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+

Ack-Ack Macaque–Gareth L. Powell

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

Ack-Ack Macaque grinned, exposing his teeth.

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

“Blow shit up and hurt people.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A-

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

The Last Policeman–Ben H. Winters

policeman_winner-cover_Layout 1“I’m sorry, what did you say you were looking for?”

“I don’t know yet. An investigation’s proper course cannot be mapped in advance.  It follows each piece of information forward to the next one.”

“Oh yeah?”  When the young woman raises her eyebrows, it creates delicate furrows on her forehead.  “It sounds like you’re quoting from a textbook or something.”

Detective Henry Palace has a whole host of problems.  He’s got a moon bat sister whose equally ditzy husband is missing.  His fellow detectives no longer seem to be taking their jobs seriously.  He’s got a dead body hung in a McDonald’s washroom that everyone from the district attorney to the forensic examiner has determined is a suicide, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.  He’s also going to be dead in six months.

When it was finally determined that a 6.5 kilometer asteroid known as 2011GV, a.k.a. “Maia” is definitely going to hit the earth within six months, society fell apart.  Many people quit their jobs to pursue their “bucket lists”; many others chose to end things on their own terms, with pills, a gun, or dangling at the end of a rope.  Still others continued on with their daily lives through force of habit, either pretending nothing was wrong or simply not knowing what else to do.  Henry Palace is one of the lucky ones, in that he’s right where he wants to be.  He’s dreamed of being a detective since childhood, and finally realized it in the months preceding the discovery of Maia.  End of the world or not, Palace is doing what he loves, so when Peter Zell, insurance salesman and purveyor of pretty much the least useful service you could think of in a pre-apocalyptic world, ends up hanging from a belt in a dirty washroom, it looks like an open and shut case of suicide.  At least it does to everyone but Palace.  Something’s just not right, something innocuous, but curious at the same time.  If you’re going to kill yourself—why buy a new belt?

Thus begins Ben H. Winter’s Edgar award-winning, The Last Policeman, a novel which explores what it means to solve crime in a world where it really doesn’t matter.

The Last Policeman is a police procedural in unusual times.  Henry Palace has to deal with both a dysfunctional society and the eroding infrastructure of a fictionalized Concord, New Hampshire which only gets worse as the end nears.  Basic modern technology such as the internet and cell phone service are spotty at best.  Simple forensics such as toxicology reports are hard to come by, and even fueling a departmental car is a daunting proposition.  A man who prefers a life of structure and reason, Palace is stubbornly rule bound and methodical, yet willing to bypass those investigative rules–if necessary–in his dogged pursuit of the truth.  He’s also got a well-honed sense of decency.  Where a meal costs tens of thousands of dollars due to the collapse of the banking system and the resulting hyper-inflation, he still tips well, even though he can’t really afford it.  When he discovers an unsavory aspect to the deceased Peter Zell’s past that might explain suicide as a likely scenario, he doesn’t just bow to popular opinion, and when his sister implores him to find her missing husband, family duty requires he follow-up.

The list of possible suspects is short, but the author provides us with enough theories that the reader isn’t aware of the culprit, or even if there is one, until late in the novel. Was it Zell’s boyhood friend with whom he had a falling out?  Could Zell’s suspiciously disinterested sister or her family have a role in his death?  As an insurance salesman unlikely to pay out policies in the face of the apocalypse, could it be a disgruntled customer?  And what is Zell’s connection with the charming Ms. Naomi Eddes, personal assistant to his boss and first noticed by Palace as she hurriedly walked away from the McDonald’s Zell’s body was found in?

When I started reading The Last Policeman, I expected a maudlin and depressing novel.  After all, he’s writing about the futility of doing your job when you know it’s most likely all going to end within a short period of time.  However, in Henry Palace we find a case study of a man who is, as I said earlier, right where he wants to be.  True, I’m sure he doesn’t want to be facing the apocalypse, but lacking an alternative, he’s making the best of a bad situation and relishes the thought of a mystery he can solve.  Palace obviously has a strong sense of duty, taking his job seriously while others simply go through the motions, but the reader gets the impression that his determination to prove this suicide is not suicide stems not just from duty, but also an unwillingness to accept what he feels in his gut is wrong, and maybe an attempt to resolve demons from his own past. Perhaps in the end, he feels he owes it to history to wrap up the details, and not allow Zell’s death to be misrepresented.

The Last Policeman is written from Palace’s point of view in a style that constantly demonstrates his methodical nature, both dealing with those around him and with his investigation.  It’s also a broader look into dealing with the unthinkable, whether people will rise to the occasion or sink into behavior that at any other time would be unconscionable.  Ben H. Winters deserves much kudos for a thoughtful and intelligent mystery that has garnered him an Edgar award for “Best Paperback Original” of 2013.  It’s also the first in a trilogy of his apocalyptic mysteries featuring Henry Palace.  Winters’ second novel, Countdown City, is out now.

A

The Affinity Bridge–George Mann

The-Affinity-Bridge2“One thing is certain.  There doesn’t appear to be a simple solution to any of this.”  Veronica shrugged, folding her hands on her lap. 

Newbury smiled.  “There rarely is, my dear Miss Hobbes.  There rarely is.”

A few weeks ago, Titan Books offered advanced copies of George Mann’s The Executioner’s Heart for review.  While mine is in the mail, I thought I’d better play a little catch up, starting with The Affinity Bridge, first of the Newbury and Hobbes series of Steampunk mysteries.  Mann’s Steampunk adventures have been on my “intent to read” list for a while now, and this seemed a good opportunity to meet Sir Maurice Newbury and his plucky assistant, Ms. Veronica Hobbes, following their exploits around a reimagined London, where wondrous airships inhabit the skies, deadly revenants plague the streets, and murder is in the air—or at least the back streets of Whitechapel.

The year is 1901, and Victoria is still Queen due to the ministrations of her personal physician, who has artificially extended her lifespan through the wonders of both modern medicine and engineering.  Sir Maurice Newbury is one of her foremost Agents of the Crown.  An academic at the British Museum, dabbler in the Occult, and occasional laudanum addict, Newbury brings his inquisitive mind and deductive ability to any situation the Queen demands.  He also finds himself on loan to Scotland Yard and Chief Inspector Sir Charles Bainbridge from time to time, utilized on cases requiring a unique perspective.  At the moment, Newbury is consulting on The Case of the Glowing Policeman, wherein a series of murders in and around the Whitechapel district has baffled the regular police force.

Naturally, every good detective needs a stalwart companion, and in this case, the honour falls to Newbury’s newly hired assistant, the comely and intelligent Ms. Veronica Hobbes.  She’s not so much an assistant as she is a partner in his investigations—a modern woman determined to make her mark in a world dominated by men.  Her sharp wit and deductive skills compliment Newbury’s own, and her femininity puts those who might otherwise be reluctant to talk at ease.  Manners, after all.  She also has a few secrets that we as readers are privy to, but which Newbury will have to discover on his own.

The Affinity Bridge is no simple murder mystery—glowing policeman notwithstanding—for as an agent of the crown, it is Newbury’s duty to be at the beck and call of his monarch, and when an airship crashes in central London with numerous casualties, that call comes.  Her majesty is concerned, as the airship was piloted by one of Chapman and Villiers astounding automatons, artificial pilots claimed to be foolproof.  Was the accident proof that they aren’t, or was it foul play?  Their investigation will lead them into a diabolical tale of murder and mayhem through the fog ridden streets of London and eventually above, culminating in a flight above those same streets in an out of control airship.  Of course, there is the matter of the Affinity Engine, but since it bears directly on the resolution of several mysteries, you should be allowed to find out about it on your own.

Sir Maurice Newbury is an intriguing character.  Like the iconic Sherlock Holmes, he is a master of observation, yet slave to his appetites.  Whereas Holmes used cocaine recreationally in an attempt to alleviate his boredom between cases, Newbury uses laudanum in an attempt to forget the horrors he has seen, perhaps elicit a breakthrough when stymied by a case, or even to breach the boundaries between reality and the spirit world.  He sees his addiction as a necessary failing, yet propriety keeps him from either seeking help or acknowledging the weakness. Like Mr. Holmes, Newbury has some skill with both his fists or a blade, prerequisites of an agent of the crown, recalling the image of a Victorian Bond.  No word on his license to kill, however.  Newbury is also a dabbler and believer in the Occult, something Holmes was generally incredulous of.

Veronica Hobbes brings her own intrigue to the novel.  Seemingly just a feminine version of Dr. Watson to Newbury’s Holmes, she’s very much as canny as Newbury, and has her own secrets.  Hobbes is much more grounded than Newbury, and takes it upon herself both to protect his image and subtly keep him from harm when the laudanum takes over.  She’s a relatively strong female character, holding her own in a time and place where man’s chauvinism still runs deep.  I suspect as the series progresses, we’ll see Veronica come into her own as both an investigator and possible paramour for the brilliant, yet troubled Newbury. 

One cliché, or rather trope, of the Steampunk genre is the idea of the “Agent of the Crown. ”  Trope/cliché it may be, but it’s a rather fun idea that runs throughout Steampunk culture and honestly, never gets old.  Both Ulysses Quicksilver, of the remarkably wonderfulUlyssesQuicksilver Pax Britannia series by Jonathan Green, and Richard Francis Burton of Mark Hodder’s Adventures of Burton and Swinburne share the title with Sir Francis Newbury.  In fact, Green’s Quicksilver could realistically be described as a descendant of Maurice Newbury, or at least of the Universe which he inhabits, what with his introduction as an agent of Queen Victoria, who has managed to extend her reign through means mechanical and medicinal to the year 1997.   Alas, Ulysses Quicksilver’s story is for another time.

The Affinity Bridge is the first in a quartet of Steampunk novels by George Mann, and if the rest prove as delightful as the first, then I suggest a foray to your local bookstore in search of the adventures of Newbury and Hobbes.  Preferably by Steam Carriage.

A-

Bloggers note–While finishing my own draft of this review, I managed to breeze through Mann’s sophomore Newbury and Hobbes novel, The Osiris Ritual and if anything, it’s better than the first.

The Yard–Alex Grecian

The Yard“Breath through your mouth, Mr Day.  The odor isn’t pleasant.”

Day nodded, panting heavily.

“I suppose it is Mr Little.  But what have they done to him?”

You can see what’s been done.  The question is why has it been done?”

“It’s inhuman.”

“I’m afraid it’s all too human.”

I am not a fan of the “Columbo method of mystery writing.  While it worked well on-screen for Peter Falk, as far as I’m concerned, if you let the reader know the identity of the villain at the top of the story, it’s no longer a mystery, but rather a thriller.  I much prefer a mystery where the reader is given as much chance as possible to discover the culprit before the author gives us the big reveal.  Even Sherlock Holmes, who almost invariably had things solved well before the end of the story,  let the reader follow along without knowing until the last second–whodunit?  So, I expected to be much disappointed with Alex Grecian’s The Yard, a novel where the identity of the culprit is known within the first few chapters.  However, extenuating circumstances turned what could have been a straight out thriller into a nicely rounded mystery.

Scotland Yard

Scotland Yard

First, let us set the scene.  The year is 1889, and it’s been a year since Saucy Jack, a.k.a. Jack the Ripper has haunted the streets of Whitechapel, carving up prostitutes and taunting the good detectives of Scotland Yard to stop his reign of mayhem.  Detective Inspector Walter Day is on his first week of service with the Yard, and catches his first case—the murder of a fellow detective, stabbed and left in a trunk on the platform of one of London’s busiest transit stations. It’s a situation that’s doubly uncomfortable for the newly minted detective, feeling the pressure to both impress his fellow detectives and to solve the murder of one of Scotland Yard’s own. Thrust into a situation that would test the mettle of even a seasoned detective, Day follows the forensics, with the help of Dr. Bernard Kingsley, coroner and advocate of this new field of scientific inquiry.  Has Saucy Jack returned?  Or is there a new madman haunting the streets of London?  Day and Kingsley resolve to find out before the killer strikes again.

Intertwined with Day’s story is that of Constable Neville Hammersmith, obsessed with his own inquiry into the death of a chimney sweep’s assistant, a five year old boy left to die trapped in a flue when he becomes stuck.  Hammersmith is met with derision by the detective assigned to the case, who would rather chalk the enquiry up to “death by misadventure” rather than pursue the chimneysweep who left one of London’s child labourers to die alone in the dark.  Hammersmith refuses to let the matter go, spurred by his own experiences as a child in the coal mines of  Wales and his desire to punish those that would use a child as a tool to be thrown away when broken.  When his own inquiry involves the prominent doctor whose house the dead child was discovered in, a series of events is unleashed that eventually involves Hammersmith in the lives of Day and Inspector Michael Blacker, their work on the murder of Inspector Christian Little, and a third set of murders that Blacker is convinced Little was close to solving when he met his end.

The Yard is split into several narratives, written from the point of view of the various detectives, constable Hammersmith, Doctor Kingsley, and, interspersed throughout the story, the murderer, allowing us as readers some insight into the killer’s motivations.  However, very early on the identity of the murderer is revealed to the reader—we’ll call that the “Columbo Effect”—something that usually ruins the mystery for me as a reader.  I like a mystery to be a mystery, and once you know who the murderer is, as I said earlier—that’s a thriller.  Grecian manages to save the mystery aspect by very deftly intertwining a series of actual mysteries into the narrative, and providing motivation for the villain’s crime from his/her point of view.  It’s very much the Columbo method/effect, but the author manages to make it work.

The Yard is also an intriguing study of the birth of forensics, in the form of Doctor Kingsley.  A medical examiner on retainer to Scotland Yard, he’s obsessed with forensic science and pathology, specifically a new method of identification involving the use of an individual’s fingerprints.  He’s also clearly modeled on Dr. Joseph Bell, or possibly the less known Henry Littlejohn, the former being the template used by Sir Arthur

Joseph Bell

Joseph Bell

Conan Doyle when he created Sherlock Holmes.  Back to Kingsley—he’s also a pioneer in the field of forensic pathology, and when the reader first meets him, he’s elbow deep in an autopsy, with his daughter (and assistant) drawing diagrams of the procedure for future reference.

Alex Grecian also gives a patina of authenticity to this Victorian mystery with the inclusion of many subtle examples of life in Victorian England.  Hammersmith and his roommate, constable Colin Pringle, share a room due to their relative poverty and ration both food and second hand tea (infused with copper to give some semblance of taste) simply to get by.  The author also gives insight into the use of child labour at the time, whether it be as chimney sweep assistants or working in the mines, and demonstrates the obvious lack of social services for the poor or mentally ill.  The climax of the novel takes place round and about one of the many workhouses that dotted London at the time, and provides a look at the squalid conditions of life in Victorian London, juxtaposed with the relative opulence of life amongst the upper crust of society.  Even the murder squad at Scotland Yard is shockingly deficient.  Composed of a small unit within the metropolitan police force, it’s hard to imagine the evolution of such a ragtag bunch of detectives into the cultural and investigative icon of today’s Scotland Yard.

My final analysis—The Yard is more thriller than mystery, but Grecian manages to weave enough of the investigative process into the novel that the reader is able to overlook the premature reveal and end up with a ripping good read.  I look forward to the sequel, The Black Country, out in Hardcover now.BlackCountry

B

 

Alex Grecian maintains a website at alexgrecian.com.

The Court of the Air – Stephen Hunt

CourtOfTheAir“We’re the ghosts in the machine, Oliver, keeping the game straight and hearts pure.  The only thing they know about us is the name Kirkhill gave us – the Court of the Air; the highest bleeding court in the land.”

About five years ago, a title leaped out at me from the shelf as I walked through my local bookstore.  The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt, described on the dust cover as, “A fantastical tale of high adventure, low-life rogues, and orphans on the run.”  Now I’m a sucker for both fantasy and adventure novels, especially those with a historical feel, and a quick read of the synopsis suggested that this novel could be all those things, with the added bonus of being Steampunk.  At the time, I set it back down, thinking to pick it up at a later date–and then promptly forgot it.  Flash forward a year and the same title once again leaped out at me while strolling through another bookshop.  It also leaped out in hardcover for an absolutely reasonable price.  So, I bought it, set it on the shelf with the intent to read, and there it sat until earlier this year.  When I finally got around to reading it, I realized that I’ve been missing out on the Steampunk equivalent of J. R. R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.  I also realize that if I missed out on this for six years, you might too, and we can’t have that.

So, synopsis please, and we’ll go from there. 

The Court of the Air is nominally the story of two orphans, one being the foundling Molly Templar, a street urchin left to the care of the Sungate workhouse in Middlesteel, capital of the nation-state of Jackals.  The other, one Oliver Brooks, is also an orphan after an Aerostat crash into the feymist (magical faerie mist is the only way I can describe it) that blankets parts of Jackals killed his parents and left him alone in the world except for his uncle Titus.  Life is hard for both Molly and Oliver.  She goes from job to job, the proceeds confiscated to pay for her care at the workhouse until she comes of age and finds a career, while he is ostracized by the community and forced to register with the worldsingers (a type of magician) every week to prove the latent mystical powers they suspect he has as a result of his time in the feymist have not manifested.  When everyone in Molly’s workhouse is slaughtered by a mysterious assassin, and Oliver’s uncle is murdered in his house and he subsequently framed for the crime, both go on the run and into a series of adventures that will eventually bring them and their stories together—and may possibly rip both the state of Jackals and literally their entire universe apart.  That is, unless they can find a way to stop it.

The Court of the Air is a novel of intrigue within intrigue, with many factions on the trail of the two orphans, some to protect them, others to stop them from fulfilling a destiny they aren’t even aware of.  It’s also a masterful blend of both Steampunk and something somewhat unique to the genre.  Sure, it was quite obvious in the opening pages that there would be the traditional Steampunk fare: Autonomous Steam Men, Aerostats (also known as Zeppelins), Pneumatic Buildings and Subterranean Cities, but what piqued my interest was the addition of magic.  Elements such as the Feymist (faerie) creatures, the Special Guard (those augmented by their exposure to the world beyond), Worldsingers (magicians who utilize the power of the earth in their arts), even the militia’s muskets relying on crystals grown for use as a sort of magical gunpowder, all add a mystical element to a genre that (I think) is not generally known for it.

I would be remiss at this point not to mention the Court of the Air itself, an organization whose existence is whispered amongst the people but rarely seen.  A shadowy league, influencing significant events from behind the scenes for their own altruistic–or nefarious–purposes.  A cabal to whose attention Oliver and Molly have unwittingly come.  

There are times in which The Court of the Air can be a tricky read.  Stephen Hunt has managed to create a universe with its own particular accent, especially with regards to the language.  The novel is chock full of Jackelian slang.  As an example, Crushers are police, Wordsingers are magicians, even the honorifics mister and missus become Samson and Damson.  Many times while reading The Court of the Air, I wished for a dictionary of Jackelian vernacular, but much like a Dickens novel, you get used to it, and it gives the novel a particularly strong air of authenticity.  Speaking of Charles Dickens, Hunt’s work has much the same feel, writing of orphans and workhouses, characters with a hidden destiny, a gentrified society of haves and have-nots, and all wrapped in wonderful prose of a decidedly Victorian flavor.

Hunt’s Universe is also very obviously a blending of English history and Steampunk fantasy, what with the Kingdom of Jackals being nominally a constitutional monarchy that has neutered the power of the King after a conflict reminiscent of the English Civil War.  Even the troops carry weapons that nod to their historical counterparts.  The New Pattern Army of Jackals recycles a variation of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, and its soldiers are loaded out with a musket called the Brown Jane, recalling the real life Brown Bess.  Calling the militia Redcoats simply completes the picture.  However, the automaton Kingdom of Mechancia and the evil shadows of the Wildcaotyl bring both a Steampunk and fantastical element to Jackals history.

Even the political ideologies of the major factions are patterned on historical examples.  Jackals is a social democracy where parliament rules with a king as figurehead only, while their enemy, the Commonshare of Quartershift is an obvious allusion to both the former Soviet Union and the ideology of Communism.  Within Jackals itself, there is a debate between the accepted state of society and the criminalized works of Benjamin Carl, a Marx-like figure whose treatise, “Community and the Commons,” sparked a failed revolution years earlier. 

This spectacular novel does take a while to become fully immersed in, what with the learning curve of both the colloquial slang and the sheer size of Hunt’s universe. In the final analysis, The Court of the Air is a novel that you don’t so much read as you do explore.  And that makes for a wonderful novel that deserves to be the standard to which other Steampunk novels be compared. 

 

A++