Sunday, November 06, 2011

Book catch-up: September

Infernal Devices, KW Jeter
Spotted in a bookshop and bought on impulse. A kindly small press has reissued this and Jeter's Morlock Night (more anon) with pretty new covers, introductions and learned afterwords; I'd previously read Morlock Night some 15+ years ago, so went for this one first as I knew it only by reputation.
Timid George Dower inherits his watchmaker father's workshop, but lacks his father's genius, and scrapes a living as a watchmaker of only ordinary ability. He has to turn away customers who bring in some of his father's more complex creations for repair, and the workshop is littered with the hulking wrecks of other pieces, the function of which he cannot guess. The return of one such piece leads him into a string of misadventures that involves a prostitution racket whose victims are Innsmouth-style fish-woman hybrids, the lost Hebridean civilisation of the selkies, a clockwork replica of Paganini, and a diabolical engine designed to vibrate the world apart.
This is wild and bawdy and absolutely brilliant. There are many priceless moments - my favourite is probably the scene in which George is forced to impersonate the Paganinicon in front of a room full of socialites. Why can't more steampunk be this much fun?

The Domino Men, Jonathan Barnes
Present-day follow-up to The Somnambulist, in which office clerk Henry Lamb tangles with a shadowy conspiracy and has to enlist the help of demonic schoolboys Hawker and Boon - who appeared in the former book - to save London and all in it from the monstrous alien Leviathan, and from the British royal family who've sold the city to the invader. Feels a lot like something Robert Rankin would write. It wasn't bad, but I preferred The Somnambulist.

The Atrocity Archive/The Concrete Jungle, Charles Stross
The Jennifer Morgue, Charles Stross
Ex-library books, so I got the pair for two dollars, which is sweet indeed. This series of stories is an excellent modern scienced-up take on HP Lovecraft. Some might say that science is antithetical to the world of Lovecraftian horror, but for people like myself the deeper workings of computer science are just as arcane as the Necronomicon, so it's not such a huge leap.
Bob Howard (named, perhaps, for the Robert Howard who created Conan and also wrote a few weird tales?) is a tech support whiz in the British government agency called The Laundry, an agency that secretly deals with national security breaches of the extra-dimensional kind. In Bob's world, higher maths has magical properties - nobody knows this, however, because anyone who stumbles across the wrong kind of fractal is soon eaten by monsters or recruited by The Laundry. So Bob, working in IT, is actually on The Laundry's front line, although he still has to fix the HR department's computers as well. Bureaucracy and office politics are among the more prosaic horrors he has to deal with.
In The Atrocity Archive, Bob proves himself capable of working in the field and is sent on an assignment to liaise with a scientist in America, although because he's only on secondment, his original boss continues to make trivial demands on his time, to his chagrin. When the scientist he's supposed to be meeting is kidnapped, Bob forgets his briefing and goes after her, and ends up in the middle of a mission to stop Islamic terrorists opening a portal to another universe. From there it soon turns into pulp adventure, but really excellent pulp adventure - for me, this is the best of the Laundry stories and the finest bit of modern Lovecraftiana I've read.
The Concrete Jungle is a novella in which Bob investigates a leak within The Laundry, a leak that has led to something gorgon-like being unleashed on Milton Keynes. Also very good.
The Jennifer Morgue is more of a slambang James Bond affair, but there's an excellent reason for this that becomes clear as the story progresses. Here Bob is magically bonded with a semi-aquatic succubus from the American secret service and sent on a mission to prevent a mad billionaire from raising a cthonic artefact - codenamed JENNIFER MORGUE - from the ocean floor and sinking the world into apocalyptic terror. Bob's still on a British civil service budget, though - his Bond car is a magically enhanced Smart car. Also included with the novel is a short story called "Pimpf" which didn't honestly do much for me.

Cat's Quill, Anne Barwell
Debut novel of a friend of ours from the Upper Hutt SF group, published by a small press in America. A frustrated writer goes on retreat to an English village, where he meets a young man with a strange connection to his favourite fantasy novel. I should point out that the American small press specialises in gay romance, and it's that rather than the fantasy element of the story that dominates this book. It's a kind of gay Mills & Boon with fantasy decoration. Not necessarily a problem, but I took issue with the slow pace of the story, the highly unsympathetic protagonist and the often implausible dialogue. On the other hand, I was the only member of the UHSF group who raised these concerns, and Anne's already been contracted for more, so I appear to be in the minority.

Elantris, Brandon Sanderson
SFFANZ review book - linky linky. Short version: If the word "bourgeois" didn't exist, it'd be necessary to invent it, just to describe this novel.
I didn't want to overclutter the review (or to overplay the bad side of the book - it really is an entertaining read on the surface level), but I can in fact reveal the final horror in the epilogue without spoiling the plot. So here goes.
The regime in Arelon at the start of the story is a kind of dog-eat-dog plutocracy - the nation's richest and gittiest merchant took over the throne after the fall of Elantris (so the middle class are in charge - ooh, what a giveaway, etc), and every year he audits the rest of the nobility to see if they're still rich enough to merit their titles, and promotes or demotes as required. Throughout the book, this is shown to be an appalling system of government, to the point that Arelonian society is expected to collapse at any minute because of it. Also throughout the book, "the people" of Arelon have gone voiceless and unrepresented, the sort of homogenised plebeian mass that epic fantasy writers resort to from time to time. At the very end of the story, the person now in charge of Arelon proposes to do away with this system, and it's at this point that "the people" suddenly open their single pleb-mouth and express themselves as follows:
The people wouldn't have it. It seemed unnatural for there not to be counts, barons, or other lords.

It seemed unnatural for me to throw the book at the wall when I'd already finished reading it, but I didn't let that stop me.

No comments: