China Miéville (chinamieville.net)
China Miéville’s latest novel, Railsea, takes us to a strange new world, and introduces us to Sham ap Soorap, a young boy working as an apprentice doctor aboard a moletrain. In the course of a moldywarpe hunt, the crew come across a wrecked train, and Sham discovers a camera’s memory card. On it, pictures that shock him to his core, and lead him on a mission to find two children whose parents have evidently died in search of the impossible. But there are more people interested in these two children, and in the contents of this memory card, than just Sham, and before long he finds himself involved with pirates, the military and salvage operators all looking for one thing: fortune.
Over the past number of years, Miéville has become something of a poster boy for science fiction, and consistently produces some of the finest work in the genre. His latest is a wonderful showcase for an imagination that knows no bounds and has few equals. Even for someone who has not read the original tale (yet another shameful Reader Dad confession), it’s immediately obvious where part of the inspiration for Railsea comes from: it’s a reworking of Melville’s Moby Dick, set on a world where oceans are replaced by vast swathes of train tracks, the ships we expect are replaced by trains of various descriptions – molers, salvors, ferronaval vessels bristling with weaponry and shrouded in armour, even pirates – and the great whale hunted by Ahab and his crew (here played by the one-armed Captain Naphi and the crew of the Medes) replaced by a giant mole.
It sounds faintly ridiculous, but it works; this is pure Miéville, master world-builder and expert storyteller. It doesn’t take long for the reader to become immersed in this strange world and to understand exactly how everything works. This is most definitely science fiction, but it has a very old fashioned feel – the technology is, for the most part, old and unreliable, the trains mostly ramshackle, cobbled together, and even the text feels oddly antiquated, due to the replacement of the word “and” throughout with the symbol “&”, a replacement that does have some significance, as explained later in the book. As we’ve come to expect from Miéville, the humans in this story share space with fantastical creatures, and the text is littered with neologisms and inventions designed to do little more than highlight the alien-ness of this world.
The book is promoted as an adventure for all ages, and in some outlets is being pushed purely as young adult fiction, similar to his earlier Un Lun Dun. It’s difficult to see how this came about. Yes, the central character (three of the central characters, in fact) is in his teens, but beyond that, this is a complex novel with ideas and concepts above and beyond what one might normally expect to find in young adult fiction, and which may leave younger readers more than a little baffled (the aforementioned essay on the ampersand is a case in point). It’s also likely to have an impact on the number of older readers who actually pick this up; for me, it’s as complex (some might say convoluted) as The City & The City and as beautifully-wrought as Perdido Street Station; it deserves not to be dismissed as a lesser work aimed at a much younger audience (it’s not).
Miéville’s strength is, without doubt, his ability to spin worlds out of thin air, but he also has a talent for characterisation. This is an odd bunch, from the soft-hearted, adventure-seeking Sham, to the damaged and obsessed Captain Naphi. Naphi and her fellow captains are an interesting bunch, the vast majority of them chasing a specific creature, each creature representing a philosophy, and providing a source of tales for the captains to tell each other, as much as anything else.
“I come for all the good philosophies,” she said. “Captain Genn’s Ferret of Unrequitedness; Zhorbal & the Too-Much-Knowledge Mole Rats; & Naphi. Of course. Naphi & Mocker-Jack, Mole of Many Meanings.”
“What’s her philosophy, then?” Sham said.
“Ain’t you listening? Mocker-Jack means everything.”
Wildly imaginative and totally unique, Railsea is a beautifully-written vision of a world that could only have sprung from the mind of China Miéville. Peopled by a cast of colourful individuals, it’s a stunning rework of a classic of literature, and a look at what happens when we travel outside the bubble that is the world we know. Railsea is Miéville on top form, and shows a talented artist doing what he does best, and what he evidently loves doing. The invented words and general writing style can sometimes make Miéville a tough author to approach for the first time. The payoff here is more than worth the effort, and Railsea is the perfect introduction to one of the most original writers in any genre.
James Smythe (james-smythe.com)
Blue Door Books (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)
At first, we thought the noise was just a radio.
Suddenly, the whole world is filled with static and, as it dies away, the words My Children. No-one has any idea where the noise has come from, or to whom the voice belongs. Hours later, the static returns, and the message continues: Do not be afraid. The world is immediately split into four camps: those who believe it was the voice of one or other god or God; those who believe it is a message from aliens; those who believe it is a top-secret experiment gone wrong; and those who heard nothing at all. As religious mania sweeps the globe and order begins to slip, fingers are pointed and pre-emptive strikes launched. But the voice has more to say, and the human race has even more difficult challenges to face.
The Testimony is, as the title suggests, a collection of first-person accounts detailing the events as they unfold, the gradual decline of order and sanity, and the descent into chaos. There are twenty-six such accounts (according to the book’s blurb – I haven’t counted), interspersed to form a loose timeline from the first occurrence of the static through to the book’s conclusion. Only a handful of these characters form what could be considered the core group, the characters essential to the central plot of the novel, and therein lies part of the book’s downfall.
As a fan of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Testimony, James Smythe’s first novel, should have ticked all the boxes for me. The idea is startlingly original and it details an all-too-plausible spiral of horror and madness as things fall apart. In some ways it is reminiscent of King’s The Stand, or Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, documenting the transition from the world we know to the one that remains when things go horribly wrong. In places it is gripping and horrific, showing glimpses of this brilliant young writer at his best, but there are too many problems and, ultimately, the book fails on a number of levels.
Some of the problems are fairly minor – nothing to ruin to story, but enough to jar the reader out of the moment. These are mainly continuity errors, problems that should have been caught before publication – names that change from one chapter to the next or problems with some of the timings: for example, everyone who heard the static heard it at exactly the same time, yet people in London heard it while eating their lunch and people in Leeds heard it at four-thirty in the morning. It sounds like nit-picky stuff, but when it’s noticeable enough to mar the reading experience, that’s a problem.
A more serious problem for me was the massive overpopulation. There are a handful of key players, and it quickly becomes obvious who they are. There are other, less-important, players who nonetheless play pivotal roles in key subplots, giving a different perspective to the events as they unfold. Beyond that there are far too many characters who seem to go nowhere: we see them once or twice for the duration of the novel, or they are frequent contributors who don’t actually add anything to the story. There is a sense, as we approach the end of the novel, that they are nothing more than padding, and it’s a frustrating realisation.
My biggest problem with The Testimony, however, is the fact that it fizzles to nothing at the end. It’s as if Smythe pulls away from the worst-case scenario at the last minute; instead of the brilliant post-apocalyptic vision of which we get glimpses in the middle section of the novel, we find a disappointing conclusion with a tacked-on feel.
The Testimony has, at its core, a wonderful idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. James Smythe’s vision of a world on the brink is all the more frightening because of its plausibility and we get all-too-brief glimpses of what he is capable of as a writer throughout, particularly in the middle section of the novel. There are too many problems, and the book never quite achieves the level it should. A disappointment, but not a complete write-off: The Testimony fails to live up to this reader’s expectations, but it has served to put a potentially wonderful writer on my radar.
|A COLD SEASON
Alison Littlewood (www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
[Also published as a signed limited edition hardcover by PS Publishing (www.pspublishing.co.uk)]
Following the death of her husband in Afghanistan, Cass decides to start anew. Packing up her son, Ben, she heads for the small village of Darnshaw, nestled in the Yorkshire Moors, where she has rented an apartment in the recently-refurbished mill. As they settle in, the snows start to fall and Cass, now trapped, discovers she may not be as welcome as she had hoped; there is something not quite right with this community. As Ben grows more distant and becomes abusive, she discovers that normality exists in the form of Mr Remick, the stand-in headmaster at Ben’s school, a man for whose charms she quickly falls. Isolated and alienated, Cass quickly realises that the move to Darnshaw may not have been the best idea, but with the weather closing in, the roads impassable and the phone lines down, there isn’t much she can do.
How do you measure the success of a good horror novel? For me, it’s not in nightmares, or in hours of lost sleep, but in whether I need to turn on all the lights to walk around the house at night. I like my horror to be subtle, creepy and insinuating, from the school of so-called “quiet horror”. A Cold Season, Alison Littlewood’s first novel, is most definitely “quiet”. As we arrive in Darnshaw with Cass and Ben, there is an immediate sense of wrongness, nothing that we can put a finger on, but something slightly odd all the same. Littlewood builds on this feeling and, as the snow falls and the chances of leaving the village rapidly evaporate, there is a sense of claustrophobia that, when coupled with little details – the downstairs apartment with no windows, for example, and the dolls lying in the dust of that apartment’s floor; the build-up of newspapers under the door of the supposedly empty apartment across the corridor from her own – leave the reader feeling uncomfortable and on edge.
In Cass, Littlewood has created the perfect heroine: a woman with a troubled past trying to do the best for her son in extenuating circumstances. Most of the women in the village seem to take an instant dislike to her, seemingly jealous of her fast friendship with Mr Remick. Cryptic messages from the elderly Bert, and the increasingly odd behaviour of her son are early indications for the reader that all is not well in the village of Darnshaw, while Cass continues to convince herself that nothing is amiss and that her son’s odd behaviour is down to a combination of the loss of his father, and the bad crowd into which he seems to have fallen.
It is easy to see Littlewood’s influences as the novel progresses: there is a Stepford Wives vibe here in the attitudes of the local women towards Cass, and something of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos in the behaviour of the village children. There are also more-obvious homages to at least two other classics of horror fiction, but the mere mention of their titles would constitute massive spoilers. A Cold Season is as beautifully-constructed as any of them, and is a wonderful addition to a fine tradition of horror writing. The old-fashioned feel is helped along by the lack of mobile phones – surely the bane of every horror and thriller writer producing fiction set in the modern world; the remote location and the bad weather conspire to ensure that there is no mobile phone signal, and we suddenly find ourselves in a different time, playing by different rules. It’s also worth pointing out that what Stephen King’s IT did for clowns, and countless books and films over the years have done for porcelain dolls, A Cold Season does for snowmen in a scene that, taken by itself, is worth the price of admission.
Littlewood’s first novel is an assured and finely-crafted piece of work, probably the best horror debut since Joe Hill’s 2007 novel, Heart-Shaped Box. It brings the promised scares without resort to nasty tricks or gore, and proves that it is still possible to write engaging, entertaining horror fiction without zombies or vampires. Earlier I wondered how you measure the success of a good horror novel. I’m not ashamed to admit that our house has been lit up like a Christmas tree for most of the past week; it’s a rare novel these days that can bring the creep factor to a hardened horror fan like me, but this succeeds admirably where so many others have failed. If you are in any way a fan of horror fiction, and have not yet done so, you need to read A Cold Season. Just make sure you know where the light switches are.