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Saltflower by Sydney J van Scyoc

Avon, 1971, 174 p.

In the prologue three alien space ships appear over the Puget Sound in 1979 (eight years in the future when the novel was written) then make their way to the Great Salt Desert in Utah where one of them deposits something into the salt, but later investigations fail to reveal anything. Twenty-five years on Marley Greer finds a crystal on the salt bed and lifts it up. It melts in her palm to leave a tiny black seed, which she feels compelled to swallow. That night she tells her husband she is pregnant.

The body of the story unfolds over fourteen days in 2024 when protagonist Hadley Greer (daughter of Marley) undertakes a trip to the Salt Lake Desert where there is a settlement known as New Purification, inhabited by adherents of a cult which effectively worships the aliens. It is led by a Dr Braith (who perhaps surprisingly isn’t the usual money-grasping, sexual predator such leaders commonly are.) In New Purification everyday life is made easier by robotic assistants known as mechs. Over the years of the settlement over twenty people have disappeared in the desert. Braith maintains they have been taken up by the aliens.

Hadley is silver-eyed and has metallic hair which often moves of its own volition. Later we find she is prone to salt hunger. Braith’s associate Jacob has similar attributes to Hadley. Her companion, Richard Brecker, turns out to be a minder, employed by the State Investigation Bureau to keep tabs on her. (His organisation’s initials allow Scyoc to allot them the neat nickname, SIBlings,) Through him she finds there have been other trans-species children but only those close to salty deserts survived.

Unknown to Brecker, Hadley takes trips into the desert at night. There she finds she can see and travel through a strange city, that of the aliens, whose civilisation was dying and so they sought to seed other Earths. In an incidental conversation Brecker and Hadley appear to express themselves as in favour of a return to a system whereby people are imprisoned if they are deemed psychologically capable of a crime rather than actually having committed one. This is an oddly illiberal notion which does not really fill out the background.

The discovery of two murdered bodies in the desert precipitates the novel’s crisis. Brecker finesses the situation by blaming the deaths on rogue mechs but it is Jacob rather than Hadley who is involved with the resolution.

SF is full of linguistic coinages, some more mellifluous than others. Scyoc overdoes the tendency here, where people do not undergo air travel in aeroplanes, they dart in machines called avidarts. Among others we also have a transceiving device named a communipact, food dispensers called autocafs, and the word mecheries where ‘factories’ would be perfectly sensible. But it was her first novel. We can forgive a certain exuberance.

Pedant’s corner:- “the street – and the city itself – were deserted” (those dashes remove what’s inside them from the surrounding phrase so make the verb singular. Either they should be removed themselves or it should be ‘the city was deserted’.) “Besides each work stood a slender pole.” (Beside each work,) nonplussed (nonplussed,) metallicly (metallically.)

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Penguin Modern Classics, 2001, 255 p, plus xi p Introduction by Andrew O’Hagan. First published 1954.

This is the acclaimed US author Baldwin’s first novel, a laying out of the black experience in the US in the early to mid-twentieth century. It is told in three parts, The Seventh Day, The Prayers of the Saints, and The Threshing Floor; the first and last of which relate to the life of John Grimes, stepson of Gabriel, who attends the Temple of the Fire Baptised, where his stepfather is head deacon – not the biggest nor the smallest church in Harlem, “but John had been brought up to believe it the holiest and the best.” The Saints referred to above are the three of the church’s congregation closest to John; his stepfather’s sister Florence, his mother Elizabeth and Gabriel himself: the Prayers outline their life stories. At the same time as being rooted in the conditions and culture of blacks in the US Go Tell it on the Mountain is also an examination of a kind of claustrophobic family dynamic which may well be of a wider commonality but for novelistic purposes must be rooted in the particular.

As the book’s title would suggest, the text is saturated with religious references and demonstrations of that over-the-top type of ceremonial – all hell-fire, ‘Praise the Lord’ and ‘Hallelujah’! – which is sometimes referred to as charismatic but to which that word surely does not fit at all well. While superficially allowing adherents to give vent to their passions such observances are also, like those families, claustrophobic and restricted – and intended to be so. Straying from the path is neither encouraged nor condoned. Indeed, it is to be condemned.

Gabriel is on his second marriage, his first was contracted in the South when he was a firebrand preacher, a calling he took up despite his leanings towards the pleasures of the flesh, perhaps to counteract their allure. But his wife died and he moved north, where his first son, by another woman, had also led a dissolute life before ending up being stabbed.

Gabriel treats his children with a harsh hand. It is not too stark to say cruel. Add the charge of hypocrisy to his list, then. Or is that stern forbidding attitude to the sins (even potential sins) of others more a manifestation of fear? Fear that others may be exactly like you, as tempted as you, as flawed as you? (In the religious zealot’s worldview, as sinful as you?)

He once told John that, “all white people were wicked, and that God was going to bring them low. They were never to be trusted, they told nothing but lies and none of them had ever loved a nigger.”

That last word encapsulates its times better than any other – as well as highlighting the enduring legacy of slavery and racism, the internalisation of bigotry, the lack of feeling of worth engendered by being treated, over generations, as worthless, or less than worthless.

The consolations of religion no doubt helped. In the travails of everyday existence the promise of a better life after death must have appeared compelling. Yet there is a bitter irony here. Such a religion may be attractive to the underdog but it serves to keep those underdogs – those slaves – in their place. In its early days Christianity was derided as a slave religion, beneath the dignity of the Roman citizen. In more recent times there may have been a benign missionary motive for inculcating it in the minds of people whose bodies were held as property. But it also functioned as an instrument of control. In that sense it is curious how much so-called fundamentalists concentrate on their god’s vengeful aspects (in the Christian context an Old Testament idea whose prominence is probably due to the influence of Paul of Tarsus on the religion’s early development – there is an argument that the religion ought really to be called Paulinity – but not an intrinsic part of Jesus Christ’s teachings.) Such people rarely mention peace, love and understanding.

It is left to Florence’s Prayer to voice another indictment, “All women had been cursed from the cradle; all, in one fashion or another, being given the same cruel destiny, born to suffer the weight of men.” If life for black men was tough how much more unfair must it have been for black women?

Aside: I assume the plates used for this edition were from the book’s earliest UK printings. Those were the days when British publishers rendered USian text into British English. Huzzah!

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “and the pulse of remembering and the ache of old news, makes for the beat of his early writing” (that second ‘and’ renders the subject of the verb plural; hence ‘make for the beat’,) an omitted comma before a piece of direct speech. Otherwise: “and a mighty work he begun throughout the city” (a mighty work be begun.) “‘She’d of dragged me down with her’” (probably a true reflection of the mode of speech portrayed but that ‘of’ always leaps out at me.)

Hawkfall by George MacKay Brown

Triad Granada, 1983, 253 p.

This a collection of stories all set in the author’s homelands of Orkney. Each is a beautifully rendered snapshot of life in those Northern islands

The title story, Hawkfall, is told in five parts, illustrating the history of Orkney in stages, showing aspects of life – and death – there from ancient times through those of the Vikings, the brutal, rapacious Earl of Birsay, the Napoleonic Wars and the early twentieth century.

The Fires of Christmas relates two historical violent confrontations in the Great Hall of Ophrir, which occurred eighty nine years apart.

The subtitle of Tithonus, Fragments from the diary of a Laird, outlines its structure. The Laird in question had inherited the Hall (a big house) on Torsay from his great uncle, along with two hundred pounds a year. By the end of the story, among many other changes, that sum is exiguous and the Hall is falling apart. It is his interactions with the locals that have most attention, particularly those with the schoolmaster, the Minister, the local gossip and Thora Garth, the only child of Armingert and Maurice, arriving after twenty-one years of marriage, who later causes a scandal by jilting her fiancé and shacking up with a ferryman. The tale has a neat twist at the end.

The Fight at Greenay occurred after the men of Harray, on their way to the sea to harvest seaweed to use as manure, had been insulted by the men of Birsay, reluctant to let strangers across their lands, in the halfway inn where the Harraymen had stopped for refreshment.

The Cinquefoil is told in five parts (Unpopular Fisherman, The Minister and the Girl, A Friday of Rain, Seed, Dust, Star and Writings,) in which are laid out the various relationships over time of the narrators of each and their acquaintances/friends/lovers. As a result it encapsulates the closeness and complexity of island life as a microcosm of life in general.

The Burning Harp is described as a story for the eightieth birthday of Neil Gunn. In 1135 a cottage is set on fire by intruders, who decide to let out, in turn, children and servants, a priest and finally a poet whose singing they heard and recognise as that of Niall of Dunbeath. (His songs mirror those of Gunn’s stories.)

To anyone familiar with Scottish folklore Sealskin’s title tells the reader more or less all. It is impeccably told though. A man finds a sealskin on the beach and stores it in his barn. A day or so later encounters a naked woman swimming by the shore. She has no knowledge of the language and he takes her in; to the great ire of his mother. Marriage and children ensue. Years later he discovers the skin again and the inevitable happens. An afterword mentions the tale was inspired by a famed Orkney musician, Magnus Olafson.

The Girl spends an afternoon lazing on the sea-bank almost in earshot of a group of men gossiping while repairing fishing nets and such, till she hears the approaching sound of a motor-bike.

In The Drowned Rose, William Reynolds, the new schoolmaster on Quoylay, is visited on his first night on the island by a young woman in a red dress, looking for a man named John. Reynolds befriends the local minister, Donald Barr, who refuses to elaborate on the woman’s history. She had been the previous schoolmistress, Sarah McKillop, well remembered by her pupils, and it is only a spiteful neighbour called Henrickson who reveals her tragic end, taking great relish in describing what he regards as the scandalous goings on which preceded it and why the islander shad resolved on a male as her successor.

The Tarn and the Rosary shows episodes in the life of Colm, a writer, from his grandfather’s death, through his first trip to the small Loch Tumishun in the centre of the island of Norday, the burgeoning of his confidence and aspirations when his first composition is praised by his teacher, his overhearing a group of men bemoaning the superstitions of Catholics, to his sojourn in Edinburgh trying to write but also attending mass. It’s an almost haunting evocation of Northern Island life.

The Interrogator has set out from Leith to Norday to question the locals about the death of Vera Paulson, found in the sea a month after she disappeared. None of them is very forthcoming. When the girl herself appears – as a ghost – her story does not quite match with any of theirs.

Pedant’s corner:- “and the shore of Firth” (of the Firth,) “a gonner” (goner,) bissom (usually spelled besom,) “it muirburn (its muirburn.) Suppper (supper.)

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1982, 246 p.

Persuasion cover

Years before the start of this novel Anne Elliot of Kellynch Hall had allowed herself to be persuaded by her family not to marry Frederick Wentworth, a junior officer in the navy. Now with her father needing to reduce expenditure he has been forced to rent the Hall to Admiral Croft. Mrs Croft is Frederick’s sister and so the meeting of Anne and Wentworth again will be a certainty. He is now a something of a catch as he is a Captain and wealthy due to prize money from the war. Nevertheless they both observe proprieties when they do meet.

Anne convinces herself Wentworth no longer has feelings for her and affects to be content. There are complications introduced by the other characters, not least the heir to Kellynch Hall, William Elliot, Anne’s cousin, who pretends to marriage with her and Louisa Musgrove, thought to be interested in Wentworth. A trip to Lyme Regis leads to Louisa falling from steps on the Cobb and suffering serious effects as a result of which she has to remain at the home of Wentworth’s acquaintances the Harvilles, where his friend Captain Benwick helps in her recovery, eventually leading to their engagement and a clear path for Anne and Wentworth.

In essence this is girl met boy, girl spurns boy, girl now meets man – but there are only supposed to be seven plots in literature. The interest is in how the matter of the relationship is resolved.

There are only really two of what might be called Austenisms. One about Anne’s father, “to his good looks and his rank” he “owed a wife of very superior character to any thing deserved by his own,” and Anne herself reflecting, “Like many other great moralists and preachers she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.”

Again, this is all rendered too familiar by television adaptations. In the twenty-first century it is all but impossible to come to Austen’s works with a fresh, penetrating eye.

Pedant’s corner:- there are the usual early nineteenth century spellings – the Streights (Straits,) stopt (though later we do have ‘stopped’,) staid for stayed, sirname (surname) etc. Otherwise; the Miss Musgroves (the Misses Musgrove,) the Mr Musgroves (the Misters Musgrove,) the Miss Hayters (the Misses Hayter.) “There certainly were a great multitude of ugly women in Bath” (was a great multitude.) “‘You did not use to like’” (used to like.)

Blind Justice by S N Lewitt

Ace, 1991, 269 p.

Émile Saint-Just is a member of the Syndicat of the planet Beau Solis, the last bastion of French speaking culture. The mark of Syndicat membership is the cuff, worn round the wrist, binding its wearer to the group. Beau Solis is also the sole producer of sadece senin, a drug highly prized throughout the human worlds but subject to strict controls and taxes by the Justica, a polity somewhat sketchily delineated here but said to be uniform and rule bound and which seems to dominate the rest of human civilisation. Selling sadece senin is a lucrative business for the Syndicat, especially if the regulations and taxes of the Justica can be avoided.

Saint-Just takes a place on the Mary Damned, a spaceship running sadece for the Syndicat between the patrols of the Justica. These are relativistic journeys. When Saint-Just gets back no-one on Beau Solis will remember him. But he doesn’t get back. The Mary Damned is captured with no resistance, since Justica operatives flood it with a soporific gas. When Émile wakes up, sans cuff, he is on a Justica prison ship, the Constanza. The Mary Damned becomes a famous ghost ship, drifting through the spaceways.

Life on the Constanza, as in any prison, is tough but Émile has a few allies and they hatch a plan to escape, but the group splits into two, one of which plans to rendezvous with the Mary Damned. (Outside the prison time has flown.)

It is a very different Beau Solis to which Émile returns. The Justica has taken control and is eliminating as much sadece senin as it can. Émile’s lack of cuff means he is no longer recognized as a Syndicat member and he is thrown onto his own resources and those of the latent resistance, whose project takes up the remaining half of the book.

Reading a thirty-year-old Science Fiction novel can be a jolting experience. Noticeable to a 2021 audience is the importance of newspapers in Beau Solis. (Nothing dates as quickly as the future. Think of all those redundant flashing lights on the computer panels in the original Star Trek or Arthur Clarke’s journalist taking a typewriter along with him to the Red Planet in The Sands of Mars.) This is not Lewitt’s fault. There is only so much invention an author can put into an SF book. And we all have unexamined assumptions about what may be constant in our world. Her storytelling and characterisation make up for any such minor irritations. This is good solid readable SF.

Pedant’s corner:- Académie Français (since Académie is a feminine noun that should be ‘Académie Française’,) tsunumi (tsunami,) spit (spat,) “and he didn’t; understand at first why” (no need for that semi-colon,) “everyone can grown sadece” (can grow,) crosier (crozier,) Reims (Rheims,) “the group grew in size as they made their way” (as it made its way,) “it seemed that none of the them were” (no ‘the’,) good-by (goodbye.)

Scottish Books I Read This Year

It’s that time of the year when people post ‘best of’ lists.

This isn’t a best of, merely a list of the books with Scottish authorship or Scottish flavour which I read this year. A round 30, of which (since Scotland in Space was an anthology* containing stories and articles** by both men and women) 14½ were by men and 15½ by women, 28½** were fiction (Snapshot being about Scottish Football Grounds.)

The Corncrake and the Lysander by Finlay J MacDonald
Light by Margaret Elphinstone
Snapshot by Daniel Gray and Alan McCredie
And the Cock Crew by Fionn MacColla
A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh
Ringan Gilhaize by John Galt
The Gates of Eden by Annie S Swan
Close Quarters by Angus McAllister
Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin
End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
The Gleam in the North by D K Broster
A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
Scotland in Space Ed by Deborah Scott and Simon Malpas
Being Emily by Anne Donovan
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner
The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark
Summer by Ali Smith
Glister by John Burnside
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes
The End of an Old Song by J D Scott
The Rental Heart and other fairy tales by Kirsty Logan
Republics of the Mind by James Robertson
The Dark Mile by D K Broster
Highland River by Neil M Gunn
The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis
The Last Peacock by Allan Massie
A Day at the Office by Robert Alan Jamieson

That last one was of course my final (unless I ever get round to Trainspotting) book on the Best 100 Scottish Books list.

I am part way through George McKay Brown’s collection of short stories, Hawkfall, which would make the above sex ratio of authors 1:1 but am unlikely to post about it here before the New Year. (I’m four behind as it is, though one of those is for ParSec.)

* It was also the only one to be SF or Fantasy.

A Day at the Office by Robert Alan Jamieson

Polygon, 1991, 236 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

This seems a consciously literary endeavour. It has no fewer than four epigraphs, a prefatory two-page introduction telling us that what follows is a day and night in the life of a Scottish city and that its three main characters are encompassed by a sequence of symbols of the major arcana of the Tarot, before riffing on the importance of dreaming and the imagination. Each subsequent narrative section begins with a page or two in page-centred bold print, sometimes using multiple fonts and sizes, headed with the time of day it refers to. Characters’ thoughts – italicised and also centred on the page – pop up in between the descriptive, or indeed speech, passages making the layout for those elements appear as a poem might. In the sections focusing on Douglas Shaw speech is denoted by opening ‘<<’ and closing ‘>>’ rather than the usual quote marks. Throughout, contractions such as can’t, won’t, couldn’t etc are rendered without their usual apostrophe.

Those three main characters are nineteen-year-old Ray Craig, searching for some blow, Helen Orr, 24, who married at seventeen but left her husband because he hit her (yet her mother wants her to get back with him,) and works in a casino’s restaurant, and Douglas Shaw, a drug dealer using an antique shop in a run-down but likely to gentrify area as a front and who is waiting for a big deal in Holland to come off. Helen now lives above Douglas’s shop in a flat rented from him – with whom she is in a loose relationship – while Ray comes across Douglas while seeking his hit and is offered a job (and that flat as a place to stay) by him.

There is nothing particularly memorable about their interactions or, indeed, their backgrounds. The only thing lifting A Day at the Office out of the ordinary as a novel is the typographical eccentricity of its layout. Which is not to say it’s bad. Not at all. I have certainly read a lot worse. I don’t think I would put it near my list of best 100 Scottish books, though.

Pedant’s corner:- mantlepiece (mantelpiece,) “taken care off” (of,) Douglas’ (several times, Douglas’s,) St Leonards (St Leonard’s,) “a gang of scaffolders were setting up” (a gang … was setting up,) “a second gang were at work” (was at work,) |”that brought to Douglas mind his brother” (Douglas’s,) a missing close quote mark at the end of one piece of speech, “or spit back” (spat back,) some missing full stop at sentences ends, stunk (stank,) focussed (focused.) “The opera was reaching a crescendo” (no. It wasn’t; the opera’s crescendo was reaching a climax,) “making with an effort at a smile” (that ‘with’ is unnecessary,) beneficient (beneficent) “on the bed next her” (‘next to her’ is more organic.)

Ru by Kim Thúy

The Clerkenwell Press, 2012, 157 p. Translated from the French Ru (Éditions Libre Expression, Montreal, 2009,) by Sheila Fischman.

It seems from the epigraph page that Thúy chose her title because it is a word in both French and Vietnamese – but with different meanings; respectively a small stream (and figuratively, a flow, a discharge – of tears, of blood, of money,) and a lullaby or to lull.

The story is told in a series of vignettes, jumping about in time from narrator Nguyễn An Tịnh’s cosseted childhood in Saigon before its fall, to the degradations of her time in a refugee camp in Malaysia after a hazardous trip as one of the Boat People, and her eventual life in North America but also taking in her return to Vietnam. There a waiter is surprised she can speak Vietnamese as she “looks too fat.” Nguyễn reflects that it was her Americanised, more confident demeanour to which he was responding. “Once it’s achieved, the American dream never leaves us, like a graft or an excrescence.” But the incident made her realise she “couldn’t have everything,” that she no longer had the right to call herself Vietnamese “because I no longer had their fragility, their uncertainty, their fears.” And that the waiter was right to remind her of this.

A course in History that she took was “a privilege only countries at peace can afford. Elsewhere, people are too preoccupied by their day-to-day survival to take the time to write their collective history.”

She also reflects on the human toll of long wars. “We often forget about the existence of all those women who carried Vietnam on their backs while their husbands and sons carried weapons on theirs.”

It would be tempting to assume that this is all autobiographical, fragments of the author’s real life laid down on the page, but that would be an error. The book is novelistically organised and structured. It is a creation.

Perhaps due to her uprooting from her secure childhood life Nguyễn has a restless adult existence. She never travels except with only one suitcase. She is a woman for whom men are always replaced or replaceable, or, if they are not, her feelings for them are. She prefers relationships with married men because it keeps her “remote, aloof, in the shadows.”

Not that she hasn’t experienced love; but for her the blessing is not unalloyed. “It’s my children, though, who have taught me the verb to love, who have defined it. If I had known what it meant to love, I wouldn’t have had children, because once we love we love for ever.” Which isn’t a bad epitaph when you think of it.

Pedant’s corner:- chilies (chilis.)

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2010, 491 p.

 Terminal World cover

Spearpoint is a tiered city whose tip reaches beyond the atmosphere. Post-human angels (though they call themselves human and the other inhabitants pre-human) occupy the Celestial Levels and ride thermals with their wings. These are where the most advanced technology still works. Angels are feared, even hated, by those in the levels below. Down the tiers – through Neon Heights, Steamtown and Horsetown – the transition between different zones is debilitating or worse (requiring anti-zonal drugs to ameliorate the symptoms) and technology becomes progressively unusable. From time to time the zone boundaries quiver or shift due to disturbances in The Mire, aka the Eye of God, the chaotic origin point for the zones. A religious text called the Testament seems to allude to this.

The viewpoint character is Quillon, a former angel altered so as to be able to survive in the lower levels as a kind of spy, but whose wing buds keep growing and must periodically be surgically removed by his friend Fray. Quillon habitually wears tinted glasses to avoid his eyes betraying his angel nature, but has long since abandoned any allegiance to his origins when he found he was being used. The action kicks off when the body of a fallen angel is delivered to him in the mortuary where he works as a pathologist. Just as he is about to cut into it the body speaks to warn him. The angels know where he is and are coming for him. With the help of a man called Fray and his courier Meroka, who hates angels, he embarks on a journey away from Spearpoint. On that trip a sudden catastrophic shift in the zone boundaries affects most of the lower levels of Spearpoint.

Quillon and Meroka have to hide from a caravan of scavenger-rapists called Skullboys (whose clothing and symbology seems to be inspired by heavy metal) but notice a cage containing a mother and her child. Also inhabiting the plain below Spearpoint are metal and flesh creatures named carnivorgs, whose feeding habits are particularly noisome. (The clue is in the name, carnivore organisms, but their gruesome preference is for drilling into and eating brains – often leaving a victim alive but severely incapacitated.)

Later Quillon and Meroka are able to free the mother, Kalis, and child, Nimcha, but both bear the distinctive mark of a tectomancer. Kalis’s is fake to try to protect her child from the widespread fear of tectomancers, held responsible for zonal shifts, a minor one of which had given them Quillon and Meroka the opportunity to free them. Nimcha claims to have caused the shift. Her mother believes Nimcha can close the Eye and Nimcha says, “‘The tower wants me to make it better.’” So it seems they must go back.

This is prevented by them being taken up by the Swarm, a sort of flying circus (in the Richthofen sense) of dirigibles presided over by a man called Ricasso. He has had a project to use captured carnivorgs to produce an anti-zonal drug much more effective than the current one. He is learned and in his conversations with Quillon says, “The Testament tells us that we were once allowed through the gates of paradise.” Beyond the gates lay numberless gardens, each with its own sun and moon. Spearpoint may be a ladder to the stars.

Internal politics within the Swarm and an attempted coup delay things for a while but eventually they embark for Spearpoint with a cargo of the drug, taking a shortcut through a region called the Bane forever known as an area from which no-one returned but now, since the huge zonal shift, likely to be passable. While traversing it they pass over a series of downed aircraft of decreasing technological complexity and a truncated tower which appears to be an exact counterpart of Spearpoint, but obviously defunct before running the gauntlet of Skullboy military positions below the intact tower.

The characters refer to the planet as Earth but there are internal indications (the air is thinning, the forests dying, the planet getting colder, and there are three extinct volcanoes in almost a straight line plus another enormous natural mountain) that it is in fact Mars, backed up by one of the Mad Machines at Spearpoint’s centre mentioning Earth as a separate place.

While it is a powerful plot motor the zone shift is a neat idea which allow Reynolds to write SF without having to think up future technologies.

This is a complex yet highly readable piece of SF with all of the betrayal, loyalty, treachery and power plays that you might expect from its quasi-military/political elements but Reynolds does not neglect character. Meroka is a mouthy delight, Quillon troubled but decent at heart, Ricasso a refreshing input of philosophising. However, Kalis and Nimcha are never any more than plot enablers. It is all very enjoyable stuff though.

Pedant’s corner:- “He scratched a finger under his right eye” (he has a finger under his right eye?) sprung (sprang,) wintery (wintry, which was used later,) amoebas (fine in English but amoebae, or, even better, amœbæ, is more classical,) “the other lying on their side” (‘its side’,) “he was taken not back to the others” (odd syntax. What’s wrong with ‘he was not taken back to the others’?) crenulations (crenellations, I assume,) close-minded (closed-minded?) “from some of other captains” (some of the other captains,) “where the blade had missed it mark” (its mark,) “none of the other skeleton staffers were in any way annoyed by it” (none of the other …was … annoyed,) hiccough (hiccup; hiccough is a misattribution.) “‘He hopes do,’” (‘He hopes so’,) “that was now hoving into clear view” (hove is past tense, ‘that was now heaving into clear view’.) “The best that Curtana could hope for were a few lucky strikes” (the best is singular, hence, ‘was a few lucky strikes’,) “none of the machine guns were operable” (none was operable.) “There were a handful of enclaves” (There was a handful,) staunched (stanched.)

Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley

Flipped Eye, 2021, 252 p.

Skyward Inn lies towards the edge of the Western Protectorate with a view over the Bristol Channel to Swansea from where the rocket ships rise from the Kissing Gate to make their way into space. The Kissing Gate was discovered fifty years before the events in the novel. The Coalition used it to travel to Qita, but the Western Protectorate disagreed with this action, and with the use of technology inside people’s heads, and so separated themselves from the rest of the world. The Coaliton’s take-over of Qita was complete but odd, as there was little resistance. “Why just move over and let us take it? No battle. No military. Not one voice raised – at least, not theirs.”

Jemima had in the past left her son, Fosse, to travel to Qita where an implant called Coach “bound us altogether in our heads” but now, in the inn, she dispenses Jarrowbrew, which her Qitan partner Isley, (with whom it is not possible for her to have a physical relationship,) prepares in the basement. Fosse has become something of a loner, who seeks solace among the buildings of an abandoned farm.

One day another Qitan, Won, turns up having travelled to Earth alone, but her suit needs a replacement device without which it will not restart. In an attempted bargain with a band of smugglers Jem and Isley lose the Jarrowbrew they had brought as payment for the device and nearly their lives. Meanwhile Fosse has been disturbed at the farm by three incomers who say they are taking it over. After an odd confrontation with the three where their flesh appears to meld together Fosse kills the man and flees to Swansea and takes the Kissing Gate to Qita.

So far, so SF, so good.

But things get stranger. Soil in the local graveyard begins to liquefy and the contagion spreads. Isley and Won get closer – literally. Fosse is taken on a cross-Qitan journey by a local during which he encounters its oddness. Through bodily contact with Isley, Jem is able to access Fosse’s mind but the Inn’s basement is soon filled with locals joining with Isley and Fosse (again literally) at which point SF ceases and we are in fantasy territory. The true nature of Jarrowbrew is revealed. It seems that Qita may not have been conquered after all but is taking revenge of sorts.

As a wordsmith and portrayer of character Whiteley is absolutely fine and presumably the way she takes her story is where she wanted it to go. But the journey, a little like Fosse’s on Qita, takes on an aspect which strays too far from the entirely believable. Sf/fantasy crossovers have a long history in the linked genre (A Voyage to Arcturus springs to mind) but in Skyward Inn I thought the two did not gel at all comfortably.

Pedant’s corner:- “neither of us move” (neither of us moves,) “they were not been welcoming to him” (‘being welcoming to him’ makes more sense,) Klaus’ (x2, Klaus’s.) “at he found he wanted the axe again” (‘and he found he wanted the axe again,) “their shoulder hunched” (shoulders, surely?) a missing full stop, Fosse (x 2, when Isley was meant.) “Every customer forces their laughs and drinks too fast and none of them want to say why” (wants,) “the questions he had been asked about it by his workmates was one of the reasons why he’d kept to himself” (questions is plural so needs were as its verb [though I can see why it would sit awkwardly with ‘one of the reasons’.) “He would not be charge after all.” (in charge?) “when Fosse looked up from the task from negotiating path” (task of negotiating a path.) “‘Let get on it.’” (‘Let’s get on it’.) “He glances at my hands at the sleeve pulled low” (sleeves,) “mowed grass” (mown grass,) “facing him with it arms raised” (its arms,) “to bomb the entire of the Protectorate” (yes it was in dialogue but ‘entire’ should still have been ‘entirety’,) miniscule (minuscule,) “and her saw her hand” (and he saw her hand.)

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