bibliogramma: (Default)
2017-05-06 04:21 am

Ben Aaronovitch: Rivers of London


Peter Grant is a probationary constable with the London police. He wants to be a detective one day, but his superiors see his future to lie in the realms of data entry - desk support for the coppers out on the street so they don't drown in paper work. Then, one night as he's standing guard on a crime scene, a witness comes forward with an account of the murder - the only problem is that Grant can't do anything with the information, because his witness is a ghost.

Thus begins Rivers of London, the first volume of Ben Aaronovitch's urban fantasy detective series. As is the common conceit in this subgenre, there is a secret branch of the police tasked with the investigation of crimes with a supernatural aspect - though the wrinkle here is that, in the belief that science is making the notion of having sorcerers on the police force obsolete, there's only one active member of the supernatural investigations unit, Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, and he's not welcomed by other senior investigators when he shows up.

But after he sees the ghost witness, Grant is approached by Nightingale and invited to become his apprentice, and the first new member of the supernatural investigations unit in a vey long time. Rivers of London is the story of Grant's first experiences with the magical and mystical side of police work, and his early days as an apprentice sorcerer.

As using magic seems to do things like short out modern technology, Grant is forced to turn to a colleague and friend, Constable Lesley May, for access to regular sources of information such as surveillance footage and police databases. May seems to take Grant's entry into the world of sorcery in stride, so much so that she's more or less acknowledged by her governor (Britcop speak for senior officer) as a liaison to the sorcery unit.

One thing I liked very much about Rivers of London that I don't always find in detective stories, fantasy or mundane, set in London is an acknowledgement of the multiracial makeup of the city. Grant himself is of mixed racial background, and in a marvellous comment on the ways that generations of immigration from former colonial holdings have changed the city, the current physical vessel of the spirit of Mother Thames is a black woman who understands her metaphysical circumstances within the framework of West African religious tradition.

I also enjoyed the way that Aaronovitch makes use of the history of London, from its early days as a Roman camp to the founding of the Bow Street Runners, weaving small threads from the enormous tapestry that is the two-thousand year story of London into the narrative.

In fact, I enjoyed Rivers of London and am rather intrigued to see where the next volume takes Peter Grant, and us.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2017-04-29 08:09 am

Max Gladstone: Three Parts Dead


The world of Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence fantasy novels is a unique one, where black magic, religion and law are intertwined, and the practices of both faith and Craft rely on a structure of legal contracts that bind both human and divine energies. There are real gods (though not so many as there once were, since the God Wars) whose obligations to and receipt of devotion from followers are bound by contracts, contracts to grant power in return for worship. Craftsmen and Craftswomen are magician-lawyers who use their own human energies to work magic, and who are called on to execute, negotiate, record, oversee, and when necessary litigate contract issues involving both humans and gods. Using the language of law, with its complexity and precision, to describe and constrain transactions of magical and divine power reminded me of Diane Duane's Young Wizards books, where a kind of symbolic mathematics is used in much the same way.

Three Parts Dead is the first novel written in the universe of the Craft, but not the first chronologically. However, Gladstone informs his readers that the novels can all stand alone - and the fact that he has built such a following of fans while writing the books out of chronological order supports this - so I'm exploring the series in publication order.

Just as Gladstone's Craft universe is a unique blend of magic and law, Three Parts Dead is a fusion of fantasy and the kind of legal thriller one expects from a John Grisham. Criminal investigation, interrogation of witnesses, following up on clues, and courtroom strategies mingle with magicians, gargoyles, vampires and gods.

Kirkus Reviews summarised the basic premise of the novel more succinctly than I could: "The God Kos has died in the city Alt Coulumb, and the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao has been tasked by the Church to resurrect the god before panic and chaos causes the city to inevitably collapse upon itself. First-year associate Craftswoman Tara Abernathy and her senior-partner boss, Elayne Kevarian, travel to Alt Coulumb to bring the god back to life only to find out that Kos was, in fact, murdered. Tara leads the murder investigation, aided by Abelard, a chain-smoking priest, and his friend Cat, a junkie-cum-policewoman. As the trio navigates the ups and downs of Alt Coulumb, they are immersed in its history, politics and religious system." (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/max-gladstones-delightfully-misleading-three-parts/)

Gladstone's prose sings, carrying the reader deep into his world of gods and Craft. His characters are for the most part strongly realised and well-developed - though the villain of the piece came across as a bit too much of a mustache-twirling megalomanic. The plot is wonderfully twisted, with unexpected turns and sudden reversals and all the trappings of a superior suspense thriller. And the conclusion is quite satisfying. I'm looking forward to further exploration of the Craft Sequence.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2017-04-25 08:32 pm

China Mièville: This Census-Taker


China Mièville's novella This Census-Taker is a collection of mysteries, memories half-remembered, truths half-told, stories layered one on the other that may or may not be about the same thing, by the same person.

There was a boy, who lived with his mother and father on the side of a mountain, just above the main part of a town that spread across two hills. The boy learned to read from his mother, and learned to fear his father. A boy who saw something so terrible his mind could not encompass it, his tongue could not communicate it, his fellow townspeople could not believe him when he tried to explain it.

Later there was a man who was either a prisoner or a guest, who had three books to write, one in figures, one in words, one in secret.

There was a census taker, who came to the boy's house, and spoke to his father, and then took the boy away to become a trainee. And before him, there was another trainee, who disappeared leaving only a warning for the boy who came after her, who became the man writing the books.

There are no answers to any if the questions, the mysteries, the disappearances. There is only memory of what was seen and heard, but never known and understood.

It is an unsettling story, full of implied violence and without anything that feels like an end. But it stays with you.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2017-04-24 12:20 am

Seanan McGuire: Rosemary and Rue



Rosemary and Rue, the first of Seanan McGuire's October Daye urban fantasy novels, starts off in a manner most uncharacteristic of the genre. Toby Daye, private investigator and half-fae changling, is tailing a fae lord suspected of kidnapping his brother's wife and daughter when she is caught and transformed into a koi. She spends the next 14 years swimming in a pond, her selfhood submerged in the limited mind of a fish.

Unlike many urban fantasy protagonists, Toby Daye doesn't always get away safely. That was the first thing that caught my attention and made me think this might be a cut above the masses of urban fantasy series on the market these days. Then there was the fact that rather than bouncing back ready to avenge her losses - years of her life, a relationship with a lover and a child who believe she abandoned them and want nothing to do with her, a sidhe mother who was slowly losing her mind when the transformation took place and is beyond reach by the time Toby breaks free of enchantment - she withdraws, repudiates everything of her former life, shows all the signs of PTSD you would expect from such an assault, such losses.

And then one of the Sidhe nobility, Evelyn Winters, also known as Evening Winterrose, Countess of Goldengreen someone Toby has known all her life, is murdered by cold iron, and her last act is to bind Toby with an ancient curse to stop at nothing to find her murderer.

The complexity of October Daye's world, encompassing faerie beings from multiple cultures, changelings, kingdoms anchored to the world but not wholly in it, and the politics of all these levels is fascinating, and watching Toby navigate all these realms - while still living in the world and dealing with jobs and rent and the human relationships severed when she was imprisoned in the body of a fish - is enough to engage the reader's interest. Add in the mystery of Evening's murder and the twists and turns of Toby's investigation, and you have a roaring good read.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2017-04-23 11:56 am

Seanan McGuire: Every Heart a Doorway



Seanan McGuire's novella Every Heart a Doorway is a portal fantasy with a difference - it's about what life is like for those who cross into another world after the portal travelling is done, after the strange world beyond the magic door has changed their hearts and souls and then sent them back.

Eleanor West knows what it feels like to find your true home on the other side of the magic mirror, or at the bottom of the rabbit-hole. As a child, she wandered into another world not once but several times. Now a middle-aged woman, she runs a 'home for wayward children' - mostly girls - who have gone through a portal and returned, but can not move on. Most have been sent to Eleanor by their parents, who don't understand what their children have experienced, or why and how they have been changed. They want their children back as they were, and Eleanor tells them she can help them. But her real intention is to help the travellers accept that their portals are closed, that there is little chance of their ever opening again, and how to live in the mundane world with the knowledge of where they have been.

Nancy is one of these wayward girls. She has spent years of subjective time in a world she calls the Halls of the Dead, learning to be silent, motionless, a statue in black and white, until the Lord of the Dead sent her back. Her parents believe her to be the victim of a kidnapping, and send her to Eleanor West, to be healed. At first she is confused by the others she meets, all changed in different ways by the different worlds they have been to. She learns how the portal worlds are classified, of the axes of Logic and Nonsense, Virtue and Wickedness. And she begins to form wary relationships with some of the others. Kade, a trans boy cast out of the world he loved because it, like the mundane world, could not accept his gender. Her roommate Sumi, a noisy, colourful girl who is never still. Jack and Jill (identical twins Jacqueline and Jillian) who have been to a world of mad scientists and vampires.

When murder strikes, Nancy, and some of the other children whose portal worlds dealt with death, attempt to unravel the mystery before the authorities have cause to shut down the school.

Every Heart a Doorway is a strange and compelling tale, balanced between fantasy and horror, about difference and what people will do to find a place they can call home.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2017-04-05 08:50 am

Paul Cornell: Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?


I wasn't sure what to expect from Paul Cornell's Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? - I knew it was the third in a series, and I don't usually like to jump into a series midstream, but it had received several recommendations as a potential Hugo nominee, and I do have a thing for Holmesiana, so I gave it a shot.

And discovered that this was definitely one of those situations where not reading the previous books affected my appreciation of the story and my understanding of the characters and their motivations.

The premise of the series, as I understand it from this text, is that there is an "occult London," a layer of London society where people with powers and/or access to magical items go about doing all sorts of occult things, including committing crimes, and solving them. The protagonists are members of the branch of the London police who investigate occult crimes.

Several of these people have been involved in traumatic and in some cases still on-going events that influence their actions and create sub-plots as they go about solving the current crime. And overshadowing everything are the reverberations of a catastrophic event, the memory of which has been erased from the minds of everyone connected, that has thrown the hidden London into disarray.

The current crime, unfolding on both mundane and occult levels, is indeed the murder of Sherlock Holmes. In the mundane world, someone is killing people who have, at some point in their lives, portrayed Holmes - and more, they are being killed in locations and manners very similar to murder cases from the canon set in London. At the same time, the detectives from the occult branch gifted with Sight have witnessed the apparent murder of a "ghost" of Holmes, and all their evidence suggests that these crimes are not only linked, but are part of a ritual that may result in massive consequences for London on all levels. And so, the game is afoot.

I enjoyed the Sherlockian aspects of the story, but at least initially, did not identify with the characters or their overall situations. Perhaps if I'd read the other volumes first my reaction would have been different.

The characters did grow on me as I read further, and I was happy to see what degree of resolution was achieved, but I've little inclination to go back and read the previous books, or to continue with the series.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2017-01-29 06:11 am

Mary Robinette Kowal: Ghost Talkers


Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers is a book that crosses genres with impudence and verve. It's a World War I historical romance, with a spunky red-headed heroine and a dashing military officer. It's a wartime spy thriller, with traitors and murders and secret codes. And it's a historical fantasy in which the British make use of a distinctly paranormal source of intelligence - the ghosts of soldiers killed in combat.

In Kowal's slightly alternate world, mediums are real, and the war effort has recruited them to interview the souls of those lost in battle for information about enemy weapon placements, troop movements, anything the revenant remembers about the circumstances of his death. And in turn, the mediums record their final messages for those they leave behind.

Ginger Stuyvesant is one of the mediums of the "London branch" of the Spirit Corps - so named to hide its true location in Le Havre - and her fiancé, Ben Harford, is an officer in British Intelligence. She, like all the other mediums, spends her days talking to the dead, reliving their last moments with them, and then dismissing them to the next plane. And then everything changes, when one of the ghosts reporting in is an officer she knows, stationed in Le Havre, who tells her that he thinks he was murdered - and the last thing he remembers is overhearing is a discussion between two spies that could mean the Germans are planning on targeting the Spirit Corps.

What follows is a fast-paced story of spy vs. spy as Ginger hunts clues to the identity of the spies across war-torn France. There are plenty of red herrings and false leads, dead ends and desperate plots. And of course, a love story.

What gives the narrative extra depth is Kowal's focus on the women (the mediums employed by the war department are mostly women, but the war also relied on the services of nurses, female couriers and other support personnel) and people of colour who were part of the war but are so rarely seen in fictional accounts of The Great War.

Sexism abounds. When Ginger attends a staff meeting as the acting head of the Spirit Corps, she's asked to make coffee. Her reports on the murder and subsequent related events are downplayed because she is a woman. The work that the mediums do - soul-wrenching and potentially deadly should the medium fail to disengage from the departing ghost - is dismissed as "sitting around," in a way that recollects the minimalising of the value of so much women's work. Not even Ginger's beloved Ben, who has learned to acknowledge her value and strength, is completely free of overprotectiveness disguised as gallantry.

Racism abounds as well. The strongest and most experienced medium is Helen, a woman of colour - but not only is she unable to take her natural position as leader of of Spirit Corps, she and other black mediums can't even fraternise with their white colleagues. At the same time, skilled and experienced soldiers from the Indian colonies are sidelined as drivers, and are excluded from the conditioning given to all white soldiers that ensures that they will report after death - then be mercifully dismissed, rather than left to wander the fields they died in.

Kowal's narrative moves swiftly, capturing both the horrors of war (she makes effective use of Rupert Brooke's war poems) and the "whistling in the dark" kind of humour so often found side by side with death and the constant pressure of being in a war zone. In a book which deals so powerfully with darkness, separation, sacrifice and death, she reminds us that there is also love and courage, and that after the dead have passed, life goes on.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-09-21 06:23 pm

Heather Rose Jones: The Mystic Marriage


Heather Rose Jones's The Mystic Marriage is a sequel to the delightful Daughter of Mystery. Margerit and Barbara are key characters, and it is wonderful to see them further developing a unique and loving relationship throughout the events of this novel. The protagonists are Antuniet Chazillen, disgraced and self-exiled alchemical student and sister of executed traitor Estevan Chazillen, and Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, a wealthy and bored widow noted for her eccentricities, among them quiet affairs with other society women.

There are mysteries to solve and plots to unravel, and with all four women working to restore Antiniet's reputation and protect the royal family of Alpennia, an engaging story of intrigue and romance unfolds.

Now looking forward to the upcoming third volume in the annals of Alpennia.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-07-26 07:48 pm

Heather Rose Jones: Daughter of Mystery


Heather Rose Jones's delightful Daughter of Mystery, is a historical fantasy of the Ruritanian variety, taking place in a not-too-alternate Europe where the napoleonic wars (or something very like them) have taken place but where there is an extra country, Alpenna, nestled somewhere between France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria and having political and military involvements with all of them.

The fantasy element in the novel comes from the existence of the mysteries - real formal magic dependent on ritual invocation of the power of the saints. In that, it is somewhat reminiscent of the religious ritual magic practised by the Deryni in Katherine Kurtz' novels.

The novel combines a number of elements - coming-of-age, romance, political mystery. The protagonists, Margerit Sovitre and Barbara are both young women not quite of age, brought together by the will of the eccentric Baron Saveze, Margerit's godfather and Barbara's employer and bondholder.

Margerit, the daughter of a wealthy but untitled family, is just starting her dancing season, during which her family hopes she will attract the best possible match - but what Margerit most desires is to be able to study the philosophy and ritual of the mysteries. Barbara is Baron Saveze's armin - a servant of special rank, his bodyguard and a skilled duellist, the daughter of a man of noble rank who died impoverished in debtor's prison, who is at the same time his bondservant and as such a chattel and part of his estate.

When the Baron dies, he leaves the bulk of his estate to Margerit, including the bond service owed to the estate by Barbara - leaving to his wastrel nephew on;y the title and the lands that are legally attached to the Saveze name.

With her fortune dramatically increased, Margarit is now one of the most interesting single heiresses in the country. Her change in status means that she can persuade her family to allow her to occupy her new holding in the capital, where she can study at the university while seeming to circulate in high society and attract a suitable husband. Barbara, now her armin, and frustrated that the Baron had not freed her in his will as he had promised to, goes with her as bodyguard. And the Baron's nephew Estefen plots his revenge on them both.

The core of the novel is the developing relationship between Margerit and Barbara, which is a slow-moving and sweet romance with many obstacles, from the differences in their rank and the mystery of Barbara's heritage to the schemes of Estefen which draw them into a treasonous plot.

I enjoyed this novel very much, although it did move a bit slowly. The characters are very well delineated, and their romance a delight to read.

Jones has written a second Alpenna novel, The Mystic Marriage, and a third, The Mother of Souls, is due to be released later this year.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-06-19 08:43 pm

Elizabeth Peters: The Camelot Caper


Elizabeth Peters' early standalone novel, the Camelot Caper, attracted me with its promise of an Arthurian theme. While there was just enough of Arthur to satisfy me, I was quite delighted to discover that this novel was very reminiscent in tone, plot and characterisation of one of my favourite childhood authors, Mary Stewart.

This novel, like many of Stewart's, is a sort of romantic suspense adventure built around a female protagonist who is neither weak nor stupid, although occasionally young and a touch naive. I'm not sure if anyone writes these any more - an everywoman who confronts some kind of unexpected danger, and who finds along the way a romance with a man who is not so much a saviour as a partner, who shares the mystery and the danger, but needs as much help as he gives. Wikipedia describes Stewart as "... a British novelist who developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations." And that's very much the genre that The Camelot Caper falls into.

The protagonist is a young American woman, Jessica Tregarth, visiting Britain for the first time at the behest of a dying grandfather. Her own father, who died when she was young, had been long estranged from his family, but had kept a family heirloom, a not very valuable man's ring, which Jessica's grandfather had asked her to bring with her.

The mystery begins when Jessica realises that someone else wants to get the ring before she can take it to her grandfather, and seems prepared to go to some lengths to get it. Fleeing from the two men pursuing her, she meets David, a writer of romantic mysteries, who at first thinks her story is part of a practical joke cooked up by his friends, but who is soon drawn into the mystery and offers his help in getting her safely to her grandfather in Cornwall.

The Arthurian connection comes in through the belief of the grandfather that their family is descended from a bastard son of Arthur's. His conviction that there are remnants of an Arthurian fortress, perhaps Camelot itself, on the family land has nearly bankrupted the family with repeated archeological excavations.

Along the twisty path to Cornwall, Peters also treats us to visits to a number of historical churches, and of course a stop at Glastonbury, as Jessica and David chase, and are chased in turn - and captured on several occasions - by the two mysterious men.

There are no red herrings here - the resolution of the mystery is directly connected to the ring, the excavations, the bankruptcy and the ancient legend, in a satisfying way. The romance is handled lightly, growing slowly as Jessica and David manage to figure out the connections, escape their captors, and set things right.

In The Camelot Caper, Peters has written a fine example of a possibly dated but nonetheless enjoyable genre.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-06-17 06:38 pm

Elizabeth Peters: The Seventh Sinner


Elizabeth Peters's novel The Murders of Richard III impressed me as being just the thing for reading when in need of light entertainment and amusement. So I tried another book in the same series, The Seventh Sinner, to see if the impression held. And it did.

Featuring librarian-sleuth Jacqueline Kirby again, this novel is set in Rome, among a small group of young research fellows and other advanced foreign students at an international institute for the study of art and architecture. Kirby herself is on a working vacation, improving her CV with an eye to an classics-related opening at her workplace back in the US.

The historical hook here is the remarkable architectural history of Rome, with particular emphasis on the history of Christian buildings, from secret underground churches and catacombs dating back to the early days of Christianity in Rome, to the proliferation of churches devoted to the saints - which leads to a delightful sidedish of hagiographic tidbits.

The murder mystery to be solved focuses on the eccentric theories of one of the young scholars of hagiocentric archeology, and in the process of solving it, Kirby leads us on a wild ride through the underbelly of academe.

I think i'm going to enjoy the rest of Peters' oeuvre.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-06-15 10:56 pm

Elizabeth Peters: The Murders of Richard III


While in the throes of my Princes in the Towers reading binge, a mystery novel by an author I'd never read before, Elizabeth Peters, was recommended to me - The Murders of Richard III. I promptly acquired and read it, and found it to be quite a fun read, if rather on the light side. I gather that Peters has created several series of mysteries featuring different amateur detectives - in this case, the sleuth was the formidable Jacqueline Kirby, reference librarian by trade, which was an immediate plus, as I worship reference librarians, as all academics should.

The setting was an English country house party, the occasion, the discovery of a letter that could prove the innocence of Richard III, lately come into the hands of the head of a society of Ricardians. The American Kirby is in England visiting a friend who happens to be a member of the society, and is invited along to the party.

The unfolding of the murder plot occurs within an atmosphere of intense discussion of the minutiae of the various arguments as to who killed the princes, which I enjoyed quite a lot. The mystery itself, and Kirby's investigation of it, was also fun to follow, despite the relative lightness of the murder plot.

If this is characteristic of Peters' work - and reading some descriptions of several other of her novels suggests it may well be - then I suspect the historical elements of her novels to be at least as much of a draw as the mysteries. Which for a history buff is not a bad thing. An evening of pleasant light reading with some historical interest and a mystery adventure is sometimes just what the librarian ordered.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-06-09 05:16 pm

Reading about the Princes in the Tower


Being violently sick with a vicious cold, I decided to to binge-watch some British historical dramas, which led to a rewatch of The White Queen, an account of the Cousins' War based on Philippa Gregory's novels, which sort of nudged me into re-reading an old favourite, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. Which then started me off looking for other books - fictional or not - that dealt with the question of Richard III's claiming of his brother's throne and the fate of the young heirs, the Princes in the Tower.

I'm particularly fond of Tey's book partly because of the framing narrative she uses to explore the historical evidence pertinent to the matter of the deaths of the young Yorkist heirs in the tower - police detective with a broken leg going crazy from boredom takes on a historical mystery - and partly because her interpretation of the evidence cited supports my own totally unresearched belief that Richard III did not do the vile deed, or order it done. (By unresearched, I mean that I've read a number of books arguing the case this way or that but never sat down to look at all the existing evidence one way or the other and make an unbiased assessment for myself.)

Tey's theory settles on Henry Tudor, the victorious conqueror of Bosworth, as the author of the crime. Tey finds no credible evidence that Richard III had any need of killing the princes. They had been declared bastards once evidence of a pre-contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, made prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, was made public. Henry, on the other hand, needed the York children to be legitimate so that his marriage to Elizabeth of York would strengthen his claim to the throne, but he could not claim the throne if the princes lived. Tey argues that the princes were not killed but simply kept closely in the Tower until Henry took power and had them killed.

It's a very enjoyable - and quick - read, and much to be recommended to anyone interested in the mystery of the princes in the Tower, though
I must say that I'm not convinced of the whole of her argument. I find the reasons for holding Richard III convincing, but doubt that the princes could have remained alive in the Tower for the two years of Richard's reign without some indication of their presence. Guards talk. Records have to account for food, clothes, linens. And so on.

Robin Maxwell's To the Tower Born is another enjoyable novel that presents a theory about the fate of the young princes. Maxwell chooses a minor, and mostly unknown, character - Nell Caxton, daughter of printer William Caxton, who was the recipient of royal patronage. Maxwell imagines a close friendship between Nell and the young Princess Elizabeth, which allows her to be present for many of the crucial events surrounding the death of Edward IV, the power struggle between Richard and the Woodville clan, and the time during which the princes are known to have been in the tower. Maxwell suggests that the culprit was the ambitious Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor's mother, with the aid of The Duke of Buckingham, her nephew and the Constable of England - and hence the master of the Tower.

This theory fits the timeline better, as it has the princes disappearing from the Tower early in Richard's reign - though, in order to give the story a happy ending, Maxwell has the young princes rescued from Margaret and sent abroad to live as ordinary men, lost to history.

Maxwell's novel is also interesting reading for its sympathetic portrayal of Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, the older half-brother of the princes, and for its account of the impact of Caxton's press on English society.

While I started reading Vanora Bennett's Figures in Silk because of the Ricardian aspect of the plot, I actually found that part of the narrative rather thin compared to the rich and detailed story of life in the London silk trade which is the primary focus of the novel. Bennett's protagonist Isabel Claver is a young widow who becomes an apprentice to her successful mother-in-law Alice Claver, one of the foremost silk merchants in London. She learns the trade well and, in partnership with Claver and an Italian silk merchant, embarks on a crown-supported endeavour to bring the secrets of the Italian silk weavers to England.

Isabel's access to the court - and to royal patronage and significant commissions - is due to two things. First, her sister is Jane Shore, the mistress of Edward IV. Second, an accidental meeting with an intense young man in a church where both have gone to seek consolation turns ultimately into a secret royal liaison when Isabel discovers that the young man is Richard of Gloucester.

I have to admit that I didn't really buy Bennett's characterisation of Richard III, or the love affair between him and Isabel. Even Richard's contemporary enemies acknowledged that he seemed not only much attached to his wife, Anne Neville, at least up to the point where he became King, but also unusually faithful to her. The infrequent and furtive meetings between the two give us no sense of who Richard is as a man, and thus we have no background for the things that Richard does once his brother is dead.

Bennett presents Richard as laving been loyal to Edward until his death, but then forming an almost immediate plan to seize the throne from his nephew. She does not, however, go so far as to make him the murderer of the young princes. Rather, she has them spirited out of London at his design by the knight Tyrell - who in real life was later executed as the princes' killer - and raised in secret.

Because Isabel learns of most of the major events of the coup through rumour and the accounts of others, the story of Richard and the princes has no strong dramatic impact - we are caught up more in her confusion and growing shame at having taken as a lover a man who she comes to see as capable of disloyalty and cruelty.

While the greater political matters of the time are given a less than satisfactory treatment, it is as an account of life among the merchant class of London, and of the spirit and determination of a young woman to succeed in her craft despite many personal and professional setbacks that Bennett finds her voice and makes the book worth reading.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-02-17 07:30 am

Claire North: Touch


They call themselves ghosts. Once human, they survived death by somehow crossing into another person's body, and in order to survive, they continue jumping from body - "skin" - to body. Some try to be considerate, some take the best of a body's life and leave them dying, and some torture and kill.

The narrator of Claire North's novel Touch is such a ghost. Long forgotten is the human life he had, the name he carried - even the sex he was. Since the moment before death - a violent death, full of pain and trauma and fear, like all the other ghosts he's known - he has worn many skins, men and women, from all around the world. He has grown into the habit of trying to be good to the hosts he uses, first getting consent, offering payment - money, a new life - for the temporary use of their bodies, for the gap in their lives.

But someone is trying to kill him, and they have an organisation to back them. When his host Josephine is murdered and he barely escapes, the only way he can think of to track down whoever wants him dead is to take over the body of his would-be assassin. What he finds is a file on him, code-named Kepler, full of truths, half-truths and lies about him and his dead host.

Kepler's search for the person behind the lies and the order to kill takes him halfway around the world, through conspiracies, traps, breathless chases and hundreds of bodies, all at breakneck speed. In rare pauses in the action, Kepler's recollections provide insight into his own behaviour as a ghost, and that of others.

A fast-paced thriller, this is also an extended examination of the morality of survival at the expense of others and an exploration of manipulation, theft - or perhaps a better word is rape - and consent. Kepler believes he does the best he can, certainly better than many others of his kind - but the reader may have other ideas.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-02-13 05:19 am

Carrie Patel: The Buried Life


Carrie Patel's The Buried Life is an interesting, though flawed, debut novel. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world, in which cities have gone underground and technology has regressed to 18th century levels - trains but no cars or dirigible, nothing steampunkish here in terms of a more developed science built on earlier forms of technology. We are not told anything about the nature of the cataclysm, nor of the time that has passed since it occurred. We do learn quickly that what knowledge has survived is heavily controlled - history is a state secret, some literature of the past is freely available while some is fiercely repressed, and science seems strangely absent. In the city of Recoletta, absolute power seems to rest in an unelected Council, and class distinctions, based on wealth and power, are rigid.

This is a cautionary tale about power, secrecy, censorship and corruption, masquerading as a post-apocalyptic political thriller with murder and mayhem in great supply. It is strong on character and the trappings of a ripping good detective mystery, but doesn't quite manage to bind its disparate goals and narratives together. The solution to the mystery arrives too piecemeal and without appropriate emphasis and completeness for the mystery reader to be happy, and the deeper narrative about how power and resistance too often share the same mistakes seems too slightly woven into the story.

And it is disappointing that in the end, one of the characters that seemed to be a hero was seduced by the sweetness of power - though one might hope that there would be a sequel in which said hero regains the moral clarity needed to look beyond it.

Some good ideas and interesting characters, but not quite satisfying. Still, I'd like to see the story begun here developed further.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-02-10 10:52 pm

S. L. Huang: Zero Sum Game


S. L. Huang's "urban SF" novel Zero Sum Game is one hell of an adrenaline rush, with one of the most unusual anti-hero protagonists I've ever encountered in superpowered math genius mercenary Cas Russell. Seriously, this is great stuff. I had to finish it in one sitting and now I feel compelled to read the next two books in the series.

So... Cas Russell is a mercenary. She works well outside the law, she is ultra deadly with hands, feet, guns, and just about everything else. Her specialty is retrievals - people hire her to bring their stuff back.

But when Cas accepts a job to retrieve Courtney Polk from a drug cartel, her entire life goes to hell in a handbasket. Because nothing about this job is what she thinks it is, not even her own thoughts.

The body count is extreme, and the violence is often graphic. But at the same time, this is a very thoughtful book that addresses questions of agency, free will, morality, and the age-old question of whether the ends ever justify the means. You just don't notice the thinky bits in the middle of all that adrenaline until they smack you in the face.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-02-08 05:24 pm

Sarah Pinborough: Mayhem



Jack the Ripper was not the only serial killer roaming the streets of London in 1888. Between 1887 and 1889, at least three women were killed and dismembered, and parts of their bodies disposed of in the Thames, although in one case, the torso and other parts were discovered on the grounds of the construction site for the new Scotland Yard building. The identity of the Thames Torso killer has never been determined, and there is some question as to whether the three murders he is agreed to have committed are the full extent of his crimes, as similar cases, also unsolved, had occurred in 1873-4 and 1884.

In Mayhem, Sarah Pinbourough infuses the facts of the Thames Torso Murders with a markedly supernatural story of possession by an ancient spirit of evil. The novel is centred on police surgeon Thomas Bond, who was an early practitioner of the science of forensic profiling, having produced a profile of the Ripper. Bond did play a historical role in the investigation of both the Ripper and the Thames Torso killer, performing autopsies on both Mary Jane Kelly and the second of the Torso killer's victims, Elizabeth Jackson. The novel gives him a much greater role, however, in the detection and final resolution of the murders.

I thoroughly enjoyed Pinborough's genre-bending historical crime horror novel on all counts.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2016-01-06 01:55 pm

Kate Wilhelm: Death Qualified


When I was younger, I enjoyed Kate Wilhelm's science fiction writing - indeed, I've been collecting ebooks of those classics that are still available with an eye toward rereading them. But I had never explored her other genre writing.

That has now changed. I have read Death Qualified, the first of her mystery/courtroom drama series of novels featuring lawyer Barbara Holloway, and found it to be quite an enjoyable read.

At the outset of the novel, Holloway has been away from her home town of Eugene, Oregon, for some years, and has ceased practicing law. Her father Frank, a lawyer himself, asks her to return to Eugene and to the law to help him with a case he's not sure he can win. Reluctant at first, she eventually agrees, despite (or because?) of the fact that the prosecutor is a former lover who she feels betrayed their personal relationship to win a case.

The case seems straightforward at first. Nell Kendricks stands accused of killing her husband, Lucas, who deserted her and her children years ago and has now suddenly returned. But as the reader knows, and Holloway begins to realise, Lucas' absence is part of a mysterious research project gone terribly wrong, and this may be the real reason behind his murder - if she can only find the evidence.

Part of the fun of reading this is watching everything unfolding - the nature of the research and the reason for Lucas' long absence, the detective work that slowly uncovers what really happened the day Lucas Kendricks died, and the courtroom strategies Holloway employs in an attempt to raise reasonable doubt about her client's guilt.

I especially enjoyed the sciencefictional aspect of the novel that came long with the revelation of the mysterious research that Lucas had been a party to, but the mystery and courtroom elements were equally well done. I'll be checking out more of Wilhelm's mystery writing.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2015-11-26 09:02 am

Chesya Burke: Strange Crimes of Little Africa


Earlier this month, I learned of a free giveaway offer for Chesya Burke's new novel, Strange Crimes of Little Africa, which will be coming out from Rothco Press on December 1st. I was lucky enough to be one of those who received a no-strings-attached electronic ARC, although in the interests of full disclosure, the publishers did ask after the fact if I would be willing to post a review. Since I do that for almost all the books I read, that's no problem.

Strange Crimes of Little Africa is set in 1926, in Harlem, in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance and the flowering of jazz. The protagonist is Jaz Idewell, a young black woman studying anthropology at Barnard College. Jaz is bright, sure of herself, and proud of her position in Harlem society as the daughter of the first black cop in New York, a man that her neighbours look up to and respect. Inspired by her father's profession, she has an interest in criminology, and even fancies that she might become not just a lady cop, but a detective.

She has a good life. Her best friend is fellow Barnard student Zora Neale Hurston (yes, that Zora Neale Hurston) and she has loose connections to other members of the Harlem Renaissance. She's connected, happy, and even the white professors and cops in her life seem to like her.

Then it all begins to unravel when she finds herself witness to the discovery of a body long-hidden, and realises that the dead man is her uncle, missing for 15 years. In her desire to solve the mystery of what happened, and clear the name of her cousin, arrested for the murder, Jaz, with Zora at her side, will explore the dangerous corners of Harlem life and discover hard truths about herself, her family, and the society she lives in. This is not just a historical murder mystery, this is also the nuanced and poignant portrayal of a young woman forced to suddenly grow up and see the world as it is, not as she wants it to be.

Burke has talked about the research she did to make the setting as historically accurate as possible. By making Zora Neale Hurston, who was indeed studying anthropology at Barnard in 1926, and well-known black numbers boss "Madame" Stephanie St. Clair and her enforcer "Bumpy" Johnson, characters in the novel, Burke both enhances the realism and gives us a rich perspective on urban black life in the 1920s in America.

I want to talk a bit about how reading this book affected me as a white woman. As I've mentioned above, Jaz Idewell is intelligent, courageous, caring, a bit inclined to jump to conclusions and charge right into situations, and more than a bit naive. She's flawed - which makes her human - but she's interesting and admirable, which makes her a great character, and one that I found very easy to identify with. But the world that Jaz lives in is a world full of both casually personal and crushingly systemic racism and sexism, and to the best of my knowledge, Burke doesn't sugarcoat it.

So as a white reader - or at least, this white reader -proceeds through the book, identifying with Jaz, and getting a second hand look at the treatment Jaz receives as a black woman, everything from the daily microaggressions to the huge and heart-breaking events of intentional cruelty, there's a buildup of resentment, frustration and rage.

This is something that I've experienced before, this fierce and honest generosity on the part of an author that allows me to see, at a remove but still from the inside, a form of oppression that's not something I experience myself. I've seen it in the work of Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Thomas King, Leslie Feinberg, and others. And I do believe that Burke intended this for her white audience, and I hope others will embrace this as I have tried to, as a gift of sharing experience and a path to understanding.

Strange Crimes in Little Africa works on many levels, as a mystery, as a rite of passage narrative, as an introduction to a vibrant place and time in American history, and as a meditation on what it was - and still is - like to be a black woman in America. And it's clear that Burke has at least one sequel in mind.

bibliogramma: (Default)
2015-11-13 02:41 pm

Peter Tremayne: An Ensuing Evil and Others


Peter Termayne is, as I understand, best known for his series of historical mysteries featuring Irish nun Sister Fidelma, which I have recently begun reading. However, he has written mysteries set in other eras, including the more-or-less modern one, and some of his shorter offerings are collected in Ensuing Evil and Others: Fourteen Historical Mysteries.

It's quite an interesting range, from a murder mystery set in the castle of the historical MacBeth and his lady Gruoch, to a modern locked-room mystery set in an airplane in flight. In between we visit the theatre district of Shakespeare's England, the well-known occupants of 221B Baker Street, a battleship during the Napoleonic Wars, the London of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and India under the British Raj, plus a bonus Sister Fidelma story. An enjoyable read.