Northern Lights

I have always encouraged the boys to read (which is not difficult) and now we appear to have come full circle, with the boys encouraging me to read (again, not difficult). Specifically, Macsen told me that I would really enjoy Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass in some regions), the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

He wasn’t wrong. The book is superb.

Obviously this novel, and the series of which it is part, is very much aimed at a teenage audience. But there is so much depth and detail to Pullman’s world that it really does draw you in.

Set in a world slightly parallel to our own, the book centres on Lyra, an orphan growing up in Jordan College, Oxford under the slightly unfocused guardianship of the college master. Plots are afoot, though, and Lyra finds herself on a journey over the course of which she learns about herself, her parents and the world in which she lives.

There is a great deal to like here. The characterisation is consistently solid and the world depicted is deep, complete and fascinating. By setting the story on an Earth that is almost, but not quite, like our own, Pullman manages to create an environment that is both familiar and strange, and one that never leaves you floundering. For someone who had never read a fantasy novel before, this book would probably be a very good place to start.

Northern Lights is also a book that works on multiple levels. On one hand, much of the plot revolves around a chase through increasingly mysterious lands which, even with the darkness of the ending, will appeal to any teenager. However, embedded in the world-building and in the motivations of the various characters is a deeper exploration of the way in which religion — when given too much power — both corrupts and harms those who fall under its influence.

I will certainly be reading the next novel in this series (just as soon as Macsen has finished with it) and I sincerely hope that we will see more of the panserbjørne, who must go down as one of the most spectacularly awesome fantasy races ever conceived.

The Obelisk Gate

This second book in N.K. Jeminsin’s Broken Earth trilogy picks up from the end of The Fifth Season. While it does suffer a bit from ‘Middle Book Syndrome’ (the need to get from the end book one to the start of book three), this does not detract from what is a powerful and effective story.

The season of endings grows darker as civilisation fades into the long cold night.

Essun has found shelter, but not her missing daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request only Essun can grant.

As with the previous novel, there is a lot packed into the narrative and the author doesn’t expect to wait for you to catch up. As such, you need to pay attention while reading this. That attention is well rewarded, though, with some superb worldbuilding being both expands and deepens the reader’s understanding of the environment in which this novel takes place.

We also spend a lot more time with the additional characters, those that were mentioned or briefly encountered in the earlier book, and most of whom will clearly become a great deal more important in the next novel.

While this novel is not quite as outstanding as the first novel — and for narrative reasons it probably can’t be — it is an excellent story in its own right and one that sets things up for a superb, and possibly world shattering, trilogy.

Cast Iron

I don’t usually read crime novels so this is a bit of a change of gear for me. I should also note that this is the sixth book in a series and, not having read any of the previous five, it took me quite a while to get up to speed with the various characters and to fully appreciate the significance of events recalled from previous books.

Cast Iron, and the series of which it is a part, centres on Enzo Macleod, a Scottish-Italian forensic scientist who has spent the previous five books solving cold-case murders. In this case, the story starts all the way back in 1989 when a killer dumped the body of Lucie Martin into a lake in the West of France. In 2003 the body was discovered but no-one was ever convicted. We then jump forward to 2011 when Enzo becomes involved, opening a whole can of worms as he does so.

It’s this can of worms that Author, Peter May is primarily interested in exploring and this often results in the investigation on which the novel hangs taking a back seat to the milieu of events swirling around the main character. This is no bad thing, though especially given that identifying Lucie Martin’s murderer was remarkably straightforward.

As such, it’s the pulling together of various threads from the previous novels in the series that really provides the meat of this novel. For me, though, this created something of a problem in that the fact that I hadn’t read the previous books often left me struggling a little to keep up with some of the motivations and events.

That said, by about two thirds of the way in I did have a reasonable handle on how the ever-expanding cast of characters related to each other and pretty much understood what was going on. In many ways reading this felt a lot like reading a soap opera in that I was stepping into an ongoing narrative having no idea of who was who or what was going on, but things do become both clearer and more engrossing as the story progresses.

Cast Iron is a very readable and occasionally gripping novel and one that leaves me with a dilemma: I’m tempted to read the previous five books in this series, but I fear that doing so will feel more than a little spoilery given that I already know how things are going to pan out.

The Expert System’s Brother

I discovered Adrian Tchaikovsky back in 2010 when I read Empire in Black and Gold, the first novel in the Shadows of the Apt series. It didn’t take me long to read the rest of the series which remains, for me, one of the most original and effective sets of fantasy novels I have read in a long time. With the Children of Time, Tchaikovsky turned from fantasy to science fiction and showed that he has a sure touch in either genre.

This is useful because The Expert System’s Brother is a science fiction novella masquerading as a fantasy story.

After an unfortunate accident, Handry is forced to wander a world he doesn’t understand, searching for meaning. He soon discovers that the life he thought he knew is far stranger than he could even possibly imagine.

Can an unlikely saviour provide the answers to the questions he barely comprehends?

One of the many things I find so enjoyable about Tchaikovsky’s writing is the quality of his world building, and The Expert System’s Brother is no exception. The world in which the story takes place is rich, detailed and thoroughly immersive and all of this is integrated beautifully into the narrative. We are told only what Handry sees and knows but are able to understand so much more and it really is a joy to watch all of the pieces slot into place.

As a novella, this is not a particularly long piece but Tchaikovsky manages to pack a lot of detail into a very short work and paces it in such a way as to hold your attention throughout.

This all makes for an excellently told tale of humanity, how the struggle to survive can go awry and a thoughtful story about what it means to be human.

The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season caused quite a stir when it was published, culminating with a Hugo award for best novel in 2016. Having finally gotten around to reading it, I can see why.

This is superb. It’s also quite difficult to talk about because the intricacies of the plot make it far too easy to accidentally give away plot spoilers, which is probably why the GoodReads synopsis is so vague:

This is the way the world ends…for the last time.

A season of endings has begun.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun.

It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.

It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

.

This felt like a very dense story to me. There is so much going on here, and it’s intricately constructed in such a way that you can never quite see what is coming next, until it happens at which point it feels inevitable. That said, I did have a genuine “Oh” moment when the various plot strands started coming together allowing the full picture to emerge.

The world building also deserves a mention for showing the sort of attention to detail that made Frank Herbert’s Dune so memorable for me. Everything fits and it’s all shown to us naturally as the characters progress through the world of the Stillness. There are no info-dumps here, and the strength of Jemisin’s writing is such that none are needed.

With The Fifth Season, N.K. Jeminsin has pulled together several familiar fantasy tropes (far future, dying Earth), added her own original vision and twisted it all together into something utterly unique.

Now I must rush out and get The Obelisk Gate.

The Jennifer Morgue

While I enjoyed Charles Stross’ first novel from the Laundry Files, The Atrocity Archive, this second outing is significantly more entertaining. This may well say more about me than about Charles Stross.

While the first book, among other things, pastiched Len Deighton, this one picks James Bond as the target for its literary satire and Ian Fleming is a writer with whom I am a lot more familiar. As such, I suspect that, while some of the jokes in the first book passed me by, I caught a lot more of them this time around.

Some agents have all the fun. Others save the world.

Bob Howard is an IT expert and occasional field agent for the Laundry, the branch of Her Majesty’s Secret Service that deals with occult threats.

Dressed (grudgingly) in a tux and sent to the Caribbean, he must infiltrate a millionaire’s yacht in order to prevent him from violating a treaty that will bring down the wrath of an ancient underwater race upon humanity’s head. Partnered with a gorgeous American agent who’s actually a soul-sucking succubus from another dimension, Bob’s mission (should he choose to accept it) is to stop the bad guys, avoid getting the girl, and survive – shaken, perhaps, but not stirred.

Stross is an interesting writer in that he draws from a wide range of disparate influences which he juxtaposes in a manner that is by turns funny, disturbing and often both.

It helps, of course, that the writing and characterisation are so strong with Bob Howard believably and likeably struggling to navigate the bureaucratic insanities with which we are all too familiar. The Jennifer Morgue follows on from The Atrocity Archive and, this time around, everything clicked perfectly into place, making for a story that is both subversively funny and frequently unnerving.

The book also includes a second story, Pimpf, which takes place in the Laundry offices and is about corporate politics, over-enthusiastic interns and online demonic possession.

And everything is wrapped up with an essay on Ian Fleming, James Bond and where the real global villains can be found.

Five More Things

I mentioned Whoops Apocalypse, the TV series, some time ago. At the weekend I finally found the time to watch the film. In this version the plot is updated somewhat to reflect the fact that it was made in 1986 — four years after the TV series — but the humour is still as dark and bitingly effective as an increasingly farcical sequence of events drags the world ever closer to nuclear armageddon.

As a satire made and set during the Cold War, the film is very much of its time and you probably need to have lived through the 1980s for some of the jokes to work. It does, however, manage an accidentally contemporary moment when the US president (played by Loretta Swit) incredulously asks: “You’re telling me that the entire population of Great Britain went and elected a deranged psychotic to the highest office of the land? Again?”

Remaining with the ongoing disaster that is British politics, N Piers Ludlow asks whether the UK ever understood how the EU works. Given that the UK has been a member of the bloc for over 40 years, the conclusion is damning, to say the least.

On a more positive note, Jo Swinson was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats this week and Timothy Garton Ash is optimistic about her chances of leading a fightback for liberal Britain. We live in hope.

Returning to the subject of films, for a moment, Marvel has revealed their Phase 4 MCU lineup and Den of Geek has the details. Ignoring the Disney+ releases — I absolutely am not going to get tied into signing up to endless streaming services — the upcoming Black Widow film is long overdue and I am really looking forward to seeing how they handle Thor: Love And Thunder. Also: Blade is coming back!

And finally, Ian Stewart’s article on social physics reminded me of a book I read some time ago, namely Critical Mass by Philip Ball. The takeaway from both is that you may be an individual but, in aggregate, we are a lot more predictable than we realise.

The Chosen Seed

With The Chosen Seed, Sarah Pinborough brings the Dog Faced Gods trilogy to a spectacular and suitably apocalyptic finale.

First his nephew was kidnapped, now DI Cass Jones has been framed for murder. But he’s about to get help from a very unexpected source. Detectives Hask and Ramsey are searching for the killer behind the lethal virus sweeping through London, which has thrown up clues that Cass might be innocent after all.

Somehow it’s linked to Mr Bright, and to the organisation which manipulates everyone from the shadows. So Cass Jones is going up against The Bank and it’s sinister employees one last time. He needs every ally he can get, and this time he means to find answers. And the more he learns, the more everything hinges on finding Luke…

Although Cass Jones is still the central character and the plot is largely driven by his attempt to locate Luke, his missing nephew, this installment of the trilogy is much more about the origins and motivations of Mr Bright and the organisation he leads. As such the fantasy elements come right to the fore this time around.

It’s not hard to see where things are going and the ending is not a huge surprise. What makes the novel stand out, for me, is the strength of the plotting and seeing how Sarah Pinborough deftly pulls together the various threads into a narrative that keeps you hooked right up to the end.

The attention to detail applies not only to the plot but also the characters, with every one of them fully rounded and each of them displaying a set of motivations that are fully consistent with both the setting and the events.

As with The Shadow of the Soul, the events in The Chosen Seed follow directly from the previous novel with no time taken to recap the earlier events. As such, you really need to have read the first two novels before embarking on this one.

The books are all well worth your time, though, as The Chosen Seed makes for a powerful ending to an excellent trilogy that has, throughout, been both gripping and thoughtful.

The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough

Somewhere around three-quarters the way through this book, I found myself thinking that there was no way that Sarah Pinborough could possibly wrap up all of the various plot threads before the end of the novel and that this second book of the trilogy would end up doing little more than set the scene for the final instalment.

How wrong I was.

There is a lot going on in here but Sarah Pinborough does a superb job of bringing everything together in a manner that brings together the various threads without feeling rushed of leaving too much dangling.

DI Cass Jones is still dealing with the fallout of uncovering a major conspiracy within his own police station when a terrorist attack rocks London and he finds himself called on to help with the investigation. At the same time he has his own investigation to worry about: young people are dying, apparently committing suicide – and they’re all linked by the phrase Chaos in the Darkness, scrawled or sent as their last message to the world.

Then he’s given a note from his dead brother Christian, written before his murder: the three words – ‘They took Luke’ – opens up a whole new can of worms, because Cass knows immediately who They are: Mr Bright and the shadowy Network. His dead brother has set him a task from beyond the grave – to find the baby, his nephew, stolen at birth.

And as Cass tries to divide his time between all three investigations, it’s not long before he discovers links, where there should not be. The mysterious Mr Bright is once again pulling his strings, and there’s nothing DI Cass Jones hates more…

A Shadow of the Soul is the middle book of a trilogy and you do need to have read the first book, A Matter of Blood, to properly understand what is going on. In A Matter of Blood, we were introduced to a near-future dystopia with hints of supernatural horror. A Shadow of the Soul retains the police procedural structure of the previous book but, now that the supernatural element has been revealed, takes the time to delve further into the motivations and methods of the beings of The Network.

We have conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies as the central character, Cass Jones (a wonderfully, and believably, miserable individual), attempts to make sense of what is going on around and to him.

While this is the middle book of a trilogy, it also stands up on its own merits as a well contained story. If the series stopped here, I would be reasonably happy but there is a third entry and I shall be reading this very shortly.

Binti: The Night Masquerade

The concluding part of Nnedi Okorafor’s trilogy of novellas is a powerful and often moving tale, packed with well-drawn and believable characters that bring this world to life.

Binti has returned to her home planet, believing that the violence of the Meduse has been left behind. Unfortunately, although her people are peaceful on the whole, the same cannot be said for the Khoush, who fan the flames of their ancient rivalry with the Meduse.

Far from her village when the conflicts start, Binti hurries home, but anger and resentment has already claimed the lives of many close to her.

Once again it is up to Binti, and her intriguing new friend Mwinyi, to intervene — though the elders of her people do not entirely trust her motives — and try to prevent a war that could wipe out her people, once and for all.

It’s very difficult to talk about this novella without posting spoilers for the two preceding installments. Everything builds on what has gone before, locking together to make for a whole that is far greater than its parts. This is a book that knows where it’s going, even if the author doesn’t much care how she gets there.

As a result, this is a story that leaves much unexplained and unexplored. To fully appreciate it, therefore, you need to recognise that author, Nnedi Okorafor, is more interested in using metaphors to discuss concepts than she is in ensuring that every narrative tab fits perfectly in it’s slot.

This makes for a story that is thoughtful and left me mulling over it for days afterwards and a universe to which I would be very happy to return.