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King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

Michael Joseph, 1982, 725 p, plus ii p frontispiece showing the lineage of Kings of Scotland (Alba) and Northumbria, ii p backispiece (I apologise for the coinage) of rulers of Orkney, Norway, Normandy and England, iii p maps of mid Europe in the 11th century, Alba (Scotland) and Northern England in AD 1050, and of the Orkney islands and Caithness of AD 1050, and ii p lineage of Danish and Norwegian rulers.

The sparseness of the historical record for Scotland in the Dark Ages leaves something of a blank canvas for the novelist to exploit. In Dunnett’s account of the life of Macbeth MacFinlay (whom Shakespeare portrayed as a villain) she has chosen to fill that canvas by conflating him with a certain Earl Thorfinn of Orkney. (See here.)

In Dunnett’s version, Thorfinn (in the book he is rarely referred to by his Christian baptismal name of Macbeth,) although the grandson of King Malcolm II is more proud of his Orcadian heritage than his Scottish one and keener for that to be passed on to his own sons, to whom he gives Norse names.

He is not the only character to have more than one name. His wife was born in Norway as Ingibjorg Arnason, has the baptismal name Margaret but is known to him as Groa (and in Gaelic as Gruoch.) Aged fourteen she was forced into marriage to a middle-aged Mormaer of Moray, Gillacomghain, who had killed Finnlaech, our hero Thorfinn’s stepfather. When Thorfinn in his turn killed Gillacomghain to regain his lands of Moray he married the widow.

Such was life for high-born women in the Dark Ages; destined only to cement alliances and to breed. (Spoiler alert [Really? Are the outlines of the story not well-known?]: she was to suffer a similar fate when Thorfinn is killed by the man who became Malcolm III who also made her his wife.)

This was the time when the Norse kingdoms had only recently become (at least nominally) Christian and a fair bit of the narrative deals with the merits of the Celtic as opposed to the Roman Church in particular as Thorfinn is trying to unify the Kingdom of Alba’s only loosely held regions of Fife, Angus, Buchan, Caithness etc. Though Thorfin has some sway in Galloway (and Cumbria plus alliances with Ireland) the Lothians were territory disputed with Northumbria. England’s regions (Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia) likewise owed allegiance to one king but their rulers had ambitions of their own.

The novel’s main attention, though, is given to Thorfinn’s Scottish lands and those in Orkney but ranges widely over the Northern Europe of the time and has mentions of King Stephen of Hungary. Thorfinn even makes a pilgrimage to Rome to seek the Pope’s imprimatur. In his youth he had spent some time in the English court of King Canute whose wife Emma (another who had been taken as a wife by her first’s successor,) after her second husband’s death still has her matrilineal fingers spread across England and Normandy.

At times, then, the book reads more like a historical account than a novel. Shifting alliances and manoeuvrings make up most of the intrigue with the interests of the Godwinsson family and William the Bastard of Normandy (which would eventually collide at the Battle of Hastings) begin to loom large towards the book’s end.

King Hereafter can be seen as one of many attempts to rescue the historical Macbeth from the obloquy to which Shakespeare consigned him.

His periglour Sulien here says to him, “‘Men will look back and see a king who strove to build for his people. …. The name each man leaves is a small thing compared with the mark he puts on the world.’”

The book is long, with fairly small print, and paints Thorfinn and Groa’s relationship sympathetically and humanly but also serves as a primer on late 11th century history.

Pedant’s corner:- dwarved (dwarfed,) manoeuvering (manoeuvring,) unfocussed (unfocused,) aureoles (areolas- or areolae,) chorussed (chorused?) pleat (it was hair, so ‘plait’,) basalm (balsam,)

The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera

King Penguin, 1987, 186 p. Translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi. First published as La Valse aux adieux, © Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 1976.

This novel’s story unfolds over five days, the events of each of which make up the book’s sections.

Klima is a jazz trumpeter who has an erotic secret. As he tells his friend Bartleff, a rich American, “I love my wife.” That, however, has not stopped Klima from having sex with other women, one of whom, Ruzena, is a nurse in a fertility clinic in the spa town where Bartleff lives. An earlier phone call from Ruzena to Klima announcing she is pregnant has brought Klima scurrying to the town to try to resolve the situation. Their story is mixed in with that of Dr Skreta who runs the clinic, his friend Jakub, a former political dissident who has just received permission to leave the country and Jakub’s ward, Olga, the daughter of the man who betrayed Jakub to the authorities.

Skreta has had great success in enabling his clients to have babies. He has a sperm bank using his own semen as a result of which many of them have features resembling those of the doctor. “I have cured quite a few women of childlessness by using this approach.”

Klima wishes Ruzena to have an abortion but she refuses, at least initially. Skreta heads the abortion committee before which Ruzena would have to appear. Its two mature women members are generally unsympathetic to those who come before them wishing the procedure, an attitude Skreta interprets by saying women are the greatest misogynists in the world, always doing other women down. Misogyny, though, is a strain which tends to run through the book.

The character of Jakub allows Kundera to comment on the restrictions of a repressive state and the traits that inculcates, “All you have to do to turn people into murderers is to remove them from their peaceful circle of family home and work. Every now and again history exposes humans to certain pressures and traps which nobody can resist.” On people who seek revenge for their plight on the descendants of their persecutors he opines that victims are no better than their oppressors.

Bartleff, too, has observations to make, including that Saint Paul was not only a disciple of Jesus but a falsifier of his teaching. “His somersault from Saul to Paul. Haven’t we seen enough of those passionate fanatics who jump overnight from one faith to another?” (I note here that Christianity’s evolution after Saul’s conversion makes a case for the religion(s) it became to be named Paulinity rather than Christianity.)

The Farewell Party (some translations give the title as The Farewell Waltz) is intricately plotted, the connections between the two main strands woven together in an unexpected but somehow inevitable – albeit harsh – way. The overall feeling though is one of distance, that we see the characters as through frosted glass. They don’t seem to act for themselves so much as take the parts ascribed to them. But that is what living under a repressive regime must be like.

Pedant’s corner:- “surely a more likable being that Raskolnikov’s usurious hag” (than Raskolnikov’s,) missing full stops at the end of two sentences.

The Entropy Exhibition by Colin Greenland

Michael Moorcock and the British ‘New Wave’ in Science Fiction. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983, 256 p, including Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index.

As its sub-title implies this is an account of the project Michael Moorcock started when he took over the British Science Fiction magazine New Worlds in 1964. This was to try to inject more literary qualities into SF which up to that point had been largely shunned by the ‘mainstream’ because of its pulp sensibilities as he did not see why SF should be separate from literature in general.

To that end Greenland gives us a history of New Worlds up to that point, considers the introduction of sex to SF stories (hitherto all but absent despite the prominence of the three Bs – Boobs, Babes and Bug-eyed Monsters – on cover illustrations,) the withdrawal from space fiction in favour of ‘inner’ space, questions of style, the salience of the concept of entropy to this mid-sixties endeavour, and offers us critiques of the contributions of the three most prominent figures of the British new wave, Brian W Aldiss, J G Ballard and Moorcock himself. (Though it receives a few mentions considerations of how the new wave played out in the US are beyond the remit of this book.)

Greenland is of the opinion that Aldiss’s books Report on Probability A and Barefoot in the Head are the quintessential new wave novels with Moorcock’s Karl Glogauer novels as exemplars of the new wave sensibility dealing as they do with “Time and identity: Moorcock’s two great themes, perhaps the great themes of all New Wave sf.”

Aldiss never really considered himself as part of a wave of any sort; he had in any case been prominent as a writer of SF before the 1960s.

Ballard was always something of an enigma. Whether he can be considered to “belong” to any movement other than his sui generis self is moot but he did contribute a guest editorial to New Worlds in May 1962 asking “Which Way to Inner Space?” an implicit call for a different approach to writing SF. Personally I have always seen in his writing – possibly due to his upbringing as an expatriate – an expression of English reserve taken to the extreme, elevated to an art form even. (His incarceration by the Japanese during World War 2 no doubt also contributed to his take on the world.) Greenland sees Ballard’s principal tool for the disorientating effect of his prose as “unyielding irony.”

The SF New Wave changed everything and nothing. After the 1960s experiment SF by and large returned to its ghetto and continued to be ignored by mainstream fiction. The attitude “if it’s SF it’s not good, if it’s good it’s not SF” still hung around.

Yes, literary qualities did become more common in the genre (and treatment of sex ceased to be shunned) and it is now possible for “proper” writers to dabble in its waters without expressions of horror – from either side – accompanying their efforts.

The Entropy Exhibition is by its nature (and origin as a dissertation for a D Phil) a critical endeavour and now stands as a historical document, and probably one only for those interested in the history of SF.


Pedant’s corner:- extra-terrestial (extra-terrestrial,) sf (I prefer SF,) Euripides’ (Euripides’s,) Capadocia (Cappadocia,) fridgw (fridge,) “the relationship between my characters don’t interest me much” (either ‘relationships’ or ‘doesn’t’,) “a compete new political and social history” (a complete new,) enormity (seems to be in the sense of ‘hugeness’ rather than ‘monstrousness’.) In the Notes; Hilary Baily (Bailey,) benefitted (benefited?)

Cybernetic Jungle by S N Lewitt

Ace, 1992, p.

This has an unusual setting for a piece of Science Fiction written by a USian author; Brazil, specifically Brasilia. In the aftermath of a natural disaster democracy has been overthrown (this is represented as unusual for Brazil!) and society is dominated by four monopolies called fazendas, who are the only purveyors of drugs from the rain forest. Street gangs dominate life for the common people. Drugs called phrines, which seem to sharpen the mind, are common but can lead to brain burn out.

Paulo Sylvia is a member of the Bakunin gang. He has an implant known as a secondary but his greatest wish is to upgrade this to be able to access something known as the Wave, which is here described as “a datastream, a quantum-level interface structure that had been created to serve the needs of the masters. Only it had become the master.” (It reads as if it’s a hazy sort of internet only accessed through the mind but as described it seems a diffuse kind of experience.) On a raid on behalf of one of the fazendas he witnesses a girl die. Very soon after he meets Zaide Soledad, who looks identical to the dead girl and intrigues him. She is a trainee in one of the fazendas, out on the town. When they meet she is not yet surgically prepared for accessing the Wave and her true background is not known to Paulo.

Young members of the fazenda seem to be produced as kinds of clones – hence Zaide’s resemblance to the dead girl, who was apparently rejected for the fazenda. Zaide becomes drawn into a contest with one of the fazenda’s board members, Julio Simon, who has no redeeming features whatsoever and a predilection for gratuitous violence. Paulo and Zaide’s attraction to each other provides the motor for the plot and their conflict with Simon.

This is a tale with cyberpunk features and, with its main characters’ divergent backgrounds, echoes of Romeo and Juliet. Apart from the unnecessarily violent scene with Simon I quite enjoyed it.

Pedant’s corner:- “now the third generation were growing in jam jars in the closet” (the third generation was growing,) highjackers (hijackers,) “most of the other traffic was cycle or motoped” (why not just moped?) Vasco de Gama (Vasco da Gama,) Flumine (Fluminense,) Corintans (Corinthians,) fer-de-lants (fer-de-lance,) ambiance (ambience,) “in their green and whites” (in their green and white.) “Zaide didn’t looked at Susana” (didn’t look at.)

The Puritans by Guy McCrone

Black & White, 221 p. In Wax Fruit, 1993. First published in 1947.

This is the continuing chronicle of the Moorhouse family (from Antimacassar City and The Philistines) who have risen from a farmhouse in Ayrshire to prosperity in Victorian Glasgow, though much of the tale in this one is set in Vienna. The focus is on the relationship between Phoebe, the youngest Moorhouse, and Henry Hayburn who had become engaged towards the end of The Philistines even though he and his family had lost their money in the crash of the City Bank of Glasgow.

Suitable work for Henry being scarce he takes the opportunity presented by Maximilian Hirsch to oversee the setting up of a factory in Vienna to produce new agricultural machinery. First he travels there alone and lodges with the Klem family in a less salubrious part of the city but comes back to marry Phoebe and take her there. They take to the life in Vienna so much that they can laugh at their lack of guilt at availing themselves of the pleasure-grounds in the Prater in Vienna on a Sunday. Henry has few outlets beyond his work but Phoebe makes friends with Hirsch’s maiden aunts.

However, Aunt Bell back in Glasgow is displeased when Phoebe decides she will have the baby she is now expecting in Vienna and intrigues to have her come to Glasgow for the birth – with tragic consequences.

The writing in these tales never rises above the workmanlike. Too much is told not shown. Before Henry ever reaches Vienna the introduction to the narrative of Sepi Klem only ever portends one outcome. She performs much the same function in complicating our main characters’ lives as Lucy Rennie did in The Philistines. I note that – again like Lucy – she is a singer (though in Sepi’s case an aspiring one to begin with) a potential career of which her parents disapprove, wishing her to marry safe bank clerk Willi Pommer. Her flightiness is highlighted by her leaving home without explanation not long after Phoebe arrives in Vienna.

Her return months later allows McCrone to further contrast life in Austria and Scotland by expressing Herny’s internal discomfort of the Klem family’s display of emotion in his origins; coming “from an Island where the show of feeling is counted as weakness.”

The Wax Fruit trilogy is not great literature by any means but it is quick and easy to read.

Pedant’s corner:- “doing it’s best” (its best,) “slid them over over the stanchions of the pier” (has one ‘over’ too many,) “whether Sir Charles was pleased or sorry about his, Henry could not discover” (about this,) hoofs (in my youth the plural of hoof was always hooves,) “He took of his hat” (off,) Island (this was not a proper noun; ‘island’,) “for her seriously to flaunt Bel” (to flout Bel,) “the Hirschs’ landau” (the Hirsches’ landau,) bouganvilia (bouganvillea.) “‘But what’s wrong?’ She asked.” (But what’s wrong?’ she asked.”)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

275 p. In Four Great Cornish Novels, Gollancz, 1984. First published in 1938.

How does the modern reader review an eighty-five year-old book with a large cultural imprint and a story perhaps familiar from TV or film adaptations? And one on which anyone reading the review may already have formed their own opinions? This is the problem with Rebecca, a book I have come to very late. Is there anything new to say about it?

Its first line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is of course iconic and astute (or would be to a reader coming to it with no foreknowledge.) The narrator clearly has an attraction to the place but no longer a connection to it. Yet it sets up a mystery. Why is that so? What happened that Manderley is no longer in her life? Why would it be so significant to her? Hence, we read on. I would argue, though, that the rest of that chapter, where we receive the second Mrs de Winter’s memories of its grounds, is a touch too overwritten.

The second chapter begins, “We can never go back again, that much is certain,” once more a promise of revelations to come and perhaps with a more widespread application. Yet such going back, recollections of lives lived from older – maybe wiser – perspectives, is a staple of literature. And so we have the second Mrs de Winter’s account of the early days of her relationship with her now husband, Maxim. Though Maxim de Winter tells her – and us – she has “a lovely and unusual name” we never learn it, which is a bit of a tease and also something of a copout by the author. But it does serve to underline the central thrust of the book. Rebecca, despite its title, is not really her story at all, nor even that of the second Mrs de Winter (except in the fragments we are shown,) but rather of that first wife’s effects on the other characters and of the influence, in an entirely unparanormal way, dead people can exert on the living from beyond the grave.

The mousy, diffident girl Maxim de Winter meets in Monte Carlo due to her paid companionship of Mrs van Hopper (a well-judged portrayal of such a snobby woman and her entitled, selfish behaviour – the blustering Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, who towards the end threatens the promised happy ending (which is itself undone by Manderley’s destruction,) is another well-drawn individual – cannot quite believe Maxim’s interest in her – especially since Rebecca’s glamour and allure are all that she hears about. This is perhaps a little disingenuous of du Maurier. Would even the most self-effacing young woman really believe that a man as wealthy as Maxim would marry her solely out of sympathy? And so soon after the death of a woman to whom he was supposedly devoted? That there wasn’t something about her that he found congenial and desirable? That she cannot realise that her difference from Rebecca is the point is much easier to understand. His witholding from her of that information is a mark against him but then without it there would have been no plot. But that leaves our narrator continually holding herself to a standard to which she cannot live up, prey to the machinations of the contemptuous and manipulative housekeeper Mrs Danvers whose devotion to Rebecca survives her mistress’s death. Then again the second Mrs de Winter is largely naïve and too taken up with her own insecurities to see any deeper picture before it is thrust on her.

People have been struck by similarities between Rebecca and Jane Eyre. Both bear characteristics of the Gothic novel, both are the memoirs of a young woman who falls under the spell of an older man with a big house. Yet the comparison is not exact. In Rebecca there is no barrier to marriage, the first Mrs de Winter is dead, in Jane Eyre, Mrs Rochester, the mad woman in the attic, is not – at least until the fire kills her and leaves Mr Rochester blind. However, in Rebecca it is arguable that the mad woman is actually in plain sight in the form of Mrs Danvers. And Jane would not have stood by Mr Rochester if she thought he had got rid of his wife.

No doubt it is due to the book being published in the 1930s but there is a curious lack of passion to the relationship between Maxim and his second wife. Maxim drops into his old habits as soon as he returns to Manderley, leaving his new wife to fend for herself through her long days. There is even a reference to Maxim’s bed being unslept in, their twin beds, then, a clear signal the couple does not sleep together. Love and sex being absent, of the three big novelistic concerns that leaves only death for Rebecca to dwell on.


Pedant’s corner:- Some 1930s usages (to-day, to-night, suit-case.) Otherwise; “reading Bradshaws” (Bradshaw’s,) some commas missing before pieces of direct speech, “lunch I suppose” “the passage was in the past tense” (lunch I supposed,) “Mrs Danvers’ dislike” (Danvers’s,) “the hood” (of a car. That would be the bonnet, then,) the line “pockets. He was staring straight in front of him. He is thinking about Rebecca,” is repeated two lines later and the line it replaces never appears. “‘He was not in a fit to state to undertake anything of the sort” (that first ‘to’ is superfluous.) “It means we had to go” (Again the passage was in past tense; ‘It meant we had to go’,) “Doctor Phillips’ car” (Phillips’s.) “Tired women with crying babies in pram and stared into windows” (is missing something between ‘pram’ and ‘and.’ Or the ‘and’ is superfluous.)

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

Weidenfeld & Nicolson Essentials, 2021, 212p, plus vi p Introduction by Maggie O’Farrell First published 1991.

From the outset we know where this tale of growing up as a misfit is going; Barker shows us in her prelude, titled Janet. This is not foreshadowing as such – it goes beyond prolepsis even – but it does set up an intriguing question. Why will what Barker tells us happened, happen? Why was Janet’s misadventure so easily glossed over? What was it about her that made her dismissable? But this is arguably fairer on the reader than Kate Atkinson’s revelation in A God in Ruins which turned upside down what we thought we had learned in all its pages up to that point.

Some reviewers have observed similarities to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (written much earlier than O Caledonia) but the characters of Cassandra Mortain and Janet are very different and Barker is a much subtler writer but I did wonder while I was reading O Caledonia if Kate Atkinson was familiar with Barker’s novel. I found the weird incidents of Janet’s childhood oddly similar to the manifold earlier days of Ursula Todd in Life After Life; there were perhaps even greater similarities to Atkinson’s first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum (from 1995.) Still, it allows Barker the acid observation “The subject was closed in favour of the living, who offer continuous material for persecution.”

Janet is a child in wartime living in the manse inhabited by her grandfather and subject to many an admonitory sermon. Scotland’s religious heritage, though never pushed, is an intermittent drum beat through the book as in, “At this time there were many Polish officers in the village. The Marine hotel had been requisitioned for them. They were popular with the lonely girls and the more flighty wives, so that after the war some stayed on and married, while others left behind girls who were even lonelier now, alone with tiny children in the unrelenting chill of a Calvinist world.” (This sort of memory of Polish soldiers was familiar to me from the tales told by an acquaintance who had lived in Kelso during the Second World War.) Barker also has Janet remark, “There seemed no place for gallantry and romance among Calvinists,” and, in a particularly self-flagellating moment “the nature of Caledonia was a pitiless nature and her own was no better.” That it had unintended effects is illlustrated by a passage wherein nannies asked children if they had done what they should today (ie moved their bowels) and unwittingly unleashed dissembling- “a horde of artful dodgers on the world.”

It is when the family inherits Auchnashaugh, a crumbling pile in the Highlands, that Janet’s alienation blossoms. She resents her younger siblings, fails to comprehend adult concerns or live up to their expectations and when older retreats into books, having an appetite for things beyond her age, Latin and Greek tags and the like. Her experience is summed up by Proust’s phrase ‘l’étouffoir familial’ the family suffocation chamber. Of how many sensitive souls has that been true.

She similarly fails to fit in at St Uncumba’s, the boarding school she is sent to far south in England where her distaste for, and inability at, games and liking for literature are mocked. Until she learns to dissemble.

The signal feature of her otherness is her adoption of a not yet fledged jackdaw whom she names Claws and who is her constant companion at Auchnashaugh.

O Caledonia is far too little known for a book so accomplished. How it did not get onto the list of 100 best Scottish books is beyond me. Perhaps its reissue far too late (2021) could explain it.

Pedant’s corner:- The young Janet sees the beam of a lighthouse sweep her bedroom (but this was in wartime; the lighthouses were switched off as part of the blackout precautions,) “she sucked a vengeful Pandrop” (a pan drop,) “the baby prone within” (the baby supine is more likely,) “golden rod” (goldenrod,) “je men fous” (je m’en fous,) “Miss Wales’ grizzled hair” (Wales’s,) “the gaping maw of the furnace” (stomachs do not gape,) standing in a great Victorian cemetery in Glasgow for her grandfather’s funeral (at that time in Scotland women did not go to interments, still less children,) clipe (usually spelled clype,) “Sir Patrick Spens’ lords (Spens’s,) Sawney Bean is said to have carried out his cannibalistic activities on the Aberdeenshire coast (most accounts put this legendary tale in Ayrshire,) “True Thomas’ faery queen” (Thomas’s,) “Euripides’ Medea” (Euripides’s,) “Barr’s Iron Brew” (the proprietary name is Irn Bru,) “came Francis’ voice” (Francis’s,) “the war memorial” (War Memorial – used later,) “‘a wee Doc and Doris afore ye gang awa’!’” (usually spelled Deoch-an-Doris,) Kiichen (a manuscript misreading of Küchen?) “Watt and Grants” (Watt and Grant’s,) swop (swap,) “Francis’ voice” (Francis’s,) “she was couched out there” (crouched makes more sense,) “Propertius’ poem” (Propertius’s,) “Tiresias’ description” (Tiresias’s) “Claws’ residence” (Claws’s,) “jeune jille” (jeune fille,) “passage from the Georgies” (the Georgics that would be,) “Orpheus’ final loss” (Orpheus’s.)

In the Company of Eagles by Ernest K Gann

Four Square/NEL, 1967, 221 p.

This novel of aerial combat in the Great War focuses on Sergeant Paul Chamay of the 322nd Escadrille in the Service Aéronautique and Leutnant Sebastian Kupper of Jasta 76 of the Luftstreitkräfte. Early in his combat experience Chamay sees his friend and mentor, Raymonde, killed by a German flying an Albatros with a distinctive target painted on its fuselage. Chamay is enraged since, though Raymonde’s aeroplane was incapacitated, he might have survived had Kupper (the Albatros was his) not come in to fire at him again, hitting him in the head. Chamay is from then on fixated on seeking out that Albatros and killing its pilot.

While that is the bare bones of the plot the book as a whole is much more nuanced than this might suggest, as it also explores – if only briefly – other characters, Chamay’s inventive but slightly hare-brained mechanic Babarin and forgetful armourer Susotte, his commander, the formal Captain Jourdan, and a lover, Denise, Kupper’s relationship with his wife Marie via her letters, his stolid batman Private Pilger, and the wily scrounger Feldwebel Groos. There is also a sequence involving a ham from Kempinsky’s, a gift to Kupper from Marie that is coveted by all at the front and manages to pass through several hands.

Gann outlines the vicissitudes of a Great War fighter pilot, always on the lookout, never able to let his guard down, the rigours of open cockpit aerial warfare, swathed in warm clothing, the cramp induced by the controls.

There is also a brief account of the catastrophic Nivelle offensive of 1917, of the French units which fought in it, and died, the calamity which led to mutiny and refusal to undertake any more offensive operations.

Later in the book we find that Kupper thought he was performing a mercy on Raymonde, saving him from a fiery death, though of course Chamay never gets to know this.

The final encounter, to which the book was always leading up, unfolds in a way which is a touch unexpected.

I have long held in interest in the aerial aspect of the Great War having read the histories They Fought for the Sky by Quentin Reynolds and The Friendless Sky by Alexander Mckee in my youth. Though fiction, In the Company of Eagles is as good an introduction to the subject as any.

Pedant’s corner:- The cover illustration isn’t quite spot on. There are two [red] Fokker Triplanes depicted on the wraparound cover but none appears in the text – though an attack by new [black] RNAS Sopwith Triplanes on Kupper’s airfield does. In addition I believe only Manfred von Richthofen flew a red-coloured Fokker Triplane.

Otherwise; wiith (with,) Mercedes’ (Mercedes’s,) Albatros’ (Albatros’s,) “Jourdan hesitated so, that Chamay was certain he was trying to communicate ….” (no need for the comma.) “None of the items were used” (none … was used,) after the Nivelle offensive another German tells Kupper the French troops were mutinying (at the time they occurred the Germans were ignorant of the French mutinies,) Gros (elsewhere always Groos,) Barbarin (elsewhere always Babarin.) “Every French aeroplane was not flown by a man named Chamay” (at least one French aeroplane was, though, so that sentence isn’t true. It ought to read ‘Not every French aeroplane was flown by a man named Chamay’,) jettys (jetties,) pistules (pustules.)

The Kif Strike Back by C J Cherryh

201 p, in The Chanur Saga, Daw Books, 2000, (which has an 11 p Appendix on Species of the Compact.) Originally published 1986.

This is the third of Cherryh’s novels featuring Pyanfar Chanur, a hani from the planet Anuurn, itself a member of the interstellar trading system known as the Compact. For my thoughts on the earlier two instalments see here and here.

Pyanfar’s first task in this book is to gain the release of both her niece Hilfy and the human Tully from their captivity by the kif, Sikkukkut. For this she has travelled to the station of Mkks, which is under Sikkukkut’s control. The exchange involves her agreeing to an arrangement with Sikkukut to aid him in his contest with another kif, Akhtimakt, for supremacy among their kind. Part of this is a gift to her of Skukkuk, a kif whose presence on Payanfar’s ship The Pride of Chanur causes grave misgivings among her crew. An alliance such as this is also thought by other hani undesirable, even treasonous, and may have repercussions for Payanfar’s family back on Anuurn.

The agreement requires Pyanfar to journey deep inside kif territory to Kefk station, where most of the action takes place. The nature of kif beliefs and behaviour is emphasised by the entrance to Sikkukkut’s headquarters being flanked by his enemy’s heads on poles. So far, so mediæval. Pyanfar manages to bargain for the release of another hani ship’s crew from Sikkukkut’s custody but on the way back to the Pride they get caught up in the struggle between kif factions which provides the book’s only ‘battle’ scenes.

I note here that the kif language is heavy with (often doubled) percussive consonants and seems to lack the vowels a and e. Apart from Pyanfar’s hani, the only other language represented on the page in this volume is that of the tc’a, who communicate in cryptic seven by three matrices.

Though bearing in mind that hani are essentially lion-like (certainly in appearance, apart from what I assume – there being no indication to the contrary – is their bipedalism) Cherryh may have been making a comment on human affairs when in the context of hani social arrangements she tells us “Hilfy had known all her life that men were precious things; and their sanity precarious; and their tempers vast as their vanity.”

While all the action and intrigue Pyanfar witnesses and takes part in is going on a lot of stuff has been occurring in the background. Pyanfar’s mohendo’sat friend Goldtooth has, without Pyanfar’s knowledge, been manœuvring to leverage the impact of human accession to the Compact. Tully has less of a central role in this book than he had previously but he does let slip that human culture is more factional and complicated than the species of the Compact had perhaps assumed.

I suppose these books are technically space opera but their emphasis is less on spaceships battling each other than on political matters in the Compact, inside kifdom and amongst the hani. There is, too, frequent reference to domestic life on board the Pride. In this regard the procedures on board make the hani seem more human than leonine.

Pyanfar, Hilfy and even Sikkukut have become more rounded the more the story develops and we also learn more of the other members of the crew than before.

Since there are five books in the overall Chanur story arc it is a little odd that this omnibus has cobbled together Books 2 and 3 with Book 1, which was more of a stand alone. Indeed Cherryh’s tale is by no means resolved by The Kif Strike Back’s end, which in a three book volume I would have thought the reader has a right to expect.

However, I found Pyanfar’s company (both that on her ship and in my head as I read) very congenial. I will look out for the next in the sequence.


Pedant’s corner:- “whether that this was a kif’s humour or…” (no ‘that’ required,) Mkks’ (several times, Mkks’,) “‘You sure about this’ Pyanfar said” (needs a question mark after ‘this’,) strategem (stratagem – used later,) asyet (as yet,) “which had shed their v and began a sedate return” (had shed their v and begun a sedate return,) focussed (x 2, focused.) “Smoke skirled and billowed in the shock” (smoke does not skirl, it might swirl but it doesn’t make a sound,) “undernHaral’s pushbutton command” (under Haral’s.)

Percivious Escape by J J Cook and A J Cook MD

AJ JJ Publishing, 2022, 269 p.  Reviewed for ParSec 6.

This is the third in a trilogy, a fact of which I was unaware when, drawn by the premise, I requested the book for review. (The previous two instalments, Percivious Insomnia and Percivious Origins, were not, I think, reviewed in ParSec.) Mea culpa, for not researching the authors beforehand.

Coming in only for the last part of any book sequence is problematic – especially for a reviewer. Not all the background to the text is available; though the author(s) ought to provide enough to give any new reader a fair shout. Still, a book is a book, and must be considered on its own merits.

The scenario here is that an outbreak of insomnia has hit Earth. We are told people stagger around like zombies, transport – personal and public – has all but ceased, society has broken down. A drug called Noctural has been peddled as a cure but is ineffective, a fact of which its makers are well aware. In addition, the XYZ, a group of aliens capable of instant communication with each other by a form of emotional telepathy and apparently descended from whales who lived on Earth millions of years ago but now taking the shape of outsize humans, have been on an unsuccessful interstellar odyssey to find a new home but failing to settle (and incidentally forced into making a kind of slingshot around a black hole in transit) have returned to Earth intent on helping to find a cure for the pandemic of sleeplessness and making us all kinder into the bargain.

It gives me no pleasure to write this but if this all seems like a bit much for the authors to juggle with successfully, well it is. Chapters are relatively short and each is narrated from one of at least twenty different viewpoints which tends to make the reading experience bitty. Far too much is told to us, not shown, information dumping is profuse, clumsy and intrusive, with overuse of the pluperfect tense and a frequent resort to cliché. The process of discovering an effective serum against the insomnia pandemic, Noctural 2.0, is not dramatised and it seems to have been found absurdly easily. The text is sometimes couched as journalese, the characters do not come across as rounded and their dialogue is wooden.

At the climax it all descends into Bond villainy: that the villain has been given the name Khalid Al Gamdi leaves a sour taste. In addition, after that dénouement there are no less than nine chapters clearing up loose ends (while ironically introducing a new one.)

Alarm bells about all this had been ringing from before the start – which itself has the galloping hiccups, with both an Introduction and a Prologue. On the title page there is that MD after the name of the second co-author. But why is it there? Is it to lend an air of scientific credibility? In which case it is spurious, since this is a work of fiction not an academic tract and ought to need no outside props. In any case such a claim is thoroughly undercut by multiple appearances in the text of the non-metaphorical use of the phrase “the dark side of the moon” (which is an elegant description of madness but not of reality. Both “sides” of the Moon, far and near, are bathed in fourteen continuous Earth days of sunlight – and another fourteen of darkness – per lunar cycle. If you are striving for scientific verisimilitude at least get the details right. See also the ancient whales above.)

The overall feel of the text is that of authors so enamoured with their vision that they indulged the need to put every last little aspect of it down on paper (or screen.) Unfortunately, fiction doesn’t succeed under those conditions. Certainly there has to be enough detail to convince the reader the authors have a consistent world in their heads. Too much however, tends to give the opposite impression. Moreover, it gets in the way of the story. And it is story that readers of Science Fiction primarily search for. There is story here but the authors’ avowed intention in the accompanying blurb and the ‘About the Authors’ page of reviving what they describe as forgotten altruism led them to stray into didacticism.

Pedant’s corner:- human’s vast and varied pastimes (humans’,) “the prime minister” (Prime Minister,) “‘Your safety, our safety, as well as the safety of many others depend on it’2 (depends on it,) “the dark side of the moon” (there is no such thing – see above – and it’s Moon,) “that was provided there were enough insomnia-resilient staff on duty” (provided there was enough staff.) “Fifty suicide STARLINK satellites composed the payload” (the satellites created the payload? – comprised,) “what drew his attention were her photos” (was her photos,) one ‘it’s’ that ought to have been ‘its’, “something cold crossed his gaze upon her face” (needs its syntax sorted out,) “regardless the cost” (regardless of the cost,) “risen to a crescendo” (to a climax,) “careful to cover their interaction with his torso from the cameras” (opaque syntax again,) “returning from whence he had come” (whence = ‘from where’ so this is equivalent to ‘from from where he had come’,) another “rose to a crescendo”, “the two crafts” (the plural of craft [as in conveyance] is ‘craft’,) “desperate to clear its path” (‘his’-  or ‘their’ – path,) “despite the unforeseen danger that undoubtedly lay ahead” (if it undoubtedly lay ahead then it was not unforeseen; ‘unknown’ perhaps,) “and good thing” (an interpolation that has no sense at all,) “Cooper’s gaze – abducted by a long black, illuminated gown” (how can a gaze be abducted?) many new paragraphs are unindented, “the reason his kiss had fallen on deaf lips” (a tin-eared construction, ‘unresponsive lips’,) “than he had ever felt had before” (one ‘had’ too many,) “the only options to negate it was to swallow Noctural 2.0 .. or they could go off planet” (is missing an ‘either’ before what then should be ‘were to swallow’; otherwise ‘the only option was to swallow’,) “had rode up in” (had ridden,) “the tallest thing standing on the island were the trees in Central Park” (was the trees.)


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