Archives for category: Dark Fantasy

Cats are very much on my mind at the moment since I have a litter of young kittens in the house. So this week I’m going to recommend a book by an author who was particularly good at writing about cats – Robert Westall (1929-1993). His Fantasy novel “The Cats of Seroster” was published in 1984, with a fabulous cover designed to appeal to cat-lovers. It is currently out of print but there are plenty of cheap second-hand paperbacks around. The story is set in 16th century Europe and features a tribe of cats who collectively remember the days when they were revered in Ancient Egypt.

Somewhere in the south of France is a very old walled city, built on a rock riddled with caves. The city is famous for a breed of cats known as the Miw. They are twice the size of ordinary cats and golden-furred. The Miw are highly intelligent creatures who can send thoughts to each other and to the ordinary cats they refer to as the Weaker Brethren. For centuries the city was ruled by powerful Dukes who were catfriends but as the story begins a weak Duke has been murdered by a band of usurpers led by the cat-hating Little Paul. The Duke’s young heir is saved and hidden by Sehtek, the she-cat who leads the Miw and speaks with the voice of “the Goddess-in-her”.  She fears that under the new regime the witch-mania and persecution of cats which is spreading across Europe will reach her city. The greed and cruelty of Little Paul and his followers soon cause many people to flee the city but there is one hope. According to legend, whenever the city is under threat a new incarnation of the great warrior Seroster will rise with a golden cat by his side.

Sehtek sends a Miw male named Amon to tell her ally Horse (the collective mind of the wild white horses of the marshes) what has happened in the city. While in the marshes, Amon encounters a young Englishman called Cam. He is a wandering scholar whom people sometimes mistake for a wizard. Cam has been given a dagger by a mysterious blacksmith in return for taking a letter to the Seroster. As Cam makes his way towards the city he discovers that the dagger has alarming powers to change his personality and make him into an almost invincible warrior. Amon’s own journey back to the city is delayed by his decision to help a group of Brethren who are fleeing persecution. When he does get home, Amon finds that things have gone from bad to worse.

Cam discovers the secrets which lie beneath the city and, after a series of shocking events, finds himself leading the men, women and cats who want to restore the young Duke to power. Cam is the most unwilling of heroes and there are many other problems. The city is ably defended by experienced soldier, Sir Henri, Little Paul has spies everywhere, and the witch-burning Bishop of Toulouse and a crusader army is on its way. Can Cam fulfill his destiny without losing himself and can the Miw come up with a plan that will save their city?

Robert Westall was born and grew up in northern England. He served in the British Army for two years and was a teacher and an antique dealer before he became a full time author. He wrote a large number of novels and stories, mainly in the genres of Historical Fiction and Horror, and twice won the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature – for “The Machine Gunners” (1975) and “The Scarecrows” (1981). Many of his books were originally published for children or teenagers but  Westall is often regarded as one of the finest of British war novelists. I’m guessing that someone read a synopsis of  “The Cats of Seroster” and thought that a Fantasy containing telepathic cats must be for children. However, it is not a book that I would give to a child. All the viewpoint characters in “The Cats of Seroster” are adults and the story deals with the brutal realities of war and religious persecution. This is an Historical Fantasy packed with dark humour and heartbreaking tragedies.

Reading “The Cats of Seroster” is rather like having a cat on your lap which mainly purrs but sometimes turns round and swipes you with all claws out. Westall wrote punchy prose and contemporary-style dialogue and he liked to slip in sudden shocks. Many authors would have centred the whole story on Cam but Westall chops the narrative up among numerous human and feline points of view. He is very good at representing what Amon calls “the clatter and bumble of men”. Giving us a cat’s eye view of human conflicts points up the absurdity of many of the things which people kill each other for. I’m confident that Westall knew everything there was to know about siege-warfare and military strategy and that all the gory details are accurate. Some of the most violent events  are described with a detached humour which could seem callous but the underlying feel of the book is compassionate. When Westall wrote about wars he always seemed to empathize with decent men and woman on both sides of the conflict. In “The Cats of Seroster” two of the most sympathetic characters are on the “wrong side” in the plot. Sir Henri is a professional soldier trying to do his duty while mourning the end of the age of chivalry. His brave little she-cat, Castlemew, becomes an outcast from cat society rather than abandon the man she loves.

The depiction of cat society, both among the aristocratic Miw and the ordinary Brethren, is one of the great joys of this novel. Cats feature in much of Westall’s work. Outstanding examples include his children’s novel, “Blitzcat”, which recounts episodes from World War II from a cat’s point of view, and the chilling Horror story, “Yaxley’s Cat”. He was a loving but unsentimental observer of the way that cats behave. The ordinary cats in this novel have splendid names such as Nibblefur and Gristletongue. The minds of Ripfur and Tornear, the two black toms who accompany Amon on his journey, are dominated by the joys of hunting, fighting and mating, while a she-cat in the marshes only thinks contentedly of “Full-belly, lie-sun, lick-fur.” The Miw , who are descended from the sacred cats of Ancient Egypt, are shown as more intellectual creatures who worship Father Re and Mother Bastet. Their eternal warrior Seroster is based on the legendary figure of Sesostris, who combined the qualities of several actual rulers of Middle Kingdom Egypt. The Miw (the Ancient Egyptian word for cat) do have some magical powers but they mainly dominate the city through their superior intelligence. Sehtek’s plan for dealing with the fanatical Bishop of Toulouse is particularly clever.

Cat-lovers should be warned that there are a number of distressing feline deaths in this book, though the impact is softened by visions of the cats being welcomed into the afterlife by the cat-goddess, Bastet. Westall never wrote about wars without showing the terrible collateral damage to civilians and the physical and mental costs endured by the fighters. Many Fantasy novels have reluctant heroes but Cam is more consistently reluctant than most. To him the magical dagger is a curse rather than a blessing. He doesn’t want to lose his own identity within a violent archetype – even in a very good cause. For much of the story, Cam is a failed hero and Amon is a failed leader but then, as an old soldier tells them, “None of us know what we are doing”. “The Cats of Seroster” is a brilliant book about cats which also celebrates how brave and resourceful people can be. Until next time…

Geraldine

P.S. If you are curious about my kittens and their mother, you can see pictures of them at http://www.chalcedon.co.uk/cats

 

It is about time that I recommended something by the great Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). Isn’t Zelazny the most perfect surname for a writer who inhabited the borderlands between Fantasy and Science Fiction? The novel I’ve chosen, “Jack of Shadows” (1971), is set in a world divided between a magical darkside and a scientific lightside. There are plenty of old paperback copies around but don’t go for the 1974 Corgi edition which I have – its ghastly bat-dominated cover makes “Jack of Shadows” look like the tackiest of Horror stories. The novel was reissued in 2016 in the “Rediscovered Classics” series with a good introduction by Joe Haldeman.

This story begins in the Twilight Lands during the Hellgames. Many powerful beings are competing for the Hellflame trophy but the thief known as Jack of Shadows plans to steal it for the father of the woman he loves. Jack is difficult to defeat because if any shadows are present he can escape into them but he is betrayed by two darksiders who serve the Lord of Bats and beheaded. Jack is annoyed at “having to lose one of his lives on a sloppy job”, especially as this means a very long walk back from the Dung Pits of Glyve. During his perilous journey through the horrid realm of Drekkheim he meets a Wise Woman called Rosalie whom he once seduced with promises of taking her to live in his possibly non-existent castle of Shadow Guard. She warns him against letting hatred lead him to “the machine that thinks like a man.”

Jack’s hatred for his enemies does increase when he discovers that his beloved Evene now seems to be the bride of the sorcerer known as the Lord of Bats. After escaping from a cruel imprisonment, Jack visits his only friend, the chained fallen angel, Morningstar, who tells him about the great machine at the heart of the world. Jack breaks the rules by crossing over into the human lightside, where he gets a college-job lecturing on anthropology. He is soon pursued by a terrifying darkside monster known as the Borshin and forced to flee but he already has the information he needs to overpower his enemies. Jack will have his vengeance, even if it costs him his soul. Can anyone stop him destroying the world?

“Jack of Shadows” is a mish-mash of a book which shouldn’t really work and yet this story has fascinated me for years. The plot moves extremely fast and all manner of ideas are crammed into this short novel (only 157 pages). The opening chapters read as humorous Dark Fantasy, rather similar to Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” stories (see my Post of June 2012) or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (see my Post of July 2014). Initially, nothing is taken very seriously. When the Lord of Bats appears, he’s described as though he was a vampire out of a junk Horror movie and he lives in the absurdly named fortress of High Dudgeon. These jokes make the ensuing psychological duel between Jack and his arch-enemy all the more shocking. When Jack is masquerading as Dr Shade in the science-oriented human world, the story resembles a Crime Thriller before morphing into Horror again as a monster haunts the campus. Once Jack is back among his shadows, the tone darkens even further. There are deliberate echoes of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Christopher Marlow’s version of the Faustus legend, not to mention “The Count of Monte Cristo”. The more successful Jack is in wreaking revenge, the more tragic his story becomes.

I think it would be fair to say that all of Zelazny’s novels are dominated by variations of the same hero/anti-hero. To begin with, Jack seems a typical Zelazny hero – a threatened loner with unusual powers who is willing to question and shatter the rules of his world. What makes Jack distinctive is how close he gets to becoming not just an anti-hero but the villain of the piece. In the early chapters, most readers will like this amusing trickster but we soon get to see Jack’s ruthless side. The more he is denounced as a selfish liar and fantasist, the more Jack is determined to validate his self-image, even if that means forcing everyone else to fit in with his own version of reality.

Zelazny’s female characters aren’t usually memorable but the ones in this book are something of an exception. Sad-eyed Evene becomes a haunting figure as Jack changes from devoted lover to implacable stalker. Rosalie is the human love whom Jack simply forgot to go back for. She has become an old woman while her shadow-Jack has not aged at all. Rosalie has cause to be bitter and vengeful but she chooses forgiveness and acts as the guardian of Jack’s soul and the voice of his conscience.

Jack’s respect for Rosalie and his strange friendship with the angel/demon Morningstar are the two elements which made me want to stay with Jack on his journey through his own personal hells. Morningstar is an unforgettable creation, with his “great, lightning-scarred visage” and his lidless eyes always looking towards a sunrise that never comes. The poetic conversations between Jack and Morningstar are the heart of the novel. Jack is told that, “Everything that lives changes or dies” and that “Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it.” Morningstar’s explanations deconstruct Zelazny’s own genre of Science-Fantasy in a disturbing way, so it is fitting that there is a massive apocalypse at the climax of the novel. Many authors would have set a whole series in this complex double world but Zelazny always refused to write a sequel to “Jack of Shadows”. I’m glad that he didn’t because the enigmatic ending allows each reader to finish Jack’s story in her or his own way. Do try it and see which ending you choose.

While writing this post I realized that a book which contains two stories of failed love might not be the most appropriate choice for Valentine’s Week, so here is a quick bonus recommendation. If you are still in a romantic mood (or need cheering up after reading “Jack of Shadows”) you couldn’t do better than Garth Nix’s charming Regency Romance “Newt’s Emerald” (2015). This is now at the top of my list of Georgette Heyer- inspired Fantasy. On her eighteenth birthday, Lady Truthful Newington (Newt) is shown the magical emerald which is her birthright. When the emerald is stolen, Newt disguises herself as a boy and embarks on adventure which will bring her danger and romance. Enjoy. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

During this cold week I’m recommending a novel inspired by Russian history and folklore. “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden has only just been published, so the choice is between hardback and ebook editions. The charming cover of the British hardback looks more tropical than Russian. The American cover features a dramatic snow scene which is truer to the atmosphere of this dark and wintry book.

On the edge of a forest in medieval Russia lived a boyar (lord) called Pyotr Vladimirovich and his wife, Marina. She was a daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow but because her mother was rumoured to be a witch, she was married off to a boyar in a remote northern province. This happy marriage produced three children but as Marina’s health failed she longed for a special daughter who would inherit her grandmother’s magic. Marina died after giving birth to a baby girl called Vasilisa (Vasya). Little Vasya was looked after by her older sister and by nurse and storyteller, Dunya.

After six years Pyotr decides that his older daughter needs a husband and his spirited youngest child needs a stepmother. He returns from Moscow with another royal bride, but the neurotic Princess Anna dislikes Vasya and soon has a daughter of her own to favour. The villagers who live on Pyotr’s estate are devout Christians but they also respect the spirits who inhabit the forest and lakes and leave offerings for the ones who protect houses and stables. Vasya has the rare gift of being able to see these spirits. She even befriends some of them, such as the beautiful but dangerous rusalka in the nearby lake and the squat brown domovoi who guards her family home. Her stepmother can see spirits too but she interprets them as demons and is terrified. Princess Anna is grateful when an ambitious young priest, launches a crusade to stop people following the old ways.

As Vasya grows up she has more encounters with spirits and learns to understand the language of horses. When the local people begin to fear Vasya as a witch, her only choices seem to be marriage or a convent. Evil is stirring deep in the forest and dark forces are threatening the village. Weakened by the lack of belief and offerings, the ancient spirits can no longer offer protection against wolves, fire and the walking dead. Vasya, and a magical jewel given to her by a mysterious stranger, may be the only hope…

This debut novel has been launched with much publicity and endorsements from big name Fantasy authors such as Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik. I think the hype is mainly justified. “The Bear and the Nightingale” isn’t as distinctive as Catherynne M.Valente’s mesmerizing Russian-based Fantasy “Deathless” but it is beautifully written and has a most appealing heroine. I was hooked as soon as the old nurse began telling the tale of King Frost. I’ve always been attracted to Russian Fairy Tales, which abound in forceful female characters and magical creatures. I have already recommended one trilogy based on them – Peter Morwood’s “Prince Ivan Saga” (April 2013). Morwood’s novels are primarily dramatizations of specific Russian Fairy Tales with added historical elements. The early chapters of “The Bear and the Nightingale” read more like an historical family saga with added Fairy Tale elements.

Arden has spent some time living and studying in Moscow and it shows in her vivid descriptions of the Russian landscapes and climate. Through young Vasya’s eyes, we see the beauty of the great forests which cover much of northern Russia but it also becomes clear that this is a harsh land. In a bad season, even the wealthy are reduced to living on black bread and cabbage soup for months on end. Weather is very important in this novel. Vasya and her family endure suffocatingly hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Family life is literally centered on the kitchen stove, which everyone sleeps around in freezing weather. Arden is excellent on domestic detail and family dynamics. All the members of the Vladimirovich family are well-rounded individuals. I was sorry when Vasya’s kindly elder sister and interesting oldest brother disappeared from the plot to go and live in Moscow but there is plenty of precedent for that kind of exit in Russian literature.

It is now more or less compulsory in historical Fantasy for the heroine to be a bold rule-breaker who refuses to accept the limited roles available to women. Vasya does fit this profile but she is also convincing as a child of her era. She tries to be a dutiful daughter but cannot conceal her unusual abilities. The men in Vasya’s family may find her hard to understand but they aren’t shown as oppressive  and the author doesn’t criticize Vasya’s gentle sisters for choosing more traditional female roles. The plot requires a cruel stepmother but Arden made me feel sorry for the hysterical Anna who has been deprived of the quiet convent life which was her heart’s desire and forced into marriage. I sometimes felt that Arden was torn between writing a realistic historical novel exploring the plight of women and writing Fantasy. Vasya is told several times that she can’t escape a woman’s usual fate because she isn’t living in a Fairy Tale but it turns out that she is.

The tone of this novel becomes much darker about three-quarters of the way through and the supernatural elements escalate. There are gruesome episodes which could come from a Horror novel when Vasya finds herself facing a demon who wants “to eat the world” (The Bear) and dealing with the walking dead. Anna suddenly behaves like a Fairy Tale stepmother and demands that Vasya find snowdrops in midwinter or be banished from her family home. From this point on, Vasya is immersed in a thrilling Fairy Tale world of danger and magic. We finally meet the Nightingale character and learn more about the enigmatic Frost King. The story ends back in the heart of a changed family but there is plenty of scope for a sequel. I would gladly follow brave Vasya on another adventure. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

My second October book – “Slade House” by David Mitchell – is a very different haunted house story from my previous choice (“Frost Hollow Hall”). I know this recommendation is going to cause me some problems. The first of these is that there are two well known British writers called David Mitchell. Just to be clear, “Slade House” is not by bearded comedian David Mitchell (who always makes me laugh) but by the David Mitchell who grew up in my own home county of Worcestershire and is best known as the author of “Cloud Atlas”. “Slade House” was published in 2015 and is available in paperback (though the hardback cover is creepier) or as an ebook. My next problem is that the unusual structure of David Mitchell’s novels tends to make their plots rather hard to summarize but here goes…

“Slade House” is set in London and tells the stories of five visitors to a house that shouldn’t exist. During World War II Slade House was bombed to rubble and yet every nine years, on the last Saturday in October, somebody finds a small iron door in a wall in Slade Alley. Through it they’ll discover an idyllic garden and a beautiful old house. Once they are inside the house, it is unlikely that they will ever be seen again. In 1979, schoolboy Nathan Bishop is invited to Slade House with his musician mother. In 1988 the house is investigated by Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds and in 1997 by student Sally and her friends in a university Paranormal Society. In 2006 journalist Freya Timms tries to discover the truth about her sister Sally’s disappearance while in 2015 a doctor called Iris Marinus-Fenby is lured through the iron door. All of these people have something in common but only one of them knows what it is.

In the section about Freya, she sets out to interview an old man who is probably a lunatic but who might hold the key to the Slade Alley mystery. She is told an extraordinary story involving a pair of twins with a telepathic link, an occult master of “the Shaded Way” who lived in a secret valley in Algeria, the journey which souls take when they cross “the Dusk between life and the Blank Sea”, and beings known as Atemporals who can create spaces which are immune to time and survive by draining people of their psychovoltage. Freya is being lied to, but not in the way that she thinks. Visitors to Slade House are doomed to learn about how vulnerable and how resilient human souls can be.

The next problem on my list is that David Mitchell is what we’d call in Britain a “Marmite author” – someone you either love or hate. I’m sorry I don’t know what the equivalent term is in other countries; perhaps somebody can enlighten me? I manage to both love and hate Mitchell, often in the course of the same book. At some moments, I think he’s the most profound of writers and at others, the most pretentious. Even when I hate Mitchell’s work I never find it boring and I do think that he often gets a raw deal from professional critics. Reviewers of literary fiction don’t like it when someone they regard as a “serious writer” strays into the realms of Science Fiction or Fantasy (see my April, 2015 post on Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”). Mitchell’s novels are often regarded as somewhere on a scale between difficult and incomprehensible but I’m confident that the super-smart Followers of this blog can cope. Fantasy readers are used to large cast lists and complex time-bending plots.

As well as being a “Marmite author”, Mitchell is a “Magpie author” (feel free to substitute an equivalent bird). He snatches up bits and pieces from myth and folklore, science and philosophy, and a wide range of genre fiction and then puts them together in unexpected ways. The opening chapter of “Slade House” deliberately echoes H.G.Wells’ famous short story “The Door in the Wall”, which features a child discovering “A door leading through a real wall to immortal realities.” Wells’ story is beautiful and sad but not dark. Mitchell’s version rapidly becomes very dark indeed when young Nathan finds a portrait of himself inside Slade House – a portrait with no eyes. As innocents suffer and predators triumph, the novel takes on the tone of a Horror story.

It can also count as a Ghost Story, since Slade House is haunted by remnants of its victims. Contrary to most Ghost Stories, the apparitions are there to warn not threaten. The innocent dead are contrasted with the greediness of souls who will do anything to cling on to life.  An overarching plotline about two battling groups of immortals, which also featured in Mitchell’s previous novel “The Bone Clocks” (2014), could come straight out of many a Young Adult Fantasy novel. It is ingeniously worked out but not particularly original. So there is my fourth problem, how do I persuade you that “Slade House” is still worth a try?

Well, you might find it fun to pit your wits against Mitchell as he tries to mislead and wrong-foot his readers. You may think that you already know how this good versus evil plot is going to work out but you need to stay alert and look out for repeated incidents or details which may be more significant than they seem. Just to give you fair warning, my synopsis contains a similar piece of misdirection. In “Slade House” Mitchell makes use of one of the traditional rules which are supposed to govern interactions between humans and supernatural beings. See if you can spot which one before it’s explained to an unlucky visitor to Slade Alley. Mitchell also springs surprises by making minor characters from one plot strand (such as a passing window-cleaner) vitally important in another. Though he is famous (or infamous) for complex multi-stranded plots, I’d say that Mitchell’s greatest talent is for creating fully-rounded characters -both old and young, female and male. All the background details of his characters’ lives are very convincing, whatever period of history they come from.

In some of his books, Mitchell writes with equal confidence and vividness about everyday life in the near or far future. In “Slade House” he cleverly employs a standard motif from folklore and Fantasy fiction – the traveller ensnared by a false vision – to get to the heart of his characters. Each of the visitors to Slade House is presented with a scenario which seems to fulfil their secret hopes and longings. For example, nervous Nathan is reunited with his estranged father and shy Sally, cruelly nicknamed Oink, suddenly finds herself the most popular girl at a party. The betrayal of these hopes is heartbreaking but this isn’t a depressing novel because it also contains examples of great love and bravery. Unsympathetic characters redeem themselves in their final moments and even the two villains are allowed a genuine bond with each other. Mitchell is a writer who seems to have faith in the amazing potential of the human race.

One final problem – all of Mitchell’s novels are interconnected in strange and complex ways. A character, object or idea from one book may pop up in another and there are fictions within fictions. “Slade House” could be regarded as a sequel to “The Bone Clocks” but there isn’t a straightforward chronology in Mitchell’s fictional universe. Only in the final section of “Slade House” will it make any difference whether or not you’ve read “The Bone Clocks” and the experience is equally good both ways. So, if you’ve been nerving yourself up to try a David Mitchell novel, this relatively simple and short (233 pages) example might be the one to go for. Have a scary but safe Halloween…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week I’m recommending “The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley – a novel which shows that if you want a story with strong heroines you don’t always have to go to a female writer.  “The Rook”, which is Volume One of “The Checquy Files”, was first published in 2012 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. It is a novel which doesn’t fit neatly into just one genre. “The Rook” could be classified as Urban Fantasy with Science Fiction and Horror elements but it is also a Murder Mystery and a psychological Thriller. O’Malley is an Australian-born writer who was educated in America but “The Checquy Files” series is set in Britain and concerns a very British kind of secret organization.

With “The Rook” you get two heroines for the price of one. At the start of the story our heroine finds herself in a rain-drenched London park surrounded by corpses. She can’t remember how she got there or who she is and even her body doesn’t seem familiar. Fortunately there is a letter in her pocket from her battered body’s previous owner, Myfanwy Thomas, telling her to use the cards in her wallet to check in at a luxury hotel.  Once there, Myfanwy 2, reads another letter from her predecessor, Myfanwy 1, describing how she was warned by several psychics that she was going to be attacked and stripped of her memory. Myfanwy 2 is given a choice between two deposit boxes. One contains the wherewithal for a fresh start abroad; the other all the information she would need to take on Myfanwy 1’s identity and a life of power, wealth and danger.

After surviving another attack, Myfanwy 2 chooses the second option. The next letter in the sequence explains that she has the power to disrupt other people’s control of their own bodies. After this power first manifested in nine year-old Myfanwy 1 she was taken away from her family and raised by a secret organization known as the Checquy Group whose purpose is to protect Great Britain from supernatural threats. The agents of the Checquy (pronounced Sheck-Eh) come in two kinds – Retainers, who are ordinary human beings, and Pawns, who each have some kind of inhuman power. The Checquy are ruled by a Court which always consists of a Lord and Lady, two Bishops, two Rooks and two Chevaliers. Myfanwy I was unwilling to use her special power in combat but her talents as an administrator caused her to be promoted to the rank of Rook. Myfanwy 2 doesn’t have time to learn much more before she has to turn up at Checquy headquarters and pretend to be the real Rook Thomas.

On her first day, Myfanwy 2 has to deal with her scarily efficient PA, Ingrid, and with Rook Gestalt, a single mind with four bodies – all of them annoyingly blonde and gorgeous. She manages not to throw up when watching the interrogation of a visitor from Brussels who has killed and eaten a prostitute. The Checquy assume that the man has natural inhuman abilities but he turns out to be something worse – a monster created by a group of European scientists known as the Grafters. Back in the 17th century, the Grafters used their surgical skills to adapt men and animals into a monstrous army which invaded Britain. At great cost, they were defeated by the supernatural powers of the Checquy of the day. The Grafters were stamped out – or so it was thought. Now they seem to be attacking Britain again and horrible things begin to happen. Myfanwy 2 surprises her colleagues by being brave and resourceful in the field. The letters left by Myfanwy 1 warn that she cannot necessarily trust those colleagues. Timid Myfanwy 1 was in the process of uncovering a conspiracy at the heart of the Checquy. Rook Thomas is not the woman she once was, so can she unmask the traitors and save the Checquy from their ancient enemies?

Amazon kept telling me that I should buy “The Rook” because I own all of Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” books but I resisted for a long time. Amazon aren’t always right – they are currently convinced that my cat-loving husband has a labrador and keep recommending doggie treats. I love “The Laundry Files” (see my September 2014 post on “The Rhesus Chart”) and I didn’t want to read something that sounded like a pale imitation.  Luckily, I opened a copy of “The Rook” in my local bookshop and was immediately captivated by the wry narrative voice of Myfanwy 2 – “It sounds like I’m the Defence Minister of Ghosts and Goblins, but as long as the job is “all fairly self-explanatory” I’ve no doubt it will be fine. The country might get overrun by brownies and talking trees, but what the hell – there’s always Australia!” The two series do have a similar premise (the existence of a secret branch of the British government which uses both magic and technology to fight supernatural threats) and Stross and O’Malley share a dark sense of humour. It may not be apparent from my synopsis that “The Rook” is a very funny novel. O’Malley doesn’t have Stross’s uncannily accurate knowledge of current trends in management and government policy but he has the British character nailed and he has given his Checquy Group a long and inventive history. There is a delightful running joke about the Checquy having been sent to deal with various situations which readers will recognize as coming from well-known Fantasy stories.

“The Rook” has a wider range of female characters and a more complex structure than any of the “Laundry Files” books. Amnesiac main characters are not uncommon in fiction but the device is used particularly well in this novel. The reader learns about the strange world of the Checquy step by step, just as Myfanwy 2 does. Scenes in which she has to deal with things she knows nothing about such as “tidying up after that outbreak of plague in the Elephant and Castle” and a “scheduled assault on an antler cult” alternate with the new Rook reading carefully prepared briefings from Myfanwy 1. These cover the history of the Checquy and its sister organization in America, the Croatoan, and give detailed accounts of the members of the ruling court, like haughty Lady Farrier who can walk into other people’s dreams or hot vampire Bishop Alrich whose hair changes colour when he drinks human blood. Some of the back-stories in these briefings, such as what happened when a Pawn thought he’d developed a rapport with a dragon’s egg, aren’t necessary to the plot but are gruesomely entertaining.

Myfanwy 1’s more personal letters describe her upbringing and rise to power and her attempts to discover why she is going to be erased. Meanwhile, in the current part of the narrative, Myfanwy 2 is having to cope with increasingly bizarre events including a conversation with a flayed aristocrat in a tank of slime, a house in Bath full of man-eating fungus, and a cocktail party with a very high body count. Further subplots about Myfanwy 2 striking up a friendship with a glamorous American Bishop and an unexpected approach from Myfanwy 1’s sister add to the hefty page count. If you prefer fast-moving linear narratives you might get impatient but as a voracious reader I’ve a lot of tolerance for over-stuffed books. I also appreciated the games that O’Malley plays with genre. Kick-ass Bishop Shantay who can turn herself into metal, represents the flamboyant American comic-book superhero tradition. She’s the perfect contrast to quiet administrator Rook Thomas who, like a character from a classic British Spy novel such as “Smiley’s People”, is so much more formidable than she seems.  The plot of “The Rook” concerns the long-standing and bitter enmity between the supernatural Checquy and the scientific Grafters but it could be interpreted as a dramatization of the perpetual argument between lovers of Fantasy and Science Fiction about which is best. A wonderful twist right at the end of the novel suggests the stance that O’Malley himself might take in this argument.

This plot twist works because O’Malley made me believe that only the woman Rook Thomas has become would think of taking the Checquy in such a startling new direction. Publishers have finally realized that strong heroines sell books but in Fantasy fiction I often get the impression that a male leading role (warrior, wizard etc.) has been automatically replaced by a female one without giving much thought to the differences the change of gender might bring. That isn’t the case with “The Rook”. O’Malley has created a number of complex and interesting female characters. They convince as professional women doing difficult jobs and none of them are in the plot to be somebody’s love interest. Shy and plain Myfanwy 1 could destroy people with a touch but preferred forensic accounting and sitting at home reading Georgette Heyer novels and eating pastries.  Myfanwy 2 is irritated by her predecessor’s dull dress-sense (O’Malley is very good on clothes as an expression of character) but has increasing respect for the courage with which Myfanwy 1 faced her impending destruction. One of the fascinations of this novel is watching Myfanwy 2 develop a distinct personality, starting with small rebellions such as taking cream in her coffee and working up to taking the lead in tackling monsters and traitors.

If both versions of Rook Thomas aren’t enough of an attraction, may I draw your attention to Ingrid, the loyal PA who remains unflappable in dire situations which would reduce most of us to hysteria. How often in Fantasy fiction is a middle-aged, married secretary allowed to shine? “Stiletto”, the recent sequel to “The Rook” features two more appealing heroines, one representing the Checquy and the other, the Grafters. “The Checquy Files” is a series I’ll be sticking with. If you can stomach some quite strong violence, do give “The Rook” a try. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each January I recommend an antidote to the festive season and this year it is `The Book of the Dead’. No, not the collections of funerary texts known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This `The Book of the Dead’ is an anthology of `original stories of mummies and mayhem’ edited by Jared Shurin. It came out in 2013 and is one of a series of interesting anthologies published by Jurassic. You can get it as an ebook but the striking black and white illustrations by Garen Ewing and the creepy cover look better in the paperback edition. As I’m an Egyptologist myself, I am not easy to please when it comes to mummy stories but I found plenty to enjoy in this collection.

`The Book of the Dead’ is introduced by Dr John J. Johnston, Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society, and contains nineteen stories by a mix of American and British authors from the genres of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. The anthology is dedicated to one of my favourite Victorian heroines – Amelia Edwards, the remarkable traveller and writer who founded the Egypt Exploration Society in 1882 `with the purpose of protecting and raising public awareness of the monuments of ancient and medieval Egypt.’ Since Amelia wrote ghost stories and kept the heads of two Egyptian mummies in her bedroom, I’m sure she would have loved the gruesome delights on offer here. Some of the authors have based their stories on scholarly research but Johnston makes it clear that this was optional because `facts should never be allowed to interfere with the telling of a good tale.’

A few of the stories are actually set in Egypt, such as Gail Carriger’s `The Curious Case of the Werewolf that Wasn’t, The Mummy that Was, and the Cat in the Jar’ (an acidic prequel to her Parasol Protectorate series) and Will Hill’s poignant `Three Memories of Death’. Others follow Ancient Egyptian mummies who have ended up in countries such as America (Paul Cornell’s `Ramasses on the Frontier’), England (Jonathon Green’s `Egyptian Death and the Afterlife: Mummies, Rooms 62-3′) or France (Louis Greenberg’s hilarious `Akhenaten Goes to Paris’). Not all the mummies in this collection hail from Egypt. The prize for most grotesque story should probably go to David Bryher’s `The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey’ in which a space-age Lady Devorguilla has her husband’s mummy grafted onto her back. In `Tollund’, Adam Roberts gives a clever twist to the standard `archaeologists fall victim to the mummy’s curse’ plot by having arrogant Egyptian scholars investigating bog-mummies in primitive Denmark. This story has a wonderful dank and foggy atmosphere and some moments of gut-wrenching horror, though I found its Science Fiction ending rather disappointing.

The Ancient Egyptians didn’t just mummify people. Mummified cats are the inspiration for several stories in this collection, including Jenni Hill’s charming `The Cats of Beni Hasan’ and`Mysterium Tremendum’  by Molly Tanzer, a decidedly unsentimental tale of an undead Pharaoh determined to be reunited with his pet cat after `twenty-seven long centuries’. Hill’s story is based on the historical fact that thousands of cat mummies were smashed up and spread on fields as fertilizer. Other contributors have focused on different indignities which Egyptian mummies have been subjected to, such as their wrappings being turned into paper (Roger Luckhurst’s `The Thing of Wrath’) or their bodies ground up and used as condiments or to make ink (`Bit-U-Men’ by Maria Dahvana Headly). No wonder most fictional mummies come back to life in a very bad mood.

I’m glad to say that all the mummies I’ve encountered have stayed safely dead, but people have long been fascinated by the idea that the Ancient Egyptians used magic and mummification to cheat death. Some of the stories in this volume imagine more modern methods of ensuring that the essence of person never dies, such as an afterlife on the internet (`Henry’ by Glen Mehn). In modern fiction and in Horror movies, those who try to live for ever are often classed as monsters. It seems that we want corpses who refuse to stay in their tombs to be punished, even when their motivation is eternal love. `Old Souls’ by David Thomas Moore is a subtle tale of a relationship spanning many lives which has become a bitter torment, while Lou Morgan’s `Her Heartbeat, An Echo’ describes a museum guard’s tragic obsession with an ancient Egyptian princess weary of immortality. Very few love stories involving mummies have a happy ending.

The tales in `The Book of the Dead’ range in tone from the heartlessly horrific to the hauntingly sad. In between there is a surprising amount of humour. I was particularly tickled by the long-lost mummy of Akhenaten trying to get through French passport control after putting on a wig and a body stocking and slathering his face with bees wax `to look less….dead’.  As you might expect with a multi-author anthology, I didn’t like all the stories but a hit rate of around 70% seemed pretty high to me. If you choose to open this particular `Book of the Dead’ you will get the bonus of finding out how The Egypt Exploration Society is still helping to study and preserve the remains of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. In these troubled times, it is a task that is more urgent than ever. Happy New Year.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

Does no-one have fun in Fantasy fiction any more? I ask because so many of the Fantasy novels I’ve read recently are about tortured souls having a horrible time in invented countries that no-one would choose to live in. I wish I could tell you that this week’s recommendation – `The Copper Promise’ by Jen Williams – was completely different but that wouldn’t be true. In many ways this novel is a throwback to the Sword and Sorcery romps of the mid 20th century but with added gloom and gore. Thankfully, it still manages to be an entertaining read. `The Copper Promise’, which came out in 2014, is easily available in paperback or as an ebook and there is already a sequel called `The Iron Ghost’.

Young Lord Frith of Blackwood needs knowledge and power if he is to carry out his plan to avenge his murdered family. He begins by hiring two of the most famous sell-swords in all Ede – Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven and her huge friend Sebastian, who was once a Knight of Ynnsmouth. Their first task is is to help him search the haunted Citadel of Krete, which is said to have `a thousand grisly ways to kill you, each more unpleasant than the last’. Wydrin and Sebastian’s companion, Gallo, has already disappeared inside the Citadel while treasure-hunting, so they are keen to find him. Frith is only interested in a legend that powerful mages, from the era when gods and goddesses walked the earth, still inhabit the labyrinth below the Citadel.

The labyrinth proves to be every bit as dangerous as expected and the reunion with Gallo is not a happy one. The adventurers are warned that the mages imprisoned Y’Ruen`a creature of unspeakable evil’ under the Citadel and that she is awake and breeding an army. When they refuse to turn back, they unleash a monster on the world.  Wounded Sebastian finds that he has a blood-link to the goddess Y’Ruen’s army of ferocious daughters while Frith gains magical powers that he does not know how to use.

Transported by magic to Blackwood, the adventurers have a perilous encounter with Fane, the man who tortured Frith and murdered his family. With help from a Secret Keeper, Frith is able to take the hidden path to the treasure vault that Fane was searching for. Its contents send Frith on another quest for knowledge – a quest that takes him to a mysterious island. Meanwhile, Wydrin does things she regrets and embarks on a desperate voyage to save her brother, while Sebastian feels so guilty about the death and destruction caused by Y’Ruen’s army that he makes a terrible bargain. Can Frith, Wydrin and Sebastian act together to confront a goddess and save their world?

Chapter 5 of `The Copper Promise’ ends with the words – `The haunted Citadel awaits’. Could you resist reading on? I certainly couldn’t. No-one enjoys a haunted citadel more than I do so I was rather miffed when this one was totally destroyed a few chapters later. Fortunately the book still has plenty of the other ingredients you need for a rip-roaring Sword and Sorcery adventure – including killer bears, twin villains with demonic powers, an invisible bridge, a deity in disguise, a magical suit of armour, a pirate ship versus dragon combat, an eerie mountaintop Rookery with monstrous guardians and, as Wydrin remarks in the sequel, plenty of `sneaking about…and old fashioned beating people up’. None of this is particularly original but the thrills and chills come thick and fast.

For Fantasy buffs like me, the interest lies in seeing how Williams has updated the Sword and Sorcery genre for 21st century readers. `The Copper Promise’ has no pseudo-medieval dialogue; all the characters speak in a modern idiom whether they are knights or priestesses, mystics or demons. This is probably wise but Williams is no great stylist and I do miss the rich and subtle language of Sword and Sorcery masters such as Jack Vance (see my June 2013 post on `The Dying Earth’) or Fritz Leiber. The violence in `The Copper Promise’ is described in much more graphic detail than it would have been in older novels. You could argue that this makes the book more honest about the brutal consequences of wielding a sword, whether you’re a hero or a villain. The passages written from the viewpoint of Y’Ruen’s murderous daughters as they massacre everyone they meet almost tip the story into the Horror genre, yet they also show some of the daughters gradually developing individuality and human feelings. Williams is a writer with emotional intelligence and her main characters have more capacity to change and deepen than most of the iconic characters from the golden age of Sword and Sorcery.

It is clear that Williams has been strongly influenced by two of these iconic character – Fritz Leiber’s treasure-hunting, sword-fighting duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (see my July 2014 post on `Swords and Deviltry’). In this updated version, huge but smart northern barbarian Fafhrd becomes massive, mountain-god worshipping barbarian Sebastian and small, crafty but impulsive Mouser becomes diminutive dagger-fighter Wydrin, nicknamed the Copper Cat. In a further contemporary twist, sensitive Sebastian has been thrown out of a religious order of Knights for being gay while Wydrin is a woman who likes to drink, gamble and take stupid risks. This pairing works wells. Sebastian and Wydrin’s friendship is oddly convincing but I never believed in them as carefree rogues. They have too much emotional baggage and they lack Fafhrd and Mouser’s zest for adventure and mischief. There is less humour in `The Copper Promise’ than I was expecting because the plot rapidly takes several grim turns.

The standard treasure-hunting quest is expanded by many other plot-lines because Williams wants to explore the lives and choices of her leading characters. Several past and potential love stories are treated with surprising delicacy and it isn’t easy to predict whether the duo will become a trio again. Can anything be done to reverse Gallo’s alarming condition and will arrogant aristocrat, Frith (literally a tortured soul) go from client to companion? If you are a reader in search of gay heroes in Fantasy, `The Copper Promise’ could be the book for you. Honourable, guilt-ridden Sebastian is an immediately sympathetic figure, which makes the dark path he eventually chooses to take all the more unnerving.

Wydrin is less interesting and her (mainly self-inflicted) personal problems don’t seem as well integrated with the main plotline as Sebastian’s do. However, Williams does have fun with Frith’s (and so many male authors and cover-artists’) fantasy of what the Copper Cat might be like, `a tall, curvaceous woman, with hair as red as blood tumbling unbidden to her waist, a pair of green eyes as playful and cruel as a cat’s, and armour that perhaps did not leave much to the imagination. In truth the Copper Cat was a young woman of average height with short, carroty hair, freckles across her nose and almost every inch of her covered in boiled leather armour.’ This passage alone is enough to show that `The Copper Promise’ is traditional Fantasy with a modern slant. If you are up for high adventure in good company, this is a series worth trying. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk