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There are some cheeks that serve no purpose other than taking up space on a face. Sometimes cheeks are just palettes for makeup experiments. Often, cheeks are just things that ache, making it difficult to give pretend-smiles. But then, there are other cheeks. Cheeks that are put on the face on a human being to illuminate the mind-blowing concept of having cheeks. That must be pulled. She had such cheeks. And they asked to be pulled.

I must confess I have been prevaricating over reviewing this book for some time. I was actually intimidated by the prospect of reviewing a book that is only nine pages long. A book of short stories at that. It was only due to the efforts of Irish author Oran Ryan from Seven Towers books that I was convinced to sit down, shut up and read Inklings (Facebook fan page here).

Aparna Warrier‘s stories are examples of flash fiction, brief and to the point. The style really puts Polonius’ line about brevity being the soul of wit to the test. Of the selection of stories contained in Inklings, there are examples of romance, magic realism, even a poem of sorts based on the repetition of two words, ‘violence’ and ‘money’.

This is what intimidated me. How could I even begin to review something like this? As it happens, Warrier was an excellent guide to this style of writing, capturing my interest quickly and delivering a series of well-paced short narratives that still feel complete despite the length. Taking our Time opens the collection, describing a romantic infatuation with a sting in the tail. The reversal in the final line inverts the meaning of the entire piece. Immediately I began to see the advantages of flash fiction. Intoxicated by the Impossibility illustrates the insomnia-inducing extremes of obsession, followed by Who wrote The Rules? an unusual interrogation on the nature of society itself. So What? presents philosophical absurdity, while Oil on Canvas sets about explaining the capacity of art to compliment memory.

The longest story here Always, a whole page and a half long, is a seemingly simple story about a child bring a worm to show and tell in school. However, Warrier perfectly captures the lonely vulnerability of schoolroom isolation, young Priyanka finding a place among the other classmates thanks to ‘Greenie’. It is a telling preview of what the author is more capable of with a longer form.

Of course my favourite story of the bunch is The Revolt of the Coconut Trees magic realism by way of The Day of the Triffids. What I have always loved about John Wyndham’s novel is that it opens with such a funny line, proceeding to describe the invasion of earth by vegetable alien life-forms with a grim black humour. Warrier’s effort is more of an ecological fable, but also has a similar sense of humour.

Overall this is a surprisingly effective collection and a fascinating introduction to flash fiction.

My thanks to the author for my review copy.

When I was eight, my mother lost me to zombies in a one-card draw.

Some first lines do not fool around. In a  short burst they let you know straight away what you’re in for by choosing to read this book. There are lines that grab your attention (“Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”), lines designed to raise a wry chuckle before the action commences (“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”) and then there are writers like Marjorie Liu, happy to deliver a one-line manifesto for the fun she has in mind.

Maxine Kiss has lived with whole life with the knowledge that the world is full of dangers most people will never have to face. She, unfortunately, has been raised for precisely that purpose. The last in a long line of women known as Hunters, she has grown up to expect nothing more than a short life of pain and violence. Her enemies are a host of demons who hide in human skins, possessing them and transforming innocents into zombies, foot-soldiers in a millenia-old conflict. Maxine’s job is to hunt them down, give them no quarter. She is not unarmed, she has powers of her own in the form of five demon tattoos that come to life at night and protect her. During the day they sleep, but the tattoos themselves act as a shield against any harm.

Unfortunately for the world Maxine has found a reason not to fight anymore. She is beginning to doubt her mission. And her timing could not be worse.

Hunters do not typically allow men into their lives, but Maxine’s is going to be made far more complicated by several. First there is her lover, the ex-priest Grant with mysterious abilities of his own relating to synaesthesia. Then there is Jack, an elderly archaeologist who knew her grandmother and seems awfully familiar with her history. Tracker, a creature who looks like a man, centuries old and bound to Maxine for reasons he refuses to explain, also enters her life unexpectedly (he pushes her in front of a bus – but he apologises later). Finally there is Byron, a homeless boy who witnessed the murder of a private detective who was on the trail of Maxine herself. She has no idea who paid the detective to track her down – in fact the police are curious about that very same point – but she recognizes that the boy himself is special. It is rare for her to see demons and zombies fighting over anyone else beside her self.

Not only has Maxine’s personal life dulled the edge of her mission, a creature from behind the Veil, the crumbling barrier between this world and the realm of demons who have not walked the earth for thousands of years, has escaped. It wears Maxine’s face, it hunts her friends, taunts her with the secrets she has not yet been told and it cannot be harmed by any weapon she has.

In order to beat this creature – in order to survive – Maxine will have to face up to some painful facts about her own family.

Marjorie Liu‘s first novel in her Hunter Kiss series does a fine job of establishing Maxine Kiss as a modern day heroine, but also delivers some impressive world-building. By the last chapter there are plenty of mysteries still to be resolved, but many questions have been answered. Liu’s own mythology borrows liberally from several sources, but still retains a sense of novelty.

As such the action proceeds with thankfully few gratuitous fight scenes. In fact at one point Maxine breaks away from her own troubles to help out wth a natural disaster in the Middle East. It is an interesting moment. So often novels involving a hero fighting to save the earth from the apocalypse seem painfully insulated from very real catastrophes that happen every day. Liu also returns the concept of the zombie to its vodun roots, a body possessed by an evil spirit, or demon.

What is at times unusual is the lack of female characters in the book. There are two demonesses, Blood Mama the zombie queen and the creature that escapes the veil; a madwoman cared for by Grant; and a colleague of Jack’s who is fond of unicorns. Maxine herself refers to her constant companions, the demonic tattoos, as ‘the boys’. She’s surrounded by testosterone.

An entertaining and punchy yarn.

Things will get better. In fifteen years’ time and that’s such a little space – 90 per cent of the people living in Britain will be over eighty. There won’t be the energy from evil any more than there will be the energy for good.

I have got to stop reviewing books that have been adapted to film. I waste most of the review commenting on the differences between the film and the text. Plus this blog is dedicated to books and yet my love of cinema insists on creeping back in.

Still I was astonished at how much the screenplay based on P.D. James‘ novel diverged from the text. In his commentary on the dvd for Children of Men philosopher Slavoj Zizek comments on how the religious subtext of the book is dropped for more cinematic themes such as terrorism and a breakdown in multicultural society.

Both stories come from the same root, however. By 2021 the human race is doomed by a worldwide epidemic of childlessness that has lasted twenty five years. Theo Faron a fifty-year-old Oxford historian has begun a diary that provides us with an insight into how the quiet extinction of the human race has changed Britain. A new system of governance has taken over in the wake of global panic, ruled by his cousin Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England. Under his rule order has been restored to the country due to his wide-ranging policy changes and of course the increasing depopulation. Cities are quiet and safe. Criminals are deported to the Isle of Man. Immigrants from other countries are invited to England to do menial jobs, referred to as Sojourners, but are returned to their countries of origin once they become elderly.

The infertility event is designated Omega, with the last generation of humans born in 1995 known as Omegas. Theo describes them as being over-entitled, spoiled brats, who regard their elders with undisguised contempt. There are even rumours that there are roaming gangs of Omegas in the abandoned English countryside. Their youth is something incomprehensible and threatening to the dispassionate and increasingly listless older population. Some women who were of child-bearing at the time of Omega have never recovered from the psychological trauma. Dolls are wheeled about in prams in imitation of real children. There are even christenings of newborn pets. Animals it appears were spared divine punishment.

Theo’s diary also describes his relationship with Xan and  their time spent together as children, which allows him to believe he is untouchable even as his concerns about the nature of his cousin’s power over Britain grows. He is contacted by a small group of dissidents, the Five Fishes, who contact him in the hope that he can use his influence with Xan to repeal some of his policies. Initially dismissive of their utopian plans,Theo is an unwilling co-conspirator, until he is given a reason to hope for a possible future for the human race. It takes nothing less than a genuine miracle to wipe away his privileged sceptism.

At times Theo Faron feels like a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel who somehow became lost and wandered into this listless dystopia. James herself draws attention to this, by having Xan utter the line “How too Brideshead, dear boy. I feel the need of a teddy bear.” The early half of Children of Men is a fantastic eulogy to a dying Britain, with Theo a curator for a culture that will soon vanish, singing the praises of emptying churches, libraries and museums. The violent Omegas are strangely alien to him, remiscent of  The Midwich Cuckoos and Burgess’ Droogs (much like Alex’s friends, some are even conscripted into the police). The abandoned villages and seaside holiday resorts transformed into destinations for assisted suicide are beautifully evoked.

However, as Theo becomes more and more involved with the Five Fishes the novel changes, becoming an unusual mixture of thriller and religious allegory. Incredibly P.D. James has fashioned a twenty-first century neo-Nativity. Xan makes for a charming Herod, a politician who acquired ideology to suit his passage to power and finds it difficult to relinquish, even in the face of the end of the world. There is an amusing aside when The Beatles classic All You Need is Love becomes a rallying cry for evangelists.

Children of Men is more a novel of ideas than a work of science fiction, questioning the meaning of life without purpose. Remarkable.

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