The Alleyman by Pat Kelleher

This is the third installment in the No Man’s World series written by Pat Kelleher for Abaddon books. The series is set in 1916 and follows the 13th Pennine Fusiliers, who found themselves explosively transported from the Somme to a horrifyingly alien world. Horrifying being the operative word here — the soldiers very quickly discover that every plant and animal on the planet is out to get them.

If you are thinking that this all sounds very pulpy, you would be absolutely correct. It has also proved to be a crackingly good read. The strength of Kelleher’s characterisation, combined with his attention to detail, keeps everything grounded no matter how far he stretches the plot.

And so to The Alleyman

Four months after the Pennine Fusiliers vanished from the Somme, they are still stranded on the alien world. As Lieutenant Everson tries to discover the true intentions of their alien prisoner, he finds he must quell the unrest within his own ranks while helping foment insurrection among the alien Khungarrii.

Beyond the trenches, Lance Corporal Atkins and his Black Hand gang are reunited with the ironclad tank, Ivanhoe, and its crew. On the trail of Jeffries, the diabolist they hold responsible for their predicament, they are forced to face the obscene horrors that lie within the massive Croatoan Crater, a place inextricably tied to the history of the alien chatts and native urmen alike.

Above it all, Lieutenant Tulliver of the Royal Flying Corp, soars free of the confines of alien gravity, where the true scale of the planet’s mystery is revealed. However, to uncover the truth he must join forces with an unsuspected ally.

You really do need to have read the first two books in this series (The Black Hand Gang and The Ironclad Prophecy) before embarking on this one because Kelleher jumps straight into the action. There’s no recap and no explanation of anything that has been previously explained.

That said, the major characters have started to feel like old friends. I have already mentioned the characterisation and it is this, more than anything, that provides a sense of familiarity that makes it very easy to pick up the narrative, even after a couple of years.

With an ongoing narrative, it’s hard to separate this novel from the series as a whole, and the whole series is well worth a look. If the idea of Edgar Rice Burroghs populating the worlds of HP Lovecrat appeals to you, then this series will be right up your street. Alternatively, if you want a fresh take on a straightforward adventure story, then this is right up your street as well.

The Alleyman is an unashamedly pulp adventure story. But by making it an ensemble story centred on a platoon of WWI, Pat Kelleher avoids the problem endemic in many of these types of story of a square-jawed hero single-handedly defeating a horde. This makes for a narrative that both holds together much more effectively and which is consistently gripping.

As far as I can tell, there are no plans to publish a fourth novel in this series, which is a shame. I, for one, would love to see what the Pennine Fusiliers do next.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

At less than 100 pages, Binti is a very quick read but there is so much packed into this novella that I’m tempted to go back and read it again.

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself — but first she has to make it there, alive.

On the face of it, this sounds like a fairly unexceptional space opera. However, by drawing on her Nigerian roots, Nnedi Okorafor manages to look at questions of culture and cultural identity is a way that is (to me) utterly original.

Binti herself is a great character, believably navigating conflicting aspirations and expectations while never losing sight of who she is or where she comes from. This, combined with some wonderfully evocative world building, makes for a thoughtful take on the way in which family and culture can both ground us and limit us.

FERTS by Grace Hudson

Before I started writing this, I took a quick look at the reaction on Goodreads and was a bit surprised at just how positively FERTS had been received. For me, the novel just doesn’t work.

The war is over. Resources are scarce. The population is dwindling in the Forkstream Territories.

Pinnacle Officer Wilcox has created FERTS amidst the chaos, a facility designed to protect the female population from raiding hordes.

Beth 259201, a newly-demoted Epsilon Internee, suspects that there is something more that lurks beneath the carefully constructed order of the facility.

She has a gift, one that could brand her a defective. A novice fighter, she must use her intellect to survive. Her own life, and the lives of many more may be at risk. Will she succumb to the plans in store for her or will she conceal her secret long enough to discover her own path?

FERTS is a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller.

I have the impression that Grace Hudson was trying to write a more overtly post-apocalyptic take on The Handmaids Tale, but FERTS doesn’t come anywhere close to achieving this. A large part of the problem, for me, is that Hudson is too explicit about her world building, to the point that narrative frequently grinds to a halt so that the author can inflict yet another gratuitous infodump on the poor reader.

Not only is this incessant infodumping jarring, but it also has the unfortunate effect of highlighting the extent to which the world, as depicted, doesn’t quite hang together. As a result, I was spending far too much time noticing the inconsistencies and not buying in to any of it.

This isn’t helped by the extent to which the plot jumps from character to character. For much of the story, there is no real sense of where things are going, or which characters are going to prove to be important. The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult to connect with, or care about, with any of the characters which badly reduces the impact the book is trying to achieve.

And when the plot finally does start to kick in, we have a wholly unjustified superpower that very nearly led me to abandon the book there and then.

Ultimately, FERTS tries to be too many things and juggle too many threads and ends up falling flat in the process.

Foreigner by CJ Cherryh

That was superb. Foreigner is a first contact novel wrapped in a thriller, the twist being that, this time, it’s humans that have landed on an alien planet and having to navigate a completely alien culture.

It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest 5G star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on
this planet so many light years from home.

Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin’s bullet.

The book is split into three parts, the first two of which detail the arrival of the starship and the first encounter between atevi and humans. Then we get into the meat of the story, which centres on Bren Cameron, the one human living in atevi society. Bren is a paidhi, essentially humanity’s ambassador to the Atevi.

When Bren finds himself targeted by an assassin, he finds himself shunted from location to location, desperately trying to understand what is happening and who he can trust.

There are two things that really stand out here, the first of which is the Atevi themselves. This is a truly alien race in terms of their attitudes, their instincts and their culture, and this alienness makes them difficult to comprehend and impossible to fully understand. This keeps Bren permanently off balance as his human instincts are consistently wrong.

The other thing to note is CJ Cherry’s writing style. Once Bren is introduced, the story is told entirely from Bren’s perspective — what Bren doesn’t know neither does the reader and if Bren doesn’t understand the importance of something it won’t be mentioned. This approach demands some work from the reader in that there is much that is not explained, but the depth of the story is such that it is well worth the effort.

With Foreigner CJ Cherryh gives us one of the strongest explorations of how cultures interact — and conflict — with each other that I have read in a long time. The novel is complex, detailed and utterly gripping and will probably bear reading again.

Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel

Steampunk is a genre of fiction that often manages to both fascinate and irritate me. At its best, counterfactual histories in which Babbage built his Difference Engine and explorations of how this would have impacted Victorian society absolutely appeal to the science fiction nerd in me. All too often, however, we end up with yet another tale of cod-Victorians running around in brass goggles.

And so to Phoenix Rising, the first novel in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series.

Evil is most assuredly afoot — and Britain’s fate rests in the hands of an alluring renegade… and a librarian.

These are dark days indeed in Victoria’s England. Londoners are vanishing, then reappearing, washing up as corpses on the banks of the Thames, drained of blood and bone. Yet the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences — the Crown’s clandestine organization whose bailiwick is the strange and unsettling — will not allow its agents to investigate. Fearless and exceedingly lovely Eliza D. Braun, however, with her bulletproof corset and a disturbing fondness for dynamite, refuses to let the matter rest… and she’s prepared to drag her timorous new partner, Wellington Books, along with her into the perilous fray.

For a malevolent brotherhood is operating in the deepening London shadows, intent upon the enslavement of all Britons. And Books and Braun — he with his encyclopedic brain and she with her remarkable devices — must get to the twisted roots of a most nefarious plot… or see England fall to the Phoenix!

I really wanted to like this novel, and it certainly started off in a spectacularly explosive manner as the decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone is set. A secret society is introduced and a novel featuring a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences certainly gives itself the right to throw a few peculiar occurrences at the reader. I would have been more than happy if the authors, Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, had decided to tip over a few tropes and head off on a tangent of their own devising.

Unfortunately, they didn’t.

The novel starts off feeling like a jolly romp through a collection of Victorian and pseudo-Victorian stereotypes but, as the story progresses, things become more serious and the early light-heartedness is abandoned. This would have been okay if there had been some attempt to either explore the technology or the ways in which it had impacted society.

But it doesn’t.

In fact, Victorian society seems pretty much unchanged apart from the fact that people are running around with devices so ill-defined that they might as well be magic.

And the occurrences were nowhere near peculiar enough.

I found Phoenix Rising to be a rather strange book. While the two main characters were engaging and generally fun to spend time with, the authors never quite manage to decide what sort of a novel they want to write and the shifts in tone make for a jarringly disjointed read that never quite achieves its potential.

This is the first novel in a series and, while I would like to see more of Wellington Books and Eliza Braun, I’m in no great hurry to do so.

Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris

Chris Morris, in case you hadn’t heard of him, is the comedian and satirist probably best known for The Day Today (which mocked the self-important and overbearing approach of current affairs TV) and Brass Eye (which took a swipe at moral panics and the willingness of celebrities to jump on ever more ludicrous bandwagons).

Disgusting Bliss not only follows Morris from his formative years to his rise to national prominence but also the team of writers and comedians — including Armando Iannuci, Steve Coogan, and many others — as they came together to make On The Hour (the radio forerunner of The Day Today). This makes for a fascinating read often veers away from being a straightforward biography of Morris to become more of an overview of the pool of people whose careers were launched by these programmes and who went on to enjoy a huge level of success in their own right.

If the state of British comedy in the early 1990s is interesting to you, then this book really is worth a read.

It is also the funniest biography I have read. Much of this comes from the author’s revisiting of the radio and TV programmes that Morris has been involved in and reminding you of just how brilliant they were and how memorable were some of the lines. The only downside is that this can be quite a difficult book to read on the train, unless you don’t mind the looks you get when you suddenly laugh out loud.

As far as Morris himself is concerned, what comes across is a picture of someone who is generous, fiercely intelligent and obsessively professional. He’s someone who, on seeing nonsense being spouted, feels the need to point at it and shout loudly until everyone is fully aware just how nonsensical are the claims we are expected to accept.

Nonsense deserves to be exposed, and Morris does it brilliantly.

John Harold Haynes: The original fixer

When I bought my first car, my parents bought me the Haynes manual for the car. Haynes manuals, for those that have never seen one, are a series of workshop manuals — one for each make and model of car — based on a complete strip down and rebuild of the vehicle. What they do (or did) was take a car apart, then put it back together, documenting each part of the process step by step. If you had a set of spanners and the correct manual, it was possible to do most of the maintenance on pretty much any car.

And I did.

When I was young, single and had plenty of time and not much money, being able to do my own maintenance — with parts bought cheaply from a local breakers yard — meant that I was able to keep the first three cars I owned on the road largely by myself. When I moved to the Netherlands, I sold my car and didn’t get around to buying another one for over a decade. Dutch public transport is very good indeed.

Then, in 2010, a change of job meant that I needed a car again and, once I’d bought the car I started looking for the relevant Haynes manual. I was rather shocked, and not a little annoyed, to discover that this was not available — it turns out that modern cars, with their reliance on onboard computers and other such nonsense, just aren’t as maintainable as the cars I grew up with. But that’s a rant for another time.

I’d never really thought about who had originally come up with the idea of these manuals — they had always existed as long as I could remember — which is a shame because John Haynes, the man who inspired a generation of fixers, died on 8th February after a short illness.

As I mentioned earlier, the publisher has moved away from car manuals. They have now expanded into applying their iconic style to engineering achievements, fiction and humour.

What Haynes achieved, though, was more fundamental. He encouraged a generation — my generation — to try and fix our own stuff, told us what tools we needed and guided us through a range of maintenance tasks in a manner that allowed us to be reasonably confident of success.

The world needs more people like John Haynes.

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

The Atrocity Archives is the first of Charles Stross’ Laundry novels which are premised on the idea that alternate dimensions exist and are populated by all sorts of Lovecraftian horrors. The twist is that the magic needed to summon these is a branch of mathematics, which means that anyone with a laptop and an interest in equations could accidentally annihilate Wolverhampton.

Of course, in such a universe, government agencies will exist to keep the dimensional portals closed and ensure that no-one with an interest in equations accidentally does annihilate Wolverhampton. This brings us to The Laundry, an offshoot of Britain’s wartime activities that continues to protect us all from these nameless horrors.

The real brilliance of this novel, however, is that rather than portraying The Laundry as some slick super-spy organisation, Stross assumes that it would operate in the manner of any other Civil Service organisation — bound by bureaucracy, hampered by office politics and obsessed with quality standards.

The Atrocity Archives is comprised of two novellas: The Atrocity Archives and The Concrete Jungle. The hero of both of these stories is Bob Howard, an IT support guy who works for the Laundry and who — foolishly — expressed an interest in active service.

In The Atrocity Archives, we follow Bob’s first forays into active service and see him quickly finding himself out of his depth and facing interdimensional Nazis, Islamist terrorists, elder gods and a wormhole to a dying universe. In The Concrete Jungle, Bob finds himself facing a deadly combination of CCTV and office politics.

Both are played straight with the humour deriving from the juxtaposition of the sort of mundane bureaucracy with which we are all familiar with horrifying alien intelligences. This mixture of the mundane and the weird keeps you off balance and allows Stross to insert all sorts of strangeness without it ever becoming too unbelievable.

Secret State by Chris Mullin

This was originally published in the early 1980s as A Very British Coup and centres on Harry Perkins, a former steel worker who leads a very left-wing Labour government to a general election victory. Inevitably, The Establishment is appalled at the idea and proceeds to conspire to bring down the government.

I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this novel for several reasons, the first of which is that it wasn’t the book I expected. Th e cover blurb claims that Secret State predicted the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, which it doesn’t. This was written shortly after Michael Foot became leader of the Labour Party but before they were flattened in the 1983 General Election. However, Chris Mullin doesn’t spend much time on how a very left-wing Labour party gets elected, he takes this as a given and jumps straight into what really interests him, which is Establishment conspiracies.

This brings me to my second problem with the novel which is that I really couldn’t buy into the conspiracy at the heart of the novel. While I can buy that various elements of society would seek to oppose, destabilise and bring down such a government, the sort of overt and organised conspiracy depicted felt like a stretch too far.

It’s possible that, if you share Mullin’s world-view, you may this conspiracy easier to accept. And you would have to accept it out of the box because the author doesn’t really make any effort to justify either his premise or his assumptions.

This is not helped by the thinness of the characterisation. None of the characters are really developed and they all feel like walk-on parts with no purpose other than to advance the machinations of the conspiracy at the heart of the book. Personal consequences are either skimmed over or completely absent leaving no real sense of the impact of the events being portrayed.

All this adds up to quite a disappointing book. There is a really good idea at the heart of it and one that could deliver a really gripping political thriller. Unfortunately, Secret State is not that novel.

2018: My year in books

The number of books I read this year has seen a significant rise on previous years. This is largely due to the fact that I am now commuting primarily by train, which gives me much more time to read.

(A consequence of this is that, my reduced driving combined with the fact that I can now get the BBC World Service on my car radio means that I have, for all intents an purposes, stopped listening to podcasts. But that’s not the point of this post.)

This year I have read a total of 24 books, leaning heavily towards fantasy novels. Two sets of fantasy novels, both of which have proved to be highlights of my reading year.

First up is A Song of Ice And Fire. All seven novels (so far) of George R.R. Martin’s epic tale of Westeros which I started reading in light of the hype surrounding the Game of Thrones TV series. I still haven’t watched the TV but, based on the novels, the hype is very well deserved. This is fantasy that is gritty, dark, messy and muddy and so well written that, regardless of the number of characters and narrative threads, you never once lose track of or interest in the ongoing events.

The other highlight for me was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Echoes of the Fall trilogy. This is a fantasy series that ignores all of the pseudo-medieval cliches in favour of exploring a bronze age society, populated entirely by shape-shifting humans. It’s a highly original series, packed with engaging and believable characters, that serves to remind me just why Adrian Tchaikovsky remains my favourite living writer.

Also worth a mention is A Matter of Blood, this first part of The Dog Faced Gods trilogy by Sarah Pinborough. Written in 2009 and set in a 2011 in which the ramifications of the financial crash were far more dystopian, this novel manages to combine science fiction, noir and horror into a single gripping package. I already have the next book in the series and will be starting on it very soon indeed.

On the comedy front, I can’t not mention A Game of Battleships, the latest installment of Toby Frost’s Chronicles of Isambard Smith. If the idea of steampunk space opera in which the Sun never set on the British Empire provides a deep mine of comedy gold which, hopefully, will continue to deliver for many more years to come.

Next year, I plan to enjoy even more time on the train, and finally put a sizable dent in my almost-under-control pile of unread books.