You know that thing where you accidentally scheduled a post, even though you hadn’t finished writing it? I seem to have done that with this Reading diary, which is why it briefly appeared a couple of weeks ago. And then I sort of forgot to go back to it and finish it off, so the blog went into an unplanned hiatus for a few weeks. I think after two months of working from home, it’s starting to wear me down. I’m looking forward to getting back into the office.
The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK). Well, this didn’t go where I where I expected it to. Adam Roberts is an excellent person, and probably the best genre critic currently active in the UK, and while he writes enormously clever science fiction it is not always to my taste. But The Real-Town Murders has a heroine called Alma and is all about Hitchcock, and I’ve been a huge Hitchcock fan for many, many years, so this was a book I wanted to read. And yes, it starts out like a locked-room mystery, not that Hitchcock made many locked-room mysteries – maybe in Alfred Hitchcock Presents?- but The Real-Town Murders then goes off down a completely different path, which resulted in a very different novel to what I had been expecting to read. Alma is a private detective in a UK where most of the population live in a virtual world and rarely experience “the Real”. A bit like now, I expect. Except for the virtual world. She is called in to solve how a dead body appeared in the boot of a car at an automated factory even though there is complete footage of the car being made and at no time could a body have been placed in it. Alma is led to believe this may have been accomplished by teleportation. And if teleportation were real, then people might start returning to the Real because travel will have become as trivial there as it is in the virtual world. Except, it’s not teleportation (the solution is not hard to figure out, to be honest). And Alma finds herself being harassed by various arms of the government’s security services, which jeopardises the life of her partner, who had been infected with a hacked disease linked to Alma’s DNA and only Alma can prepare a a treatment when the disease threatens to kill her partner every four hours or so. So, not really a murder-mystery. And the plot makes so many swerves, despite being essentially a fugitive story, that at times it’s in danger of burying its ideas. Nonetheless, I liked it. There is apparently a sequel.
A Very British History, Paul J McAuley (2013, UK). It’s almost certainly the case McAuley is one of the best hard sf writers the UK has produced, and yet I find it difficult to connect with his fiction. He should be a favourite author, he writes precisely down the line I appreciate most in the genre. But many of his novels have left me cold, and I can’t work out quite why I finish his books more annoyed than satisfied. This collection, which was, and still is, free on Kindle, although I’d apparently bought the signed limited edition when it was launched at an Eastercon, which is of course currently in storage, the book that is, was I thought a perfect way to explore McAuley’s fiction and perhaps understand why I didn’t connect with it. A Very British History is subtitled “The best science fiction stories of Paul McAuley, 1985 – 2012, so it’s an excellent career retrospective. And the one thing the collection really displays is that McAuley writes to market. Perhaps that’s too severe a way to describe it. It’s more that he writes the sort of science fiction, mostly of the hard variety, that is fashionable at the time of writing. He cuts his cloth to suit what seems to be the “in” thing. He writes with a distinctive voice, and his prose is never less than good, but in the space of half a dozen stories, or novels, his readers can be bounced from far future sf set aboard a vast unimaginably old artefact to neoliberal capitalism in near-future space to cyberpunk-recast-as-fairytale. The reason I don’t connect with McAuley’s fiction, it seems, is because I can’t determine an identity behind it. It sounds like the harshest of criticisms, and I apologise, but it’s not. If you read three unrelated McAuley novels in a row, it would be like reading three novels by three different – but similar – authors in a row. It’s a good trick, and it has resulted in some excellent science fiction, but it doesn’t work for me. One thing notable about the stories in this collection, a consequence of the twenty-six years they cover, is that while some of the sensibilities embedded in them have not aged well (although better than many of McAuley’s contemporaries), the science fiction in the stories has remained timeless. McAuley has been praised throughout his career for ideas and his ability to present them, and it’s true they’re a major factor in the appeal of his fiction. But that lack of consistency of identity behind his work has always proven a stumbling block for me.
Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK). Adams is best-known for Watership Down, an excellent novel about rabbits. Two years after that book’s massive success, he published a… straight-up fantasy novel. It wasn’t published as such, of course. If anything, Penguin tried hard to pretend Adams had pretty much invented fantasy with their marketing for the novel. But Shardik is set in an invented land, at a technology level not far above Bronze Age, and is about a giant bear considered to be a god, or an avatar of a god, by a race of people. So it’s basically a fantasy novel. It just happens to be better written than is typical for genre fiction. The title refers to an ancient god of the Ortelgans, personified as a giant bear, who was kept on an island inhabited by priestesses. But the empire fell, the capital Bekla was conquered, and a new empire rose in its place. Shardik died and did not reappear. Generations later, a giant bear appears on the island the Ortelgans, now simple hunter folk, settled on after the fall of their empire. And they see it as the second coming of their god, and use it to take back Bekla and re-establish their empire. But they are not the people they once were. The novel mostly concerns Kelderek, the hunter who discovers Shardik, becomes his priest, and then the priest-king of Bekla. But it’s an empire doomed to failure, and Shardik escapes after an attempt on its life. Kelderek goes after him, and the two travel about the country – there’s a handy map, of course – both sinking further and further from what they were as the book progresses. Kelderek encounters enemies he made while priest-king, and evil people he helped create. It’s all a bit grim, and Adams has this weird trick of referencing culture that would be known to a well-educated Brit in the 1970s, which does sort of kill the immersion. You do not, after all, except to see a mention of Shakespeare in a secondary-world fantasy novel. I suspect I wanted to like Shardik more than I did. It felt like it didn’t try hard enough to be a fantasy, even though the world-building was generally good. The quality of the prose, however, was a definite bonus.
The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK). I read The Green Man’s Heir last year and enjoyed it very much. To be honest, I’d been wanting to read some of McKenna’s fantasy for many years but had never got around to it. The Green Man’s Heir was on offer at the time I bought it, and while I’m no fan of urban fantasy I’d certainly enjoyed its Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders story. The book proved successful enough to warrant a sequel (which has been nominated for the BSFA Award, but lost out to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, which is also a sequel, as indeed was every book on the shortlist.). In an afterword, McKenna writes that The Green Man’s Foe had originally been a completely unrelated story, but had never been finished. But the story proved ideal as a sequel for The Green Man’s Heir, so she rewrote it as such. In this novel, carpenter and son of a dryad Daniel Mackmain is asked to project manage the conversion of an old mansion into a boutique hotel – because there is something weird going on in the attached woodland, and it may be tied in with the house’s history and its link to early twentieth-century British occultism. McKenna introduces a cast of believable and appealing characters, and lets her mystery develop over the length of the novel. There are some odd tonal changes as the story develops – is it a ghost story, an occult story, or does it all plug into the mythology developed in the first book? The answer is, well, all three, and the three aspects at times interfere with each other. It’s also much more Midsomar than the first book, although that is almost certainly a consequence of its location, a Cotswold village. And at times it felt a bit like a British detective series from the 1980s. But they’re minor quibbles. This is entertaining stuff, put together by someone who knows what they’re doing. The cast are likeable, the mythology works, and it all feels like a series with legs. More, please.
Billie’s Kiss, Elizabeth Knox (2002, New Zealand). I think this was on offer, but I’m not entirely sure what it was about the blurb which persuaded me to buy the book and read it. Something about “an Edwardian twist on The Tempest”, and a feeling the novel was sort of magical realism set some 100 years ago in the Shetlands. I knew nothing about the author, or even her most famous book, The Vinter’s Luck. Having now read Billie’s Kiss I can say many of the things its blurb promised it is not, although that does not make it a bad novel. Billie lives with her sister and brother-in-law. She is illiterate (actually dyslexic), a bit of a free spirit, and has been unable to find a situation of her own. Her brother-in-law is hired by a soap magnate, Lord Hallowhulme, who owns one of the Shetland islands, to catalogue the book collection in his castle there. Billie accompanies the couple. As the ferry approaches the island’s jetty, something in the hold explodes and the ship sinks, filling fifteen people. The magnate’s brother-in-law, Murdo Hesketh, a half-Swede who had served with the army in Stockholm but now works on the island, decides to investigate. This is by no means a murder-mystery. It’s the story of the Hallowhulme and Hesketh families, and the story of Billie, an innocent who gets caught up in pretty much everything that’s going on. It’s not an easy plot to summarise, and probably not worth the effort of doing so. Despite not being the book I was expecting it to be, I enjoyed Billie’s Kiss. The prose was generally good, if a little over-wrought in places, as indeed were some of the characters, and one or two of them tended a little toward pantomime. But it handled its time and place well, and Billie proved an interesting protagonist. Worth reading.