Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2016, 380 p. Reviewed for Interzone 266, Sep-Oct 2016.

 Revenger cover

The first thing that strikes the reader about this novel is that (barring two very small encyclopaedia extracts laid out in a dark green) it is printed in brown ink. This turns out to be no mere presentational quirk but is instead symbolic. Our narrator, Arafura Ness, tells us fairly early on that she has scratched her story in blood onto rough paper. (Just how rough we find out in the last chapter.) This foreshadowing of things to come belies the book’s initial brightness which has some of the tonal qualities of a Victorian Boy’s Own Adventure; except for the female lead. Throughout the book individuals are denoted by the word “cove”, spaceship crew argot abounds and there are quests for hidden treasure. In that sense it might have been a YA title and in accord with that there is first the necessity to be rid of the parents.

Fura is sixteen, well educated, but her mother is dead and her father fallen on hard times. Her elder sister, Ardana, leads her astray, into the shady environs of Neural Alley where she is tested for ability to read Bones. These are only one of many types of artefact left over from before the Sundering and allow Bone Readers to communicate instantly if sometimes unreliably across the reaches of space. Both sisters are of course adept. To gain quoins to help their father’s plight they sign up for six months service on the Monetta’s Mourn under Captain Rackamore.

Like all the other spaceships in the novel Monetta is a sunjammer with auxiliary ion engines. Rackamore uses her to seek out baubles, closed environments which contain valuable items of ancient tech but which only open at irregular intervals and for irregular times. Along with the Bone Readers the ship’s crew contains an augurer to divine those times, an assessor to determine what any finds are worth, integrators to unseal internal locks plus other specialists. Each bauble (and most of the large habitable environments in the book) has a mini black hole called a swallower at its core.

The science fictional aspects of this – a degenerate humanity seemingly restricted to a relatively small area of space surrounding the habitats of the Congregation, in an era called the Thirteenth Occupation; cut adrift from its origins in the Old Sun, a history with many gaps, with only barely recalled legends for memories, relying on tech it can use but not understand, tech more or less indistinguishable from magic – mostly lie in the background and lend the whole the feel of steampunk in reverse; while bone reading verges on fantasy. There are also aliens; especially those nicknamed Crawlies who fortuitously turned up just before a banking crash and now oversee the financial system despite claiming to have no interest in money themselves, a question as to just what exactly quoins might really be and hints of shadowy others beyond human knowledge.

Of course things do not go smoothly. While plundering a bauble the Monetta is attacked by the shadowy ship Nightjammer, captained by the notorious Bosa Sennen. Most of the crew are killed, Ardana is captured and Fura only saved by the selfless action of the previous Bone Reader, Garval. In hiding, Fura is forced to eat lightvine to survive. As a consequence she contracts the glowy, which makes her skin emit light and may affect her brain function. She and the only other survivor, Prozor, eventually gain rescue and form an alliance, which is soon interrupted by what at first seems an authorial misstep as Fura is legally forced to return to her original home. But this becomes a means to underline how much her experience has changed her. Desires for both revenge and to free Ardana have made any thought of returning to her old life intolerable. With the help of Paladin, the family robot (another remnant of ancient tech, a battle robot no less, but with much diminished competence) she escapes – a process which requires the hasty surgical removal of a lower arm to get rid of her restraint bracelet with Fura acquiring an artificial hand in its place, the partial destruction of Paladin and the devastation of her father. She again teams up with Prozor, taking ship on the Queen Crimson and working towards inveigling Bosa into a trap.

Reynolds tackles it all with brio. Yet he doesn’t ignore deeper concerns. Bosa has a rationale for her depredations. Fura regrets the hardness which has entered her soul, the deceptions she has had to undertake, the decisions made. Revenger asks the question: is the search for revenge worth the price of turning you into what you detested?

I doubt I’ll read a more engaging work of SF this year.

The comments below did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner:- a figure lying on their back (a figure is singular and ought not to carry a plural pronoun; so lying on her back. There are other instances of their being used of an individual,) we adjusted to the routines to the ship (of the ship.) “Whether it was my words ….but Garval’s distress seemed to lessen” (is missing something like “I don’t know” before the “but”,) two full stops at the end of one sentence, a space missing after a parenthetical dash, ‘I think I can there easily enough’ (get there,) in the opposite direction that I had come (,) adingy (a dingy,) refers to an over-wound clock (they still have mechanical clocks? – and telegraphs later,) to fight if off (it off,) was still set as it had been in when (no “in”,) “how likely is that it someone” (how likely is it that someone,) a missing paragraph indent at a new speaker, “moved you into lock” (into the lock,) for a while.Even (for a while. Even,) ‘I was part of it wasn’t?’ (wasn’t I?) the sorry state Paladin had been when (had been in when,) but there’d no reason (be no reason,) a acceptance (an acceptance,) I should never have let Vidin Quindar to bring me home (no “to” necessary,) maw for entrance, “trying not to drop the pillowcase in the process I thought of all the limbs” (full stop after pillowcase,) moved a hand to brake lever (to the brake lever,) he’d had resigned himself (he’d, or he had,) walled=in (walled-in,) skeptical (sceptical,) Cazarary (Cazaray,) just enough to pluck his interest (pique his interest? – but pluck his interest is a good formulation,) weedled your way onto (wheedled?) “Ground that had been trod” (trodden,) “as if she were holding over a new born baby” (handing over makes more sense,) “since I’d been any contact” (been in any contact; or, seen any contact,) shrunk (shrank,) “‘I’ve told you aren’t anything special’” (‘I’ve told her you aren’t anything special,’) “maybe we should be get at that first” (no “be” required,) were were, pivotted (pivoted,) wickedabout (wicked about,) “but then was so Mattice” (but then so was Mattice,) not not, sometimesd, intution (intuition,) “and was were coming back with it” (either was or were, not both,) in the all the (in all the,) “I’d shirked it off” (shucked it off?) Nighjammer (Nightjammer,) bronzey (bronzy,) “whether was that the start of it” (whether that was,) “some work to on that score” (work to do,) deviousways (devious ways,) “I stroked her hair than bid her rest” (then bid her rest.)

Barony Mill, near Birsay, Orkney

This is the last working mill in Orkney but it isn’t commercially viable. It opens in the summer for tourists but does grind grain in winter – the local bere barley etc – for some local consumption and to keep the tradition going.

The young lad that showed us round (off to University later this year) said it was his grandmothe who was the last full-time miller there. Pictures of her at work were on the walls. Quite a thing back then for a woman to be in a job like that.

Barony Mill, near Birsay, Orkney

Old water wheels. They may get round to recommissioning these one day:-

Old mill wheels, Barony Mill

I took four videos. Click on each picture to get to its video.

Water Wheel:-

Barony Wheel Driving Wheel

Gearing:-

Gearing, Barony Mill

Lower level workings:-

Barony Mill, Lower Level Workings

Upper level workings:-

Barony Mill Upper Level Workings

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Headline Review, 2006, 352 p. First published in 1892. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes cover

Being not much of a fan of crime novels I would not normally have picked this up but it is on that list – it even made the top ten – of Scotland’s favourite books (see link above) of which, having recently ticked off Willa Muir’s Imagined Corners – which is separately among the 100 best Scottish books while this is not – I have worked through all but four now. But it was available at a local Library.

So: how to account for the perennial attraction of these Sherlock Holmes stories? While they are easy to read they are not particularly well-written, being prone to exposition and, taken as a whole, remarkably repetitive in form. Nor are they particularly diverse. Not less than three of the ones here hinge on attempts to thwart possible inheritances. Moreover, our narrator, Dr Watson, is usually not present at the crucial points of an investigation, only for the reveal. And quite often the criminal – or malfeasant, there is not always a crime involved – ends up not being punished.

As to the stories themselves: A Scandal in Bohemia isn’t; either a scandal or set in Bohemia. The Red-headed League is an invented body whose advert is intended to attract applicants for the purposes of diversion from a crime. The perpetrator of the misdemeanour in A Case of Identity is obvious from the moment of its description by the victim. So too from early on is the murderer in The Boscombe Valley Mystery. The Five Orange Pips are the Ku Klux Klan’s equivalent of Treasure Island’s black spot while The Man with the Twisted Lip turns on an ingenious way to make a comfortable living. The Blue Carbuncle is a stolen diamond that ends up in the crop of a Christmas goose. The Speckled Band is a tale of murder by unusual means. The Engineer’s Thumb is barely a mystery at all. The Noble Bachelor’s bride does a bunk almost as soon as the wedding ceremony is over but Holmes soon divines why. The Beryl Coronet is a piece of jewellery entrusted to a banker as security for a loan and part of which is subsequently stolen while in his care. The banker’s dissolute son is given the blame until Holmes gets on the case. Once again the true perpetrator (or at least one of them) is not hard to pick out. The Copper Beeches is the house to which a governess is invited to work but there are odd conditions attached to the post.

Well, I can now say I’ve read Doyle’s Holmes (two years ago I reviewed for Interzone one of James Lovegrove’s homages) but I can’t say I’m keen to repeat the experience. The Hound of the Baskervilles, though, is on that 100 best list. I suppose I can always hope Doyle is better at novel length.

Pedant’s corner:- hurrah for encyclopædias! Otherwise – The King of Scandinavia (there is no such person; but I suppose Conan Doyle did not wish to name actual royalty.) “‘The form do so when the security is good,’” (ought to be “does so” but it was in direct speech,) shrunk (shrank.)

Dumbarton 1-1 Connah’s Quay Nomads

aet 2-1.

Scottish Challenge Cup*, Round 2, The Rock, 2/9/17

What a novelty. When was the last time we won two Challenge Cup ties in a row?

Though it seems like it wasn’t a good performance – even if they parked the bus after they scored.

Still we managed to score a goal through David Wilson late on in the ninety minutes to take it to extra time.

And then new signing Dimitris Froxylias stepped up to bang in a free kick with what sounds like the last kick of the ball to spare us penalties.

I keep thinking of how Lord Charles would pronounce the last part of our Dimitris’s surname. (Below at 2.21 and 5.16 and 6.07 minutes in.)

What will Round 3 bring?

*OK, the Irn Bru Cup.

Evie War Memorial

Evie is a small village close to the Broch of Gurness in the north of mainland Orkney.

This simple pillar stands to the side of the A 966 road from Evie to Birsay.

War Memorial, Evie, Orkney

The inscription reads, “In memoriam. Died for King and Country in the Great War 1914-1919.”

Inscription, War Memorial, Evie, Orkney

The names on the memorial all date from 1917 and 1918:-

Names, War Memorial, Evie, Orkney

More Names, War Memorial, Evie, Orkney,

Live It Up 38: Chocolate Girl

This could be considered a 1980s answer in reverse to Carpet Man (see last week.)

I remember seeing the band perform this on the daily lunchtime BBC Scotland TV programme broadcast from the Glasgow Garden Festival.

Looking at this video messrs Ricky Ross and Dougie Vipond seem impossibly young. (I have taught Vipond’s eldest son.) And what was Lorraine McIntosh thinking about with that outfit?

Deacon Blue: Chocolate Girl

The Magic Flute by Alan Spence

Black Swan, 1991, 410 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Magic Flute cover

Starting from the point at which their destinies are about to diverge The Magic Flute chronicles the lives of four pupils from the same Glasgow Primary School, Tam, Brian, George and Eddie, from when they are about to move on to Secondary School at the turn of 1950s/60s up till just after John Lennon’s death in 1980. When the book starts two are shortly to sit the bursary exam for the fee-paying High School, two to progress to the local Junior Secondary. They all make their way to audition for the Orange Flute Band but only one of them manages to get a sound out of the instrument they are given to try and he gets to take it home. (The next week though it is the Mason’s son who has that privilege.) Inspired by music and especially Mozart’s The Magic Flute Tam becomes a musician, Brian sticks to his studies and ends up as a teacher of English, George drifts even after he is inducted into the Masons following his father, and Eddie escapes a life of crime by joining the Army only to be sent to Northern Ireland.

A possible different path for most of them is signposted by an improvised show in which they perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but only Tam breaks free (set partly on his way by LSD) and even he cannot quite escape the drag such an upbringing imposes. Brian’s aspirations to being a novelist are stunted by that Scottish sense of knowing your place. “Part of him always stood back…. a wee Scottish gremlin that narked in his head. Ach away ye go. I know fine what you really are. He supposed it was a variant of the old put-down. Him? A writer? He couldnae be. I kent his faither. Only this was more insidious, was the end result of such programming, and the form it took was Me? Ach, naw, no me. I couldnae.

Life in the West of Scotland at that time is conveyed well enough, the setting of paths and narrowing of opportunities caused by educational apartheid (long since gone in the main,) the background of sectarianism and the strains it causes (not gone – at least in certain spheres,) the hidebound nature of the older generation, the attraction for some of radical politics.

The initial prose is a touch diagrammatic and the characterisation a little perfunctory so that the boys are not sufficiently distinguished from one another. Also, too many of the scenes in the book start in the middle before flashing back. Spence’s jokes are more intrusive and less integrated than in Way to Go and that signalling of the story’s thrust by the initial scenes is something of a misdirection. For those of sensitive dispositions I note use of the “n” word plus the “d” word and the “P” word.

It’s a good enough read. One of the 100 best, though?

Pedant’s corner:- recordplayer (record player,) the tune from That was the week that was (That Was the Week That Was – very often in this book where Spence quotes a title he only capitalises its first word, which is against the usual convention and looks downright odd at times,) threedimensional (three-dimensional,) had showed (shown, x 2,) “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind in life unkind” (I believe Spence has misheard these lines from Ruby Tuesday which are, “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind. Ain’t life unkind?”) workingclass (working class,) beat-up (beaten up,) tryng (trying,) “‘it had it’s moments’” (its,) CSE class (a big blooper: CSEs were a qualification in the rest of the UK but not in Scotland, where we had Standard Grades, so there would not have been a CSE class. Maybe Black Swan made the change in order not to confuse English readers,) alsation (alsatian – used later,) hung (hanged, okay it was in dialogue, but it was uttered by an English teacher, who should know better….) hotching (hoaching.)

Ness Battery, Stromness

The main World War 2 defence artillery battery for the Sound of Hoy was the Ness Battery. A few buildings remain. They have that vaguely Deco style of a lot of World War 2 fortifications. We missed the guided tour so didn’t get the full access. We’d only gone out for an evening stroll.

Ness Battery, Stromness

Ness Battery, Stromness  2

Ness Battery, Stromness 3

Shore Battery. Atlantic/Pentland Firth beyond:-

Shore Battery, Ness Battery, Stromness

Graemsay and Hoy from Ness Battery:-

Graemsay and Hoy from Ness Battery

Birsay, Orkney

The parish and village of Birsay lies at the northwestern end of the mainland of Orkney.

Just off the mainland is the Brough of Birsay. Brough means island:-

Brough of Birsay, Orkney

A causeway allows access to the island at low tide. You can just see the causeway under the water’s surface to the middle left of the photo. The island has a Stevenson lighthouse on it.

Rocks and a standing stone at Birsay:-

Rocks at Birsay, Orkney

More rocks and a small bay at Birsay:-

Rocks and Bay at Birsay, Orkney

The remains of the Palace of a notoriously harsh Earl of Orkney are the main attraction in Birsay itself.

From road in:-

Earl's Palace, Birsay, Orkney, from Road in.

Reverse view:-

Earl's Palace, Birsay, Orkney

Interior 1:-

Earl's Palace, Birsay, Orkney Interior 1

Interior 2:-

Earl's Palace, Birsay, Orkney, Interior 2

Interior 3:-

Earl's Palace, Birsay, Orkney, Interior 3

We did wander round the graveyard of St Magnus Church, and took a walk down to the beach behind it.

Forgetting History

Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian on how T Ronald Dump crossed a line when he failed to condemn neo-Nazis after Charlottesville.

The worst thing was that the incumbent President of the United States – supposedly the leader of the free world – conveyed moral equivalence between Nazism/fascism and those who oppose it. That is breathtaking in its lack of awareness and abdication of responsibility for decency.

I have read an article which claimed that just because you opposed Nazism it didn’t mean your cause was necessarily good. What?

WHAT?

(The rationale was that Stalin fought fascism/Hitlerism, the implication, that since Stalin was bad then so, if you fight Nazism, are you.)

[I hesitated to post the link here as I didn’t want to encourage the writer in his false comparisons but finally decided to. (Here.)]

Quite apart from the outrageous insult his proposition is to those Allied soldiers who signed up to fight in the Second World War and even more so to those who gave their lives doing so, (it implies they were fellow travellers, duped) what a despicable piece of whataboutery that false equation represents. It gets the whole thing exactly the wrong way round.

The true state of affairs is that if you don’t fight Nazism/fascism then your cause is bad.

Apparently 9% of US citizens polled after Charlottesville believe that neo-Nazi or white supremacist views are acceptable. If the poll is representative that means 30 million people in the US share those beliefs. That is a forgetting of history right there.

How did it come to this? How did people come to forget those vile views (and the actions which resulted from them) were what their grandfathers had to fight against? How can a belief in the US as a bastion of freedom co-exist with an ideology whose aim is to extinguish freedom? (Even as that ideology is dressed up as a crusade for freedom of expression – or historical memory.)

A Professor Halford E Luccock of Yale University is quoted in the New York Times of 12/9/1938 as saying, “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled “Made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism”.”

Beware those who fly flags of whatever colour.

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