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The Power by Naomi Alderman

Viking, 2016, 349 p.

 The Power cover

The Power imagines what it would be like, how interactions between the sexes would be affected, how society would be changed, if women developed the ability to administer electric shocks – in much the same way a manta ray can. The premise is a fantastical one but is given a Science-Fictional rationale by positing an area of muscle across the collar bone, called a skein, as a centre for the power and an origin for the mutation in a Second World War chemical agent (Guardian Angel) which protected against gas attacks, which inevitably leaked into the environment.

The story of how this power changes the world is told mainly through four points of view: Allie, who becomes the head of a new religion emphasising God’s female nature by transforming herself into Mother Eve; a London gangster’s daughter called Roxy; Margot Cleary, a US city mayor eager for further political advancement and Tunde who, initially by accident, becomes the journalistic chronicler of events.

There is, of course, a backlash to the new reality, both in the political sphere and in the darker (and perhaps not so hidden) recesses of the internet. One conspiracy theorist called UrbanDox believes that Guardian Angel was leaked deliberately just to do men down.

Yet Alderman’s is no simplistic account. Biblical cadences emphasise the mythical nature of the origins of her future society. Her characters are by and large agreeably nuanced, their actions not entirely predictable but still credible. Roxy is wonderfully realised but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Alderman’s US ones, and wondered whether Saudi Arabian women would throw off sexual inhibitions quite so quickly as one does here. But I suppose in the heady throes of a revolution anything might go and Alderman’s tale implicitly argues that human nature is indivisible, characteristics and behaviours shown by any one individual may or may not be shown by others, irrespective of their sex.

Where I have major reservations is with the framing device, a series of letters supposedly sent five thousand years hence between “Neil” and “Naomi” wrapped around the contents of a manuscript whose title page reads The Power: a historical novel by Neil Adam Armon (the anagram is easily deciphered) and which purports to be an imaginative, speculative, account of how the power originated and precipitated what became known as the Cataclysm. These letters stand on their heads widely held beliefs (in our present) about the proclivities and habits of, and attitudes to, men and women. Alderman’s point in a nutshell, but perhaps a little too heavy-handed. Between each section of the book (which count down from the power’s first appearance to the Cataclysm) are illustrations of little understood artefacts from around the time described in the manuscript. The interpolation into the manuscript of seemingly intact “Archival documents relating to the electrostatic power, it origin, dispersal, and the possibility of a cure” also strains credibility. How could they have survived more or less intact, remaining understandable, when the illustrated artefacts did not? Moreover the manuscript itself is too close to present day speech patterns – especially in the character of Roxy – to make the framing device believable. A five thousand year hence Neil Adam Armon would have got so much of our present wrong that he actually gets right. From this point of view it might have been better just to present the story as speculation rather than an imagined history from the future. This is a very purist position, of course, which argues for every detail of the overall book to be true to its own reality as presented to the reader – and very difficult to bring off. And anyway, SF is always about the present, never the future (or in this case the manuscript’s distant past.) I also doubt whether the inhabitants of such a world would in fact call the historical break a cataclysm but all this is mere quibbling. Though its interpretation of human nature, power and how it is implemented is bleak, The Power is engrossing, well written and with a lot to say about relationships between the sexes.

Pedant’s corner:- “over to her cousins” (cousins’,) “the particulate and debris grow” (particulates and debris?) “the music reaches a crescendo” (no, a crescendo is a rise, not the climax at its end.)

Interzone 269

Interzone 269 cover

Steve Rasnic Tem’s Guest Editorial outlines ten actions you could take to help address climate change problems. Jonathan McCalmont’s column1 argues that attempts to open up genre culture to previously marginalised voices are all well and good but that reading genre cannot of itself address the world’s problems, only action can. Nina Allan’s Timepieces2 reflects on the many homes she has had, some of which have fed into her fiction. She hopes she has now settled down. The reviews contain one of Tem’s latest novel Ubo plus an interview with the author. Also covered are the latest novels by Charles Stross, John Scalzi3 and Adam Roberts, the very good indeed Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, and my thoughts on The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz.
In the fiction, The Influence Machine4 by Sean McMullen is narrated by Albert Grant, the only Metropolitan Police Inspector in 1899 with knowledge of science. A woman has been arrested for loitering with intent as her wagon contains something “scientific”. Her machine can peer into a parallel, more scientifically advanced world. The story is delightful but its ending is a bit weak.
A Death in the Wayward Drift5 by Tim Akers didn’t grab me at all. It features divers in a lake of strange water, things called emissary birds, trees that move and, despite the title, more than one death.
Still Life with Falling Man6 by Richard E Gropp. A man who can see into other dimensions is employed to find when a new nexus opens. These are spaces wherein twenty seven million years goes by in a subjective ten seconds. He gets trapped in one and is counting down from ten. This aspect reminded in part of my own Closing Time (Interzone 89, Nov 1994.)
In A Strange Kind of Beauty7 by Christien Gholson the Scoryax Kahtt wander a parched landscape following the prophecies of scrolls. Their Vaithe find new scrolls and translate the prophecies. Heoli’s find points her tribe to a hitherto forbidden place replete with water.
Set in a globally warmed flooded south Florida The Common Sea8 by Steve Rasnic Tem focuses on a man whose oldest memories are visions of another dying world and who is trying to get by in this one. In part the story riffs on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Pedant’s corner:-
1arm sales (arms sales,) “lies not in the protagonist’s ability to leap tall buildings but in the knowledge that his ability to deploy overwhelming force in a manner that is beyond reproach” (of his ability,) “designed to illicit (elicit,) “the moral and political value of books lays not in the quality of the ideas” (lies not, see earlier quote.) 2Merthyr Tidfil (Merthyr Tydfil.) 3emperox (emperor, I believe.) 4waggon is used throughout. I prefer wagon, “open to the naval” (navel.) “seemed” in a present tense sentence; so, seems, discretely (discreetly,) 5”trying to not think of what lay ahead” (trying not to think of what lay ahead.) “Initiates wore …….to allow easy movement … when we are on the lake” (wore, therefore “when we were on the lake”.) 6”The skin, clothing and furniture remains unchanged” (remain,) “There was very little flora” (flora is plural???) 7Xichoh (elsewhere Xicoh.) 8no where to go (nowhere.)

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař

Sceptre, 2017, 283 p.

 Spaceman of Bohemia cover

This is a brilliant debut novel but an odd reading experience, like Science Fiction as if written by Milan Kundera. Some of its tonal quality is, perhaps more understandably, also reminiscent of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris.

The set-up is that a comet has entered the Milky Way “from the Canis Major galaxy” and swept our solar system with a sandstorm of intergalactic dust. Consequently a purple cloud, named Chopra by its New Delhi discoverers, has formed between Venus and Earth. (I wondered here if there is perhaps a nod to M P Shiel’s 1901 novel, The Purple Cloud. Then again there is no reason for Kalfař, Czech born but who emigrated – the blurb says immigrated, there’s an end-point bias for you – to the US when he was sixteen.)

The Spaceman of the title, and our narrator, is Jakub Procházka, a man with a professional fascination with space dust and a professorship in astrophysics. With no other country publicly willing to investigate the Chopra phenomenon, the Czech Republic steps up to the mark, launching him from Petřín Hill on the space shuttle JanHus1. However, the book is not much concerned with the Science-Fictional scaffolding of this premise but more on Jakub’s life before the mission and his mental state while on it.

Not long into his voyage Jakub begins to perceive another living creature in his spaceship, a spider-like being whom he dubs Hanuš, after the maker of Prague’s astronomical clock, and which talks to him and enquires about his life. Kalfař’s writing leaves open the question as to whether this is an actual alien or an hallucination and Hanuš’s philosophy gradually begins to drive Jakub’s actions. Even at the end of the novel Hanuš is still a very real presence to Jakub.

The spaceship chapters are up to the last quarter of the book interspersed with the story of Jakub’s life until he became chosen for the mission. Jakub’s father had been a keen Communist and indeed a state torturer. With the fall of the Soviet Union the family’s fortunes of course changed, not helped by his parent’s death in a car crash, and Jakub’s late childhood, being looked after by his grandparents, was dogged by persecution by his peers. One day a man arrived carrying a rusty metal shoe which he said Jakub’s father once used to torture him. This “Shoe Man” now has the law on his side and causes the Procházkas’ eviction from their ancestral home – a telling reminder that injustice does not only exist under oppressive régimes. The most engaging of these “real life” chapters are those which deal with Jakub’s wife, Lenka, how he met her, their life together, and how, unknowingly to Jakub, they began drifting apart. This is a detailed portrait of a relationship.

In a clever decision by Kalfař the flashbacks are narrated in the present tense while the story of Jakub’s trip in space and its aftermath are in the past tense. This adds to the dreamy, hallucinatory nature of the space-based sections while the Earth bound sections are agreeably gritty. At one point Jakub sees Laika the dog drift past his ship, “her body preserved by the kindness of the vacuum, denying the corrosive effects of oxygen.” (Quite how she escaped the confines of the capsule she had been launched in Kalfař doesn’t explain, but it had me wondering.) This is of course a touch that borders on magic realism, emphasising the strangeness of Jakub’s voyage, but one of the novel’s concerns is the necessity to fight against or to accept the absurdity, the sheer unlikeliness, of the universe. In Jakub’s world even in space persecution cannot be avoided. Hanuš’s species has been pursued across galaxies by creatures called Gorompeds intent on its extinction. It is a neat touch that while Jakub uses the word humanity to describe our kind, Hanuš characterises us as humanry.

The book is also a primer on the history of Prague, the Czechs, and their achievements. To this end we are shown the martyrdom of Jan Hus (though in an apparent aside which is also a neat piece of foreshadowing Kalfař considers the possibility that Hus might have been replaced by a relative lookalike and lived out his days in seclusion,) the tragedy of Vaclav Havel – a man wanting only to write poetry but who instead became public property – who “lost his typewriter,” the plot of the opera Rusalka and the line from it, “All sacrifices are futile” that seems to apply to Jakub’s imminent demise at the hands (tendrils?) of the Chopra cloud, the impossible dilemma faced by Emile Hácha in Hitler’s office as he was offered ignominy or the slaughter of his country.

As the JanHus1 disintegrates in the purple cloud Hanuš disappears and Jakub is rescued by a “phantom” (deniable, incognito) Russian spaceship. He thwarts their authorities’ intention to detain him forever by interfering with the ship’s controls on its landing descent, making it crash, and so limps on into an afterlife in which everyone but the Shoe Man, whom he confronts in a park and whose complicity in his choice for the mission he uncovers, thinks he is dead.

The strangeness of the part of the narrative taking place in space, the distancing Jakub feels even when back on Earth, is echoed by the question he asks himself, “What if our existence is a field of study in probability conducted by the universe?”

My main thought during reading this is that in the flashback sections it bears far more similarity to a mainstream novel from Central/Eastern Europe than to Science Fiction. Kalfař writes in USian but odd word choices, phrases and emphases sometimes make the text seem like a translation – yet all of these add to the overall effect.

To see an examination of the history – and present – of a small country in the guise of a Science Fiction novel is an unusual but welcome phenomenon. But is this a trick Kalfař can pull off again?

One of my books of the year though, without a doubt.

Pedant’s corner:- the Canis Major galaxy (Canis Major is not a galaxy, it’s a constellation,) spit (spat; I know it’s USian usage but it still grates,) “the creature has ahold of me” (a hold,) a missing start quote mark when a chapter began with a piece of dialogue, “over the clothing lines fastened to poles outside their windows” (clothes lines – clothing line is a fashion industry term,) “a deceptively still malt of sand and rock” (malt? Did Kalfař mean meld?) aircrafts (aircraft,) “cut my parents’ retirement” (is this use of retirement in the sense of pension USian? Or is it perhaps a Czech usage?) A missing end quote mark, “to give her a grandchild” (her was Jakub’s grandmother so that would be a great grandchild.) “Millions of eggs circumvent a small planet” (circumscribe,) “I didn’t know what happened to my wife” (what had happened,) by all standards (by any standards is more usual,) scruff (scurf,) a candlewick (it wasn’t a bedspread; so, candle wick.)
Plus points though for the “whom” in “I’m not sure whom to be angry with” and for the use of wee to mean small.

Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg

Titan Hard Case Crime, 2012, 213 p. Content first published in 1959, 1960 and 1962.

 Blood on the Mink cover

The author is my second favourite writer of SF and I read this one for the sake of completeness. Silverberg is not widely known for his crime novels but he knocked a few out in the last dying days of the pulp era when that market for Science Fiction had dried up. Pulp crime was not long in following but that wasn’t Silverberg’s fault. He is incapable of writing anything that is less than readable but this has the vices of its idiom in its lack of ornamentation, of its time in its casual sexism and of its place in an equally casual attitude to the use of guns.

Narrator Nick is a law enforcement agent whose speciality is in subduing his own identity and impersonating less major criminals in order to get to the main players. The plot involves the distributor of very good forgeries of five and ten dollars bills and the discovery and release from bondage of the engraver who made the plates for their manufacture. None of the characters lifts beyond the functional – or typical – but the plot is well-honed and provides the action its intended readership presumably craved.

The two accompanying short stories used to pad out this paperback are from the same era and in similar vein. Dangerous Doll riffs on the counterfeiting game and, as its title suggests, features a femme fatale, while One Night of Violence sees a travelling salesman get caught up in a gangland shootout. In this story I did wonder what on earth the “video set” in a late 1950s hotel lobby might have been.

Pedant’s corner:- bollixed (the British “bollocksed” is much to be preferred,) Klaus’ (Klaus’s, several instances,) Chavez’ (Chavez’s, ditto,) a missing full stop, Kleinjeld (elsewhere always Kleinfeld.)
Plus points for fitted – USian fiction usually has fit as a past tense.

The City of Woven Streets by Emmi Itäranta

Harper Voyager, 2016, 324 p

 The City of Woven Streets cover

In a society where dreams are forbidden Eliana experiences night-maeres, which she must keep hidden or suffer banishment. She lives in an island city, in the House of Webs, whose head is called the Weaver. All born on the island bear tattoos showing their citizenship with a mark added yearly to show age. The city is prone to flooding by the sea and there is an overhead transport system of gondolas travelling on suspended ropes, and rope bridges between buildings. One day a girl whose tongue has been cut out is brought in to the House. In a certain kind of light Eliana’s name can be seen to be tattooed on her hand. The mystery builds from that point as Eliana comes into contact with a resistance movement, is betrayed by the Weaver and banished to a punishment detachment diving for valuable red coral.

The normal text is interspersed at long intervals with passages rendered in italics and which, apart from starting and finishing partway on a page, have no punctuation to separate them from the rest.

The setting has similarities to Itäranta’s first novel Memory of Water in that there is an oppressive regime from whom secrets must be kept. The City of Woven Streets leans more towards fantasy than, and does not have the clarity nor focus of, that previous book. Eliana’s escape from servitude is fortuitous and the final confrontation seems a bit rushed. This may be due to the pressure of the deadline to which Itäranta refers in her Acknowledgements.

Pedant’s corner – some of these may be due to Itäranta being Finnish. She wrote the book in both Finnish and English – :- span (spun,) lays (lies,) “two less than I have” (fewer,) different than (different from.) “none … come” (comes,) “to join the same queue with him” (as him,) “the Council have pardoned … , who in their wisdom” (has pardoned, in its wisdom,) “the members of the Council raise their right hand” (right hands.) “There is yet another hour less left of our lives” (an hour fewer,) undisputably (indisputably.) “None of us do” (none does of us,) none of them draw nearer (draws.)

Swastika Night by Murray Constantine

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2016, 198 p, including 4 p introduction by Michael Dirda.

The title page says “by Katharine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine” though the revelation of the author as Burdekin was not made till many years after the book’s first publication in 1937. The pseudonymous publication may have been because of the threat of repercussions due to her anti-fascist views or for the usual reasons a female might adopt a male name when writing.

 Swastika Night cover

Swastika Night is an extrapolation from the time of writing of what Nazism might have led to. Considering the little that was known of fascism’s excesses at the time it was written it is remarkably insightful and prophetic of what unchecked fascism could very well have developed into.

As a result of their victory in the Twenty Year War, seven hundred years in the future, Germany and Japan still rule the world between them. In Germany and its European, Middle Eastern and African dominions Hitler is a God. A seven foot tall blond God, who never had anything to do with women. Women in this future Germany have no purpose except for breeding – and no inclination for anything else as it has been bred out of them.

The book is told mainly through the eyes of an ordinary German, Hermann, and the English friend, Alfred, he made when posted to England five years before. Alfred is on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Germany) and attracts the interest of the local ruler the Knight Friedrich von Hess who is the keeper of a secret about the real historical Hitler. Through von Hess, the author lays out how a relatively nondescript man was transformed into godhood and historical truth obliterated to ensure the domination of the party line. In its depiction of the manipulation of history this prefigures some of the works of Philip K Dick.

Burdekin’s appreciation of the most important struggle Nazism was to face is shown by the line, “But Russia after the most tremendous struggle in history, was finally beaten.” We also have, “von Hess says the Germans have always been inclined to hysteria” and “unshakable, impregnable empire has always been the dream of virile nations.” This of course can be read as an indictment of virility.

There is not much by way of action and a large part of the book is given over to philosophising but it never fails to maintain the reader’s interest.

As an illustration of the dangers of totalitarianism, of the vigilance needed to maintain standards of truth, Swastika Night is as potent as 1984 and, in 2017, sadly as relevant a critique in the here and now as it was when first published.

Pedant’s corner:- “the real difference there is that divides men from beasts” (what divides makes more sense,) asleep (asleep,) sobered down (sobered,) routed out (rooted out is now more usual for this sense,) the Scarts of the Coolins (Cuillins, I’m puzzled by Scarts though,) ‘Row bonny boat like a bird on the wing’ (it’s Speed bonnie boat, but seven hundred years might have caused a lapse in memory.)
Phantasy – how good to see the old spelling.

What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

Re-reading the classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Corsair, 2015, 477 p.

 What Makes This Book So Great cover

This is a collection of Walton’s contributions to a blog on Tor.com, appearing between 15/6/2008 and 25/2/2011, in which she discussed the works of SF and fantasy she had been re-reading during that time. Her claim to be able to read up to six books in a day astonished me. If she’s doing that how does she fit in everyday life – food shopping, cooking, eating, family life, putting out the bins? Where on Earth can she find time to write fiction, or a blog post? Yes she says she sometimes spends all day in bed (I assume through illness or some debilitation) but even so. Admittedly that six was a maximum and she says she starts another book as soon as finishing the previous one. There was also the odd, to me, observation that she feels she hasn’t read a book if she hasn’t re-read it at least once; that first impressions of a book are suspect. I differ here, certainly from a later in life perspective. If a book does it for me the first time that’s fine; with perhaps a very few exceptions, if it doesn’t, a re-read is unlikely to help. My tbr pile is too high for much re-reading anyway. I also cannot read at Walton’s pace. Perhaps I pay too close an attention to the minutiae of a text; vide Pedant’s corner.

Many of Walton’s enthusiasms I doubt I would share. She spends 14 posts and over 60 pages here on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series which has far too many volumes for me to embark upon now, and in any case I have a disrecommendation from another source. Similarly 17 posts and 53 pages on Steven Brust’s Dragaera series. Not going to happen.

Walton always writes interestingly about the subject at hand; even of books I have no desire to read (whatever her eloquence.) And “IWantToReadItosity” is a great coinage. “It’s hard to explain, is utterly subjective and is entirely separate from whether a book is actually good.” We all have such guilty pleasures.

She occasionally digresses from the SF/Fantasy remit, for example enthusing about Iain Banks’s The Crow Road and of Middlemarch opines that George Eliot would have been a great writer of Science Fiction if only she’d had the idea to invent the form.

A puff on the back cover quotes Publishers Weekly, ‘For readers unschooled in the history of SF/F, this book is a treasure trove.’ I wouldn’t disagree.

Pedant’s corner:- Various instances of “there are a number” or “there are a lot” – too many to note individually. “I admire it to no end” (if anything this means “there is no purpose to my admiration of it”. I assume Walton meant “I admire it no end.”) a missing comma before a quote (x 2,) Achilles’ (Achilles’s,) visit with (visit,) “Every culture has their own naming custom” (its own naming custom,) “and right go on into” (and go right on into,) for goodness’ sake (goodness’s.) “The Mazianni are a company fleet” (is a fleet,) “the rest of the worlsd … look on jealously” (looks on,) “The weight of significance of things … sometimes need” (needs,) “when it gets us information” (gives us,) Marilac – but two lines later Marilican Embassy (which is it; Marilac or Marilic, Marilacan or Marilican?) “global warming has deteriorated” (“the climate has deteriorated because of global warming,”) “and is decided” (either “has decided” or “is tasked with” the context isn’t entirely clear,) Katan (Katin on next page,) “‘going I know not whence’” (in a quote from Dunsany; whence means “from where” – you can’t go “from where”,) “‘to be a part of the forest. (from ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for the Sacnoth’)” (no full stop after forest; or else a capital F at “from” and a full stop after Sacnoth.) “There are the sort of situations,” (the sorts of situations,) “who’s presented a great poet” (as a great poet,) elegaic (it’s spelled elegiac.) “There were a host (there was a host,) “that the British population shrink” (shrinks,) “Shute’s Britain …., indeed their ability” (its ability,) “to get away with Nicholas’s guesses to be more often right than wrong” (being more often,) to whit (to wit,) the PTA are considering (the PTA is considering,) vaccuum (vacuum,) “These are the kind of” (kinds of,) Marcus Aurelius’ (Marcus Aurelius’s,) “so that she has learned to thank people, and realise how nice” (realised,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “Small Beer are definitely my favourite small press” (is definitely,) vapourised (vaporised, this is a curious error in a book full of USianisms,) ascendency (ascendancy,) philo-sophical (no hyphen) even moreso (more so.)

Two Months on

The Switch cover
The Stars Are Legion cover

Two months seems to come round very quickly.

Yesterday The Switch by Justina Robson dropped onto my doormat.

It is the latest book for review in Interzone – to appear in issue 271.

Issue 270 arrived earlier in the week. That one features my review of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion.

The Vorrh by B Catling

Coronet, 2015, 510 p.

The Vorrh cover

I had this on the back burner until I read the recent favourable review by Brian Kelly in the Guardian of The Erstwhile, the second part of Catling’s trilogy.

The book is an eccentric thing to be sure – featuring a mysterious forest, robots in basements, a more or less human cyclops, a bow forged from human bone and which has strange powers of attraction, a pioneering photographer, anthropophagi (a smaller species of cyclops – Catling seems to have a thing about one-eyed creatures – but whose heads protrude from their chests,) a ritual involving still-born or aborted children – but I fear you may have to be in the mood for it. And I wasn’t.

The Vorrh is a forest in Africa which may be the site of the Garden of Eden and may even still have living somewhere in its centre, Adam. Most of the action of the book, though, occurs in Essenwald, a European city “imported piece by piece to the Dark Continent” which lies to the Vorrh’s south-east. The time is sometime after the Great War – yet there are sections from the Victorian era featuring the photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

The more or less human cyclops is Ishmael, raised in the basement of 4 Khüler Brunnen by the Kin, gentle dark-brown robotic machines. He is rescued from them by the building’s inhabitant, Ghertrude Tulp, whose lifelong chastity is broken by her attraction to Ishmael. But having tasted freedom from the basement and seen the city via a camera obscura in 4 Khüler Brunnen’s upper levels Ishmael is not content and on Carnival weekend (a time of masked, licenced debauchery) travels the city, encounters and has sex with the blind Cyrena Lohr. The next morning, Ishmael disappeared, Cyrena finds she can see. As a result of this miracle she dedicates herself to finding him. Meanwhile the ability to cure or cause affliction has become transferable from person to person.

The city’s fortunes are tied up with trade with the Vorrh for timber, trade which can only take place via creatures known as the Limboia, whose cooperation is only achieved via the delivering to them of the bodies of still-born children, an enterprise in which a Dr Hoffmann is closely involved.

There are also passages featuring a Frenchman who is based on the real life Raymond Roussel, in whose book Impressions of Africa appeared a forest called the Vorrh. Likewise the names of Ishmael and Dr Hoffmann are, I’m sure, intended to have resonances.

In that review Stuart Kelly waxed lyrical about The Erstwhile as did Michael Moorcock about The Vorrh in his review. but none of this really grabbed me.

And the Muybridge strand was odd in that it did not link to the others. I suppose it may do so in subsequent volumes but that, along with the occurrence of at least 30 instances of “time interval later”, meant I found completing this something of a chore. Those subsequent volumes may have to wait.

Pedant’s corner:- The copy I read was a publisher’s proof (or advanced reading copy as they are now known) so some or all of these may have been changed in the final published book.
“He had been in a slithering ditch at Passchendaele for two years” (no British unit was ever in the line that long) “had witnessed spectral visions .. Angels of the Somme” (Passchendaele isn’t on the Somme – and the Angels were seen at Mons,) at 23 “he stepped from a plane” 200 miles to the southeast of the Vorrh (a plane? in what must be the very early 1920s?) Prone (in the sexual encounter described “supine” is meant,) silkand (silk and,) workingmen (working men, cargos (cargoes,) “I loosen an arrow” (x3, arrows are loosed, not loosened,) “he had survived far worst” (worse,) leeched (leached, ditto for leeching vs leaching) “the surface is clear and highly reflective” (it can’t be both those things; clear = transparent, reflective = mirror-like, mirrors are not transparent,) affliction (affliction,) Misstress (Mistress,) a missing end quote mark, octopus’ (octopus’s,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb,) gotten (got,) vise (vice,) skeptics (sceptics,) fit (fitted,) “‘She’s just a bit ruffled, that all’” (that’s all,) staunched (stanched,) parquetflooring (parquet flooring,) “’I am the only person ever to ever have photographed it’” (one of those “ever”s is unnecessary,) the butlerhad (the butler had,) on all matter of things (manner,) no start quote when dialogue started Chapter 29. “He had aged seven years enough time for every cell in his body to change. A different man climbed these shadows and stairs, so why did he feel the same?” (in Victorian times was it known that every cell in the body changed over seven years?) lay low (lie low,) laughingstock (laughing stock,) undrgrowth (undergrowth.)

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

Jo Fletcher, 2016, 450 p. Reviewed for Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

 City of Blades cover

In this sequel (of sorts) to Bennett’s City of Stairs the action of the book is set round the Continental city of Voortyashtan, quite a few years after the events of the previous novel. The Continentals are still resentful of the rule of Saypur and, in Voortyashtan, especially of the cannons threatening its citizens from the ramparts of Fort Thinadeshi.

Saypuri General Turyin Mulaghesh has been recalled from retirement by Shara Komayd, now Prime Minster of Saypur, to investigate the strange goings-on in Voortyashtan to do with a mysterious powdery ore (at first described as a new element) which can greatly enhance electrical conductivity. Komayd’s previous investigator, Sumitra Choudhry, has disappeared and a series of strange ritualistic murders is taking place in Voortyashtan’s hinterland. Examination of the crime scenes rouses Mulaghesh’s guilt at what she did on the Yellow March during Saypur’s war with the Continent.

Voortyashtan was formerly the Continent’s main port but most of the city has been destroyed, sliding into its waters in the event known as the Blink which ended the war. Voortyashtan’s harbour and river are now being cleared by a consortium of Dreyling, the people from the Northern Isles. This project is being managed by Signe Harkvaldsson. The suspicion nags that the Dreyling are only there so that Sigrud from the earlier novel can be dragged into the tale. Bennet has made an effort here to humanise Sigrud a little (Signe is his estranged daughter) but he’s still quite cartoonish; and, while we’re casting aspersions, Thinadeskite is a strangely Wellsian name for the mysterious ore.

Despite its suspicious nature, on close examination the Saypurians can find no trace in Thinadeskite of influence of the Divine who used to rule the Continent. This is as it should be, as all these old Gods are supposed to be dead, killed either in the war or the Battle of Bulikov which ended City of Stairs. Yet the spirit of the Continental Saint Zhurgut still somehow manages to manifest in a guard who handles the gift of a sword meant for Mulaghesh and cuts a swath through Saypuri soldiers and Voortyashtani citizenry alike before Mulaghesh can bring him down.

Mulaghesh’s investigations lead to a scene where the blood – why does it always have to be blood? – of killers (herself, Sigrud and, more surprisingly, Signe) is required to transport her to the Voortyashtani nether world and its City of Blades where she believes Choudhry has gone. There, she uncovers the mystery of Thinadeskite but is too late to prevent an army of the dead from which the ore derives its potency setting out to devastate Voortyashtan. Her trip does provide her the means with which to confront them though.

Mulaghesh has something of a rose-tinted view of the trade of soldiering as a noble enterprise whose standards she fell below during the Yellow March but still strives to uphold. General Biswal, her commander during that march and now in charge of security at Fort Thinadeshi, represents what is perhaps a more realistic tradition of single-minded self-righteousness.

Its treatment of such themes of personal responsibility and the importance of relationships makes City of Blades very readable stuff.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- to not say so (not to say so. Please?) Secret (Bennett meant secrete,) “none of them produce anything” (none produces anything; repeat instances of “none” with a plural verb,) “the figure’s head….. [is] oddly swollen as if their skull is far too large” (only one figure, therefore its, not their, skull. Bennett repeats this use of plural possessive pronouns relating to singular nouns several times,) routing (routeing,) Olvos’ (Olvos’s,) off of (just off, no “of” necessary, multiple instances,) Mulaghesh’js (Mulaghesh’s,) a gazing pool (is a usage I had not come across before; it seems to mean a pool which reflects light,) each of which resemble (each resembles,) “the surface of the waters are dotted with shapes, long and thin and curiously shaped” (the surface is dotted [and shapes/shaped is clumsy],) “the ship is shook” (shaken,) putting the lives … in incredible risk (it’s usually “at incredible risk”,) “he lunges at her piling riposte upon riposte as she just barely manages to parry” (a riposte is a return thrust, not an attack; barely also appeared two lines above,) “the endless line toil up” (a line toils.)

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