Well, my reading didn’t speed up as expected, chiefly because I picked up a 700+ novel – the Goss – and then followed it with a novel by Iain Sinclair. And the latter, despite taking on my trip to Iceland, has taken me over a week to finish… but then it’s pretty dense stuff.
European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss (2018, USA). I enjoyed the first book of this series enough to pick up the second book… And, yes, it’s more of the same. Having said that, the central conceit does seem to be wearing a bit thin, and even though Goss has been hard at work roping in all manner of characters from Victorian horror fiction, she’s rung so many changes on them they might as well have been invented by her in the first place. In summary: in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (see here), Mary Jekyll brought about the creation of the Athena Club – Diana Hyde, Justina Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau, Beatrice Rappaccini, plus housekeeper Mrs Poole and maid Alice – while assisting Sherlock Holmes solve a series of murders in Whitechapel… which ended up being linked to Adam Frankenstein (ie, the Monster) and the Society of Alchemists. In this second book, Mary’s old governess, Mina Harker (yes, that Mina Harker), asks for help to rescue Van Helsing’s daughter (yes, that Van Helsing and, er, his daughter) from a Viennese asylum, where she has been incarcerated after an experiment to turn her into a vampire. It’s all because Van Helsing and his cronies want to seize power in the Society of Alchemists – current president: She, AKA Ayesha – because their experiments in transmutation have been banned. The Athena Cub end up fighting Van Helsing et al. With the help of Count Dracula. Who is a good guy. I love the conceit, and Goss handles it marvellously. She drags in Victorian monsters willy-nilly and then gives them a place in the setting which fits perfectly. The way the narrative is interrupted by conversation between the characters, who explicitly refer to the narrative as a narrative – is cleverly done. But. The prose is all so very light and commercial, and at 720 pages this story is too long. Goss can write, I know she can because I’ve read some of her short fiction. But European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman reads like an airport bestseller or a book to read on a train journey. The prose doesn’t try hard at all. I like the characters and I like the story, but this novel could have been so much better. I hope the third book in the series remembers that picking the right words and putting them in the right order is as important as telling the story.
Landor’s Tower, Iain Sinclair (2001, UK). While I’ve been aware of Sinclair and his fiction for many years, I’ve never tried to reading any of it. Until now. And having now read Landor’s Tower… I’m in two minds. It’s good. Very good. And I like Sinclair’s pot pourri approach to using fiction and non-fiction, throwing in real people as characters, mixing up invented characters in real events… He does it really well, and that melange of fact and fiction, well, I’ve always found it a heady mix in book-form. But… Landor’s Tower leaps all over the place, seeming to tell a dozen different unlinked stories at the same time. It is, ostensibly, about a Victorian eccentric who built a monastery in a remote Welsh valley, based on an earlier legend. But the narrator of the book – a novelist and film-maker called Norton, who is a clear stand-in for Sinclair – bounces around the central premise, while ostensibly researching it for a project, through encounters with a variety of characters. Such as Prudence, of Hay on Wye. Who might or might not be the victim of the quarry murder, re-enacted by Karporal, or maybe real. As he was trying to solve the crime. There’s a fevered, almost hallucinatory, tone to the narrative, which makes it hard to navigate the actual story. Parts of it are brilliant – and not just because I recognised the names involved – but because they read like documentary. But then the narrative would make an abrupt swerve and, despite reference to earlier passages, I’d wonder what the fuck was going on. I wanted to like Landor’s Tower – I’m a big fan of the works of both Patrick Keiller and Adam Curtis, and this novel reminded me majorly of both. But. I felt like I was coming in halfway through a series. Had I read more by Sinclair, perhaps reading his works in order, or seen some of his films – because this novel feels like one part of a large cross-platform work – then I suspect I might be a fan. But on its own, Landor’s Tower felt like the wrong introduction to an author’s oeuvre, an author whose work I might well esteem. I need to be serious about reading Sinclair’s novels, or it’s not worth bothering. I have two of his books on my TBR, but I’m going to ditch them and see if I can find a copy of his first novel. Then I will try reading them in order.
Inside Moebius, part 2, Moebius (2018, France). This is volumes three and four of the French release of Inside Moebius, the six volumes of which, for some reason, Dark Horse have decided to publish in English as three books. Personally, I don’t much care if it’s six books or three books, although at least doubling them up makes them a little more substantial. Which is more than can be said for their plots. And it’s especially true in this middle volume. As before, it has two iterations of Moebius wandering about “Desert B” (a pun on désherber, slang for giving up smoking, a desire to do which triggered the Inside Moebius project in the first place), along with a group of Moebius’s characters. There are lots of puns and in-jokes – and Dark Horse helpfully provide a glossary of the puns – but little in the way of plot. But then it’s not like there’s all that much need for plot anyway. Moebius is exploring his creative impulse, and using his characters and iterations of himself to do so. Oh, and bin Laden. The artwork is all over the place, some of it crude, some of it as detailed as any of the work he did, for example, in The Incal. Jean Giraud was clearly a singular talent, and a seminal one in the field of bandes dessinées, and there is good insight into his work in Inside Moebius. Which pretty much means it’s one for fans. Those expecting some sf story will be sorely disappointed.
Case of the Bedevilled Poet, Simon Clark (2017, UK). I think this is the first of the second set of NewCon Press novellas, but I bought all four at once so I’ve not been reading them in order. Not that it makes any difference, as I found the first three I read not very satisfying, and this one unfortunately is much the same. It was also full of typos, and one page completely mixed up the characters’ names. But that’s by the bye. The story is set in London during the Blitz. A man, a minor poet from Yorkshire who now works as a screenwriter for a government-sponsored film unit, a protected occupation, is attacked one night by a soldier on furlough, who threatens him for his supposed cowardice with words that sound more like an eldritch curse. Things start to happen that convince the protagonist he is indeed cursed by something or someone supernatural. Then he stumbles across two old gents in a pub who claim to be Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – their story is they’re real and Conan Doyle only adapted their case histories – and they offer to take on the protagonist’s case. There’s far too much here that doesn’t fit together all that well. Being hunted by some sort of demonic soldier, fine. During the Blitz? Okay, it’s a bit much, but never mind. But then throwing in Holmes and Watson? It’s too much. It weakens a story that was already strong enough on its own. Setting it during the Blitz allows for some good descriptive passages, although it’s not essential for the plot to work; and there’s a bittersweet ending to the Holmes and Watson elements, but I’m not convinced the latter was needed. Unfortunately, this does have the effect of making Case of the Bedevilled Poet feel like a short story padded out to novella length. The fact I’ve found all four of these novellas unsatisfactory is likely chiefly down to the fact it’s not my preferred reading genre. Fans of dark fantasy or horror will probably get much more out of them then I did. But at least they make a nice set.
Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Melissa Scott (1985, USA). This is the first book of the Silence Leigh trilogy, followed in 1986 by Silence in Solitude and in 1987 by The Empress of the Earth. It was later released in a SFBC omnibus edition, The Roads of Heaven. But that’s a pretty naff title for the trilogy, even if it is, well, pretty accurate (it’s also used by the current small press Kindle omnibus). Because in the universe of Five-Twelfths of Heaven, it’s the music of the spheres which allows for interstellar travel. Starship have “harmoniums” (harmonia?) and it is the music they make which drives starships into orbit and pushes them into “purgatory” (ie, hyperspace) at velocities measured in “twelfths of heaven”. Most starships travel at a sixth of heaven, so five-twelfths of heaven is pretty quick. It’s also the speed of the ship, Sun-Treader, whose crew pilot Silence reluctantly joins when she finds herself trapped on a world of the Hegemon after her grandfather dies. Because her grandfather owned the starship she piloted, but her uncle had done a deal with a local merchant so the ship would need to be sold to cover grandfather’s debts and, as a woman, Silence has no legal standing… But Captain Balthasar of Sun-Treader agrees to act as her representative in probate court, and offers her a job afterwards. He needs a female pilot – and female pilots are very rare – because his engineer has fake papers, but if Silence enters into a marriage of convenience with the two of them they can get him proper papers. Polygamy, apparently, is okay, but not same-sex marriage. Silence agrees. Things go reasonably well, but then Balthasar is called to a captains’ meeting of Wrath-of-God, a major pirate combine, and it’s war against the Hegemon. But the attack fails, and Silence and her two husbands are captured by Hegemon forces, and put under geas. Except Silence manages somehow to break the geas – it seems she could well be a magus. And… well, spoilers. Obviously, the main draw of Five-Twelfths of Heaven is the mix of science fiction and magic. It’s cleverly done. FTL is itself a metaphor, and Scott recognises this and chooses to use a metaphor typically not associated with sf instead. It works because she maintains rigour, her magic system has as many rules, and operates as logically, as some made-up “scientific” FTL drive would. Instead of computers churning out numbers, her pilots have to memorise Tarot-like symbolic diagrams. Instead of laws of physics, she writes about notes and chords and dissonances. Different words for the same things. And a good example why you can’t use tropes to differentiate between science fiction and fantasy. If I’d discovered Scott back in the 1980s, I think it likely she’d have become a writer whose work I sought out. She certainly is now. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy.
Irontown Blues, John Varley (2018, USA). Back in the early 1980s, Varley was one of my favourite science fiction writers, and I eagerly tracked down and read everything by him I could find. When he returned to his Eight Worlds universe in 1992 with Steel Beach, I was glad; and then again in 1998 with The Golden Globe… Although neither of those two books stacked up against The Ophiuchi Hotline or the many stories set in the Eight Worlds Varley had written previously. Rumours of another book, titled Irontown Blues, had been around for years, but it was only in, I think, 2016 that Varley confessed he was finally going to write it. I mean, you don’t want writers to keep on churning out the same thing over and over again, yet another volume in some interminable series – except, of course, when you do, such as EC Tubb’s Dumarest series (I’m sure everyone has their own favourite)… But it’s not like Varley over-stayed his welcome in the Eight Worlds, only four actual novels set there and each was standalone… To be honest, the other stuff wasn’t always as satisfactory – the Gaea trilogy, yes; but his Thunder and Lightning YA quartet was underwhelming. (Having said that, I do really like Millennium, the novelisation of the film of his short story ‘Air Raid’ (which was originally published under a pseudonym).) Anyway, Irontown Blues is… a cheat. Varley cheerfully confessed to retconning his Eight world universe in Steel Beach, and presented it more as a feature than a bug. And in Irontown Blues, the protagonist is Christopher Bach, offspring of Anna-Louise Bach, who is the protagonist of a bunch of stories set on Luna but not actually part of the Eight Worlds setting. At least, not until now. Bach (Christopher, that is) is a private detective with a love of 1940s noir – so much so, he acts the part and even lives in a suburb tricked out to resemble a noir version of a 1940s US city. His local diner is called the Nighthawks Diner. (But then Varley ruins it by naming his scumbag informant Hopper. Sigh.) Irontown Blues opens, as any story of its type would do, with a woman entering Bach’s office. She tells him she has been deliberately infected with a virulent form of leprosy, a heinous act in a society in which diseases are sometimes fads but are never infectious. Bach is tasked with discovering who infected the woman with “para-leprosy”. He doesn’t trust her, of course, and his attempts to find out who she really is take up half the story. When he does finally track her down, he’s kidnapped and kept prisoner. Before his kidnap, however, there’s a long flashback to the Big Glitch and the attack on the Heinleiners – the events of Steel Beach. Bach was involved and nearly died. The flashback is the reason for, well, the plot of Irontown Blues. And it’s all a bit weak, to be honest. Despite the resolution. Bach, however, is not the only narrator of Irontown Blues. The narrative is also split with his dog, a “Cybernetically Enhanced Canine” bloodhound called Sherlock. These sections are written in simplistic prose, with a deliberately simplistic attempt at humour. I freely admit I’m not a dog person, but even so these sections really didn’t work for me. I mean, there’s something old-fashioned – not, unfortunately, 1940s old-fashioned as Varley probably intended, but more 1970s original Eight Worlds stories old-fashioned – about Bach’s narrative; but Sherlock’s narrative does nothing to give the novel a twenty-first century feel. I admit that much of Varley’s appeal is nostalgia – I loved his work back when I was first exploring science fiction – so perhaps the most disappointing thing about Irontown Blues is that it doesn’t seem to be much of a progression from those earlier works. It could have been written by Varley thirty years ago. Varley has always been a resolutely commercial writer, much like his inspiration Heinlein, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do things better as the years pass – and Slow Apocalypse certainly proves he can – but there’s no evidence of that in Irontown Blues. There are some changes in order to update the setting, or to tie the Eight Worlds Luna and Anna-Louise Bach Luna together… But I’d hoped for something, well, a bit more clever, something with a bit more bang in its payload. And Irontown Blues is not that book. One for fans.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131