Osama-Lavie Tidhar

 osama-bookpic

  A man in a robot suit walking down the road, a sign above his head: Half price tickets. ‘There’s no place like home!’ the man shouted.  He stopped by Joe, handed him a leaflet. ‘There’s no place like home, mate. Get a ticket while they’re going.’

  Joe blinked, his vision blurred.  The tin-man walked away.  He’d already forgotten Joe. ‘No place-‘

  ‘Joe?’

  He blinked and opened his eyes.  Madam Seng stood above him.

  ‘You’ve had a bad dream,’ she said.

 

 

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Solaris

Date of Publication: October 9, 2012

Joe is a detective, average and nondescript.  Living in Vientiane, Laos, he spends his mornings drinking coffee in a local café and afternoons reading in his disheveled office, quietly shared by him, a desk, and a gaggle of geckos.  He sits and he reads and he smokes, whiling the time away.

 And then the girl appears, the girl in need of a detective.  She wants to find a man, an author, coincidently, the author of the pulp thriller sitting on Joe’s desk.  The man, who writes about a fictional terrorist, a terrorist whose exploits titillate the reader with his exceptional violence.  She wants him to find the unlikely named Mike Longshott, author of the Osama Bin Laden—Vigilante series, and money is no object.  Then she disappears as if she were never there.

Joe—doing what a detective does—takes the case, commencing a journey that will take him across the world and back, from the banlieues of Paris to the heart of London and then New York,  finally across Asia to Afghanistan and a Kabul that has always been and never was.   Harassed and impeded at every turn by a mysterious group determined to keep Longshott’s anonymity intact, Joe’s pursuit of the pulp author slowly transforms into something altogether different, a search for a truth that once discovered, will slowly unravel his understanding of both reality and his place in it.

Reading a novel by Lavie Tidhar can be a lot like trying to wrestle with smoke.  Reality is reality, until it’s not, as if it simply blew away in the wind.  And that’s why if forced to describe Osama in a word, that word would be “surreall”.   Tidhar’s novel starts innocently enough, at first appearances a traditional boilerplate mystery.  Mysterious woman hires “down on his luck” detective to find equally mysterious writer.  Woman looks familiar, but detective can’t quite place where he’s seen her before.  Detective is given an expense account, begins his search and almost immediately finds himself the target of a nefarious cabal determined to stop him—all very much Mystery 101.

  Or is it?

It quickly becomes obvious that Osama is not your traditional mystery, and as time goes on, Joe’s journey devolves into a schizophrenic dream —a locked room mystery where the room is Joe’s reality, and the mystery is the truth of his existence.  You see, reality is malleable in this Tidhar novel, dependant more on the reader’s point of view than any natural laws.

For instance, the world Joe inhabits is one where Osama Bin Laden is merely a character in a novel.  Al Qaeda, 9-11, the invasion of Iraq and subsequent global jihad—they never happened.  The World Trade Centre is but an architect’s dream, and the world is relatively peaceful.  Yet many people in Joe’s world have glimpsed another, a world where Longshott’s Bin Laden thrillers aren’t merely figments of a frenzied imagination.  As the case deepens, Joe begins to realize he is one of these select few, drawn to this other world like a moth to flame.  The reader is drawn to Joe in much the same way, as one realizes the mystery of Osama has more to do with Joe and Osama than it does the man Joe is trying to track down.  Osama the fictional character is linked to Joe the real detective—but how?

We’re given clues to their connection as Joe comes into contact with others who share this ephemeral bond, refugees, as they’re called.   Who or what are the refugees? Spectres? Transients from another reality? Figments of Joe’s imagination?  There’s a host of possibilities, left up to the reader to decide.  Perhaps Joe and the other refugees are those whose deaths in our world transported them there by the inhumanity of what happened to them.  Perhaps Joe’s reality is merely a construct of a man on his death-bed, unconsciously trying to make sense of what happened to him.  Perhaps it could even be that Joe’s world is purgatory for those who died so quickly they aren’t even aware of their own passage.  It could also be the story of an alternate universe whose borders on our reality are ill-defined.

Just like the setting, the characters inhabiting the world of Osama are as fleeting as their reality.  Osama is a McGuffin of sorts, merely sliding between the pages—the object of Joe’s fascination while he searches for Mike Longshott, much as the Maltese Falcon drove Sam Spade while he looked for Archer’s murderer.  Mike is the link binding the story of Joe with that of Osama.  He’s the facilitator, unintentionally leading Joe to discover the truth of his own existence, and by extension, that of the girl.  He doesn’t recognize her, but she’s clearly familiar with him, as if there were a time and a place where they once knew each other.

And that’s the thing about Tidhar’s characters.  They’re all as ephemeral as the situations in which they’re placed.  There’s a sense of unrealness, an unfinished quality about them.   Joe is the only character of substance, and even that becomes questionable as the novel progresses and both he and the reader begin to question his reality.

The obvious comparison can be made between the works of Philip K Dick and Lavie Tidhar.   At first I thought that might be unfair, as Tidhar has his own voice and style, but after reading Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, the similarities in their writing come to the fore.  Tidhar plays with much the same themes regarding reality and one’s perspective, and has clearly been influenced by Dick’s writing.  For instance, there’s a scene in Osama where Joe enters an opium den to confront the proprietor, using the delivery of a film case as part of his ruse.  He quickly falls into a fugue state while the film is shown and finds himself in another London, one that looks much the same, but with subtle differences.  The film acts as a catalyst for his transference between worlds, much as the talisman Mr. Tagomi is meditating with in MITHC when he finds himself transported to an alternate Los Angeles where America won the Second World War.  In another scene, Joe is trying to gain entrance to a private club known as “The Castle”, another less than subtle reference.  While each author clearly has their own voice, Tidhar has clearly produced an homage to a master of the alternate history genre using his own distinctive style.

Osama is not a traditional novel, in that the process is more important than the final product.  There’s no clear resolution to this mystery, and it’s almost as if it’s a very well written thought experiment.  A multitude of solutions are posed, but you’re going to have to settle for whichever one you WANT to be the solution.  In the end, that’s what makes Osama a most satisfying read.

Who Thinks Evil–Michael Kurland

 

 

 

 

WhoThinksEvil“We need, we must have something–someone–different. Someone acquainted within the unseen worlds of mendacity, deceit, treachery, and falsehood that lurk in the corners of the realm.  Someone who can travel about freely in the underworld of the illegal and illicit, and who is trusted by these men who trust no one.”

“You need,” suggested Moriarty, “a criminal to deal with other criminals.”

“Exactly!” said the Duke, thumping a thick forefinger on the arm of his chair.

“So you’ve sent for me,” said Moriarty.

Source: Review copy from publisher.

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: March 7, 2014

The year is 1890, two years since “Saucy Jack” preyed on the prostitutes of London’s East End, yet he’s still very much on the mind of many a streetwalker as they go about their illicit business.  From the dimly lit streets of Whitechapel to the bedrooms of posh “gentlemen’s clubs”, horror at the Ripper’s crimes and anger at the inability of the Metropolitan Police to bring him to heel are still fresh.  When a prostitute at one of London’s more fashionable bawdy houses is murdered in a manner reminiscent of the Ripper, the forces of Scotland Yard and agents of the Queen herself are gathered to both quell rumours of his reappearance and catch the perpetrator on the sly—before the cauldron that is public opinion boils over into violence.  Complicating their surreptitious investigation is the identity of their prime suspect, the last known patron of the victim—namely one Albert Victor—Crown Prince and heir to the throne of England.  Further complicating matters—his sudden disappearance and the inability of both his minders and the police to find him.  Victoria’s men have their work cut out for them—either prove the heir apparent’s innocence or bring him to justice without jeopardizing the royal succession.

Meanwhile, the one man (Sherlock Holmes aside) capable of unravelling the various threads of this royal plot is languishing in the deepest cells of Newgate Prison, himself the victim of an elaborate frame-job.  Who else but Professor James Moriarty, a.k.a. the “Napoleon of Crime’, would have the contacts and resources within the criminal underworld, not to mention the criminal insight, to stop this fiendish scheme?  With the enthusiastic help of American journalist Benjamin Barnett, Moriarty’s diminutive majordomo Mummer Tolliver and the rather reluctant help of the brothers Holmes, Moriarty must solve the murder, clear the name of the heir to the throne and thereby provide his own salvation.

Michael Kurland wrote the first of his Moriarty novels, The Infernal Device in 1978, going on to write three sequels, the last published in 2006.  Since then, the Napoleon of Crime has been on hiatus, at least until the publication of Who Thinks Evil earlier this year.  Previously only attainable in e-book format, the entire series is now becoming available as Titan Books reissues the series for those eager to add Moriarty’s tales to their collection of Holmesian novels.

As a fan of the Holmes mythos but not having read Kurland’s earlier novels, I found myself looking forward to seeing the world as Moriarty does, and as a result was far from disappointed with this unique spin on the Consulting Detective’s nemesis.  Instead of the one dimensional epitome of evil one thinks of upon hearing the name “Moriarty”, Kurland has created a well-rounded villain, both nuanced and with depth of character.  Professor James Moriarty is not evil for evil’s sake, but rather a practitioner of a certain “pragmatic” evil. Moriarty’s crimes are revealed as selfishly altruistic—necessary to fund his scientific endeavors and therefore essential to the betterment of mankind.  Perhaps selfishly altruistic is not the right phrase—narcissistically altruistic?  Either way, the practice of science can be expensive and Moriarty is more pragmatic than malicious in his affairs.

James Moriarty is an unusual character, having evolved over the years from a minor (yet consequential) character in the Holmes canon to a legend towering above lesser literary villains.  Kurland treats Moriarty as a misunderstood genius and flips the relationship between Moriarty and Holmes and their relative claims to brilliance on its head.  In Who Thinks Evil, Holmes is not so much Moriarty’s equal but a decidedly lesser intellect— almost “Lestrade- like.”

Whereas inspector Lestrade traditionally plays an inept counterpoint to Holmes obvious aptitude for affairs deductive, in this tale Holmes himself acts the comic foil.  Sherlock may indeed be the world’s foremost “Consulting Detective”, but Moriarty is the “Napoleon of Crime,” and by far the superior intellect. Kurland amuses the reader time and again as we watch Holmes’ bumbling efforts to “unmask” Moriarty’s villainy.  One scene in particular demonstrates Moriarty’s easy intellectual superiority and involves the delivery of tea and cookies for Holmes to enjoy whilst the consulting detective “surreptitiously” surveils Moriarty from a bush.  Sherlock’s scientific method of observation is so much more finely honed in Moriarty and this, combined with both an eidetic memory and startlingly high I. Q. makes Holmes a simpleton by comparison.  Yet Moriarty respects Holmes even though he can be (and is) a great nuisance to Moriarty’s affairs.  Given every chance to remove the meddlesome Holmes from the equation, Moriarty proves his malicious nature more myth than fact.

Just as Holmes needs a biographer in the form of Dr. John Watson, Kurland provides Moriarty his own chronicler in Benjamin Barnett, another man of letters and associate by way of gratitude for the help Moriarty afforded him years earlier.  He’s clearly Moriarty’s stand in for Watson and a capable sleuth in his own right.  Together with Mummer Tolliver, they act as Moriarty’s proxy in the hunt for the murderer of London’s prostitutes while he focuses his time on foiling the plot to undermine the monarchy.

Overall an excellent novel, there are a few quibbles to be had with Who Thinks Evil, the first of which is whether or not this is actually a mystery or more properly—a thriller.  To me, the hallmark of a good mystery is how the author handles the Reveal—that moment when everything comes together and we as readers know exactly whodunit.  Once you have the Reveal, there’s no longer a mystery, hence the earlier the Reveal, the less the novel is a mystery and the more a thriller.  Alex Grecian’s The Yard is a good example of this.  We as readers know within a couple of chapters who the killer is—mystery solved, as it were.  Granted, the protagonist(s) don’t solve the mystery until much later in the novel, but there’s no mystery left for the reader.  At that point the novel becomes a thriller, and if handled properly, it’s not too much of a letdown to know the identity of the culprit before the protagonist does.  I myself enjoy a good mystery, preferring to figure things out for myself or be surprised at the end of the novel rather than knowing too much too soon.  In other words, I like some mystery in my mystery.

Who Thinks Evil relinquishes the pretense of being a mystery about halfway through, once the antagonist(s) are introduced and we start seeing things from their viewpoint.  From then on, it’s a straight line to thriller and the suspense no longer lies in whodunit, but rather how Moriarty and company will resolve the situation.  Thankfully, Kurland adeptly makes the transition from mystery to thriller, leaving the reader satisfied without feeling ripped off by the early reveal.

The second quibble I had with Who Thinks Evil revolves around the climax of the novel.  In the moment when Moriarty’s plans have all come together and the trap is set, something happens that makes a shambles of his meticulous preparations.  An unforeseen turn of events demonstrates that all the planning in the world is subject to the vagaries of fate.  It’s more outrageous fortune than meticulous schemes that foil the conspirators, and not so much a matter of giant intellect as having a girl who’s handy with a hatpin.

However, these are mere quibbles that don’t ever rise to the level of complaint. All in all, Michael Kurland has demonstrated a unique perspective with regards to the accepted mythos of Sherlock Holmes and enlightened us as readers to the misunderstood brilliance that is Professor James Moriarty.

B+

 

The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes–George Mann

TheCasebookofNewburyandHobbes

Source: Review Copy

Publisher:  Titan Books

Publication Date:  September 24, 2013

I was first introduced to the World of Steampunk a few years ago when I happened upon a copy of Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman A wonderful read, it’s the story of a young man named Orphan living in a Steampunk Victorian England and trying to track down “the Bookman”, a terrorist responsible for the death of his paramour.  My interest stoked by this delightful tale, I then took a chance on the works of Stephen Hunt, who, with The Court of the Air deserves (as far as I’m concerned) the title of King of Steampunk.  However, if Hunt is the reigning King, then George Mann may very well be known as the Crown Prince.  From The Affinity Bridge to The Executioner’s Heart, Mann has created an alternate Victorian England populated by characters heroic and sinister—and sometimes both—and created an investigative duo whose exploits rival those of a 221B Baker Street’s consulting detective and his trusty biographer.

Over the course of four novels, Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes have combatted foes both technological and occult, serving as agents of the crown to protect and foster the interests of her majesty, Queen Victoria.  They’re not alone in their endeavors, at times enlisting the help of, at other times being seconded to, Sir Charles Bainbridge, chief inspector of Scotland Yard.  Yet we’ve never heard Newbury’s (or Hobbes for that matter) origin story, and The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is Mann’s way of fleshing out their back story during the periods not chronicled by the novels.  It also reveals a ghost of the past in the person of Templeton Black, Newbury’s former assistant, and introduces the future in Peter Rutherford, a member of the British Secret Service who will go on to create his own legacy.

The collection consists of 15 eclectic stories, so let’s run down the list:

  • The Dark Path –Wherein Newbury and his former assistant Templeton Black discover the virtues of smoking and an old witch discovers the perils of over-enthusiastic horticulture.
  • The Hambleton Affair –Wherein Newbury relates his account of the disappearance of an old school mate’s wife and his discovery of the extent a man may go to to preserve his marriage.
  • The Shattered Teacup –Wherein Newbury and Bainbridge investigate the suspicious death of Lord Carruthers and discover the fowl truth of the matter.
  • What Lies Beneath –Wherein Newbury takes a constitutional at the home of an English “gentleman” and discovers the gentleman is anything but.
  • The Lady Killer –Wherein Newbury meets his match in the form of the lovely Irene Adler Lady Arkwell and discovers that while women are the fairer sex, this particular lady is not willing to play fair.
  • The Case of the Night Crawler –Wherein Newbury and Hobbes enlist the help of a certain consulting detective’s biographer to hunt down a mechanical creature bent on revenge.
  • The Sacrificial Pawn –Wherein Sir Charles Bainbridge finds himself an unwitting participant in Newbury’s game of chance with a cult by the name of The Cabal of the Horned Beast.
  • Christmas Spirits –Wherein Newbury finds himself unintentionally re-enacting a popular Dickens’ tale on Christmas Eve while in an opium daze and discovering that not all spirits bring redemption.
  • Strangers from the Sea Wherein Newbury comes across a long-lost note from a colleague, and the prescient warning contained within while reminiscing about a not so merry trip to the beach.
  • The Only Gift Worth Giving –Wherein Sir Charles lends a hand to Newbury and reinvigorates his spirit with a challenge.
  • A Rum Affair –Wherein Newbury and Hobbes discover that punch can be spiked with much more than rum.
  • A Night, Remembered –Wherein Peter Rutherford makes introductions to both the reader and Maurice and discovers the most disturbing truth behind the sinking of the S.S. Titanic.
  • The Maharajah’s Star –Wherein Rutherford meets Professor Angelchrist and discovers that the Maharajah’s Star is more dream than reality.
  • The Albino’s Shadow Wherein Rutherford consults with Ms. Veronica Hobbes in his efforts to hunt down one of the most wanted men in the Empire, a peculiarly pale criminal mastermind by the name of “Mr. Zenith.”  Little does he know, Zenith is just as interested to meeting him.
  • Old Friends –Wherein Angelchrist relates the events leading to his association with Newbury and Hobbes and Rutherford brings a smile to an old man’s face.

According to the author’s notes, each of these stories can be found in other venues, but this is the first time they’ve been compiled into a comprehensive collection.   Overall, it’s an excellent addition to Mann’s Steampunk universe, filling in some of the details of Newbury’s past and looking forward to the future of his “Ghost” series of roaring twenties novels, set in a Steampunk inspired New York.  Stand out stories include his Sherlock homage, The Case of the Night Crawler and his tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, Strangers from the Sea.  My personal favourite is The Shattered Teacup, which brings to mind the best of both Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.  It’s a fun murder mystery with obvious Steampunk influence in the clockwork owl that proves essential to solving the case.  The only story that falls flat (for me, at least) is What Lies Beneath, but honestly, that owes more to my distaste for epistolary writing than anything Mann did with the story.

The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is a seamless blend of Victorian detective story sprinkled with Steampunk elements and a dash of the occult.  Mann seamlessly captures the flavour of Victorian mystery fiction usually identified with Arthur Conan Doyle while adding his own flourishes to it.  It’s a great addition to the universe of Newbury and Hobbes mysteries, fleshing out the series for those fans that want to see a bit more.  An added bonus is the inclusion of several new characters, from Templeton Black to Peter Rutherford, and of course, an arch nemesis for Newbury in the form of Lady Arkwell.  However, if you haven’t been a follower of Newbury and Hobbes from the start, this may not be the book for you.  Simple solution for those who are unfamiliar—get yourselves to a bookstore and catch up on the series before delving into this wonderful back story of Newbury and Hobbes, agents of the crown and occult detectives.

B

Fly me to the Moon.

Apollomoonlanding

Between July 16, 1969 and December 7, 1972, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) managed to land six missions on the Moon.  Apollo 13 was, of course, famously aborted when an on-board explosion crippled the vehicle and the astronauts relied on the lunar module as a lifeboat for their return.  With the successful completion of the Apollo 17 mission, manned exploration of the Moon came to an end, but 41 years later authors are still chronicling the missions, speculating about the future of man’s conquest of the moon and writing alternate history based on speculation about lunar missions.

I was born just shortly before the last Apollo mission, so missed the excitement involved with lunar exploration.  As a child I witnessed the Space Shuttle program from inception to eventual retirement and have always held the exploration of space in great regard.  Lately, lunar missions (either real or speculative) have been on my mind, so today’s post is dedicated to three books regarding the Moon, one historical and two speculative.

Rocket Men-Craig NelsonRocketMen

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Viking Press

Publication Date: June 30, 2009

First on the list is Rocket Men by Craig Nelson, a biography of the United States space program, culminating in a description of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon.  From the closing days of the Second World War, Nelson traces the history of manned space flight to NASA’s defining achievement of a man on the Moon.  It’s a fascinating look at the race between the United States and the Soviet Union, one in which the Soviet Union took an early lead and the United States focused their efforts to catch and surpass their cold war foes, eventually culminating in the Apollo program.  I’m only about half way through but find myself captivated by his account of the formation of NASA and their counterparts in the Soviet Union.  I feel confident in recommending Nelson’s biography of the program (after all, I already know how it ends) for anyone who has an interest  in the subject.  Looking around on the internet, Nelson has been criticized for a few technical errors in his account, but, like most of the populace, I’m not a rocket scientist and a few quibbles do not detract from a wonderful account of the early days of space-flight.

Back to the Moon-Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson

Backtothemoon

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Baen Books

Publication Date: December 27, 2011

Back to the Moon is a nice piece of speculative fiction by Les Johnson and Travis Taylor, who also wrote a neat novel (with John Ringo) about the invasion of Earth by a multitude of Von Neumann machines in the 2008 novel, Von Neumann’s War. Back to the Moon tells the a story of the near future in which the United States has finally refocused the mission of NASA on returning to the Moon.  Using a modified vision of the Constellation Program, the United States has once again embarked on a manned moon mission, but they have competition from the private sector in the form of a Virgin Galactic inspired space-plane/lunar orbiter by the name of Dreamscape.  Gary Childers, president of Space Excursions, is an entrepreneur in the mould of Richard Branson and also interested in bringing the experience of space flight and lunar excursions to the common man (well, those who can afford the fee).  Space Excursions is also interested in beating NASA to the Moon, although they aren’t prepared for a landing.  Meanwhile, China has become the successor of the defunct Soviet Union and is also striving to beat the Americans back to the Moon.

When Childer’s Dreamscape vehicle manages to orbit the Moon in advance of NASA’s efforts, the pilot and civilian crew are astonished to receive a distress signal from a crew of Chinese Taikonauts.  They’ve beaten the Americans to the Moon using stolen technology (ironically, from both NASA and Space Excursions) but flubbed the landing.  Once discovered, it becomes a race against time for NASA to launch a recovery mission before the Chinese succumb to their circumstances.

Now I suppose naysayers could nitpick this novel by calling it a “rah-rah” America first bit of fluff, but I found it a fun, pulpy read.  Taylor knows his stuff, after all, he is an actual rocket scientist, and while I would never describe his work as “literary” in the classical sense, he tells a compelling story in an accessible manner.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains-Ian Sales

Adriftontheseaofrains

Source: Bought copy (Kindle)

Publisher: Whippleshield Books

Publication Date: April, 2012

Adrift on the Sea of Rains, is the first in a quartet of proposed novels by U.K. novelist Ian Sales and can be characterized as both speculative fiction and alternate history.  It concerns a group of astronauts who become stranded on a lunar base after a nuclear exchange by the Soviet Union and United States.  Their only hope for rescue is a salvaged Nazi Wunderwaffe, a “torsion-field” generator that can allow them passage through alternate universes, in hope of finding one where the Earth has not been destroyed.  Complicating their situation is the problem of how to get home in the event they find an Earth to return to.

Now in all honesty, I haven’t read this book yet.  It’s on my intent to read list, but having perused the first chapter, I have little doubt that it’s going to be a compelling, although possibly dismal, novel.  Ian Sales appears to have taken a more literary road with regard to his writing style and it shows. His characters are maudlin (granted, you would be too if you’d witnessed the destruction of the Earth and faced a slow death on a desolate rock) and somewhat nihilistic. He’s also managed to win the 2012 BSFA (British Science Fiction Award) for short fiction.

I realize I’m not doing justice to his novella in this brief description, but want to inform you of a talent that has recently come upon my alternate history radar.  I hope to give you a more detailed report once able to spend some time with what appears to be an emerging talent.

 

Bitter Seeds–Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds

“The price has been negotiated.  It will be paid.”

“The Hell it will!  Tell it to sod off.”

“My friends.”  Will spoke in a rigidly neutral tone.  The strain of maintaining his composure and concentration showed in the beads of moisture on his forehead.  “One does not renege on these negotiations…At best we can control the circumstances of the payment.”

At the dawn of the 20th century, many nations looked toward the creation of a superior human through the study of eugenics, a scientific pursuit that was taken to horrifying extremes under the Nazi regime during the 40’s.  In pursuit of the Übermensch, physicians such as Joseph Mengele became notorious for their barbaric experimentation and disregard for human life, while Adolf Hitler’s attitude towards race and racial “purification” (aryanization) directly led to the Holocaust and the genocide of over six million Jews by war’s end in 1945.  Once the atrocities of the camps were exposed to the wider world, the concept of eugenics fell out of favour with the world community.  Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds is the story of an alternate 20th century in which the Nazi’s were successful in bringing about the Übermensch and placing England in such desperate straits as to delve into forces both unnatural and malevolent to counter their Nazi foes.

While on a mission to extract a German defector from Franco’s Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Lieutenant-Commander Raybould Marsh of the S.I.S. (Secret Intelligence Service) witnesses something beyond his ability to comprehend when his contact spontaneously combusts right before his eyes.  All that’s left of the informant’s belongings are some charred papers and the remnants of a remarkable, almost unbelievable film.  Once the film is reconstructed, it shows German test subjects purported to be exhibiting paranormal abilities.  One subject seemingly walks through walls, another crushes objects with his mind and yet a third demonstrates the ability to create and shape fire to his purposes.  Yet it is a young woman who bears no obvious outward manifestation that will prove to be the most dangerous weapon of this Nazi arsenal. 

Once the war begins in earnest, this group of Wunderwaffen prove their worth, forcing Marsh and his mentor in the secret service, John Stephenson, to enlist the help of Marsh’s college friend—and Warlock—Lord William Beauclerk.  Together, they assemble a unit (code-named Milkweed) comprised of Britain’s foremost magical talents to “negotiate” with otherworldly presences known as Eidolons to assure the safety of the home countries.  However, the assistance of these demonic forces comes with a price—a blood price—that quickly escalates as England’s situation deteriorates.  Beyond the physical blood price is the spiritual one as these patriots commit reprehensible acts upon their own countrymen to secure the continued cooperation of their supernatural allies.  As the novel goes on, the British find themselves in a morally suspect situation, and Will begins to suspect that the price of victory—even to stop the evil that is the Third Reich—may not be worth what they’ve sacrificed, both physically and spiritually.  The morally dubious English alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union that in reality allowed an allied victory is in this alternate history replaced with a morally bankrupt alternative in the form of the mysterious Eidolons.

Bitter Seeds is a wonderfully well written novel.  It’s also incredibly dark and depressing, especially as the reader slowly realizes the depths to which the ostensive “good-guys” will sink in their moral corruption.  The actions of the British Warlocks stretch the meaning of the phrase, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” to incredulity.  Without giving away any spoilers, the price to be paid for each victory “negotiated” with the Eidolons is an assault on the basic morality of otherwise honourable men.  The novel poses the question of whether or not the ends can always justify the means.  What price would you pay; what heinous actions would you undertake, in the name of the greater good?  Could you kill a child if it would end the war?  How about two?  Or twenty?  Who decides what the greater good is or what price is acceptable, especially if one’s essential morality is lost in the process?  

Of the characters in the novel, it is somewhat ironic that Will, the facilitator of the Milkweed project, is the only character to stop long enough to examine himself and his motives.  He begins the novel as a patriot who wants to do something for his country and as a byproduct impress his brother, and further to be seen as something more than an aristocratic fop.  Later, he comes to question the road they’ve travelled and the price of his actions.  Marsh is a less introspective character, beginning the novel as the good son, modeling his career on that of his adoptive father (the aforementioned John Stephenson, a patriotic yet cold and cunning man) and slowly losing his moral compass as tragedy envelops his family and in his desperation to foil the Nazi Übermensch.

Surprisingly, Tregillis gives us a well-rounded depiction of the Nazi super soldiers, from the principled Klaus to the amoral Reinhardt, the sympathetic simpleton that is Kammler and the self-conscious Heike, and of course, the inscrutable Gretel, to whom everything and everyone is a pawn in a game only she comprehends.   The novel also focuses on small scenes while allowing the greater historical events to fall into place as the stage in which their story plays out.  The greater events of the war, such as the Dunkirk evacuation or operation Sea Lion are mentioned merely as background, but a raid by British forces through supernatural means on the farm that acts as a base to the Übermensch takes up a good portion of the narrative.

Credible world-building is an essential factor in the creation of a believable fantasy novel, even more so in the case of an alternate history, and Tregillis manages to successfully interweave fantasy and science fiction into what would otherwise be categorized as an alternate history novel.  All the essential elements of alternate history are there, twisted into his vision of what might be if the element of fantasy is added.  Dunkirk ends quite differently due to the addition of the Übermensch and their far seer, while the invasion of England is forestalled not by the natural vagaries of the weather (as in reality) but by the mystical wall of nature created by the Eidolons.

I cannot stress enough how very much this is a novel structured around the examination of morality and the horrors that occur when ones moral code is compromised.  Will recoils in horror and devolves into madness as he realizes the evil he has unleashed into the world may be worse than the one they are fighting, while Marsh degenerates from a principled patriot into an obsessive who allows revenge to overcome his principles.  It becomes a matter of the ends justify the means to Marsh, while Will continually questions whether or not they have unduly compromised their humanity.

Bitter Seeds left me with a feeling of profound sadness. I allowed Ian Tregillis to create an empathy in me towards the majority of his characters (yes, even the Übermensch) and then watched them devolve into morally bankrupt shells of their former selves.  Tregillis also left me with an unrepentant desire to continue reading of their decline—or possible salvation—in the next book of the Milkweed triptych, The Coldest War.

B+

Ack-Ack Macaque–Gareth L. Powell

AckAckMacaque“Do you know what you have to do?”

Ack-Ack Macaque grinned, exposing his teeth.

“Same as I always do, right?”  He snapped the reloaded Colt back together and spun the barrel.

“Blow shit up and hurt people.”

Last week, as I sat on a picnic table during a break at work, a co-worker strolled by and saw the title of my latest read, Ack-Ack Macaque, at which point he derisively exclaimed, “Ack-Ack Macaque?  What the hell is that?”  My reply was oh so very NSFW (not safe for work) and involved a bad pun about sucking “Macaque.”  We both groaned at that lame response and went about our business.  I’m not relating this story just to prove my ability to come up with horrible puns, but that little incident made me think about how we choose the books we choose to read and how sometimes it simply comes down to a good cover or an amusing title.  Frankly, the title Ack-Ack Macaque was what prompted me to read the back cover of Gareth L. Powell’s futuristic novel about a monkey flying ace with attitude.  I’ve always been fascinated with flying and fighter pilots—throw in a monkey and some German ninja parachutists—and you have something I just HAVE to read, even if it turns out to be ridiculous.

And then something funny happened—and I don’t mean, funny “ha-ha.”  Here I was, reading a book with a monkey in a flying cap wielding a couple of six-shooters on the cover and discovering a book that was more William Gibson than Terry Pratchet.  So, a quick synopsis:

Set in the year 2059, Ack-Ack Macaque is in reality three intertwined stories that merge into one narrative by the climax of the novel.  The first story is that of Victoria Valois, a former correspondent recuperating from an accident which resulted in the majority of her brain matter being replaced by a synthetic version known as “gelware.”  She’s come to London to bury her estranged husband, and possibly investigate the unusual events surrounding his death.  Not only was Paul murdered, but during the course of the crime the culprit removed his brain, and with that, his soulcatcher, a piece of hardware implanted in every citizen to create a recording of their personality that lives on for a short time after death.  After coming face to face with the killer—and in the process having her own soulcatcher stolen (kidnapped?)—Victoria discovers that Paul’s death is in some way connected with his employer, Céleste Industries.

The second story involves His Royal Highness, Prince Merovich, the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of the United Kingdoms of Britain and France—the two countries having been merged for a century—who gets tangled up with the illicit activities of his girlfriend Julie.  She’s a rights activist, and with a small cohort of friends, they are about to raid Céleste Industries in the hopes of freeing what they believe to be the first sentient artificial intelligence, that of a pistol packing, spitfire flying, whiskey drinking Macaque by the name of Ack-Ack who is the central character of an on-line virtual reality game.  Merovich is crucial to Julie’s plan, by way of his being the son of Céleste Industries owner, her Grace Alyssa Célestine, herself Regent of the combined commonwealth due to a terrorist act that left the King incapacitated.  Merovich also has a connection to Valois in the shared accident that resulted in her augmentation.

The third story is of what—or rather who–Merovich and Julie find when they infiltrate the facility.  I think by now you may have an idea about who that might be.  Together, they uncover the sinister plot of a cult known as the “Undying” involving androids, the first terraforming probe to Mars and possibly the end of the world through nuclear annihilation, unless Victoria, Merovich, Julie and a seriously pissed off macaque named Ack-Ack can find a way to stop them.

With Ack-Ack Macaque, Powell has proved himself an adept world builder, creating a convincing near future world in which the idea of a sentient monkey is not so far-fetched, which, to my mind is a pretty tall order.  He’s also added Steampunk elements to an alternate history novel that is not necessarily Steampunk, but will appeal to fans of the genre.  The ubiquitous skyliners (modified zeppelins) are there, but updated to be more demonstrative of real world technology.  No steam–all nuclear, and a realistic look at the direction technology can take us.  Artificial intelligence, huge leaps in medical technology, the idea of a back-up consciousness housed in a cranial hard drive, seamlessly blended into the background of a world that could very well be mistaken for our own—just projected another fifty years or so down the road.  The idea of a history in which France and England merged into a larger commonwealth with a shared monarchy does not seem an unrealistic possibility either.

As for the characters, Powell manages to capture Victoria Valois’ frustration and determination in the face of what was a debilitating accident, and her dogged resolve to solve Paul’s murder and bring the culprits to justice.  Merovich is a smart, yet somewhat naïve young man, rashly allowing his girlfriend to lead him into situations that an older man might think twice about, but with the wisdom to recognize when the situation calls for a more serious approach, likely the result of his experience in the incident that maimed Valois.  Julie comes across as a true believer with her own rigid moral code, willing to risk her own safety to free an independent intelligence that may only exist on a flash drive, while Ack-Ack—well, let’s just say he’s got a mean disposition and a very good reason to want to blow some shit up.

Actually, there’s more to Ack-Ack Macaque than just a grumpy monkey.  Here’s a character that has to contend with the knowledge that everything he’s ever accomplished, the people he has cared for, are simply part of a computer simulation.  In other words—he has to deal with knowing his life has been a lie.  In learning the truth, he’s also been set free to pursue bloody vengeance against those who treated him as a toy.

If there’s any complaint to be had with Ack-Ack Macaque, it’s that we don’t really get to see the villain fully fleshed out.  It’s evident early on in the novel who their common foe is, but without a narrative from the villain’s point of view, I found myself wanting to understand their motivation a little better.  The opponent is mentioned many times and the protagonists deal with the villain’s minions on several occasions, but when the reader finally meets the antagonist, it’s so brief they feel like a plot device rather than an important character.  Having said that, this lack of motivational description doesn’t detract from the novels best features, namely a bunch of wounded characters (literally and figuratively) pressed together by circumstance to accomplish the same goal.  You know—saving the world.

A-

Gareth L. Powell is the author of Ack-Ack Macaque and its forthcoming sequel Hive Monkey.  He maintains a website at www.garethlpowell.com and both Gareth and Ack-Ack Macaque can be found on twitter, engaging in hilarious conversations.

The Buntline Special–Mike Resnick

The Good, the Bad, and the Undead

“A lot of people think Ringo’s the best,” said Holliday.  “And if you’re going to be the best, you have to beat the best.”

“Think of the damage you two could do to the Cowboys if you were on the same side.”

“We would never be on the same side.  Sooner or later we’d have to meet out in the street.”

“Even though he’s a zombie?”

Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special introduces us to a world in which the U.S. government (circa 1881) has contracted Thomas Edison to utilize his talent for invention in what would today be called a “Cold War” with the Indian nations over the future of the United States.  In pursuit of this goal, Thomas and his good friend Ned Buntline (who, in this universe is an engineer rather than a dime novelist) are tasked to discover a remedy to the magic of medicine men such as Geronimo that has thus far stymied government efforts to realize their manifest destiny of creating a nation that stretches from sea to sea.

However, the native medicine men are fully aware of their efforts, employing a number of assassins to take Edison (Buntline may be a wonderful engineer, but lacks Edison’s talent for invention) out of the picture.  To protect their interest, the government has employed the Earp Brothers (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan), and they in turn have called upon the special talents of both Bat Masterson and a consumptive, yet lethally effective, Doc Holliday.

Based in the town of Tombstone, itself on the edge of “Indian Territory”, Buntline and Edison have brought electric light to the city and the horseless stagecoach to the region.  Armored against Indian attacks by Buntline’s signature invention (bullet proof brass of all things), the Buntline Express has severely dented the local horse trade (both honest and illegal) and gained him the wrath of the Clanton-McLaury gang.  Since Edison and Buntline have a synergistic relationship, the Earps find themselves tasked with protecting these two amazing minds from the magical forces of Geronimo and the more pedestrian efforts of the Clanton gang.

During the course of their investigation as to which medicine man is targeting Edison (the original consensus is Geronimo), Bat Masterson runs afoul of the native warrior and finds himself on the receiving end of a particularly nasty curse.  By day, he is a man; by night—a man sized bat.  Meanwhile, Holliday finds himself stalked by Johnny Ringo, the gunslinger hired to kill Edison—and possibly Doc’s equal with a pistol.  Ringo’s also been dead for awhile, so good luck killing him.

Told from the viewpoint of Doc Holliday, The Buntline Special finds its strength in the dialogue, specifically in Doc’s quick wit and devil may care attitude.  It’s quite easy to become immersed in the Steampunk Universe Resnick has created, mainly due to the affinity one feels for Doc.  Here’s a man who lives every day as if it were his last, in a world where magic and science duel for supremacy, yet unable to avail himself of either.  He’s just as dead as Johnny Ringo, it being a matter of time before consumption gets the better of him, and that leads to a fatalistic honesty in his everyday dealings.  Of course, he’s not quite DEAD dead, and still has to deal with the aforementioned revenant.  How does one kill a man who’s already dead?  The answer lies with the Buntline Special.Buntline special

Now this isn’t the foot long version of the Colt Peacemaker made famous by the real Ned Buntline.  Remember, this is a Steampunk novel.  Therein lies the magic—or fantastical science—which makes this first of the Weird West Tales such a delight to read.  If anything detracts from the story, it’s the fact that while Resnick does take liberties, The Buntline Special still plays along the same lines as the real history of Wyatt Earp.  Morgan still gets killed. There’s still the shootout at the O.K. Corral.  Pretty much everything that took place in real life is covered, leading the reader who knows their history to be able to predict what’s going to happen.  However, while those things are necessary to maintain some semblance of continuity, it’s the masterful blending of history and fantasy that keeps you reading to the end.  For the hardcore Steampunk fan, this novel is a straight shooter.

B+