May 19 2019

Hitler’s Empire by Mark Mazower

In Hitler’s Empire Mark Mazower, a professor of history at Columbia University, describes how Nazi Germany ruled most of the rest of Europe. Briefly, Nazi rule was both incompetent and inhumane. In that sense, Mazower’s book does not break much new ground. Instead, it takes on several other interesting tasks. It situates Nazism “as an extreme version of a common modern European phenomenon — nationalism.” (p. 9) It notes Axis allies “like Italy, Hungary and Romania that had fought alongside Hitler and run parallel occupations of their own. The Croats and Slovaks had acquired their own states, Bulgaria had swallowed up neighbours’ lands, and Hungary regained much of the territory it had lost in 1918.” (p. 8) Opportunism was not limited to Europe’s eastern parts. “Europeans fell into line and contributed what [the German occupiers] demanded anyway. After 1945, this was conveniently forgotten. … Berlin’s dealings with cooperative businessmen and civil servants in western and central Europe went unmentioned. So did the fact that thousands of unemployed French, Dutch, Croatian, Spanish and Italian workers had volunteered to work in factories in the Reich before the slave labour programme came in.” (p. 8) He also takes issue with the idea of totalitarianism as the best lens for examining Nazism. Mazower says that there are some things that “the totalitarian paradigm” gets right, notably Hitler’s prime importance to how the Reich was run. He says that the paradigm misses complexity within Germany itself, that “Germans, on the whole, did not have to be coerced into fighting, and even in the final days there was no wholesale collapse as there had been in 1918.” (p. 10)

The most important thing to consider about Nazism, he writes, is the war. “Above all, there is a real problem with discussions of National Socialism that fail to take into account the catalytic impact of the war itself. Nothing perhaps illustrates the point better than the evolving terror apparatus. In September 1939, the six main concentration camps in the Reich housed a mere 21,400 prisoners between them; by the start of 1945 the system had metastasized into an enormous and appallingly run network of camps containing more than 700,000. There was, in short, no single system of terror that sprang fully formed from Hitler’s brow. It was the policing of conquered territory in the East that allowed the SS to make its dizzying ascent until it became the most feared organization in occupied Europe. It was the war that completely altered the position of the Führer himself, allowing him to trample over what was left of judicial discretion in Germany and making him simultaneously more remote and less constrained. It took only a few months, in the winter of 1941–2, for the Nazis to allow more than two million Soviet POWs to die in crowded camps, unseen and largely unrecorded. It took only three years — 1941 to 1944 – for them to invent and build extermination camps, kill over five million Jews and press-gang more than six million Europeans to work in the Reich. None of these things had happened – or even been contemplated – before the war broke out.” (p. 11)

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May 18 2019

Barbarossa by Alan Clark

So I asked the friend whose copy of Barbarossa I had acquired what the virtues were of an account published in 1965. He replied that Clark wrote clearly and was particularly good on the politicking among the German generals, and between the German high command and the leaders in the field.

Barbarossa by Alan Clark

Thus encouraged, I picked up the book, but I have set it down now that the author has reached the end of 1941, and I do not think I am likely to pick it up again. The main reason is that I have read a lot of German, Russian, and East European history by now, and I am not learning enough that is new to hold my interest. As a description of the German invasion of Russia, it’s perfectly serviceable for someone new to the subject. Even then, though, I would be hesitant to recommend Clark’s book for the simple reason that much more is known about the subject now than in the mid-1960s when Clark was writing. Roughly twenty years after the German surrender, when Clark was writing, Soviet archives were entirely closed to Western researchers. One of the reasons that Clark is good on German infighting — and he is, my friend was right — is that he had sources to draw on, whereas there was far more guesswork about Soviet actions and motivations.

Other things have also become known. Clark writes, “The third source from which the [Soviet high command] derived information concerning its enemy’s plans was its Swiss agent ‘Lucy.’ Lucy’s identity has never been established, but his—or her—importance was crucial.” (p. 151) In the intervening time, Lucy’s identity has been established, although as with any good spy story, some things remain uncertain even at this great remove. Nevertheless, historical scholarship has advanced quite a bit in the last half century, and Clark is not such a great stylist that I would recommend him over a more recent account, nor is his book so foundational as to be important for understanding the historiography.

In short, if the subject were mostly unknown to me, I would seek out a more recent history, one that can draw on Soviet records as well as sources about German actions. For my personal tastes, I would also seek out one that is more than just accounts of which units went where, with what intentions and what results. The subjects thought suitable for history have also expanded considerably since 1965, and that is much to the good. Ivan’s War, by Catherine Merridale, is an extraordinary account of how Soviet soldiers experienced the Eastern Front, just an amazing book. From some of Clark’s asides, I am not sure he would have considered Ivan’s War proper history, but then I recall that he was just a twentysomething when he wrote Barbarossa, and an Etonian at that. His Barbarossa does what it says on the tin, but it’s been superseded.

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May 14 2019

An Interview with Tim Major, author of Snakeskins

Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did Snakeskins evolve?

A. As far back as 2015 I wrote the idea in my notebook, after learning that during a seven-year period, every cell in the human body is replaced. I loved the idea that instead of happening gradually, this process might occur at a single moment – and that the old skin would be shed like a snake’s skin. I’m pretty sure that the additional complication was included in that original idea – that the Snakeskin would be alive, and sentient. I wrote a short story about a teenage girl experiencing her first shedding. It was pretty good, I think, but I was immediately aware that I wasn’t doing the idea justice – and that there was a novel’s worth of extra material to explore. The teenage girl remained my central storyline, but I also decided to imagine the effect of this miraculous power on the members of society who didn’t have the ability to shed their skins and rejuvenate in the process. Teenager Caitlin’s story is primarily about her grappling with her identity, but a lot of the novel is also concerned with the idea of privilege, and unequal societies.

Q. I loved the many dense contemporary topics that Snakeskins grapples with: from themes of identity and humanity to the costs of isolationism and the centralization of political power. Which real-world social and political issues did you have in mind when you were writing this novel, if any?

A. Ha! I should have read the questions before I started answering them, because in my last answer I was reaching for the same concept that you’ve stated very eloquently. As I say, the idea of grappling with your identity was the starting point. I have a particular irrational fear – though I think it’s very similar to a fear most people have. The fear is that somebody else might do a better job of being me. Is that really weird? Partly, it’s about my anxiety about not using all of the opportunities I’ve been given and the potential I may have, but it’s also a worry about not living life to the full. I’ve always been fascinated by doppelgänger stories, and I think the idea of facing an exact duplicate of oneself is horrific – but what if that person also shared all of your memories and talents? How would you decide who was the more valid human?

As for the societal issues… I wrote the first draft of the novel before the EU referendum which kickstarted the Brexit process – but while Brexit wasn’t a starting point for the idea of an isolated Britain, you can be sure that the tone of politics in the UK fed into later drafts of the novel. Trump, too, of course – his brand of nationalism and isolationism was an almost equal influence. I don’t think it’s too controversial, or too much of a spoiler, to say that I’m not a fan of either Trump or Brexit. In Snakeskins, Britain’s response to families being gifted Charmer powers is to cut itself off from the rest of the world to protect its special status, and the Great British Prosperity Party ends up running the country for generations – its corruption provides the novel with its political-thriller plotline.

Q. Do you write with any particular audience in mind? Are there any particular audiences you hope will connect with this story?

A. It’s a tricky novel to define absolutely in genre terms. While I consider Snakeskins to be a speculative novel, the process of sheddings might as well be magic, given that none of the characters understand it to any degree – so I suppose weird fiction, or even urban fantasy would be appropriate enough labels… There are three point of view characters, but undoubtedly the central one is a 17-year-old girl, whose storyline is essentially about determining her character as she enters adulthood, so I’d understand if people felt there was a YA element to the book too.

Good grief, that’s a woolly answer, isn’t it? The book is a strange beast. If I’m honest, I’m hopeful that there are no particular audiences who will find any obstacles to enjoying the novel.

Q. I very much enjoyed following Caitlin Hext’s journey, chuckling aloud at your line “Caitlin only had herself to blame for being so insufferable.” A lot of your long-form fiction has to do with teenagers or other people on the cusp of maturity being forced to grow up. It could be argued that the Britain of Snakeskins is being forced to grow up, too. Is this a topic you’re drawn to, and why do you think that is, if so?

A. That’s a good point. My previous book, Machineries of Mercy, was a YA novel, about young offenders being imprisoned in a virtual reality world designed to appear like a quaint English village – so there was always going to be a coming-of-age element to that. But you’re right – my first novella, Carus & Mitch, is about a teen girl and her younger sister living in total isolation, and Blighters is about an adult woman who behaves like a teen and who is forced to mature (then again, it’s also about giant alien slugs). I started writing when my wife and I were expecting our first child, so perhaps because of that timing a lot of my work relates to families – and I think it’s fair to say that children becoming adults is one of the big crisis moments in any family.

The idea that Britain itself is being forced to grow up is very interesting! I’ll have to go away and have a think about that, but I’m sure you’re onto something. The Britain of Snakeskins has lost in way in terms of openness and inclusion – issues that certainly apply to the real world too. So if Britain in the novel is on the cusp of growing up, it’d be nice to think that Britain in the real world might be about to do so, too.

Q. What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!” If I guessed John Wyndham’s Day Of The Triffids would I be very far off?

A. Impressive! You wouldn’t be far off at all. The Day of the Triffids was my gateway to adult SF, and the biggest influence on the type of SF I write (high-concept, very British, cosy catastrophes). But I had the ambition of being a writer before that point. When I was about seven years old my mum won an electronic typewriter in a short story competition. She lent it to me, and I would write my own stories, but more often I would simply type out my favourite stories from published books – I was in love with the act of writing before I even had big ideas for my own stories. But in particular, it was reading and collecting classic-series Doctor Who novelisations that turned me from a reader to a bibliophile, and I remember announcing that one day I’d write a Doctor Who novel of my own. It hasn’t happened yet, though!

Q. How did you learn to write?

A. In 2012 I heard about NaNoWriMo, the internet community in which people try to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel during the month of November. I was eager to have a go – writing a novel was my specific ambition, rather than publishing one, so this seemed a good way of blasting through and ticking the task off my list – but I couldn’t wait, so I did it alone in February of that year. It wasn’t a good novel at all. I had another try in November of the same year. Still not a good novel, but I honestly didn’t mind, because I was learning a huge amount about the business of writing – things I’d never even considered as a reader, such as how to identify viewpoint characters, where to ‘point the camera’, how to condense dull-but-necessary sequences and alter pacing to emphasise action or suspense…

Q. Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen? Does your work as an editor help or hinder your own creative process?

A. I don’t have any particular regimen in any sense. I have two young sons (aged 2 and 5) and while they now usually sleep through the night, so I have my brain back a little, my life is still geared around their needs, and my wife and I share childcare duties. So I work part-time, and my writing has to be carved out of that time. Generally, I manage about 10 hours per week, but I rarely manage to write every day. I don’t think it’s as important as some people make out.

I love my day-job work as an editor but I’m not sure it feeds into my own writing, although the fact that I’m freelance means that I can switch between writing and work very easily, as I remain sitting at the same desk in both cases! Far more important is what I read for pleasure, which has a big influence on whatever I’m writing at that point.

Q. Are you a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter?

A. A plotter, and more and more so. I was fairly freeform in my early novels, but all that really meant is that I plotted in detail during later drafts. I seem to remember that my first published novel went through eight drafts. Nowadays I write very detailed synopses, scene by scene. I feel perfectly able to veer away from the plan when I’m writing, though!

Q. What can you tell us about your next project?

A. In terms of publications, the next book will be And the House Lights Dim, my first short story collection, which will be published in July 2019. I’ve just delivered the manuscript of my next novel to Titan Books, which is due to be published in May 2020. It’s called Hope Island, and it features a remote island, creepy children, a cavern full of ethereal song, and dead bodies. Quite a lot of dead bodies. Also, I’ve just put the finishing touches to an SF novella, a detective story set on Mars. I’m very excited about my next next novel, which is shaping up to be bigger and weirder than any so far.

Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. I’ve just finished Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which I’d been meaning to read for ages, and which was selected by an SF book club of which I’m a member. This morning I started reading We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the 1924 Russian dystopian novel which was the precursor to Brave New World and 1984.

Q. Are there any new books or authors in weird fiction that have you excited?

A. Yes! Helen Marshall’s recent novel The Migration is, I think, close to perfect. Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives are two of my favourite modern novellas. Naomi Booth’s Sealed is horrific and compelling. Tade Thompson’s The Murders of Molly Southbourne is punchy and has an amazing central concept. Malcolm Devlin’s collection You Will Grow Into Them and Marian Womack’s collection Lost Objects are both subtle and sharp. All of the authors with stories in Dan Coxon’s anthology This Dreaming Isle are terrific.

Q. What made you choose weird fiction as your primary means of expression?

A. I suppose you’re right that weird fiction is my primary means of expression – even though Snakeskins is touted as an SF thriller, there’s definitely weirdness at its heart. My short stories are mostly very weird. I guess I feel that weirdness is a valid way to explore the world, or at least the way I experience the world. Families are weird, when you look at them close enough. Society is weird. Life is weird.

Q. Tell us why you love your book!

A. Oh! I tell you what, at this moment I feel like the book is a child I need to protect, now that it’s suddenly thrust out into the world. So when I think about what I love about it, I feel immediately defensive! Let me take a breath before I answer… I love the characters, first and foremost – I wish I were as headstrong as Caitlin, as dogged as Gerry, as capable of change as Russell – though part of their appeal is that they’re all terribly flawed, and I’ve always rooted for underdogs. I love the two Hext family shedding sequences, the strangeness combined with family bickering – they stick in my mind even though I haven’t read the novel myself for a while. More than anything, I think I like the tone of the novel and the dialogue. I’ve always intended to write about big ideas in a down-to-earth manner, and I think Snakeskins achieves that. I’m proud of it, I really am.


Tim Major’s love of speculative fiction is the product of a childhood diet of classic Doctor Who episodes and an early encounter with Triffids. Tim’s novel about spontaneous clones, Snakeskins, was published by Titan Books in May 2019, with a short story collection, And the House Lights Dim, to follow. Previous books include Machineries of Mercy, You Don’t Belong Here and a non-fiction book about the 1915 silent crime film, Les Vampires. His short stories have appeared in Interzone and Shoreline of Infinity and have been selected for Best of British Science Fiction and The Best Horror of the Year.

Visit his website at Cosy Catastrophes.

Doreen’s review of Snakeskins may be found here.


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May 13 2019

Acceptance (Southern Reach #3) by Jeff VanderMeer

Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to do a competent review of this book without spoilers, so you’ve been warned, dear reader, spoilers abound ahead!

The third book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is by far the weirdest. Whereas Annihilation was a love story in a creepy sci-fi expedition setting, and Authority was a gothic horror of bureaucracy at the edge of the unknown, Acceptance is a sort of explanation of how Area X came to be and where it might be going next, as told through the viewpoints of the Director, Ghost Bird, Control and the Lighthouse Keeper, Saul. It’s a heavily metaphysical look at science fiction, done in such a way that I finally get some of the choices made for the dreadful movie adaptation of the first in series.

Basically, it’s aliens. But aliens so much smarter and more technologically advanced that everything we experience in Area X is difficult for us with our tiny human minds to quantify. Mr VanderMeer tries to capture that sense of incapacity with references to brightnesses and music and quasi-religious ecstasies that are then juxtaposed with scenes of monstrosity and horror. It works only inasmuch as anything doomed to failure can work. He conveys the indescribability of it all by not being able to adequately describe it all.

A lot of readers will dig that kind of thing; I’m not 100% certain that I did. One thing I’ve learned about his writing, tho, is that it tends to grow in the imagination long after you’ve put the books down. So I can’t say that I didn’t like the book, or even rate it as less than good, but it felt as if it was constantly verging on narrative collapse simply because we’re not meant to understand what’s happening. Props to Mr Vandermeer for making the attempt, but it was less entertaining for me as a novel than as a thought experiment with a narrative structure.

Laura is even more scathing in her review of the series here.

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May 11 2019

The Traitor Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade #1) by Seth Dickinson

Ngl, you’re either going to have to love economics or be okay with reading a lot about economics in order to enjoy this book.

It’s essentially the tale of a socially rigid imperialism that sweeps up native peoples and cultures and crushes them under the guise of advancement and, ugh, social hygiene. Baru Cormorant is a young girl on the island nation of Taranoke, living with her beloved huntress mother, smith father and warrior father, when the Masquerade, as the Imperial Republic is known, shows up to take over. As a bright child, Baru is taken to one of the Masquerade’s schools to be educated not only in the arts and sciences but also in the “correct” forms of thought and conduct. Upon her graduation, she is appointed as Imperial Accountant to the fractious land of Aurdwynn, a conglomeration of rival duchies under the administration of the Masquerade’s appointed Governor, the genial Cattlson, and Jurispotence, the zealot Xate Yawa.

Baru is disappointed by this posting: she had hoped to make her way to the capital in Faircrest, to worm her way into the machineries of conquest and somehow save her homeland from its assimilation into and further exploitation by the Masquerade. But she soon discovers that her position is not one without power, and that her many skills may soon come to play in affecting this unruly land. When an agent of the Masquerade’s Faceless Throne approaches her with an opportunity to get her life’s ambitions back on track, she sets in motion a rebellion that will change the very face of a land that will rise to call her queen.

This was a truly messed up book about infiltrating the enemy and learning how to be ruthless in pursuit of the greater good that really examines the bargains we all make as political entities. There are long, daunting passages on the economics of warfare, and uncomfortable looks at the benefits of empire versus the cruelty of the imperialist. This is a fantasy novel that looks past the broad strokes of history and into the bureaucratic details that culminate in victory: it’s a challenging read but ultimately one that is worthwhile.

In all honesty, I wasn’t sure if I would like this book while I was reading it, but immediately upon finishing I went looking for the sequel. It’s a thoughtful book about morality and governance centered around a lesbian (or tribadist, as it’s called in the book, there never having been a Lesbos in this universe) savant who must wrap herself in layers and layers of denial to achieve her aims. It’s a damning critique of imperialism and the use of war as a means to an end, and a stunningly original take on your standard tale of fantasy rebellion.

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May 08 2019

Snakeskins by Tim Major

One of my favorite things about this book is Caitlin Hext, one of our main characters, whose emotional journey as an insufferable adolescent thrust into dealing with the seemingly impossible causes her to perpetrate reckless acts in order to do good and, eventually, to realize how she used to be and how she’s growing as a person. It’s weird: I read a lot of YA, yet this adult SF novel is by far one of the most convincing portrayals of burgeoning maturity I’ve ever read.

Perhaps a lot of that has to do with the central conceit of the novel: there are, among us — or among the British, I should say — a breed of people who shed their skins every seven years or so starting from the age of 17. Generally, this is done in a private ceremony to honor the old skin before it dissipates as ash and stardust, tho a government official is usually sent to make an official recording of the event. With each shedding, each of these people, called Charmers, regains peak physical health, and seemingly sheds the least healthy of their mental and emotional preoccupations with the ashing of their former skin. Caitlin is one of the last of the Hext line, and thinks she knows everything she needs to about the process as her 17th birthday approaches. But when her shed skin not only doesn’t disintegrate but is swiftly spirited away by the government, Caitlin finds herself at the center of a far-reaching conspiracy that goes back centuries.

Parallel to Caitlin’s story are those of Gerry Chafik, an investigative reporter with a fixation on Charmers, and Russell Handler, a political aide whose desire to ascend the party ranks is soon eclipsed by his desire for his employer’s wife. Tim Major expertly weaves their stories together into a compelling sci-fi narrative that looks at cloning and rejuvenation and the potential implications of such on a country’s political development. It’s a remarkably thoughtful consideration of identity and humanity, as the best sci-fi thrillers invariably are. And while it’s a fairly tidy novel, I still felt it might have been expanded… well, perhaps that’s not the word. There were bits of plot thread that I felt could have been woven more tightly into the overall tapestry — like I get that it’s not that important to know what happened to Ayo after he went back for Dodie, but I’d still like to know — so while this novel stands alone quite well on its own, I wouldn’t mind reading further explorations of the setting in future novels.

Our interview with Mr Major himself will be out on the 14th! Meanwhile, check out some of the other stops on the Snakeskins blog tour in our handy-dandy graphic on the right .

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May 02 2019

The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy #2) by S.A. Chakraborty

God, this is one of those books that you know, logically, you should wait to read till the entire series comes out but you can’t help yourself, it’s so freaking good! The main problem with not waiting is that this is a densely populated, highly political series, so it’s easy to lose track of characters and titles and even events, especially if you’re bad at remembering minutiae like I am. It is rather an Islamic fantasy version of A Game Of Thrones in that respect, and as with that other series, I spent a good amount of time looking things up on the Internet that I’d absolutely forgotten from preceding books (and thank you to all those who toil to update such websites for less retentive readers like myself.)

As to The Kingdom Of Copper itself! Once I finally felt that I was comfortably immersed in the setting again, it just flew along, as Nahri builds a life as the Banu Nahida, primary healer and theoretical leader of the Daeva tribe based in the City Of Brass, Daevabad itself. Married to the hedonistic Crown Prince Muntadhir of the city’s ruling Geziri tribe, in a political alliance meant to consolidate the power of the ruthless King Ghassan, Nahri spends her days healing the djinn of the city, regardless of tribe — exhausting work considering she has only the one infirmary and herself. When she discovers the ruins of a Nahid hospital in the city, she begins to make plans to not only expand her medical offices but also to recruit more healers, magical or otherwise. Her disregard of her team’s ancestry will quickly spark consternation and worse.

Meanwhile, Prince Ali, Muntadhir’s good-hearted but annoyingly self-righteous younger brother, is in exile in Am Gezira, narrowly escaping assassins but discovering hidden wells of power. And the powerful djinn he destroyed in the first book, Darayavahoush, the last of the Afshin and beloved protector of Nahri, may not be as dead as previously advertised.

There are plots and magic and warfare aplenty as factions vie for power in Daevabad, swinging the influence of entire tribes to further their own aims, no matter how selfish or destructive. Nahri, Muntadhir and Ali are all good, flawed people trying their best to protect their city and its inhabitants even as others are happy to sacrifice the lives of innocents for power and, even more disgustingly, racial purity. I already cared deeply for these characters from The City Of Brass, and my emotions only strengthened with this novel. I mean, I cried buckets during the scene in the palace when Dara finally got his hands on Ali. While I’m not Team Dara (and he’s certainly not the main reason I cried,) I very much appreciate S. A. Chakraborty’s ability to make the bad guy someone whose motivations are both extremely complex and utterly understandable. I still don’t get how he was resurrected tho. If I’m being perfectly honest, the whole ifrit thing confuses me.

Anyway, now I have to wait another year at least to get my hands on the last book in the series and arrrrrrrrggggggggghhhhhhh. I loved that ending, what Nahri decided to do with the ring (and I loved how her street rat side finally got a chance to shine after years of respectable drudgery) and where she and Ali wound up, and oh my heart, Muntadhir! A year waiting for a book has never seemed so long! Is it weird to put Ms Chakraborty in my co-religionist prayers to ease her path towards completing the book? God is probably laughing at me as I type.

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Apr 29 2019

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London introduces Peter Grant, a young policeman in London who is just finishing up and undistinguished starting round of assignments when he is asked to stand guard at a pre-dawn murder site and thing go, as they say, a bit sideways. “Sometimes I wonder whether, if I’d been the one that went for coffee and not Lesley May, my life would have been much less interesting and certainly much less dangerous. Could it have been anyone, or was it destiny? When I’m considering this I find it helpful to quote the wisdom of my father, who once told me, ‘Who knows why the fuck anything happens?'” (p. 3)

While Lesley is away from the scene, which, just by the by, was a beheading, a man tells Grant that he saw the whole thing. Grant asks him to give an official statement:

“‘That would be a bit of a problem,’ said Nicholas, ‘seeing as I’m dead.’
“I thought I hadn’t heard him correctly. ‘If you’re worried about your safety…’
“‘I ain’t worried about anything any more, squire,’ said Nicholas. ‘On account of having been dead these last hundred and twenty years.’
“‘If you’re dead, I said before I could stop myself, ‘how come we’re talking?’
“‘You must have a touch of the sight,’ said Nicholas. ‘Some of the old Palladino.’ He looked at me closely. ‘Touch of that from your father, maybe? Dockman, was he, sailor, some such thing, he gave you that good curly hair and them lips?’
“‘Can you prove you’re dead?’ I asked.
“‘Whatever you say, squire,’ said Nicholas, and stepped forward into the light.
He was transparent, the way holograms in films are transparent. Three-dimensional, definitely really there and fucking transparent. I could see right through him to the white tent the forensic team had set up to protect the area around the body.
“Right, I thought, just because you’ve gone mad doesn’t mean you should stop acting like a policeman.” (pp. 6–7)

Nicholas describes what he saw, but then vanishes just before Lesley returns with the coffee. “‘Anything happen while I was away?’ she asked. I sipped my coffee. The words — I just talked to a ghost who saw the whole thing — utterly failed to pass my lips.” (p. 9)

A couple of days later, though, with a desk jockey role looming large in Peter’s future while Lesley is being taken on as a detective in the murder unit, those words do pass his lips when he is in conversation with someone else who has been spending hours observing the scene of the crime.

Continue reading

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Apr 28 2019

A Conspiracy of Stars (Faloiv #1) by Olivia A. Cole

I’m a confirmed omnivore, but this book made me seriously sympathize with vegetarianism.

But also, and especially when paired together with Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight Of Our Sky, it has a really good point about decolonization and basic tolerance and respect (tho, that said, I’m a firm believer in socio-economic progress requiring real socio-political representation.) I’m getting ahead of myself, tho. A Conspiracy Of Stars is about a sixteen year-old girl, Octavia Afua English, who’s lived her entire life on the planet Faloiv. Two earlier generations of primarily scientists had fled a dying Earth in search of a new home, but an unfortunate encounter with a meteor crash-landed their vessel on the already inhabited Faloiv. The native Faloii placed certain terms on the new arrivals in exchange for peaceful co-habitation, including vegetarianism and a no-expansion policy, and for most of the humans, that’s just fine. But others disagree and are gaining political power. Octavia spent her whole life wanting to become a scientist like her parents, researching the native fauna for scientific breakthroughs, but circumstances beyond her control will push her into learning far more about her home and herself than she’d ever imagined.

What I liked most about this book was its unblinking look at the way people will justify any cruelty in order to further their own ambitions, regardless of the morality of their actions or even of their own desires. It’s weirdly cathartic to watch from Octavia’s eyes as people whose opinions and intellects she’d trusted prove themselves to be venal even as they pretend that they’re doing things for “the greater good.” Olivia A Cole doesn’t ask you to sympathize with any of them, and that’s so refreshing. Octavia herself is a deeply (but not annoyingly moral) person caught up in a life far different than what she’d expected, but who rises to the occasion with aplomb. I also really enjoyed the interpersonal relationships — friendships, romances or otherwise — as well as the baseline diversity of the book. Ms Cole makes excellent narrative choices that sidestep the tired tropes of too much YA sci-fi.

My only criticism of the writing is that the sense of place occasionally lapses, particularly when Octavia and Rondo or Alma are walking around N’Terra. It’s like “oh, there’s a door/building here!” all of a sudden. It’s a very tiny flaw in an otherwise well-drawn novel, complete with realistic characters and vividly imagined biology. Oh, and I must admit that I’m a little confused by the choice of cover! It’s a surprisingly cold choice for a book about a hot planet teeming with life.

Anyway, go read this book, it’s awesome. And the sequel just came out, too, and oh what, it’s already available from my library click click borrow!

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Apr 27 2019

The Lady of the Lake by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Lady of the Lake brings to a close the extended sequence of novels centering on the Witcher Geralt of Rivera and Ciri the child of destiny, although Sapkowski has written another book of stories, Season of Storms set earlier in Geralt’s personal chronology. The series has its ups and downs: I thought that Baptism of Fire, the third in the set, was “a middle book that does not seem to be aware there is such a thing as a middle-book problem.” On the other hand, the fourth, The Tower of the Swallow, seemed to collect all of the middle-book problems that Sapkowski had hitherto avoided and deliver them in concentrated form. I skimmed a lot of pages.

True to Sapkowski’s confounding of standard Anglo-American epic fantasy, the title of The Lady of the Lake is no sly allusion or crafty hint. The book opens smack in the middle of the Arthurian legend, with Sapkowski’s Ciri drawing a blush and a bit of a flirt from no less a flusterable person than Sir Galahad.

“The fairy burst from the water, for a moment presenting herself to the night in all her alluring splendour. She darted towards the rock where her clothing lay. But rather than seizing a blouse and covering up modestly, the she-elf grabbed a sword and drew it from its scabbard with a hiss, whirling it with admirable dexterity. It lasted but a short moment, after which she sank down, covering herself up to her nose in the water and extending her arm with the sword above the surface.
“The knight shook off his stupefaction, released the reins and genuflected, kneeling on the wet sand. For he realised at once who was before him.
“‘Hail,’ he mumbled, holding out his hands. ‘Great is the honour for me … Great is the accolade, O Lady of the Lake. I shall accept the sword…’
“‘Could you get up from your knees and turn away?’ The fair stuck her mouth above the water. ‘Perhaps you’d stop staring? And let me get dressed'” (p. 3)

Galahad, bless his heart, eventually works out that while he has met an extraordinary lady in a lake, she is not that Lady of the Lake. Ciri, in turn, works out that she is not in any of the worlds that she might have expected to be in, for by the time she reaches this part of her story, she has spent time in several. Readers just arrived from The Tower of the Swallow might presume that Ciri’s escape through the portal in the tower has delivered her to this Arthurian lake, but they would be mistaken. She asks Galahad not to call her Lady of the Lake, and explains why:

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