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The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, driving in for another chomp.

‘I say!’ said Alexia to the vampire. ‘We have not even been introduced!’

Certain books tell you all you need to know about them very quickly. The above exchange occurs on the second page of Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel.  Immediately I knew what to expect from this novel. Quite reassuring really.

Alexia Tarabotti suffers from an indelicate social standing. She is both twenty-five years old and unmarried. What is more, to add to her near-outcast status, she is half-Italian and considered far too bookish for a lady hoping to wed in late-nineteenth century London. What is less well known about Alexia though is that she also lacks a soul, a quality which defines her in the files of Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry as a preternatural, an extremely rare condition that allows her to literally ‘defang’ vampires and werewolves at a touch.

For her though this is simply yet another questionable trait inherited from her deceased father. Her mother, Mrs. Loontwill, has since made a more respectable match and guided two further daughters into society, whose pale skin and chatter contrasting sharply with their half-sister.

Then Alexia is forced to dispatch a vampire attacker at a ball! The indignity of it all. BUR agents and werewolves Lord Maccon and his beta Professor Lyall interview Alexia at the scene. She reveals that she noticed the vampire was unaware of any of the proper social conventions for a member of the undead class to observe, plus his fashion sense was dreadful, indicating that someone is transforming humans outside of the London vampire set, known as hives. Maccon and Alexia exchange barbed comments, both having reached a highly negative opinion of the other. However, over the next few days as our parasol-sporting heroine discovers more about the conspiracy behind her attack, it is Lord Maccon who continues to come to her aid, even rescuing her from a monstrous figure with wax-like skin and an eerie grin. Could the Lord Earl of Woolsey’s feelings for her extend beyond his outward shows of irritation? Has she finally made a suitable match for a husband? And where are all these uncouth vampires coming from?

This book is an absolute delight. Mixing Wodehousian banter and innuendo with the social climbing drama of a Jane Austen novel and then serving up a heady melange that includes many different varieties of supernatural beastie, Gail Carriger has produced a masterful debut. In a sense this book is a natural successor to the mash-up phase of the past few years, which has begun to endure something of a backlash.

Here the paranormal romance features a courtship that raises a hearty chuckle, the monsters of the gothic novel restrained by societal convention to hilarious effect. Lord Maccon is not only an alpha male, he is an alpha werewolf male and Scottish to boot, which leads to no end of mockery by Alexia, herself considered too headstrong and fixed in her ideas by her contemporaries. The banter between them is sustained beautifully, with the rueful Professor Lyall acting as an occasional agent of Cupid.

Of course any work of escapism deserves a worthy central plot and Carriger fashions up a terrific yarn involving religious intolerance of the undead and twisted science. Overall this is a great package, with lots of clever little touches accessorising the main story in a fitting manner.

I am happily converted and am eager to gobble down the rest of the series. Madame Carriger, I doff my hat to you.

It was a little square of card, some strange design, a beautiful, intricate thing of multicoloured swirling lines. It was, Deeba had realized, some mad version of a London travelcard. It said it was good for zones one to six, buses and trains, all across the city.

On the dotted line across its centre was carefully printed: ZANNA MOON SHWAZZY.

I have a weird love/hate relationship with the writing of China Miéville. The first time I read Perdido Street Station I was enjoying a fruitful encounter with the work of M. John Harrison (check out his blog here). Miéville was a poor imitation of the latter to my mind and suffered by the comparison.

Skip forward another five years and I finally re-read Perdido Street Station. And I loved it. The more I learn about Miéville the more I like him. Here was a fantasy/sf writer (he tends to be lumped in among the ‘new weird‘) who liked to explore socialist themes in a fictional setting. Also the bloke is astonishingly charismatic in person.

So I have been converted to the cause.

Un Lun Dun begins in a seemingly conventional manner. Two friends Zanna and Deeba begin to notice various strange phenomenon, seemingly targeted at the former teenage girl. Animals pause and bow to her, strangers approach them in café and address Zanna as ‘the Shwazzy‘, and finally a noxious black smog seems to be stalking her.

When the two girls accidentally cross over to an alternate London – UnLondon – they find a weird world similar to their own and yet filled with unusual creatures such as ‘unbrellas’, wraiths, stink-junkies, bookaneers, flying buses and binjas. The rejected flotsam and jetsam of London find a new home here and often come alive.

The people of UnLondon worship Zanna as a prophesied saviour who will rescue them from the malevolent entity known as the Smog. When the city is attacked by the creature’s minions, Zanna is knocked unconscious and Deeba is sent back with her to ‘their world’. The prophesies have been proven false, the Shwazzy has failed and while the UnLondoners assure Deeba that they have a back-up plan in the event of prophecy not going to plan, she cannot help but feel there is something wrong.

When she returns home she discovers no one has even missed her. Zanna has no memory of their journey and Deeba’s talk of evil smog and talking books of prophecy sound like the babblings of a crazy person. So after going to all that effort to escape back home, Deeba decides to return to UnLondon. She may not have been chosen by fate, but she knows what to do. It is time to clean up UnLondon.

This is a fantastic, delirious, dark-edge transplantation of Oz to the landscape of the Thames.  Miéville conjures up amazing creatures that fit neatly into this incredible world of his invention – including carnivorous giraffes, roaming ‘unbrellas’, and ‘smombies’. An added treat is Miéville’s own illustrations, including ghostly afterimages of street-lamps from earlier eras, the aforementioned giraffes and of course, my personal favourites, the binja:

I love those guys.

This is a great book for children, with quite possibly the most kick-ass ending I have ever read. Fast-paced, funny and very imaginative, it is an adorable book. I really wish I had not read it in a single day. I want to spend a week reading it. In fact, I’ll say it here, any parent who reads this to their child is possibly the coolest mum or dad ever.

Great fun.

Freedom! Jane thought. She rocked back on her heels and imagined Stilt flapping off clumsily into a bronze-green autumn sky. Her thoughts soared with him, over the walls and razor-wire and into the air, the factory buildings and marshalling yards dwindling below, as he flew higher than the billowing exhaust from the smokestacks, into the deepening sky, higher than Dame Moon herself. And never, oh never, to return!

I have had the good fortune to experience that age-old cliché of ‘escaping into a good book’. It is a rare occurence, but it does happen. To be completely transported away into a world conjured up by an author’s imagination is a delicate and wondrous thing.

Over the course of this challenge I have experienced this only two or three times. Geoff Ryman provided one such diversion, as did David Mitchell. As I write each entry for this blog, I become more eager to feel the sensation of sinking into another imaginary world once more.

The opening pages of Michael Swanwick‘s novel promised just that. Jane Alderberry has been raised in a factory that supplies the Elven kingdom with dragons. She is human, but just as much a slave as the other workers, elves, shapeshifters and other examples of fey kind, owned and controlled by the factory itself. Jane is persuaded to help the roguish Rooster sabotage the factory in an attempt to murder their overseer the disgusting Blugg. The assassination plot fails and its mastermind loses an eye for his troubles, but Jane returns to her bunk with the means to her own escape. A grimoire detailing the making of dragons.

As her knowledge of the workings of these incredible metal sky-destriers grows, she becomes aware of a voice compelling her to the factory yard. There she meets the dragon No. 7332, who enmeshes her with promises of freedom from the suffering of the factory. However, she soon realizes she has exchanged one master for another and the indiscriminate havoc he wrecks on the factory claims the lives of both her enemies and those few friends she had.

What follows is a broadly Dickensian narrative of Jane’s rise through Elven society, a cruel and callous pagan universe that nonetheless is fuelled by industry. The various races of the ‘fey and the weird‘, share in a society based on domination and exploitation. Jane begins her schooling disguised as an ordinary wood-nymph in order to learn how to repair No. 7332, discovers a love of theft and through her scheming wrangles a scholarship to university studying alchemical sciences. With each elevation through society she finds herself trapped in the same narratives, love triangles and bitter emnities. Faces and names reoccur with such frequency that she comes to doubt the reality of her existence. Beneath it all, she knows the dragon is controlling her, moving her forward in a game of cosmic strategy that she cannot comprehend.

Swanwick serves up a delicious gumbo of fantasy and steampunk tropes that revolves around two poles of cosmic nihilism and alchemical transformation. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a perversely mischievous book, unrestrained in scope and possessing a wicked sense of humour. There are touches of Dickens strewn throughout, including a reference to the breaking of a barrel of wine as a sign of the building foment in Paris during A Tale of Two Cities. The naming conventions also resemble Dickens’ whimsical malapropisms, but Swanwick also includes allusions to Welsh mythology to remind us that this is ostensibly a fantasy novel. The scenes of ritualistic sex magic, the mating habits of gargoyles, elves snorting lines of coke and Jane consulting a witch on methods of birth control do add to the categorical confusion.

For it has to be said this is a profoundly twisted vision of fantasy, a weird psychodrama that far outstrips the likes of China Miéville, cleaving perhaps closer to the likes of Samuel R. Delany and M. John Harrison.

To say more would, I fear, only spoil the experience of reading this book for yourselves. Writing this review has been as much a pleasure for me as reading the book that informs it. A revelation, whimsically profound and delightfully twisted. Another roaring success for Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series.

Perhaps, in spite of having no illusions about Gwendolen, Mrs. Sharp was really hoping to become Gwendolen’s manager when Gwendolen grew up. Cat suspected she was, anyway. And he was sorry for Mrs. Sharp. He was sure that Gwendolen would cast her off like an old coat when she became famous – like Mrs. Sharp, Cat had no doubt that Gwendolen would be famous.

The name ‘Harry Potter’, haunts Diana Wynne Jones’ novels. Whenever the charge that J.K. Rowling plagiarised ideas for her books from a number of different sources, Jones’ name is often mentioned, particularly in reference to The Chronicles of Chrestomanci series. It must be tiresome, as Jones is a fantastic writer and deserves much more than to be thought of as a footnote in Pottermania.

Charmed Life introduces us to a fantastical world somewhat similar to our own, where magic is a mainstream concern. The British government has appointed an enchanter, known as the Chrestomanci, to regulate and monitor the illegal use of magic.

Such matters are of little concern to the boy known as Cat. He lost his parents in a horrific drowning accident and only survived due to holding on to his sister Gwendolen while they were in the water. After all, she is a witch and so did not sink. Ever since, Cat has hung on to his sister ignoring her insults and condescension, while he tries to cover for her rudeness to other people. When the children receive word that the mighty Chrestomanci requests that they live with his family – after having discovered that their father was secretly in correspondence with him – Gwendolen is delighted, convinced that this is the next step in her path to becoming a powerful witch.

Cat tags along, grateful to be allowed to accompany his talented sibling.

However, Gwendolen discovers that life with the Chrestomanci’s family is not what she imagined. His wife is a homely, pleasant woman, not at all like the enchantress she imagined. His children are pudgy and naturally possess magical talents, but have no interest in the business of their father. Gwendolen is infuriated and begins plaguing the household with spells. The Chrestomanci pays no attention, which only increases on her wounded vanity. Cat is frozen by indecision, unable to prevent his sister from her campaign of terror; and intimidated by the aloof manner of his new guardian.

Then one morning Gwendolen performs a spell that threatens the balance of this world and several alternate Earths. Can the Chrestomanci himself undo the damage wrought by a single, powerful girl?

Wynne Jones not merely content to create a world where science has taken a back-seat to magic, then throws alternate worlds into the mix. For a children’s novel there are also quite serious themes, including child abuse and some sequences that might be considered quite scary, such as a conjured parade of undead bodies marching through a bedroom.

However, Charmed Life is also wonderfully placed and pleasant to read. It is revealed at one point that far from being terrorised by Gwendolen’s spells, many of the household are curious as to what she will dream up next. Whimsy and dark fantasy are combined to winning effect.

This book is a gorgeous introduction to a bright new world. I invite you to investigate further.

“All right,” I said; “suppose the characters exist in the author’s mind, like the events; where does the value of invention come in?”

“Where the value of any invention comes in,” he answered. “In its purpose or use. A wheel spinning aimlessly is worth nothing; the same wheel on a cart or a pulley changes destiny.”

“You can’t learn anything from fairy tales,” I persisted stubbornly.

He smiled. “Maybe you havent read the right fairy tales.”

Damn. I got very excited by a certain stylistic quirk that I noticed in this book. Mr Ward Moore had seemingly written the entire thing without using apostrophes. You might see above he has written the contraction ‘havent’. Unfortunately right above that line of dialogue, he gives narrator Hodge Backmaker ‘can’t’.

Well there’s that theory blown out of the water.

Eight years ago I was working with a woman from Texas who used to proudly claim to share common descent with George Bush and Queen Elizabeth. What I found odd was not the claim itself, but that it was obviously so important to her. Of course I say that as an O’Cuana and we have done anything to be proud of in a thousand years.

I say this as the notion of historical prestige is not something I guess I can understand. Moore with this book examines not just the premise of an America with an alternate history, but the importance of being able to draw descent from the respective sides of the Civil War conflict.

Hodge Backmaker begins his narration telling us that he was born in 1921, but that this is being written in 1877. Neither the dates nor the tenses are error – let me explain. The fortunes of the Backmaker clan are inextricably linked with the events of the Civil War, when the Union lost to the Southron forces. What ensued was a near half-century of economic ruin for the Yankee territories. A prevalent xenophobia for foreign nations became the dominant political rhetoric. What’s more while slavery was abolished,  most citizens are so impoverished they agree to a system of indenture to corporations until they are too old to be of use. Moore even includes a few alternate history jokes. George Bernard Shaw died a little-known reverend. Carl Jung became a police chief.

Hodge is something of an anomaly, in that he sees no future in labouring to support his family and prefers to spend his time buried in books. He dreams of putting his love of reading to some good use, perhaps even becoming an academic in one of the dilapidated academies that still exist in the Union. To that end he sets off for New York with his fortune of three dollars in his pocket.

The countryboy from Poughkeepsie notices that the metropolis lacks the skyscrapers of Confederate ruled Washington, but remains a glamourous sight, with its airborn zeppelins and thronging multitude. Of course the awe-struck yokel quickly falls on bad luck, which sets him on the path to a meeting with a bookseller named Mr Tyss and the revolutionary Grand Army.

Moore’s novel is concerned not only with history, but with the notion of an objective observer of history. Hodge learns a new understanding of events from two men, Tyss and the Haitian Ambassador  M’sieu Enfandin. The one insists that history itself is predetermined; the other that man is free to choose his destiny. Hodge himself lives frozen by indecision. In that his character is a sly dig at the pretence of historians to be unbiased spectator to events. Tyss mocks him for even desiring to be impartial, stating that his love of history is simply a desire to hide from action.

It is a very fine joke, made all the funnier by Moore then sending Hodge on a fantastical adventure that explains the riddle of the book’s opening lines. This is a gripping novel of ideas, one I am very surprised to have never heard of before. Much like Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In The High Castle the book seeks to outstrip being merely an alternate history yarn, with far loftier themes in mind.

I also enjoyed how like Hamlet, Hodge is not the virginal prevaricator popular opinion might assume him to be. He’s actually quite the ladies man. He simply refuses to take responsibility for his actions, or indeed any commitments at all.

A thoughtfully written investigation of American history, with a sf glaze.

In the System – at least the parts of it that I lived in – all that mattered, all you really had, was your reputation. Two men went into a box, and one got killed and one climbed out, it doesn’t matter if you were bloodied and beaten. It doesn’t matter if you begged and bribed, wept and cursed inside that box – all that matters is that you lived and he died. That’s all anyone ever remembered.

I like swearing. There’s nothing like an inventive outburst of expletives. I pepper my everyday conversations with ‘colourful language’, usually without even thinking about it. Curse-words are wonderful fun and were generally the only reasons for my fellow pupils in primary school cracking open a dictionary.

“What’s a bastard miss?”

If you enjoy an amusing line in abusive language I would recommend Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, which features a character named Malcolm Tucker, the most foul-mouthed, gloriously filthy ‘swearer’, in fiction.

Unfortunately some writers simply cannot capture that level of dizzying scatology.

Avery Cates is known as the ‘king’, of New York. A professional killer, who survived an assault on the legendary ‘Electric Church’, in London, he cannot be touched by the city’s cops as for some reason his name has been included on a protection list.  He cannot be harmed by any law officer in New York, despite a well-known reputation as a cop-killer.

Nevertheless, Cates is a marked man. Kidnapped and blindfolded, he is taunted with information about his past that only someone who knows him could be aware of. Then his unseen assailants insert something into his throat and he is abandoned on the street. Consumed by rage, Cates sets out to discover who attacked him, but he has bigger problems to deal with.

One by one everyone he meets falls sick from a debilitating disease, suffering a gruesome death within two days. Cates, it is revealed, has been injected with a virus designed to emanate from him, killing everyone in New York, but leaving him unharmed. That list of deaths he is responsible for keeps growing and growing. Cates sets off on a race against time to discover who is responsible, before he can wipe out the whole of humanity.

Ok, everyone in this book curses. Every line of dialogue slumps on the page, stuffed with expletives. It is not even funny, just tiresome posturing and insults. It irritated the hell out of me, almost as much as Somers’ references to the first book featuring his callous killer, The Electric Church. Unfortunately I had not realized this was a sequel before I took it out from the library. There was this Church you see, and it was electric. Lots of people were killed in this Church, the electric one you see, but Cates survived. Over and over again we hear about the events of this previous book. I feel like this novel needed a ‘Previously On…’ opening chapter, much like in a prime time thriller.

In an unusual move many of the surviving cast of The Electric Church die, signifying that Somers at least is not interested in writing a formulaic franchise revolving around Mr Avery Cates. Yet the multitude of deaths soon renders the tragedy of this plague excessively logistical. We no longer feel any sense of despair in Cates’ friends being picked off, because death itself becomes repetitive. Much like the cursing! The descriptions of people coughing up bloody phlegm lose their shock value quickly. Honestly Jeff Noon’s Pollen dealt with the idea of a surreal disease in a far-future setting much better.

Poor fare and pretty ho-hum as a work of science fiction.

Dr Lanselius was the consul of all the witch-clans at Trollesund, in the far north. Lyra remembered her visit to his house, and the secret she’d overheard – the secret which had had such momentous consequences. She would have trusted Dr Lanselius; but could she trust what someone else claimed on his behalf?

One of my favourite book series from the last decade, not just in children’s fiction – but fiction period, was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A story about two children from different worlds, threatened by a vast authoritarian conspiracy designed to exploit innocence, it managed to be thematically powerful and dense with literary references. Pullman takes his series title and many of his themes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He caught the notice of the liberal press (and the ire of religious groups and concerned parents) by launching a broadside against C.S. Lewisthe Chronicles of Narnia and its overt religious allegory. His Dark Materials, by contrast, offered a fantasy universe that was inhabited by angelic beings and daemons, while at the same time subscribing to scientific theories of quantum reality and evolution.

Heady stuff for a kid’s book. Yet if there’s a consistent theme throughout my positive reviews of children’s books, it is authors who do not condescend to their readers. Philip Pullman certainly does not talk down to children. Even in Lyra’s Oxford, a short post-script to the trilogy, has a brief introduction by the author where he wonders if the past is conditioned by future events, hinting that this volume throws some of the events of the previous books into relief.

It is two years after the events of The Amber Spyglass and Lyra has returned to Jordan College Oxford. Pullman includes postcards, maps and journal extracts supposedly recovered from this world contained within the book to give a greater level detail. The story itself is quite slim, a taste of what is to come with Pullman’s upcoming second series The Book of Dust.

Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon encounter a witch’s daemon under attack from a flock of starlings. Rescuing it, the grateful familiar informs Lyra that he is searching for an alchemist who lives somewhere in the Jericho district of Oxford. The witch has sent him to ask this man for an elixir that will cure a mysterious ailment ravaging the witches who live in the north. Lyra agrees to help and hides the witch’s daemon in her room until nightfall.

What Lyra does not realize is that events from her adventures in the north and her conflict with the General Oblation Board have come back to haunt her.

At times I suspect that the religious controversy over Pullman’s writing obscured a well-told story. Wisely for this book he has chosen to return to the setting of Northern Lights, which transformed the familiar surroundings of Oxford into a steam punk fantasy of his devising. Will, the other protagonist of His Dark Materials, is once again absent.

This is a great reminder of what made Pullman’s books so appealing in the first place. I am eagerly looking forward to the next book in the series.

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