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+

 

Carrie–Stephen King

Carrie1

 

“Miss Desjardin came running over to her, and she wasn’t laughing anymore. She was holding out her arms to her. But then she veered off and hit the wall beside the stage. It was the strangest thing. She didn’t stumble or anything. It was as if someone had pushed her, but there was no one there.”

From We Survived the Black Prom, by Norma Watson.

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: April 5, 1974

Carrie White is a misfit—always has been as a matter of fact. A scapegoat for the other teens at Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School, she’s the one you mock when you want to make yourself feel better. She’s a bully’s dream—awkward of both speech and manner—the perfect patsy. Her mother has spent Carrie’s 16 years on this earth tormenting her, punishing Carrie for her own supposed iniquities. Years of suffering the taunts of her schoolmates and her mother’s insanely religious fervor have turned Carrie from a pretty little blonde haired child into a mousy and introverted teen, too cowed to put up a fight when faced with the pettiness and enmity of her social peers. There’s no fight in her and they know it.

After Carrie suffers a particularly brutal taunting session in the girl’s locker room, Sue Snell, a girl with a modicum of shame for her participation, devises a plan to atone for her behavior, and maybe rehabilitate Carrie’s image. She wants to do something nice for the girl she pities and in the process absolve herself of her guilt. Sue’s boyfriend Tommy Ross is one of the popular kids. He’s also a genuinely kind soul and in love with Sue, so when she suggests he ask Carrie to the prom in her place, he says yes. Not because he pities Carrie, but because he loves Sue. Neither of them could predict the consequences of their good deed, neither for themselves, nor Carrie, nor the good people of Chamberlain Maine. You see, Carrie has a secret, and one last humiliation will be all it takes to put her over the edge and unleash a fury that will make everyone at the prom of ’79 regret ever taunting her—if they survive.

In a day and age where the problem of bullying has become prevalent (or at least more noticeable do to the rise of social media), Carrie has a timeless feel. It’s eminently relatable to anyone who’s gone through the experience of high school and the various injustices we all committed or been subjected to. Part of the thrill of Carrie is the satisfaction involved in watching her unleash the terror of her power on those who’ve tormented her all those years. Who hasn’t dreamed of getting revenge on those who’ve bullied us in the past? It’s juvenile, but then this is the story of juveniles.

But King doesn’t bludgeon us with stereotypes. It’s not a case of Carrie versus a bunch of shitty, one dimensional teenagers. There are moments at the prom where we get to see glimpses of Carrie’s schoolmates, and they’re not caricatures—there’s no black and white. When Tommy Ross introduces Carrie to George Dawson and Frieda Jason, he shows us that Carrie’s later fury is misplaced, and that is one of the more horrifying aspects of the novel’s climax. Most of those Carrie hurts don’t deserve it.

Tommy Ross is the most relatable and adult character of the novel. He’s no fool; he knows high school is not the real world and what teenagers find important is not a reflected in reality. It doesn’t matter if you’re the captain of the football team or the misfit sitting in the corner of the library trying not to be noticed. High school is a transitory phase of life, and unlike a lot of teens, he knows it’s not the end all and be all in life. As for Sue Snell—her motives are less clear. She comes across sympathetically, sincere in her efforts to atone for abusing Carrie but tarnished by the possibility that she’s atoning for her own selfish purposes. Chris Hargensen’s motives are clear and simple—hurt Carrie—whom she sees as the author of her misfortunes. She’s a spoiled girl who’s never had consequences for her actions, and isn’t prepared in any way for what results from her prank at that ill-fated prom.

The one character who’s definitely a stereotypical horror trope is Carrie’s mother, Margaret White. The religious freak (for lack of a better term) has been a favourite of horror authors for at least as long as I’ve been a reader, and I find it a worn and lazy trope. Christians are an easy target, generally unfairly portrayed in literature as either religious zealots or rigid and unfeeling automatons. It’s tiresome and disingenuous. However, King wrote this novel back in 1974 and therefore I suspect two things: that the trope was perhaps not a trope back then and that he’s partially responsible for creating a trope that would permeate through the genre of horror fiction. I will admit that he did a wonderful job. Margaret White is the iconic example of the type—a batshit crazy zealot, blending her religious zeal with a serious mental illness. Her constant bullying of her daughter—for simply existing—gives the reader some large gratification when she finally meets her fate.

Now Carrie is a much different story.

Even knowing the horrible revenge she exacts on her schoolmates, it’s impossible not to have sympathy for Carrie White. She’s such a beaten down character, but not in any way a horrible person. She has the same dreams as her peers; she yearns for the acceptance every teen wants. She’s got the same schoolgirl crushes (Tommy Ross) as all the other girls, but just doesn’t quite fit into any of their cliques. Undeserving of the hideous prank Christine Hargensen and her psychopathic boyfriend Billy Nolan play at the height of the prom, it’s with a certain amount of perverse satisfaction that we as readers observe the reign of terror she presides over in the latter half of the novel.

The theme of redemption and revenge weave through the core of this novel. Redemption is the defining desire of many of the characters. Carrie wants to redeem her life—be a normal teenager—before it’s too late. Sue Snell wants to redeem her good character, hating to be seen as just another bully, even if it’s in her own mind. Even Margaret White is looking for redemption in her own twisted way, culminating in her attempt to kill her own daughter in “repentance” for her sins. As for revenge, it’s what motivates everything Christine Hargensen does. Christine sees Carrie as the manufacturer of her misfortunes, blindly ignoring her own culpability and literally lusting at the idea of putting Carrie in her place. Billy Nolan goes along with her plan for much the same reason. And then there’s Carrie. She seeks revenge for her humiliation, for what happened to Tommy, for 16 years of constant torture at the hands of pretty much everyone.

In Carrie, Stephen King wrote a novel that is both chilling and heart wrenching, creating in Carrie White a character that is both villain and victim, and enticing the reader to care about a young girl essentially turned mass murderer. Carrie may be one of Stephen King’s earliest novels but to me it still ranks among his best. It’s also one of his shorter works, and you will most likely find yourself burning through the story in one, maybe two reading sessions.

Carrie was published April 5th, 1974, forty years ago today, and in honour of the anniversary Matt Craig over at Reader Dad conceived the wonderful idea of a series of tributes and the simultaneous publishing of various bloggers reviews of this seminal work in the genre of horror fiction. It’s been an honour taking part.

The Martian–Andy Weir

TheMartian2“Commander,” Beck radioed.  “You need to get to the ship now.”

“Agreed,” Martinez radioed.  “He’s gone, ma’am.  Watney’s gone.”

The four crewmates awaited their commander’s response.

“Copy,” she finally replied. “On my way.”

Source: Netgalley (Review Copy)

Publisher: Crown Publishing

Publication Date: February 11, 2014

When a sandstorm compels NASA to abort the Ares 3 expedition on Mars six days into their month long stay, the team is forced to leave behind a fully functioning habitat, two martian land rovers, millions of dollars of pre-positioned equipment, fifty days of freeze dried food for a crew of six (including fresh potatoes for their Thanksgiving dinner) and one dead astronaut.  Last anyone saw of Mark Watney, flight engineer and team botanist, both he and his EVA suit were compromised, impaled by a communications antenna, tumbling off into the storm with his biometric sensors flat-lined.  Forced by their grave situation to abandon the search for his body, the team leader makes the call and the Martian Ascent Vehicle (MAV) launches, leaving Watney to his fate. 

Fate, living up to its reputation for being fickle, has other plans for Mark Watney.  Against the odds, he survives the suit puncture and impalement and manages to retreat to the expedition’s habitat, which weathered the storm intact.  He’s alive and relatively uninjured.  He has oxygen, water, and food for the next 300 days.  Too bad Ares 4 won’t arrive for another four years, and then around 3200 kilometers from Watney’s refuge. It’s up to him to make his own fate and live to be there when Ares 4 lands.  Watney’s got three things going for him: his ingenuity, his sense of humour in the face of death, and those six potatoes. Thus begins an extraordinary tale of resourcefulness and survival in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe, albeit in a place where everything can kill you.

I first read of Andy Weir’s The Martian early last year while browsing an on-line review.  At the time he was an independent author, and I downloaded a sample with every intention of buying a copy if it proved any good.  Months later, I came across another article mentioning that Weir’s book had been picked up by a mainstream publisher and would be published in February of 2014.  In the meantime, the e-book had become “unavailable” for purchase, a situation which left me somewhat miffed.  However, the publisher was looking for reviewers on Netgalley, so I managed to snag a copy and dug in.

Written from several points of view, the majority being epistolary journal entries by our stranded engineer/botanist, The Martian introduces us to Mark Watney, a thoroughly likeable and extremely resilient character for whom the reader cannot help but root.  He’s no shrinking violet, bemoaning his fate and waiting for the inevitable, but rather your typical “can do” NASA type, working the problem methodically until he achieves one of two results: life; or death.  Throughout the journal, Watney faces many life threatening situations (and some are doozies) and deals with them from an engineering perspective, true to form as…well…an engineer. With this emphasis on problem solving, The Martian is definitely a novel for lovers of hard science fiction, but Weir also develops a character for whom we feel a great deal of empathy, ensuring that the techno-babble doesn’t detract from the story.  The addition of quite a bit of, “you have to laugh or you’ll end up crying,” levity on the part of Watney  helps guarantee the novel not become too dreary. 

One worry I had while reading The Martian was that a novel with a single point of view can limit the author’s ability to build a picture of what’s going on in the greater world (or solar system, in this case).  I wanted to know what the crew were thinking when they presumed Watney dead—and how they dealt with the guilt of leaving a crewmember not just behind, but behind on another planet.  What was going on back at mission control?  How was his family dealing with the loss of their son?   These are all questions that would be impossible to answer had Weir stuck with the epistolary format, so it was satisfying to see him branch out from Watney’s tale and explore those very things.  Transitioning back and forth from Watney’s journal to scenes of his crewmates and people back home gave greater depth to the story than showcasing his tale alone. 

I find generally these days while reading or viewing a movie that it’s hard to get invested in the welfare of the character because you just know that the writer (unless it’s G.R.R. Martin) is not going to do anything too drastic, like kill off the main character.  Knowing that the author won’t take that risk tends to detract from the reader feeling any real investment in a story, but Weir deftly manages to avoid this pitfall.  Every situation Mark Watney faces is written in a way that feels “life or death” in an Apollo 13 sort of way, and until the last few pages of the novel I was unsure as to how things would pan out.  The ingenuity with which Watney, his former crewmates, and the people back on Earth tackle his predicament lends an air of optimism to a novel that could very well have lost itself in the malaise of a man bereft of hope.  Lucky for us, this is not that type of novel.

The Martian is one of those books that you’ll want to read in one or two sittings, maybe even burning a little midnight oil as you follow a lone Martian’s quest to become an Earthling once again.

The Martian will be released by Crown Publishing on February 11, 2014.

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

Hive Monkey-Gareth L. Powell

hive-monkey-gareth-l-powellIf joining the Gestalt meant an end to loneliness, he could see how they might find doing so attractive; but it wouldn’t work for him.  He’d still be the only monkey in a sea of apes; still just as alone, however many humans he had crawling through his head, chattering away about their human feelings, and human problems.

Reynolds could go fuck himself.

Source: Netgalley (review copy)

Publisher: Solaris Books

Publication Date: December 31, 2013

It’s been a year since the events of Ack-Ack Macaque and our simian anti-hero is finding life outside the game to be a bit of a reality check.  Back in the VR universe he was alpha primate, a virtually indestructible ball of wise cracking fur with itchy trigger fingers.  Never defeated, nigh indestructible, he took on all comers with ease and fought the good fight for King and Country with nary a thought of the future.  Released from his virtual prison, Ack-Ack managed to save the real world from the nefarious plans of Queen Alyssa Célestine and her cult of the Undying.  But that was a year ago, and now Ack-Ack finds himself lacking a purpose.  Without the constant excitement of eternal combat that his time in the game provided, he’s been reduced to piloting Victoria Valois’ airship Tereshkova from place to place and spending his spare time reminiscing the glory days while flying around in an antique Spitfire.  For a macaque of action, the doldrums of this new reality are taking a toll, as is the realization that he’s an anomaly.  As the only sentient monkey on earth, he feels very much alone.  Alone—and horny.

When approached by a spokesman of the Gestalt, a cyber-cult whose members have wirelessly connected their gelware to create a collective “hive mind”, he’s torn between two thoughts.  The first—to accept their offer in the hope union with the Gestalt might alleviate his loneliness.  The second—to tell them to go fuck themselves while flinging some poo.  Finding the balance, Ack-Ack rejects their overture with a sucker punch and assumes that’s all she wrote.  Cultists being cultists however, they refuse his refusal, pursuing his membership with a most cult-like determination.

Meanwhile, a down and out Science Fiction writer by the name of William Cole is struggling to cope with the loss of his wife Marie and failing horribly.  He’s in a downward spiral, fueling his grief with drugs and alcohol.  But when someone takes a shot at him outside his apartment, his instinctive impulse is still self-preservation, all flight—no fight.  Hours later he’s in Victoria Valois’ cabin aboard the Tereshkova, begging asylum so he can flee to the relative safety of the sky.  That relative safety proves very short lived.  After a confrontation with a dying stowaway to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, Cole finds himself embroiled in a cold war that literally crosses universes, unlikely ally of both Ack-Ack and Victoria as they attempt to stop the Gestalt from hatching a plot, which if successful, will have consequences for the collective individuality of humanity—including the daughter he never had.

With Hive Monkey, Gareth L. Powell has once again written a novel that is not what it seems at first glance.  There’s hidden depth to his story of a hard drinking, hard fighting monkey, and it manifests itself in several themes that are there for the reader to see if they take the time to look.  If I were to sum it up in one sentence, Hive Monkey is an exploration of the individual’s perception of reality. It’s also an exploration of the idea of reality itself, whether it is Ack-Ack, whose consciousness began in the virtual and was then transported to the real, or Paul, Victoria’s ex-husband, whose essence, his “soul” as it were, was transported to the virtual when his body died.  In the first novel, the cult of the Undying wanted to evolve beyond their physical bodies, attaining immortality by creating a virtual society that would interact with reality by means of artificial bodies.  This time around, the Gestalt wants to do away with individual consciousness and live in a shared reality.  This underlying them of alternate/parallel realities is woven throughout the architecture of these first two books of Powell’s triptych. 

Now the idea of a Hive mind is not new to science fiction, the obvious comparison being the Borg Collective of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, or the alien parasites of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. However, Powell has managed to put his personal stamp on the idea, right down to the creepy Mr. Roarke outfits the Gestalt wear. Their technological superiority is explained by their ability to act as a bunch of parallel processing computers, their adaptability to most situations by their common awareness, and their interest in Ack-Ack the result of—well, you’ll find out.  Then there’s the name, “Gestalt” whose definition, “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts,” explains their desire to collectivize the universe.

While reviewing Ack-Ack Macaque, I mentioned the care Powell took regarding world building.  He created an alternate future that bore much similarity to the one we inhabit, while introducing features that suggest the road less travelled.  From dirigibles becoming the dominant form of air travel to the unification of France and Britain into a greater commonwealth, Powell gives his future a unique brand of authenticity.  With Hive Monkey, he’s graduated from world building to universe building, exploring the idea of multiverse theory, a set of infinite possibilities resulting from our everyday decisions  Ack-Ack’s universe parallels our own with significant differences, just as that of Bill Cole’s (William’s doppelganger) is both parallel to yet significantly different from both.

As for the mild (and only) complaint that the previous novel’s villain didn’t have enough stage time to be fully fleshed out, I’m glad to see that it’s been addressed more than adequately this time around.  After all, we’ve met this villain before without realizing it and his motivation is all the more understandable for it.  It also helps that just as you think you’ve got a hold on what’s going on, Powell throws in a delightful twist that shakes up both Ack-Ack and the reader.

Now I’m not sure if I’m perhaps reading too much subtext into this novel, but I will say this: If you’re simply looking for a fun adventure with some bizarre yet compelling characters, then this book is for you.  If however, you’re looking for something with a little more depth to it, a sci-fi novel that’s more than what it seems, then this is also the book for you.  Whether it be an exploration of our perceptions or simply a fun shoot-em-up, Powell has managed to find the balance between thoughtful existentialism and pulp adventure.

Hive Monkey is the second of a trilogy beginning with Ack-Ack Macaque and ending in the forthcoming Macaque Attack. It will be released in the United Kingdom December 14th and in Canada on December 31st.  Gareth L. Powell maintains a blog at garethlpowell.com and both he and Ack-Ack Macaque can be found pontificating on Twitter.

B+

The Holy Thief-William Ryan

The Holy ThiefGregorin’s voice sounded guarded. “He mentioned she was mutilated.  Tortured, you say?  The poor woman, I only hope you catch the killer quickly.  A madman by the sound of it.”

“Well, Comrade Colonel, it wasn’t pretty.  Not pretty at all.  He used electricity to burn her–I’ve never come across that before.  I wondered whether it was a method State Security had ever encountered.”

Korolev’s question hung in the air like an artillery shell at the top of its flight and Korolev didn’t have to look at Yasimov to know he’d now gone deathly pale.

Gregorin, however, after a long pause merely sighed.  “Comrade Korolev, you’ll be well aware that torture is prohibited by the Soviet Criminal Code as a means of interrogation.  You aren’t suggesting that the NKVD would ever flout that prohibition, are you?”

Source: Bought copy.

Publisher:  Minotaur Books

Publication Date:  August 31, 2010

1936…

Captain Alexei Korolev is a well-regarded detective within the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia.  He’s a rising star within the C.I.D., having just come off a case in which he tracked down and apprehended a serial rapist, so when a young woman is found brutally murdered—tortured—and left posed on the altar of a derelict church, his superiors put him on the case, knowing he has the best chance of solving her murder.  Korolev is methodical and relentless, using his mind rather than brute force to elicit confessions, bolstering his resolve with both a fine sense of duty and empathy for the victim.  He’s also a modern Soviet man, convinced that while the methods of the State are sometimes unnecessarily harsh, it’s not his place to question why but rather to go about his business and remain as apolitical as he can.  After all, it’s safer that way.

When a Chekist colonel with his own suspicious agenda takes an interest in the case, coupled with the circumstances of the young woman’s torture—reminiscent of interrogation methods used by the Soviet Secret Police—Korolev realizes that this extraordinary case is a tangled web that he must most carefully unravel without incurring the wrath of an utterly ruthless organization.  But what is the connection between a young girl and the State security apparatus? And what is her connection to a thief whose body turns up shortly thereafter bearing wounds that share the same hallmark?  Discovering the truth of the matter will be no small feat.  One small misstep and his life, and that of those around him, will be forfeit to a paranoid regime that values secrecy over life.

With The Holy Thief, William Ryan has created not just a compelling mystery but a stunningly realistic portrayal of the subtle horror of everyday life under the Soviets.  Ryan has set his story in 1936, just before the advent of the Great Purge, in which Joseph Stalin’s cronies “cleansed” both the Communist Party and government of what they considered to be, “enemies of the people.”  This purge later evolved into wide-scale repression of the peasantry and eventually gutted the Red Army leadership, leaving them ill-prepared for war with Germany in 1941.  When the novel begins, things have not progressed to that point, yet Korolev and his compatriots in the C.I.D. are very conscious of the danger involved in any perceived criticism of the State or its methods.

There are several themes woven into The Holy Thief, most importantly the interaction of personal Religion and State sponsored Atheism.  As our protagonist, Korolev proves himself time and again to have an ingrained respect for and belief in religion, but as a modern Soviet man, he’s theoretically an Atheist.  Reality is more complicated.  Religion may be banned under the Soviets, but the traditions and faith of the people remain a hidden yet omnipresent fact of life, and Korolev goes to great lengths to hide his personal belief.  He secrets a bible in his apartment, unconsciously uses religious phrases and looks upon the desecration of the church by the Komsomol with disgust, even while extolling the virtues of Communism.  It soon becomes obvious that the vicious crimes he’s investigating are connected to the value people put on religious artifacts, specifically, the religious Icons that hold sway over a society firmly rooted in belief in the supernatural.

The second major theme running through the novel is the ubiquitous fear pervading Soviet society under the reign of Stalin.  The citizens of Moscow are living in a time and place where the State intrudes into every facet of life and with that intrusion comes the realization that everyone, from lowliest peasant to highest official, could be taken at any time for any reason by agents of State security.  This fear is highlighted in the relationship between Korolev and his superior, General Popov.  It’s a sure sign of the overwhelming power of the State when a man of such an important position within the city militia is fearful of speaking bluntly to a subordinate in the nominal privacy of his own office.  Yet both Korolev and Popov have seen the results of appearing critical of the party or its ideology, and by the end of the novel Korolev has experienced it directly.

As for the characters of The Holy Thief, they are essential to the appeal of the novel.  Korolev, for instance, is refreshingly real.  He’s not the superhuman detective that inhabits many mystery novels.  He’s intelligent mind you, but not overly so.  Nor is he a superhuman physical specimen.  When hit, he suffers the consequences, and they stick with him.  Hell, in the latter half of the novel, he’s dealing with the physical, sometimes debilitating effects of a self-inflicted concussion. He’s also a morally conflicted character, witnessing the excesses of the revolution but still ideologically naïve enough to believe that these excesses are necessary to further the cause of international Socialism.  I will admit that he is surrounded by somewhat stock characters.  The earnest rookie, embodied in his protégé, Semionov, the consummate lickspittle, embodied in Larinin, the wizened superior, embodied in Popov—all stock mystery characters, yet their familiarity to the reader is not detrimental to the story.  If anything, they lend a certain authenticity to Korolev, being personalities we’ve all met at one time or another.  As for Gregorin, the Chekist colonel, while it’s easy to see him for the villain he is, Ryan manages to keep his motivation a secret until late in the novel and leaves the reader wondering what his role in the dastardly affair is.

I don’t usually feel the need to comment on world-building with regards to mysteries, generally saving it for talk of Sci-fi or Fantasy novels, but it must be examined for a moment here.  Ryan has managed to build a convincingly realistic portrayal of Soviet society and specifically that of Moscow in the late thirties.  From the Metropol Hotel to Tomsky Stadium, home of FC Spartak and one of the novel’s murder locations, Ryan has paid close attention to detail, right down to the team’s nickname.  Accurate portrayals of Petrovka Street and the Moscow Criminal Police headquarters, the Komsomol club in a former church on Razin Street and the novel’s central crime scene, even the scene in an interrogation room of the dreaded Lubyanka lend a ring of historical accuracy to the novel.  One cannot be help feeling immersed in the life and times of a certain Captain Korolev, right down to the specific model of cars driven and the brand of cigarettes he smokes.

The Holy Thief is a beautifully constructed novel of what can only be called Soviet Noir and a wonderful introduction to the life and times of Alexei Korolev, investigator of the Criminal Investigative Division of the Moscow Militia and whose exploits I look forward to in the next novel of the series, The Darkening Field.

A

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.

 

The Ethical Assassin–David Liss

the Ethical AssassinI probably wouldn’t have said it without the beer, but I’d had the beer. 

“Okay, fine. Meat is murder.  But you know what else is murder?  Wait, let me think.  Oh, yeah.  I remember now: Murder.  Murder is murder.  That’s right.  Killing a couple of people who are minding their own business.  Breaking into their home and shooting them in the head.  That’s murder too, I think.  The Smiths have an album about that?”

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Publication Date: March, 2006

Lemuel Altick is just a kid, selling encyclopedias door to door in the trailer park township of Meadowbrook Grove, a charming accumulation of worn down trailers permeated with the musk of the local pig farm waste lagoon.  He’s good at it, a natural seller, and the profit he makes from this travelling summer job (Champion Encyclopedias!) should just about cover tuition for college in the fall.  So, when he manages to charm his way into one last trailer before knocking off for the day, he’s ecstatic.  Between the disinterested palooka by unlikely name of “Bastard” and his gullible “wife” Karen, it’s an easy score for a talented salesman like Lem.  And so it goes—the pitch is made—the cheque is written, and Lem is on his way to a $1200 commission. Everything’s clockwork, right up until the moment a spikey haired blonde assassin in black jeans and a button down shirt bursts in on them and shoots his almost clients in the head.  Lem’s commission, and possibly his life, are now forfeit.

Luckily for him, this particular assassin has a peculiar code of ethics, not so much the “no women, no children” of Leon Montana (The Professional), but rather one in which he will not kill those he considers innocent.  However, his definition of “innocent” is the peculiar part.  So, Lem is offered a deal.  His silence, coupled with his fingerprints on the murder weapon—just in case—and things will be cool.  Unknown to either Lem or the assassin, things are most definitely not “cool”, as Bastard and Karen are much more than the uneducated hicks they seemed pre-mortem.  Add a corrupt cop, a wannabe pedophile, a low-level mobster, a meth operation, and most importantly, $40 000 in missing cash to the mix and you have the bizarre ride that is The Ethical Assassin.

I first saw a copy of The Ethical Assassin in a store window while walking down Queen St. West in Toronto, way back in 2006.  What caught my attention were the title and the question that popped to mind.  Is it possible to be ethical when one’s chosen profession is the killing of others?  After all, murder is not exactly what the masses would call an “ethical” profession.  Sure, there are reasons to kill: self-defense, the “politics by other means” known as war, maybe even (if you’re pro-death sentence) execution as punishment for one’s crimes. Melford Kean, the titular “Ethical Assassin” kills not for money, or revenge, but due to a deep rooted—and decidedly odd—sense of morality.

Kean is not so much an ethical assassin as he is an ideological one.  Charming on the surface, yet more empathetic to the animal kingdom than his fellow Homo sapiens, Melford has an uncanny ability to argue his position, making an intriguing portrait of a zealot.   Mired in the idea of moral relativism, what seems/is amoral to Lem, Melford accepts as the price to be paid for his activism by other means.  Without giving out too much detail as to why Melford does what he does, let’s just say it’s not about the money or the drugs but more about his profound sense of egalitarianism of species.

It becomes obvious during the course of the novel that Lem, while terrified of Melford’s predilection towards extreme violence, is also somewhat taken in by his charming nature, and while not exactly becoming friends, they share a relationship that borders on it.  And that’s the thing about Melford—he’s a zealot, and a persuasive one.  Lem is smart enough not to be taken in by his ideology, but their time together and some of his subsequent choices show that he’s definitely influenced by Melford’s arguments, even if only on a subconscious level.

As for Lem, he’s a charming portrait of a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  An earnest and upstanding kid, simply trying to make the best of the bad deal he’s been dealt in life, he spends the novel trying to extricate himself from a situation not of his making while not getting killed in the  process.  There’s some irony in the fact that he doesn’t really have to worry about Melford—ethically Lem is in the clear—but his perceived association to the crime by those seeking revenge, and the $40K in drug money.  His problems are also compounded by Melford’s desire to look out for him, all the while proselytizing about his system of ethics while trying to sort out the situation in a way that keeps Lem from harm.

While Lem and Melford are the focus of David Liss’ novel, the villains of the story are interesting in their own right.  The relationship between B.B. and Desiré, meth kingpin/pedophile wannabe and his sexy former addict/consigliere, a truly vile corrupt cop by the name of Joe Doe and a former mafia heavy by the unlikely name of Kenny Rogers (hence the nickname “the gambler) demonstrates an odd alliance of interesting characters.  B.B. seems an unlikely kingpin, more concerned with “advancing” the moral character of young men, while Desiré finds herself questioning her allegiance to a man who may have saved her from the gutter but is on a downward spiral into behavior she can’t countenance.  Doe is a delusional character who thinks he’s the smartest man in the room while continually proving he’s not, and the Gambler is actually somewhat sympathetic.  He’s got Lou Gehrig’s disease, and while his chosen profession is suspect, it’s the only way a former mob heavy can pay his mounting medical costs.  Brought together in opposition to the partnership that is Lem and Melford, they all discover that the ethical assassin is not someone to be trifled with.

There are times when The Ethical Assassin feels like social activism parading as fiction, yet it’s so well written that the author can be forgiven for injecting his particular world view.  David Liss has been interviewed on several occasions regarding the animal rights message of the novel and is very adamant that he’s not suggesting direct action, claiming that the character of Melford is written so outrageously as to make this obvious.  However, there are times in the novel where his claim falls short and it devolves into a lecture on the evils of both the commercial farming of animals and the demerits of choosing to be a carnivore.  I’ll take his word on that (re: direct action) but reserve the right to question his sincerity as to whether or not he’s lecturing the reader.  It’s a narrow path to follow, creating such a charming and persuasive character while still showing the flaws of their argument.  It’s also hard to review without delving into the controversial subject.

Having said that, The Ethical Assassin is a charming novel, well written and entertaining, and deserving its place in the pantheon of unusual crime fiction. 

B

On honesty and Book Reviews

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” ~Oscar Wilde

Anyone who’s browsed through this blog may have noticed over time that most of the reviews I put up are generally laudatory.  There’s a reason for that.  What with a finite amount of time for both reading and writing, owing to, well…life, I generally finish books I like and stop reading those I don’t.  There are times however when I will finish a book that I’m not well disposed toward.  Usually, in that case it’s a book that a publisher has been kind enough to send me for review purposes, although there are times when I’ve bought a book and said to myself, “dammit, I paid for this…I’m damn well reading it!”  Having said that, I reserve the right to give an honest opinion of any book sent to me for review.  It may not be a recommendation that you read it, but anyone willing to send a review copy deserves the satisfaction of a review for their efforts, whether it be good or bad.

 As an example, awhile back Titan Books sent me a copy of Kim Newman’s JagoMy only other experience with Mr. Newman’s work was the delightfully wicked Anno Dracula, and on the basis of that experience, I was quite excited to read something else by someone I consider a superior genre (that genre being Horror) author.  Alas, while the premise was intriguing, it proved to be an overly long behemoth of a novel that suffered from a lack of brevity.  The same novel could have been told better in about half the space and by the time I was done reading it I was more relieved that it was over than excited about writing a review.  That review is still forthcoming, but it will be written.  Quid pro quo, remember?

Of the books this past year that I’ve finished and chosen not to review, John Scalzi’s Redshirts stands out as a novel that I a. bought, b. read to the end, and c. hated.  Yes, yes, I know he won a Hugo, but to me, it was little more than fluff, a derivative bit of fan fiction with several codas tacked on the end in a failed effort to appear “literary.”  As for the Hugo, well, it reinforced my opinion that some awards are more about good marketing or an author’s popularity.  Granted, there are many rave reviews of Redshirts on-line, so I’ll direct you to them, or maybe suggest that you read a much superior novel by the same author, Agent to the Stars.  As for Redshirts, the best I can say about it is that it didn’t take up a lot of my time.

So, what’s the point of this diatribe?  Well, basically this: I want to institute a slight format change to the site.  I want to let you, the reader, know where I, the reviewer, got my source material, whether it be a review copy from a publisher, off an advance review site such as NetGalley, or something I bought at the local bookstore. I’ll include this information before the body of the review. That way you’re forewarned of any biases in my reviewing.  I hope you don’t find any.

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+