Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets is a short story collection. Specifically, it’s a collection of 14 short stories, all of which reimagine Sherlock Holmes to a greater or lesser extent.

The world’s most famous detective, as you’ve never seen him before!

This is Sherlock Holmes as you’ve never seen him before: as an architect in a sleepy Australian town, as a gentleman in seventeenth-century Worcestershire, as a precocious school girl in a modern British comprehensive. He’s dodging his rent in the squalid rooms of the notorious Chelsea Hotel in ’68, and preventing a bloody war between the terrible Lords Wizard of a world of fantasy.

Editor David Thomas Moore brings together the finest of celebrated and new talent in SF and Fantasy to create a spectrum of Holmes stories that will confound everything you ever thought you knew about the world’s greatest detective.

It’s an interesting collection of stories although, inevitably, there are some that I enjoyed more than others. Highlights for me included Kelly Hale’s Black Alice which shifts Sherlock Holmes to the Enlightenment and pits him against the parochial superstitions of seventeenth-century Worcestershire. This felt like a near-perfect setting for the great detective and I would loved to have seen more like this.

Then there was Kaaron Warren’s The Lantern Men which was very dark. If you can imagine Edgar Allen Poe having set a Sherlock Holmes story in Australia, then you have pretty much captured the feel of this story. Emma Newman’s A Woman’s Place imagines a near-future dystopia and explains — rather brilliantly — why he unflappable, ever-present Mrs. Hudson continues to put up with Holmes.

The Small World of 221B by Ian Edginton is an overtly strange story that I found myself enjoying a great deal more than I expected. The Final Conjuration by Adrian Tchaikovsky makes no attempt to re-imagine Holmes, preferring to plonk him unaltered into a high fantasy setting, to brilliant effect.

The Innocent Icarus by James Lovegrove gives us a Holmes in a world of superheroes and All The Single Ladies by Gini Koch gives a breezily flippant Holmes against a background of reality TV.

And finally, there’s Parallels by Jenni Hill which takes the re-inventing Holmes idea to it’s limit with a pair of teenage girls.

Obviously, other people will respond to different stories differently and will find other highlights. But you have any interest in the idea of a re-imagined Sherlock Holmes, and even if you don’t, this collection is well worth a read.

Reading Highlights of 2019

I started 2019 with the intention of blogging about every book I read. This is an intention that eventually fell by the wayside because there are some books about which I really don’t have anything to say. These were the books that were neither great nor terrible, and about which all I can say is “that was okay”.

This post is not about those books.

I also read some really, really good books, and these are the books that this post is about.

Among these were two novels by Sarah Pinborough: The Shadow of the Soul and The Chosen Seed. These are the second and third parts of the Dog Faced Gods trilogy and, if you like dark urban fantasy, this series is well worth a read. The series is both dystopian and apocalyptic and keeps you hooked from beginning to end.

I also read a couple of (completely unrelated) novellas by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The Expert System’s Brother is a science-fiction story masquerading as a fantasy and, while short, packs a lot of detail into the page count in a way that manages to be both immersive and gripping. The second Novella was Made Things which was a short and very readable tale about trust, loyalty and friendship. The question of what it means to be a person is a theme that often appears in Tchaikovsky’s writing and is one that is very apparent in both of these stories.

2019 was also the year in which I discovered C.J. Cherryh by way of Foreigner, the first book in her eponymous series. 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. I cannot believe that I still haven’t gotten around to reading Invader yet — I shall have to rectify this very soon.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor utterly blew me away. At less than 100 pages, this was a very quick read but there is so much packed into this novella that it really is worth going back and reading it again. The synopsis I saw for this made it sound like a fairly unexceptional space opera. What makes it stand out is that 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.

Another novel that felt completely new to me was The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Again, by not relying on the usual white western stereotypes, Jemisin presents a densely detailed world that is like nothing I have read before. I have already read the second book in this (The Broken Earth) series, and will be picking up a copy of The Stone Sky just as soon as I have the time.

And finally there is The Jennifer Morgue by The Jennifer Morgue, the second book in the Laundry Files series. This is, subversively funny, often unnerving and absolutely spot-on about PowerPoint.

Made Things

What does it mean to be a person? Do you need to be human? What about artificial humans? These are the questions at the heart of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novella, Made Things.

The novella centres on Coppelia, a puppeteer and street thief living alone in the magical city of Loretz. Well, not entirely alone because living in Coppelia’s attic is a small tribe of homunculi — living puppets, or small artificial people. The homunculi don’t entirely trust their host but do recognise that working with her is so much more profitable than not and that she is a risk worth taking. As the story starts, an slightly uneasy alliance has been formed between Coppelia and her guests.

Things are shaken up somewhat when a local crime boss decides that he needs Coppelia, among others, to break into a mages’ palace. Inevitably enough, things do not go as planned.

Made Things is a short and very readable tale about trust, loyalty and friendship. It has a great cast of characters, all of whom come to life (literally, in some cases) in a manner that is both engaging and believable.

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.

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.

The Air War (Shadows of the Apt 8)

The Air War I don’t remember where I first heard about the Shadows of the Apt series of novels by Adrian Tchaikovsky, but I do know that it was in early 2010 that I was intrigued enough by what I’d heard to pick up the first novel in the series. Empire in Black and Gold introduced a fantasy world in which magic was on the wane and a new empire was on the rise.

What first attracted me to the series was the idea of insect kinden races. This is a world populated entirely by humans, but humans that are divided by kinden – each named after and drawing some abilities from an insect species. It’s certainly an original idea, and one that Tchaikovsky has used very effectively over the course of the series. What has kept me hooked, however, is the idea of Apt and Inapt kinden. The Apt races are technologically proficient – able to design, manufacture and use new technologies – while the more mystically inclined Inapt kinden are unable to understand even the simplest piece of machinery.

This makes for a world in which the traditional fantasy setting has been overthrown by an industrial revolution, and one that feels very different to other novels in the genre. And, as the series has developed, Tchaikovsky has managed to very effectively merge the steampunk and epic fantasy genres to spectacular effect.

It’s also very refreshing to read a fantasy series that doesn’t hanker after some imagined bucolic ideal.

And so to The Air War, the eighth book in the series. According to the blurb:

All is in turmoil as the world moves towards war. In Solarno, the spies watch each other and ready their knives, while Myna sees the troops muster at its border and emotions run high as it vows never to be enslaved again. In Collegium, the students argue politics, too late to turn the tide.

In the heart of the Empire, new pilots have completed their secretive training, generals are being recalled to service and armies are ready to march. Their Empress, the heir to two worlds, intends to claim her birthright. And nothing – either within the Empire or beyond it – will stand in her way.

A conflict is coming, the like of which the insect-kinden have never seen.

… and this really does tell you everything you need to know. I am not going to attempt to review this book – I am sure that many others have already done a much better job than I would. All that I will say is that you do need to be familiar with the characters and past events of the series to get the most out of this novel.

If you have been following the Shadows of the Apt up to now, you really won’t be disappointed. If you haven’t then you are probably better off starting from the beginning – it’s only eight books (so far) and the time taken to read them really is time well spent.