Books I Read In May 2012
The Bone Palace – Amanda Downum
Although it’s a sequel to The Drowned City, which I read a few months back, and centres around the same protagonist, the necromancer and spy Isyllt, there’s no real connection between this book and the previous one. Aside from a couple of brief references, the plots are unrelated and you could easily read this one first without any trouble. The basic structure of the book is similar it’s predecessor, in that it’s set in a very distinctive city and has a plot driven by politics, however the details are distinctive. Whereas the setting for the first book was Symir, a steaming tropical port in an unstable, war-torn part of the world, this time the city is Erisin, a cold, Northern city at the heart of a powerful kingdom. Instead of being full of life and heat Erisin is a place steeped in death, with tombs and ossuraries all across the city, warrens of predatory vampires deep underground, and the ruins of a palace left behind after the magical equivalent of Chernobyl. The whole place is chilly and sinister in a way that is evoked well, but doesn’t go too far; it’s still a place where people live out their lives, most of them perfectly ordinary ones, rather than a corpse-choked hellhole. The sense of cold and death permeates the novel as much as heat and life did in the last one; characters are motivated by calculated revenge for deeds far in the past, knowing full well the consequences for themselves and everyone else. Similarly, although both books revolved around political intrigue the kind of politics is different; this time around it’s masked balls, stilettos in the night and arranged marriages rather than armed rebellion, terrorist attacks and ‘foreign advisors’. Something I thought interesting was that one of the main characters is a transexual, I think probably the first I’ve come across in fantasy fiction1. There’s definitely a touch of the ‘Urban Fantasy’ genre, with doomed affairs and a complicated love triangle, as well as the general predominance of female characters. As with the first novel this is clearly written, uncomplicated and fast-moving, and the characterisation of the protagonists is if anything improved.
Loyalists – Peter Taylor
An overview of the Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, from the author who gave the Irish Republicans and the security forces similar treatment in Provos and Brits respectively2. As with the other volumes Loyalists draws on numerous interviews with members and former members of the movement, from the leaders to the men who carried out their orders. Covering events from the beginning of the modern Troubles to the Good Friday Agreement it provides a solid overview of the genesis and evolution of Loyalism, though it is mainly a narrative account rather than a serious theoretical work. As far as he offers any explanations, they are the conventional ones of the siege mentality so long associated with Ulster, British governments perceived as willing to sell out Northern Ireland to Dublin, and the general escalation of tit-for-tat violence. It’s not really fair to call this a flaw, but I do think that reading this volume in isolation isn’t ideal; since each covers their respective communities from their own perspective you really have to read the accompanying two books to get a full understanding of events.
Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch
Peter Grant is a newly qualified police officer in the Met, whose tendency to get easily distracted and think too much is threatening to take him into a career centred around paperwork and bureaucracy rather than nabbing villains. Except whilst at the scene of a rather bizarre murder he finds himself talking to a witness who’s been dead for several centuries; next thing he’s an apprentice wizard as well as a sworn officer of the law. There’s definitely something specifically English about this particular urban fantasy, with a plot that revolves around London history and folklore and a view of the police that’s closer to The Bill than, well, pick from any number of US cop shows really. The overall vibe is similar to Harry Potter, maybe a little darker but only a little. The thing it reminds me of most is Neil Gaimen’s American Gods, in the way it deals with myths and legends drawn from specific cultural and historical places and how they deal with the modern world. I did find that the overall plot wasn’t quite as powerful as it could be, I never really got the impression that it was as much of a threat as it should have been; it’s more about the characters and the world they live in than what’s actually happening, which I suppose is common enough in this kind of story. It’s nothing desperately out of the ordinary but I did enjoy it.
Complete Ghost Stories – M R James
Not totally sure the title is accurate for this one, as some stories I remember from the past don’t seem to be in this collection. Of course it’s entirely possible that I’m misremembering them or confusing another author’s work. Anyway, a great many excellent tales of gothic horror from the master of the English ghost story. Reading them all together like this does make very clear the common elements in most of his work; a lot of the stories involve a scholar or antiquarian, of reserved but gentlemanly character, somehow becoming involved with the unearthly. Something that struck me was the way so many of the apparitions and haunts are unpleasantly physical; quite a few of them betray their presence by tactile sensations rather than the more common half-seen shapes or distant sounds. There’s a definite trend towards the dry, rough and hairy rather than the rotting liquidity and vile slime that seems more common these days, a sense of something nasty and crawling brushing against you in the dark3.
The Bloody Red Baron – Kim Newman
Second in the Anno Dracula series, which is at long last coming back into print – so if for nothing else the recent vampire craze was worth it. The setting is an alternate history/alternate fiction where Dracula was not defeated by Van Helsing, but instead turned Queen Victoria into his vampire bride and openly took control of Britain. This volume is set during the First World War; having been forced from the throne at the climax of the first book, the Graf von Dracula now controls the Central Powers and seeks to crush all his foes at once. There’s a major offensive brewing, and the lethal air aces led by Manfred von Richtoffen are threatening to destroy the Entente’s air supremacy; agents of the Diogenes Club, the unofficial heart of British intelligence, try to discover their plans. As with it’s predecessor seemingly every historical and fictional character from the relevent period pops up at least briefly4, which is great although on occasion I found it slightly distracting that every time anyone I didn’t know was mentioned I’d be wondering who they were. This really is good, it’s more thoughtful than it’s pulp fiction premise might suggest – there might be all sorts of vampires around in this world but it’s not really that different from ours, the brute carnage of the trenches is far more monstrous than anything supernatural. There’s also a rather good short story set in the ’20s which manages to take in modern romantic vampire fiction, jolly hockeysticks school stories and country house murder mysteries.
Stainless – Todd Grimson
More vampires, I don’t know what’s come over me. This one dates from the late ’90s and is more in the vein5 of Anne Rice. Keith is a former musician who after some particularly bad breaks (suicidal girlfriend, crippled hands, heroin addiction) has ended up as the lover of Justine, a vampire. The two of them mostly sort of drift through the seedy underside of Los Angeles, both suffering from their pasts and neither really able to help the other. Meanwhile, a man she accidentally turned back in the ’20s has reappeared and he’s not at all happy about what happened between them back then. I really like this book, but I’m not totally sure why. It’s not particularly original and the plot isn’t exactly gripping, but I did find it affecting somehow. It’s sad without being manipulative, more like a general sense of pervasive grief. I think my abiding love for Vampire: The Masquerade probably has something to do with it, in the sense that the world is nothing but endless summer nights populated by people from the ‘alternative’ fringes of society, and not necessarily in a good way. Also, I feel like it probably says something about me that supernatural creatures drinking blood didn’t strike me as odd whereas people listening to music on cassette did.
The Wine of Dreams – Brian Craig
Warhammer novel from the early days of the Black Library. A young wine merchant’s uneventful life in probably the most peaceful town in the Empire6 is suddenly thrown into turmoil when a long lost relative suddenly arrives looking for ‘dark wine’, closely pursued by a witch hunter. This is recognisably an earlier Warhammer novel, there’s a sense of weirdness to the world that’s not quite so prevalent in the current works, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately there’s also a feeling that things aren’t quite finished somehow, there’s a sort of illusion of depth in places; the way the town seems unusually sheltered, the protagonist’s sudden falling in love with a woman he doesn’t know, the motivations of the witch hunter – all of these things at first seemed to have more going on beneath the surface, but in the end they’re just what they appear to be at first glance. It’s not bad, but it would probably have been better if it either tackled these complications with more depth or ignored them completely and just gone for straight-forward action. As it is I found it rather underwhelming.
1 At least the first real one, not like a magical hermaphrodite or what have you.
2 I believe this is the middle volume.
3 Also, spiders aaarrrgghhhh.
5 I swear that wasn’t deliberate.
6 In the sense that it’s not constantly besieged by darkness without and within.