is more satisfactory and tighter than in her two novels The Gracekeepers and The Gloaming. Then again it ought to be. In a short story no word should be wasted.

The Rental Heart revolves around the renting of clockwork hearts easily returned to the rental place when they get broken, as hearts always do.
Underskirts has no fewer than ten narrators in its eleven pages each adding their own perspective to the tale of the local Lady who has a taste for young girls from the neighbourhood.
In A Skulk of Saints Lauren works as a medic “peering at the insides of people” in a hospital under the gaze of representations of saints, while in her personal life negotiating her relationship with heavily pregnant partner Hope.
The Last 3,600 Seconds is the stream of consciousness of a woman whose memories crowd in on her during the last ever 3,600 seconds of the universe.
The Broken West is the story of two unusually close brothers searching for their father through a series of dead-beat US towns.
Bibliophagy features a man struggling to conceal from his family his addiction to eating words, words which, like an alcoholic with booze, he hides in various locations.
Coin-Operated Boys are clockwork male escorts hired out from a shop called A Man for All Seasons. Set in Paris, the story has a fin-de-siècle feel.
Girl #18 is the latest to offer sympathy after our narrator’s sister has died.
In Una and Coll are not Friends the pair are put in a room separate from their peers to sit a maths test. Una is distracted by Coll’s tail. She herself has antlers.
In a water-drowned world The Gracekeeper tends to her charges, the Graces of the title, kept in cages. Logan expanded this tale into her first novel.
Sleeping Beauty is a taut tale of sexual assault; told backwards.
In Witch a young girl goes into the woods to spook her friend and meets BabaYaga.
Barely over a page long, All the Better to Eat You With is a kind of Little Red Riding Hood in reverse, a warning to look out for yourself.
The Man from the Circus rather literalises the metaphor of taking a leap into the unknown. A girl allows herself to be picked up by a man from the circus, a trapeze artist.
Feeding is set in the Australian outback where a couple have set up home, soon after they have lost an expected child. The woman spends her time obsessively in the garden but in the drought conditions nothing will grow.
Momma Grows a Diamond is written as one fragment each from the life of a girl at age ten, eleven, twelve and thirteen, as she becomes a woman. Her mother, who provides services for wounded soldiers, tries to turn her into a diamond so that she will not be broken by men.
Less than a page long, The Light Eater has a titular character who begins to consume light bulbs as a means to guide a lost lover back home.
Matryoshka riffs on Cinderella. Its narrator is the prince’s sister, who loves her servant Matryoshka, the one who sees to her whims day and night and sews her slippers for the great ball.
In Origami a woman whose partner works on the rigs assuages her loneliness by making a man out of folded paper.
Tiger Palace explicitly plays with the conventions of story telling as a (female) traveller works her way through the “impenetrable” forest to the Empress’s palace and finds there no crocodiles disguised as stepping stones for crossing the moat and no tigers inside the palace. Both characters refuse their allotted roles.

Pedant’s corner:- The title page reads “The Rental Heart and other stories” (The book cover has ‘The Rental Heart and other fairy tales’.) More than a few Usian usages. “Before the Resting party arrive” (arrives,) fit (fitted.)

Glister by John Burnside

Jonathan Cape, 2008, 263 p.

Begin with a warning. In a prefatory chapter, someone, who has passed through the Glister, is remembering the story of his life, again. In that story his name is Leonard and he remembers John the librarian saying to him, “When it comes to reliability, it’s not the narrator we should be worried about, it’s the author,” but Leonard himself tells us it’s not the author either; it’s the story that is unreliable.

Be that as it may, it is Leonard’s recollections which take up the bulk of the book. He grew up in a coastal town somewhat cut off from the rest of the world – outside influences do intrude, there is a Spar shop and references to television (curiously to Dr Kildare and Richard Chamberlain, which seems a bit out of time with the rest of the narrative) – a town once home to a chemical plant, whose contamination blights the lives of those who worked there, and perhaps even those who stray or rummage onto its former grounds or into the so-called poisoned wood, but people stay and put up with it all. (Not Leonard’s mum, though, who, unable to cope with her situation, pissed off when his father took ill leaving Leonard to take care of his dad.) But the town has a bigger problem. There have been disappearances of children, teenage boys, over the years, unexplained disappearances which cast a pall over everyday life.

Leonard lived in the Innertown, the most deprived and blighted area, distinguished from the Outertown where the big houses are. The Innertown has the same claustrophobic feel as the village in Burnside’s earlier novel The Devil’s Footprints and the hellish residue of the plant bears echoes of the Corby he described in Living Nowhere. Leonard’s story is given in the first person but other sections are written in the third and describe incidents to which he was not a witness. (These may still be him writing from an omniscient viewpoint, however; remember the unreliability of story.) They include Morrison, the local policeman, who seems to have got his position without in any way training for it, the local big man Bryan Smith (who levered Morrison into his job so as to have a hold over him,) Morrison’s alcoholic wife, Alice, recluse Andrew Rivers, and Leonard’s girlfriend, the precociously sexually adventurous Elspeth.

Morrison is conflicted by his knowledge of finding the dead body of the first boy to disappear, his enthralment to Bryan Smith (who got his henchman Jenner to deal with it) and his duty as a policeman. Towards the end he reflects that “the soul is wet and dark, a creature that takes up residence in the human body and feeds on it …. possessed of an unhuman joy that cares nothing for its host, but lives, as it must live, in perpetual, disfigured longing.” Alice senses her husband’s confusion but is mired in her own difficulties. Rivers has kept all the reminders of his dead father and is alert to the possibilities his behaviour has of being misunderstood. Elspeth is a spark of life but seems to be perpetually randy. The mysterious outsider Leonard calls the Moth Man, supposedly conducting a survey of the flying insect population of the contaminated area but also taking the opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of the disused chemical plant and possibly with a darker involvement in events, with a hint of the supernatural, flits in and out of Leonard’s story while occasionally providing him with brews of a strange tea. Of his non-exclusive, on both sides, relationship with Elspeth, Leonard muses that romance is for older people, not adolescents.

Despite the realistic depiction of Leonard’s encounters with John, Elspeth, the Moth Man and the members of the small teenage gang led by Elspeth’s ex-boyfriend Jimmy van Doren, there is an overhanging feel of Science Fiction or fantasy to proceedings. This prefigures the ending, the manifestation of the Glister, which, while possibly explaining the disappearances does not do so fully but is nonetheless satisfactory.

At one point Leonard tells us of “the sense I have of a story all disjointed and out of sequence.” The novel is not like this at all. Burnside writes supremely well. I wasn’t overly satisfied by the ending even though it is in accord with what preceded it, but in all other respects Glister is gold.

Pedant’s corner:- “maybe ony a few minutes” (maybe only a few,) cargos (this plural used to be spelled ‘cargoes’,) unimagin-able (not at a line break, unimaginable,) ditto “separ-ate” (separate.) “It has to with Leonard” (It has to do with Leonard.) None of the others see me go (sees me go,), Rivers’ (Rivers’s,) “when she come across” (comes across,) a missing start quotation mark.

The City We Became by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2020, 443 p. Published in Interzone 287, May-Jun 2020.

 The City We Became cover

The central conceit of the first book in Jemisin’s latest trilogy explains its otherwise odd-sounding title. Here cities can achieve some sort of critical mass by which they come alive and are personified by an individual. In the prologue we meet Paulo (Săo Paulo) come to aid the emergence of New York into sentience, but something goes wrong. This being New York, though, we have not one living embodiment but six; its five boroughs and the overall avatar, each the epitome of the area they personify. The book follows the five boroughs’ personas as they come to the realisation of their nature and seek each other out to help not only themselves but also the overall City, now underground and in a coma.

Manhattan’s instantiation is Manny, a new arrival whose awakening to his fresh nature involves him losing the memory of his previous identity. We then meet (Staten) Aislyn Houlihan, whose Irish parents did not pronounce her name in the Gaelic way and who physically cannot bring herself to visit the rest of New York. The former MC Free, Brooklyn Thomason, is now a mother and city councillor. Bronca, descendant of the original Lenape inhabitants of Long Island, runs the Bronx Art Centre, and maths whizz Padmini, of Asian extraction, is the avatar of Queens. On her confusion over her new status Padmini’s aunt invokes her background to tell her, “Real gods are people, who make love, have babies, fight, die. ‘It’s duty, it’s normal. Get over it.’”

If you were counting that’s four out of the six metropolitan areas are embodied by women. The narrative has sections focusing on all five boroughs, by intermittent turns, plus Interruptions describing Paulo’s endeavours before four of the avatars finally get together.

In Jemisin’s previous trilogy, the ground was literally not safe beneath her characters’ feet. Here it is not just the ground but also the air and especially the water in which weird things can happen. The first manifestation of this is when a tentacle rises out of the East River and smashes the Williamsburg Bridge. The ordinary folk of New York are aware only of the bridge’s destruction and some sort of obstruction preventing them from going about their business as usual.
Sentient cities traverse the layers of the parallel worlds. On emergence they punch through, killing other universes. If a city isn’t born, it dies, hard, (witness Pompeii, Tenochtitlán, Atlantis, Sodom and Gomorrah.) The enemy looming here is the city R’lyeh, an entity from the many parallel universes, out to kill new-born (newly-awoken really) Earth cities at birth. Manifesting as The Woman In White, she infests New York’s buildings and its ordinary citizens with white tendrils controlling their behaviour, putting obstacles into the boroughs’ way and sending large white columns shooting up into the sky.

Little vignettes of New York history are slipped into the narrative, from the original Dutch settlers (featuring an aside making this the only fantasy work I have read to give a name-check to Eddie Izzard) to Staten Island’s prickly relationship with its neighbouring boroughs, its almost orphan status, in contrast to Jersey City’s longings. It also manages to include three mathematical equations and remarks on the distinctiveness of Guastavino tiles.

Though incidental to the book as a whole, where in The Broken Earth Jemisin approached the subject of prejudice in a more-or less oblique way the use of an all-but contemporary setting here allows her to tackle it head-on, especially in the form of Aislyn’s everybody-but-him-is-wrong policeman father, attitudes which bleed over into Aislyn herself. At one point she ascribes a Canadian as “driven mad by the cold and socialised medicine,” at another, “terrorists are bearded Arab men who mutter in guttural languages and want to rape virgins.” An appearance by Alt-right ‘artists’ at Bronca’s work insisting on their right to have their art displayed and that any refusal to do so can only be evidence of reverse prejudice is a comment on our times.

Using five aspects of one whole might be seen as an attempt by Jemisin to repeat the bravura narrative of The Fifth Season, where three different viewpoints turned out to be the same person, but The City We Became feels more conventional, with its down-to-Earth, often demotic, dialogue and prose, but no less worth reading.

Roaming as it does over almost all of New York those unfamiliar with its geography might be grateful for the map which precedes the prologue here.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “None of the people around him react” (none … reacts,) antennas (antennae,) “lay of the land,” (lie of the land.) “‘Are you actually insane.’” (ought to have a question mark after insane, not a full stop,) dredlocs (is this how USians spell dreadlocks?) “None of them are talking to each other.” (none of them is talking to..,) “None of them face each other” (None of them faces each other,) several more examples of ‘none’ with an unwarranted plural verb, ambiance (ambience,) no opening quotation mark when a chapter begins with dialogue.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Picador, 2017, 215 p, including 12 p Afterword and 22 p Notes.

 The Last Days of New Paris cover

This is an (almost) indescribable novella+. A tricky, tricksy story whose unfolding makes all but impossible demands upon the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Sometime in 1941 an S-Blast occurred in France. From then on surrealist visions (here called manifs – manifestations; but one of the Notes hints it may perhaps derive from manifest quiddity) stalk Paris’s streets. The even numbered of the novella’s nine chapters are set in the run-up to the blast, as a man called Jack Parsons seeks to invoke the imagination of the surrealists to help defeat the Third Reich, the others in 1950, where part of Paris is still occupied and a Surrealist group known as Main à plume is fighting against both the manifs and the Germans (who are seeking to manufacture manifs of their own.)

The viewpoint character in the 1950 sections is a man named Thibaut who, as well as running the gauntlet of the manifs and German troops, encounters a female US journalist named Sam and her unusual camera. Sam is claiming to be researching for a book but has other reasons for coming to Paris.

As an altered history (of sorts – perhaps this really ought to be called a distorted history -) Miéville has the usual fun with name-dropping an author enjoys in this type of novel. As well as various surrealists mentions are given to Aleister Crowley and Josef Mengele.

There is a problem with this sort of “six impossible things before breakfast” tale, however. While some people like to be taken out of themselves, frightened with the bogey man or “the horror,” breaking the illusion of normality is a dangerous tactic for an author. If what we read about goes against all our knowledge of how the world works how can we trust it? How does the author ensure the rest of what is shown to us connects? How is it relevant to our lives in the mundane world?

Even given that potentially insuperable drawback this story itself can be argued to fail in the way internet arguments are said to – by invoking the personality – or lack thereof – of the most famous failed artist in history. It also includes a critique of the blank, pallid nature of his artworks.

Adding to the sense of unreality is the story’s Afterword where the author relates how he came to write it, invited to a meeting with an old man who he says gave him the tale all but verbatim but without allowing any documenting of its contents, written or recorded. This man, we are to suppose, is the Thibaut we have been reading about. Paradoxically this has the effect of making what preceded it even more unbelievable.

Nevertheless Miéville’s skill as a writer is self evident but the most interesting part of the book was the list in the Notes of all the surrealist works which Miéville referenced in the novella’s text. He is clearly steeped in the subject.

Pedant’s corner:- Irritatingly for a book published in the UK there are USian spellings and usages throughout – presumably due to its prior US appearance. I know there would be financial costs involved but surely they cannot be so large as to obviate the small translations necessary? Meters (metres,) “grit their teeth” (gritted,) “had hid” (hidden,) refit (refitted.) “A congregation of Seine sharks thrash up dirty froth” (a congregation … thrashes,) “was stood there” (was standing there,) “in if any subtle ways” (‘if in any subtle ways’ makes more sense,) “are now a crowd” (is now a crowd,) accordian (accordion,) “hemming and hawing” (humming and hawing,) “evanescent schmutz” this referred to images produced from candle smoke so surely ‘evanescent smuts’.)

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Head of Zeus, 2020, 510 p.

Why would an Israeli author better known for exploring Middle-Eastern or Jewish themes and concerns and the byways of Altered History turn his attention to the (so-called) matter of Britain? For that is what Tidhar has done in By Force Alone, a retelling of the story of King Arthur from a novel angle – what would it really have been like to contest for kingship in a bygone age, to gain, hold and wield power by force alone? I suppose the tale is well enough known, though, and, as Tidhar’s Afterword shows, it has always been fair game for reploughing and reinterpreting.

Here we have all the familiar names of Camelot and the knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Morgause, Galahad, Mordred etc, but seen in a downcast light. Forget any notion of parfit, gentil knyghts (especially as that was a phrase which Chaucer no doubt devised cunningly.) The characters here are earthy, human, venal, demotic in speech, prone to all the vices known to man and few of the virtues, their surroundings mostly squalid, their motivations base.

By Force Alone is told in an urgent present tense, its background is England before it was England, in the Dark Age aftermath of the Roman withdrawal. A “wild country, a host of warring tribes who scrabble for scraps in the ruin of civilisation,” with a new religion, Christianity, on the ascendant. Most of the characters are Brythonic Celts but offstage sundry Angles, Saxons and Jutes are making inroads into the territory of southern Britain, mainly by peaceful settlement but bringing their harsh, guttural Anglisc tongue with them.

Arthur is engendered in the usual way, Uther Pendragon disguising himself with Merlin’s help to resemble the lady Igraine’s husband and so impregnate her, but the resulting child is whipped off by Merlin to a foster home in Londinium, where, growing up, he learns the dark arts of street fighting and survival. Joseph of Arimathea features as the trainer of Lancelot in martial arts and his inductor into membership of the Inner Circle of the Venerated Secret Brotherhood of the Seekers of the Grail. Joseph’s conviction that the Grail was to be found in Britain brings Lancelot somewhat reluctantly to its shores.

In what in retrospect is an odd interpolation Tidhar brings in elements of SF with the appearance of a falling star – which can be read as a descending spaceship or, more prosaically, Halley’s Comet, but its later reascent militates against that – and the growing up round its landing/crash site of the Zone, where strange things happen, odd creatures appear, food rots instantly or stays unaccountably preserved and where those who frequent it tell newcomers, “Don’t touch anything.” Merlin spends his time thinking about this apparition and Lancelot conceives it as the location of the grail. In this context that streak of light in the sky might be considered as an avatar of the Star of Bethlehem.

We all know how things will end but finding out what happens is not the driving force for the reader to continue. This tale of Arthur may be, as the text has it, “just a sad, simple tale of violence and greed,” but it is the telling of it that matters, the slants it takes – Guinevere as a sort of bandit, a leader of Amazons up for a scrap as much as anyone else in this, Arthur as almost feckless – and uncaring that he is cuckolded by Lancelot – Galahad an administrator supreme.

The text is replete with allusion and quotation, including Kurt Vonnegut’s recognition of the inevitability and ubiquity of death (three words not unfamiliar to readers of this blog) and even a riff on the “choose” rant from Trainspotting, not to mention a scene depicting musings on an Antikythera mechanism. Some readers may find this sort of thing distracting but others that it adds to the flavour, a reminder that this is a commentary on its sources as well as a skewed recapitulation. Repetition too is an ingredient, especially of the three words of the title which describe the way in which Kings in these circumstances win and keep their crowns.

Merlin’s thoughts perhaps at times speak to Brexit, “A shared identity, Merlin thinks. A story to unify all these warring tales, so that Britons now and in centuries to come could tell each other that they share a thing. That they are one. And to be one, as Arthur understands implicitly, you must be defined against an other,” and his reflection that “this island’s just a piece of Europe with the landbridge submerged,” and, “It doesn’t really matter, this matter of Britain. Just another way to pass the time.” Later Sir Pellinore muses, “And who’s to say whose land this is, really? Land’s just land.” (Which may – or may not – be a reflection by Tidhar on his Israeli background.)

It is the characters that make By Force Alone. The humans feel like flesh and blood people. The wizard (who doesn’t himself believe in magic) or the fae folk are all as they are in fantasy tales, instruments of darkness to tell us truths, to betray their victims in deepest consequence. (That allusiveness can be catching.) Warnings, all.

The novel is a vigorous, vibrant retelling of “the glorious age of Camelot” rendered more powerful by focusing on the individuals rather than the appurtenances or overall architecture of the tale. In a curious way this demystification of the myth almost makes it more memorable.

Pedant’s corner:- “fifteen hundred heads of cattle” (usually ‘head of cattle’,) “moat pleasantly” twice within the space of a line, and “most pleasant” another line later, Nennius’ (Nennius’s – all of the names here which end with the letter ‘s’ are given possessives with s’ rather than s’s,) “ he lays back, sated” (lies back,) mithraeums (the Latin plural would be mithraea,) ass (in a narrative like this, set where it is, that just seems so wrong. The correct word is arse,) Morgana (is used once for Morgan, but it was Merlin thinking it and will have been an allusion,) “a money changers’” (a money changer’s.) “And he resents her that” (for that?) “…. Kay says Shrugs” (should have a full stop after ‘says’,) “off of” (off, just ‘off’s no ‘of’ required,) fit (fitted.) “It gauges out eyes” (gouges out, surely/) “he flies across a darkening skies” (omit ‘a’ or have a singular sky,) “‘The Angles and the Saxons’ growing influence’” should have apostrophe for Angles as well as Saxons.) “Previous stones. Coin” (Precious stones, I think.) “They are a tribal peoples” (either, ‘They are a tribal people,’ or ‘They are tribal peoples,’ the latter preferably, given that ‘they’.) The army of mutatio scatter” (scatters.) “Lancelot expands little energy” (expends.) “Lancelot is shook” (shaken.) “‘That’s none really of your business’” (has odd syntax – ‘that’s really none of your business’ is more usual,) “The trees don’t sway unless the king commands” (this was in Orkney, traditionally thought to have no trees. When I was there I saw none worth the name,) parlay (parley,) sat (sitting, or, seated,) the town of Wormwood has a sign saying Pop 971 853 (so populated? In the Dark Ages?) epicentre (centre,) “and the water turn to dull reflection” (turns,) “nought but an illusion” (naught.) “A veritable rain of arrows flies down from the enemy’s archers then and hit him” (‘rain … flies down’, therefore should be followed by ‘hits him’,) snuck (sneaked.) In the Afterword; Tidhar says Britain was unified once more by the end of the Wars of the Roses. (It wasn’t. England – with Wales – might have been; but Scotland was politically separate till much later,) ditto “the Norman conquest of Britain” (the Normans conquered only England – until within 200 years the Plantagenet Edward I had also subdued Wales – though their influence spread into Scotland with dynastic marriages and the like.)

The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

riverrun, 2019, 409 p.

This book is an odd mixture of three types of narrative, the first person memoir of Andrew Garvie, a man of small stature (four feet nine inches,) inevitably nicknamed the Dwarf at school, and who has been fascinated by dolls since he was a boy before going on to manage to make a living producing bespoke dolls, interspersed with letters to him from Bramber Winters, an inhabitant of an asylum in the West Country, and five short stories, The Duchess, Amber Furness,The Elephant Girl, Happenstance and The Upstairs Window, as written by one Ewa Chaplin (and supposedly translated from the Polish by Erwin Blacher 2008, as the text notes after each one’s title.) Chaplin, another doll maker, had had to flee Poland for England just before the Nazis took over.

Despite Andrew not being a true achondroplasic – his narrative informs us there are many varieties of dwarfism – he suffers frequent comments on his size and appearance and there are other references to the famous seven dwarfs. His affinity with Bramber comes after he answers an advertisement she placed in a magazine named Ponchinella asking for information on Chaplin’s life and work.

The book veers at times into fantasy but only occasionally. One of the short stories mentions the fae folk and Andrew steals from a museum a doll, ‘The Artist,’ which is able to talk to him – but may of course only be voicing his inner thoughts.

Allan’s writing, whether as Garvie, Winters or ‘Chaplin,’ is superb. It flows, builds up a picture of Garvie and Winters, lays out their lives and, as Chaplin, the characters in ‘her’ stories deftly and economically. Those stories parallel and counterpoint the experiences of Garvie and Winters and most of them either feature or mention a dwarf or someone with a physical deformity – but they do tend to interrupt the flow of Andrew and Bramber’s relationship and require the reader to reset every time they appear. If you were harsh you could say that Allan has found a way to recycle her short stories into a larger whole, fixing them up into a novel. The overall impression though is that this has been extremely well thought out and executed.

My previous reading of Allan had been that there was something skightly askew about her writing, an oddness. The first ‘Chaplin’ story here crystallised that. It was almost as if in her previous books I were reading a translation and something in the background wasn’t coming through. Some of that oddness is apparent in the ‘Chaplin’ stories – but they are supposed to be translations which is why I made the connection. In the Andrew and Bramber sections here though everything is transparent and lucid.

Allan is a talent, of that there is no doubt. Here, her strengths show up in that lucidity.

Pedant’s corner:- “were stood at the bar” (standing,) “a team of detectives were tgrashing” (a team .. was trashing,) sprung (sprang,) vanishment (awkward sounding word. It’s in the dictionary but ‘disappearance’ would do just as well,) stumm (schtum.) “He decision to stay on” (Her decision,) “a ragged reddish-brown ellipsis” (ellipse – Allan seemed to be referring to a shape, not to a truncation, or if so it could only be interpreted that way at a severe push,) “the post office stores” (eight words later referred to as ‘it’, hence, ‘store’,) “the Church of St Ninian’s” (the possessive is already included in ‘Ninian’s’, hence either ‘St Nininan’s Church’, or ‘the Church of St Ninian’,) Andrew buys a return ticket from Bodmin to Tarquin’s Cross but then at the start of the return journey (surely unnecessarily) buys another ticket to Bodmin, “‘the Penzance train normally arrives on to Platform 3’” (trains arrive ‘at’ platforms, not on to them.)

Radiant State by Peter Higgins

Gollancz, 2015, 286 p.

“For centuries the Vlast had wiped histories away. The stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen created unpersons out of lives and made ruined former people the unseen, unheard haunters of their own streets.”

Higgins’s Russian inspired Wolfhound Century trilogy (I have previously reviewed the first and second instalments) is a commentary of sorts on the relatively recent history of that country. While adopting a mad whirlwind of a story arc of its own, a mix of realism and fantasy, it also has roots in Russian myth and folklore. The sentences quoted above could be a complete description of the setting if the fantasy elements were ignored but they are integral to Higgins’s vision. The three books are also unmistakably about Russia itself even if Higgins is writing about a Russia that never actually existed.

In the first part of Radiant State the Vlast Universal Vessel Proof of Concept is about to blast off for space. Literally – it is propelled by the detonation of atomic bombs beneath its pusher plate – though the actual propellant is the bombs’ casings of angel flesh pulverised to plasma by the explosions. The poor human occupants of Proof of Concept are however destined never to return to Earth. The ship, as its name suggests, is a prototype for a project to hurl the Vlast to the stars and domination of other planets.

Characters familiar from the previous two books reappear, Visarrion Lom, Maroussia Shauman, Elena Cornelius, Eligiya Kalimova. Josef Kantor – in the guise of Osip Rhizin which he had adopted in the previous book, Truth and Fear, where he saved the Vlast from defeat at the hands of its traditional foe The Archipelago – is now head of state, overseer of a vast apparatus of repression and control. “Rhizin had tens of thousands of security officers but trusted none of them because he knew what kind of thing they were and knew they must themselves be watched and kept in fear.” In the sidelines, lurking under a mountain, is the remnant of the supernatural creature Archangel, waiting to be loosed from its bonds. The main thrust of the plot, though, is Lom’s search for proof that Rhizin is Kantor and of the nature of the acts which brought him to power and keep him there.

If I found the fantastic portions overdone (I nearly always do) they are very well written, sometimes even understated, which is all to their good. In the realistic scenes Higgins is utterly convincing. His writing, while not straightforward, is almost without flaw. This is surely how it is to live in a totalitarian society. Even minor characters read as if they are real people, in all their complicity.

My only reservation is about how relatively easy it is in the end for Rhizin to be overthrown. But then again Lom has what is in effect supernatural help. Notwithstanding that, it is refreshing to find Rhizin’s removal from power taking place with no violence involved.

This trilogy just got better and better as it went on – not a usual comment on the form.

At one point Higgins uses the impeccably Scottish word smirr, at which I rejoiced, but it was in the phrase “smirrs of mist.” Technically smirr isn’t actually mist, its droplets are too large. Instead it is an extremely light, but persistent, rain; lighter than drizzle, but much more penetrating.

Pedant’s corner:- “memorising layouts and procedures she already knows by heart” (if she already knows them by heart she has already memorised them. I think Higgins meant she was reinforcing her knowledge.) “More than one of them wants to see failure today” (‘more than one’ is plural, hence, want to see.) “‘And always we have always driven them out’” (has one ‘always’ too many,) a missing full stop, Cornelius’ (Cornelius’s,) sunk (sank,) “come here very morning” (every morning,) pantoufflard (pantouflard?)

Winterwood and other hauntings by Keith Roberts

Morrigan Publications, 1989, 188 p, including 6 p Introduction by Robert Holdstock, plus illustrations by the author.

Roberts was one of the best prose stylists ever to write SF in Britain. His scope was not restricted by the genre though. One of his best novels, The Boat of Fate, was historical, set in Roman Britain and his stories of Kaeti (on Tour) plus Kaeti (and Company) and Gráinne used more contemporary surroundings. I reviewed his Irish Encounters written about his experiences while researching Gráinne here.

As the appendage to the title suggests the contents of this book are essentially ghost stories. To each Roberts has given us an introduction which describes how and perhaps why it came to be written. All the stories are invested with Roberts’s precise manner of story-telling. Some exude a Victorian/Edwardian sensibility. Taken as a whole, though, he has a tendency to employ a throat clearing scene before we get to the meat of the story or else to utilise a framing device.

In Susan, Roberts conjures up the atmosphere and look of an old-fashioned school Chemistry lab with eerie precision. The titular Susan is a self-contained and assured fifteen year-old schoolgirl with a strange air about her who has an after school conversation with a teacher on the brink of retirement, an encounter with a disturbed man on her way home and a mother who senses she is unknowable. At the end the reader doesn’t know much more about her either but it doesn’t matter, the story works as what it is.

Roberts’s Introduction to The Scarlet Lady contains the surprising information that Kyril Bonfiglioli wrote its last few lines and also suggested the ending to Roberts’s celebrated Altered History novel Pavane. The Scarlet Lady is a car – a between the wars one, with a face like a grinning skull, bought by the narrator’s brother. She turns out to be a heap of trouble; with a side order of malevolence.

The Eastern Windows is set at a party whose attendees have all experienced a close shave on their journey to the venue. The story is largely made up of snippets of overheard conversation as it roams between guests. Gradually the same voices and phrases begin to repeat. Eventually a woman called Eileen says, “‘Sometimes I think Hell must be like a party. A big room full of people you don’t know and you have to talk to them for ever.’” A short while later the man she is speaking to counters, “‘I don’t quite agree with your conception of Hell. I think it would be worse if you were stuck in a room forever with people you knew too well.’”

Winterwood is a variation on the haunted house story, though it is the narrator who ends the more haunted.

Mrs Cibber is in a similar vein, dealing with the obsession of a man with a painting of an eighteenth-century actress called Mrs Cibber which he sees hanging in a London pub. It is more about how it affected him and his life story, though. The detail is utterly convincing.

In The Snake Princess a shy boy on holiday is attracted by the NUDE PRINCESSS WRESTLES WITH LIVING SNAKES sign at a fairground and visits the exhibit. The “princess” is not naked and the snake is merely draped over her. The next day on the beach she – all that his mother would disapprove in the one package – befriends him and encourages him to become what he wishes for. This being a Roberts story (and one of the hauntings of the book’s subtitle) things are not quite as straightforward as that.

Everything in the Garden is in the form of what she refuses to call diary entries (and strictly no dates) by a woman named Diane who has it all – husband, big house in the country – but not everything in her garden is rosy; in particular the big tree. A coda in italics somewhat counterpoints the thrust of her tale by questioning the details of her life.

Reading Roberts never disappoints.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Introduction – smokey (smoky.) Otherwise; “‘to seek counsel of a fifteen year pupil is an act that I consider gross, and that I can only describe old as an obscene privilege’” has that ‘old’ misplaced, the illustration of the Scarlet Lady, while beautifully done does not resemble the description in the story, maw (it’s a styomacn, not a mouth,) “that never will lay flat” (lie flat,) “‘I wouldn’t have missed it for world’” (for the world,) “I wish I cound forget his hame” (‘his name’ makes more sense,) miniscule (minuscule,) celi (ceilidh?) “as soon as I reasonably dare” (dared,) Ingres’ (Ingres’s,) Candales (Candale’s,) “a paint wholesalers” (wholesaler’s,) “a greengrocers” (greengrocer’s,) “a tobacconists” (tobacconist’s,) the grocers (grocer’s,) whiskys (whiskies,) “at the doctors” (the doctor’s.)

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