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Reading diary 2019, #9

My trip to Dublin for Worldcon entailed a few hours strapped to a chair, which meant I got some reading done. This may be a mixed blessing. I should probably rename my “book reviews” as “book rants” since, to be honest, I tend to use the books under discussion chiefly as jumping off points for commentary on fiction in general – if not genre in general (which sounds a bit weird but there you go). After all, my reviews have caused me a few problems with writers who have disagreed with my assessment. Repeat after me: REVIEWS ARE NOT FOR THE WRITER.

Brush Back, Sara Paretsky (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since being introduced to them by my mother back in the mid-1990s. Not only are they well put-together crime novels with a likeable protagonist, but Warshawski – and Paretsky, by extension – wears her politics on her sleeve. And they’re politics I pretty much agree with. It’s not entirely political, however. Given that these books are set in the US, and moreover in Chicago, corruption plays an important role and Warshawski continually battles against it. It features in Brush Back, of course, but the novel opens with a completely unrelated incident, one which, it transpires, was indirectly caused by corruption. A woman from Warshawski’s old neighbourhood is released from prison after serving twenty-five years for the murder of her daughter. She now claims she is innocent, more so she claims the actual killer was Boom-Boom, Warshawski’s cousin and much-loved ice hockey star who was murdered in the second Warshawski novel, Deadlock, published back in 1984. Warshawski is rightly affronted, but she is involved in another case, also centred on the same neighbourhood. Of course, the two are linked, and it’s all to do with a local councillor who’s as bent as they come and another man, an old protege, who looks like he’s got a shot at power. When you start a Warshawski you pretty much know what you’re going to get, and Brush Back delivers that as effectively as any of Paretsky’s novels. It’s a good addition to an excellent series, and more people should be reading them.

New Suns, Nisi Shawl, ed. (2019, USA). I have never really been a fan of anthologies. If they’re themed, and the theme interests me, then sometimes they work for me. But anthologies, not just genre ones, and pretty much since they were invented, have a fatal flaw: cronyism. Editors invite their friends to contribute, or people they hope will draw in readers, or people who tick certain boxes. Some people say tables of contents have to be built, which means going out and finding the writers whose presence in the anthology are not going to cause a stink on social media. The alternative is open submissions. Anyone and everyone sends in a story, and the editor picks the best, or most suitable, stories. This too has its problems. A lot of crap gets submitted; not everyone seems to understand the concept of a brief – the editor wants hard sf and someone submits urban fantasy, the editor asks for stories between 3,000 and 5,000 words and there’s a 10,000 word story or two sitting in the queue… Also, many well-known writers won’t submit unless asked (why should they invest time and effort in something with no guarantee of a sale? On the other hand, if invited why should they assume their submission will be accepted?). So, anthologies: by definition a mixed bag, irrespective of how they’re put together. New Suns is sort of themed, in as much as its contributers are all people of colour. The stories themselves cover a wide range, from Tobias S Buckell’s relatively straightforward sf to the almost mythical fantasy of Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’. Some stories work better than those, but overall this is a pretty strong anthology. And I suspect part of the reason for that is its variety – okay, I mean I realise that sort of contradicts what I wrote earlier, but the contributors’ backgrounds certainly inform their stories (mostly) and that works in the anthology’s favour. As indeed it was no doubt intended to. I still have mixed feelings about the usefulness of anthologies (that is, to anyone except their contributors), but I do recognise that some serve a useful purpose as showcases, and New Suns sits firmly in that category, and does it well. Worth reading.

Europe at Dawn, Dave Hutchinson (2018, UK). So the trilogy becomes a  quartet, and it’s an odd book that rounds off the three-book story. It’s sort of an extension, but it’s also a recapitulation of the previous three books. It tells their story – or rather, the story actually begun in the second novel, Europe at Midnight – but from perspectives, and featuring some characters, that weren’t in the preceding novels, but in a way that sort of weaves its narrative in and around their narratives. Rudi, who is perhaps the chief protagonist of the series, is definitely front and centre in Europe at Dawn, although he takes a while to appear, something that’s seems to be a stylistic tic of the quartet. Initially, Europe at Dawn is about a flunky in the Scottish Embassy in Tallinn, who finds herself on the run thanks to events of which she understands nothing. And it all sort of goes round in circles, although perhaps more like a Slinky than just a plain circle, and it takes a while before the novel’s direction truly becomes apparent. Essentially, there is someone else out there, not just the fractured EU and the Community, or indeed the Line, which may not be as simple as presented in earlier novels. There’s always been something of the spy novel to this series, the way the stories are constructed: firmly bedded on a science-fictional conceit, but the various misdirections of the plot are not from the genre kicked into life in 1926 by Amazing Stories. It makes of the central conceit something more than is usual, something more than just near-future science fiction. These books are masterful at narrative sleight of hand, and Europe at Dawn does this more than the others – it’s not until the final chapter that the purpose of the various narratives is revealed. That Hutchinson manages to do this by keeping the individual narrative tense but not the underlying story-arc is perhaps what’s most impressive. The end comes into shape, and it’s neither expected nor completely out of left field. These are excellent books. I suspect Europe at Dawn may not be the actual end, but you won’t hear me complaining if it itn’t…

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016, USA). Only one novel has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Arthur C Clarke Award. This one. The Pulitzer Prize is not known for giving out gongs to genre works, so it comes as little surprise on reading The Underground Railroad to discover that it’s not actually a genre novel. It’s not even borderline. Its one conceit is related to the title – that the underground railroad, a network of people who smuggled escaped slaves north, was an actual railway. Underground. A very forgiving genre reader might consider that alternate history, except, well, it doesn’t actually change history. Cora’s story would be exactly the same without the book’s conceit. Which doesn’t make sense anyway. The first underground railway was in London and it opened in 1863. The Underground Railroad takes place before the American Civil War, which began in 1861. However, not only is the underground railroad of the book historically unlikely, it’s also technologically unlikely. How would it be built? And run? But then, it doesn’t actually feature that much in the novel. Cora rides on it twice. She spends a third of the story hiding in an attic. As a dramatised history of slavery in mid-nineteenth century US, The Underground Railroad does an admirable job of demonstrating how vile and reprehensible an institution it was, although to be fair if you need that demonstrating to you then there’s something wrong with you. There is no moral justification for slavery. Of any sort. Whitehead structures his narrative weirdly and I’m not convinced it works. He skips back and forth in time, from character to character, promising stories that take nearly half the book to appear, or reporting on the death of a character before jumping to a point just before his death (and, to be honest, the scene serves no real purpose). I’m not convinced The Underground Railroad is an especially good novel. On a sentence by sentence level, the prose is good, and often excellent. But the structure is all over the place and the central conceit is a paper-thin gimmick. It’s certainly not genre. However, it tackles an important topic, and does so in a way that gives it a wide audience – and that’s something that shouldn’t be trivialised.

Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s work since reading a short story by him in Interzone back in the late 1980s. At novel length, his work has been… variable. Only his one horror novel, X, Y, seemed to match his short fiction in style and tone. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, but after a short hiatus he seems to have become productive than before, with two novels and three collections published in the last ten years. Longer is marketed as  a novel, but it’s published by Tor.com, who chiefly publish novellas, and it’s pretty thin, at only 227 pages. It’s also written in a very stripped-down style, with lots of dialogue and very little descriptive prose. Gunjita and Cav are the sole occupants of an orbiting laboratory, one of many owned by Gleem Pharmaceutical. Gunjita has rejuved, her second and last, but Cav has not, and it becomes increasingly obvious he has no plans to do so. Not only is his decision affecting their work, it’s also affecting their relationship – they’ve been happily married for a very long time. And then they discover something strange on a passing comet, a smear of material which may be organic but is certainly not terrestrial… In other hands, this could turn into, well, something not unlike a shitty sf film such as Life. But Blumlein is not interested in alien monsters, or even in the nature of the alien on the comet. It’s the relationship between Gunjita and Cav, and the way it fractures due to Cav’s choice, that drives the story of Longer. The alien is merely a crutch to bolster Cav’s decision; much as Gunjita is presented with one herself when the head of Gleem Pharmaceuticals, who has uniquely survived three rejuves, reveals to her the consequences of that third rejuve. The busyness of the story, and the depth of the themes it covers, with the bare-bones prose, unfortunately makes Longer read more like an outline or an excerpt than a full novel. Blumlein sets his scenes, and lays out his world, with enviable brevity, and the interiority of the main characters never feels lacking… but the plot seems to be mostly carried in discussion between Cav and Gunjita and it sometimes leaves you wanting more from the narrative. Blumlein is very good, but Longer is more like a charcoal sketch than an oil painting – it tells a story, and the artistry is plain to see, but there’s no colour.

Y is for Yesterday, Sue Grafton (2017, USA). So, that’s it. The Alphabet series is over, and Grafton unfortunately died before starting work on a book for the letter Z. Still, the books were bestsellers so some publisher somewhere is probably already trying to get permission for an official sequel by some ghost writer or desperate Big Name Author. I have no real feelings either way. It’s sad when a much-loved series ends, and you can understand the creator’s decision to let it die with them. On the other hand, some series and worlds you want to continue to explore, and the authors chosen to continue the works have produced work as good, and sometimes even better, than the creator’s. So, Tintin died with Hergé, but the Edgar P Jacobs Studio, set up after Jacobs’s death, has produced better instalments in The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer series than Jacobs ever did. And then there are the sequels to the Dune books, written by Kevin J Anderson & Brian Herbert, which are unutterably shit. But I digress. Y is for Yesterday both follows on from the preceding volume, X (see here), and is centred around a new mystery. Ned Lowe, the serial killer from X, is still on the loose, and now hiding out somewhere in Santa Teresa and bent on revenging himself on Kinsey Millhone. Meanwhile, Millhone has been hired by the family of a recently-released con who served eight years for shooting and killing a classmate at a party. A videocassette of the guy and two friends raping a drunken classmate has surfaced, and the parents want Millhone to identify the blackmailer. Ten years previously, two students were caught cheating on a SAT, and another student blamed for dobbing them in. Some weeks later, that student is shot and killed when an attempt at intimidation goes badly wrong. The instigator – not the shooter – promptly disappears and has been on the run ever since. Much as I’ve enjoyed reading these books over the years, this last one… well, the central mystery feels a bit insubstantial. I’d noticed in recent books that Grafton had taken to at times moving the narrative away from Millhone’s first-person account, something I don’t remember happening in the earlier books (although I may be misremembering). In Y is for Yesterday, one narrative is set ten years in the past and, to be honest, it doesn’t really add much to the story. Millhone’s investigation should be enough to explain events. But that’s a minor quibble. These are fun, readable books, less political than Paretsky’s but very similar in tone and style. I’m sorry there will be no more of them.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 135

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Reading diary 2019, #8

After cracking through a bunch of novels, I hit the last book of the half-dozen below and ground almost to a halt. Possibly a result of its size as much as its extremely poor writing. Not to mention that the main characters are annoying as hell. Why on earth did I decide to reread the series?

Permafrost, Alastair Reynolds (2019, UK). I picked up a copy of this at the SF-Bokhandeln in Stockholm while meeting up with family over on a visit to Sweden. It’s not Reynold’s usual fare, but a near-future time travel story. The human race is pretty much over, killed off by its appalling lack of husbandry of its environment (that’s pollution, Global Warming, germ warfare, hunting to extinction, etc, etc), but a group in Russia have perfected time travel and send someone back into the past to make enough of a change to allow humanity a small chance at survival. It’s not actual physical time travel – which means it’s at least free of the risible technobollocks in Avengers: Endgame – but the consciousness of the tempunaut is sent back to occupy the mind of a person of the target period. (A similar conceit, I believe to Michael Bishop’s No Enemy But Time.) Of course, as is ever the way, nothing goes as planned, and protagonist Valentina must race across Russia to deliver the maguffin, only to learn how the future has changed when she returns to it. I thought Permafrost pretty good, but I wasn’t entirely sure why it was set in Russia, or what the setting brought to the story, other than, well, the title. Reynolds has never had much luck with the Hugos, but given that Permafrost was published by Hugo darlings Tor.com then perhaps he stands a chance next year.

Big Cat and Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). A new book by Gwyneth Jones, whether a novel, novella or collection, is cause for celebration in this house. She’s been my favourite sf writer since reading Kairos in the early 1990s, and I’d even go so far as to say sheäs the best science fiction writer who is still writing the UK has produced. Big Cat and Other Stories collects eleven stories originally published between 2007 and 2016 (and one original to this volume), only two of which I’d  previously read. Three of the stories are set in worlds from Jones’s novels, although one of those novels was published under Jones’s YA pseudonym, Ann Halam. This does mean for those three that you get more out of them if you know the original novels, more so for the story which lends the collection its title as it’s set in the universe of the Bold As Love quintet and features its central triumvirate of characters. The stories are chiefly science fiction but spread  widely across the genre, from the slightly off-kilter pulp adventure on Venus of ‘A Planet Called Desire’ and the Leigh Brackett/Lovecraft mashup of ‘The Vicar of Mars’ to the near-future of ‘Stella and the Adventurous Roots’, ‘Emergence’ and ‘Bricks, Stick, Straws’, although they depict worlds not quite the same as our own. All of the stories are a hit of the pure Jones, and if you appreciate her science fiction then Big Cat and Other Stories is as good a selection as any other. Recommended.

Red Clocks, Leni Zumas (2018, USA). I’m not sure why I bought this. I guess the blurb must have caught my fancy or something. Although that doesn’t seem right, because, well, “near-future dystopia”. I mean, who reads them anymore? With the actual shit that’s going down in Trump’s US and Brexit Britain, literary dystopias are starting to look like weak sauce. In Red Clocks, the Republican Christian nutjobs are firmly in charge, abortion is illegal, and only families of one father and one mother can adopt kids. Which is unfortunate for a couple of the characters in Red Clocks, a pregnant schoolgirl and a single teacher desperate for a child (and whose numerous tries at IVF have all been unsuccessful). Zumi chooses to tell her story from the viewpoints of each of her characters, but in their viewpoint chapters they’re not identified by name, only by their role in the story – so “the biographer”, “the wife”, and so on. It doesn’t work. It’s an unnecessary hurdle – although it does successfully disguise for at least the first quarter of the book quite how ordinary its story is. I was also annoyed by the attempt at found documents pertaining to the historical figure who is the subject of the biographer’s unfinished, er, biography, a female polar explorer from the turn of the twentieth century. She’s named Eivør Minurvasdottír – and  the first time I saw it I thought, there’s no ø in Icelandic. But there is in Faroese. Which is where she’s from. But the accent on the surname is in the wrong place. It should be -dóttir. The name is misspelt throughout the novel. Didn’t the author check? Didn’t the editor? The publisher? It’s not like it’s hard to find out. It’s a minor complaint – and from someone who chiefly reads science fiction! But for all that Red Clocks was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, the first time an Orwell Prize has been offered for fiction, there didn’t seem much to me that stood out. (The Orwell Prize is probably best remembered for giving an award to Johann Hari, only to demand it back when it transpired Hari had plagiarised and misrepresented facts in his articles. He returned the prize but has never returned the prize money.) But Red Clocks. Dull and unoriginal. Not worth reading.

Breakwater, Simon Bestwick (2018, UK). A Facebook friend has been working his way through the works shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, and I saw this novella in my timeline and since it’s set in an underwater base, something I find fascinating, and was extremely cheap on Kindle, I decided to give it a go. And… oh dear. The title refers to an underwater complex just off the the coast of the UK. Originally built for research, it has been taken over by the military as a first line of defence against a mysterious underwater race who, we are told in an infodump, are now at war with humanity because of humanity’s history of polluting the oceans. The widow of the man with whom she co-designed Breakwater still works there. With the Royal Navy. And, wouldn’t you know it, the underwater people decide to attack a couple of pages into the novella, and this time it’s the biggest attack ever. The woman manages to escape, with the help of a female petty officer. They run through an empty complex, staying just ahead being drowned. But then the petty officer lets slip she’s one of the underwater people – or rather, one engineered to look human – and she belongs to a faction that wants to open dialogue with humanity… And, well, that’s it. The author doesn’t seem to understand how depth works – there’s a few mentions of airlocks and ears popping; oh, and the woman’s husband died of the bends – otherwise, changes in pressure are blithely skated over. There’s a bit of authorial prurience over the two female leads, which reads a bit old-fashioned. And something I’ve not seen in a book for years: a detailed description of the protagonist’s appearance. Who still does that? The British Fantasy Awards are, like the Hugos and Nebulas, prone to logrolling, and it’s not unusual for people well-known and well-liked among the voters to have their works find their way onto the shortlist irrespective of the quality of the work. The voting pool for the BFA is very small, probably even smaller than the average attendance of the annual Fantasycon (ie, a couple of hundred).

The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal (2018, USA). I had sort of avoided reading this as I’d covered similar material myself, although with a considerably lower profile and less commercial success. But then it was nominated for the Hugo, and so was made available in the Hugo Voter Pack, and a quick look persuaded me that there’s actual very little overlap between The Calculating Stars and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. In Kowal’s novel, a large meteorite strikes the earth in the early 1950s, crashing down somewhere in the north Atlantic and so kicking off an accelerated greenhouse effect. Elma York is a gifted mathematician and a pilot. She and her husband, a rocket engineer at NACA, survive the meteorite and are instrumental in the creation of an international space agency to lead the quest to settle another world so humanity survives once the earth as become uninhabitable. So this is the very early days of the Space Race, more Hidden Figures than The Right Stuff. But Elma also wants to be an astronaut, so there’s also a lot of the Mercury 13 in the story (and several names familiar to me from my research; but, strangely, not Jerrie Cobb). There’s much to like in the novel: the swing about halfway through to a Mercury 13 narrative (although Kowal characterises Jackie Cochran as a much nicer person than she was – it was Cochran who famously said that women shouldn’t be taking jobs from men but should “follow after and pick up the slack”). I liked Kowal’s stand-in for Al Shepard, Stetson Parker, although the narrative seemed curiously ambivalent about him, feeling like at times it was trying to make him sympathetic. I thought the anxiety aspect overdone, but I’ve been told by sufferers they thought it accurate and found it welcome. On the other hand, I’ve heard there has been grumbling about the presentation of Judaism in the novel (York and her husband are Jews). In hindsight, The Calculating Stars is a novel that wants to tell a story about a space programme created in response to an extinction-level meteorite strike, but it also wants to be Hidden Figures and feature women computers… Which gives it a slightly anachronistic feel despite the very good period detail. In the real world, women went on to become programmers, too, but were then supplanted by men – in many cases, the female programmers were moved to assistant positions despite being better qualified and more experienced. That, I think, might have made for a more interesting story, and would not have meant pulling the start of the space programme back to the early 1950s. (On the other hand, having it when Kowal set it meant there were lots of ex-WASP female pilots around, as well as the women computers.) The Calculating Stars won the Hugo last weekend. Should it have done? I’m told Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is the better novel, although I’ve not read it yet, but The Calculating Stars was certainly my choice to take the award.

The Great Hunt, Robert Jordan (1990, USA). I’ve been told the Wheel of Time was originally pitched as a trilogy but then cut down to a single novel, but proved so successful the trilogy was reinstated, before mutating into the bloated fourteen-volume beast it eventually became. Certainly the pacing in The Eye of the World is so bad it’s entirely plausible its story was intended to stretch over several books. You have ten percent introduction to the world and characters, then 80% travelogue, and everything gets wrapped up in the last ten percent. The Great Hunt has slightly better pacing, and a great deal more happens in it, but there’s still a lot of travelogue. And padding. Reams and reams of padding. There’s even three or four pages where Rand experiences the same thing over and over again. It makes for a dull read. The one thing I’m noticing about these books during my rereads – other than the derision of friends when I tell them I’m rereading the Wheel of Time – is that the world-building is a strange mix of identikit sword-and-sorcery and weird but interesting original touches. It also feels strangely “lived-in”, with its various parts slotting together in a way that doesn’t feel entirely the result of authorial fiat. Having said that… the characters are still as annoying as shit. Rand al’Thor reads like a thirteen year old and his friends are no better. An important minor character turns out to be a Darkfriend (ie, agents of the the Dark Lord) but it comes totally out of left-field. The actual Darkfriend the protagonists spend the entire book chasing is far too pantomime. And another character do be talking like this all the time and it do be fucking irritating. The Great Hunt is a great improvement on The Eye of the World, but that’s not exactly a high bar to clear. There are some enjoyable set-pieces and some good hooks set for later in the series. But the praise this series received back in the 1990s still astonishes me. It’s a poor piece of work – and that in genre not known for the high quality of its prose or plotting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Reading diary 2019, #7

I was never much of a fan of ebooks, but circumstances forced me to use them. Because of my move, I got a Kindle and, since it took a while for me to find somewhere reasonably permanent to live, I was reluctant to buy hardbacks or paperbacks due to the hassle of shifting them from one address to another. So the Kindle has proved extremely useful. In the last three months, my reading has been around 80% ebook. There are some books I would like to keep as physical copies, which means I’m not going to buy them as ebooks. I have some catching up to do there, however.

Meanwhile, below are: a paperback I brought with me to Sweden, and five ebooks I bought once I was here, two of which I actually have as physical copies, but in storage back in the UK.

Lord of the Flies*, William Golding (1954, UK). This was Golding’s debut novel, and probably the only book for which he is known by most people. Which must have rankled. I have a feeling I read this at school, perhaps when I was eleven or twelve, although the only novels I remember reading at that time as part of my schooling are Cider with Rosie and The Cruel Sea. But I did read a lot then. In fact, it was around that time I was introduced to science fiction when a lad in my class lent me a copy of Starman Jones. Another boy in the year below me then lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith Lensman novels… and the rest, as they say, is history. Lord of the Flies has sort of entered British culture and its central conceit is part of the country’s popular consciousness. That conceit is, of course, schoolboys marooned on a desert island who start behaving like, well, children. Everyone remembers Piggy and his glasses, but he’s not the focus of the story. (I’ve not seen the film adaptation, from 1963 or 1990, so I don’t know if either made changes.) There is Ralph, mysterious and charismatic (and reads like Golding recalling a school boycrush), who is more or less dragooned into leadership. And there is Jack, leader of a choir, who fancies himself a leader (so is the Boris Johnson of the group). Ralph rightly insists on a signal fire to attract the attention of any passing ship. But Jack is more interested in hunting wild pigs. The conflict splits the group of schoolboys, and Piggy is accidentally killed. It has been said that Lord of the Flies is not as universal as it’s proclaimed to be, because its cast consists entirely of white British schoolboys (mostly) from the middle classes and above. This is only a problem if you think Lord of the Flies was intended to be, well, universal. I don’t think it is. It’s about public schoolboys (well, mostly; I think a few are not). If Golding was making a point that might be applicable to a much wider group then he wouldn’t have been so careful about the make-up of the marooned boys and their group dynamics. I know very little, I admit, about Golding’s life, or his thoughts on writing, so I may be projecting. But Lord of the Flies strikes me as too carefully staged and cast to be chiefly allegorical – an assumption based on a reading of only third of his oeuvre, I admit. But careful writers are careful writers, and careful writing is a good indicator of a habit of carefulness, much as a history of stupid decisions is a good indicator of stupidity (hello, Boris Johnson). I finished Lord of the Flies surprised it was Golding’s best-known work as it felt too slight. And this after reading The Pyramid (see here) and The Paper Men (see here). Perversely, though they felt too much like what they were, they also felt more… considered than Lord of the Flies. This is not to say it’s a bad book, but it is more of an historical document than its reputation would suggest. Read it by all means, but Golding wrote more interesting novels and they would be better reads.

Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK). I’d heard a number of good things about this novella, and while I’m usually sceptical about recommendations, and, to be honest, I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions, but… it’s a novella, and it was on offer on Kindle. So I went for it. And I’m glad I did. The purported Nazi invasion of Shingle Street, Suffolk, has pretty much entered WWII mythology. McDonald posits it as a Project Rainbow-like experiment (AKA The Philadelphia Experiment), which actually results in sending two men careering independently through time. Unfortunately, they happen to be in a relationship. Fortunately – and this provides the entry to the story – they communicate using a collection by an obscure poet, left in antiquarian bookshops scattered throughout Europe. (Reading this novella, I was reminded of the Italian publisher who published a pirate edition of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banned in the UK at the time, and was so embarrassed at how it successful it was he sent royalties to Lawrence.) So Time Was is sort of a literary detective novel because the obscure collection is really obscure. But it also hints at a relationship between two men that leaves evidence scattered throughout the twentieth century. It’s cleverly done. And, I must admit, it did remind me of something, or perhaps several somethings – but I couldn’t think what. Which is not presented as a criticism. If anything, those echoes of other half-remembered stories added to Time Was. I liked this novella a lot, and I’m surprised it didn’t make more award shortlists. It won the BSFA Award, and was shortlisted for the Campbell and Dick, but didn’t even warrant mention for the Hugo or Nebula. A shame. This is an excellent novella.

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert (1969, USA). The Dune series reread continues, although perhaps not as quickly as I’d hoped. It’s all down to me, of course; there’s nothing stopping me reading the books one after the other. Except I have a habit choosing something different to my last read for my next one. Probably not a great strategy when reading a series – but given this year I also decided to have a go at rereading the Wheel of Time series, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t survive reading those books in quick succession… Anyway, Dune Messiah. Popular wisdom would have it that Dune Messiah is the best of the original Dune trilogy – or, as some would day it, the best of the Dune sequels. Which tells you how wrong popular wisdom is. Dune Messiah is not a sequel – Herbert conceived of the trilogy as a whole, although perhaps not in detail. It’s also not the best of the three. Neither, to be honest, is the first book, Dune. Which means it must be the third one… but I’ve yet to reread it. Dune Messiah is set some years after the end of Dune. Paul Atreides is now emperor and has become increasingly disenchanted with the institution he has created. Meanwhile, there is a plot to kill him, led by some Fremen who fought with him and are unhappy with the changes to Arrakis. There are also a series of sub-plots. Princess Irulan, Paul’s wife, is angling for an heir, and has joined a conspiracy with a Guild navigator, a Tleilaxu Face-Dancer and a Bene Gesserit. It’s clear they all have different objectives, and it’s a marriage of convenience, so to speak (marriages of convenience pop up a lot in the Dune books). Meanwhile, Chani is pregnant and Paul knows she will die in childbirth. Which she does. She has twins, which Paul had not foreseen. And it turns out the Tleilaxu are more interested in finding a trigger for the ghola Hayt, a clone of Duncan Idaho, to recover Idaho’s memories. While rooting out the plot to kill him, Paul was permanently blinded by a “stoneburner”, a type of nuclear weapon. It’s Fremen tradition to abandon blind people in the desert, and eventually that’s what Paul does: walks out into the desert. Some years later, a blind Fremen called the Preacher appears in Arrakeen, the capital city of Arrakis, and rants against the regency that has taken over from Paul. Is Dune Messiah better than Dune? Yes. The prose is much better-written. But then it improves as the series progresses, so that’s no surprise. But where Dune had the fifteen-year-old Paul Atriedes as its focus, a character readers, especially male teen ones, can glom onto, Dune Messiah has no one. Which means it reads as a more distanced narrative. Paul is presented as a tragic figure – in fact, no one in the book is all that sympathetic, except perhaps, perversely, Princess Irulan. (Since first reading the book in my teens, I’ve always been fascinated the most by Skytale, the Tleilaxu Face-Dancer.) Dune was definitely a book of two halves: ‘Dune World’ and ‘The Prophet of Dune’. But Dune Messiah also feels like a book of parts, perhaps because its sub-plots don’t gel especially well. To some extent, that’s down to Herbert’s decision to have a cabal of four plotters all pursuing different aims, and a plot to kill Paul on top of that. It makes for a busy narrative, and yet Dune Messiah is only 256 pages. So the plot jumps around and Herbert skimps on some of the detail. Dune Messiah reads like Herbert stringing together his favourite scenes from the story he had planned. It works – better than Dune does, to be honest – but it does feel more like a best-of than a coherent narrative. The Dune series is a science fiction institution, and is likely to be even more so in the future. After decades of trying to raise the profile of the Dune series, leading to the questionable decision to publish a series of shit novels by Kevin J Anderson, Herbert Limited Partnership have finally got their wish, with a two-movie adaptation of the Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve and a supporting TV series. Dune is going to be up there with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. The good news is the books are just as capable of supporting the cross-platform media giant Dune will become as Tolkien and GRRM. This is not necessarily a compliment. However, the Dune series reread continues and perhaps I will surprise myself with my re-evaluation of the following books…

Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (2018, UK). Speaking of series, my mother lent me the first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and, while I wasn’t overly impressed, it did strike me as interesting enough to continue with the series. Not because Galbraith was really JK Rowling (to be honest, I’ve only read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) but because The Cuckoo’s Calling sort of fell between the stools of crime fiction and literary fiction without actually being good examples of either, and yet still managed to present a pair of sympathetic characters more than capable of carrying a number of novels. And so I read The Silkworm and Career of Evil… and now Lethal White. The continuity between novels is good, even if the individual novels continue to suffer from that unfortunate fall between two stools. However, Galbraith does at least choose interesting subjects around which to base her novels (okay, so yes, Career of Evil was structured around the songs of Blue Oyster Cult, and I’ve been a fan of the band since my schooldays). Lethal White is, to be honest, more of the same. A politician somewhere between Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg (AKA between arsehole and scumbag; or vice versa), is murdered. He had been the subject of a Strike investigation, which proves embarrassing. And so Cormoran and sidekick Robin Ellacott (Robin, get it?) have to solve the murder – initially thought to be suicide under weird circumstances (a time-honoured Tory tradition) – and clear the wife and estranged son of blame. But everyone seems to have an alibi. As mentioned previously, Lethal White does well as a follow-on from the previous book, and its central crime is sufficiently puzzling to drive the plot. But there’s a strange whiff of approval for the central Tory character, and I’m not sure if I misread the novel because this is JK Rowling and even vast riches wouldn’t turn her into a fan of Boris Johnson. Although, to be fair, Michael Heseltine might be a better model, and the extremism of the current Conservative Party has helped rehabilitate him and he’s now seen as almost moderate. I’m not saying the Galbraith novels are good – either as novels qua novels or as crime novels. But they’re certainly very readable and they do seem to have a somewhat sideways approach to crime… and this is in a genre which doesn’t necessarily prize originality.

Araminta Station, Jack Vance (1987, USA). I first read this many years ago, probably soon after it was published in 1989 (the edition pictured, the NEL A-format paperback, is the one I own), which was a few years before I started recording the books I read. For some reason, I never got around to picking up copies of the two sequels, Ecce and Old Earth and Throy, until many, many years later… Then I never got around to actually reading them. And now, of course, they’re in storage. Happily, all three books of the trilogy are available as ebooks from the SF Gateway, so I picked up the first as a reread. The planet of Cadwal has been declared off-limits to development and is ostensibly policed by a group based at the eponymous station. Which has existed so long its workings have come to define its society. Glawen Clattuc is a teenager likely to take a middling position in the Araminta bureaucracy. But enemies of his father arrange for him to be given a much lower ranking than he deserves. He goes to work for the station’s police force. At a festival, Glawen’s girlfriend disappears, believed murdered and her body shipped off-world in a wine cask. There’s a suspect, but no evidence to charge him. There’s also a plot brewing in Yipton, an offshore community composed entirely of Yips, a human subspecies used as temporary labour at Araminta Station. All of which results in Glawen being sent on a mission to another world, where he ends up imprisoned in a monastery. And that, and the plot in Yipton, seems to link into mutterings about opening up Cadwal for development… I remember reading Vance’s last couple of sf novels in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and being disappointed by them. And the Cadwal Chronicles trilogy were the novels published prior to those. So my expectations weren’t especially high. Happily, Araminta Station proved to be Vance on fine form. It’s busier than most of his other novels, but it’s also better plotted. The characterisation also seemed less arbitrary than I recalled in other novels. And the comic lines were good too.

The Battle to the Weak, Hilda Vaughan (1925, UK). A few years ago, I put together a list of postwar British women writers. Some of them were already known to me – Olivia Manning, Naomi Mitchison, Elizabeth Taylor – and not all of them began their careers after WWII, but there were undoubtedly some particularly big names from the period I chose to ignore… Not, I hasten to add, that I considered my list in any way complete. It was a selection. And I did indeed track down books by some of the names on the list – Katherine Burdekin, Susan Ertz, Pamela Frankau, Storm Jameson, E Arnot Robertson, GB Stern… and Hilda Vaughan. Who, it turns out, probably didn’t really fit on the list, although her last novel was published in 1954, as she was chiefly active between the wars and is probably better considered a contemporary of DH Lawrence than a postwar writer. And, in fact, The Battle to the Weak, her first novel, has much in common with Lawrence’s novels. A young woman from a poor farming family in mid-Wales is sent to stay with an aunt at a seaside town. There she meets a young man, and the two fall in love. Unfortunately, it turns out he’s the son of her father’s mortal enemy, a neighbouring farmer he’s been violently clashing with for years. The son was given to his aunt at a very young age and more or less adopted, so he’s not at all involved in the feud. When the young woman’s father learns the identity of her fiancé, he forbids the wedding. As does the fiancé’s father. So the fiancé goes off to Canada to make his fortune. The young woman prepares to join him, but her father fights with her sister, who falls down the stairs and is paralysed from the waist down. The woman puts her plans on hold to look after her sister. Years pass. The sister dies. The young woman prepares to move to Canada. Then the father dies, so the young woman stays on to help her mother. The man in Canada writes and tells the young woman he couldn’t wait and has married. Years pass. The man returns to Wales, and the two eventually reconnect. In its depiction of rural life in the 1920s, The Battle to the Weak is very Lawrentian. There’s also a cross-generational aspect. But Vaughan’s novel is much more grim than anything Lawrence wrote. The lives she documents are hard, and the men – bar a couple of exceptions, one of which is the fiancé – are monsters. Especially the father. The prose is typical of the period, but it’s good. If you like fiction from the early part of the twentieth century, then Vaughan is definitely worth a go.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Reading diary 2019, #6

My reading seems to be all over the place of late. Mostly it’s because I’ve been limiting myself to buying ebooks, and only when they’re cheap. I did bring some books with me, and I bought a few at the recent Swecon, but I put a lot of unread books into storage. So with less to choose from, my reading has proven less planned. Ah well.

X, Sue Grafton (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels since discovering them back in the mid-nineties. As well as being good crime novels with an engaging narrator, Grafton’s decision to keep the internal chronology consistent irrespective of how long it took her to produce a novel has meant each book has slipped further and further back into the past. Even now, thirty-seven years after the series began – or rather, thirty-three years from A to X – and X is still set in the 1980s, albeit towards the end of the decade. Millhone is hired by a local rich woman to check up on the son she gave up for adoption decades before, and who has just been released from prison after committing a string of burglaries. She does as asked but then discovers the man was no relation… and that the rich woman is the estranged wife of millionaire, and the two are trying to screw as much money out of each other as possible. Throw in a string of missing women and the man responsible for their deaths, identified by Milhone, and who then begins stalk her. Plus an elderly couple who have moved into Milhone’s neighbourhood but do not prove to be who they claim… It’s a bit busier than most of the Milhone novels, and the millionaire man and wife plot actually has a happy end; but these are good books and definitely worth reading.

Embers of War, Gareth L Powell (2018, UK). This won the BSFA Award earlier this year, although I don’t chose the books I read because they won awards (ha!). I’d sort of gone off space opera in recent years as none of the stuff being published really appealed – and, to be honest, most of it seems to resemble military sf more than it does space opera. But UK space opera is a different beast to US space opera, and closer to my sensibilities. I’d also heard a few good things about Embers of War… But, well, having now read it, I’m not entirely convinced. Powell’s decision to tell his story using a number of different points of view in short chapters, I think, worked against it. It didn’t help that so many of the voices were similar, including that of the ship’s AI whose story the novel ostensibly is (in fact, Embers of War is the first in a series about the ship; the sequel is Fleet of Knives). Anyway, the ship Trouble Dog used to be a warship but is now a de-armed rescue ship with your typical space opera crew of misfits. A spaceliner is attacked by a mysterious enemy while visiting a planetary system whose planets were all reshaped into giant sculptures by a powerful and long-dead alien race. Trouble Dog goes to the rescue. Meanwhile, the target of the spaceliner attack – and why do sf novels think it’s acceptable to murder thousands in pursuit of just one person? It needs to stop – has managed to survive and finds herself on the surface of the planet known as the Brain (because, er, it looks like one). She discovers a labyrinth inside the planet – this part of the novel reminded me a great deal of a favourite sf short story, ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’ by Sean Williams – and so discovers its secret. The real identity of the woman was not hard to figure out, and it’s the reason why people want her dead – although given she was following orders at the time, it did seem a bit like they were going after the wrong person. The last Powell novel I read was The Recollection back in 2011 (see here), and I thought that started well but then turned boringly generic. Embers of War suffers from the latter as well. The world-building is all a bit too identikit and the ideas feel somewhat second-hand (cf my mention of the Williams story earlier). The characterisation is either bland or relies on quirks, and the prose is readable without being memorable. Readers who like BDOs and alien puzzles will find something to their taste here, but for me this is just Extruded Space Opera Product, with little or nothing that makes it stand out.

The Paper Men, William Golding (1984, UK). I’m having trouble making up my mind about Golding. Until a couple of years ago, I knew him only as the author of Lord of the Flies – his debut novel and his most famous, which must have really hurt – but then I read Rites of Passage and was very impressed. I picked up several of his books in a charity shop, so I had more to read. But… I’m reminded of John Fowles’s oeuvre: he wrote a couple of novels that were stunning pieces of work, but also a number that were almost emblematic of the output of a British white middle-class middle-brow male writer and so not so good. I think Golding was a better writer than Fowles, although none of his books, other than his debut, were as successful as either The Magus or The French Lieutenant’s Woman (and while the latter is an excellent piece of work, the former is very much the sort of book that’s admired only by people in their early twenties). So too with Golding: a handful of beautifully-written but quite strange novels, and then some that are pretty much emblematic of the output of a British white middle class male writer, although perhaps never middle-brow. And The Paper Men falls into the latter category. It’s a first-person narrative by a famous writer who has managed to build a successful career out of a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful novel and a series of much less successful follow-on works. But he’s seen as an important man of letters, and a US academic turns up on his doorstep asking to be his official biographer. The writer refuses. Shortly afterwards, the writer’s marriage breaks up and he heads off to foreign parts. There’s then a sort of hallucinatory chase around the world, with the biographer trying, and failing, to gain permission to access the writer’s papers. There’s something more going on there, or at least it feels like there should be, but if it’s a reference to anything it pass me by. There’s some very male-gazey – well, pretty lecherous – depictions of the biographer’s young wife, and a number of situations with border on farce. In fact, at times The Paper Men feels like it’s supposed to be a comic novel, even though it’s not at all humorous for most of its length. I’ll certainly read more Golding, but the last two books by him I’ve read have been somewhat disappointing.

The Bitter Twins, Jen Williams (2018, UK). I read the first book in this trilogy earlier this year (see here), and only did so because some friends were extremely effusive with their praise of it… I mean, I’m not a fan of heroic fantasy, although I’ve read a lot of it in the past, and I’m pretty sure there’s very little overlap between my taste in genre fiction and that of the one friend who praised these books the most… But I’m happy to read outside my comfort zone because how else would I discover new authors to like and admire? While bits of the first book, The Ninth Rain, didn’t entirely work for me, I do like fantasy worlds that are couched as science-fictional – and vice versa, of course – so there were definitely things to appreciate there. Enough, at least, to read the second book. Which is, I think, better than the first. And middle books of trilogies generally are not that. It’s better because it introduces a mystery in one of its narratives, gives it a satisfying conclusion, and also uses it to reveal some deeper background about the world. On the other hand… there was something about the writing style which didn’t quite click with me. It wasn’t until a chat at a con with the aforementioned friend where she mentioned “cock-blocking” and quoted a particular line from The Bitter Twins that I figured out what it was about the prose that was giving me trouble: it was written like fan fiction. The author was having far too much fun with their characters, to the extent that “having fun with characters” was driving the story rather than the plot. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. That friend? She’s a big fan of fan fiction, so it’s an approach and style of narrative that appeals to her. I don’t have that background – she had to explain what “cock-blocking” was to me – and I prefer my narrative voice distanced (see pretty much every Reading diary post on this blog). Despite that, the world-building in this trilogy remains very good – in many respects, it reminds me of Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy – and while the good guys tend to be a bit too good to be true at times, the villains of the piece are interesting. Worth a go.

Air Force!, Frank Harvey (1959, USA). I think it was the cover art which prompted me to buy this. I do like books about the Space Race, and while a cherry-picker was never used to deliver astronauts to their space capsule – whatever capsule that’s supposed to be on the cover – it all looked close enough to reality to appeal. If you know what I mean. The contents turned out to be somewhat different to what I’d expected. For a start, I’d thought it was non-fiction, a series of essays written for the popular press about the Space Race, or extrapolations of its future. It turned out to be entirely fictional, albeit based on extrapolations of the state of aviation and space technology in the US at the time.  There are eight stories, originally published chiefly in the Saturday Evening Post. One story is about the first X-15 flight to achieve orbit (the X-15 never did), another is about a pilot whose wife is pressurising him to leave USAF and go into business but his successful prevention of a disaster on a flight persuades him to say. Another story has a fighter pilot “demoted” to transport planes but he manages to prevent a fatal crash during a catastrophic failure of his plane’s systems and that persuades his superiors he should be back flying fighters. It’s all very gung-ho and USAF rah rah rah, and while the technical details are spot-on, the extrapolations are closer to the military’s wishful thinking than what actually happened. This is Man In Space Soonest rather than Skylab, if you know what I mean. The prose is not even serviceable, it’s “journalese” and presents each story as a cross between fiction and a personal account. It’s fun, if you’re into mid-twentieth century US aviation fiction, but its appeal these days, ie sixty years later, is going to be limited pretty much to fans of that. Like, er, me.

A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, Alex White (2018, USA). I should have known from the title… and its sequels’ titles (currently A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy and The Worst of All Possible Worlds). This is the Becky Chambers school of titling books, and I’m not a fan of Becky Chambers’s novels. Although to be fair, I was unimpressed with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe for a number of reasons, of which its terrible title was probably the least objectionable. The bad news starts pretty much on the first page. This is a far-future space opera universe… and it has magic. There’s no sense to it, clearly it was added because the author it was a cool idea. Half the stuff magic does in the book is also done by technology. Why would they do that, build a technological solution to a problem already solved by magic? It’s like that throughout the story. But, you know, some people like tech and magic; the fact it makes no sense, that it destroys any rigour the universe might claim to possess, is not a deal-breaker for them. It’s certainly a hurdle more easily scaled by some readers than others. Had that been my only issue with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, then I’d have simply written it off as “not for me”. But… The novel opens with car race on a space station and it’s clear this is a sport all worlds enjoy and follow, and there’s a lot of money and prestige invested in it, much like Formula 1 in the real world. During the race, one of the drivers, the favourite to win the championship, witnesses the murder of her rival by a strange masked magical figure who seems to have EVEN MOAR magical powers than is known to be possible. The driver is charged with the murder, fears for her life, and does a runner (despite belonging to one of the richest families in the galaxy). Meanwhile, a woman who makes a living selling fake treasure maps to gullible treasure hunters finds herself being hunted by unknown assailants. And she is one of those rare people who have no magical ability whatsoever. Both end up being kidnapped by, and then dragooned into, the crew of the Capricious, an ex-warship from the losing side of an earlier war. The map-seller was once a member of the crew but walked away when the war ended. Bad feelings remain. The plot is all about a super-warship that disappeared during the war, and somehow the super-magic assassin is associated with it. After some internal tensions, the crew of the Capricious track down the ship with authorially imposed ease, but then find themselves the targets of a group of super-powerful magicians, including the aforementioned assassin, who seem to have no trouble razing rich and powerful galactic institutions to the ground. And that is this novel’s biggest problem. The villains are super-powerful, and their strategy of slash and burn is at complete odds with the conspiracy’s previous actions, and it all seems EVEN MOAR implausible than having random magic powers in a technological space opera universe. And if that weren’t enough, the hardy band of adventures otherwise known as the crew of the Capricious still manage to win the day. They are massively outgunned, hugely outgunned… But they win. A battle, not the war – as indicated by the presence of sequels. I mean, there’s suspension of disbelief and there’s suspension of disbelief. The presence of magic is stretching it, but I’m willing to go with it. The rest? No! Dial it back, FFS. It’s nonsense. Super-villains taken down by hardy adventurers with no special powers? There’s no rigour here, no attempt at it. It’s like the author just threw “cool” ideas at the page with no regard for what fitted. It’s not like the plot is super original, because it’s not, in fact it’s a pretty standard one for RPGs (and “ordinary” player-characters overcoming super-powered NPCs is also pretty common in RPGs). Anyway, A Big Ship at the End of the Universe is not a good book. I will not be continuing with the series.


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The Hugos 2019, novellas

I attended the Worldcon in Helsinki in 2017 – and had a great time – which meant I was eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugos that year and the year following. I did neither. In either year. I’ll be attending the Worldcon this year in Dublin. Which means I’m once again eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards. Again, I’ll be doing neither. The Hugos have never really aligned with my tastes, and I refuse to vote for people on shortlists that comprise works. However, as an eligible voter, I have access to the Hugo Voter Pack. Which is pretty much everything on the various shortlists. This year, I decided to actually have a go at reading the shortlisted works. I doubt I’ll finish the novels before the con itself – and, to be honest, I’ve not even started them – but the novellas, novelettes and short stories… those I can do. The other categories I don’t care about.

First up are the novellas. Because it’s a length of fiction I like, both to read and to write. Of the six works on the shortlist, four were by authors whose names I’d heard of before and, in some cases, even read previously. One was vaguely familiar and one was completely unknown to me. In the order in which I read them…

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Robson previously, but her name sounded vaguely familiar– Ah, she won a Nebula for Best Novelette last year, and is another of the Clarkesworld/Tor.com stable, members of which have appeared on many shortlists in the last couple of years. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach was published by Tor.com. In fact, five of the six novellas on this year’s shortlist were published by Tor.com. Which is a problem. Anyway, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is set on a post-climate crash Earth, in which a much-reduced population live in small high-tech communities. There are people who work on fixing the damage caused by the climate crash, in an effort to create a world that can be repopulated to former levels. The protagonist of this story is one of them. She also has eight prosthetic legs, like an octopus. And she is part of a team, if not its leader, which submits a proposal for an environmental impact study which involves time travel back to Sumeria. It sounds messy as fuck, but Robson manages to make it all hang together. There are problems: it’s not entirely clear what the team from the future are trying to achieve, the personal politics are confused with the wider political situation, and the POV is peculiarly narrow given the world-building. It actually reads like part of a series where much of the world-building was handled in earlier works, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s a reasonably well-handled piece, and the prose itself neither stands out nor is an obstacle – and the latter is certainly something that could be said of other nominees. I’m not sure if it deserves to be on the shortlist… but on balance, I’d say its presence is not embarrassing.

Artificial Condition, Martha Wells. Another problem with the novella category – indeed, with the Hugo Awards over the last few years as a whole – is the preponderance of sequels. Martha Wells, previously better-known for mid-list fantasy series, published three of her Murderbot novellas in 2018. (The first was published in 2017.) That’s a series. Artificial Condition is the second instalment. None of them stand alone. There are indeed cases where the second instalment in a series is better than the first, but in this case the first instalment, All Systems Red… won the Hugo Award for Best Novella last year. Come on, people, read a little more fucking widely. It would be understandable if the Murderbot series were astounding, the best sf published for many years… But they’re not. They’re entertaining, and even a little bit clever in places. But fun as they may be, they’re not award-worthy. And if you’re nominating fiction because it was “fun”, you appear to have misunderstood the meaning of the word “best”. The thing about “best” is that you have to recognise something as being of high quality, higher quality in fact than pretty much everything else you read, you don’t necessarily have to have enjoyed it or thought it was fun. The two are quite different. Any old wine will get you pissed, but the good ones won’t have you gagging every time you take a sip. At least not for the first half-dozen glasses. What we have here is a novella that gets you pissed without you actually noticing the flavour of the vintage – and I’d submit that’s not what awards are about, at least not awards that have the word “best” in their title. I enjoyed Artificial Condition. I might even read the rest of the series. But I really can’t see this as award-worthy and its nomination says more about the award than it does the genre.

The Black God’s Drums, P Djèli Clark. Clark won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story this year (the story is also nominated for the Hugo), but appears to have come pretty much from nowhere. True, The Black God’s Drums was published by Tor.com, but his short story was published in a magazine I’ve not come across before. Also true, there seems to be a great love for debuts in recent years’ popular vote genre awards (seriously? why?), but that doesn’t mean the nominated works are necessarily bad. The Black God’s Drums is a bit busy, but it’s an interesting melding of ideas – alternate history, steampunk, voodoo magic and gods – and if it suffers it’s because its ideas makes its plot all a bit too obvious. Streetwise urchin protagonist has connection to powerful goddess; said goddess makes unexpected appearance at story climax to save the day. It’s not quite that simplistic, but the telegraphing here is as blatant as it comes. Obvious foreshadowing is better than none, but a little subtlety goes a long way. The plot is pretty much a staple of, well, fiction in general: nutter steals superweapon to wreak vengeance on city, random people come together to foil the plot (because there’s no organised government response to these sorts of things, ever). Does The Black God’s Drums belong on the shortlist? About as much as the Robson, I think. Its presence is hardly embarrassing, but if this and the Robson are the best the genre can produce in a given year then there’s still a long way to go…

Binti: The Night Masquerade, Nnedi Okorafor. Like Clark, Okorafor also appears twice in this year’s Hugo nominations – for this novella and for the Black Panther comic she scripted. I have to admit I don’t understand the acclaim her fiction receives. She’s a fascinating person and is an excellent role model, but what little fiction by her I’ve read has struck me as simplistic and badly-written. It doesn’t help that Binti: The Night Masquerade is the third and, I think, final part in the Binti series. I read the first, and thought it interesting, if not particularly well put-together. But it was much better than this one, in which this happens and then that happens and then something else happens and then Binti is killed and then she comes back to life and then it all abruptly ends. It doesn’t help that the title refers to a nightmarish figure who appears to Binti, and yet the name of it – the Night Masquerade – clearly indicates it’s a fucking fake but everyone is too fucking stupid to realise. Anyway, Binti returns home but her family are dead, except they’re not really, and there are two races at war with each other but it’s almost impossible to keep straight because Okrafor is more interested in Binti’s feels than she is setting the scene. I’m no fan of exposition, and I disagree entirely with Kim Stanley Robinson’s statement “it’s just another form of narrative”, and “streamlining exposition into the narrative” is another piece of writing advice that gets my back up… Which is not to say there’s zero info-dumping in Binti: the Night Masquerade. There’s plenty. But it’s all about Binti and her culture, or that of her male companion. The rest of the world is so sketchy it might as well have been made-up on the spot by Binti herself. I really do not rate these novellas, and I’m mystified by the love shown to them.

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire. Yet another sequel. This is the third instalment in the Wayward Children series, about which I know nothing… but can pretty much guess what it’s about from this novella alone. Think Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Sort of. But less clever. McGuire’s prose is so bland it rivals Gaiman’s. Except, that is, for the occasional flight of fancy, none of which actually work. The story is all “poor fat girl who is actually a princess in another reality” tagging along with some friends who try to help a fellow “wayward child” at a school for children who have spent time in other worlds and can’t cope in the real one. The central conceit is, I admit, quite neat, and McGuire clearly has a great deal of fun with it. But it all reads like poor-me fiction and a single idea stretched well past breaking point. The first volume in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2017, and I’m told it’s better than this one. And the second instalment, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, was nominated last year. But Beneath the Sugar Sky‘s presence on the shortlist says more about the power of McGuire’s fanbase than it does the quality of her fiction.

The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard. I’ve been and on-and-off fan of de Bodard’s fiction since first reading one of her stories in an issue of Interzone just over ten years ago. I say “on-and-off” because her science fiction appeals to me much more than her fantasy. And while I remember a number of sf stories set in an Aztec-dominated world, she is best-known these days for her Xuya universe stories, a Vietnam-based far future. (The universe itself is shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award, which is not how I thought the Best Series Hugo Award worked, and I’m surprised there’s more than 250,000 words in the short stories and novellas, but no novels, set in the Xuya universe.) Anyway, the “tea master” is a ship mind (more McCaffrey than Banks, if I’ve interpreted the text correctly) and the detective is a woman with a chequered past who hires the ship mind for a simple task. During which they discover a body that clearly did not die of natural causes. The mystery of the victim’s death is intertwined with the mystery of the detective’s past, although one is not a consequence of, or reflects on, the other. But both have satisfying conclusions, and the novella makes good use of its setting. The Tea Master and the Detective is not, as a friend said to me, the best Xuya story de Bodard has written, but it’s a good one. and to my mind, it’s easily the best on this year’s Hugo shortlist.

So there you have it. I’m not going to vote on any of the above, but if I had to choose a winner it would be The Tea Master and the Detective. If I were in a good mood, I’d vote de Bodard, then Robson, then Clark, and everything else below no award. If I were in a bad mood – which is more likely, I suppose – then it’d be de Bodard and everything else below no award.

I had thought this might prove a fun exercise. In fact, I’m discovering why I no longer follow the Hugo Awards. Ah well. Next up, the novelettes…


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Reading diary 2019, #5

I’m sort of getting into this ebook thing. Four of the books below are ebooks; the other two are paperbacks I brought with me. And no, I don’t know why I brought Troubled Star. It’s a duplicate copy, and I have much cleaner copy in storage, so I probably just threw it in the suitcase rather than bin it.

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990, USA). Members of the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki, which I attended, were given an ebook copy of all fourteen volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series as it had been shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award. I’d previously read up to book ten or eleven, I forget which, and had the next volume in the series sitting unread on the bookshelves. I distinctly remember reading the first six or so books. I’d seen them in Books Gallery in the Liwa Centre in Abu Dhabi, and bought them because I wanted to know what it was that had made them such massive sellers. I read them in quick succession. And to this day, I’ve no idea why they sold so many copies. They were badly-written, bloated and derivative. But now that I have my Kindle, I thought it might be time to time finish off the series. Which meant starting from the beginning. So I reread The Eye of the World. I thought it might prove an interesting exercise, seeing what I thought to it now, twenty-five years or so after my previous read. And, well, my opinion of the book has not substantially changed. The writing still struck me as poor, the characterisation is simplistic at best, and a lot of the world-building consists of over-used tropes and borrowings. What I hadn’t noticed previously was how badly-structured the novel is, with the entire story pretty much wrapped up in the final chapter, after long chapters of travelogue that barely advanced the plot. On the other hand, knowing how the story pans out (well, most of it) and seeing the story hooks here (even if many of them weren’t actually planted) was just enough to keep me from throwing the book (well, Kindle) at the wall or gouging my eyes out. And in the series’ favour, it’s not grimdark, so it’s not gratuitously violent, rapist or sexist. Which is not to say it doesn’t feature all three – but not to grimdark’s offensive levels, nor, like grimdark, does it try to make a virtue of their inclusion. The reread wasn’t entirely painless, and I think it might take me longer to work my way through all fourteen books that I had initially expected… but I’m still going to try and do it.

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). Although Faulkner was a name known to me, I’d read none of his books and knew nothing about him or his works. But my father had two novels by him, which I took, and I read one, The Sound and the Fury, last year and was hugely impressed. So I picked up a couple more on eBay. And I brought them with me to Sweden. The first of these was As I Lay Dying, arguably Faulkner’s best-known and most highly-regarded novel. There’s even a commercially successful metal band named after it. The story is told from several viewpoints, each in their own voice, and it concerns the death of Addie Bundren, and her husband’s attempt, with family and friends, to take her body to a neighbouring town to bury her among her kin. But all that is either incidental, or merely the trigger, for what happens in each narrative. It all takes place in Faulkner’s native American South – Mississippi, I think, for the most part – and the language reflects the setting. Despite As I Lay Dying‘s reputation, I didn’t find it as impressive a work of literature as The Sound and the Fury, possibly because the latter had the more adventurous structure, and I’m big on novels that experiment with narrative structure. But that’s really damning it with faint praise as this is full-on classic American Literature, and though not all works and writers described as that appeal to me, I do admire Faulkner’s prose a great deal. Definitely worth reading.

Rosewater, Tade Thompson (2016, UK). I’d heard so much about this, and it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year (despite being originally published in 2016, but never mind), and it was 99p on Kindle… so I bought it. And I read it. And… There’s a good story in Rosewater, but it throws too much in, like a writer not sure which of their ideas have real merit so they chuck them all in hoping that at least one makes the grade… And because there’s so much going on, the story doesn’t seem to have much of a clue where it’s heading for much of its length. Is it about the titular city and the alien entity around which it has grown, and the regular frenzies of miracle healing it creates? Or perhaps it’s about Kaaro, who works for the Nigerian intelligence service (or a side-branch of it) and has telepathic powers – as do many others – also created by the alien entity? Or maybe it’s about Bicycle Girl, a semi-mythical figure who seems to be associated with a village that disappeared and now exists in an alternate dimension or pocket universe, created by entirely human tech? There is currently something of a feeding frenzy in sf about African genre fiction, which is all a bit white man’s tears as the various African nations – Africa is not a country – have literary traditions going back centuries or longer and many of them have had their best writers and works translated into English for decades. They just don’t happen to be category genre. So sf from a Nigerian writer – as Thompson is – should, were the genre not so overwhelmingly white- and Americo-centric, not really be cause for celebration. But sf is as it is, and Thompson’s origin and the setting of Rosewater play a major part in reviews of the book. That’s just as racist as ignoring the book because of the author’s race. There’s no doubt Thompson could be a major voice in UK sf – he’s based in London – and Rosewater amply demonstrates that. This is a strong debut, but it’s a messy piece of work to make an award shortlist. A few years from now, Thompson will be churning out award-worthy books. But that’s more a criticism of awards than it is the author.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937, UK). I have the SF Masterwork edition of this book – that’s the one from the original numbered series – but that’s in storage now. I bought a 99p copy on my Kindle so I could read it. I’ve no idea if the two editions are the same – they can’t be that different, I’d have thought, since this isn’t a work that needed translating. But the copy I read certainly had more than its fair share of OCR errors and typos. There’s not much of a plot to review: the narrator is an Englishman of the 1930s who falls asleep on a hillside and becomes a disembodied galactic traveller, as you do. He visits various worlds, learns to cohabit the minds of certain of their inhabitants, and they too join him on his travels, until he is more of a gestalt intelligence than the man he once was. Stapledon describes the various types of civilisation his observer visits, and while they’re initially based on extrapolations of Earth biology – even the symbiotic races, which play such a great part in the book – but soon it transpires the stars are sentient, and then the galaxies too. This is sf on the grandest scale, and it’s unlikely it would wash these days because it only really works with a style that’s no longer commercially acceptable. It’s not that genre fiction of the past fifty years has been stunted in any way, or has held off from Stapledonian scales because he did it first – Stephen Baxter’s entire career is ample rebuttal to that – but more that the style which allowed Stapledon to what he did is no longer considered commercially viable. Is that a bad thing? Not really. We still have Stapledon. He’s in the SF Masterworks series, and his books are readily available in a variety of editions as ebooks. Obviously, these are, paradoxically, historical documents, but for those who know what they’re getting into, they’re definitely worth a go.

The Green Man’s Heir, Juliet McKenna (2016, UK). Another Kindle book that was 99p, but this time as a promotion. The author tweeted the book was reduced, and since I’d never read anything by her – she mostly writes fantasy, which, er, Wheel of Time reread above aside, I don’t normally read – and The Green Man’s Heir is urban fantasy, which I definitely don’t read… But the plot sounded interesting so I thought it worth a go. And I’m glad I did give it a punt. The narrator is Daniel Mackmain, a jobbing carpenter who happens to be the son of a dryad. Which means he is plugged into the mythological world based on landscape. So when a woman is brutally murdered near where Mackmain lives, and a dryad gives him enough to clues so he thinks he might be able to solve the case… The Green Man’s Heir is a mashup of mystery novel and fantasy novel but it works because it’s centred on its hero and not focused on its central crime. The story moves on from the murders and pulls in romance, but it all ends in a place that feels entirely a consequence of what has gone before. This is clearly a book by someone who knows what they’re doing. And if their earlier fantasy series have not made the big time, I hope this one does – there’s a sequel – because it’s good stuff. It may be a bit Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders, but it does it well and it certainly does it a great deal better than the last of those two.

Troubled Star, George O Smith (1957, USA). Back in the day, Galaxy magazine provided a free paperback with every issue. For some reason, after several issues they handed this over to Beacon Books, better known for publishing hospital romances, and they decided the books should be a little more, well, suggestive. So they rewrote a bunch of sf novels and published them. I’ve managed to collect them all, and most of their original editions, or author-preferred editions, chiefly so I can compare the two. Because, to be honest, they didn’t exactly choose good novels. Much as I love AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, the Beacon Book version of it, The Mating Cry, adds little, and in fact only makes the female lead less sympathetic. I don’t have a copy of the book on which Troubled Star is based – originally published under the same title in February 1953 – but I think I can guess what’s been changed. It’s not very subtle. Anyway, three scouts for a galactic transportation company are on Mercury in the Solar System (note to sf writers: only capitalise when it refers to the Sol system, and the planets of any other star are a planetary system not a solar system). Anyway, Earth is in the way of a new hyperspatial route or something, and no, I’ve no idea if Douglas Adams had read this although he may have done. There’s a sex scene – that’s the Beacon touch – but this is otherwise true to its origins: pulp sf. I can claim a legitimate interest, although that’s wearing thin, but I suspect no other reader can. Avoid.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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Reading diary 2019, #4

The first book in this post I read before leaving the UK, but I’m not sure why I didn’t include it in an earlier Reading diary. Two of the books I read on my Kindle (well, one was a reread), and the remaining three I brought with me in my 26 kg suitcase.

I’ve been avoiding the English Bookshop here because I don’t want to buy new books just yet. Once I’ve read most of the two dozen I brought with me, then I’ll start buying some more. Although there are a couple of new books I want in hardback… like the last Bernie Gunther novel… and the new one from Nina Allan…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals, Part 1, Yves Sente, Peter Van Dongen & Teun Berserik (2018, Belgium). Unlike the Adventures of Tintin, with which the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer are closely linked, Blake and Mortimer survived the death of their creator. Edgar P Jacobs set up a studio to continue the series, and it’s been churning them out ever since. And, to be honest, the studio’s stories have been better than Jacobs’s ever were. Until, it seems, this one. Sort of. The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals is a sequel to one of Jacobs’s most famous stories, The Secret of the Swordfish, which was pretty much a Yellow Peril narrative. To be fair, The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals soon leaves Jacobs’s invented Asian evil empire – actually called the Yellow Empire – behind, and focuses on real Chinese history, specifically the Communists and Kuomintang, both of which are after a recently discovered artefact from third-century BCE China. As is a warlord who plans to use it to declare himself emperor. Mostly, this is all good stuff, but while dragging in the Yellow Empire slots the story into the Blake and Mortimer universe, and gives continuity to the characters, it leaves a bad taste and the book would have been better for ignoring it. One of the good things about the series has been that it has changed with the times. Tintin’s earlier adventures are racist as shit, and because The Adventures of Tintin ended with Hergé’s death, there are no new stories to offset those early works. Because Jacobs founded a studio to continue the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, we have new stories – more, I think, than Jacobs actually wrote – which have kept pace with sensibilities (and have also become increasingly sophisticated in their stories). If you like Tintin, then you should be reading the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer. There are twenty-five of them, so you’ve got some catching up to do.

To Play the Lady, Naomi Lane (2011, USA). Someone recommended this to me a long time ago, but it was only available on Kindle and at that time I didn’t own one. But now I have one. And To Play the Lady was cheap. So I bought it and, er, read it. And I wish I could remember who recommended it. Because it wasn’t very good. The background is a bit identikit, and there’s doesn’t seem to have been much thought put into it. The protagonist is a complete Mary Sue, and accrues powers as the story progresses. Which is not to say the story doesn’t have its good points. Provincial aristocrat’s daughter is sent to the palace to be a maid of the queen, but she’s a bit of a tomboy and has been taught all sorts of unfeminine things. Her origin brings her into conflict with the other maids – all the daughters of peers of the realm – and her abilities at riding and archery cause problems because they’re not exactly ladylike. And it also turns out she has a rare magical talent and has to be individually tutored by the royal sorcerer… Sigh. There’s a breezy tone to the narrative, which is fun, and having a queen’s maid as the focus of a story gives an interesting perspective, but… Jenna Mallory, the protagonist, is so Mary Sue-ish it gets annoying quite quickly. The book is the first in a series, and the second book, To Serve the King, appeared in 2016. So if this is a trilogy, the final book is not likely to appear until 2021. I may well give the second book a  go, but I’m in no great rush to do so.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1965, USA). It probably doesn’t need to be said that this was a reread. I last read Dune in 2007 and blogged about it here. But I didn’t bother with the sequels on that reread, and since the Gateway ebook collection of all six Dune books was only 99p, I decided to buy it and work my way through all of them. Starting with, er Dune. It’s a book I know well, so I was more interested on this reread in how it compared to what I remembered. And yes, the writing is still pretty terrible for much of its length – especially in sentences that contain the phrase “terrible purpose” – but the worldbuilding is still among the best the genre has produced. However, my reading was focused on the scenes. And… the ones I remember liking rang a bit false, such as the time Duke Leto and Paul fly out to see a spice harvester in action. But other scenes I hadn’t liked, like the banquet scene, I much preferred this time around. What I hadn’t forgotten was the casual misogyny and homophobia, which very much made the book a product of the 1960s. I’d also forgotten how slipshod was Herbert’s worldbuilding: some things he’d made an effort to disguise, but in other places he’d simply slotted the Arabic word straight in. There didn’t seem to be much logic to it. Fifty-five years after it was published, Dune remains popular – Denis Villeneuve, movie flavour of the month in some genre circles – is currently filming an adaptation. In two parts, if rumour is to be believed. And there may well be a television series following on from the movies. But while there is a certain timelessness to the universe of Dune, Dune the novel is very much a book of its time. Had it been re-invented each decade, perhaps it would be an even bigger property that it is. Although I suppose the awful Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson sequels and prequels could be considered “re-inventions” but they’re pretty shite. If I had a Swedish crown for every time I’ve heard someone say they’d read Dune but not its sequels, or that Dune is the best of the series and the rest are not worth reading, well, I’d be living in a Swedish palace. A small one. And yet it’s completely untrue. Frank Herbert conceived the first three books as a single story, so all three really need to be read in order to understand the point Herbert was trying to make. And I’ve always maintained the writing improved, at the sentence level, as the series progressed. This is hardly controversial – the more Herbert wrote, the better he got at it. I’m hoping that particular conviction will survive my reread. We shall see. But the take-away from this reread: the best-loved scenes disappointed, but the scenes I’d not liked as much previously read much better than I’d expected.

Forcible Entry, Stewart Farrar (1986, UK). I’d been after this books for years, although I forget why, when a copy popped up on eBay. The book was only ever published in hardback, and the hardback was published by Robert Hale, which no doubt explains why it had proven so hard to find. Unfortunately, I lost the auction on eBay for the book… but found a copy for less on abebooks.co.uk from a seller in Australia. (I see there’s now a copy on Amazon going for £590. I paid nowhere near that.) And, after all that, was it worth it? I understand most of Farrar’s fiction revolves around witchcraft and Wicca – I believe he practiced it himself – and certainly a coven of witches makes an appearance in Forcible Entry. But the story is mostly about parapsychology research, particularly telepathy and astral projection. Matthew is a professional photographer and dying of cancer. He also volunteers as a test subject at a parapsychology study run by the university. Which is where Sheila, an attractive young woman, works as an office manager. The two prove to be gifted at astral projection. On one such trip Matthew, knowing he is dying, steals Sheila’s body. So while his real body dies of cancer in hospital, Matthew takes over Sheila’s body and feigns amnesia to cover any mistakes he might make in his impersonation (he had been studying her for weeks beforehand). However, Sheila had been an unwitting agent of the CIA investigating an organisation that wants to use people with parapsychological abilities for nefarious reasons. But not everyone is convinced by Matthew’s impersonation of Sheila – especially her American boyfriend, who involves a coven of witches to undo the possession – and when Matthew is forced to kill to defend his secret… It’a an interesting premise, and Farrar’s prose is readable and unremarkable. I’m surprised the book is not better-known – or rather, surprised it never made it to paperback, because there’s certainly a market for it. But then, I don’t think many of Farrar’s novels made it to paperback, so it seems his chief readership was library borrowings. There were a couple of other Farrar novels offered by the seller on eBay who was selling Forcible Entry, and one or two of them looked interesting. But I’m not going to go out of my way to track down his books, although if I see one going cheap I might give it a go.

With Fate Conspire, Mike Shupp (1985, USA). Back in the 1990s, I corresponded online with Mike Shupp. We were members of an online sf novel writing group, although both of us were using the group chiefly as motivation. Anyway, Shupp had published a five-book series, The Destiny Makers, between 1985 and 1991, but nothing else. And nothing since that online sf novel writing group – he was working on something new, and it looked good, but it hasn’t appeared in the years since. To be honest, I suspect With Fate Conspire is not a book that would see publication today. Not because it’s bad – it isn’t, it’s actually quite good. But it makes zero concessions to its readers, and it’s often a struggle to figure out what’s going on. Partly that’s because the plot is about time travel, and partly because it’s set on an Earth 90,000 years from now which is very different. But Shupp further complicates matters by fracturing his narrative. Tim Harper is a Vietnam vet physics student who gets caught in the field of a time machine sent from the future. He figures out how to use it, and travels back to the time it was sent, 90,000 years from the present-day. It’s a world in which some ten percent of the population are telepaths and they are strictly apolitical after two world wars caused by their interference in national affairs. But where Harper ends up is in the last stand-out against a world-state, and they decide to use the time travel technology to change the past and maintain their independence. With Fate Conspire does not make this easy. The narrative jumps about, and does not even mention some of the more important plot elements, and reading the book is a struggle to figure out what’s going on. I don’t have a problem with this, but I suspect present-day editors would. With Fate Conspire is definitely a book a written by an engineer. Happily, I have all five of the series and I brought them with me to Sweden. The next book is titled Morning of Creation. Expect it to appear in a blog post sometime in the next month or so.

Black Mischief, Evelyn Waugh (1932, UK). This was one of a bunch of Evelyn Waugh novels my mother found me in charity shops. In Harrogate. Where they obviously have a somewhat different class of customer to Sheffield. Although, to be fair, it’s a rare charity shop that will keep 1950s Penguin paperbacks on their shelves. And they were pretty tatty copies too. Black Mischief is set in the invented African island-nation of Azania. There are two African language-groups, one native to the island, the other invaders several centuries earlier. Plus Arabs, legations from assorted European nations, churches from the major religions, and a variety of hangers-on and chancers. The current ruler dies and his son, only just down from Oxford, takes the throne. And is determined to drag his country into the twentieth century (the fourth decade of it, at least). Waugh lays out the history of his invented country with impressive clarity. The story then shifts to London and Basil Seal, a character from Waugh’s earlier novels, a dissolute upper class wastrel, who happens to know the new emperor of Azania and fancies getting out of London. So he travels to Azania, hooks up with emperor, and is made Minister of Modernization. He’s in it for what he can get, of course, but he’s out-matched by pretty much everyone else in the country. Had Black Mischief been written a few decades later, it might have aged better. Because it’s horribly racist. It’s not just the language, it’s the treatment of races other than English. Waugh mocks the English quite heavily; and the French too. Especially their legations. But his treatment of the Sakuyu and Wanda relies on racial caricatures, as does his characterisation of Youkoumian, an Armenian Jew. Perversely, the one non-English character who isn’t treated racistly is the new emperor, who comes across as woefully naive, if well-intentioned, and the sort of over-educated naif so beloved of Oxbridge comedies. Not one of Waugh’s best.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134