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For indeed I am the sort of charlatan they seek to discredit. I am not what they say I am, but my deceptions are harmless and, I do believe, helpful at a time of personal loss.

I am a very nervous sleeper and sadly in our new abode the sound of passing vehicles – not to mention overhead flights – causes our little unit to wobble somewhat. Every time I jolt awake. This, as you can imagine, is quite annoying. But then I made the mistake of joking that any other creaks and steps could be the sounds of our own personal poltergeist. My beloved other half immediately freaked. See personally I cannot really see any reason to fear the ‘other side’, psychic phenomena, ectoplasmic stains, or indeed fallen angels. I lie awake at night terrified about home invasions and a piece of satellite falling from space and impacting on my roof…but the supernatural? Completely uninterested in it.

Magic as such is something I have difficulty with, because it seems like so much empty spectacle. There is a necessity to believe in order to be halfway impressed to begin with. In The Prestige Christopher Priest attempts to straddle that borderline,  that fudging of spectacle and the occult.

The rivalry between two late 19th century magicians comes to consume both their lives, a dual obsession that spurs them into more audacious feats. The Prestige presents the respective accounts of this contest from the points of view of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. This is not merely competitiveness, with both parties going out of their way to sabotage their rival’s acts. As they are both practiced in exploiting the gullibility of their patrons, whether it be through stage magic or séances for the dead, they know the weak-spots of each other’s craft, the key moment to stage and accuse the performer of being a fraud.

Then Borden’s act ‘The Transported Man’, involving him appearing in two places on stage mere moments apart, drives Angier to even more outrageous efforts. Borden has not employed any trickery that the other magician recognizes. He has somehow managed to achieve genuine magic. In his attempts to top the ‘Transported Man’, Angier travels to America and returns with a revolutionary new act ‘In A Flash’. Having consulted with the genius scientific recluse Nikola Tesla, Angier seemingly has confounding the laws of physics itself. Both men become so consumed by thoughts of revenge, that their intentions soon border on murderous.

The story is bookended by their descendents attempting to discover the reasons behind this intense rivalry, which has actually survived their deaths – assuming that the diaries left by Angier and Borden actually do present an accurate picture of events.

This is the second book by Priest that I have read. The first, The Inverted World, rested on a central idea that was quite interested, but the book overall felt strained. The Roshomon approach of The Prestige should create a sense of mystery, but once Borden’s secret – hinted at by suggestive choices in language during his diary – becomes clear, the book feels like it is frustratingly delaying the moment of the reveal.

Priest’s writing imitates the suspense and suggestiveness of the magician’s performance, but the characters are so deluded by their mutual hatred that their insistent company becomes wearying. The shared love of a woman named Olivia comes to seem spurious – is she just a beard for their homoerotic fascination for one another?

There is an interesting moment when Angier describes his impressions of Tesla “when I had seen his lecture in London he had all the appearance of a member of my own profession, taking the same delight in surprising and mystifying the audience, yet, unlike a magician, being more than willing, anxious even, to reveal and share his secrets.” Of course that was Tesla’s tragedy, that he did not guard his insights jealously enough.

The historical asides of this book are momentarily interesting, but for the most part The Prestige feels overlong and wearying with its venom and spite.

The Prestige

What happened to the boys who walked inside those doors? No one knew. But the white pony’s eyes reminded me of the cold, strange eyes of the wizards. I stared at the cliff’s edge. It was high enough ten times over. If I ran straight out and jumped, I would die. I glanced at my father. I would never again have to hear how I disappointed and shamed him, how fortunate he was that Aben was the older of his sons, the one who would inherit. My mother would weep, but she would understand, I thought. Surely she had thought about it at least once, about escaping from my father forever.

Well this is it. Tomorrow I fly out of Sydney back to Ireland for a short visit. Let my folks now I’m a-ok. And, of course, look up some much-missed friends. Still it feels unusual to be sitting here in Bulli, typing up this review. It’s been a long trek to get to this point.

On the plus side, as I am continuing with the blog, many of the old rules no longer apply. Such as my (occasionally broken) ban on reading the same author twice. So I will be attacking Stephanie’s latest challenge – to read as many books as posible on the flight to Dublin – aided and abetted by my trusty Kindle, with its collection of my favourite writers. As well as a few indie books too.

It’s been fun people.

Skin Hunger is told from the points of view of two characters. Hahp, a boy from a wealthy family starved of love and living in fear of his father; and Sadima, whose birth led to the death of her mother and crushed her own father’s heart. Both grow up to become emotionally wounded and lonely adolescents, but their fates could not be more different.

Hahp is sent to join a secret academy for wizards. Magic itself was stamped out centuries ago and the practice of it was made illegal by royal decree. In effect Hahp has vanished from the surface of the earth, as no one can know where he is or what he is doing. This new wizards for their own part deprive the young academy applicants of all comforts and sustenance, seemingly intent on starving the boys to death. It becomes clear that Hahp is little more than a guinea pig in this new push to rediscover the source of magic itself.

Sadima escapes the drudgery of life on the farm after her father passes away. Having run his household for him from a young age, filling the domestic void left by her mother, she has always dreamed of running away. For most of her life she has been different, having the ability to communicate telepathically with the various animals on the farm. One day she meets a man from the city of Limòri who recognizes her talent and invites her to follow him to the newly founded academy. When her father passes away, Sadima finally chooses to go and enters the household of Franklin and Somiss, the founders of this underground academy.

As time passes Sadima develops a strong affection for the gentle Franklin and is puzzled by his subservient relationship to the taciturn Somiss. However, she discovers her domestic skills ease along the work of the two wizards quite well and comes to enjoy her life in the bustling city. Meanwhile Hahp is trapped in a cold cell, accompanied only by fellow starving young boys fighting to survive, covered in filth and sores.

There is some initial confusion in the first half of the book as the behaviour of Somiss and Franklin to the young charges of their ‘academy’ seems to contradict Sadima’s perception of them both. Slowly author Kathleen Duey draws out the reasons behind their unusual project. The majority of the novel is concerned with the sufferings of Hahp and Sadima’s growing romantic interest in Franklin. At first I did admire Duey for introducing a vision of such cruelty to the young adult fantasy stable.

However, at times the book resembles fantasy misery lit, turgid and callous. It feels like the story was pitched as ‘The Dresden Dolls enroll in Hogwarts’! As the book is the first in a series it ends with the story unfinished, but I really cannot muster up the interest to continue with it.

Initially interesting in its depiction of the dark side of human nature in a fantasy setting, but ultimately exhausting.

Recently Stephanie and I have become fans of Escape to the Country. Produced by the BBC it is aired in Australia on the 7 Network. Why have we become addicted to this daytime television show about that most clichéd of yuppie dreams? Because it is incredibly frustrating! The couples never seem to buy a house. Either they are outbid, or they decide not to move after all, whatever the result in many cases beautiful homes nestled in picturesque bucolic towns are left for another buyer and viewer gratification goes unsatisfied once again.

There is something instinctively appealing about buying a home in the countryside though. I find it ironic that I am now on the other side of the world and all of a sudden have discovered a love for country living. Especially given that it is the English countryside (although Stephanie is partial to a move to France), and here we are living outside Sydney with a veritable panoply of exotic wildlife just hanging out in the back garden.

Partly this is due to the sense of accumulated history that is associated with rural towns and villages in England. My dream would be to find a nice cottage, turn one of the rooms into a study and just stuff it with weird and wonderful books. Head down to the local pub for a pint or two of Old Speckled Hen and buy my groceries from the local farmer.

Alex Hunter unwittingly finds himself in just such a town, a place not even on the map named Strangehaven. After  crashing into a tree while travelling out to Cornwall, Alex wakes up in the local B&B being tended to by Doctor Charles and Jane his receptionist, who quickly befriends the injured stranger. He reports to them that he saw a girl in a black dress standing in the middle of the road moments before he crashed, but they assure him no one else was found at the scene of the accident. As soon as he recovers, Jane takes him around the town and introduces him to the casually odd inhabitants of Strangehaven.

There’s Albert Bonneti an Italian mechanic who speaks in pidgin English and an exaggerated accent; Adam who claims to be an alien who insists on wearing shades the entire time for fear of Earth’s ultraviolet rays; Maggie McCreadie the B&B owner who spends her evenings searching for something in the graveyard after midnight; and Meg, an Amazonian shaman who through the course of the series begins to instruct Jane’s brother Jeremy in shamanic initiation rites. Unbeknownst to Alex many of the town worthies including the school head-master, the doctor and the police constable are all members of a Masonic Order known as The Knights of the Golden Light.

Strangehaven is also host to normal village excitements such as romantic affairs and family conflicts. Jeremy’s father John takes exception to Meg’s relationship with his son. The green grocer Peter is sneaking around behind his wife Beverly’s back with Suzie Tang. Even the sweet friendship between Alex and Jane, which she tragically misconstrues, is well-drawn.

The town, however, is not simply inhabited by a collection of eccentrics, but under the influence of eerie supernatural forces.  Alex discovers he is unable to leave Strangehaven, finding himself turned around when he tries to drive on to Cornwall (with a series of crop circles visible in the background). Jeremy and Meg successful manage to inhabit the bodies of two birds courtesy of a magical ritual. Also Alex seems to have forgotten that the woman he saw suddenly transform into a tree looked just like Jane. There are frequent cutaways to a naked painting of her, depicting her body floating in a fish tank, being stared at by a mysterious stranger in Strangehaven.

Creator Gary Spencer Millidge has many strings to his bow. Writer and artist of the wonderful Strangehaven, he also self-publishes the series, has written a biography of Alan Moore and despite the irregular release of issues, still insists that number #24 will complete the story. The influence of Twin Peaks, The Prisoner and The Avengers is clear, with innocent seeming English towns revealed to be sites of global importance. Alex’s car accident resembles the opening of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a favourite of mine that has the protagonist encounter a woman outside the city of Bellona who transforms into a tree. The art is impressively photorealistic, with creased smiles and angry outbursts perfectly captured.

An excellent series, strongly recommended.

I took the book from her, and the pen, and opened Silent Riots to the title page. I signed my name, trying to remember the last time I’d signed one of my books, trying hard to recall how long it had been.

“Not the sort of thing I usually read,” she admitted, “I mean, it is rather explicit. A bit grim for my tastes. But, even so, I thought it was quite well written. Poetic, even.”

Horror fiction has enjoyed any number of stories involving a discovered text, or diary hinting at the horrible fate that befell the writer of the tale we are about to read. The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson is one of my favourites. Not only is it set in the west of Ireland, but Hodgson’s story manages to describe its narrator’s increasing desperation convincingly, before throwing the equivalent of everything and the kitchen’s sink in terms of mythical eschatology right at the reader. It is intimately written (poor Pepper), while also managing to be ambitious in its scope. Cut to a hundred years later and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves managed to repeat the feat, introducing us to three distinct narrators, with their individual texts interwoven on the printed page.

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel opens with yet another ‘editor’s note’, revealing that we are about to read a manuscript by author Sarah Crowe, a genre writer who committed suicide following the events described.

With that established, Sarah’s arrival at the Wight Farm, located near a large and distinctive red oak tree is described in diary form. She has travelled from the south all the way to Rhode Island to get away from her past and maybe, just maybe, actually write a book that will get her publisher off her back. Unfortunately she has been suffering from writer’s block, is still traumatized by what happened to her lover Amanda and is starting to suspect that she has nothing left to write. Instead of working on a new novel, Sarah begins to explore the history of the Wight Farm, discovering that the previous tenant an academic named Charles Harvey, hung himself from the oak tree outside. He had been working on a history of the farm and its eerie history, with a number of mysterious happenings over the years seemingly connected to the area.

Sarah’s isolation is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Constance, a local-born artist who has returned home from L.A. It appears the landlord is hoping to squeeze as much rent out of the property as possible. Constance actually knew Charles Harvey and happens to believe in all sorts of occult phenomena, explaining to Sarah that she believes ghosts are phantom projections through time of past, or future events. Initially exasperated at having to share her new home with a stranger, the two women grow closer even as the red tree sitting outside their home inexplicably becomes more menacing. Over time they both witness a series of strange phenomena, including missing time, sudden nausea, dislocation, vivid dreams and yet neither can bring themselves to leave the Wight Farm. As Sarah continues to study the increasingly erratic writings of Charles Harvey, she finds herself following in his footsteps into madness.

I chose this book as it was mentioned in the King of Nerds article that inspired this horror novel glut I have embarked upon. As it happens I have read Caitlín R. Kiernan’s writing before. Some years ago a friend gave me a lend of her debut novel Silk. I was not a fan. The Red Tree was nominated for this year’s World Fantasy Award so I wondered whether I would enjoy this more.

This has to be one of the most defensive books I have ever read. It reminded me of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, particularly the sequence where he attacks the critics of his films. Sarah Crowe rails against her own critics, both in the media and on amazon.com comment threads, while despairing that maybe she is just a hack. She peppers her conversation with literary quotes and references, the book quoting liberally from Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative Arthur Gordon Pym. The absolute low-point for me was when she repeated a memorized passage on Francis Bacon that she read on Wikipedia (Irony!).

It is the humourlessness of Kiernan’s writing that I find most disagreeable though. Chalk this one up as another negative review.

“I’ve fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I’ve stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I’ve run away myself more than once, I’ve pissed myself with fear. I’ve begged for my life. I’ve been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if I’d been killed years ago, but I haven’t been, and I don’t know why.”

Ok, a one sentence review. If you like the fantasy novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, Fritz Leiber, or George R.R. Martin, you are required by law to love this book.

Oh I’m sorry, should I go on?

The quote above is taken from a rare speech from Logen Ninefingers, the ostensible ‘hero’, of this book – although it quickly becomes apparent that there are no virtuous heroes in Abercrombie’s grimy fantasy world. The story actually follows three threads attached to three protagonists.

Logen, the warrior from the North with a bloody reputation; Sand dan Glotka, who heads the Inquisition of the city of Adua and having survived years of horrible torture has returned a broken man, burning with the desire to make others suffer as he has suffered; and the pompous young lord Jezal dan Luther, whose station in life has awarded him great advantages that he takes for granted.

These three men are slowly drawn into a vast conspiracy that will see kingdoms clash, barbarism sweep the land and a malevolent force from the ancient past twist the rules of life and death.

When we first meet Logen he has just fallen to his presumed death from a cliff after a battle with savage Shanka marauders. Alone, tired and hungry, with his only friend a cooking pot, Logen comes upon a bedraggled young man who claims to be an apprentice magus. Apparently this nervous young fellow’s master, the legendary magus Bayaz, has requested the presence of the infamous Ninefingers. Having nothing to lose, his honour long gone, along with friends and family, Logen agrees to travel southwards.

Below the border with the Northern kingdoms, Glotka and his torturers have been set upon a conspiracy between the merchant classes against the crown. Glotka was once a noble himself, a handsome soldier whose skill with the fencing sabre won him fame and the love of women. After years as a hostage he has been reduced to a physical cripple, sucking soup through gummy jaws and in constant pain. He takes no passion in inflicting similar suffering on those he questions, as he is no longer capable of feeling much emotion at all.

However, he does feel contempt for Jezal, who reminds him so much of himself as a younger man. The lord is selfish, ignorant and through the advantages afforded him due to his breeding, a natural adept with the blade. His reputation rests on success in the annual ‘Contest’, a battle of skills between the greatest fencers within the kingdom. Confident to the point of extreme arrogance, Jezal finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with the sister of a superior officer, a woman named Ardee who disturbs his self-possession with her quick wit and knowing smile. She is a commoner though and he a lord, so a match between them would be impossible. Which only serves to spur on his desire for her.

The overall plot of the book is concerned with corruption, intrigues at court and a growing war between the allied kingdoms of the Union and the Northern lands belonging to the war-chief Bethod. More peripheral characters are drawn into the plot, with dialogue liberally peppered with contemporary insults. The book’s title itself comes from a quote from Homer and its moral compass swings wildly from one extreme to another. In that at least it has a lot in common with recent attempts to deconstruct the fantasy novel, but more importantly Abercrombie is very funny (which is surprising giving the amount of gore and slaughter on show here).

This is quite a thick tome, the first book in a series called The First Law (referring to a rule practiced by the magi to not communicate with spirits), yet I flew through it in a day. Great ribald fun.

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