I really want to read The Count of Monte Cristo. Don’t ask me why; but from centuries of classic adventure fiction, Alexander Dumas’ story has always captivated me. I’ve seen a couple of adaptations in recent years — the Jim Caviezel/Guy Pearce movie from 2002 springs to mind — but rarely is the full story told. And if you know anything about me, when it comes to books, I need the full story. So I’ll get a good copy of this classic for myself this Christmas. Hopefully I’ll have better luck making my way through this than I had with Hugo’s Les Miserables (I made it about 50 or so pages in before I put on the musical instead –not the movie musical, but a West End cast recording).
So I’ve decided to take a couple of baby steps into the arena. I set up a second Twitter account that will deal specifically with all things books, book reviews, arts and entertainment. I set up a Facebook page for the blog, as well as a second Instagram account. I signed up to NetGalley and am now reading a book for an upcoming review. It’s an environmental legal thriller called Amid Rage, by Joel Burcat, the second in his Mike Jacobs series. I’m liking it so far. I have so many books on my TBR shelf that I didn’t know where to start, but I set my stall with this one. The great thing about NetGalley is you can request to read a book before its publication, and if the book’s publisher likes the cut of your jib, you get access to an ARC in return for an honest review. Sounds like a good deal. It means I get to read for pleasure and a review. It passes the time nicely.
A little over six weeks ago I posted on this blog for the first time in years. I deleted all the old content because it didn’t service my need any more, but I wanted to do something with what little space I forged for myself online. I read many book blogs on the interenet. I read many books, full stop. So I decided to join in on the action. It’s not so much as to pass the time, but to write about the books I love to read. As of right now, I have closed the covers of 40 books this year so far. I enjoyed pretty much all of them, some of which I’ve covered in the last twelve posts on this blog. If anything, 2020 gave me and many others more time to read and write about reading. Hence the title of my blog.
I hope to have people read what I write, but I realise book blogging is a flooded market. That’s fine, I’m not about usurping other bloggers who have been doing this a lot longer and probably better than me. But this is my little corner of the universe. I want to make it as comfortable for myself and my readers as possible. No gimmicks. No influencing other than a recommendation you read a book or series that I’ve chosen to review. The only experience I have is close to fifty years of reading. That’s got to count for something, right?
So, come along for the ride, if you so desire. I promise an open and entertaining forum for those of us who love books and the people who write them. I’m here for them all. I hope you will be, too. Stay tuned!
Sentient Artificial Intelligence (AI) is all the rage nowadays. Actually, that assessment is wrong. Machines that think independently for themselves have been a staple of science fiction literature and film for many, many decades. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), to HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), robots and computers that shirk off their programming, creating havoc for their creators and humankind as a whole, have been around for as long as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What is true to say, that since James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) knocked seven shades of you-know-what out of the sci-fi genre, writers and producers have gone back through annals of content and come up with a fresh approach to the whole “when machines go bad” concept.
Martha Wells takes an altogether different approach in her sequence of four novellas, The Murderbot Diaries. She posits what might happen if “bad machines go good”. Beginning with All Systems Red, Murderbot itself is a cyborg Security Unit (SecUnit) who has found some way to override its original programming, its governor module. Haunted by a past mission that went distastrously and fatally wrong, Murderbot would rather binge on cheap visual dramas than take part in further missions. However, owing to a string of events, Murderbot aligns itself with a scientific expedition group, and finds that it cares about what happens to them more than it wants to. He resorts to old programming in order to save them from rogue scientists and uncovers a conspiracy that may provide it with answers to its past actions.
All Systems Red caught me completely by surprise when I read it first. Fun and funny, with bursts of impressive and intense actions scenes in its 140 or so pages, I immediately went out and bought the other three in the series for my Kindle. Artificial Condition finds Murderbot, and his new found freedom, on board an empty cargo vessel, along with a new companion, a transport AI it christens ART (Asshole Research Transport). Murderbot disguises itself as an augmented human and takes on a contract, acting as a security guard to a group of technologists who are travelling to the same area where Murderbot’s malfuntion occured. Acessing its memories isn’t easy because much of what it should be able to remember has been erased. As with the first novella, Murderbot’s expertise comes into play when treachery is afoot. ART helps it out, and the two AIs make an engaging buddy-buddy duo, with Murderbot finding out with every turn exactly what being free entails.
Rogue Protocol continues Murderbot’s investigations of GrayCris, who appear to be illegally hoarding valuable remains of alien civilisations. It lands on a terrraforming base called Milu and is immediately up against a couple of shady security consultants and another AI, Miki, who’s as cheerful as Murderbot is grumpy. They are attacked and once again, Murderbot has to use all its skills, new and old, to help its new friends and survive nefarious attempts to hack its programming. More often than not, it comes to the aid of its legal owner, Dr, Mensah, who, from the first novella, granted Murderbot with autonomy. What it does with this decision, and how it rationalises its actions, form the very basis of this deceptively action-packed space opera.
The final novella in the sequence is Exit Strategy. Pursued by the authorities for being a rogue SecUnit, Murderbot is wanted, dead or alive. It continues to chase its own agenda, but finding that it can’t help but care what happens to the humans who have placed their trust in it, Murderbot has to protect Dr. Mensah, who’s in as much danger as it is. It’s Murderbot and Mensah against the evildoers of GrayCris, with the truth about what really happened in Murderbot’s past coming to light.
Murderbot has a unique and distinctly snarky internal voice. It constantly questions the decisions the humans around it makes, rolling its eyes as they flounder from one stupid mess of their own making into another. And yet, it will always help them when it comes to the crunch, despite the threat to its own existence. It struggles with the concept of friendship and companionship, but can see the benefits of both. It is endearing and entertaining to follow Murderbot on its adventures, and knowing that a full-length novel, Network Effect, was published this year (with another due out in 2021), is enough to keep me in its thrall. This series of four novellas should and will appeal to science fiction fans looking for a new sort of hero: not human, but full of the ideals about what it means to be human. These stories are a joy to read, and I’m so glad that there are more to come.
Space 1999, a great (and sometimes not-so-great) British TV show from the 1970’s, created an extraordinary concept in which, due to a nuclear explosion on the Moon’s surface, our lunar neighbour was wrenched out of orbit and flung into the outer regions of our solar system and beyond. This was devastating for the Commander Koenig and the crew of Moonbase Alpha. Over the course of two seasons (the first being the most superior), the Moon encounters black holes and space warps (the science is cagey, but let’s run with it), and all manners of aliens and danger. It was fun while it lasted. The full pilot is available on YouTube and is definitely worth watching. But little is made of the effect of the Moon’s disappearance from Earth’s orbit, and the likely geological impact it would have had on our planet. The Broken Earth trilogy, written by N.K. Jemisin, imagines, to much acclaim, the cataclysmic events that would befall our planet where something to happen to the Moon.
I’m jumping the gun somewhat here. We don’t learn about the Moon until much later in the trilogy, which consists of The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stolen Sky. On what may or may not be our Earth in the very far future, there is the Stillness: a supercontinent that endures eons long events known as Seasons. These can be volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes, the kind of natural disasters that have caused extended periods of drought and famine. It’s climate change taken to its extreme, and very much a warning to us in the here and now. Citizens of the Stillness hide out in Comms, only to rebuilt that which was destroyed. Orogenes protect the Stillness: these are humans who possess an uncanny ability to control the ground beneath them, and as we learn later the sky above. Orogenes can literally move mountains, but they are feared and hated despite what they do to help save humanity. They are trained at the Fulcrum, a school that both educates and brutalises orogenes-in-waiting. Not all survive the process, as their teachers, Guardians, run a harsh regime.
The Fifth Seasonopens with a woman named Essun who discovers that her husband has murdered their baby son and has now disappeared with their daughter. Using different points of view (third person, first person, and even second person), N.K. beautifully creates a web of narrative intricacy. We read about Damaya, an orogene-in-training, arriving at the Fulcrum; and Syenite who, along with her more experienced handler, Alabaster, is embarking on her first mission. As we find ourselves drawn into these separate narratives, N.K. drops a little twist: they are all the same woman at different points in her life. We work out where each story takes place, and we also have a front row seat to the abuse and oppression orogenes endure. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.
The Obelisk Gate looks upwards. All around the world, hanging in the skies of the Stillness, are huge crystals called Obelisks. Following from the climactic events of the first book, when Syenite draws from power from one such obelisk in order to protect herself and her child, the story shares perspective with Nassun, Essun’s daughter, who believes that she and her people have suffered enough injustice and enslavement and humanity is to blame. It and the Stillness deserve to be torn apart for good. She intends to use her considerable power to bring about the end of all things. Her mother means to find and stop her. Both sides of this apocalytic battle are aided and abetted by the Stone Eaters, beings that can travel through rock itself, and can trace their origin far back to a more advanced society: one that in pursuit of power created the obelisks and knocked the Moon from its orbit.
The Stone Skybrings the trilogy to a close, but in a startling and literally earth-shattering way. The past, present, and future collide when we learn of how and why the obelisks were created, and how the race of slaves created to power the crystals both saved and damned the Earth. In its defence, Mother Earth herself had enough of what humanity was doing to her. We had made Gaia our slave and She rebelled against us. It was what we deserved. Nassun and Essen are on a collision course and the Earth is on the side of the younger woman, who wants to bring the Moon back and crash it onto the surface of the planet. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.
The Broken Earth Trilogy is science fiction and fantasy seated at the top end of both tables. N.K. creates characters and landscapes that are recognisable and fantastical. Rooted in all three books is the notion of power and what we will do to attain and keep it. In order to have our way, we find it necessary to subjugate and dominate individuals and races. But when the planet we live on decides that it’s time for change and wholesale annihilation, we live on borrowed time. It takes bravery and sacrifice to prevail against such insurmountable odds. N.K. Jemisin is the first Black author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel with The Fifth Season. She then proceeded to follow up that win with a further two awards in the category with the remaining novels in the trilogy. That in itself should tell you something. If you haven’t read them yet, there is really no excuse not to. The best fiction tells us something about ourselves as a person and as a human being. N.K.’s trilogy not only tells us what would happen if we cared any less about how we live, but gives us a way to heal the world around us. We don’t need superpowers; we just need to care. And act now.
N.K. Jemisin has embarked on a new trilogy, The Great Cities, beginning with the publication this year of The City We Became.Instead of Earth being alive, its cities that are sentient. I look forward to reading this. Also I would advise people to check out her short story collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month. It’s superb.
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.
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.