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That there were two sides to Hamzah Effendi was common knowledge. The family man and the crime boss, Jekyll Effendi to Felaheen Hyde. Offend the first and he’d buy out your company and close it down. Offend the second and he’d slaughter your children, bulldoze your house into the ground and sow that ground with rock salt. There was something very biblical about some of those reports on file.

I picked this book up in the library as both the title and premise intrigued me. This is a novel set in an alternate reality where the Ottoman Empire never failed, yet similarities with our world remain. What I did not realize was that this book is the second entry in Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy. Consequently I was a little at a loss when characters appeared without introduction. I imagine the first book in the sequence, Pashazade, probably explains exactly what the points of difference within this alternate timeline are.

Nevertheless I was able to get to grips with the plot of the book, which begins as a murder mystery set in the city of El Iskandriyah, with the investigation conducted by Ashraf al-Mansur (referred to as Raf) uncovering a history of war atrocities and child soldiers. At various points the book introduces flashbacks to a war in the Sudan, which slowly reveals the truth behind the present-day events.

Our hero Raf is an enigmatic figure, whose identity is shrouded in mystery, having arrived in Iskandriyah under false pretences and wrangled himself a position within the police force. The story begins on the 27th October, with Raf acting as Magister to a trio of international judges called to oversee the trial of industrialist and rumoured crime boss Hamzah Effendi. We then cut to July of that year and witness the events that led to the trial. Hamzah is framed for a series of ritualistic murders involving American female tourists in the city. The victims are found to have been partying at clubs owned by the businessman and his own daughter Zara is rumoured to be a target of a kidnapping plot. Realizing that he no longer has the protection of the Governor General Koenig Pasha, Hamzah tries to convince his daughter to leave the country. She refuses believing that he is only looking to marry his daughter off following her embarrassing and very public rejection at the hands of Raf in the previous book.

As more murders occur, each with Hamzah’s initials carved into the wrists of the victims, Raf discovers that there is more than one killer involved. Former European intelligence agents and Soviet Spetsnatz soldiers are carrying out copy cat killings and arson attacks on the city. Furthermore the Governor General seems to know more than he’s letting on, dropping cryptic hints that lead Raf to investigate Hamzah’s past as a child soldier in the Sudan and the mysterious Colonel Abad, presumed dead. On top of all that he has to keep his precocious niece Hani under control and figure out how he really feels about Zara, who may be married off to the young Khedive for her own protection.

I enjoy alternate history novels, imagining how history might have gone if significant events had turned out different. Not only do they allow for interesting science fiction yarns, but they throw new light on how we perceive historical progress. World War I is generally seen as a response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Official accounts do not describe it as a resource war over oil in the Middle East. In Effendi we have a strong, independent Muslim North Africa that controls its natural resources, while mention is made of a more insular United States and there is an offhand remark regarding Scotland’s oil reserves having been depleted. The lingua franca of the region is Arabic first, Hebrew Spanish and French next, with English a distant fourth or fifth. It’s an interesting premise for what is a fairly standard murder mystery/political thriller plot.

The hero Rah himself enjoys certain mysterious physical advantages that are ascribed to extensive childhood surgical implants. He has visions of a fox that advises him on what to do, courtesy of a device in his brain that acts like an augmented reality filter.

What this all adds up to is a quite entertaining and inventive yarn, though strangely for a novel set in an Arabic country, references to Christian Hell and Dante feature throughout. A fun romp.

 

Seattle used to be an uncomplicated trading town fed and fattened by gold in Alaska, and then it had dissolved into a nightmare city filled with gas and the walking dead. But people had stayed. People had come back. And they’d adapted.

Whelp, (spit!) looks like we gots ourselves a steampunk novel! And what a delightful rip-roaring yarn it is too. With Boneshaker Priest essays an alternate America, with the town of Seattle abandoned in the wake of a catastrophic man-made disaster. Or has it?

The civil war between the Confederacy and the Union continues to be waged. The Klondike gold rush happened over a decade earlier than in real-time, drawing thousands to the environs of the one-time fishing village of Seattle. The Russians never successfully sold off Alaska. Oh, and there are zombies.

Leviticus Blue was a mad inventor who designed the Boneshaker, a device that could burrow through the earth. Instead of delivering it to the Russians as promised, to aid in their attempts to recover gold from the frozen tundra of Alaska, Blue used it to rob the vaults of the city’s banking district. This led to earthquakes, collapsing buildings and an untold number of deaths. Blue’s creation also caused a strange gas to be released into the atmosphere, slowly poisoning Seattle’s city dwellers.

The gas came to be known as the Blight, killing its victims before resurrecting them as the shambling creatures called  Rotters. In an effort to contain the Blight a wall has been erected around the city of Seattle. Life went on, those who survived moved to the Outskirts, where Leviticus Blue’s name was a curse.

Which would be fine, but for his widow Briar who has been left to live with the actions of her mad husband. She has struggled to raise their son Zeke on a menial income, suffering abuse from their neighbours, and not even able to retreat to the safety of her maiden name with her father regarded a traitor for rescuing prisoners left for dead during the Blight outbreak. Zeke, now aged fifteen, has many questions Briar cannot answer and in frustration at being trapped in poverty decides to cross the wall into the Blight equipped only with a breathing mask and torn scraps of old maps.

Boneshaker is the story of a mother braving a multitude of dangers to rescue her son. Briar encounters zeppelin pirates, marauding Rotters, and the machinations of the strange Dr Minnericht who controls the lives of those who remain behind the wall. Briar Wilkes is a heroine giving the likes of Aliens’ Ellen Ripley a run for her money, driven by a fierce desire to protect her son, but also able to blow a zombie’s head off with a single gunshot.

Priest invests great effort in describing the period detail while ruefully confessing the changes she has made to the historical timeline facilitating the advent of zombies in 1880s Seattle. The addition of steampunk  standards such as prosthetic limbs, sophisticated suits of armour with built-in breathing apparatus and yes, sonic disruptors, is all part of the fun. It’s a swashbuckling historical novel that doesn’t pretend to verisimilitude, except when it’s convenient. Chapters switch from Briar’s point of view to that of Zeke and it’s always nice to see well written, colourful and strong female characters, such as Lucy the one-armed cyborg and Princess Angeline who’s a dab hand with a knife.

Boneshaker is a fun work of steampunk and alternate history. It’s a breezy ride with a good eye for period detail, melancholic in tone with a kick-ass heroine. Really, what more could you ask for?


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