|THE GREAT SWINDLE
Pierre Lemaitre (www.pierrelemaitre.com)
Translated by Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com)
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
As the Great War approaches its end, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle decides to make one last bid for glory. Sending two scouts over the top, he shoots them in the back, and uses their deaths as the perfect excuse for one final push against the enemy. When Albert Maillard discovers what he has done, he almost dies as a result, buried alive in a shell crater. After the war, Albert and Édouard Péricourt, the man who saved him from his fate, and suffered a terrible mutilation as a result, live together in poverty, all of their money going towards the morphine that Édouard needs in order to keep functioning. Pradelle, meanwhile, is living the life of luxury, having married into the rich Péricourt family, who believe Édouard to be dead. His business – the exhumation of dead French soldiers from temporary graves and relocation to government-sanctioned war graves – is booming, but Pradelle is less interested in how the result is achieved than in the money it brings. Albert and Édouard, meanwhile, have come up with the perfect plan to make money, a scheme that will see them swindle the whole of France to fund a comfortable retirement to the colonies.
In a massive departure from the work that made his name, the Camille Verhoeven novels, Pierre Lemaitre turns his attention to France in the interwar period, beginning with the final days of the First World War in October and November 1918. It is here, in the trenches in rural France, that we meet the trio of characters whose stories The Great Swindle will tell: on the one hand, the timid Albert Maillard, a peacetime bank-teller turned soldier who has seen his share of action, having been wounded in the Somme; on the other hand is Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, a man who “reeked of money and looked like a crook”, a man from a rich background playing at war, and hoping for glory and advancement through the ranks. The third man is Édouard Péricourt, the son of a rich Parisian, an artist and flamboyant homosexual who has been disowned by his father, and sought escape in the ranks of the French army. The fates of these three men become inextricably entangled during the taking of Hill 113, and their futures are decided when Albert quite literally stumbles upon evidence of Pradelle’s betrayal of the unit.
Of the three, Albert seems the most level-headed, despite the terrible nightmares that haunt him following his near-death experience at the bottom of a shell crater filled with mud. He has been changed by this war, a man trying to earn a living in a country where he is essentially persona non grata: those who died for their country are the heroes; those who returned are failures, men who went off to fight for their country and couldn’t even die. Albert has the additional burden of the severely disfigured Édouard, a man to whom he owes his life, and who he nurses through the pain and the subsequent, inevitable, morphine addiction. Lemaitre spends little time in Édouard’s head; it’s a dark place and, though we feel sorry for this man whose life essentially ended in those final days of the war, we can’t help but despise him for his treatment of Albert, and for the coming betrayal that seems obvious to us from early on. The final corner of this strange triangle, Pradelle is the embodiment of evil, a schemer out to make money at the expense of others and who chooses his friends based on their contacts and influence. As another character notes,
[…he [Pradelle] was a loudmouth, a chancer, a rich bastard, a cynic – a word much in vogue sprang to mind: “profiteer”.]
He is a character that it is easy to hate, and when his world starts to crumble – as his swindle is uncovered by the fascinating civil servant Joseph Merlin – it is with no small amount of glee that we stand back and watch.
The Great Swindle of the title is the plan put in place by Albert and Édouard to sell fake war memorials and abscond with the money before anyone realises what has happened. Albert is initially against the idea, while Édouard is filled with excitement and enthusiasm – at least, outwardly. Unlike Pradelle’s con, which is based on a real scandal, the war memorial swindle is the creation of Lemaitre, but it is beautifully-constructed and entirely believable, a hangover, perhaps, from the involved plotting required for the Verhoeven novels.
Lemaitre’s style is evident throughout, and The Great Swindle is an exciting mix of light-hearted caper and dark examination of a country – and a people – recovering from one of the darkest periods of human history to date. Alongside the clever money-making scheme, the author examines the psychological effects of the war on three very different individuals who came out of the war with very different experiences, and in various states of mental and physical “completeness”, for want of a better word. The story – and the post-war France – is fleshed out with a host of other characters whose interactions with the central trio drive the story to a rewarding and tear-inducing climax. Characters like Marcel Péricourt, the father of Édouard, a man who believes his son has been killed in the trenches, and who is learning how much he has lost through re-discovery of his son’s art and the few memories that he retains; Léon Jardin-Beaulieu, Pradelle’s business partner and a man whose sister and wife are both sleeping with the handsome ex-soldier; and Joseph Merlin, the dishevelled civil servant tasked with inspecting the grave sites for which Pradelle is responsible, and whose gruesome discoveries will lead to one of the biggest scandals France has ever seen. Merlin is an odious man, in every sense of the word, but he is also one of the novel’s standouts, a beacon of honesty in a world gone mad with greed.
I was disappointed with the final book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, feeling that he might have given his best for the first two books of the series. In The Great Swindle he has redeemed himself and proven that he has much more to offer. While very different from his modern day crime trilogy, this latest novel is quintessential Lemaitre: beautifully-written, carefully structured and filled with characters that we love or hate with the same intensity that we might if they were real. It’s an examination of a dark period in French history through the eyes of these people, while still allowing us to see the funny side of things. The first in a proposed 7-book series set to span the interwar period, this fun and intense read (an interesting combination that works extremely well) The Great Swindle puts Pierre Lemaitre firmly back on my must-read list. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it’s sure to be a book we’ll be talking about for some time. Not to be missed.
|DUST AND DESIRE (A Joel Sorrell Novel)
Conrad Williams (conradwilliams.wordpress.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
London-based private investigator Joel Sorrell has gotten himself entangled in a most bizarre missing person case. Hired to look into the disappearance of his client’s brother, Sorrell begins to believe that he may be on a wild goose chase, especially when his client vanishes into thin air. When the body-count starts to rise – most notably the man who cuts his own throat on the landing outside Sorrell’s apartment door – Joel discovers that there are ties here to his old stomping grounds in Liverpool. As he investigates, he begins to understand that someone from a past Joel would much rather forget is out for vengeance, and Joel is the target. But why him?
In a departure from his usual horror fare (Williams, in case you haven’t read him, is one of the most exciting British horror writers since, say, Ramsay Campbell or James Herbert), Conrad Williams finds himself in the guise of downtrodden London PI Joel Sorrell as he faces a case that will test him to the limits, and force him to examine his life so far. From the outset, it’s obvious that Sorrell is a man with a tough-guy reputation protecting a soft inner core, a damaged character with a history that haunts his every move and decision: his wife was murdered when he was still a trainee policeman, and his teenage daughter disappeared several months later, apparently unable to cope with her father’s approach to grief.
Sorrell is hired by Kara Geenan to find her brother who has disappeared, and Sorrell accepts the case despite his better judgement. In typical hard-boiled fashion, it isn’t long before he finds himself beaten and in trouble with the police in the form of a humourless man with whom he trained. The man he is trying to find seems not to exist, and when he attempts to get in touch with Kara, he discovers that she has disappeared. His investigation brings him into contact with a host of colourful characters, from the hulking doorman Errol, to the self-important Knocker, and a handful of ex-girlfriends, all the while attempting to maintain some semblance of normal life with his cat Mengele and the beautiful vet who is as lonely as he is.
The first-person narrative allows Joel’s personality to shine through in his strong voice. The writing is stylish, but not at the cost of substance, full of wit, yet tinged with the sadness that is a constant in Joel’s life. From the opening lines, there is a very definite hard-boiled feel to the narrative, something familiar, yet far from clichéd, a fresh take on an age-old voice. Often laugh-out-loud, there is a natural feel to the writing that leaves the audience feel less like a reader, and more like a listener.
I came out of the Beehive on Homer Street and trod on a piece of shit. Big surprise. I’m always doing it. It was the end of a pretty rough day, and the noble gods of misery obviously didn’t fancy me toddling off to bed without pissing in my pockets one last time. I looked down at my shoe. The piece of shit said: ‘Can you get off my face now?’ I lifted my foot and let him stand up.
While Dust and Desire (a reworking of Williams’ 2010 novel, Blonde on a Stick, released by Titan in anticipation of a second and third Joel Sorrell thriller next year) is a departure from the author’s horror roots, there is a darkness here that belies those roots and blurs the lines between the two genres. The occasional violence is shocking in its intensity and graphic in its execution. The frequent side-trips into the mind of the serial killer leave the reader feeling disturbed, somehow unclean, at once understanding his twisted logic and wishing that we didn’t. His status as a “leapling” gives him added dimension and makes him, somehow, even more disturbing – it’s not every day we come across a four-year-old serial killer.
Dust and Desire is Conrad Williams doing what he does best, regardless of genre: crafting a story that we want to read, and that draws us in from the first page. Beautifully-realised characters and an engaging plot combine to make this one of the must-read crime novels of the year. The prospect of more of the same in next year’s Sonata of the Dead and Hell is Empty fills this reader with joy and excitement. Conrad Williams brings a wealth of experience to the genre, yet gives us a fresh new voice that immediately places him at the front of the burgeoning Brit Noir scene.
|THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS
Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
When people think of Stephen King, they most often think of the massive tomes that helped to make his name: The Stand, It, Needful Things. What we often forget is that King is as comfortable writing short fiction as he is writing in the longer form, and that he has produced over 120 pieces of short fiction in his forty-year career, enough to fill six collections (this, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, is the sixth) and four collections of slightly longer pieces. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams collects twenty pieces, written since the publication of Just After Sunset in 2008, into an accessible and wonderfully-annotated single volume that marks the end, as do the earlier collections, of another period of the author’s writing career.
I’ve made some things for you; you see them laid out before you in the moonlight. But before you look at the little handcrafted treasures I have for sale, come a little closer. I don’t bite. Except…I suspect you know that’s not entirely true.
I have been considering the worth of the short story collection in this day and age where everything is so readily available on the Internet. My ponderings began when I read Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings earlier this year and discovered that I had, in fact, already read most of the pieces it contained. As a King collector, I like to keep my ear to the ground, and tend to pounce on new short stories when they’re released (yes, I am still using the “I only buy Playboy for the stories” excuse). So, when The Bazaar of Bad Dreams was announced, my first thought was: it’ll be a lovely addition to my collection, but I’ll probably have read the vast majority of it before; a thinking process that was verified when the table of contents was released further down the line.
Having read it (or re-read, as the case seems to have been), I can now see the merit in collecting these works together. Many of them have been revised for re-publication, while others are brand new and, in one case, the story is available for the first time in King’s native English as part of the collection. In the main, it’s an excellent excuse to revisit some of the excellent stories that King has produced over the course of the past decade or so. The stories themselves cover a wide range of topics and genres, from the all-out horrific opener, “Mile 81” to the touching and blackly funny “Premium Harmony” which sees a young man lose his wife and his dog in one fell swoop; from the hilarious one-upmanship that drives “Drunken Fireworks” to the post-apocalyptic vision of the book’s closing story, “Summer Thunder”.
It’s difficult to pick favourites from these twenty stories; each one contains a little window onto the world and shows us, as only King can, the people who inhabit it and the stresses that, but for the grace of whichever god you believe in, might be our own. Some are more memorable than others, of course, but I suspect this might be as individual as each reader’s taste in music, or television, or… For me, the standouts are those stories that leave us with plenty to think about, which ask the question “what if?”, and invite us to extrapolate on the answer.
“The Little Green God of Agony” is one such story and gives pain a physical form that can travel from one body to another. As someone who has suffered chronic pain for over twenty years, it’s a story that speaks directly to me, and I understand Newsome’s need to try every possible treatment, regardless of how off-the-wall it may seem and also, to some extent, his nurse’s accusations that much of his suffering is down to his own laziness and unwillingness to break the cycle of pain. The Little Green God is an image that appeals to me, and that haunts me in the dead of night when the pain chases sleep away.
“The Dune” presents us with a simple enough premise: a dune on which writing appears from time to time, and the man who has discovered that each time a name appears on the dune, that person will die quite soon afterwards. It’s old-fashioned horror, but it’s the beautiful sting in the tail that makes this one stick with the reader. “Drunken Fireworks”, on the other hand, is as far from horror as it’s possible to get. In King’s fictional Castle Rock, two families – one local, one from out of town – have a rapidly-escalating fireworks competition every Fourth of July. The outcome is inevitable, but it’s the characters that drive this story, especially Alden McCausland, the man whose story this is: it’s the kind of character study in which King excels, the pitch-perfect Maine voice, and the examination of small-town life and how outsiders fit – or more often fail to fit – into the ideals that we hold so dear.
“Ur”, originally written as a marketing gimmick for the then-new Amazon Kindle, has been given something of a facelift, but manages to maintain its solid core: on the surface, it’s a parable on the dangers of technology, but it’s once again the human element that causes most of the trouble. This is one of those “what if?” stories that will play over and over, especially when you go looking in the settings menu of your e-reader. For fans of baseball, King has included “Blockade Billy”, a wonderful novella that was originally published as a lovely little hardback in 2010. This is King the prestidigitator in his element, a story that manages to hide its true nature until the very last paragraph.
In many ways, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is the perfect companion piece to King’s instructional 2000 book, On Writing. Each of the stories here contain a short introduction explaining the story’s origins and what King was trying to achieve when writing them. It’s a brief but educational look into the workings of King’s mind, and his approach to writing fiction. It also serves to date-stamp, in a way, each story, allowing the reader to follow the progression of a writer who, by his own admission, is still perfecting his craft.
King has come a long way since the publication of his first book of short stories, 1978’s Night Shift. Clearly the work of the same brilliant mind, it’s clear that the stories that make up The Bazaar of Bad Dreams come with extra baggage, the weight of experience that can only come from living life. There’s much less focus on the “horror” elements (take a look at the table of contents for Night Shift and you’ll see what I mean), and much more on the “human” elements; many of these stories are unsettling or downright frightening, but more because of how close to the bone they strike than because of how much they can gross us out (with the exception, maybe, of “Mile 81”) or their reliance on the easy scare: the ghost, or the giant rat, or the vampire. They are the work of a much more mature writer, a writer at a vastly different stage of life than the twenty-something who wrote “Graveyard Shift” or “Children of the Corn” and the book’s publication clears the decks for a new stage of King’s writing, something we’ll be able to measure in another decade or so when collection number seven comes our way.
There are a couple of stories that are noticeable by their absence from the book’s table of contents. The fact that I’ve noticed is one of the downsides of that desire to keep up-to-date that I spoke about earlier. The most obvious (although there are probably more that I have missed) are “In the Tall Grass” and “A Face in the Crowd”, both of which were produced alongside a co-writer, son Joe Hill in the first instance, Faithful co-writer Stewart O’Nan in the second. Their omission seems odd, but fills this reader with hope: is King aiming to become the literary Tony Bennett and give us a Duets-style book of collaborations somewhere down the line?
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains an excellent selection of King’s more recent short works. Perfect fodder for the long, dark winter nights ahead, it will give the reader plenty of food for thought, and the occasional sleepless night. Showcasing the breadth of King’s writing ability in a single volume, something that’s not always possible in a single novel, this is the work of a writer who is comfortable in his own ability, and in the worlds that he creates, but who is constantly in search of the next addition to his writer’s toolbox, the next tool that will make his writing better or, at the very least, broaden his horizons. Occasionally touching, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently spine-tinglingly chilling, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and an excellent jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to experience either his work in general, or his short stories in particular.
|Name: JASON STARR
Author of: SAVAGE LANE (2015)
On the web: www.jasonstarr.com
On Twitter: @JasonStarrBooks
"Who are your influences?"
This is a question all writers get, and I think I’ve given a different answer each time I’ve been asked.
To some degree, it depends on my mood. If I’m feeling a little haughty and literary, I’ll usually think of Hemingway first, and Gertrude Stein, but I’m not sure he was an actual influence? I liked Hemingway’s simplicity, but I didn’t connect with all of his themes. The reality is I was reading a lot of Hemingway in particular when I started taking writing seriously in college, so it has seemed natural to call him an influence. For similar reasons I’ve cited Raymond Carver and John Cheever as influences. I was a fan of Carver’s style and Cheever’s characterizations, but I don’t think they really affected my actual writing. I’ve also cited playwrights like Beckett, Mamet, and Pinter, but I’m not sure in actuality they had an affect on my writing–especially my novel writing. I wrote plays in my twenties so naturally I was reading a lot of plays.
In other moods I’ve gone right to my favorite crime writers as my major influences and give shout outs to Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, and Elmore Leonard. I was certainly reading a lot of crime fiction when I started writing crime fiction, but were these writers actual influencing my writing? Would my writing be different if I hadn’t read Leonard? Probably, but in other moods, I think Beckett had the biggest affect on me.
Sometimes when I’m answering the influences question, I feel like I’m giving lists of some of my favorite writers in various genres, rather than listing influences. So maybe the true answer to the influences question is that there is no answer. Maybe our real influences are a sum of our experiences, the novels we’ve read, and movies and TV shows we’ve seen, and it’s impossible to pinpoint the actual influencers. Maybe this is why my answer to this question has been so fluid–because it should be.
Jason Starr (www.jasonstarr.com)
No Exit Press (www.noexit.co.uk)
Mark and Deb Berman’s marriage has hit a rough patch: she believes he’s having an affair with their next door neighbour, Karen. That may not be the case, but it doesn’t stop Mark constructing a rich fantasy life for Karen and himself, and the fact that everyone else in town believes the same thing as Deb doesn’t make things any easier. But Deb has a secret of her own, one that will prove fatal for her, and will put Karen at the mercy not only of her delusional husband, but of someone much more dangerous.
Welcome to Savage Lane, an exclusive address in the rich New York town of Westchester. This is were Mark and Deb Berman live with their children, and where Karen Daily has settled following her recent divorce with her own two kids. From the outset, we can feel the tension as a palpable force, as it quickly becomes obvious that things are far from good between Mark and Deb, and that next-door neighbour Karen is at the centre of their troubles.
While the plot sounds like something from Dynasty, Starr blindsides us almost immediately by showing us what’s going on in Mark’s head: there is an obsessive quality to his thoughts about Karen, and their relationship – nothing more, in her eyes, than simple friendship – takes on a much deeper meaning, as he misinterprets their closeness – text messages, pet names – for something much more than it is. It’s an unsettling look into the mind-set of the true obsessive, and leaves the reader feeling more than a little uncomfortable as we find ourselves following him down this dark path. His obvious desire for Karen, and his reactions to the inevitable joking that this will bring from friends and colleagues lead people to believe that something is actually going on between them, and all the talk only serves to prove to Mark that there is more here than friendship.
Mark’s wife, Deb, can’t help but hear these rumours, and when she sees Mark holding Karen’s hand, it’s easy for her to make the leap from rumour to fact. What makes Deb so interesting is that, despite attempting to take the moral high ground, she doesn’t have a leg to stand on: Deb is having an affair of her own – a real affair – with a young man who may be more dangerous than her obsessive husband. When she attempts to break the affair off, things take a sudden dark turn, and her boyfriend’s attention, too, is soon focussed on Karen.
There is something very over-the-top about almost every aspect of Savage Lane, from the writing style to the myriad affairs and relationships that pepper the story, which at times stretch our credibility to the limit. But what Starr achieves in the midst of all this, is a brilliant examination of the obsessive mind at work. From very early in the novel, the reader is aware of the fact that there is something lacking in Mark Berman’s makeup, something important that should make him “human”; it’s a portrait that leaves us cold and unsettled, that reminds us that evil is most often found in the most mundane of places, a portrait that will make us re-evaluate everyone we know.
Savage Lane is not without its problems. For me, the biggest of these is the fact that Starr is not content with giving us one obsessive. While the introduction of Owen Harrison allows him to show the difference between the man who is obsessive in thought only, and the man who has taken the dangerous step across the line into violence and murder, it’s a stretch to believe that they might exist in the same small town, and be involved with the same two women. It’s a fairly major plot point, and asks a little too much of the reader given the story’s otherwise solid grounding in reality.
Despite its flaws, Savage Lane is a well-rounded and thought-provoking psychological thriller. Dark and unsettling, its strengths lie in the author’s ability to imagine the worst and present it as acceptable in the mind of his protagonist. A tale of love, lust and obsession, it draws the reader in and manages to convey, using alternating viewpoints, both the mundaneness of suburban life, and the evils that lurk within the minds of seemingly respectable people. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for the duration of the novel, you’ll find it to be an enjoyable and engaging read by an author with a surprising – and not always in the most pleasant sense of the word – insight into the human condition.
Comet Press (www.cometpress.us)
I fled the city: Two fingers short and sworn off dames for life.
Hammond is on the run; after a serious beating by the latest in a long line of cuckolds, he is two fingers short, and with a man’s death on his almost non-existent conscience. Buying a bus ticket, he ends up in the bayous of Louisiana, where he takes a job playing the piano at Horace Croker’s ramshackle bar, The Grinnin’ Gator. When he falls for Croker’s beautiful, abused wife, the pair hatch a plan to escape, taking the man’s money with them. But there’s a complication, in the form of Big George, a massive alligator who Croker keeps in the swampy pool below his bar: a pair of missing fingers might be the least of Hammond’s worries before he gets out of this.
It’s an ageless story that we’ve read – or watched – many times before: the abused wife, the drifter, the husband with money hidden away. What makes Gator Bait worth reading is the style with which Howe tells the story, and the magnetism of the characters at the story’s core. With spare yet beautiful language, the author tells his story of lust and violence, grabbing the reader by the throat and leaving them breathless by the story’s chilling climax.
The Postman Always Rings Twice with teeth, Gator Bait follows a similar formula to James M. Cain’s classic novel. Hammond, who calls himself John Smith when he arrives at The Grinnin’ Gator, is not a particularly likeable man, but he’s morally questionable at best, in contrast to the pure evil of Croker, a man who likes to feed Big George with people who cross him, and who keeps a cartoon – from which the story takes its name – on the wall of his office that defines his very character:
…it depicted a jolly old fisherman, bearded and fat as a hillbilly Santa Claus, casting his line into the river. Baited on the hook was a Negro child, caricatured to resemble a monkey…The painting was titled ‘Gator Bait’. I shuddered to recall what Croker had said about “the right bait.”
Hammond’s first-person narrative is perfectly-judged, the kind of voice we expect to find in this type of noir tale, while the tale itself is a wonderful mix of old-fashioned noir fiction and horror of the most banal kind – by which I mean there’s nothing supernatural here, but Croker’s actions, and Howe’s descriptive talents provide enough chills to keep the most jaded horror fiction fan happy for the story’s duration. While Grace – Croker’s wife – seems decidedly one-dimensional, it suits Howe’s purpose, keeping our attention focused on the building tension between Hammond and Croker, and on the ever-present threat of Big George.
Adam Howe is slowly building his reputation as an author of fine dark fiction. His trilogy of weird tales, Black Cat Mojo, has already garnered rave reviews and Gator Bait will form one-third of his second collection, Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, which is released on 3rd November from Comet Press. Heavy on style without sacrificing the substance, Gator Bait is the perfect teaser for what Howe is capable of and leaves the reader wanting more. While the novella form seems to suit his storytelling style – and the types of tale he wishes to tell – here’s one reader who would love to see him tackle a novel, a form that is more likely to see his work hitting the mainstream – where it certainly deserves to be – than the shorter works.
A blackly-comic noir tale that is infused with a sense of growing horror, Gator Bait is the perfect way to spend a dark evening reading. Chilling and unsettling, it is clear that Adam Howe knows exactly what buttons to press to manipulate his audience. I’ve already mentioned Cain’s Postman: Gator Bait is perfect for fans of that classic and shows that Howe has the chops to compete with some of the biggest names in the industry. Don’t be put off by his small-press origins: this is a talent that can only stay hidden for so long and an author that we’re likely to be talking about much more in the very near future. Get on at the ground floor; I can guarantee you won’t regret it.
|Name: ZEN CHO
Author of: SORCERER TO THE CROWN (2015)
On the web: zencho.org
On Twitter: @zenaldehyde
Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer of SFF and romance. She was born and raised in Selangor, read law at Cambridge, and currently lives in London. Her debut historical fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown is out now in the UK, published by Pan Macmillan.
Thank you, Zen, for taking the time to chat with us.
Thanks for having me!
Sorcerer to the Crown is garnering lots of favourable reviews, and has been compared to everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to the work of Terry Pratchett. The obvious question to start us off, then, is: what or who were the influences for Sorcerer and how far from the original idea is the finished book?
You’ve named two big influences on me! Terry Pratchett’s books taught me that writing could be serious and smart while also being funny and silly. And I love Susanna Clarke’s writing – it’s so erudite and elegant. I don’t know that Sorcerer to the Crown is anything like their stuff, but I’m certainly a huge fan of both of them.
I did write Sorcerer in conversation with other books, though, and the direct influences are actually P. G. Wodehouse, with his absurd young gentlemen, and Heyer’s frothy romances.
A lot of the basic elements of the original idea have survived into the finished book, but I spent more than a year revising Sorcerer to the Crown and it certainly looks very different from the first draft. One of the biggest differences is that Prunella Gentleman, who’s one of the two main characters, became much more central. In earlier drafts you saw her from the outside, but she became much more of a co-protagonist in revisions.
A fun and magical “Regency Romp” it might be, but Sorcerer also has a very serious side that is as relevant today as it was in the book’s setting. The novel examines, in some depth, the question prejudice, both the racism directed at the book’s two main characters, and the sexism aimed at Prunella and the other women with magical abilities. One of the main criticisms aimed at SFF works is the lack of diversity, and you have gone almost to the opposite extreme. How important were these themes to you when you were writing the book, and did you encounter any difficulties in finding the right balance between story and “lecture” (which, to my mind, you have managed perfectly)?
Good, I’m glad it didn’t feel too much like a lecture! That was actually one of my main challenges when writing the book: I wanted it to be fun, but I had these quite serious ideas I was interested in exploring as well, and it was a hard line to walk. I didn’t go into the project saying, "I’m going to write the most diverse book ever" – there’s lots of axes of diversity it doesn’t address. But these themes were my entry-point for the story. From the very outset I wanted it to be about a black man in Regency London and about an irrepressible female magician in a society that disapproved of female magic, and once you make those decisions the rest of the story unfolds from there.
There is a beauty to the language you use in the book, a very formal English that you manage to maintain for the duration of the story. What sort of research did you need to do to find the right voice, the right sentence structure to ensure the story fit into the Regency setting?
I did a lot of research on Regency England because I wanted the world to feel convincing and complete. So I made these lists of what they would have worn and what they would have eaten and so on, so I could make references to them that would flesh out the setting. When it comes to the language, I’ve always enjoyed the Regency "voice" – several of my favourite authors have that voice, whether it’s an assumed voice or just their actual voice, like Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, Georgette Heyer and so on. Getting to play with that voice was one of the main attractions of writing a novel set in Regency London. I read a lot of books written during and set in that period, including diaries and letters as well as fiction – I love reading people’s correspondence so it was a great excuse.
And speaking of research: you have created a detailed magical world, both in England and in Fairyland. Was there much research involved in getting the details right: the structure of the Society, for example, or the different creatures that inhabit the magical realm of fairy?
The structure of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was built piecemeal in response to what the plot required, but of course it’s supposed to sound a bit like the actual Royal Society. I have no idea how similar it is to the real Royal Societies and how they’re structured, but it’s to be expected that thaumaturges will do things a little differently …
With the different creatures in Fairy, I’m quite nerdy about supernatural beings and magical creatures and because of my cultural background I’m aware of lots of different sorts. I included magical creatures from different cultures because I wanted the world to feel convincingly like ours – large and full of different types of people and things and stories.
Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a proposed series. Can you talk about where the story will take us next, what is likely to become of Zacharias and Prunella?
Book 2 is very much a work in progress so even I don’t entirely know where it will end up! I can say that Zacharias and Prunella will make a reappearance, along with a few other familiar faces, but the story will also follow the adventures of a couple of new characters. There’s a couple of explosions and there will be at least one mistaken elopement.
Beyond the scope of Sorcerer, what authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
I’m influenced by the authors, primarily British, I read as a child – so Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones and the like. More recently I’ve been inspired by other Commonwealth writers – the historical adventure novels of Amitav Ghosh, for example, and the elegant science fiction of Karen Lord.
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
I’d like to write a book that is like Stella Benson’s Living Alone. It’s quite an obscure novel about a witch in London during the Great War. It’s very sad and funny and whimsical, and just on the right side of twee (in my opinion). My version would probably be less sad and more Asian.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Zen Cho look like?
I wake up at 9-10 am and have a look at what’s going on on social media over coffee and breakfast. After some futzing around I settle down to writing. When I’m actively drafting a novel (as distinct from planning and outlining or revising) I have a daily wordcount I’ll be aiming for and I use a Pomodoro app to help me keep on track – you write for 25 minutes, take a break, then go for another 25 minutes, etc. That’s my main job of the day, but I’ll also take time out from fiction writing to deal with what I think of as the "busy work" – dealing with emails, writing blog posts, updating my website and so on. I usually also check my day job emails at least once a day to make sure nothing’s on fire at the office. Because I take breaks throughout the day I usually work into the evening.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
Keep going, enjoy writing for its own sake, and don’t worry about the externals too much. Do it regularly. Don’t be afraid of failure.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
I’m reading The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733-1748, which is sort of for business. For pleasure I’m reading a novel called Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, which is about a capable young woman who overhauls the society of a small Victorian town.
If Sorcerer to the Crown should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
Not really! People have proposed fantasy casting for Prunella and Zacharias to me, but I don’t watch much TV or film so it’s not something I’ve thought about myself. I secretly think it’d make a better BBC miniseries than Hollywood movie, but I guess that’s already been done with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell …
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
It would have been nice to have had the chance to meet Diana Wynne Jones. I love her work. If we imagine it happening at a con bar I’d probably have a gin or tonic. I don’t know what tipple she would have gone for!
Thank you once again, Zen, for taking time out to share your thoughts.
Thanks for the questions!
|SORCERER TO THE CROWN
Zen Cho (zencho.org)
Regency London in a time of magical upheaval. The Sorcerer Royal is dead, his staff passed on to his successor, but his familiar gone. His successor has split opinion within the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers: Zacharias Wythe is Sir Stephen’s son in all but blood; he is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, a slave bought by Sir Stephen, granted freedom and raised as a son, his magical abilities as great as those of any English thaumaturge. In an attempt to discover the cause of the decline in England’s magic, Zacharias heads to the border of Fairyland. On the way he visits Mrs Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches where he discovers Prunella Gentleman, an Asian girl who may well have found the future of English magic in a small valise left by her father before he took his own life. Heading back to London together, Zacharias is determined to change the course of English magic, despite the many attempts on his life by those jealous of his position.
Part Regency drama, part magical fantasy, Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, appears to have a little something for everyone. There is something light-hearted about the novel’s tone, despite the important themes on which the author touches, and while comparisons to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are warranted, Cho’s world feels much more substantial, much more grounded in reality than that of Susanna Clarke.
When we first meet Zacharias Wythe, he has been Sorcerer Royal for a matter of months. His predecessor is dead, though still manages to offer advice to Zacharias when required. There is, we discover, much tension in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers for a number of reasons: Zacharias may now hold the staff of the Sorcerer Royal, but his predecessor’s familiar, Leofric disappeared at the same time that Sir Stephen Wythe died. Rumours abound that Zacharias has murdered his father, and his father’s familiar, in order to take control of the staff for himself. Of course, this is just an excuse: the Regency period is not renowned for its tolerance and open-mindedness, and Zacharias’ heritage – a slave bought and freed by Sir Stephen when he sensed the boy had great magical potential – is more than enough to condemn him in the eyes of these fine English gentlemen.
For the same reason, Zacharias now bears the burden for England’s declining magic, despite the fact that it was declining long before he took his position. On a trip to the border of Fairyland, from which the country’s magic flows, he discovers that the Fairy Court have deliberately stopped the magic and, as he investigates, discovers that the fault lies not with him, but with one of the men who wishes to take his place at the head of English thaumaturgy.
Thrown into this already explosive mix is Miss Prunella Gentleman, a young lady whom Zacharias meets on his way to Fairyland, and who convinces him that he should take her back to London with him. Prunella is in possession of a secret that could determine the future of English magic and Zacharias is now faced with fighting discrimination on two fronts: first the racism directed at both him (an African) and Prunella (a girl who is obviously of Asian origin) and second, the sexism that dictates that women cannot practice magic or become members of the Royal Society. Here Cho has a tough task: to progress the story and discuss the implications of the diversity she has introduced without resorting to lecturing or potential alienation of readers. This she manages with a great deal of style, putting the question of diversity front and centre without sacrificing anything about the world she has already built, or the fantasy she is constructing around these characters.
Cho’s use of language is an important aspect of the novel, and gives it a singular voice that sets the tone I have already mentioned. She plays with sentence structure and word usage to make the book feel “of its time”, both in terms of the narrative and of the dialogue. Despite the book’s serious edge, there is plenty of wit here, and the chemistry between the central characters – Zacharias and Prunella – is something special. The supporting cast are no less interesting or memorable, and it quickly becomes clear that not everyone is who they seem to be. Beyond England, Cho gives us a brief glimpse of Fairyland, and of the massive host of creatures that populate it. One of the most interesting characters is the old witch, Mak Genggang, who drives much of the story along, and who acts as an oracle of sorts, giving both Prunella and the reader enough background to understand where both she, and this unforgettable world, have come from.
Sorcerer to the Crown is the sort of story that captures the reader purely because we have never seen anything quite like it. It is a beautifully-written fantasy romp with an important underlying message that is still as relevant today as it was during the story’s setting. While much of the novel feels like it is building towards the much larger story promised by the prospect of a second book (and, perhaps, more), it also works as a self-contained story, and gives all of the characters the room they need to show us who they are and what they are capable of. Zen Cho’s extraordinary debut novel feels very mature, and shows a writer who is comfortable in her own ability to create whole worlds from thin air. Cho’s is a name we’ll be hearing much more of in the future; now is the time to find out what all the fuss is about.
|LAST DAYS OF THE CONDOR
James Grady (www.jamesgrady.net)
No Exit Press (www.noexit.co.uk)
This month sees the release of the hotly anticipated sequel to Six Days of the Condor. It has taken forty years, but James Grady has finally revisited his most famous creation in Last Days of the Condor. To celebrate, No Exit Press are running a blog tour for the next two weeks, and I’m extremely happy to have been invited to take part.
The man once known as Condor is living and working once more in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Recently released from a secret CIA insane asylum, and checked on a regular basis by case officers, the man whose name was once Ronald Malcolm is attempting to adjust to the “normal” life of an American man in his sixties. When one of his case officers is crucified over his fireplace, and Condor is framed for the murder, he finds himself once again on the run, a fugitive from the law, and from the combined weight of the USA’s intelligence services. But this time he is not alone: Faye Dozier, the murdered man’s partner, believes in Condor’s innocence and embarks on a secret mission to bring him in alive so that he can once again clear his name.
It is over forty years – both in real time and in James Grady’s fictional Washington, D.C. – since we first met the man whose codename was Condor. Now in his sixties, Condor has a long and dark history of working for the CIA, a history that has been suppressed, in his own mind, to the point that he barely remembers those six days in the early seventies – or much else about his career for that matter – following a stint in a secret CIA insane asylum in Maine. It’s an interesting starting point – when we first meet Condor, we know more about him than he does himself, despite the forty year gap since we last met him. Through Faye, Grady provides us with brief glimpses at Condor’s more recent past, and we begin to slowly understand how he got from nerdy bookworm to one of the Agency’s most valuable and dangerous assets.
There are many parallels with Condor’s earlier outing, but Grady manages to avoid many of the clichés that might have turned Last Days of the Condor from straight sequel into a kind of Die Hard 2 (“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”) or Lethal Weapon (“I’m too old for this shit!”). This time around, Condor-Vin-Malcolm is much more experienced in tradecraft so his disappearance is much more a planned event than the blind luck that marked much of his first adventure. He also has a benefactor who is both inside and outside the organisations that are hunting him: Sami, a man who is in the city running a training exercise, has a past with both Condor and Faye, and plays a similar role to the unnamed old man from the first novel. There are ulterior motives at work here, and they are slowly revealed to the reader as the novel approaches its climax.
Last Days of the Condor also provides a stark contrast to its 1974 predecessor, and shows how much the world has changed in the interim. Condor’s modern-day flight is made much more difficult – and his hunters’ job conversely much easier – by the technology that we now take for granted: smartphones and GPS, ubiquitous security cameras and a much more real-time news cycle and everything that social media brings to the table. Condor may be on the run for a similar reason, but the experience – for both Condor himself, and for the reader – is vastly different from what we’ve seen before, and what we might have expected.
Grady’s Six Days of the Condor has an interesting history – Grady has been the subject of KGB investigation, and that organisation used his novel as the basis for at least some of their organisational structure. It is, in short, always going to be a tough act to follow, but Grady manages it with some style in this return visit to Condor. Once again, his focus is on the current state of the art, and the possibilities that stem from it. What if? is the question that drives his narrative, and the results show that he has lost none of the edge in the past forty years that made Six Days of the Condor one of the finest espionage novels ever written.
Grady’s writing style does take some getting used to, although it should appeal to fans of James Ellroy. Short, sharp sentence structure and rapid rotation around multiple viewpoints keep the reader on their toes, and keeps the tale interesting. It also gives Grady the chance to reveal some of the details of the missing forty years in Condor’s life while still keeping them suppressed in the central characters own memories. Once the reader gets the rhythm, though, it’s a novel that moves at a breakneck pace, always managing to remain one step ahead of even the most canny reader.
The obvious question is: do you need to read Six Days of the Condor first? The short answer is no: because Condor himself remembers little of what happened that first time around, there is no reason why the reader needs to have the back story, so Last Days works as a standalone novel. The longer answer is, as always, that it makes more sense to read the books in the correct order. Six Days of the Condor is the only book my local library refused to lend me at the tender age of fifteen: too much sexual content, they said. Maybe for the late 1980s, but it’s positively tame compared to much of what is published today. It has taken me twenty-five years to finally get around to reading it, and it is the classic that everyone claims. The back story does bring something else to the reading of Last Days, a book that is destined to become a classic in its own right, setting the adventures of Condor alongside those of George Smiley or James Bond as some of the best spy fiction you’re likely to read.
In short, Last Days of the Condor is everything that readers of Condor’s earlier adventure could have hoped for. Sharp, intelligent and surprisingly funny, it’s a book that builds tension from the first page, and keeps the reader glued to the page until the very last word. Sadly, given the super-spy’s age, it is likely to be Last Days for him; if so, it’s the best send-off any fictional character could have hoped for.
|WHEELS OF TERROR: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Sven Hassel (www.svenhassel.net)
Jordy Diago (jordy-diago.blogspot.co.uk)
Weidenfeld & Nicholson (www.wnblog.co.uk)
This week sees the UK publication of the graphic novel adaptation of Sven Hassel’s 1959 novel, Wheels of Terror. Adapted by Hassel’s family, and brought to life by the stunning artwork of Spanish artist Jordy Diago, the book is published to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
To celebrate the book’s release, the publisher have very kindly made the complete Chapter 9 available to Reader Dad for everyone to enjoy. Click on the image below to download the PDF file and enjoy this beautiful, if gory, glimpse at life on the Front.