|THE AYLESFORD SKULL
James P. Blaylock (www.jamespblaylock.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
A girl is murdered in a cemetery in the quiet English town of Aylesford. She is found beside an open grave from which the skull appears to have been taken. The culprit is none other than Dr. Ignacio Narbondo; the Aylesford Skull – and more importantly, the modifications that have been made to it – are central to his latest plan. Kidnapping the four-year-old son of his old nemesis, Professor Langdon St. Ives, he flees to London and finds himself hunted not only by St. Ives, but by the headstrong young Finn Conrad, and old Mother Laswell, who has motives of her own. Narbondo and his associates are planning something big, and it’s up to Langdon St. Ives to stop him, and save his son in the process.
What at first glance may appear to be a clichéd and formulaic Victorian fable – the good guy and his nemesis fight a battle of wits with the world, or the Empire at least, at stake – gains much more depth the further we read. Langdon St. Ives may once have been an adventurer of some note, but he is now happy to have settled in rural England with his family. The upheaval caused by the return of Narbondo is unexpected and unwanted. When he learns the truth behind the missing skull, his scientific brain takes over and refuses to let him believe what he is being told, but he is not so close-minded that he is unable to accept the fact of magic when everything points to a supernatural explanation. Narbondo, the perfect foil for St. Ives’ character, is a larger-than-life, almost comical villain, the Joker to the Professor’s Batman. A man of few scruples, pure profit is his only motivation and there are no limits to what he will do to achieve his goals.
Around these two central characters, Blaylock has constructed a solid supporting cast, seeing the return of many characters from the earlier novels – Tubby Frobisher, Jack Owlesby, Bill Kraken and Hasbro, St. Ives’ factotum – as well as a few new faces – Finn Conrad, Mother Laswell and a certain young Scottish doctor by the name of Arthur Doyle. Blaylock admits to an enthusiasm for 18th and 19th Century literature, and his love of the form shines through here, both in the narrative structure of the novel, and the dialogue itself. This authentic writing style only adds to the experience, and makes the book’s steampunk and supernatural elements more palatable for the reader.
One of the strengths of the novel is the world that Blaylock has created around his characters. The action takes place in the summer of 1883 in a world much like our own, with some technological advances. This is a world of dirigible airships, steam-powered church organs and miniaturised-clockwork gadgets, but for the most part the steampunk is subtle, much less in-your-face than, say, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, or Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine (both fine examples of the genre, don’t get me wrong). Blaylock weaves real-world history into the plot, setting the story against the politically charged background of 1880s London: a series of bombings blamed on Fenians and anarchists provide cover for Narbondo’s preparations. The result is a realistic and believable world not too far removed from our own.
James P. Blaylock is one of the fathers of the steampunk movement, and Langdon St. Ives is one of the genre’s most enduring characters, having first appeared in the early eighties. The Aylesford Skull is my first experience with both author and character: I have been lusting after the small press limited editions of the St. Ives novels for years, since they’ve been the easiest copies to find, despite the high price tag. Fortunately for me, and all those like me who have yet to meet the Professor and his companions, Titan Books are using the publication of this latest novel to re-issue at least some of the older novels, and hopefully in time we’ll see the complete collection as affordable paperbacks.
The Aylesford Skull is an old-fashioned adventure story with a sprinkling of technology and a hint of the supernatural. A fast-paced read, its audience is likely to be confined to fans of steampunk, or long-time readers of Blaylock, even though it deserves a much wider audience (it should appeal to fans of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and all possible stops in between). With a strong cast of characters, an engaging storyline and a writing style that demands the reader’s attention, this novel shows that James P. Blaylock is worthy of the “Steampunk Legend” tag that adorns the book’s front cover. Despite references early in the story to previous adventures, this is an excellent place for the new reader to start. A wonderful addition to the genre, The Aylesford Skull has left this reader looking forward to more tales of Langdon St. Ives, both old and new.
Photograph © Toby Madden
|Name: SIMON TOYNE
On the web: www.simontoyne.net
On Twitter: @sjtoyne
Simon Toyne’s career began in television, where he was a successful screenwriter and producer for over fifteen years. In 2011 HarperCollins published his first novel, Sanctus, an edge-of-the-seat apocalyptic thriller which, despite the inevitable comparisons to Dan Brown, still featured high on my list of the top books of the year. The Key, the second book in the series, was released earlier this year (and gets its paperback release on 22nd November), broadening the scope, in every conceivable sense, of the original novel. If his Twitter feed is to be believed, Simon is hard at work on the final volume of the trilogy, a book that involves Afghan languages and obscure American city districts in some shape or form.
I’m delighted to welcome Simon Toyne along to Reader Dad for a chat. Thanks for the taking the time out, Simon.
Nice to finally (virtually) meet you beyond the curt environs of twitter
I’d like to go back to the very beginning, and that powerful image that opens Sanctus: a man in green robes standing atop a thousand-foot high mountain, arms outstretched, before plunging to his death on the street below. Was that your starting point, or was that an image that came later? Can you talk about the origins of the tale?
I tend to start with the end and work backwards, so for Sanctus I had the big secret, the Sacrament, held inside an impenetrable fortress since before recorded history and worked backwards to see how it could be discovered, who could discover it, where this fortress could be etc. In the initial outline I had someone discovering the body of a monk brutally murdered with ritualistic wounds and finding clues on his body that would kick-start the journey towards revealing the mystery. I had this notion of a city within a city, a bit like Rome with the Vatican, and thought it would be interesting if the body was found right on the border, or just over the line where the jurisdictions start and end so that the various authorities could argue over who should investigate the murder. ‘The Bridge’ had a similar plot device involving the Danish/Swedish border. In my story the idea of what this fortress could look like started to form and from that I decided it would be more visual to have the monk fall from the top of some vertiginous structure rather than just be discovered.
The image of the Tau is hugely important in the first novel: the monk, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, the very Taurus mountain range which forms the backdrop for the city of Ruin. How much work was involved in making the pieces line up so that the thread ran the whole way through the story and it all made sense?
I knew I needed a symbol that was very simple and timeless and could represent many different things and the Tau came out of research. I found out that the T-shaped cross would have been the actual shape of the cross Christ was crucified on for example and so it was loaded with different potential meanings that I could layer in throughout the course of the story. Francis of Assissi used to form the shape of the Tau with his cassock so I nicked that and I liked the idea that the famous statue in Rio might also tie in with this ancient mystery. As for the Taurus mountains, I had already decided to set Ruin there and it was only afterwards that I noticed the connection.
Sanctus reads well as a standalone novel, to the point that it wasn’t until after I had read and reviewed the book that I became aware that it was the start of a trilogy. The Key picks up almost immediately after the end of the first book, but interestingly it takes almost half of the second novel’s length before the shocking revelation at the end of Sanctus is, in effect, re-revealed to characters and readers. Was there any rationale behind this decision, or was it something that came naturally to the story?
In the first draft of ‘The Key’ I tried not to reveal what the big reveal at the end of ‘Sanctus’ was at all but I couldn’t do it. I figured if you’d read ‘Sanctus’ you’d know what it was and would be thinking ‘why doesn’t he just say it?’ and if you hadn’t read it then lots of the story wouldn’t make sense. Having Liv lose her memory and have to piece it together was a useful device both for putting her in a vulnerable situation and also for allowing her to remember slowly and thereby either remind the return reader or inform the new reader what happened.
One of my favourite new characters from The Key is the massive Dick (no sniggering at the back of the class). I was instantly reminded of Rex Miller’s equally massive Daniel "Chaingang" Bunkowski. Do you have any personal favourites that you enjoy writing, or are there characters you find more difficult to write than others?
Ah yes, the massive Dick. I should point out that Dick is short for ‘Dictionary’ because he likes to use words as big as he is. I do quite enjoy writing characters like him because they pose very specific technical challenges. You spend a lot of time with your main characters so you have the luxury of being able to really explore their backgrounds, motivations, fears etc. With the secondary characters you have to give them just as much impact with a lot less page time so you try and give them idiosyncrasies that make them stand out which makes them interesting to think about and write.
Since publishing my review of Sanctus in February of last year, one of the most frequently-recurring search terms that ultimately lead to Reader Dad is some combination of "Ruin" and "Turkey" (interestingly, it’s beaten only by people searching for information on the equally fictional Jodie, Texas). Ruin, and the mountainous Citadel that dominates the city’s centre, plays a central role in the two novels. When I first read Sanctus, it reminded me of Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond or China Miéville’s New Crobuzon; it’s a fully-formed city (quarters and all) that is nonetheless slightly off, and without which the books would lose much of their character. I recently had the chance to ask Daniel Polansky the same question about his Low Town, so I’m interested in how the answers compare: where did Ruin come from? What were your influences; is it modelled on any existing cities? And most importantly of all, is it mapped out anywhere other than in your head?
Ruin is definitely another character in the books and, like any character, the way others interact with it reveals things about both of them. The reason I made a place up rather than use a real one is because there is no place quite like Ruin and I didn’t want to take liberties with someone’s city. The story threw up very specific needs for the location: it had to be very old and remote, it had to have a monastery in the middle built into a natural pinnacle of rock, it had to have a modern city surrounding it that earned a great deal of its living trading off the history of the Citadel, just like places like Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela do. Physically it borrows from all sort of places, the journey up the streets of the old town for example is taken from a hilly medieval fortified Bastide town in France called Cordes-sur-Ciel (Cordes on the sky) where I lived for a while when I started writing ‘Sanctus’. And I did draw a map of it when I was writing Sanctus, boulevards, Lost Quarter and all. It helped me keep the geography straight in my head of where everything was in relation to each other.
You are hard at work on the final volume of the trilogy. Can you tell us anything about it, and do you have any idea what we can expect beyond the end of the trilogy?
It’s called ‘The Tower’. If ‘Sanctus’ was predominantly about Liv, ‘The Key’ was mainly about Gabriel then ‘The Tower’ is about how both of their destinies collide. The revelation of the big mystery at the end of ‘Sanctus’ was a bit like dropping a huge boulder into a lake that had been artificially calm for a very log time, ‘The Key’ and ‘The Tower’ both explore the huge ripples that follow.
After the trilogy I will trawl through my ideas file and see which one of the hundred or so ideas in there I would like to read most. Then I’ll write it. There are some other stories in there that could be set in Ruin, so I may revisit the place, you never know.
Like most writers of my generation Stephen King is a huge formative influence. ‘The Dead Zone’ is still one of my all-time favourite books.
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris. If you want to know how to write a thriller, read that book and study it. It’s perfect.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Simon Toyne look like?
A typical day revolves around my kids (I have 3, ranging from 9 to 7 months). I try and work when the two older ones are at school, so between 10 and 3. I switch off the internet, play soundtrack music loudly and disappear into the story. If I’m chasing a deadline, though, this all goes out of the window and I end up surgically attached to the laptop. I try and write a thousand words a day.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
I would say read a lot and write a lot. It’s the only way you can get better.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
At the moment I’m reading nothing because I’ve got to deliver ‘The Tower’ in two weeks’ time and I’m at a book launch in Romania for three days of that. I’ve got a huge pile of books I want to read, though. They lie there in the corner of my office, taunting me like paper sirens.
Would you like to see your novels make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
My ideal would be to see the trilogy become a ‘Game of Thrones’/’Pillars of the Earth’ style mini series. That way you wouldn’t lose lots of characters like you do when you cut a novel like mine down to two hours. Having said that I’d love to see the story on any screen. I think Paul Greengrass (the second and third Bourne movies) would be a great fit for the themes and the action. Cast wise I always saw Emily Blunt as Liv and a young John Cusack as Gabriel.
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 by Dylan Thomas in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village for a pint of Guinness. I would try and talk him into seeing a doctor before flying home to Wales.
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.
Simon Toyne (simontoyne.net)
Released: 12th April 2012
Regular visitors may remember that around this time last year, I reviewed Simon Toyne’s debut novel, the wonderful thriller, Sanctus. I liked it so much that it ended up on my best of the year list. So it was with that all-too-familiar mix of excitement and trepidation that I awaited Toyne’s second novel; excitement because it forms the second part of a planned trilogy, and trepidation that it might not live up to expectation. I’m happy to say that any worries I might have had were laid to rest almost immediately upon opening the book.
The Key follows on immediately after the end of Sanctus. Unfortunately, due to the close links between the two books, it is almost impossible to give a brief overview of this novel without including spoilers for its predecessor. I will try to keep these to a minimum, and will most definitely not be revealing the outcome of Sanctus.
Liv Adamsen and Kathryn Mann are in hospital along with the surviving members of the Sancti from the Citadel – who have all suffered massive haemorrhaging as a result of the removal of the Sacrament from the mountain – while Kathryn’s son Gabriel has ended up in police custody. From the opening chapter, Toyne widens the scope of this second novel, introducing us to The Ghost, a Bedouin warrior who deals in ancient relics found in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. In the Vatican, Cardinal Secretary Clementi has set plans in motion that will re-float the Church financially, and in the ancient Citadel that looms over the city of Ruin, the remaining monks attempt to adapt to life without the Sacrament and its green-robed guardians.
A verse in a notebook belonging to Kathryn Mann’s father – the so-called Mirror Prophecy – sets Liv and Gabriel on a journey into the Iraqi desert, the fate of the world in their hands and the power of the Catholic Church set against them.
Like Sanctus, The Key is a fast-paced and intelligent thriller. Interestingly, the reveal that defined the closing section of Sanctus is not mentioned here until around 200 pages in – when we first see Liv, she has no recollection of what has happened in the Citadel, and we are re-introduced to this key plot point piece by piece as Liv’s memories resurface. It’s a nice trick: on the one hand, it opens the book to a wider audience than just those people who read the first book (although I would highly recommend reading them in order); on the other hand, readers of Sanctus are forced to do some of the work in recalling what has gone before.
All of the characters that made Sanctus such a success are back, and it is interesting to see how they have evolved over the relatively short time period that the two novels cover – The Key picks up around a week after the end of Sanctus. The balance of power has shifted, most noticeably within the mountain stronghold, and none of the characters have survived the events unscathed, emotionally or physically. They are joined by a host of new characters who are equally well-drawn: Cardinal Secretary Clementi who may be in too deep as he engages in shady dealings in an attempt to hide the fact that the Church is broke; the mysterious and creepy Ghost, scouring the desert for ancient relics and selling them on the black market; the massive Dick, a man with a love for words who, for this reader at least, evokes the memory of another giant of literature: Daniel Bunkowski, better known as Chaingang, from the series of novels by Rex Miller that bear the giant’s name. Here too, much to my delight (and, if the search terms that lead you folks to my little corner of the web are correct, much to the delight of many other people), is the city of Ruin in all its glory, still taking centre stage despite the fact that much of the action takes place elsewhere.
It doesn’t take long to realise we’re on solid ground here with a writer who has proven that Sanctus was not just beginner’s luck. With the exception of a mystery that really isn’t – which will by no means ruin the enjoyment of the story, but did leave this reader feeling slightly flat – The Key is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that requires some deductive reasoning on the part of the reader. It’s a solid storyline that builds on the foundations laid in Sanctus, and while it lacks something of the previous book, The Key is still amongst the best thrillers you will read this year. It marks Simon Toyne as a man to watch, one of a new breed of young, vibrant writers who set new standards of excellence in their chosen genres.
Nick Harkaway (www.nickharkaway.com)
William Heinemann (www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/imprint/william-heinemann)
Every so often, I run across a book that catches me completely by surprise; a book that I picked up on a whim, having never heard of it before, that strikes a chord and immediately becomes a firm favourite. Nick Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone-Away World, was just such a novel, from its eye-catching hardback cover (the “Signed by the Author” sticker was a sweetener, I’ll happily admit) when I saw it on the shelf at my local Waterstone’s (or is it Waterstones?), to the interesting and intriguing blurb that I found inside, to the sheer delight I encountered when I started to read. Needless to say, I have been waiting with great anticipation for Harkaway’s second novel and I’m happy to say that it has been a worthwhile almost-four-year wait.
Angelmaker tells the story of Joshua Joseph (“Joe”) Spork, a quiet, unassuming man who makes a living repairing clockwork and enjoying the quiet life. Joe has a past that makes this more difficult than it seems, for he is the son of Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, at one time London’s most notorious gangster, and the leader of the legendary Night Market. When Joe’s friend, Billy Friend, turns up on his doorstep with a piece of erotic automata, and a mysterious book and assorted oddments, Joe is intrigued, and contrives to meet the client from whom Billy has obtained the items.
The book, the key to a doomsday device built shortly after the Second World War, invites trouble to Joe’s doorstep, from the Legacy Board – in the guise of Messrs Titwhistle and Cummerbund – to the mysterious, and sinister, Ruskinite monks. Joe soon finds himself the most wanted man in Britain and, with a somewhat motley crew – including a woman slipping towards the end of her eighties who might just be the only person alive who knows exactly what’s going on – he confronts the forces of the mighty Shem Shem Tsien, International Bastard of Mystery, in an attempt to save the world.
With his second novel, Harkaway moves away from the science fiction setting, while retaining all of the wit and verve that made The Gone-Away World such a success. Angelmaker is more in the mold of Neil Gaiman, China Mieville or Christopher Fowler: the novel is set firmly in a modern day London, but there’s also a city beneath; the literal underworld, where the city’s shady characters and forgotten souls spend most of their time. This is the world of the Tosher’s Beat and the Night Market, and represents a world that Joe is trying to forget, although his eventual return seems inevitable from the outset. Angelmaker is an adventure story, a spy thriller, old-fashioned gangster noir and black comedy rolled into one with a hint of satire for good measure.
The characters are beautifully drawn, real people in a world that’s slightly off-kilter: the old woman who was, once upon a time, one of England’s deadliest agents; the fast-talking lawyer with a gift for the dramatic; his sister, with her outrageously sexy toes and her slightly skewed views on equal rights; the evil and cracked Shem Shem Tsien, who wants to become God, but who feels the need to surround himself with bug-zapping lights because of a piece of fiction he once read; the oddly-mismatched Titwhistle and Cummerbund, Angelmaker’s answer to Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar (“hilarious though they are to look upon they are less funny than Typhoid Mary and more serious than the whole of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs”). And holding everything together the easy-going Joe, a man starting to feel old:
Even now – particularly now, when thirty years of age is visible in his rear view mirror and forty glowers at him from down the road ahead, now that his skin heals a little more slowly than it used to from solder burns and nicks and pinks, and his stomach is less a washboard and more a comfy if solid bench – Joe avoids looking at it.
Joe is quite typical for the hero of this type of novel: slightly disconnected from the world, more interested in the clockwork with which he spends his days than the people around him and, as a result, less attuned to subtext, even when it’s thrust in his face (quite literally):
Joe gives her his hand, and she places his hand, palm down, on her chest and leans firmly towards him…With the heel of his hand Joe can feel the curve of one breast. He has absolutely no idea whether this is deliberate. It’s lovely. He tries to be polite and not notice.
As you might expect from a man as opinionated as Harkaway (go on, check his Twitter feed, you’ll see what I mean), his jokes are timely and extremely cutting. One example of many: as the bees, harbingers of the end of the world, spread across the globe, governments act, moving quickly into the realms of the ridiculous overreaction:
Bee-keepers are told they must register, must submit their hives for inspection. No, of course, these are no ordinary bees, but it pays to be safe. It helps to rule people out. Any bee-keeper, after all, might be a sympathiser, a fifth columnist.
What Angelmaker most resembles, to my mind, is a vast and sprawling Neal Stephenson novel, the perfect companion piece for his Cryptonomicon. It takes a similar form: the two time streams, one present day (or as near as damn it), the other Edie’s story of her time as a much younger woman working for Science 2. Where Stephenson spends chunks of the book describing the technology and the cryptographic techniques, Harkaway finds himself with a much less solid proposition, cleverly avoiding any in-depth detail as to how the book, the bees, the attendant clockwork actually work. But for everything else, he is a fiend for detail and it is refreshing to find an author unafraid to follow the tangent, even if it is at the temporary cost of dramatic tension. And go back to what I said about Joe and typical heroes in this type of novel; tell me Randy Waterhouse doesn’t fit this exact mold.
Angelmaker is that rare beast: the sophomore novel that lives up to – if not surpasses – the promise of the author’s first. It’s a wonderfully-written book – Harkaway has a knack with the language that makes this huge novel very easy to read and enjoy. It has more than its fair share of dark and shocking scenes and more than a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and even one or two places where both things are true at the same time. It’s clear to see the novel’s influences, but this is something new, something different and completely unexpected. It’s goes in a much different direction than The Gone-Away World (although there are connections enough for the sharp-eyed reader), which might disappoint a small contingent looking for more of the same, but it does achieve a similar end: it’s a beautiful showcase for a talented writer, a unique voice and inventive mind who can, it seems, turn his hand to anything.
At this early stage, I’m more than happy to call Angelmaker one of the best books you’re likely to read this year. We can live in hope that the wait for the next one won’t be quite as long.
|ALTAR OF BONES
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
Thrillers and I have had something of a rocky relationship this year, going from one extreme (The Obelisk) to the other (Sanctus). Philip Carter’s Altar of Bones, I’ll say right at the outset, comes somewhere close to the Sanctus end of the spectrum. Carter is, according to the publicity material that comes with the book, the pseudonym of an international bestselling author. My natural curiosity, and five minutes online, was enough to reveal said author’s identity, and enough to make me dubious from the outset. While I won’t name her (go on, do your own digging if you’re that interested), I will say that she is an international bestselling author of romance novels (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s about as far from the fast-paced thriller genre as it’s possible to get).
Altar of Bones opens in a prison camp in Siberia in 1937. Lena Orlova, a nurse in the prison’s infirmary, affects a daring escape with her lover, one of the camp’s prisoners, and finds she has led them into the middle of a massive snowstorm which almost kills the man. She takes him to a cave and feeds him from the altar of bones, of which she is the Keeper, and quickly discovers his treachery.
The scene shifts to “Eighteen Months Ago”, and we find ourselves at the bedside of the dying Mike O’Malley. After revealing a dark secret, he urges his son Dom to find his brother, and together find the video tape that has kept him – and them – alive for the past forty years. Days later, Dom is also dead and his brother, Ry, is running for his life.
“Present day”, and we meet Zoe Dmitroff, a young lawyer who specialises in helping abused women. When an old woman is murdered in Golden Gate Park, the police turn up on Zoe’s doorstep. The old woman was Zoe’s grandmother, and she has died leaving the secret of the altar bones – along with the title of Keeper – to Zoe. Joining forces with Ry, she attempts to find out more about the secrets her grandmother died trying to protect, and ends up running for her life across Europe, towards the barren Siberian wastes.
Altar of Bones follows a set formula in thrillers of this type: on the one hand we have a group of people with a secret that must be protected at all costs. On the other, we have the group of people who know the secret exists, but not what it is or where to find it. Add in a few puzzles that a sharp-eyed reader may be able to solve before the characters (I’ll be honest, and say that this reader could not), and a handful of twists and turns and the formula is complete. Despite that, though, this isn’t exactly predictable.
As Zoe and Ry begin to dig into the mystery surrounding their respective families, we discover that they’re in danger from more than one set of hunters. Sure, the identity of “the big kill” is telegraphed long before the actual reveal, but that’s a minor quibble in such an intricate and involved plot. The characters and their respective histories are well fleshed out, quite possibly as a consequence of the scope (time-wise) of the novel. And Carter provides us with one of those bad guys who seems to take on a life of their own and stick in the readers memory, in the shapely form of Yasmine Poole – a truly evil piece of work, if ever I met one.
The novel suffers from some of the same issues that plague any “first novel”, and I’m guessing in this case they’re because of a writer who has decide to write well outside of her comfort zone (for which she should be applauded): the car chase through rush hour Paris traffic in which a car can keep up with a motorcycle; the comedy “car chase through a wedding cake” scene; and, perhaps most annoyingly, the author’s inability to call a car a car: you’ll find plenty of “Beamers” and “Mercs” in this novel, but there’s hardly a “car” in sight (which gets a bit old after not one but two Beamer-chases spanning multiple pages and, indeed, chapters). There is also plenty of evidence of the author’s previous life: long, meaningful glances and deep sighs, the sexual tension between the two protagonists laid on with a trowel. Any maybe “Carter” is conscious of her long-standing audience, so there’s nothing wrong with trying to lure some of them gently into this new creation.
In all, it’s a successful foray into the genre, and a worthwhile read for people who like their thrillers fast, smart and sexy. Without wishing to belittle it, or consign it to mediocrity, I’d call it the perfect airport novel, a great beach read. And perhaps the publisher thought so too, considering the timing of it’s release. But rest assured: it’s a chunky piece of fiction. No two-page chapters here. No movie written in novel form with a few extra words here and there to flesh out the action-and-dialogue skeleton. Philip Carter is the real deal and I think we can expect to hear more from him – or, indeed, her – in the near future.
|THE MAP OF TIME
Translated by Nick Caistor
Released: 9 June 2011
I’m a big fan of fiction that uses actual historical figures or events as part of its fabric. Fiction like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist or Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club. So, I was excited when Felix Palma’s The Map of Time landed on my desk and I discovered that H.G. Wells and Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man, were amongst its seemingly vast cast of characters. The Map of Time is the first of Palma’s novels to be translated into English.
As one reads, it soon becomes clear that The Map of Time is less of a conventional novel, and more a trilogy of interconnected stories, all of which have a number of things in common: they all feature to a lesser or greater degree the author H.G. Wells, and the fictional entrepreneur Gilliam Murray; they are all set in London, 1896; and they are all constructed around the central theme of time travel.
The first part of the novel concerns Andrew Harrington, a man on the verge of suicide, having spent eight years trying to come to terms with the death of his lover, the prostitute Marie Kelly, the last victim of Jack the Ripper. His cousin, sensing his intentions saves him from the fatal self-inflicted bullet, and introduces him to Gilliam Murray, proprietor of Murray’s Time Travel, in the hope that Murray can help Harrington travel back to 1888 and change the course of history. Unable to help, Murray directs the pair to the home of H.G. Wells, a man who recently shot to fame with the publication of his novel The Time Machine. Wells, as it turns out, has an exact replica of the very machine from his novel stashed in his attic – a working copy, no less – and agrees to help young Harrington out.
Part two tells us the story of Claire Haggerty and Tom Blunt, a pair of lovers who, it seems, are trapped in different periods of time. It is also the story of Murray and his time travel company, and begins to reveal something about the relationship that exists between Murray and Wells.
In the closing part of the book, a traveller from the far future summons Wells, Henry James and Bram Stoker to an old abandoned house with a dark history in the centre of London and tells them that their lives are in danger: a man from the future will, within the year, publish three novels under his own name. Those novels are The Invisible Man, The Turn of the Screw and Dracula. And, as Wells soon discovers, the only way this traveller will be able to get away with this is if the original authors are dead.
The novels gets off to a promising start. The Harrington section is concisely told. The language is beautiful, whether because of Palma’s original Spanish or Caistor’s translation – it’s an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned tone, by a narrator who has a tendency to break the fourth wall, which makes it almost like listening to one of Grandad’s old yarns.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book fails to live up to this excellent start. The story encapsulated in the middle section is interesting, and well-told, but somewhat overlong. Here, Grandad’s old yarn turns into that story he always tells when he’s in his cups, and everyone rolls their eyes, wishing for him to reach the point so they can talk about something more interesting. What is perhaps most disappointing, though, is that the third section seems totally unrelated to the first two, except that they share some characters and a plot device: namely time travel.
Here’s how it looks to me: Palma saw an interesting device in an early episode of Heroes (you’ll know it when you come across it, if you’ve seen the first season or two of the show), constructed a story around his own version of this device centred around the novelist H.G. Wells, introduced a couple of incidental characters and came up with a neatly-packaged, exciting story that ran about 150 pages. Then, in order to flesh out some of the incidental characters he produced a whopping 350 pages of backstory which had absolutely no bearing on the original story.
Which is not to say The Map of Time is a bad novel. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, a great novel, but it’s not bad. A bit on the long side, and could do with some trimming, but the first and last parts are worth the price of admission alone. Just don’t expect them to be the first and last parts of the same story. Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.
Howard Gordon (www.howardmgordon.com)
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
Here’s a good concept for one of those rollercoaster-ride thrillers that I like to read from time to time, the type of book that doesn’t require much concentration, but delivers entertainment by the bucketful: Gideon Davis is a peacemaker, a man working for the US president who spends most of his time at the negotiating table, trying to get all sides in any civil war or otherwise violent conflict to see eye to eye. He’s good at what he does because he believes in the peaceful approach and, because of a horrific incident in his past, has vowed never to take a human life, or use a gun. His brother, Tillman, is the flipside of the same coin: a man who believes that the only way to combat violence is with violence. Tillman, working undercover for the government, has spent the past several years in the oil-rich nation of Mohan posing as terrorist Abu Nasir, attempting to infiltrate the jihadist movement that is threatening the stability of the small island nation.
Tillman, seemingly, has gone rogue, and taken the terrorist activities to the extreme. Now, he wants to come home, and will only surrender himself to his brother. The handover is scheduled to take place on the monolithic Obelisk, a giant drilling platform located off the coast of the island in the South China Seas. But as the main players move into position, the Obelisk is seized by a man claiming to be Abu Nasir, and Gideon Davis finds himself struggling to survive in a hostile country with nothing but the rapidly-solidifying knowledge that the only way he might survive is with a gun in his hand.
With a concept like that, a main character who sits in the same moral space as Jack Reacher, and a man like Howard Gordon – executive producer and writer of popular television series 24 – behind the wheel, you can be guaranteed a great ride. Or can you? Or should I say, Or can you?
The answer is a resounding “Yes”, for the first half of the book. With twists that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of 24 – you certainly can’t trust anyone – and a plot that moves at frantic speed, you’ll be quite literally perched on the edge of your seat, trying to turn the pages faster to see what’s going to happen next. And introducing a 24-hour deadline certainly doesn’t hurt things. But somewhere around the halfway mark – maybe slightly further in – Mr Gordon loses his momentum, or maybe his interest, and what could have been an action thriller to rival the best of Lee Child turns into a formulaic, predictable, frustrating mess.
Simon & Schuster appear to have looked at the name on the front of this manuscript, slapped a 24-like cover on the front, and thought “instant audience” (as a long time fan of the show, I am that instant audience), with nary a thought for actually reading what was inside, never mind assigning an editor or proof-reader. The book is littered with typos – from spelling mistakes that should have been picked up by any spell-checker, to the omniscient third-person narrator using “we” and “our” instead of “America” and “American” (most obvious in a sentence about how President Diggs was attempting to keep “our troops” out of any more conflicts). There is one point towards the end of the novel where I counted FOUR point-of-view shifts in the space of a single page, sometimes mid-paragraph, leaving the reader more than a little confused about whose head, exactly, we’re supposed to be in right now. And then, the coup de grace: within the first fifty pages, there are at least three attempts on Gideon Davis’ life, all masterminded by the Main Bad Guy, who feels Gideon is a viable threat to his plans. Shortly after his arrival on the oil rig, MBG has Gideon dead to rights, trapped in a small room with no way out, Gideon unarmed and MBG holding an AK-47 on him. And in true Dr Evil style, he decides not to kill him, but to lock him up with the rest of the hostages where he can plot further damage in the run-up to ending up in bed with the only female in a hundred-mile radius.
The scene from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery popped into my head as I read it, and I would have thrown the book across the room if I hadn’t already invested so much time in it:
Dr. Evil: All right guard, begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism.
[guard starts dipping mechanism]
Dr. Evil: Close the tank!
Scott Evil: Wait, aren’t you even going to watch them? They could get away!
Dr. Evil: No no no, I’m going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I’m just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?
Scott Evil: I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I’ll get it, I’ll come back down here, BOOM, I’ll blow their brains out!
Dr. Evil: Scott, you just don’t get it, do ya? You don’t.
A great start leading to an ultimately poor debut for a man from whom I expected so much more. It’s an equally disappointing show from Simon & Schuster who could have improved it immensely if they’d only read it and provided feedback. If you’re tempted, save your money and pick up an 24 box set, where you’ll see Howard Gordon at his best.