Christmas Fear and Christmas Cheer

So, it’s that time of year again, in which bloggers either do a post on their favourite novels/short stories of the past year or spend some time looking at seasonally topical reads.  The season being Christmas, I’ve been mulling over some suggestions for you this past week.  Unfortunately, mulling isn’t writing, and I’ve found myself feeling like Clark Kent must every time Lois Lane scoops him.

In my case, the character of Lois Lane is played by one Michaela Gray, a.k.a. “The Bookaneerover at GeekPlanetOnline .  Hop on over and check out her article before I give you my list of Christmas themed reads.  I’ll wait.

And…we’re back.  At the risk of being redundant, here’s my list of Christmas tales you should check out.

1.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas CarolThe obvious choice on any Christmas themed list, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his one night journey to redemption after a little rough handling by the spirits of Past, Present and Future.   Universally loved and a book that hasn’t really left the collective consciousness since its publication back in 1843. Now that’s a story with legs.

Beyond the cheery message that no one is beyond redemption, what I find kind of neat about Dickens’ work is that it’s totally a horror novel.  Think about it for a second.  Some poor (well, rich) old geezer tormented by a host of spirits in the dead of night in a drafty old English mansion.  That’s practically a Richard Matheson novel!. A Christmas Carol is truly a classic and deserves top billing on any Christmas themed list.

2.  I Am Scrooge (A Zombie Story for Christmas) by Adam Roberts

ZombieScroogeIt’s to my eternal shame (okay, maybe not eternal–how about transitory?) that Adam Roberts’ re-imagining of Dickens tale has sat on my shelf low this past year without being read.  It’s especially puzzling considering my continued interest in funny zombie novels.  The idea of the three ghosts teaming up with old Ebenezer to combat a hungry horde of shambling zombies and by happenstance save the world is definitely appealing to anyone with an interest in the walking dead.  I’m not sure it will have as happy an ending as the original, but I am sure there’ll be a meal somewhere along the way.  Although I doubt there’s a lot of meat on Tiny Tim, or Scrooge for that matter.

3.  Naughty:  Nine Tales of Christmas Crime by Steve Hockensmith

NaughtySteven Hockensmith is a wonderful mystery writer who’s turned his attention to Christmas themed mysteries on several (at least nine) occasions.  If you’re a fan of the genre and looking for something with a Christmas(y) feel to it, then Naughty is the book for you.  My favourite tale involves the kidnapping of a certain man in a red suit by members of the KGB and Mrs. Klaus efforts to effect his rescue.  Poisoned fruitcake, devious secret santas, and an introduction to Hannah Fox, a character I hope to meet some day in her own novel, all make this a novel that any mystery lover should invest in.  Do yourself a favour and pick it up as either an ebook or print version.  Steve is a master of both mystery and witty dialogue and I’ve had a long history of not being disappointed with his writing.

Speaking of short stories, Arthur Conan Doyle was known for writing a Christmas tale or two involving everyone’s favorite Victorian detective, Sherlock Holmes.  Honourable mention goes to The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle in which Sherlock shows considerable restraint with regards to a criminal whom he encounters at Christmas.  George Mann has also made an effort to write a series of Christmas themed stories with regards to his wonderful Newbury and Hobbes series of Steampunk detective novels, all of which can be obtained if you pick up a copy of The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes.  Try reading Christmas Spirits if you’d like a unique take on A Christmas Carol involving a detective on an opium bender during the holidays.

I’m sure there are many more Christmas themed tales that I’m omitting in the course of this holiday post.  If you’ve got a tale or novel to add to the mix, please feel free to enlighten me in the comments, and in the meantime, enjoy yourself a merry little Christmas.

 


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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+