Books I Read In February 2012
The Drowning City – Amanda Downum
Fast-moving low fantasy, the first in the Necromancer Chronicles trilogy. The setting is an unusual one – a delta-spanning city called Symir in the jungle on the slopes of an active volcano, in a region clearly modeled on Asia. Unusually it’s based on Southeastern Asia, rather than the more common China or Japan1. The city is occupied by an aggressive, expansionist empire from the South, with various rebels fighting against the foreigners, native collaborators and each other. Another empire to the North sends the protagonist, a necromancer and a spy, into the city to foment dissent and encourage the locals into open revolution. Everything starts to kick off more or less immediately, with assassinations, bombings, demonic possessions, militant ghosts. . . It wasn’t until I finished this book and thought about it a little that I realised just how well-written it is; it manages to clearly portray an interesting, original setting without resorting to pages of narrative exposition or lecturing characters, and has a plot that revolves around politics but is also action-packed. It definitely helps that all the main parties have clearly defined, plausible goals and act accordingly, rather than being all mysterious and occasionally knifing someone to surprise the audience. Highly recommended, I look forward to reading the follow-up.
Fast One – Paul Cain
Hard-boiled gangster fiction from the golden age of American Noir. Gerry Kells is a professional gambler in ’30s LA; he begins the story by turning down a lucrative deal because he doesn’t want to get tangled in other peoples business, before being sucked straight into a maelstrom of shootings, frame-ups, armed robbery, city politics, blackmail, drug smuggling, car chases. . . The plot should be complex, what with all the betrayals, bluffs and reveals, but there’s so many of them it’s actually the reverse. Kells is constantly reacting to the chaos around him as he pinballs across the LA underworld, and every time he starts to get a grip on what’s happening someone pulls a gun or hits him over the head with something2. There is clearly no point in even trying to work out what’s going on or why, the only thing to do is to ride the chaos and see what happens. The novel was originally published as a monthly serial in Black Mask magazine, which may explain why it’s both fairly episodic and very quick on it’s feet. Nothing earth-shattering, but entertaining and a good example of the genre.
The Destruction of Lord Raglan – Christopher Hibbert
Partly a history of the Crimean War and partly a biography of Lord Raglan, the man who commanded the British forces and who was subsequently made a scapegoat for it’s near-disastrous performance. Hibbert makes a strong case for Raglan being at worse no more incompetent than his contemporaries and at best one of the few people who recognised the monstrous inefficiency of the system and attempted to at least mitigate it’s failings. The book felt a little odd because it seemed to be trying to repair the reputation of someone I’d never thought needed it; it was published in 1961, so perhaps the consensus view was different then. Although it doesn’t outright state it’s thesis, it’s pretty clearly that the Crimean War was a modern war; with most of the fighting revolving around trenches, heavy artillery and supply lines it resembles a dress rehearsal for World War I. Most of what went wrong can be therefore traced to the fact that Britain tried to fight it with a military system that hadn’t been changed since Waterloo other than to have it’s budget slashed radically. With the newly influential press reporting on the war in great detail, someone had to take the blame and Raglan was the most convenient fall guy. Well written narrative history that makes it’s case simply and clearly.
Battle For The Abyss – Ben Counter
The eighth novel in the Black Library’s excellent Horus Heresy series, which is for my money some of the best current pulp fiction. Whilst Horus betrays the Emperor in the Isstvan system, the traitorous Word Bearer legion prepares to fall upon the unawares Ultramarines. As their main fleet heads for Calth, a single monstrously-powerful warship named the Furious Abyss is sent to destroy the Ultramarine homeworld of Macragge. A handful of Ultramarines, Space Wolves, World Eaters and Thousand Sons3 discover the ship and set off in desperate pursuit. Probably the weakest of the Horus Heresy novels that I’ve read so far, it’s nonetheless entertaining even if it doesn’t live up to the high standards of the series overall. The action scenes are suitably savage and the plot, though pretty predictable, moves at a fair old pace. It’s this predictability that is the main problem – you know from the start that Macragge is not going to be destroyed, because it still exists in the main Warhammer 40,000 timeline. The format of the story is such that there’s really only one way the Furious Abyss is going to be stopped in the end – with a desperate battle aboard the ship at the last minute. Obviously this kind of issue is inherent in any prequel, but unlike the previous Heresy novels Battle For The Abyss is more of a side-story; it doesn’t really add anything to the overall plot. I did think the tensions between the different legions were done well, especially considering the inclusion of marines whose legions turned traitor. If you’re working your way through the Horus Heresy sequence then it’s worth reading, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it as a one-off.
Black Money – Ross Macdonald
Private eye Lew Archer is hired by the jilted boyfriend of a beautiful heiress to investigate the suave Frenchman she ran away with. Of course, it’s not that simple4, and as Archer follows the threads he finds connections to a supposed suicide, some very large gambling debts and a great many secrets. In the end he finds the truth, but it doesn’t really help anyone. . . From the wealthy society families to the desperate chancers, nearly everyone he meets is hiding something from the outside world and from themselves; they’re all trying to live out a fantasy rather than accept the reality of their lives. Unusually for this kind of novel, Archer is a humane, philosophical man who seems genuinely sympathetic to the people he encounters on his case. He’s affected by what happens and he wants to help, even though he realises there’s little he can do. There’s no cynicism or macho posturing, just the sad spectacle of people falling apart on the inside and desperately pretending to be fine. The writing is sparse but effective, with no wasted words or unnecessary flourishes. The best crime fiction I’ve read in a long time.
The Island of the Day Before – Umberto Eco
In 1643 Roberto, a young Italian noble, is shipwrecked in the Pacific and finds himself washed up on a deserted ship lying just off an equally deserted island. To begin with the story cuts back and forth between Roberto’s exploration of the ship and his reminiscences of how he got there, via war, the salons of Paris and the Bastille. To complicate matters he also his his increasingly detailed fantasies about the imaginary brother he invented as a child and whom he has blamed for everything that has gone wrong in his life, and his equally fantastic love for a society beauty he has barely spoken to. He convinces himself that if only he could reach the island, which is on the other side of the international date line, everything would be alright; sadly he can’t swim. As with most of Eco’s work, a lot of the book consists of various characters expounding on the philosophy, theology, and science of their time. You could argue that the novel is basically a platform for the author to lecture the reader, though that would be an exaggeration, and in any case it’s always a privilege to be lectured by someone of such learning and erudition. A lot of the book is concerned with the idea of meaning and truth; Roberto is someone who treats the real world like a story, by creating his evil twin to blame for his misfortunes, treating a woman he barely knows as if she was the eternal feminine from a courtly romance, and finally inventing a fantastical story to explain how he came to end up on the ship and how he could leave it. To add another layer to this, the book is told from the perspective of an unknown editor telling Roberto’s story from the letters and manuscripts he left behind him; this editor himself is clearly imagining things he couldn’t know in order to fill in the gaps, and in places openly admits to deliberately interpreting the evidence in a way that will fit in with the narrative he wants. It’s not quite up there with Eco’s best work, which of course is an incredibly high standard to apply, but nonetheless a good book. Of course, a lot depends on your interest in and your tolerance for the long digressions and tangents on history, critical theory, philosophy, etc. that make up most of the book.
1 I though it was like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, though I don’t know much about that part of the world.
2 In keeping with all noir detectives, he’s knocked out so many times he should be brain-damaged by half-way.
3 Actually only one of the latter – what’s the singular term? A Thousand Son?
4 Is it ever?