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I’m on the Map!


Despite me not having a piece of fiction published for a few years – and only ever one novel – I’ve been included on this map of British SF and Fantasy writers. (If you click on the map it will lead you to its creator’s website, where copies can be purchased):-

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literary Map

I’m humbled by this. Imagine me being on the same map as Alasdair Gray, Iain (M) Banks, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Eric Brown, Arthur C Clarke, J G Ballard, George Orwell et al. Not to mention J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon.)

Murder at the Loch by Eric Brown

Severn House, 2016, 208 p.

 Murder at the Loch cover

If you want an example of how character can be established with economy look no further. Brown does this with facility. Witness how much we learn about Gabriel Gordon from the reactions of Sophie, living in an artists’ commune in London, to Maria Dupré seeking him out. This, in the third of Brown’s Langham and Dupré mysteries, is in part of the narrative where Maria is looking into Gordon’s background while Don Langham is investigating an attempted murder at a hotel in the Scottish Highlands. Langham’s wartime comrade, private detective Ralph Ryland, enlisted his aid when their wartime commanding officer Major Gordon, who now owns the hotel, called for assistance after he and a guest were shot at while they were involved in work on a project to raise the wreck of a German Dornier aeroplane which had crash landed in the nearby loch in February 1945.

The inhabitants of the hotel, not only Gabriel Gordon but also Hungarian emigré Renata Káldor, the German Ulrich Meyer – an expert on World War 2 aircraft – a Professor Hardwick (who is delving into the hotel’s history of paranormal phenomena) and Major Gordon’s ward Elspeth Stuart (with whom Gabriel had a fling before the Major put a stop to it) provide plenty of scope for suspicion.

The splitting of Langham and Dupré is a device Brown has employed before and is a useful tool when background information has to be sought from different locations many miles apart. It also handily allows both to be placed in jeopardy separately. Here the fifties setting yields a benefit to raising tension in that communication between the pair has to be by an unreliable telephone connection. The book also sees the welcome return of Langham’s literary agent, Charles Elder, released from jail, where he made a new friend. (It remains to be seen whether this will be a wise liaison.)

This isn’t quite a locked room mystery (though a winter snow storm makes it more or less a hotel in lock-down one.) However, the actual murder when it occurs – with which another years previously is connected – comes close to the classic scenario. And there is nothing gratuitous here. Brown adheres pretty closely to the template and feel of the stories he is echoing. If at times his Langham and Dupré mysteries may seem to have a soft edge that isn’t necessarily a drawback. Those fifties crime stories were primarily entertainment and still are.

Pedant’s corner:- Inverness is described as a “little town.” In the 1950s? “Soon they were tooling along,” (tootling?) “economical with the truth” (in dialogue – but was it in use in the 1950s?) “a crack at the Bosch!” (Boche,) “a Hungarian who had fled her homeland when the Nazis invaded” (I think the Nazis already had a presence there and so took over rather than invaded, but they certainly occupied the country in an attempt to prevent it changing sides as Romania had just done,) jerry-rigged (jury-rigged,) Camus’ (Camus’s,) “it appeared as first glance” (at,) primeval (I prefer primaeval,) “She said It was unlikely” (insert quote marks or make “it” lower case,) of the Loch Corraig Castle (of Loch Corraig Castle,) “drawing is revolver” (his.) Plus sixteen instances of “time interval later” (but two of these were in dialogue and another two not very glaring.) Also one “within minutes.”

Murder at the Chase by Eric Brown

Severn House, 2014, 214 p.

 Murder at the Chase cover

The second of Brown’s Langham and Dupré stories this one promises to be a locked room mystery but the locking is cleared up very quickly. Donald Langham’s acquaintance Edward Endicott is the one who has disappeared. His son, Alasdair fears he has been harmed as he had fallen under the influence of a man claiming to be Victorian Satanist Vivian Stafford.

Retracing the possible path along which Endicott’s dog returned, Lanham, Dupré and former Hollywood actress Caroline Dequincy come upon a body. It is not Endicott’s though, but Stafford’s. The web of connections Brown then constructs involves most of the leading characters. I note here the appearance of artist, Haverford Dent, not the first time an artist has appeared in Brown’s fiction. The unwinding of the circumstances leading to Stafford’s murder and to the death of the local village’s vicar, Marcus Denbigh, involves a lot of toing and froing – not to mention sipping of pints. The hesitancies of the relationship between Langham and Dupré do take up quite a bit of the book’s time, though.

Though there are some sharp edges Brown again emulates well the cosiness of the classic detective story. However, a few of his characters seem more free-minded than might perhaps be expected of his 50s setting.

Pedant’s corner:- A “time interval later” count of 33 plus one instance of “a little later.”
“The bells of the neighbouring churchyard peeled” (that should be pealed – which was used for the same bells further into the book,) medieval, “the latter forbore the attention” (“bore the attention” makes more sense,) vol-au-vents (I still think the plural should be vols-aux-vents; I’m obviously in the minority here,) “aware of the sadness in actress’s words” (the actress’s words,) I thought there was a continuity error when Langham says to Maria “On top of the brandy?” – she’d been drinking only tonic water previously, registry office (Register office,) “Her smiled faltered” (smile,) veniality, (this means easily excused or forgiven; pardonable: I think venality, the condition or quality of being venal; openness to bribery or corruption was intended,) curb (kerb.)

Sacrifice on Spica III by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet II, PS Publishing, 2014, 81 p.

 Sacrifice on Spica III cover

Still in search of his wife and daughter, Matt Hendrick has arrived on Kallithea, a planet with an eccentric orbit around its two primaries which leads to a five year long winter, but before he even steps off the Telemass platform Hendrick is sidetracked by a chance meeting with Ed Miller, a former colleague in the Amsterdam Police, into tracking down Katerina Nordstrom, wanted for the murder of her lover back on Earth. Nordstrom just happens to have been Hendrick’s first real love, when he was a tyro detective twenty years ago. Also on the trip are Acolytes of the Ice, members of a bizarre cult inspired by Kallithea’s native culture, whereby devotees give themselves up to death in the freezing wastes.

A weird religion, past traumas, a private life tangled up with the mission at hand, are all typical Brown tropes. Once again it is the changes he rings on the ingredients that provide the impulse to keep reading. The details of the immolation cult are strange and Brown renders them well.

In the context of the Telemass Quartet it is perhaps a drawback that Hendrick’s personal quest is a sideshow to this novella’s plot, though. It causes him to take his eye off the greater ball and so his wife and daughter evade him. No spoiler really as of course this serves Brown’s purposes, as Telemass III and IV are still to come.

Pedant’s corner:- as its swung away (it,) epicentre, “I wouldn’t have through Kat” (thought,) the beneficent gaze His Holiness (gaze of His,) what as right (what was right) and a fair few instances of “time interval” later.

Battlefield of Prestonpans

Recently I have been travelling quite frequently up and down the A1 from Edinburgh to Dunbar, mainly to visit Eric Brown.

I had always wondered what the prominent hill with the flag on it just off the road a few miles east of Edinburgh was. A few weeks ago detouring into Prestonpans on the return I found out. Coincidentally I was reading Violet Jacobs’s Flemington at the time.

On the B 1361 into Prestonpans there was a sign pointing to the Battlefield of Prestonpans, 1745, the first battle of the Jacobite Rebellion of that year. I had previously thought the battlefield would lie somewhat closer to the Firth.

The prominent hill is the battlefield viewpoint, a converted coal bing, seen here from its foot.

The flag flying at the summit is Bonnie Prince Charlie’s battle standard.

There is a cairn at the side of the B 1361 erected in memory of the dead of the battle:-

According to the information boards on the Battlefield Viewpoint this is the site of the 1745 battle:-

This is the approximate Jacobite position at the battle’s start. It has a golf range on it now.

The battle itself was over in about fifteen minutes. Most of the relatively inexperienced Hanoverian force fled at the first charge of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders. This left the more hardened government troops sandwiched between the rebel wings. After suffering heavy casualties they gave way. Their commander Sir John Cope led some stragglers down a lane which to this day is named Johnnie Cope’s Road, but couldn’t get them to fight and left the field.

The song Hey Johnnie Cope Are Ye Wakin’ Yet? was written – by Adam Skirving, a namesake of the good lady – to commemorate the Jacobite victory.

This version, by the Corries, is preceded by an account of the first singing of the fourth verse of the UK National Anthem – the one which is no longer officially recognised.

Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet 1, P S Publishing, 2014, 88 p

 Famadihana on Fomalhaut-IV cover

This is the first of four novellas presumably centred round the beam-me-across-space technology Brown has dubbed Telemass and which, as I recall, made its first appearance in the author’s Meridian Days many moons ago.

Here, Matt Hendrick, a detective from Amsterdam, arrives by Telemass on the planet Avoel (Fomalhaut-IV) to seek his wife and the daughter she took with her when she left him. Once there he becomes embroiled with Tiana Tiandra, a woman whose girlfriend Lalla has also disappeared into the interior. The events of the novella are related to the goings-on of a strange cult inspired by the indigenous Avoeli who have a ritual similar to the famadihana of Madagascar from where most of the humans on Avoel originally derived. This involves the apparently dead being brought back to life. The story is mostly told in third person but small fragments from Tiana’s viewpoint are rendered in italics.

Brown does this sort of thing so well. His readers will be familiar with a protagonist not in a relationship at the story’s start or else getting over a failed one, a religion with a degree of bizzarrerie, a lost spouse or family member, strange aliens and may even expect a love interest to be encountered along the way. The entertainment comes with the twists he applies to these building blocks. In this novella the Avoel are perhaps a little too undeveloped, Hendrick’s relationship with Tiana is a bit precipitate and the resolution also feels a trifle rushed. Yet the whole thing is engaging, if perhaps lacking some of the warmth of Brown’s previous quartet for PS, Starship Seasons. But we’re only one story in. Time enough.

Pedant’s corner:- is a valued members of my congregation (member,) attempting to keep the irritation from her voice” (his voice makes more sense,) peered around it mass (its mass,) bears a passing a passing resemblance, not to hate met (me,) “He heard her breathing at her side (his.) And a fair sprinkling of instances of “time interval” later.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2005, 137 p, plus iv p of introduction by Ian Watson.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne cover

This handsomely produced novella was published to coincide with the centenary of Verne’s death in 2005. In that sense I’ve come to it about ten years too late. Part pastiche of Verne, part typical Eric Brown fare, this is an entertaining diversion, in which Verne is wheeched by means of a time-portal off to the Upper Cretaceous and the far future in a time machine which has the unfortunate drawback of leeching power from the sun and so causing Earth to freeze. Here too are a megalomaniac dictator, along with his nubile antagonist, not to mention ant-like interstellar aliens and strange gadgets. These adventures spark in Verne ideas he will later incorporate into fiction. What’s not to like? While there may be no profound points here – but neither were there in Verne’s fictions – what there is is an engaging adventure story with nods to the work of one of SF’s founding fathers.

Pedant’s corner:- gasses (gases,) panatela (panatella,) “hoves” as a present tense (heaves,) had take its toll on his reason (taken.)

Jani and the Greater Game by Eric Brown

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

This book is dedicated to Jack and Katrina Stephen. Those of you who know me will realise how pleased that makes me.

 Jani and the Greater Game cover

Janisha Chatterjee, daughter of an Indian Father and (deceased) English mother, is on her way back from England – where she is training in medicine – to her father’s deathbed when the airship in which she is travelling is brought down by Russian artillery fire. For this is India in 1925, and the Great Game is still afoot. Even though the Great War of our era does not seem to have happened the Russia contesting with the British Empire is Communist. China is also involved though only in the background here.

The Greater Game of the title concerns the prisoner on the airship, a creature known as a Morn, who saves Jani from the Russians mopping up after the attack. He gives her a coin and her entanglement in the plot follows. Other viewpoint characters are Durga Das, a priest of Kali, who is searching out the coin for reasons of his own, and Lieutenant Alfie Littlebody of the British Army, tasked by his superiors to spy upon Jani.

Echoes of Brown’s Bengal Station trilogy are never far away, this is India after all. But this is also steampunk. The wonder material Annapurnite not only powers superfast trains and airships but also weapons to keep the Russians and Chinese at bay; in a James Bond film-like touch Littlebody is given a photon blade and a Visual Camouflage Amplifier, both of which come in handy. There is also a mind-reading device. Oh and a Mechanical Man and even bigger mechanical elephant. And this is before we get beyond steampunk to the parallel worlds and the threat to humanity from the Khell.

The pleasure of this is in the journey. The author piles on the jeopardy and the intrigue and handles the politics of the British presence in India well – from both sides. Despite the steampunk trappings this comes out as a very Eric Brown type of story, if not quite reaching the heights of his The Kings of Eternity then less pulpy then the Bengal Station series. If Littlebody is a bit of a twit and Jani’s childhood companion Anand perhaps too cloying, Jani is engaging enough. And there is ample scope for a sequel (which I understand is in the works.) I’ll look forward to it.

Rites of Passage by Eric Brown

Infinity Plus Books, 2014, 188 p.

Rites of Passage cover

This is a collection of four of Brown’s novella length works three of which have appeared previously.

Bartholomew Burns and the Brain Invaders is a steampunk story featuring Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, our eponymous hero Burns, mudlark Tommy Newton and a scene at the Great Exhibition. In it we have no less than three sets of aliens, one of which is about to invade Earth by taking over the brains of people in power. Put so baldly it seems daft, and in many ways it is, but it is effective as light entertainment. As Brown says in his introduction to the collection the background here is not as compelling as it might be but he has created scope for more adventures from Burns in the future where that deficiency, if it is one, can be remedied.

Guardians of the Phoenix was later expanded by Brown into a novel. This original version became roughly the third quarter of the novel and, to my mind, the story works better at this shorter length, being more tightly focused.

Sunworld is set on a constructed space habitat where the inhabitants have long forgotten their origin. Yarrek Merwell dreams of being an architect but his extremely religious parents force him into joining the Inquisition. His encounter with the Church’s head leads to revelations that overturn his ideas of himself and his place in the world. Yet again in a Brown story religion looms large.

The story original to this collection is Beneath the Ancient Sun but its setting – an Earth dried up, with little fresh water – could be that of Guardians of the Phoenix only many centuries further on. A handful of humans struggles to survive, eking out their meagre reserves of water and telling stories to inspire the youngsters. For his Initiation rite Par chooses to emulate the legendary journey of Old Old Old Marla to the high mountain peaks. His girlfriend Nohma and her former lover Kenda accompany him. This story and Guardians of the Phoenix are the most satisfactory of the four novellas here. The other two seem more sketchy, as if they required greater length to be fully effective. Brown has left plenty scope for that, though, if he decides to return to the scenarios.

Approaching Omega by Eric Brown

Telos, 2005, 118 p.

Approaching Omega cover

To escape an Earth that is falling apart, several thousand people have been selected to journey in cold sleep to find another habitable planet. The ship’s automated systems are to wake them either on detecting a suitable candidate or when an accident has occurred.

A prelude chapter sets up the situation and foreshadows a possible problem with the ship’s drive. The main body of the book deals with the aftermath of damage to the ship and the controlling AI’s response. This turns the tale into one of action adventure. While Brown’s usual focus on human relationships is not absent it is lessened here in comparison to other works of his. A coda re-establishes this aspect, though.

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