In a year where I did little else but watch Netflix, bake goodies, and read until I my eyes refused to cooperate with me, I have to say that I’ve had it better than some. I enjoy reading, and part of what makes the experience more pleasurable is picking up gems like Lindsay Ellis’ debut novel, Axiom’s End.
Lindsay is a film critic and video essayist. Her YouTube channel is extremely popular, and her recent couple of videos about fan fiction, the Omegaverse, and her back-and-forths with the lawyer of a successful author in the romance literature genre are informative, entertaining, and come with a warning: Be prepared to back up everything you claim in a court. (This is something that’s become quite relevant in recent weeks.) But I have to admit, until I got word of a new science fiction novel doing the rounds and picking up rave reviews, I never heard of her. I have since rememedied this.
The year is 2007, but it’s not from our history. Axiom’s End is set in an alternate United States where First Contact with an alien species has already occured, but because the US government has attempted to cover it up, very few people are aware it happened. All they know is that within a short space of time, there have been two meteor strikes on American soil. Whistleblower Nils Ortega, via his website, posts redacted documents which, he says, exposes the truth and implicates President George W. Bush as having direct knowledge of the cover-up. Nils is in hiding, and his family are unaware of his whereabouts. His daughter, Cora Sabino, in particular, struggles with life. Living with her Mom and siblings, her car is almost beyond repair, and she just about quits the job her Mom got for her when the second meteor strikes.
Almost straightaway Cora’s family are threatened. Government agents turn up on their doorstep and are taken into custody, with Cora going on the run. She encounters an alien she calls Ampersand, and through a series of events, not all of them comfortable, Cora agrees to become Ampersand’s translator. It’s an alliance fraught with peril, because not only does Cora want her family back safe and sound, she’s not altogether trustful nor understanding of her alien companion’s true motives.
That’s the bare bones of Axiom’s End. But there’s a lot more to it than this. The reader has to play catch-up from page one, but Lindsay’s world-building and playful examination of events nearly a decade and a half ago is masterfully handled. And when the characters are allowed to breathe and take stock, the reader does, too. The relationship between Cora and Ampersand is allowed to evolve at its own pace, despite the breakneck chain of events that pepper each chapter of this engrossing, fun, and thought-provoking novel.
Lindsay says in her recent video essay that she drew from her own experience of fan fiction, particularly Transformers, when putting the plot of Axiom’s End together. I can totally see this, but I would be giving too much of the plot away if I commented any further. It was a pleasure to read, and although my review might seem slight, I genuinely fear for giving too much away. One very minor spoiler I will reveal, however: George W. Bush’s letter of resignation is literary wish-fulfillment. Axiom’s End is book one of a series that Lindsay has called “Nuomena”. I don’t know what this means, except to say I very much look forward to book two.
Fantasy fiction was never really my thing when I was much younger than I am now. Yes, I read a fair amount of science fiction, and I still do. But while I liked the idea of fantasy, for some reason I could never sit down and read anything in the genre, not even Tolkien. We were given The Hobbit to read in school, but I couldn’t take to it. But a memory that sticks with me many decades later is finding a copy of The Power That Preserves in the house I grew up in. The cover of that book hit me, and the blurb at the back intrigued me, but not enough to read it. It was also book three of a trilogy, and I didn’t see the preceding two books lying around.
Fast forward ten years or so and I’m working in a local hotel and nightclub. A colleague and close friend at the time was, like me, a voracious reader. But while I was mainlining Robert Ludlum thrillers and other books from the genre, this guy was knees-deep in fantasy fiction. He reintroduced me to Stephen R. Donaldson and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. He did so in such a beguiling way, that I decided to stick my toes in the water.
First published in 1977, Lord Foul’s Bane was an instant success for important reasons. It introduced me to a different kind of hero, and ultimately a different type of Hero’s Quest. Covenant himself is a distinctly unlikeable character, but at the outset our sympathies are with him. He’s a successful writer who contracts leprosy, and finds himself an outcast in society, divorced from his wife Joan, and alienated from his young son Roger. He has plenty of reasons to be bitter and hateful. The only thing he holds onto, apart from his cynicism, is his white gold wedding ring. A chance meeting with a beggar on a rare trip into town results in Covenant being hit by a police car and rendered unconscious. When he comes to, he’s not where he should be. Covenant has found himself in The Land.
Donaldson’s epic series has been described as The Lord of the Rings for adults. This comparison is unfair on both works, but I see why it’s being made. Covenant isn’t in the Land long before he quickly gets his sense of touch back and his body starts to heal itself from its affliction. The euphoria maddens Covenant to the extent that among the first things he does is rape a young woman who tries to help him. Even now, many years later, this is an incident that haunts me. How can you root for a protagonist who commits such a heinous act? The truth is, you can’t, not really. And what Donaldson does well, in my opinion, is to allow this crime to follow Covenant throughout this book and beyond.
The Land is rich with Earthpower, a kind of energy that permeates within every living thing. The girl who helps Covenant, Lena, applies a muddy compound called hurtloam to his wounds, which heals his body if not his mind. His deformed right hand, as well as the presence of his white gold ring, confirms to Lena that Covenant is the reincarnation of Berek Halfhand, a Lord from eons past who saved the Land from the evil Lord Foul, who has been up to his tricks again despite banishment. Covenant, for his part, refuses to believe any of this is real, and thus nothing he says or does carries any consequence. Far from being the Land’s saviour, he styles himself on his unbelief, giving the trilogy its full name: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever.
Donaldson readily uses many of not all of the available tropes employed in the genre of classic fantasy fiction. There is the Hero (Covenant), the Quest (destroy once and for all the threat of Lord Foul and his minions), a place of magic (The Land), the totems of power (the white gold ring, the One Tree, the Staff of Law), mythical creatures (Giants, Ranyhyn, Demondim, Elohim, Forestals, etc), and of course romance, which features heavily in later volumes with the introduction of Covenant’s doctor from our world, Linden Avery. But Donaldson subverts our expectations, and challenges us to put aside our preconceptions. As mentioned above, Covenant is not the hero the Land deserves, but it certainly needs him. As each of his companions (another trope that bears mentioning) regale him with stories of their ancestry and past victories and defeats, the object is to convince Covenant enough to help even when he doesn’t believe any of what he’s told. It’s a hard ask, but Donaldson does it in such a way, giving each of his characters distinctive voices and histories, that even if you feel Covenant may not be up to the job, you desperately want someone to step in and save the day and the Land.
Donaldson wrote two trilogies between 1977 and 1983, completing the second chronicles with White Gold Wielder. He completed a two book fantasy series, Mordant’s Need, and a five book science fiction epic, The Gap Cycle, which is an extraordinary piece of work. He also found the time to write some crime fiction under the Reed Stephens pseudonym, The Man Who… But in 2004, he published what was to be first of a quadrilogy, The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Runes of the Earth. It took me a long time for get to this, but when I found that all four books where in my local library at the time, I borrowed them all and read them through at the end of last year and into the beginning of this one. It helped that before each book begins properly, there is a concise summary of everything that happened before. Maps and a brilliant glossary are also included, both massively helpful because the cast list and place names are plentiful and it’s a complex job following everything.
And this leads me to a very important point I feel I must make. Donaldson’s writing style for these novels in particular is not for everyone. The Land and its citizens are ornate and love their lore and the very nature of storytelling. Donaldson’s use of language is both immersive and off-putting. I found it necessary to put ample time away in order to approach these complex books. Some critics say they’re hard to read, and indeed some passages are long and detailed, so it’s best not to approach these tired or cranky. They are, however, complemented by some stunning actions scenes that take up entire chapters. It’s not just the fate of the characters or the Land that is at stake, it’s the nature of Time and the Universe, too. Lord Foul’s ultimate ambition is to undo Time and bring darkness throughout all existence. The last book of the Chronicles, The Last Dark, is a 550 page race against the clock, and is truly stunning in its resolution. Covenant’s atrocious crime from book one still has a price to exact, one that must be paid in full. The circle must be complete in order for justice to be served. It’s only right.
But it is not just about the story; it’s about the Land and all who live in it. Not only are the Giants the real heroes on show here, but the haruchai, a race of warriors that shun magic and weapons but take pride in prowess and stamina, offer the Unbeliever their hard-earned support, and without these and other races, Covenant and Avery would have a chance of defeating Lord Foul. All ten books in the series contain wild magic, victories, defeats, betrayal, death and rebirth; hope where there should be none; love where there really isn’t time; and healing, because that’s what we all need, no matter where we live.
Given how much of 2020 has progressed so far, I could forgive myself for reading “comfortable” books; the kind that would help me deal with and take me away from this constant feeling of existential dread and anxiety. But if you scroll down my Goodreads list, you will see I’ve read very few books you could describe as “comfortable” (with the greatest respect to authors who cater for that market: it’s much needed). At the end of the day, all the books I’ve read this year so far have captured the essence of humanity: it’s hopes and dreams, its triumphs and failures, its birth and its death. One such book has stood out this year, and is a perfect example of what it takes to be human and to survive against hopeless odds, is The Luminous Dead, the debut novel from American author Caitlin Starling.
Set on another planet, in a far-flung dystopian future, The Luminous Dead is a book about Gyre Price, a potholer who was raised on a mining colony. She lies about her experience and credentials and basically bluffs her way into a high-stakes job offering the kind of money to help her get off-planet and find her mother, who abandoned her years earlier. Gyre has issues, but then again so does her handler, Em, who literally pulls Gyre’s strings from above-ground. Gyre and Em need to trust each other, but it’s plain from the off that they don’t. And this mistrust could get Gyre killed. Or worse: she could become a ghost, destined to haunt the caves until the next expedition comes around.
This isn’t Em’s first attempt to find the rich mineral deposits in these caves. Without giving too much away, Gyre’s handler has other deeply personal reasons in urging her charge downwards and into danger. Constant gear malfunctions, missing supplies, and the supremely creepy presense of Tunnellers, subterranean creatures who dwell in the shadows and can literally pop up anywhere, add to the notion that Gyre might not make it out in one piece, if at all.
The Luminous Dead sticks with Gyre’s POV throughout, without making it a first person narrative. This is a difficult form of storytelling to pull off, the challenge being that the author needs to keep the reader engaged with both the action around the main character and her innermost thoughts. And this won’t be for everyone. Readers expecting a balls-to-the-wall action adventure along the lines of Alien and Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror movie set in a cave, The Descent, will come away feeling short-changed. So it’s important to note that while there are plenty of death-defying sequences within the book, this is equally a two-hander piece of speculative fiction that keeps the story moving forward because we are so invested in Gyre and Em. These are young women, at times working with and against one another, but with a similar endgame in mind. It’s a human thing in times of crises to fall into distrust and disbelief, but when it comes to the crunch, inevitably we have to trust someone, even if that someone is ourself.
The Luminous Dead is rich in atmosphere, and is in equal parts a science fiction thriller, a horror story, a psychological drama, and — yes — a delightfully queer love story. As debuts go, Caitlin Starling has put herself on the map, with her novel nominated for a Locus Award, a Bram Stoker Award, and winner of the Ladies of Horror Fiction Award for Best Debut Novel. She recently released Yellow Jessamine, a dark fantasy novella that I will no doubt read and review in the very near future.
I picked a bad time to read a series of books about a Europe ravaged by the after-effects of a global pandemic, a refugee crisis, terrorism, and the break-up of the EU itself. But here we are. Dave Hitchinson’sFractured Europesequence is the ultimate in literary What If? for our time. Allow me to take you through this quartet, and introduce you to Rudi.
An Estonian, working in a restaurant in Krakow, Rudi’s exceptional talents keep him gainfully employed in an economy that’s pretty much gone to hell. One evening at the restaurant, Rudi is approached by a representative of an underground organisation called the Couriers des Bois. His nationality could be of use to them, and they need someone to move a package across the many borders across the continent. Europe has become so segmented over the years that practically any entity, be it a statelet or national park, can declare independence and have its own border control process.
In Europe in Autumn, Rudi goes from being a cook to a spy. It’s impossible to swat away John le Carre vibes here. Rudi has to learn as he goes, and although he has support from the organisation, he’s very much on his own for much of the novel. His instructor/mentor is MIA, presumed traitorous. And his friends and family become targets of whomever is behind the “Great Conspiracy”. And oh, what a conspiracy it is!
Sometime in the 19th century, a family of English cartographers, map-makers, brought into existence a parallel Europe, and somehow this Europe, populated in the main by English people, and accessible from very few places in our Europe. Yes, it’s a head-scratcher. Dave Hutchinson moves from near-future spy fiction to the realm of fantasy. And it works, because throughout the book, we see everything through Rudi’s eyes. We’re as flummoxed as he is, but there’s a job to do and people to protect, so like James Bond and George Smiley, we want to get to the bottom of this mess.
Europe at Midnight takes us to the Campus, a university nation-state that’s both within and without the Community, the parallel Europe. It’s also the site where the flu virus was manufactured, and there’s also a nucleur weapon. Rudi has very little to do in this instalment, instead we follow Jim, who works for British intelligence. A stabbing on a London bus begins the intrigue, and in a story where the chronology of events has to be worked out by the reader, it’s a captivating puzzle that when worlds finally collide, some questions are answered, but inevitably many more take their place.
Europe in Wintersees the return of Rudi. It opens with the suicide bombing of an important railway tunnel operated by the Line, a network that crosses continental Europe and is a nation state itself. Think Amtrak, but you need a passport and travel documents to board. Awareness of the Community is widespread, and diplomatic relationships are struck up between the different European universes. Characters from previous books make an appearance, and the action includes assassinations, perilous travels between worlds, and a revision of history as we know it. There’s a wonderful sequence of events at the end involving an airport that I will not spoil here. You will have to read it for yourself.
In the last (presumably, but with Dave Hitchinson you never know) of the sequence, Europe at Dawn, there is a resolution of sorts for the disparate storylines, but also gives space to introduce new and important characters. There is murder, mayhem, chases, and escapes. There is a sublime subplot about a bejewelled skull in the possession of a travelling folk group that by the end of the book, it all makes some sort of sense. But not everything gets resolved; there’s no “and they all lived happily ever after”. But I remain very much okay with that.
The above summaries do little justice to the themes and events that run throughout Fractured Europe. I need to point out that at times, the books are very funny. There’s an almost Terry Pratchett feel to them. Dave Hutchinson’s attention to detail and knowledge of world and European history permeates each page and character. The new future world of which he writes is grey and mundane, but the story is rich in atmosphere. If John le Carre were to write speculative fiction as a spy story, he could not do a better job than Dave Hutchinson. He is a writer for and of our times.
I spent much of the early part of this year reading James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, ploughing through books two to eight in a couple of months. Now, like all fans, I eagerly anticipate the final book, Leviathan Falls, which is due out some time in 2021. I’ve been on the lookout for other series to take its place, and I know there are plenty out there, but I felt a need for character-driven space opera rather than out-and-out humans-v-aliens action adventure. Becky Chambers‘ Wayfarers series was always on the cards as a must-read, and now I’m wondering why it took me so long to get there.
Wayfarersis a four book series, beginning with The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet. Published in 2015, originally via a Kickstarter campaign, Becky’s debut found its audience and was nominated for major prizes, such as the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the British Fantasy Awards. It was also the first self-published novel to be nominated for the Kitschies, which “rewards the year’s most progressive, intelligent, and entertaining fiction that contains elements of the speculative or fantastic.” In short, publishing dynamite. The reasons for this are plentiful.
Ashby Santoso is the captain of the Wayfarer, a ship that creates tunnels through space, wormholes basically, allowing access to distant planets, galaxies, and markets. This function is vital to the stability and economy of the Galactic Commons (GC), a federation in which Humanity is its most recent member. Ashby understands that a ship is only as good as its crew, and in this regard, his crew is the most diverse, talented, unique, and loyal group of people the GC has ever mustered up.
Joining the team is Rosemary Harper, and she serves as our introduction to both Becky Chambers’ universe and its inhabitants. Rosemary enlists as a file clerk under false pretenses. She’s on the run from her past, but at the same time wants to see what else is out there. Luckily enough she is good at her job, even if her presence riles Artis Corbin, the ship’s algaeist. He has the important job of growing the ship’s fuel and nothing or no one else is really important to him. Also on board is Sissix, an Aandrisk, who along with Ohan, a Sianat Pair, pilot and navigate the Wayfarer. Jenks and Kizzy are the ship’s technicians, with Jenks enjoying a very special and beautiful relationship with the ship’s AI, Lovelace, AKA Lovey. Rounding off the crew is Dr Chef, a Grum, who also serves as a kind of therapist for his shipmates.
The main thrust of Small Angry Planet is the crew’s mission to tunnel a wormhole through to a new system that has been granted provisional membership of the GC. It’s a journey that will take some time, a ‘standard’, which I believe is more than a year. The passing of time is denoted differently to ours: where we would say week, the citizens of the GC say tendays, which I think is self-explanatory. The trek is not without its perils. The Wayfarer encounters space pirates, heretics, and saboteurs. But action doesn’t drive the plot; it’s characters do.
Along the way we get to know the crew through beautiful and surprising revelations. The story is told in multiple POVs, but never once does Becky Chambers lose clarity in voice or thought. While not an action-orientated adventure, the set-pieces when they come are dramatic, and often reveal depths to each of the characters in the novel. Their individual stories are the bedrock upon which the author sets her stall, and they are in turn inspiring, poignant, heart-breaking, and despite the presence of alien beings, so very human.
This is a story about family, and not just the one we’re born into: it’s about the family we chose for ourselves as we travel through life and the stars. Rosemary’s secret, when it does come to light, doesn’t affect how the crew sees her as a person, but it becomes a way for her to grow more into herself, and her relationship with Sissix especially is more powerful as a result.
The events at the end of Small Angry Planet allows Becky take us down another path. Book two in the series, A Closed And Common Orbit, is effectively a stand-alone sequel, with the focus on Lovelace, the AI, who takes human form, an action that is illegal in the GC. Lovelace’s new body, or “kit”, has its advantages and disadvatages, and through the course of Common Orbit, we see her and her friend Pepper, a friend of Jenks who comes to the ship’s rescue in the previous novel, negotiate the new normal. Two stories run concurrently. Lovelace’s search for the meaning of existence as she seeks to understand the importance of intimate relationships, as well as having a program that forbids her to lie, is the inital focus. Learning to bend the truth a little bit is vital for her survival. Pepper’s story is equally relevant, and we discover how she came to be. When Owl is introduced, I read her voice as one of my very dearest friends, and she gave me great comfort. I’m not ashamed to say that I found Pepper’s story very emotional and how the two strands in the novel work out hit me in my core. Pepper’s best friend, Blue, is magnificent. And Tak, Lovelace’s friend and tattoo artist, completes this fantastic four.
Book three has a different approach altogether. Record Of A Spaceborn Few choses as its focus five characters who live on board a generation ship that’s part of the Exodan Fleet, among them Tessa, the sister of Captain Ashby Santoso from Small Angry Planet. The Fleet represents what’s left of Humanity after it left Earth when it became uninhabitable. Granted GC citizenship and given a star of its own to orbit, the Exodan’s journey has come to an end. But what happens now? Spaceborn Few follows five main characters as they deal with the aftermath of a major catastrophe that occurs in the novel’s prologue. Apart from Tessa, we inhabit the lives and innermost thoughts of Isabel, the Fleet’s archivist, who is playing host to a visiting Harmaegeon, a GC elite who wishes to learn about the Fleet and Humanity; Eyas, a “caretaker’, who respectfully and ritualistically deals with the bodies of those who have died (basically turning them into compost); Kip, a teenage boy who wants nothing more than to leave the Fleet as soon as he’s able to; and finally Sawyer, a man who comes from the “bad side of town” and joins the Fleet looking for a new life.
Like the preceding books in the series, Spaceborn Few has a theme. Small Angry Planet is about family. Common Orbit is, I think, about identity: who we are, how others perceive us, and how we preceive ourselves. Spaceborn Few is about home. Wherever it is, can we be happy there? Can we find our truth and our heart, or do we need to look further ahead? Will we ever find acceptance among people who are not us? Sometimes its not enough to just have a place to live; we need a place to be and to connect. Becky Chambers’ forte is getting inside her character’s heads. In learning so much about them, we find out similar things about ourselves and our humanity. It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s not always comfortable to read home truths.
Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is a beautifully written and deeply personal work of literary and speculative fiction. It probably won’t appeal to readers who like an explosion or gun battle every second chapter, although there are some great examples of both throughout all three books. It does, however, speak to the individual on what it means to be alive during times of crises and uncertainty. Each book found a place in my heart, and with a fourth and possibly final novel, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, due out in 2021, it looks like I’ll have to find more room. Winner of the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series,Wayfarers is majestic, epic in scope, but initmate in focus. It speaks to the human in each of us.
The website CrimeReads has become a veritable cornucopia: a treasure trove of authors, genres, concepts, covering all four corners of the world of detective, mystery, and thriller fiction. Long before this blog came into being, I scoured CrimeReads looking for new books to explore and new authors to follow. It’s how I found out about many of the authors you’ll read about here, including Rachel Howzall Hall and Kellye Garrett.
Martin Edwards has become my newest obsession. I grew up on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Later on, I read Ruth Rendell and PD James, favouring the more erudite detective, looking for perhaps the modern Sherlock Holmes. Now, I know no one can take Holmes’ place in the detective fiction Hall of Fame; so much so that many authors, including Anthony Horowitz, continue his adventures for emerging generations, thanks to the BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary. But a lot of authors choose to set their mysteries in a similar era to the aforementioned greats. Mr Edwards is one of them.
Welcome to the strange and unsettling world of Rachel Savernake, a wealthy heiress and amateur sleuth. Set in and around London of the 1930s, Gallows Court harks back to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, hitting the ground running with an assortment of gothic characters and atmosphere. Indeed, as you work your way through the pages of this book, you can almost smell the gas from the streetlamps and hear the hooves of horses as carriage hurtle through a fog-filled city. So far, so very comfortable for Holmesians alike. I felt at home.
Rachel Savernake is the enigmatic daughter of a notorious hanging judge, and the story of her childhood on the island of Gaunt in the Irish Sea, as well as her frosty relationship with a girl named Juliet Bretano, runs concurrently with the main plot of the novel: in which a journalist, Jacob Flint, new to London and intent on making a name for himself as a crime reporter, is both helped and hindered by Rachel when their separate investigations of a series of bizarre and gruesome murders and apparent suicides result in a meeting of minds and resources.
It’s important to note that every character in Gallows Court is vital to the story. From the flashback events on Gaunt to the newsrooms of The Clarion, the paper Jacob writes for; from the backstreet hovels, to the secluded London mansion that Rachel calls home, no detail, no person, is wasted. Nothing is thrown away. I was glued to each page and couldn’t wait to finish, because there was a second book to hit up: Mortmain Hall.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that both main players, Rachel and Jacob, live to solve another case. And this is yet another violent conundrum that is more cross-country than Gallows Court, with the bulk of the action taking place at the eponymous Mortmain Hall, owned by Leonora Dobell, a criminologist obsessed with murderers who appear to have gotten away with their crimes. She enlists Rachel’s help. The heiress is intrigued because her attempt to prevent the murder of Gilbert Payne, a man presumed dead who returned to England for his mother’s funeral, ended in failure. Leonora’s invitation to Rachel to attend a weekend at the Hall provides her and Jacob with the key to unlock several mysteries.
Rachel knows much more than she ever lets on to Jacob. In fact, only her inner circle of attendants know the full script in advance. Every twist in the story, when you think about it after, is cleverly foreshadowed in the pages of both books. Gallows Court sets up Martin Edwards’ universe, and then Mortrain Hall picks up the already frenetic pace and has an absolute ball with political conspiracies, secret societies, identity theft, and a million different gruesome ways to die. Unlike most Golden Age detective fiction, the blood is on the page, but these are not gratuitously violent books. A lot of the dialogue is tongue-in-cheek, and the main characters possess a sense of justice that is both charming and blood-curdling.
Martin Edwards was recently awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in the genre. Up unti a month or so ago, I had never read his work. Now, for sure, I will eat up whatever I can get my hands on. Do yourself a favour, if you love your detective fiction historical and bloody, grab these books with both hands and enjoy the mayhem.
Check out Martin’s website, too. It’s a feast of articles, advice for writers, and you might as well take a look at his new non-fiction book, The Golden Age of Murder, a must-have for detective fiction fans everywhere.
Consisting of three books so far, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series imagines a world different to ours, but still retaining a sense of place and history that resonates with anyone who reads them.
Alternate or alternative history fiction is also known as What If, in that it takes a fixed point in human history and then imagines what might happen if something else occured. You will find plenty of “What if Hitler won WWll” scenarios in print and on screen, the most popular example being Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The Grandmaster of alternative history, Harry Turtledove, went one better. His two trilogies, Worldwar and Colonization, imagined what would happen if instead of fighting each other, Allied and Axis forces united as one to fight an alien invasion in 1941. It’s a fun concept, one that Turtledove ran with, leaving no stone uncovered.
Mary Robinette’s trilogy is similar in scope but much more focused on themes rather than action-packed set-pieces (though there are many, trust me). It began life as a novelette published in 2012, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, ultimately winning a Hugo Award a couple of years later. It told of Elma York, the lady astronaut of the title and the author’s pivotal character, and her time on Mars, 30 years after a successful expedition to the red planet and humanity’s eventual settlement. Mary Robinette then went back in time to how it all began.
The Calculating Starsexplains how history diverted from the path we’re currently in the midst of. Instead of Harry S.Truman winning the US presidency in 1948, his opponent Thomas Dewey takes the White House and casts his eyes upwards into space. The first satellite is in place by 1952, beating the USSR in this historical setting. Then calamity strikes, literally. A meteorite obliterates the east coast of the United States, setting off a catastrophic change of events that will, in a matter of decades, leave Planet Earth uninhabitable. It’s imperative that humanity finds a new home. And so, to make this happen, the International Aerospace Coalition is created. Think NASA, but with everyone invited.
Elma York is a mathematics genius, capable of working out complex theorems and equations in her head. Well before the creation of supercomputers that can do the same thing, Elma and her colleagues are vital to the IAC. But because she’s a woman, she struggles to make her voice heard in a male-dominated profession. Not only is she a whizz with figures, Elma is an accomplished pilot, and it is this talent as much as anything else that leads her to become a media darling, the Lady Astronaut. The administration trots Elma out because her looks and personality are acceptable to her bosses. That’s sexism with a capital S right there. Elma knows this, her husband Nathaniel knows this, even the president knows this. But over time, despite enduring cippling bouts of anxiety, Elma’s quick-thinking eventually leads to, in the following book The Fated Sky, becoming an integral part of humanity’s first manned mission to Mars.
The third book, The Relentless Moon, runs concurrent to The Fated Sky, and featured Elma’s friend Nicole Wargin, a governor’s wife and not without influence herself despite the deep-rooted sexism pervading US politics. Whereas Elma deals with the problems of living in deep space, Nicole’s focus is divided between the Moon and Earth. Saboteurs are desperate to bring to an end humanity’s planned evacuation, maintaining that Earth’s governments will leave the poorest members of human society behind. They launch a campaign of violence and chaos that ends with the assasination of a high-profile government official.
Racism runs deep in these books, too. The 1950s and 60s is no different in Kowal’s history than it is in ours. Black female pilots endure constant side-lining ahead of their white collagues, despite having the greater skills and experience. Black astronauts are treated with suspicion because one of the groups of saboteurs is linked to a Black civil rights group. It doesn’t help that on both the Moon and on the Mars expedition, apartheid supporting South Africans have powerful positions. This creates a lot of tension in the books, and while individual incidents are handled as well as they can be by people with sense, racism never goes away.
Ultimately, though, Kowal’s series is one of hope for humanity, and there is the thrill of exploring the unknown however dangerous and unpredictable it will be. Kowal brings her knowledge, personal experience, and extensive research to everyone of the series fast-moving pages. Her characters, female and male, are deeply human, and endure a lot in their roles as saviours of humanity. Not everyone is likeable, but there are very much relatable. You will root for them, because in the end you want us to survive. You want us to be better.
You can follow Mary Robinette Kowal on her lively Twitter feed here. She is also the author of the Glamorist Histories series, and a couple of stand-alone novels and lots of short fiction.
My previous post recommended Rachel Howzell Hall’s new novel, as well as her back catalogue (seriously, why are you waiting?). Another Black writer to feature on BestBub’s 100 Best Crime Novels Of All Time is Kellye Garrett. Eight years of working in Hollywood, including writing for the TV show Cold Case gave Kellye an insider’s view on the rat-race that is entertainment’s premier capital town. Like Rachel, Los Angeles is in Kellye’s heart, blood, and soul.
Her two books to date feature Dayna Anderson, an actress who was well known for being the face behind the Chubby Chicken commericals (I don’t think so, boo!), and is consistently almost recognised wherever she goes (Didn’t we go to high school together?). Now broke and unable to afford gas, Dayna has taken up residence in a room the size of a closet at her best friend Sienna’s apartment. She’s a proud woman who refuses to capitalise on her fame, instead she’s focusing on how she can save her parents’ home from going into foreclosure.
An opportunity arrives in the form of a billboard asking for information on the hit-and-run death of local shop worker Haley Joseph. As luck would have it, on the night of the incident, Dayna and her friends were witnesses to what would turn out to be murder. There’s a $15,000 reward offered for any imformation that leads to apprehension and conviction. So Dayna decides there and then to become an amateur sleuth. This is the premise for the first Detective By Day novel, Hollywood Homicide.
We are introduced to Dayna’s friends. Sienna I’ve mentioned briefly, but she’s a hoot. Chasing Instagram likes and trolling Twitter feeds for gossip, Sienna opens doors that were once held open for Dayna, as well as casting off her considerable collection of shoes and clothes to Dayna once she’s done with them. With an ego the size of a small planet, Sienna is ever-present at Dayna’s side, even when they fall out (which is a lot over the two books). Emme is more than just a computer nerd: she’s the anti-social twin sister of Oscar-nominated actress Toni Abrams, and deserves a series devoted to just her. Omari Grant is Dayna’s on-again-off-again boyfriend. Now the leading man of a cop show franchise, Omari and Dayna’s relationship hits more hurdles than an out-of-shape athlete, but the spark (once it hits) is dynamite. Completing the main cast is Aubrey S. Adams-Parker, an enigmatic ex-cop with a weird taste in orange reflector suits, who may or may not be in need of a partner.
And that’s not all. Add in Nina, Omari’s agent and (in book two, Hollywood Ending) a murder suspect, and The Voice at the other end of the police tip-line, the wonderful support cast is complete. Suspects come and go — sometimes permanently gone — but the core group doesn’t change over the two books.
Hollywood Ending gives us a front-row seat at the Silver Sphere Awards, where Omari is nominated as Best Actor. When Lyla Davis, a publicist for Silver Sphere is killed at an ATM robbery, Dayna and her team have a crack at solving it. It’s a more complex investigation than Hollywood Homicide, and when the situation calls for it, the potential for slapstick comedy, about-turns, mortal danger, and snappy dialogue is heightened to a fantastic level.
What I love about the Detective By Day series is its wit and freshness. Dayna Anderson takes her job seriously, but her sense of self-esteem nonetheless gets a bruising over the course of the two books’ pages. Her friends, though, are always there for her, and try to keep her out of harm’s way. Yes, Dayna needs the money, but she’s a fighter for truth and justice as well. She’s also very funny. In the midst of all the murder and mayhem, Dayna has a delightfully cynical attitude to all things Hollywood, but she loves it all the same.
The intended third book in the series, Hollywood Hack, is, according to Kellye’s website, still in draft, awaiting a new publishing deal. In the meantime, she’s working on a new novel. I await both breathlessly.
Rachel Howzell Hall is a writer I introduced myself to last year. Featured on the crime writing website CrimeReads as an author to watch out for, in a genre typically dominated by white writers, and because I love a good series, I picked up the first novel in Rachel’s Detective Elouise (Lou) Horton’s quarter, Land of Shadows. Over the next year or so, I read all four and found myself a little in love with Horton’s voice and character. Possessing the traits a women needs to survive in the cut-throat world of policing, Lou Horton also carries with her a desire for justice, the love of family and friends, her own messy private life, and the pride of being a Black women in the streets of Los Angeles.
Four books in, with Rachel seemingly done with Lou for the time being, this talented writer wrote a stand-alone thriller in the vein of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, a beautifully paced and meticulous thriller called They All Fall Down. It was a change of scenery for Rachel, one I thoroughly enjoyed. She then followed it up with And Now She’s Gone.
Grayson Sykes works as a private investigator for Radar Consulting, and is charged with her first real case: find Isabel Lincoln, a woman with more secrets than an intelligence agency, a woman who very well might not want to be found. But Gray’s client is an acquaintance of her boss Nick, so she has to do her due diligence. Ian O”Donnell, Isabel’s not-so-distraught husband is more concerned about his missing dog than he is about his wife, leading Gray to think he’s hiding his own skeletons. A surprise meet-up with Isabel’s new best friend in a bar early in the story confirms Gray’s suspicions: Isabel is a victim of domestic abuse.
Running parallel to the main story is a subplot about a woman called Natalie Dixon, herself on the run from an abusive relationship. Although it doesn’t take long for the reader to conclude that Natalie and Grayson are one and the same person, the complexities that Gray’s background bring to the hunt for Isabel Lincoln aren’t that simple to work out. It doesn’t take long for Gray’s two worlds to collide.
This is a novel about survival, and I think Rachel Howzell Hall’s protagonists wear this mantle in all of her books. In fact, Grason Sykes and Lou Horton could very well be close friends if they were ever to meet. They both share elements in their histories that have led them to become the strong women they are. Their successes come at a cost, but never to their humanity – which is important. When they’re on your side, they will not rest until the case is closed and the truth has been delivered.
And Now She’s Gone never goes where you expect it. It’s a literal page-turner, filled with suspense and surprise, and when I finished the book I immediately went on Twitter and asked Rachel for more. You probably will, too. It’s that good.
And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall (Forge Books, $27.99 hardcover, 384p., 9781250753175, September 22, 2020)
Since the start of the pandemic, I have found solace in books. Sudoku, too. But when I wasn’t cooking and baking for family, and trying to work out where a 9 went in box 3 of the grid, books have been my constant companions. Throughout 2020, no writer has kept me company more times than Anthony Horowitz.
A prolific writer in all forms of the art, Horowitz is known to all as the creator of classic TV shows like Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War, and has written a number of well received episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. His YA adventure series featuring teenage spy Alex Rider recently premiered on Amazon in the form of a big budget adaptation. I haven’t read any of this series, but the Amazon show is a lot of fun and I hope for news of renewal soon. It’s worth your time.
I will examine Horowitz’s James Bond and Sherlock Homes novels at a later date, but for now I want to focus on The Moonflower Murders, his sequel to 2016’s Magpie Murders, both featuring publisher Susan Ryeland and, in a novel-within-a-novel twist, Atticus Pund. Pund features in a series of detective fiction edited by Ryeland for her publishing house, and is the creation of the now-deceased author Alan Conway. In Magpie Murders, Conway’s unpublished manuscript is the basis of an elaborate whodunnit, and is replete with wordplay, hidden clues, murder and mayhem, ultimately ending in a face-off in a burning building with the murderer. It’s a lot, but by God is it satisfying! I urge you to read Magpie Murders before starting Moonflower.
Following the events of the first book, Susan Ryeland now lives in Crete with her Greek partner and together they run a Bed & Breakfast. Ryeland thinks of home a lot, and while she loves her partner very much, they’re under considerable financial and personal strain. So it’s no wonder Ryeland jumps at the chance of solving another mystery when an English couple arrive at the B&B, asking for her help in finding their missing daughter who was last seen reading an Atticus Pund novel. The couple, who own a hotel in England, itself the scene of a murder some years back, worry for their daughter’s safety, and because Conway himself was a guest at the hotel, they hope Ryeland can offer assistance. She agrees, mainly because she’s a sucker for a mystery, but also because she’s been offered a cash reward plus expenses, and she needs the money for the business.
The book the missing girl was reading is Atticus Pund Takes The Case, and the entire short novel forms the centrepiece of this complex tale. Horowitz takes obvious delight in putting Ryeland and his readers through the mill in the pages of The Moonflower Murders. Alan Conway’s disdain for humans and human nature is prevalent throughout the narrative, and although he’s dead (this is not a spoiler; he’s very much dead at the beginning of Magpie Murders), his presense is very much palpable. Ryeland has to untangle a mystery that once again places her in mortal danger.
The Moonflower Murders is a delightful read, one I gobbled up in a couple of sittings almost as soon as it was published. It’s twisty, it contains more red herrings than you can bake a fish pie with, and even manages to save the perfect surprise for the epilogue. It’s the perfect blend of classic Golden Age detective fiction and contemporary settings. Dame Agatha would be proud, as would Detective Chief Superintendant Foyle. I’m not sure what the denizens of Midsomer would make of it, though.